Thursday, December 26, 2013

Favorite Albums of 2013

I long ago quit using terms like, “the best songs,” or “the best bands.” I know Rolling Stone likes to dedicate issues to such titles, but there’s really no such thing. There’s just our individual preferences, and every music lover has a different list of personal favorites.

Here is the list of my favorite three albums of 2013, the ones I listened to most in the car, through headphones on my 20 mile bike rides, or streamed on Spotify while I worked in the garden or cooked in the kitchen.

Each met my personal measure of an album of lasting pleasure. Music I immediately love tends to lose its luster quickly. But albums that at first listen seem to have only one gem, but on second listen reveal another, and then another and another as you listen more, albums where my favorite track shifts from one to another over repeated listening, that are deep with layers of mood and emotion ­– those are the albums that stick with me, that become my personal favorites.

And all three of these have another thing in common: melancholy. While each has fun, ballsy, hell-raising moments, each is also filled with dispondence, desolation and damaged souls seeking redemption.

I revel in that shit.

On Jason Isbell’s album, Southeastern, he sings the line: “They’re two kinds of men in this world and you’re neither of them.” That phrase hints at the beautifully compelling, in-between world this album occupies.

Isbell is best known as a member of the raucous, alt-county/Americana band Drive By Truckers (DBT), from Athens, Georgia. Fans of the DBT’s raw, beer-soaked chug and grind might not take to this album’s polished, careful sound and how closely it nibbles at the edges of pop-country. They might wonder where Isbell’s sloppy, ragged voice has gone and wince at the warmth and clarity of his newly sober tone. But at the same time, the songs on Southeastern will never be played on pop-country radio stations. Isbell refuses to wear the costumes or adhere to the artificial constraints of Nashville’s rigid modern rule book. On one song he drops the F-bomb while imagining the reaction of friends if he had sex with his cancer patient drinking partner, and on another he sings to an old girlfriend, “Get off my God-damn back” – essentially disqualifying himself from pop-country stardom.

But on Southeastern, the Alabama-born Isbell isn't saying, “Fuck Nashville,” like so many Americana artists don But then again, he’s ain't Nashville either.

Consider the plaintive, standout track, Traveling Alone, a take on the truck driving ballad. At first blush it sounds like the flawless melody, polish, and yearning sentiments tailor made for pop-country radio. He sings, “And I know every town worth passing through, but what good does knowing do, with no one to show it to.” But just at the point he might be getting pop-country listeners to sing along, he opines on being “strangled by” his “appetites,” of being so high that prostitutes won’t take his money. 

Regardless, Traveling Alone is a damn pretty song. 

Isbell is a recently recovering alcoholic. Themes revolving around that painful, destructive journey reoccur throughout the evocative lyrics, perhaps best in the aching opening track, Cover Me Up. It’s a folk/country autobiographical song about the redemption of climbing out of the bottle while falling in love. He laments with pleading urgency:

“In days when we raged, we flew off the page,
Such damage was done.
But I made it through, because somebody knew,
I was meant for someone.

So girl leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leavin’ this room,
'less someone needs medical help, or the magnolias bloom”

Southeastern reveals Jason Isbell as a gifted songwriter, as impressive with wordplay as he is with melody. He can tell a good story, paint images of vivid emotion, and make you care about those damaged souls.

I’ve always liked the band The National. They’re originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, but now based in Brooklyn. Last spring these darlings of music magazine critics put out an astonishingly well-crafted album called Trouble Will Find Me.

Early summer I sampled it during a long bike ride among the hilly green cornfields north of Noblesville. The only song that initially stood out was the chilling, Fireproof, a harsh critique of a former lover. A gentle electric guitar picks like the rhythmic breaking of delicate glass, countered by the low gear, deep baritone of Mat Berninger singing, “You’re fireproof. Nothing breaks your heart. You’re fireproof. Wish I was that way.”

The album played through twice before I pulled back across Potters Bridge. On the second
 listen two more songs jumped out at me as if I hadn’t heard them at all yet; I Need My Girland Demons.

About two weeks later my favorite song had become the lyrically goofy, Humiliation. It’s a perfect example of why this band is so amazing. The opening bass line thumbs like a heartbeat at rest. In the second verse Berninger lists the events that led him to a dark, damaged place:

“All the L.A. women,
Fall asleep while swimmin’
I got paid to fish them out
And one day I lost the job

And I cried a little
I got fried a little
Then she laid her eyes on mine
And she said, “Babe, you’re better off”

By this time the bass thump is at a trot. As the song progresses the bass and drums ever so gently pick up speed through choruses and recurring bridges. Just as it winds down to an apparent fadeout it suddenly swells back to life, arcing in a new direction, the bass surging like a heartbeat in a full-out run, pulled along by an infectious, looping, elastic, guitar line.

Like U2 or The Police, there are no guitar or keyboard solos. The guitars and keyboards serve the song. If you’re familiar with rock music of the past 25 years, you know the brushes The National is painting with. But the quality of the art they’re creating is, while immediately familiar, astonishingly expressive, masterful, and delightfully surprising.

Valerie June was kicking around the backwaters of the Americana music movement until this year when she released Pushin’ Up Against A Stone. It’s a pretty damn stellar assortment of songs, so varied in style it could give you genre whiplash from one track to the next. From banjo finger-picking “old-tymie” mountain music, to blues, to full-out soul, nearly all songs were co-written by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who also produced the album and plays guitar with June throughout.

My favorite tracks are the soul numbers, chief among them, The Hour, marked by a signature Auerbach blues groove intro that morphs into a rolling, soulful wave backed by Motownesque gospel vocals, and the dirty blues and chirping organ of Pushing Up Against A Stone. Other standouts include the country tune, Tennessee Time, which highlights June’s little girl whine, and the angry blues stomp, You Can’t Be Told.

If you’re a Black Keys fan, you’ll note Dan Auerbach’s fingerprints all over this album. But if he can be credited with stretching June into his trademark blues and soul, June likewise stretches him into writing and playing in the country and bluegrass genres she knows better. Though fabulous as-is, it will be interesting to see what Valerie June does next time out when she doesn’t have such a sonically recognizable producer and collaborator working with her.

My new book, The Salvage Man began going online for e-readers 3 weeks ago, currently available at iTunes,, Fastpencil and I'll be doing a public launch to tell the world in the weeks ahead when it's finally available in all formats, but for now, here's an early look:

Friday, December 20, 2013

The War On Christmas Myth

No Virginia, there is no war on Christmas.

Yet, each December there are relentless cries of a war on Christmas. These cries of victimhood are a silly attempt to further inflame the culture wars and a blatant example of reverse political correctness.

Fox News talk show host, Bill O’Reilly has his “Christmas Under Siege” campaign. His web site has listed businesses whose advertising uses the phrase, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and urges his viewers to issue complaints. The American Family Association has boycotted Target in past years for not saying “Merry Christmas” in its ads and The Catholic League once boycotted Wal-Mart for the way the word Christmas is handled by the company’s web site.

In this week’s USA Today, conservative columnist Cal Thomas even wondered, “if non-religious songs like Frosty The Snowman and It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year might be threatened next?” Are you kidding me? I can’t get away from Christmas music no matter where I go this time of year. In fact most of the places being accused of participating in a war on Christmas play Christian Christmas carols over their loud speakers all day long and sell nativity scenes. But because they tell their employees to say, “Happy Holidays” they’re somehow Christian-haters?

On Fox News this week they’ve been regularly reporting stories of homeowners with bright, garish Christmas light displays getting complaints from neighbors. Individual disputes between neighbors add up to a national cultural attack on Christians?

If there’s doubt about a war on Christmas, at least we know the culture of victimhood is alive and well. There’s apparently plenty of people walking around with a chip on their shoulders looking to take offense.

Making up roughly 80% of the American population, Christians are in control of almost everything in this country from the leadership of nearly all of America’s major corporations to every political body that makes our laws. I’d be willing to bet that Christians overwhelmingly dominate the boards of directors of both Target and Wal-Mart.

Christmas is not in danger. The ACLU has mounted no campaign against it. Liberals are not meeting in dark cellars, twisting their mustaches, plotting its demise. Yet, some would have you think otherwise.

Our beliefs about the history of Christmas are at best selective amnesia. Few of us acknowledge that the Pagans celebrated the season with gift giving in Europe long before the birth of Christ. It was Constantine who added Christmas to the Roman calendar in the fourth century in an attempt to bring Pagans and Christians together. The Prophet Jeremiah condemned as Pagan (which it was – and so what?), the practice of cutting down trees, bringing them into the home and decorating them. Few know that the Puritans who founded our country detested the idea of Christmas. From their point of view, there was nothing about December 25th in the Bible. For a period in the mid-1600s in colonial Massachusetts, celebrating Christmas was illegal. There were various Christian movements opposing the celebration of Christmas right up until the Civil War.

But while those facts provide perspective, none render Christmas illegitimate. Two thousand years of secular traditions bound around a much deeper religious meaning are a completely legitimate foundation for Christians to celebrate Christmas. It’s Christmas, so titled to celebrate and exalt the birth of Christ.

Yet, an obvious reason to say, “Happy Holidays,” is that the season starts with Thanksgiving and ends with New Years Day, two secular holidays. On December 22nd Jews will begin celebrating Chanukah and before Thanksgiving Muslims began celebrating Ramadan. “Happy Holidays,” indeed. So if I say, “Happy Holidays,” I’m not saying, “Screw Christmas,” I’m saying, “Hope your Thanksgiving rocked, your Christmas is enlightening, and your New Year is healthy and prosperous . . . and oh yeah, if you’re Jewish or Muslim, I hope that all goes great for you, too!”

But there are apparently political correctness police who don’t want me to say, “Happy Holidays.” In general I prefer to say, “Merry Christmas.” That’s my thing. But if somebody else doesn’t, why would I want to force them?

Businesses who instruct their employees to say, “Happy Hoidays” are not trying to stamp out Christianity. They’re trying to be respectful of all their customers, not just the majority. During the holiday season Jewish customers are celebrating Chanukah, not Christmas, and some people aren’t celebrating anything beyond the joy of generosity felt from gift giving. Why, even though Christians are the overwhelming majority, would businesses want to alienate non-Christians?

There are pundits, politicians, and demagogues whose fame and fortune rely on our outrage. They’ve got books to sell, ad revenues to gather for their evening news channel talk shows, and votes to gather at election time. If you’re comfortable and calm, it’s of little use to them. So they use the oldest trick in the political book – cry persecution when it doesn’t really exist to rally their forces – point at an enemy, accuse them of wrong, and urge your brethren to take up arms, “before it’s too late!”

There is no war on Christmas. The entire notion is a carefully manufactured myth. Christians control nearly everything in this country by massive, indisputable majorities.

But at a time when there are Christians and others of all faiths in this world who are truly persecuted for their beliefs, it is at best embarrassing to claim victimhood because someone says, “Happy Holidays,” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

My new book, The Salvage Man began going online for e-readers 3 weeks ago, currently available at iTunes,, Fastpencil and I'll be doing a public launch to tell the world in the weeks ahead when it's finally available in all formats, but for now, here's an early look:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Indiana At The Gay Marriage Tipping Point

Back in April I wrote about the historic national sea change in favor of gay marriage and gay rights in general. But I hadn’t anticipated that by year’s end Hoosiers would be in a dramatic standoff on gay marriage and activists would be working quietly right here in Noblesville.

The buzz is about HJR-6, a proposed amendment to the Indiana Constitution that would ban gay marriage and civil unions. If state legislators pass the law, it goes to the voters next year as a referendum.

Over Thanksgiving I found myself listing Indiana’s amazing turn of events for a Hoosier-born gay family member who married her partner during the original glimmer of time it was legal in California.
Luke Kenley
An initial pebble in the water came a year ago when Noblesville’s own influential State Senator, Republican Luke Kenley announced he opposed the amendment. He told a CNHI Statehouse Bureau reporter last December, “I really value the institution of heterosexual marriage, but I do not think that putting a statement in the (state) Constitution which runs down or is bigoted toward people who have a different kind of loving relationship, that I may not understand, is going to be productive.”

Luke has a way of crystallizing the obvious at precisely the moment when others aren’t seeing it, but should be.

Then an eye-popping wave of opposition to the amendment appeared this past summer when two of Indiana’s leading corporations, Eli Lilly and Cummins asked legislators to defeat the law. Both companies released strong statements through Freedom Indiana, an organization working to stop the law’s passage. They were joined by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.

The unified message: HJR-6 is bad for business.

What started to creep into state-wide thinking about the law: Just it’s consideration – even to have it on the ballot for voters to consider would be damaging for Indiana’s reputation in the eyes of the nation, giving the impression that Indiana isn’t simply a conservative place of traditional values, but a backward place, unwelcoming to people of diverse backgrounds, and out of touch with emerging national consensus on the civil rights issue of our time.

That’s when the universities started to speak out.

If the first wave was corporate, the second was higher education. It rolled across the state in September and October. The presidents of Purdue, Indiana University, Ball State and then Butler all spoke out saying, “Kill this bill.” Where corporate leaders were worried that HJR-6 would affect their ability to attract quality employees, the university presidents were worried about attracting the best and the brightest students to their campuses. Not just gay students, but straight students who might perceive Indiana as a place that enshrined bigotry in its constitution.

If you’d asked any Hoosier political talking head two years ago if they could foresee this growing wave of opposition, they’d have rolled their eyes and said, “P-lease!”

But there was still another wave building. By late November and early December mayors of major cities across the state began weighing in. Eleven mayors, including those from Indianapolis, Bloomington, Evansville, Anderson, Lafayette, Hammond, Ft. Wayne, South Bend and even Carmel released a joint statement opposing the amendment.

Republican Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel said, “Our government needs to be focused on attracting and retaining good jobs and improving public education for future generations.” He added that government isn’t the institution that should be deciding who is allowed to marry.

This wave was bi-partisan: 6 Democrats and 5 Republicans.

My sources tell me that Noblesville Mayor, John Ditslear also opposes the amendment, but has refused to do so publically.

If this wave continues, Ditslear may wish he’d had the vision and courage of leaders like Kenley or Brainard. Polling over time reveals a decrease in Hoosiers’ support for gay marriage bans every year in the past decade. Polls in 2012 showed Hoosiers evening split on the issue. Polls this year show supporters of a gay marriage ban are now in the minority. And Freedom Indiana has community activists on the ground right here on Noblesville’s courthouse square, chatting up people in coffee shops and restaurants, looking to build small-business opposition to the law to try to influence State Representative, Republican Kathy Richardson to vote no on HJR-6.

In my blog post back in April, I compared those who oppose gay marriage today with those who “stood in the schoolhouse doors” back in the 1950s, trying to keep African Americans out of whites-only schools. I look back on news stories from that time and wince at the faces of those angrily trying to keep blacks “in their place.” To fight so hard on the wrong side at the moment of the tipping point, believing so strongly in a cruel opinion that you can’t see how harshly history will soon judge you, well . . . I almost feel sorry for those folks.
Kathy Richardson
I feel the same way for Tea Party Hoosiers and the Christian-right today. Future generations will judge their actions on this issue and won't judge them kindly. But I’m not angry with them. My heart just hurts for them a little. But not as bad as it hurts for gays and lesbians who have to look on while we all debate whether they should be given the same rights the rest of us take for granted.

I’m hoping Kathy Richardson feels this sea change and has her eye on history.

But while these waves of change are strong, they’re not tsunamis. As I ticked off this list of recent history for my married gay family member, she listened silently and said little. She must have been painfully aware that I wasn’t expressing excitement about making gay marriage legal in Indiana, as it is in her state. I was simply excited that we might not chisel its ban into our constitution.

We’ve come a long way, but still have a long way to go.

To share your thoughts with Kathy Richardson on HJR-6, her number is 317-773-6123 and her email is:

My new book, The Salvage Man began going online for e-readers last week, currently available at, Fastpencil and I'll be doing a big launch to tell the world in the weeks ahead when it's finally available in all formats, but for now, here's an early look:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Facing An Empty Corner

Went to St. Vincent Hospital to spend some time with my dad on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

From the doorway I could see his bed was empty. Wanting to respect his privacy, I waited in the hall in case he was in the bathroom with a nurse. But soon a nurse breezed by and into his room. She found Dad, hooked to IVs and monitors, wearing his hospital gown, leaning against the wall, facing an empty corner away from the windows, the door, the TV. He’d been sitting in a chair and somehow managed to get up without the alarm going off. She turned him around and set him down.

I walked in and said “Howdy Pop,” and he said hello as if it were just another day. But it wasn’t. It was hard to see him – unshaven, looking feeble and confused. He’d had a dramatic loss of physical and mental function, going in just a few weeks from completely independent to nursing home care. It was the first time I’d seen him this way. I was uncertain if he’d know who I was.

Immediately food arrived and the nurse, named Kelly began trying to help him eat. Dad did pretty well feeding himself, but kept trying to take huge bites and she kept making him take smaller ones. From time to time Dad got exasperated, dropped the utensils and glared at her like an angry child. Kelly was very kind and very patient but it was an ordeal. She explained to me that his swallow test showed it would be very easy for him to choke.

A neurologist on rounds came in and introduced herself simply as “Cindy.” We chatted while she made notes on a wall-mounted computer. A tall blonde woman with a cheerful smile, Cindy asked questions about Dad and his past health issues. We talked about him like he wasn’t there. He took little notice. She too was very patient and professional. Nice to know my dad was getting great care.

She turned to him and said “Hi Jim.” He half barked, “hello,” in return, fussing with the IV tubes and the hem of his gown. She asked him a series of questions starting with, “Do you know who this is?” pointing at me. He grunted defensively, “My son.” When she asked, “What’s his name?” he replied, “Kurt.” Dr. Cindy asked him to move his arms in different ways. He could do it all until she asked him to touch his nose with a finger. His hands froze in the air and he just stared back at her, lost and defeated, as if to say, “I can’t do it.”

Other questions were hard for him to answer like, “What season is this?” or “Do you know where you are?” After much prodding he finally managed, “Hospital?” But when asked, “Do you know why you’re here?” he looked back at Dr. Cindy with that lost expression, eventually dropping his gaze to the floor.

It had been 10 days since the Cicero police called my brother saying they’d pulled Dad over for driving erratically. After a brief conversation the officer decided he wouldn’t let him drive home. The officer sat with Dad at Dairy Queen until my brother Tom got there. When I brought Dad’s car up to Tipton the next day, he had no idea why I had the car. The vacant look in his eye was unnerving.

Nurse Kelly left and I sat on the edge of the hospital bed, helping Dad finish his food. As we watched the Rams/Bears game, I commented at each touchdown. He’d glance up at the TV, but quickly got lost staring at the wall, or his hands. And heaven help anyone caring for an engineer with dementia; at one point I found him trying to dismantle the electronic monitor that had been resting in his gown pocket. My father was a mechanical engineer who spent his career testing and trouble-shooting transmissions for Chrysler. Working with machines and working with his hands defined him. But this time I had to stop him. I took the device from his hands and told him gently he mustn’t. He looked back with a desperate, pleading look in his eye as if to say, “Don’t you see this thing has to be opened up.”

But he wouldn’t say that because he’s really only speaking in 2-3 word sentences.

I smiled, put the device back together and told him to keep it in his pocket. Thanks to him and all he taught me about machines, I understood how to put it back together.

The tests found a lesion on the brain that wasn’t there a week ago. Seems certain he has had a stroke, and perhaps more than one. I asked Dr. Cindy if he had had multiple, ratta-tat-tat little strokes – that would explain the last month+ of sudden loss of function, then plateau, then another loss of function, and then plateau. Another test showed severe dementia.

After a couple hours Dad fell asleep sitting up in his chair. I knew a rehab nurse was coming later to run him through his paces, so I gathered my things and left quietly. Heading down the hall I saw nurse Kelly in another patient’s doorway and let her know he was alone.

It’s hard to accept that my dad, the man I’ve known my entire life, is kinda gone. There are glimmers of him in there, reflexes of that old personality, but it’s not really him. It’s like all the parts are in place, but the gears that engage the parts are stripped, like a car with a broken transmission – you can rev the engine or flip the turn signal, but it ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Flying through the air, propelled by a stick: From the time I
was a child I always loved this high school photo of my dad
pole vaulting. In it, he seemed magical.
I stepped into an empty elevator and when the door closed I turned and faced my own empty corner, away from the world, and cried for a minute as I slowly fell 5 stories.

My new book began going online for e-readers this week, currently available at Fastpencil and Barnes and Noble. I'll be doing a big launch to tell the world in the weeks ahead when it's finally available in all formats, but for now, here's an early look:

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Living Online

In these still early days of social media, folks struggle with how much of themselves to share online and who should be allowed to see it. And I’ve heard many professionals insist they don’t want coworkers to have access to their private lives via Facebook, winching from social media the way the Amish would photographs.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that walling off your personal life from the online world is not just difficult, but perhaps not even necessary, and maybe even a handicap. In some cases it’s become a negative to be a digital hermit. So just as face-to-face interactions require tact, perhaps it’s more useful to ponder what to share and what to keep private.

Because I’m a Realtor and a writer, I embraced Internet exposure. Anything to get my name out there. And when it came to posting political beliefs on Facebook, I always felt, “Hey, this is part of who I am. I’m not hiding it.” But sitting in a continuing-ed real estate class 18 months ago, the PowerPoint presenter, with remote in hand asked, “Who among you are posting strident political statements on Facebook?” Almost nobody (including me) raised a hand, but you could see the tightening body language across the room and some slumping in seats. He asked, “Why are you doing that? When was the last time you changed your opinion about something based on something your saw on Facebook? You’re just pissing people off.”
I fermented some hard cider, so of course had to tell everyone
about it. And somehow my Aug/Sept biking schedule appears
too. Is nothing private?

That rang so true I logged onto Facebook right then and there and began deleting all my snarky anti-Tea Party comments, reposts of Rachel Maddow quips, and Huffington Post articles.

But I never felt entirely comfortable with that decision. Being silent in the face of injustice is a special kind of sin. So I narrowed my social and political postings to two issues: social justice and gay rights, two issues I care deeply about that have particular social meaning right now.

Still, I know I’m inciting discomfort. Not a good thing in a medium where you can be hidden with a click – the online equivalent of someone throwing a black sheet over your head at a cocktail party because you discussed uncomfortable topics.

On the other end of the spectrum are 2 guys I’m friends with on Facebook who have raised the Facebook identity to a social art. Their posts carefully reflect specific personalities. And they’re the best Hoosiers ever, meaning their posts will never, ever, ever offend anyone or make anyone uncomfortable. That they’re both in the advertising industry at the same company says a lot about their style. Their Facebook personas are brands of sorts. Really sweet, endearing brands. We see their hobbies, their families, their children, their pets, even their quirks – with one it’s a love of vintage business signage, with the other it’s reoccurring photos of interesting number combinations on the dashboard odometer. And they have faithful followers. They can post nearly anything and comments flood in from their friends, co-workers, and clients.

Their posts give the impression they have no political opinions, are apparently unaware of religion in any form, and nothing bad ever happens to them, or, like good Hoosiers, they avoid discussion of all three topics.

Turns out they’re onto something. A recent University of Pennsylvania study showed that people who shared their personal lives online where perceived as better workers by their coworkers.

Not wanting my Instagram identity
to simply be another Facebook, I
decided to only post inanimate
objects - the cool stuff I encounter
in my daily life. Lots of archit-
ectural elements
That’s not true with everyone in social media. A former student from my teaching days is a Facebook friend with a filter more broken than mine. I used to see posts from her attacking her bosses and coworkers and customers. Still seeing her a little as the 16 year old girl she ceased being many years ago, I sent a fatherly private message asking, “Are you worried that people at your work will see your posts?” Her quick reply showed she didn’t care one damn bit.

But I think she’s on borrowed time.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep our work and online lives separate. If you’re clinging to that old, “I can’t be bothered with something as shallow as social media,” as I once did, you should know it’s not an attractive or endearing quality. It marks you as out of touch with modern social norms.

But managing what you share is a constant battle.

Before Micki and I went on our first date last March we only knew each other online. As she was getting out of the car at the end of our date, she noticed a pile of books in my backseat – copies of a local literary journal I publish with a buddy. I handed her a copy and said, “You might enjoy this.”

Once home she sent me a text saying, “Hey, the logo for your book project (a grasshopper) is exactly like your tattoo.”

I froze. She couldn’t know that.

“How did you know I had a grasshopper tattoo on my shoulder?” I texted back. There was a long silence before her sheepish reply. She admitted to googling me in the days before our date. There was my address, phone number, my real estate web site with details about my career and testimonials from past clients, links to newspaper stories and columns I’d written, reviews of a book I’d published, my blog – filled with stories about my life and details about my beliefs, an Indy Star story about the restoration of my house, and yes, the website for that literary journal, The Polk Street Review, complete with a photo file that included a picture of me pulling up my shirt sleeve at a public reading, revealing my grasshopper tattoo.

I wasn’t offended. Who could blame her? “Smart girl,” I texted back. She was going to meet a man she’d never met at a coffee shop she’d never been to. I might have wondered about her intelligence if she hadn’t googled me. But it was sobering to consider how much there is about me online. Not stuff marketing companies have gathered and shared against my will, but stuff I’ve gladly posted about myself.

It’s a little bit the nature of my work. How can you sell real estate or writing if you don’t throw yourself at people? But it’s also a measure of where we are. You are going to be out there. Sure, you can easily make yourself invisible to a particular person on Facebook – if they look for you it will simply appear that you don’t have a Facebook account. But that won’t work for the myriad of other web sites that have your info, right down to county tax records that show your address, what you pay in property taxes, and how much you paid for your house. Hell, Google street view will let someone virtually walk right up to your front door.

The reality about all these examples: each are pretty honest representations of who we are in real life. My former student is aggressively honest to a fault, the two advertising guys are genial, kind fellows with cool interests who don’t like to make people uncomfortable with their politics (I know the politics of one of them and so know he’s purposefully holding back), and me, I’m intellectually curious with an ADD-like scattershot approach, combined with a broken and/or immature filter and I’m constantly promoting my work online.

You can’t hide yourself, online or off. The real you still comes out. For better or worse.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Food is Love

I didn’t realize it until the past few years, but food it a big way I tell people I care about them.

After my marriage ended, the first gal I dated had never been married nor had kids, and so had the dining habits of a bachelor. Oh, she knew how to order sushi and wine in a restaurant; but cook? No. Lunch or dinner to her might be a cheese and lettuce sandwich and a handful of blueberries, eaten standing up at the kitchen counter. The whole process, from preparation to eating to cleaning up took about 10 minutes. I kept cooking meals for her but as much as she enjoyed them, it didn’t mean the same thing to her that it did to me. And my obsession with sharing mealtime and the rituals of its preparation actually became a frustration for both of us – me struggling to speak to her in my language, and her not entirely getting the point of the conversation.

Separated from my children and previous life, I was trying to connect with her via the echo of a ritual that was deep in me. That was my “aha! moment;” the moment when I saw I wasn't simply trying to cook for her.

When I was a child, my family ate dinner together regularly. Likewise, when my kids were small, their mother and I saw to it that we ate together as a family 4 or 5 times a week. It didn’t matter so much what we were eating – could be fish sticks or 49 cent pot pies from Aldi’s, just that we were connecting as a family every evening. For years I was the sole breadwinner and so wasn’t doing that much cooking, but after their mom went back to work and the kids got older I was cooking more while the meals together got harder to coordinate around 5 schedules. So I spent countless Saturday or Sunday afternoons restoring my old house while meat smoked on the grill, bread rose in the kitchen, and veggies from the garden waited on the counter. From time to time I’d brush the paint chips and sawdust off my shirt and knead dough or tend the grill, then climb back up the scaffolding. At the end of the day we eventually gathered around the table with marinated chicken, steamed broccoli, and fresh bread.

There was something obsessive in my instance that everyone be there and that every dish be ready at just the right moment. Sometime showing love takes a lot of work and sometimes it just takes sitting and eating, appreciating what was put before you. If you’re thinking about it right, either part you play is fine.  

I still laugh at the times when it went wrong.

I recall cooking a ridiculously doomed and elaborate meal for a girl when I was in my early 20s. I fell for her in England when we were both visiting BSU students in London. After we returned to Muncie I knocked myself out fixing a dinner for her. A week earlier she had invited me over for lunch and served me hot dogs sautee’d in barbeque sauce, barbeque potato chips, and root beer (I’m not making this up). Hell, with a menu like that, maybe she was trying to kill me. But, trying to speak her language, I made barbeque sauce from scratch and grilled some chicken, made my great aunt’s baked bean recipe, and God knows what else for a quiet dinner together in my little basement apartment on Calvert. The evening was a disaster. Not a loud explosive disaster, but a slow, quiet, suffocating - get me the hell outta here disaster.

I guess sometimes you outta just talk directly to people instead of trying to bribe them with food. Maybe I was afraid of the responses she’d give me, so thought I’d tip-toe to her heart through her stomach. Whatever I was trying to do, it didn’t work. She dumped me and went back to her old boyfriend.

Still most of the time spent cooking for people is a good thing. The times it went wrong are a reality check.

In trying to understand how food became a symbol of affection to me I recognized that gift giving and acts of service are a language of love I was raised on. The Meyers are gift givers. Of the generation of Meyers who raised me – if you were waiting for one of them to say, “I love you,” it was gonna be a long fucking wait. But in my times of need they were quietly fixing my problems or writing me a birthday check they knew I’d spend on something I needed or loved.

Or . . . they were preparing food for me or picking up the check at a restaurant.

And I find it passed down to another generation. My cousin Margaux has a lovely habit of opening her house to a wide circle of friends, presenting meals and events to draw close the people she loves. She learned it from her father – my father’s brother. My oldest son is a self-taught chef of Asian food. I can’t count the nights in the past 2 years Cal cooked me an amazing meal. My middle son Jack cooks for those he loves and recently I’ve found my youngest, Sally cooking for her boyfriend – eggs, lots of eggs.

But we are a younger generations of Meyers. We have no problem saying, “I love you." But that old language of giving in lieu of talking is wrapped up in our way of showing affection.

On Halloween night Micki was to arrive after work. I’d cooked a pot of chili and mixed batter for corn cake. Much of the ingredients for the chili were items I canned from my summer garden. But when a full waiting room kept her unexpectedly late at the office seeing patients, we agreed I’d drive up to Ft. Wayne and save her the trip down to Noblesville. After I set the pots of food on the floorboards of my car and stood to close the passenger door, I froze, staring at the dishes. It occurred to me I’d loaded the food in the car before I’d even thrown clothes in a suitcase.

Hmmm. Why was that my automatic first action? I guess becoming aware of your motivations doesn’t stop the reflex. And maybe there’s no need to stop it. It was me offering perhaps the most important thing I would put in the car besides myself – something I’d made to nourish a person I loved.

So if I’ve cooked something for you, or if you’re one of that handful of people who have been handed a jar of my homemade Sriracha sauce or canned black raspberry jam, or if I’ve dropped off a fresh-baked loaf of bread at your door or a just-picked bag of green beans from my garden, it was a note from me saying, “I love you.”

That’s not literally what I’m thinking when I do it, but I can see now that’s really what it is.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Hamilton County Drivers Manual

For those new to Hamilton County or new to driving, throw away your Indiana Driver’s Manual. What follows is the Hamilton County Driver’s Manual. It will help you better understand local driving traditions.

Stop Signs: Here, stop signs don’t really mean, “STOP.” They just mean slow down a little. Especially at 4-way stops. When the car in front of you takes its turn to pass through the intersection, just slowly ease through the intersection with them without making your own complete stop. True, if each car made a complete stop, children could cross the street and cars trying to cross at the next intersection might actually be able to do so, but the Hamilton County Golden Traffic Rule is, “Do unto others anything necessary to get where you’re going faster.” You’ll find our Golden Traffic Rule* permeates all traffic behavior here.

Speed Limits: In Hamilton County, the speed limit is more a suggestion than a hard rule. Think of the posted limit as the slowest you’re allowed to go. Ten to twenty miles an hour over the posted limit is just fine. This is especially true in neighborhoods. The people trying to relax on their porches and the children riding their bikes or playing basketball in cul-de-sacs really won’t mind you making their neighborhood menacing, dangerous places. They’ll understand how important it is that you shave five or ten seconds off your drive.

Pedestrians/Crosswalks:  Here in our corner of Hoosierland, we see crosswalks as needless government regulation. Fact is, some people are too cheap to exercise in health clubs and others are so rude they actually get out and walk around. Here’s what to do: As moms with strollers, County employees and Monon Trail users are exercising their supposed right to safely cross the street, ease your car menacingly close to them. The effect can be heightened by thumping the steering wheel with your palm and sighing heavily. Once they are just inches out of your way, slam on your accelerator and roar past. This may sound extreme to bleeding-heart newcomers, but it reminds pedestrians that might makes right. So if you’re in a mall parking lot or at a pedestrian crossing and it’s raining or bitterly cold, do not give pedestrians the right of way out of a mistaken sense of kindness. No matter that you’re warm and dry and they’re not. Cars come first here. Always.


Parallel Parking: We haven’t gotten around to banning this yet. When people slow down near an empty parking space with their turn signal on, pull up to their bumper so they can’t back up, then honk your horn as if to say, “Get the F’ going!” If someone is already in reverse as you approach, honk your horn long and loud and angrily accelerate around him.

Bicycle Safety: Treat bicyclists the same way you’d treat a parallel parker who is getting out of their car. Accelerate past them and do so dangerously close. Cyclists should know that bike riding is a nuisance because sometimes it slows down a driver by a few seconds.

Car Size: We prefer the biggest cars possible. Smart cars are for pussies. Never mind that we live in one of the flattest places on earth, or that we have not one single gravel road left in the county, or that we have some of the best and safest roads in the nation. Bigger is always better, no matter what. Commuting solo to downtown Indy in a Suburban or Hummer? Of course! And if it costs $80 bucks to fill your tank, that’s not your fault. Just blame Obama. (Around here we blame everything on him anyway.)

Turning Left: Hamilton County is so conservative we’ve made turning left near impossible. But there’s a way around this. When the light turns green, even though it’s technically not your turn, step on it and race out in front of oncoming cars. If you insist on following the rules when turning left, you better take a sack lunch and bring a magazine along. You’re gonna be there awhile. (And remember, nobody is gonna let you in. *refer back to our Golden Traffic Rule)

Roundabouts: We have roundabouts here in Hamilton County. If you're of at least average intelligence and prefer to move forward rather than sit needlessly at red lights, you’ll do just fine. If not, you'll find these irritating, and possibly even their circular shape, confusing. Forewarning: If you hate daylight saving time and spicy food, you’re definitely from Indiana, and therefore will also my be prone to hate roundabouts.

Noise Pollution:  We Hamilton County residents put “noise pollution” in the same category as global warming, evolution, Obama’s citizenship. They’re things that don’t exist. We love loud car sound systems and loud motorcycles. That’s why we don’t enforce our noise ordinances. Fellas, the louder your sound system and/or engine, the more men admire you and the more ladies are attracted to you. Like you, they see the noise as a symbol of your masculinity. Likewise, if you’re a driver who likes to yell a high-pitched, “Wooooo,” out your window at pretty girls, we encourage that here. The ladies just love it and will find you irresistible.

     If there’s a traffic situation not covered here, refer back to the Hamilton County Golden Traffic Rule* for guidance.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Jack & Michelle's Cake

Two weeks ago last Sunday morning as I cleaned the kitchen there was a lone, melting chunk of Jack and Michelle’s cake left beneath the clear plastic deli cover. Green and red flecks of icing and deep black cake crumbs were scattered about on the counter. Micki was sleeping upstairs, as was my oldest son, Cal, and my daughter Sally. The quiet house was mine. I gathered up the cake box and crumbs and walked them out, across the patio and through the fence gate to the trash with my cat Gracie following behind.

I never really know when the emotional weight of something will hit me. It’s often not at the actual moment of change. But throwing that cake box away felt like the ending of something I’d known and loved and the beginning of something new and unknowable, as if as long as the cake was still on the counter, the ending hadn’t ended. I am in the midst of a great leaving of people I love and I’ve barely shed a tear. But the walk back from the trash was the beginning of acceptance I guess. I sat for a moment on the patio beneath the wisteria, scratching Gracie behind the ears with a lump in my throat. As I cooked breakfast alone while Micki and my other two kids slept upstairs, that solitary time helped me imagine the life that lies ahead in this empty house.

On the previous Thursday family and a very small handful of friends had gathered to say goodbye to Jack, my middle son. He and his girlfriend Michelle, freshly graduated from college were heading to Denver to start their lives. I baked bread. Jack and I smoked a pork shoulder and worked together to get the house ready for guests. Jack’s mother brought a salad and the cake.

It was my friend Richard’s birthday and I suspected he might spend it alone working. He’s already an empty-nester. So I invited him to join us. We put candles on the cake and walked it out to Richard on the patio, singing happy birthday. He was pleasantly surprised. After he blew out the candles, I said, “Read the inscription on your cake.”

Richard read it out loud, “Good Luck Jack & Michelle.” We all had a good laugh.

The next morning Jack and Michelle loaded up the last of their things. I hung around in the driveway while Jack carefully adjusted the straps on the bike rack. And then that good-hearted boy and that sweet, dark-eyed girl of his disappeared down the alley toward Denver.
Michelle & Jack at the City Market the week before they left.
Just a week before I had stood in Sally’s bedroom doorway with tears in my eyes. She’s my youngest. We were preparing to drive to Muncie to move her into her freshman dorm. For Sally, too, there was uncertainty about the future, and some tears, but we loaded up and got her moved in.

And yet a week before that departure, there had been another. Sean, who came to live in my house when he was a teenager, had loaded up his things and driven out west with his girlfriend to start their lives. There had been a going away party the night before with a spirited group of friends gathered together to send them off.

There is just one departure left. My oldest, Cal, has taken a job teaching English in Japan. This house will cease to be his permanent address on the 23rd of this month.

Last week Cal and I went out for drinks, then rode our bikes to Richard’s house down the street. Back home around midnight, we each had another gin & tonic and sat in the kitchen taking turns plugging our phones into the stereo and playing songs we each thought the other ought to hear: the National, Madrugada, and Japanese bands whose names I can’t pronounce. At one point as I was leaning on the counter and searching through a playlist on the glowing iPhone screen I turned to look at Cal. He was sitting on the bench with a head full of gin and tears trickling down his face.

“Hey man!” What’s the matter?” I asked.

“This is the end of how things have been. We’ll all never live like this together again.” I gave him a hug and told him I loved him.

He was right, and it’s something I’ve dreaded all summer and so never really let myself dwell on. This summer I grumbled as I washed their towels, bought their groceries, picked up their dirty clothes, or woke often to find the kitchen littered with beer bottles and dirty plates. But that grumbling was little more than whistling past the graveyard – something to focus on to keep at bay the ache of seeing them all go away in the span of a month at summer’s end.

The parenting guru the children’s mother and I subscribed to when they were young often wrote, “You’re #1 job as a parent is to make them not need you. When they go off to live their lives without your assistance, you’ll know you’ve done your job.”

And that’s the bittersweet reality of parenting. Yet, there should be a bigger word, one with more explosive tonnage than the delicate, “bittersweet,” to describe the aching “thud” in your heart when they go.

And this was already a dislocated year for my family, in this first year after the divorce. There was already an absence in the air.

Sharpie tattoo from the going away dinner.
When we moved here Cal was 8, Jack was 5 and Sally was 1. After 18 years, each is leaving on their own journey, one by one over the course of just a month. And I will wake up in this house on the 24th alone. There is someone new in my life, Micki, and she comes and goes from her out-of-town job on the weekends, but still, for the most part I will be alone here, the last one of us who made it a home. I’m not complaining. I chose some of those circumstances and the others are just life unfolding. I’m feeling my way in the dark. Making sense of it as I go.

And so it is my journey, too, but what the destination will look like, I can only imagine. I strain, searching back at what my own parents went through when I, the youngest of 4 kids, left home once and for all. But I was a far less attentive young man than my own children are, so can’t say I remember much beyond my mother saying, “Your leaving was the hardest, because you were last.”

Sally has 4 years of college ahead of her and so will come and go on the weekends and live here in the summer I suppose. But Cal was right. We will never again live like this under one roof. Other places will become home for them, and this one will remain mine.