Friday, April 02, 2021

The Virtue, Gift and Discipline of Secrecy: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you. Sign up for Middling here. What follows is an excerpt from the winter 2020 issue--before the whole world shut down.

***

Considering how regularly I assail you with blog posts, tweets, instas, and newsletters, you might be surprised that a favorite recent read of mine is titled How to Disappear. Akiko Busch sucked me in with her introductory chapter, as she sat quietly in a forest observing how intentionally most of creation seeks to hide. That insight springs into a series of essays on the virtue, gift and discipline of secrecy—of not making a scene of ourselves, of allowing ourselves to be simply part of something larger. I was drawn to the book by the title, but I moved it to the top of the pile after someone suggested to me that I was too power-hungry, a critique that comes up occasionally enough that I can’t ignore it even though I kind of resent it. If How to Disappear isn’t still my favorite read nine months from now, I’ll be surprised and I’ll surely let you know.

A much less transformative but similarly knowing book I read recently is The Lager Queen of Minnesota. I heard it praised as an homage to the Midwest, and that sounded pretty good to me. And it is quite good—keenly insightful about how midwestern relationships work, even when those relationships proceed without contact over the course of decades. I want to give it to my mom because I think she’ll like it, and I want her to give it to her siblings because she thinks they’ll like it.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Anachronistic Today: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you. Sign up for Middling here. What follows is an excerpt from the winter 2020 issue--before the whole world shut down.

***

I got some great music for Christmas. A new record by the Avett Brothers, the debut album of the Americana supergroup the Highwomen, a three-disc concept album by Sleeping at Last, and the thirtieth-anniversary reissue of one of the most personally significant records of my life.

Shawn Colvin is what might be called a folk music superstar. Her music has been the soundtrack to several significant points of my life: I first heard her cover of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” by the Police while Kara and I were hot-tubbing on our honeymoon, and her collaboration with Steve Earle on the Beatles song “Baby’s in Black” was playing when a giant truck pulling a giant trailer plowed into the back of our one-week-old Toyota RAV4. My pastor and I figured out that we were probably at the same Shawn Colvin concert in the student activity center at Northwestern University in the early 1990s. But before all that, Shawn Colvin was the artist behind one of the first CDs I ever bought.

Steady On would become the Grammy winner for best contemporary folk album of 1991. (How she won two years after the fact is beyond me.) While aging teen idol Donny Osmond was reinventing himself as the “Soldier of Love,” Depeche Mode was milking the life out of “Your Own Personal Jesus,” and Milli Vanilli was pretending to sing “Blame It on the Rain,” Shawn Colvin was quietly strumming the opening chords to the title track and offering an ode to vulnerability:

“China gets broken,
and it will never be the same.”

It only got better from there, with the second track my favorite at the time.

“You’re shining—I can see you.
You’re smiling; that’s enough.
I’m holding on to you like a diamond in the rough.”

I had tracks I preferred over others, of course, but I very nearly wore the grooves off that CD. (Or however the technology works.) It occurs to me as I write this that this CD, still in my possession, is older than at least one of my coworkers. In the past that would have sent me into a fetal position, but I seem to be coming to peace with my advanced age.

Anyway, this year Shawn Colvin celebrated her thirtieth anniversary as a recording artist with a track-by-track return to this first album. Stripped away are the 1980s production values, tastefully executed at the time but certainly anachronistic today. The heart and soul of the record remains: Piercing and sober storytelling over lovely melodies and expert guitar work. Nobody does it like Shawn Colvin, and these songs prove it just as effectively as her later, more mature work.

I’ll draw your attention to two songs from the record. The first, “Cry Like an Angel,” was the song I turned to after terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, and aimed a third plane at the Pentagon. “The streets of my town,” she prophesied in 1989, “are not what they were. They are haloed in anger, bitter and hurt. ... May we all find salvation in professions that heal.”

The second was one of the lesser lights to nineteen-year-old me, but it’s the song she used to promote this new record, and it’s doing it for me quite nicely these days. It’s hard to believe she had this much soul when she recorded it in her thirties; I don’t mean that as an insult to my thirty-something readers (that’s an age range, not a quantity), only to point out just how much soul she crams in there.

Monday, March 29, 2021

There Was a Chance 2020 Would Be Great: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you. Sign up for Middling here. What follows is an excerpt from the winter 2020 issue--before the whole world shut down.

***

The safest place
Is the more or less middling: the mean average
Is not noticed.
—W. H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety

When I was a kid, I thought about 2020 a lot. That would be the year I would turn fifty, and at the time fifty seemed to me about the oldest a person could get. To speculate so far into the future seemed both pointless and irresistible. What would the world be like? What would I be like?

There were good reasons to wonder. When I was a kid, my society was enduring the aftermath of the abrupt end of a corrupt presidency. We were facing global tensions on several fronts; I read more than one library book about inter-continental ballistic missiles before I was ten. The Middle East was a powder keg. The economy was sputtering. People hadn’t learned not to pollute yet. There was disco music.

It wasn’t all bad, of course. Sure, we had Barry Manilow to deal with, but we also had the Ramones. (And Schoolhouse Rock: Rest In Peace, Jack Sheldon.) Sure, the rain had acid in it, but there was also this owl and this Native American guy actively appealing to us to give a hoot and not pollute. There was a chance I’d make it to fifty. There was a chance 2020 would be great.

I think about the past differently than the future or the present. In my memories, the hard stuff is less hard, because I know I’ve survived it. The scary stuff is less scary because it’s become more known than unknown. Even the lofty ambitions are right-sized by the passage of time. We aren’t cured of the past—we carry it with us—but the passion and the pain of it levels off. We become detached enough from it to consider it with grace.

In a matter of months I’ll be hitting my fiftieth birthday. Having reached this year of my preoccupation, I suppose it’s time to be preoccupied with something else—2070, perhaps, when I'll be a hundred years old, which seems like just about the oldest a person can get. Meanwhile, it occurs to me that there will be people thinking back to this unfolding decade with the same mix of melancholy, nostalgia, and (I hope) gracious detachment as I now think of the 1970s. Maybe one of those people will be me. Maybe it will be you. Maybe we should start practicing such gracious detachment even today.

"Fifty Nifty," Schoolhouse Rock

Monday, September 21, 2020

Hashtag Winning: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you. Sign up for Middling here. What follows is an excerpt from the fall 2019 issue.

***

Every September I attend a retreat for the Academy of Christian Editors. A feature of that retreat is a sharing circle where we each get roughly a minute to introduce our favorite book we read over the past year. You can see this year’s complete list here.

I always find this exercise a little stressful — I want my choice to be distinct and memorable, something I won’t be judged for except to be judged as distinct and memorable myself.

I had a number of books that came to mind, including the one I was still reading as I flew to Nashville for the retreat: The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead. This novel inspired by true events is set in the mid 1960s at a “reform school” for boys. All the students are tyrannized by the staff, but the black kids are routinely terrorized and brutalized. Whitehead is a master at creating characters and carrying the reader into and through terrible things, and he does so here again. Schools like this one existed in my lifetime. Maybe they still do. I’m haunted by that: How many other atrocities are we allowing to exist, and why are we allowing it?

But I hadn’t finished The Nickel Boys yet, so instead I put forward Mandela and the General, a beautifully drawn graphic novel recounting the true story of how newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela, who was actively dismantling the century-old system of apartheid that had privileged whites over people of color, met with and earned the respect and loyalty of the leader of a nationalist resistance group bent on taking South Africa back for the whites. A story I’d never heard before — powerful, compelling — and nobody else had picked it. #winning

***

Thanks for reading! If you'd like to get Middling in your in-box, give me a shout and I'll set you up.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Resilient Voices: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you. Sign up for Middling here. What follows is an excerpt from the fall 2019 issue.

***

I may have let my discipline slip a bit lately. I’ve been indulging my interest in vinyl a lot this year, which is at odds with my original purpose for switching to vinyl-only, which was to force myself to be more discriminating. Vinyl records are expensive and they take up a fair bit of space. But it can’t be helped when there’s so much good music to keep up with.

A lot of my new albums are not new, however. Case in point: You’re the Man by Marvin Gaye, the (intended) follow-up to his 1971 release What’s Going On. The record was shelved until this year, when it was released to mark the late artist’s eightieth birthday. I picked it up on Record Store Day in April. It’s a double-album, but the second disc is just b-sides and alternate takes, even a Christmas song. I lean hard into the first disc, and particularly side one. The title track is a nice jam that holds up well as an exemplar of its era; my favorite track is “Piece of Clay,” not written by Gaye but delivered with his signature passionate wisdom:

“That’s what’s wrong with the world today:
Everybody wants somebody to be
Their own piece of clay.”

Like I said, it holds up.

For my birthday this summer I asked for and received a vinyl edition of an album I loved when I was not yet married, Tanita Tikaram’s 1988 debut Ancient Heart. I already had it on CD—like I said, I’m not very disciplined these days—but I wanted to hear it scratched out at me at 33 revolutions per minute. Tikaram was, at the time, being compared to Van Morrison and other resilient voices; I eventually would buy her second disc and lost track of her after that, but something about this album really did it for me. Her breakout hit was “Twist in My Sobriety,” but every track has gravitas to it—even the sing-songy ”Poor Cow,” which my friend Chris and I would play on our college radio program as we announced the cafeteria’s lunch menu for the day. “Slice her up, slice her up, slice her up, poor cow.” Turns out I wasn’t very disciplined then either.

***

Thanks for reading! If you'd like to get Middling in your in-box, give me a shout and I'll set you up.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Teaspoons of Something or Other: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you. Sign up for Middling here. What follows is an excerpt from the fall 2019 issue.

***

Twenty-five years ago I was a twenty-four-year-old man-child in the throes of newly wedded bliss. Kara and I got married a few months after she finished her undergraduate degree. Our church at the time met in a rented theater, so to hold our wedding service we had to rent a church. Our friend Keith performed the ceremony, his first ever wedding. I remember he wished us ladles of honey for every teaspoon of something else—vinegar, maybe? Our wedding was an over-the-top affair, with a guest list that included pretty much everyone we ever met, testing the credit limits of both our sets of parents. Then we settled in to married life. There have surely been teaspoons of something or other over the years, but we’ve had plenty of honey to wash it down.

This month we celebrated twenty-five years with a vacation in Maui, Hawaii. We were a few steps from a beach and a few more steps from a donut shop (malasadas in the local lingo). We drove the Road to Hana, a long and winding route that is more about the journey than the destination, with plenty of stops along the way to see beautiful things. Not a bad embodied analogy for a marriage—or for life itself, I suppose.

***

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Monday, June 22, 2020

"God, Part III"

The year I was born John Lennon wrote what was essentially a Declaration of Independence. “God” was the tenth track on his first post-Beatles record (featuring the Plastic Ono Band), and it called out everyone from Elvis and Bob Dylan to Jesus and Hitler. A kind of epitaph for the 1960s, it might reasonably be considered an anthem for Generation X: “I don’t believe in Beatles,” he sang. “I just believe in me. ... The dream is over.” Disillusionment with the world characterized “God” in the first year of my life.

The year I graduated high school and started college, U2 released their film and record exploring the spirit of America. A friend and I went to great lengths to secure our copy of Rattle and Hum (along with a half-gallon or so of Drakkar Noir for the ladies). Featured on the album was “God, Part II,” Bono’s tribute to John Lennon. It featured a veiled threat against Albert Goldman for his salacious biography of Lennon, but otherwise it was a riff on the original idea of Lennon’s “God.” Instead of disillusionment with the world, however, Bono set his sights on himself: “[I] don’t believe in riches but you should see where I live” is only one of his confessions in the song. Disillusionment with the self was the theme of “God,” part 2, in the first year of my adulthood.

Fast forward 32 years. I’m turning fifty and disillusionment has gone out of favor. Everyone is a true believer - or at least wishes to be identified among the true believers; everyone is tempted at all times to be the first (or at least not the last) to out and expel the unbeliever, or the untrue true believer.

Perhaps disillusionment-fatigue is a consequence of all that we’ve learned in the intervening years about ourselves and our context. These days we’re aware that there is not one world to interact with but an aggregation of overlapping empires to be loyal or disloyal to. As Wendell Berry puts it in his masterful novel Jayber Crow,

All the world, as a matter of fact, is a mosaic of little places invisible to the powers that be.

Our little worlds are of little consequence; it's the overarching empire that breaks and makes us.

Meanwhile, there is not one self for each of us to grow tired of but an intersection of many selves to be put forward according to the demands of the moment. As the great Ben Folds puts it in his song “Best Imitation of Myself," our task increasingly seems to be putting forward one of our many selves, "withholding the rest so I can be for you what you want to see." Our intricate selves are of little consequence; it's the persona, not the person, that drives our success.

To survive in this age of overlapping empires and intersecting selves, we have by and large dispensed with disillusion - which is a shame, because as I have long held, disillusionment is a gift, even a spiritual discipline. Disillusionment is the dispersal of illusions, and so without it we are left clouded in our understanding of ourselves and our world. There is no independence to declare, no singular self to confess.

What, then, is the theme of “God,” part 3? St Paul famously wrote,

I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? (Romans 7:24, The Message)

The end of the rope, I think, is a fitting theme for “God, Part III.” Here’s my lame attempt to to offer an anthem to send us out into the next season of life, divested of false hope and in search of true hope.

I don’t pretend to think that my take on “God, Part III” is the only or even the best vantage point, and of course I know stepping into the shoes of Bono and John Lennon and St Paul sounds crazy. But as another poet-prophet once put it, unless we get a little crazy, we’re never going to survive.

***

“God, Part III”

Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son:
and to the Holy Ghost.

America is a concept through which we assert our moral vision.
Race* is a construct in which we sin against one another.
Sin is a classification by which we judge and are judged by ourselves and one another.
Church is a designation with which we settle our insecurity.
Evangelicalism (my own little place) is
a robust theology and a tenuous subculture;
The theology does not support the subculture
and the subculture does not uphold the theology.

Christianity Today does not speak for me.
The Christian Century does not speak for me.
The New York Times does not speak for me.
The Reverend Al Mohler does not speak for me.
The Reverend Jim Wallis does not speak for me.
The late Billy Graham does not speak for me.
The great David Dark does not speak for me.
President Trump does not speak for me.
Vice President Biden does not speak for me.
Nobody speaks for me, even as
Everyone speaks to me.

I don’t speak for GenX.
I don’t speak for cis-whites.
I don’t speak for men;
I sure don’t speak for women.
I don’t speak for evangelicals (my own little place).
I don’t speak for Presbyterians.
I don’t speak for Catholics.
I don’t speak for agnostics.
I sure don’t speak for Jesus
(though I trust he speaks to me).
I speak for no one but myself
And I sometimes fail to tell the truth
About and to myself.

I believe in the great American experiment
And the failure of the American experiment.
I believe in the perseverance of the saints
And the inevitable betrayal of the same.
I believe in the coming judgment
And the boundless mercy of God.
I believe that God will burn away every sin
And wipe away every tear.

I believe that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son:
and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be:
world without end. Amen.

***

* I am aware that the cultural references in this post are overwhelmingly if not exclusively white (the invocation and benediction are inspired by John Coltrane’s masterful work of mysticism A Love Supreme"). This is an unfortunate truth about me, that I am largely if not overwhelmingly shaped by white American culture. I'm working on it.

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you. Sign up for Middling here. 

PS: Here’s another clue for you all: Bono was the Fly, John was the Egg Man, and the Walrus was Paul.

Monday, June 08, 2020

Add Some Beauty to Your Life: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you. Sign up for Middling here. What follows is an excerpt from the summer 2019 issue.

***

I’ve started reading George Orwell: A Life in Letters, and I’m enjoying them, although I have the sneaking suspicion that he might have been a jerk. He’s awfully sardonic, which you would think as a cynic I would appreciate (and most of the time I do). But he’s writing letters during the rise of the Nazis, and his morose predictions for the health of the world come off a little uncaring, as though despotism is little more than an annoying intellectual curiosity. In fairness to Orwell, he’s famous for speaking out and less famous for but equally engaged in joining the fight against tyranny. I'm only partway through the book and he's already fought in a war against fascists. Meanwhile, I’m sitting at home toggling back and forth between 24/7 news channels while shaking my head and chuckling at the collapse of democracy. So who’s the jerk?

A more engaging recent read was An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim. I’ve described it elsewhere as The Road with bureaucrats. A time-slip novel with scenes separated by decades of a world-reshaping pandemic, we watch the lead character lose her great love and fight to get it back. We see her great strength in the face of manipulation by people with power and the petty betrayals of people without. It reminds me some of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, another powerful journey story featuring a strong female lead. Good stuff.

Now and then I edit a book that I’d be content to be remembered for. Such books are usually a perfect storm of literary craftsmanship, creative thesis, sound thinking, and struggle credentials. Given, by Tina Boesch, is one such book, a study of what the Bible means by blessing. It’s born of Tina’s experience living overseas, where the language of blessing is woven throughout society. In the face of this culture of blessing, the way Americans encourage one another seems woefully thin, so Tina turned to the Bible and discovered that “blessing” is not just a pronouncement but an ethic to be lived into. Tina commits herself to the dignity of every person and place she describes. It’s a beautiful book because blessing begets beauty. Pick it up and add some beauty to your life.

***

If you'd like to get Middling in your in-box, give me a shout and I'll set you up. In the meantime, check out my review of The Underground Railroad alongside my review of Space Opera. You can find it here. Thanks for reading!

Monday, June 01, 2020

People of Unclean Lips: A Lament

I journaled this weeks ago in reaction to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. I considered posting it upon the killing of Breonna Taylor, but I held back. And then George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis and Christian Cooper was threatened by a white woman in New York, who told him she'd call 911 and say an African American man was threatening her, after he reminded her she was legally obligated to leash her dog. This reflection has haunted me with every new news report, and it's high time I posted it. I'm not under any illusions that it will change any minds or serve any real redemptive purpose. But to let it sit in draft as person after person is killed or threatened with racialized violence in broad daylight seems cowardly and inauthentic at this point.

Trigger warning: If you don't like asterisks, you're not going to like this post.

If you don't like reflections on uncomfortable topics, you're not going to like this post either.

***

I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.
Isaiah 6:5

The world is a f***ed up place.

These are the words that keep coalescing in my head, the only words that I can muster up when I try to articulate the emotions that surface for me around Ahmaud Arbery. He was shot and killed months ago — I keep trying to remind myself that this assassination is not new news — but I only learned of it when video evidence of the killing finally surfaced. Another execution of another black man at the hands of white men. Another act of degrading violence. Another anecdote in the centuries-long history of racial tyranny and terrorism in the United F***ing States.

I can’t bring myself to type “f***” because I am a Christian and Christians don’t say such words. When I was a kid I used to entertain myself by citing Cohen v. California, the Supreme Court case that affirmed the very sensible argument that freedom of speech extends to vulgar language, so that saying “f***” is our constitutional right. I was a stupid f***ing kid — not because I would occasionally say “f***” but because I took such glee in indulging stupid stuff like this for myself when real human beings were getting shot in the streets for stupid stuff. I was a f***ing Karen before Karen was a f***ing thing.

But I was a child then, and I have since put childish things behind me. I recognize now that when I was enamored with Cohen v. California I was being a stupid f***ing kid, like those f***ers over in Michigan who thought they’d show all of us by marching into government buildings wearing weapons of mass f***ing destruction and ranting about how the state was taking away their f***ing rights by requiring them to change their behavior during a global f***ing pandemic. Those f***ers went home to sleep in their own f***ing beds that night. I’ll be they high-fived each other on their f***ing social media accounts before they kissed their f***ing kids good night.

For some stupid f***ing reason those f***ers can get away with provocative actions like that and Ahmaud Arbery can’t even go for a f***ing run in his own f***ing town without getting shot and killed by a couple of f***ing a**holes who think they’re part of a master race or something. And when they’re caught in the f***ing act they just appeal to some f***ed-up arbitrary law that some f***ing politician threw at the f***ing wall to appease his f***ed up constituency, and then all the other f***ed up politicians who were looking to score some easy points voted yes instead of “hell no” or “what the f*** is this bulls***?” and so suddenly white people with guns can shoot black joggers and call it a f***ing citizen’s arrest.

This is the same f***ed up logic that got Trayvon Martin killed for walking home from a f***ing store, that got Jordan Davis killed for listening to f***ing music in his own f***ing car, that got little twelve-year-old Tamir Rice shot dead for playing with a toy f***ing gun while grown-a** white men in f***ing Michigan are prancing around in camouflage playing with real-a** f***ing semi-automatics in full view of the f***ing police without any f***ing consequence. The world is a f***ed up place.

I can’t say “f***” because I’m a Christian, and Christians can’t abide by vulgar language. We can, apparently, abide by vulgar legislation, vulgar acts of public provocation, vulgar expressions of unchecked entitlement, and countless other displays of vulgarity that demonstrate plainly how f***ed up the world is and yet don’t rise to the level of gross impiety of four-letter words.

Comedian Buddy Hackett used to do a bit about the word “f***.” As I heard the bit, he asked some nice-looking Christian lady in the audience if she ever cussed. Of course not, was her proper and predictable response. He then offered a scenario, say, dropping an anvil on your foot. The immediate, visceral reaction is not one of propriety but something guttural, something vulgar: “Ouch! I broke my f***ing foot!” Some words, he argued, are particularly suited for the moment, even though they wouldn’t normally make it through our filters. Some moments defy filters. Some filters muddy up a moment.

I'm reluctant to sign my name to this because I’m a Christian, and it wouldn’t be nice to do so. I think it’s entirely possible that by owning this rant, I'll be subjected to shame by my church friends and my Christian employer will call me down to HR for a chat. But more than that, I’ll resist the idea of putting my name to it because I have shaped my filters in such a way that such language has no place, and in turn my filters have shaped me into a person who is focused on scrupulously moderating his language so as to describe gross violations of human dignity like the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in nice, polite terms, rather than demanding in an outdoor voice and with the most visceral, arresting language available to me that all of us, starting with myself, refuse to tolerate such demonstrations of our inherent vulgarity as a society, and instead scrupulously refashion society in the manner of Jesus, who among other things stood between a vulnerable woman and a crowd that thought it would be both cool and well within their rights to stone her to death; Jesus who stood between a man healed of his blindness and authorities who felt entirely entitled to coerce him and his family into betraying Jesus and one another; Jesus who told his followers in starkly plain language to obey God and not cower before people who were in the habit of enforcing their social power with weapons of mass intimidation; Jesus who threw the opportunists out of the temple and welcomed marginalized ethnic communities into the family of faith.

That’s a long sentence, a byproduct of the filtration system I’ve been enculturated into and have reinforced with my own participation in it. The world is a f***ed up place, and I’m right there f***ed up in the middle of it. May God have mercy on every f***ing one of us.

This is a lament and is to be used as a lament.
Ezekiel 19:14

***

This lament is for Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and Christian Cooper, and for Tamir Rice, and for Trayvon Martin, and for Sandra Bland, and for Philando Castile, and for Botham Jean, and for Eric Garner, and for Michael Brown, and for Atatiana Jefferson, and for Freddie Gray, and for Emmett Till, and for so so so many others.

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Sandwich Season: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you. Sign up for Middling here. What follows is an excerpt from the summer 2019 issue.

***

I’ve reached the age where the generation behind me is hitting its markers of adulthood. My oldest niece has graduated high school. One of our youngest cousins has gotten married. I had to wear a suit (a jacket, but really what’s the difference?) to the wedding; fortunately it still sort of fit.

And then of course there’s the other side, the generation before mine. Health scares among uncles, aunts, and parents. Major moves to ensure they’ll be cared for as they get older. This is the sandwich season, which makes the fact that my suit jacket still fits all the more remarkable.

I recently got my hair cut by my wife’s stylist. I like her—she has moxie, and I respect moxie. She told me I was long past due for a grown up haircut (she told me considerably more than that, but I’ll preserve my dignity and spare you the details). She offered to make me look like Christian Bale, and so I am now somewhere on the spectrum between Dick Cheney and Batman. Depends on the day, most days—and a little bit on what I had to eat.

***

I’m a kickstarter—I kickstart things. Most recently I kickstarted the vinyl reissue of a fantastic record from my young adulthood. Charlie Peacock is a musician living in Nashville, where he and his wife founded the influential gathering place Art House America. He mostly produces music these days, including the late great Civil Wars, but he’ll drop a track or two now and then. Back in the day he straddled two genres: jazz fusion and contemporary Christian pop. That marriage of interests gave birth to some truly distinct music, showcased on his three-volume West Coast Diaries. I kickstarted the vinyl reissue of volume 2.

Charlie’s voice is fragile, wispy. You kind of naturally picture him wearing a fedora (the “big man’s hat” of a key track, perhaps) and carrying a messenger bag. But there’s a lot of soul riding those sound waves. Several tracks function as extended riffs, a tip of the chapeau to his jazz roots, with Charlie sparring/dancing vocally with his collaborator the late great Vince Ebo. Some songs are especially plaintive, such as “Down in the Lowlands,” but every track inhabits a similar overall groove, which makes for an especially coherent, groovy record.

For my birthday Kara got us tickets to see the legendary Stevie Wonder at Red Rocks Amphitheater just outside of Denver. I only own one Stevie Wonder record but it’s a great one: Songs in the Key of Life, which may be the best album title of all time. It’s from this record that we get the infectious “Sir Duke,” The enchanting “Isn’t She Lovely,” and the desperate “As.” I was pretty young when this record dropped—but in case he hadn’t already, it seems to me Songs in the Key of Life cemented Stevie's credentials as a voice for his generation. And I think he realized it: He sings with a calm and settled assurance that is itself reassuring. My favorite track is the first: "Love's in Need of Love Today." I play it when I need it, and I think you will too once you hear it.

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Monday, May 11, 2020

An Exchange I Found Especially Humorous: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you. Sign up for Middling here. What follows is an excerpt from the spring 2019 issue, a compare-and-contrast of two visionary books.

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I've recently read two books that are authors reflecting on and advocating for their particular vision of their particular vocation. One you've likely heard of: Marie Kondo has made a worldwide business of helping people get rid of stuff, taking her most recently to Netflix. The book that made her a phenom is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. In it she unpacks her KonMari method, which involves (among other things) holding everything you own in your hands and asking yourself whether it sparks joy. If it doesn't, thank it for its service and send it on its way; if it does, find its proper place in your home. I borrowed this book from a coworker. (I loaned her in exchange the book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, by Tom Harford, a book I very much enjoy, and an exchange I found especially humorous.) I found myself largely skeptical about Kondo's book for a couple of key reasons:

This "Japanese art" is Japanese only insofar as Kondo herself is Japanese. She found a market for her services in Japan precisely because so many people were so bad at dealing with clutter; even her family found her tidying annoying. In fairness to Kondo, she comes off as very much herself in this book--she would have written this book very differently if she weren't Japanese--and she makes no contention that what she's doing is some ancient cultural secret she's bringing to the world. So I blame the publisher for this point: Someone on that team decided the book would sell better if it were classed as a "Japanese art" rather than simply an "art." This prompted a mild ethical dilemma for me, actually, since publishing is my gig: Acquiring authors and marketing their books can, it turns out, come uncomfortably close to cultural appropriation. (That's a long bullet point. I apologize. It makes my next bullet point just a wee bit hypocritical.)

For a person whose whole brand is decluttering, Marie Kondo doesn't write especially sparingly. I found myself wondering fairly often when she would get back to the point.

Unlike many of my reading and writing friends, I wasn't particularly put off by Kondo's controversial suggestion that you limit your book collection to around thirty titles. (I was more offended that she suggested you keep those books in your shoe closet.) She makes an interesting point about the purpose of the things we have, and she's certainly correct that we read most of our books once if we read them at all, so to keep them around has more to do with our reluctance to let go of things than our desire to be stretched by them. Nevertheless, I haven't gotten rid of any books since reading Kondo's (except hers, I suppose, since I returned it to my friend when I finished it).

The other vision of vocation I read recently might not qualify in some people's minds as a book. Grant Snider is a comic artist, creating strips under the moniker of Incidental Comics. His strips explore the nature of art, the industry of publishing, and, in this book, The Shape of Ideas: An Illustrated Exploration of Creativity. This book is a curated collection of his previously published work, organized in a way that maps and mines the creative process. He's insightful and soulful, and his art hits far more than it misses. You can read this book quickly, but you can reread this book often. I'm not sure it would make the cut if I limited myself to thirty books, but I haven't put it away since I finished reading it.

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The Virtue, Gift and Discipline of Secrecy: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting ol...