words in the rubble, stories in the wind

GRP RIP, April 2015They dig like dinosaurs, chomping into the earth
These fearsome metal-jawed excavators
Hauling up mouthfuls of rocky dirt, cement block, rusty rebar
Kicking up the grimy, dusty detritus
Of the old word factory.

They tear and rend like T-Rexes
These mighty yellow machines
Chewing off bits of building
Spitting out hunks of wallboard and insulation
Bastions of brick and mortar
Leaving a skeletal shell
From which tendrils of light fixtures and electrical lines
Hang down like guts
From where we once worked day after day
Telling the stories
Of a busy, beautiful city.

How many people worked there?
How many stories did they tell? How many photos did they shoot?|
How many deadlines did they meet to tell what needed to be told
On the street that day?

We worked in a fortressGRP RIP 3
But we fanned out into the community
Going into homes with crumbling ceilings
Or magnificent lumber-baron mansions
All filled with daily dramas
Schools packed with breathless children
Sterile government offices busy with civil servants
Hospitals harboring the dying and the healing
Buildings being built
Buildings burning down
Cars racing cars crashing
Touchdowns being scored
Crowds cheering
Funerals weeping
Churches praising
Cemeteries sleeping
Bringing it all back to the green-topped fortress
Furiously typing the stories
Souping the photos
Pasting up the pages
Rolling the presses
Rumbling the fortress
As huge rolls of news print
Spin off the titanic tumbling cylinders
Like fresh bread from an oven
Then seeing that day’s paper
Full of faces and things that happened
Smiling or crying or shouting or singing from the page
A daily miracle of work
Caringly chronicled, carefully edited
Slight volume of one day’s history
Easily blown away by a strong wind.
We take a breather, share a laugh
Maybe have a drink
Then pick up our pen and pads
To tell stories of another day.

The stories surviveGRP RIP 2
The images live on
But the fortress is no more
Just a pile of dust and rubble
Torn apart by dinosaurs
Half a century of words and pictures
Now the object of cell phones
And gaping gasps
And stories to be told for years.

 

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the melting of ice, the passing of time

Spring ice 2I caught nature dying the other day. A sharp shard of ice hung from the gutter of my porch, the sun illuminating it like a Nordic pitch fork. Tiny beads of water dripped from its two tines. Out with the cell phone, click click click. Nice images on the first brilliant afternoon of spring on the way.
Fifteen minutes later I heard a thump. I looked out my window. The pitchfork of ice was gone. I was glad I’d captured it while it was in its brief glory.
Less than a week ago this world in West Michigan was like a meat locker. Walking to a luncheon on Wednesday, I hugged my coat against my chest and cursed the frigid wind. It seemed like we were encased in ice and this would go on indefinitely.
Come Sunday, though, the world began to thaw. The sun – ah yes, the long-forgotten sun, hello old friend! – bathed the deep snow covering yards like frozen whipped cream. Puddles began to form. Ice began to drip. People began coming out of their houses, blinking their eyes with wonder. Hello, old friends!
Earlier that day, driving down Breton Avenue, I passed a young couple walking. They were kind of dressed up, as if they were coming home from church. The sight of them warmed me, but I also felt a twinge of sadness. They were youth, filled with the promise of possibility, the joy of hope and the expectation of a long life ahead of them. I remembered how that felt, just exactly how that felt.
Recently, my Uncle Chuckie died. Chuckie was one who seemed too alive for death. He was always strumming the guitar, always picking and grinning, always cracking jokes. He was the cocksure young buck who never quite grew up despite a brood of children. And then there we were, playing the music he loved after his funeral, while his children and grandchildren sang and smaller children danced.Uncle Chuckie's funeral wake 2

My city is covered with fog this morning, but it will lift in time. The ice will continue to melt and the puddles will get bigger. Soon the sun will have its way as baseballs fly out of the park and birds greet the day. The spring will be quick and poignant, the summer broad and long, the fall swirling and dramatic. More loved ones will die and more beautiful babies will arrive, bawling with the good news of new life.
And the ice will come again and stay for a long while. But I will greet it gladly. Because I have the love of family and friends and a beautiful woman, and the promise of each new day. I will expect a wonderfully white winter, to be followed by the melting of ice and the flying of baseballs.

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I remember when food was fun

An An American family having Thanksgiving dinner in 1962

When I was a kid, Mom occasionally fixed us something for dinner called “city chicken legs.” We Honey kids thought this was a real treat. It was some kind of tasty meat on a stick, breaded and fried. They were like meat popsicles.
Come to find out city chicken was a low-cost alternative to real chicken, made from ground-up pork and/or veal. Also called mock chicken, it got popular among working-class homes during the Depression in urban areas like Pittsburgh, where apparently it’s undergone something of a revival, and Detroit, where no doubt Mom picked it up from Grandma, who pretty much lived in the kitchen.
These days city chicken may be making a comeback as a sort of alt-farm-to-table delicacy among urban foodies. But back in the late Fifties I didn’t care a whit about what it was made of, and certainly not whether it was any good for me. It just tasted great on a Friday night, right next to the margarine-drenched mashed potatoes and canned cream corn.

city chickenIf I were to consider buying city chicken today, I guarantee you I’d be in the grocery aisle for 10 minutes examining the list of ingredients, fat/sodium content and whether or not the responsible animal was humanely raised and killed. Then I’d probably put it back in the case because you just can’t be sure these days. Back home I’d search on “city chicken humane E. coli FDA” to see if it was medically and ethically OK to eat.
Which is all well and good. Recently I actually did do a search on an organic chicken brand to see if it was as humanely and safely raised/killed as it claimed. Advised otherwise by an organic food-business friend, I am now eating an Amish variety. Surely they wouldn’t lie to me.
But even though I feel slightly better about my chicken now, it’s a pitifully small gain. What about the 500 pounds of cereal I eat each year, based on not much more than a Seinfeldian preference for grains shaped like an “o”? What about that non-fat French vanilla creamer I dump into my coffee each morning? When I look at how it hardens on a spoon, I can hardly be confident in what it’s doing to my stomach.
And what about the salmon I fix Andrea for Sunday dinner? I always buy “wild-caught” because “farm-raised” sounds like it came from a swamp. But when they’re being wild-caught, how many innocent fish are being killed, and how many more salmon can spawn until they’re all gone? Wouldn’t it be more ecologically responsible to eat the swamp-raised ones?
And the eggs! Oh heavens, the eggs. Used to be they were the source of all heart attacks. Now supposedly you can eat all you want – just as long as they’re from free-range, uncaged, vegetarian-fed chickens who get nights off to meditate. And soybeans! Back when Adele Davis was pushing brown rice and tofu, soybeans would save the world along with rock ‘n’ roll and communal living. Now they’re just another baddy of the corporate-GMO complex, and could cause you to break out in acne.
I am not pro-GMO, mind you (that’s genetically modified organisms, which sounds much creepier than GMO). The government just approved a kind of genetically-modified apple that prevents browning when sliced or bruised. Really? I wonder how much money went into developing this apple, and then for government researchers to study it, when all I do is slice off the brown part. End of story.
And oh by the way, now a national dietary advisory panel reports that cholesterol-high food being bad for the heart is a myth, and that what we really need to worry about is too much sugar (i.e., the French vanilla creamer). Except that critics call their
recommendations “a farce” and that if we follow them we will die. Nice. I’m sure that with enough time online I can figure out who’s right.
But yes, I really am eating better now that Andrea has educated me to the virtues of organics and the evils of GMOs. Still. Eating was a lot more fun when I didn’t have to weigh the non-GMO, gluten-free, soy-free, really and truly organic factors against the other consideration: Does it taste good?
Ah well. City chicken sure tasted good while it lasted.

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1965: the best year in rock radio, ever

Taking us eight miles high: the Byrds

Taking us eight miles high: the Byrds

In the fall of 1965 I was an invalid. I injured my back playing football in the backyard and spent the next three months in a body cast, encased chest to knees in mummifying plaster. Don’t ask about the details. Suffice to say I was mostly immobilized, and spent long afternoons flat on my back, thinking about sports and girls and listening to the radio.

Thank God for that radio. Through that tinny little transistor I was helped through those tedious days by the Beatles, the Stones, the Supremes and my first sweetheart, Petula Clark.

From October through November, the top Billboard 100 singles were “Yesterday,” “Get Off My Cloud” and “I Hear a Symphony.” Phew. That’s just two months. The year began with “I Feel Fine” atop the charts – the first of five No. 1 Beatles hits that year – quickly followed by “Come See About Me” and “Downtown.” The year ended with “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds and “Over and Over” by the Dave Clark Five.
In between you had “Help Me, Rhonda” by the Beach Boys, “This Diamond Ring” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys (a big favorite of mine at the time), “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher and that stick of Motown dynamite, “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” by the Four Tops. I grooved to that thing all summer long while playing with my cousin Lance at my grandparents’ house in Detroit.
This is also the year that “Like a Rolling Stone” assaulted the airwaves with Dylan’s ragged growl, rising to No. 2 despite its unprecedented six-minute length. And of course Dylan’s transcendent “Mr. Tambourine Man” was taken eight miles high by the Byrds, tinted-glasses pioneers of folk-rock.

Holy cow. Seen through the lens of pop-culture history 50 years later, this bunch simply can’t be beat. I defy you to name another year in which such a broad and stunning cross-section of American popular music poured out of a single source – in this case, my trusty transistor radio.

The year 1965 was when the sub-genres of rock and roll, folk and soul came together to form the larger creature known as Rock. Pop music had yet to split off into sub-species each with their own dedicated stations and followings. It was all coming to us at once. Pretty much everything that was great you could hear on top 40 or even see on the Ed Sullivan Show, including Mick Jagger’s gleeful sex swagger.
This is not to mention the wonderful songs that didn’t quite make the top tier, such as the We Five’s “You Were on My Mind,” an exuberant rendition of folksinger Ian Tyson’s doleful lament, “I got troubles.” When I was in the hospital with my back, my roommate, like me perpetually plugged into his transistor, would alert me to the song’s onset by shouting, “’I got troubles’ is on!”
Oh, harbingers of future troubles were there, such as Barry McGuire’s apocalyptic “Eve of Destruction,” and cotton-candy novelties like “I’m Telling You Now” by Freddie and the Dreamers. But as I recall, nobody was trying to get our attention by sticking out their tongue and humping a foam finger.

As cool as cool could be: Diana Ross and the Supremes

As cool as cool could be: Diana Ross and the Supremes

No, we had Diana Ross seductively cooing “Come on boy, see about me” and Petula demurely purring, “The lights are much brighter there, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.”
Sigh. Petula made me forget mine, for three minutes at a time anyway.

So did all the other marvelous music-makers of 1965. It was just one year, but it heralded a lifetime of sonic joy.

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betrayed by my body, again

sneezing guyI always forget how much I hate being sick. It makes an otherwise normal life into an unpleasant chore, all the day and night long. The fact almost everyone does it at this time of year is little consolation. I believe I brought on this apparent case of “the common cold” by briefly reflecting on how glad I was to not be sick. This thought came to me just the other day while driving around, in the form of something like, “Well, at least I’m not sick.” So much for counting that particular blessing. As I write I am sitting in my big Marty Crane-style recliner, with my cat Abbey on my lap. Little wads of Kleenex litter the floor around me, each one of them nasty evidence of a nose-blow. I am like Meg Ryan in that scene in “You’ve Got Mail” where Tom Hanks comes to visit her with flowers, and she is miserable with what she calls a “tempachur.” A cold makes any hardship ever so much worse. Occasionally I also hack up mysterious gunk with a cough, as my body seeks to expel whatever crud has come to infest it these past few days. My sneezes are as violent as Bruce Willis slamming a bad guy against a wall. Andrea says I sneeze so loud to get attention. I do admit it makes me feel a little better. What is this “common cold” anyway, and why is it so frickin’ common? The Mayo Clinic says more than 100 viruses can cause a cold, the most common being the rhinovirus. (Did this actually originate with rhinos?) One can catch a cold, says Mayo, simply by being with another person who coughs, sneezes or talks. “Talks”? I got this cold just by talking with someone else who had one? If that’s true we’re all doomed. Might as well just come over and shake my hand, pal, because the rhinovirus is going to get you sooner or later. But truth be told this little rhino is but a mouse compared to the backache/flu/life disabler I recently endured. This began on New Year’s Eve day with a strange ache in my lower back. Although I danced the eve away with Andrea to the Lazy Blue Tunas, the ache grew and grew. Then came a hard, dry cough as if I’d been working in a coal mine. Then, no doubt aggravated by the cough, the back ache quite suddenly became medieval torture. It happened as I was trying to pull on my socks: a sharp, stabbing pain that made me exclaim something I choose not to print here. And from then on, the pain got way worse. The next morning I couldn’t get out of bed because every slight movement of a knee or toe caused a back spasm that felt like — well, again we will not be printing that. All because of pulling on my socks. It is both humbling and depressing when the body betrays you. Suddenly you go from this confident, productive being to a pathetic, griping slug. Everything you do takes effort and nothing you do feels good. You stand at the drug store counter with an arsenal of drugs and the cashier looks at you with pity. “Man, it must suck to be you,” she thinks. “Just you wait your turn,” you think back. What is the upside of being sick? Why did God create the rhinovirus? Is it just a random ingredient in the evolutionary soup, like a bad onion? Am I supposed to learn something from this? Wouldn’t life simply be better without the rhinovirus? Guess I’ll have to store this with my other Questions to Ask God, like “Why are there mosquitoes?” and “Who invented jokes?” For now, you’ll have to excuse me. I need to blow my nose, drink plenty of fluids and watch another episode of “Mad Men.”

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Dr. Strange lives again: now cometh Cumberbatch

Dr. Stephen Strange

The Master of the Mystic Arts has arrived in the 21st Century, just in time to save the world from its dark forces.
When my daughter, Emily, gleefully informed me that a Dr. Strange movie was finally going to be made, starring the “it” boy of our age, Benedict Cumberbatch, my magical mind did a little dance. How I had longed for this day. And by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, lo it hath arrived! Or, rather, will arrive, late in 2016, according to recent reports.
You see, Dr. Strange was my favorite Marvel character back in the day, when I was reading pretty much all of them. Oh I liked my Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and X-Men all right, but Dr. Strange was my guy. As a moist teenager I spent hours reading his occult exploits in my family’s cabin on the Muskegon River or, my preferred reading spot at the time, in the bathtub. (There was something wonderfully solitary and soothing about reading in the bathtub, for those of you sadly unfamiliar with the experience.)
Why Dr. Strange? One word: mystery. A former venal surgeon turned enemy of ephemeral bad guys, Stephen Strange tapped into my imagination by entering into dimensions full of wonder and mystery. The weird netherworlds depicted by series creator Steve Ditko, and later by writer Roy Thomas and artists like Dan Adkins and Gene Colan, enthralled me. For a kid who was deep into the psychedelic-era Beatles, “The Lord of the Rings” and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, Strange’s battles with the likes of Nightmare and Dormammu was heady stuff in every sense.
I started reading Dr. Strange in high school and continued, I am now embarrassed to admit, well into college (although comic historian Mike Benton has written many a collegian consumed it with “the belief of a recent Hare Krishna convert”). So captivated was I that I wrote a letter to Marvel just to let them know. To my delighted astonishment, they printed it in issue No. 173, October 1968.
I have kept the comic (along with a couple dozen others) in a box dutifully marked “Dr. Strange.” The letter takes up most of one column, as I prattle on about the profound genius of a comic book: “It is unsurpassed by ANY publication in its manner of opening your mind to new, mysterious and wonderfully haunting worlds.” Prude that I was, I also chastise the writers for having Strange smoke a cigarette, and helpfully advise against having him battle mere super-villains – only otherworldly foes, please!
Further embarrassment: I sign my letter “The Gifted One,” a title I had assigned myself while strong under the spell of Tolkien’s Gandalf. Likewise, my soulmate Brad, with whom I regularly exchanged fanciful letters at the time, was “The Enlightened One.” Like many good children of the Sixties, we were deep into our own thing.
I suppose it is not a great stretch for a teenage wizard fascinated by the Sorcerer Supreme to end up as a religion writer for a Midwest newspaper. We were dealing in the spiritual and supernatural, after all. Brad ended up owning a highly successful, energy-efficient streetcar company. Go figureth.
As it turned out there were other wizards in the land. Following publication of my letter I heard from a few, including one with literary powers from Bradford, Pa. She is a well-respected anthropologist today.
Strange the paths we all have taken since those heady days. Imagination lights the way on many wonderful journeys. I have no doubt that when Cumberbatch meets Strange, many more young imaginations will be set afire. Verily, by the flames of Faltine, the outcome will be most passing strange.

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Christmas glows quietly this year

Andrea and me, Christmas 2014 4My tree is perhaps the prettiest it’s ever been, a perfect little Fraser fir plucked off the corner lot across from Meijer. It glows quietly this morning, its white and blue lights winking where Andrea thoughtfully draped them. My beloved Jumping Jack hangs center stage. Behind him Mickey Mouse dozes dreamily, as he has every year since Emily gave him to me, while to his left Peter Pan flies over London, also compliments of Emily. She keeps me supplied with childhood whimsy.
Under the tree, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus keep up their Nativity tableau flanked by wise men, a shepherd and a couple of crouching animals. My cat Abbey knocks them over occasionally. Mom and Dad had a Nativity scene when I was a kid, and so I have one now.
This tree and the ceramic Holy Family pretty much stand in for Christmas at my house this year, along with a clutter of cards on the window sill guarded vigilantly by nutcrackers. Just one present rests under the tree, a plaid package sent along by my foster sister, Margie. It is a quiet, stripped-down kind of yule, and I am fine with it.
But when I was a child Christmas was a riot of excitement. I so looked forward to it, for weeks and weeks. Big family celebrations, driving into Detroit to the grandparents, singing carols on the way. Cousins all around. Smell of tangerines and Scotch pine. Christmas Eve full of music and delicious food, Christmas morning wonderful beyond measure.
When Emily and Max were children, much the same. My heart leaped with the widening of their eyes. Their bare feet on the carpet tickled my soul. Charlie Brown and I delighted in their every squeal of joy as the wrapping flew around the room.
Now is a different season of life. Emily and Max are 34 and 27 in the blink of an eye, with their own lives. No little ones underfoot at the moment. Ten years ago my marriage unraveled in a spectacularly ugly way. Thank God for Andrea.
Outside it’s been a damp and gray Advent, barely relieved by wisps of snow, going on a month now. The sun rarely shows himself. The neighbors bravely dress their homes in light against the unremitting darkness. It’s been a long December, as Counting Crows sang, “and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.”
Maybe. However, I can’t bear to watch the news.
Karin Bergquist remarked upon the unbearableness of news last Saturday, in a concert at Calvin College. She and her husband Linford Detweiler sing as Over the Rhine. Theirs is an unusual variety of Christmas music, a blend of melancholy and lilting sweetness, acknowledging the sadness as well as the wonder of the season. Linford dubbed it a new genre, “reality Christmas.”
“Whatever we’ve lost, I think we’re gonna let it go,” they sang. “Let it fall, like snow.”
Life has largely become a process of letting go of losses – of family as it was, of childhood and, increasingly, of loved ones. The only way through it is to accept the losses, let them hollow out a certain hurting place in my heart, and then to keep my heart open so that new joys, friends and family can enter. And to cherish without regret the childhood I had, with all of us gathered around Mom at the piano and singing carols.
“Darling, Christmas is coming,” Over the Rhine sing. “Do you believe in angels singing?”
I do. I’ve heard them, singing around the piano.

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