gun victims, erased from our memory

Greg Bokor's gun mural at Fountain Street Church, before erasure

The gun mural at Fountain Street Church, before erasure

It didn’t take long to erase the gun.
Greg Bokor’s ArtPrize drawing of an assault rifle at Grand Rapids’ Fountain Street Church was rubbed out Saturday, Sept. 21, after the public was invited to wield erasers imprinted with sorrow.
Normally festive art lovers obliterated the killing machine with erasers bearing the names of 83 massacred children and adults. They included Jesse Lewis, age 6, one of 20 children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December; Veronica Moser-Sullivan, also 6, youngest of 12 people killed in the 2012 Aurora, Colo. movie-theater slaughter; and the 45 victims of the Columbine High School and Virginia Tech shootings.
Within hours, the public had rendered the AR-15 just a faintly visible image. It was a powerful symbol of what many of us would like to see happen to these weapons of death so easily available to mentally deranged people seeking sick revenge.
Tragically, in real life it is the children and other victims who have been so easily erased from our consciousness.
The Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn. happened more than nine months ago. Since then, Congress has done exactly nothing to make it harder for disturbed individuals to get their hands on guns that should only be in the hands of trained police or the military. Even broadening background checks already required of licensed gun dealers couldn’t make it through legislators afraid of the National Rifle Association, or who read the Second Amendment as an 11th Commandment.
Meanwhile, a guy who hears voices talking to him from the microwave has no trouble buying a shotgun to pick off a dozen people at the Washington Navy Yard. Aaron Alexis reportedly says attacks by low-frequency magnetic waves drove him to it.
We have legislators going to the mat to thwart the imagined evil of Obamacare. But they won’t lift a finger to protect children and adults from real evil like this.
Back at Fountain Street, a Second Amendment disciple defaced the building in apparent protest of the church’s several ArtPrize exhibits related to gun violence. The anonymous scrawler wrote “molon labe,” Greek for “come and take,” a defiant catch-phrase of gun-rights activists.
The Rev. Fred Wooden welcomed the protest as part of a conversation Fountain Street hoped to generate, but lamented it was done anonymously. Exactly. If you have something to say, Mr. or Ms. Molon Labe, why not set up an easel and say it? Stand by your convictions instead of desecrating a church and skulking away.
But kudos to Fountain Street for mounting such provocative exhibits and taking the scrawled consequences. Along with Bokor’s drawing, the church features Ritsu Katsumata’s “A Shrine to Victims of Gun Violence,” a moving exhibit projecting ghostly images of mass shooting victims against the backdrop of a gun. And the church entrance is covered with robots and cut-out protestors in an anti-war statement created by Detroit artist Timothy Burke.
Conservatives long have considered Fountain Street a heretical bad boy since critics branded the late preacher Duncan Littlefair as Rev. “Littlefaith.” But thank heaven for Fountain Street’s willingness to take risks and be prophetic. Other congregations should be so bold as to speak out on gun violence, an issue that grows more urgent by the day.
Why is it our political leaders constantly search out Islamic terrorists yet do nothing to combat the random terrorists in our midst? Both result in mass killing of innocent people; only the motives are different.
The best impulses of major religions condemn this kind of hateful violence. Yet in America their arguments go nowhere, beaten back by gun lobbyists whose only answer is more guns. Apparently they think nothing else is needed in a country where mass killings are becoming commonplace and even schoolchildren aren’t safe.
If you visit Fountain Street today, you’ll see the faint outline of the assault rifle. Next to it is a plastic container full of erasers bearing the names of 83 dead children and adults, tucked away where no one has to think about them again.

These erasers bearing the names of  mass-shooting victims were used to erase the gun


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it’s 3 a.m., I must be worried

Dad always said don’t believe anything you think at 3 a.m. I mostly don’t. But that doesn’t stop me from worrying about it.
Something about seeing the “3” on my digital clock radio alarms me. It means I have not gotten enough sleep to start another day, yet have gotten enough that it’s going to take an act of Congress or God to get me back to sleep.
If it’s 2 a.m., OK. I’ve got plenty of time to get back to sleep. Four a.m., fine; if need be I can get up in an hour and not be a zombie all day. But 3 a.m. is a problem. If I don’t get back to sleep now, my little panic button tells me, I’m going to feel really crummy today and be about as productive as Gomer Pyle.
It also means I’m going to start worrying, real soon.
“She says baby, it’s 3 a.m., I must be lonely.” My band, The Honeytones, used to sing that ‘90s pop hit by Matchbox 20. It’s about a woman with issues, who “can’t help but be scared of it all sometimes” and hands the singer a raincoat because “she’s always worried about things like that.”
I feel for her. I don’t worry so much about rain, but pretty much everything else is on the table at 3 a.m.
When am I going to ever catch up on that writing project? How am I ever going to get the living room ceiling painted? Why do my ankles hurt when I run? Where is the money going to come from? How come Verlander suddenly can’t find the strike zone?
And so on. It’s a miserable litany of fussing, a muddy stream of consciousness that just keeps burbling and splitting into a million aimless rivulets. One thought leads to another. Pretty soon I am trying to solve Syria.
Usually this leads to getting up, putting on the warm milk and reading something neutral, like baseball or a Wendell Berry short story. Sometimes that process leads to falling back asleep in the reading chair and waking with a sore neck. It’s a long way around to getting a half-decent night’s sleep.
Why get up? Because there’s nothing worse than lying in bed worrying. It’s like being on the rack, a kind of existential torture. The longer I lie there, the worse my life gets.
And as Rob Thomas’ tortured song suggests, it’s lonely. To just lie there alone at 3 a.m., fretting about everything while most everyone else is asleep, is lonely indeed. Maybe I should just get up and take long walks, like Charles Dickens did through dark London streets.
It is only a little bit comforting to know some form of insomnia afflicts many other people, some of them geniuses. compiles a list of impressive insomniacs, including Groucho Marx, Madonna, Abraham Lincoln and Arianna Huffington, who reportedly became an anti-insomnia crusader after passing out and breaking her cheekbone.
There must be a prayer for this.
Mine usually takes one of two forms, more mantra than prayer. You are blessed, you are blessed, I repeat to myself. Or, Just rest yourself, just rest yourself.
It’s possible these prayers are a hidden blessing of 3 a.m., a going to God because all else has failed. If so, I am grateful for that. After all, many perfectly good prayers arise from desperation.
However, I would much rather sink into the sweet sleep “that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,” as Shakespeare wrote. I have plenty of other things to pray about, and there’s a full day ahead.

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the Zen of hanging out the wash

the wash

My laundry, July 2013. T-shirts are pretty much all I wear in the summer.

A soft breeze stirred the morning air, carrying the aroma of baked goods and the faint whiff of a skunk.
As I hung up each item of clothing, I noticed these smells and heard the birdsongs and other sounds of the day. There was nothing to distract me from them, nothing but the regular motion of fitting clothespin to fabric to clothesline.
It calmed me down.
I had a lot to be calmed down about that morning. If a heavy punching bag had been at hand I would have taken a baseball bat to it. Such are the frustrations of living in the new economic order, where insecurity crouches on your shoulder and self-reinvention is a never-ending task.
As part of my coping with this unsettling state of things, I decided to hang out the wash. This was suggested as an energy-saver by my electric utility. Of course, that only saves the energy you pay for; you must transfer the energy to yourself in order to hang up the laundry.
The exchange is well worth it, I found.
But first, I had to buy the clothesline. This was not as simple as you might expect. It took two young guys at Lowe’s to find me one. At first I wasn’t sure if they knew what it was, kind of like the time I asked a kid at Radio Shack for a turntable stylus. (“You know, a needle, that thing they put on records to make them produce sound.” “Oh yeah, I think we have those in a drawer over here.”)
Clothesline procured, I strung it between my house and my garage, where years ago laundry did indeed hang. I finally took the old one down because the only thing hanging on it was grime.
Now I strung a pristine new nylon line. Then I hung up my first load of laundry. This made me notice a couple of things:
– First, how heavy a laundry basket of wet clothes is. Carting clothes up from the basement should be a track and field event.
– How quickly the line fills up. It doesn’t take that many T-shirts, shorts, socks and briefs to cover 30 feet when you are stretching them all out.
– How satisfying it is to hang up something wet and know that it is going to become dry through natural causes. Each item is one more plus for the earth and one less kilowatt burned.
– How tedious it is. When you’re hanging laundry, you’re not doing anything else. Stoop over, pick up wet clothing, open the wooden clothespin, fix it to the line. Over and over. This is what you’re doing for the next 10 minutes.
But it’s in the tediousness that the blessing comes.
Because when you can only do one thing, you just do that one thing. There’s no checking your phone, no keeping an eye on the ballgame. You focus just on the wet clothes, the clothespins, the clothesline, the soft breeze, smells and sounds. Life becomes extremely simple for those 10 minutes, and your mind calms down accordingly.
Now I know why those housewives looked so happy in the old Tide ads. For just 10 minutes, they didn’t have to deal with the kids, the crabby husband or anything else. It was just them, the clothes and the warm midday sun.
Drudgery? More like escape.
When you eat, eat, goes the Zen saying. When you sleep, sleep. Hang clothes, hang clothes. Let your mind rest in that simplest of activities. Let your thoughts hang on that line, just momentarily, fluttering like a Beatles T-shirt in the delicious breeze.

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one hit wonders: introducing We Five!

we five(Editor’s note: This is the first in a periodic series of blogs on notable one-hit wonders, a species of song that may well be dying. One-hit wonders became hits due to top 40 radio, which is of course itself dying. There may be one-digit downloadable wonders, but never more will there be songs that cause you to breathlessly turn up the car radio and tell everyone else to shut up. Because of their great abundance I will highlight only a sampling; however, I invite readers to submit their own favorite one-hit wonders, preferably with laptop-quality YouTube links.)
When I was in eighth grade and laid up in a Lansing hospital with a back injury, my roommate, a nice guy from Ovid-Elsie schools, and I kept transistor radios clamped to our ears and let each other know when our favorite songs came on. For me, my favorite favorite that fall of 1965 was “You Were On My Mind” by We Five. When that came up on Ovid-Elsie’s radio, he’d excitedly relay the news from his bed: “Hey Charley, ‘I got troubles’ is on!”
“I got troubles” was a key line from the song, a mournful reflection on lost love set to an insanely catchy tune:
When I woke up this morning
You were on my mind
And you were on my mind
I got troubles, whoa-oh
I got worries, whoa-oh
I got wounds to bind
Written in 1964 by Sylvia Tyson of the Canadian folk duo Ian & Sylvia, the song was covered a year later, considerably amped up and decidedly less melancholy, by We Five, fresh out of the San Francisco folk-rock scene. Unlike Ian & Sylvia’s version, which never went anywhere past the hi-fi’s of their dedicated fans, the We Five rendition shot to No. 3 on Billboard after its release in late summer of ’65 — arguably the greatest year in AM rock radio. It was the fourth most popular song of the year. (Any guesses on No. 1? Hint: It ain’t “I Can’t Get No.”)
More importantly, it was my most popular song of the moment, at a time when Petula Clark, the Beatles and a certain eighth-grade girl named Jackie were heavily vying for my attention. The song’s combo of jangly guitars, propulsive drumming and high-energy vocals were intoxicating to my highly hormonal 13-year-old psyche. For a few fleeting months, We Five were very important to me.
The group was formed by Michael Stewart, brother of John Stewart of The Kingston Trio, and fronted by an irresistibly perky singer named Beverly Bivens who had a powerful and husky alto voice. Bivens walked barefoot on the beach on the cover of We Five’s first album, aptly titled “You Were On My Mind,” and rocked in adorable go-go boots in this primo performance of the group’s sole hit on Hollywood Palace. Please take 3 minutes now to enjoy the act, suavely introduced by no less than Fred Astaire.
Back now? Good. Besides the camcorder numbers whirring away in the upper-right corner, I’m sure you noticed a few other things: 1) Bivens’ adorable go-go boots; 2) her avocado dress; 3) her fetching smile and knock-out vocal; (ok, on to the other four now…) 4) the darling dickies on the immaculately clean-cut guys; 5) the gorgeous Rickenbacker; 6) the horn-rimmed jazz-studies major hammering away on his Gibson hollow-body like his life depended on it.
The whole performance looks like We Five’s lives depended on it. One minute they’re a nowhere Southern California group singing folk, show tunes and kind-of rock; the next they’re on freakin’ Hollywood Palace riding a No. 3 hit. One can imagine them in the dressing room beforehand: “OK guys, this is it. This is our time. We gotta be great tonight! Let’s go!”
And great they are, starting a little too fast with jacked-up nerves but rapidly finding their groove. Propelled by their arrangement’s exquisite build from mild-mannered shuffle to hurdle-jumping rock, the band and Bivens fully live up to Fred Astaire’s billing. They got their big chance and they nailed it.
Their performance reminds me of The Wonders in the quintessential one-hit wonder flick, “That Thing You Do.” A group of guys from Erie, Pa. starts out wowing a Mercyhurst College talent show and winds up on national TV playing their nationwide hit. You can almost feel their palms sweating before they take the stage. And they nail it.
But like The Wonders, We Five’s hit song and moment of glory on Hollywood Palace would be as good as it got. Their followup, “Let’s Get Together,” peaked at No. 31 (though it later became a hit for The Youngbloods). They cut a second album in 1967 then split. Michael Stewart went on to be a record producer and died in 2002. Beverly Bivens married jazz bassist Fred Marshall and sang with his group Light Sound Dimension, an experimental music-psychedelic light show hybrid. They later divorced and Bivens’ life became your more or less normal private affair.
Like so many others, though, that one band, and that one song, left lasting marks on me. I will forever associate “You Were On My Mind” with a time of exciting wonder and scary transition. And to this day, the sound of it fills me with joy.

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May 29, 2013: pictures of a life

Charley cowboyThe house into which I was born, a surprisingly long time ago today, was a cracker box on a slab. It was in an unassuming neighborhood in Toledo near a school called Shoreland. We had a dog named Judy and a neighbor named Sparky, and I liked eating cereal while watching a breadbox-size TV. That’s pretty much all I remember.
Things were not great with the world. America tested the H-bomb, Joe McCarthy raved, the age of fallout shelters had begun. The Tigers stunk and so did the Pirates, my other favorite team. (Interestingly, they are playing each other today, and both are vying for pennants.)
But Les Paul invented a guitar that would change the sound of pop music as well as my life. In 1957 Gibson turned out the Les Paul Special, a model of which my brother gave me 10 years later. I still own it and keep it safely stowed away from the world. So from the ashes of war and the ravings of madmen arose rock and roll, and all our sins were redeemed.
Viewed backward from the telescope of my life these many years on, my childhood looks like a series of snapshots. Much of it actually is snapshots, taken mostly by my mother: Dad reading to me in bed; my first day of school; me with a chipmunk on my head. Thanks to Betty Honey, designated historian, I have many images of me smiling. They match the image I have of myself inside: smiling and playing in summer grass, even while looking under my bed for monsters before I went to sleep.
My life plays out in pictures over time, in black-and-white, washed-out colors and incredible images yet to be captured.
The scenes change over time: first to Grand Rapids, on the edge of Ottawa Hills, throwing Frisbee in the driveway and playing Ping Pong in the basement. Playing cowboys and Indians with Jimmie Freeman, whose mom first fed me cottage cheese (ick!). Watching “Wagon Train” and “Sky King” and listening to my brother Mike’s Ricky Nelson records. Tagging along with him and his cool friends. Admiring my sister Maureen’s blooming beauty and her poodle skirts. Almost getting hit by a car, plus thunked in the head with a baseball bat. It was Norman Rockwell tucked inside a Mad magazine.
Then on to Williamston, an exotic little farm town of dusty roads and apple orchards and its very own movie show called the Sun. Flattened frogs lined the dirt roads like dried fruit. I read “Old Yeller” in the crook of a tree and threw a tennis ball against the barn roof. Mowed an acre on hot summer days and ate sour cherries from the trees. Saw “A Hard Day’s Night” at the Sun and later took tickets there and watched “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” seven times. Learned the secrets of sex though not fast enough. Threw out my back playing football. Wrote about the Williamston High Hornets sports teams for the local weekly. Started to become, unconsciously, a writer. And kept turning up the volume on my Les Paul.
Somewhere in here childhood ends and agonized adolescence begins. The uncertainty of adulthood followed all too soon. I look back on these later pictures of childhood with mixed feelings. I remember how good it felt to throw that tennis ball against the barn, but am aware of the confusion to come.
I would like to rewrite much of this history. Yet I know it is all one and the same thing, a whole life, complicated and painful and full of joy. I look back with a mixture of regret and gratitude, but mostly gratitude. Because it all led me to today, which is a good day. It’s a day filled with dear friends, my precious children, a woman I love, devoted siblings, meaningful work, and wonderfully loud rock and roll.
The world is still screwed up, but hey, you can’t have everything.
On this day, all I can do is give thanks – to God and to the beautiful mother and father who brought me into this life. I have pictures of them all over the house, and deep in my mind.

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working without a Net

xoxoWhen the Internet went black on me, I was supposed to see the light. It would be a divine revelation.
“Hey, you know what? I can get along without this just fine! I am more mindful and spending my time in healthier ways! I think I’ll stay offline more often now!”
Instead, it was like trying to walk on a broken foot. There are a lot of places I just can’t go now because, you know, I’m on crutches.
Far from being a refreshing break from online life, I’ve found just how dependent I am on being plugged in. I’ve discovered my life is normally ruled by x’s and o’s. I’m stuck in Nowheresville while everyone else is making time and money.
It isn’t good. It feels like I am – what’s the word? – deficient. And just a few days ago I was a cool dude.
There I was, humming along the information superhighway on cruise control, and I pull off to get some gas. But wait, there’s no ramp back onto the freeway. Now I’m going 55 on some country road in the middle of Ontario, no idea where I’m going. And not a Cracker Barrel in sight.
Spiritually speaking, I’m dealing with the reality that I depend much more on technology, day-to-day, than I do on God. Much as I dislike the high-tech lifestyle, I have become a creature of it. My daily habits, my livelihood and even my thinking depend upon access to gmail and Google. They are the lords of my personal universe.
This makes me want to rail against the whole bit, the way Ray Davies did long ago in that klassik Kinks song, “20th Century Man”:
This is the age of machinery, a mechanical nightmare;/ the wonderful world of technology, napalm, hydrogen bombs biological warfare/ … I’m a 20th century man but I don’t wanna be here.
Ray was ever given to hyperbole so I will back it up a bit from his voice-in-the-wilderness despair. But I must say this digital dependence is troubling to me. If some cyber-terrorist succeeds in taking down the grid, will I even be able to light a fire?
It’s not like I wasn’t warned. A few weeks ago files started disappearing from my Word docs. Stories and videos that were there just minutes before suddenly vanished, as if a green bug with glowing red eyes were eating them. It was downright spooky.
Turns out the bug I did have – one of more than 500, actually – had scrambled my computer’s “indexing” system. This made it impossible for my poor Dell laptop to “find them.” The virus in question, my tech told me, had “opened the door” to let other bugs in. I found this “completely creepy,” picturing my computer as a Middle Earth king whose castle walls had been breached.
Once that siege was turned back thanks to a carpet bombing with super-strength anti-spyware, I decided to simplify my life by getting rid of my landline. This would be another way of turning back home invaders, otherwise known as telemarketers, whose calls were pretty much all I was getting on the old Aunt Bea phone.
Big mistake. It seems that to disconnect one’s AT&T landline one must also disconnect one’s Internet service. They can’t just turn off your phone switch. You need to stop the whole thing and start up a new account for just the Internet, at a slightly higher rate. This is your punishment for trying to simplify.
But no problem, said Carrie, the first AT&T Person Out There I talked to. When your phone goes off you’ll automatically be taken to a page where you can re-register your account. When I asked if my Internet service would be interrupted, she said I was making this more difficult than it needed to be. Thanks Carrie; I will place my trust in how smart you are.
But come Tuesday, landline turn-off day, Carrie turned out to be not smart at all. I lost all Internet access and had no magic page to re-register. Not only that, but I found out from Shelby, second Person Out There, that my new service would not be hooked up for another week.
This is when I truly became an unpleasant guy. After sympathetic Shelby, I tried other People Out There to see if one of them could get me back on the highway. Nope. Not Madeline, not David (although he at least said he could), nor Sudheer, with whom I chatted online from a coffee shop.
You must be at home to troubleshoot your problem, Sudheer typed. But I have no Internet at home, so how can I troubleshoot? I typed back. I understand, Sudheer typed. I am sorry you are having a problem. You can call our tech support number at xxx-ooo-xoxo, which is available 24/7. But Sudheer, dear Sudheer down there on the other side of the world, that is the same number I called yesterday and got ABSOLUTELY NO HELP!
This is where spiritual wisdom did in fact emerge from the darkness. And it said: Charley, it is time for you to submit. Stop fighting the man (and the woman named Carrie) and just, as Paul would say, let it be. In the great scheme of things, this problem is very small. In a few days it will go away. Probably.
For now, just enjoy the fact that you are not plugged in every minute of every day to the great out there. Spend more time in here with yourself, your charmingly printed books and your loved ones.
After all, there are better x’s and o’s to be had than can be found online.

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Sunrise on Sunset: God speaks when words fail

SunsetIn my little neighborhood of the little big city of Grand Rapids is a little street named Sunset. It really should be called Sunrise, because that’s what the sun does when you walk over to Sunset early in the morning, as I just did.
Here’s the world from Sunset, which overlooks downtown nestled in the Grand River valley: steeples and steaming smokestacks; water towers and the Waters Building; cars cruising by on the roaring river of Int. 196 and people huddled in a warren of humble homes on tree-shrouded streets.
In my leafy neighborhood overlooking it all, clear sunlight bathes the still-bare branches where birds sing somewhat deliriously. The waking world whispers rejoice, the time is coming, spring is about to be born again.
This is how God’s creation speaks to me on these last days of March, walking gently toward April glory. I couldn’t find such inspiration in a book. It’s too much of the senses more than of the head. It speaks in a soft language my whole heart and body understand.
Same with a Bach cantata or a Keith Jarrett piano meditation, to which I am currently listening. The mode of music, like the book of nature, admits the divine in more artful ways than words. Though I am a writer, I better comprehend the sense of God through non-literal means.
In my work I often read theological battles based on words. Believers cite Scripture to back up their version of God. Nonbelievers cite science and reason. Both leave me spiritually cold. I don’t ignore textual arguments about God’s being or non-being, but neither do I rely on them.
The very idea of proving God, or disproving for that matter, does not appeal to me. I’m too much a romantic mystic to be persuaded by words one way or another. If it all came down to words, I’d be terribly disappointed.
We hear a lot of words at this time of year, some of them recounting events that seem implausible to the modern mind. The Red Sea parting in the Jewish Seder; Jesus returning from the dead in the Christian Easter. If such accounts were written now they’d be shelved alongside Tolkien and Rowling.
People don’t enter into these stories on their words alone. They are carried along by ritual, music, prayer, tradition, experience. The stories speak to them on deeper levels than cognitive. They are soul-stirring stories, wrapped in mystery and miracle. Believers are not so much rationally convinced as spiritually convicted, on whatever level these accounts ring true for them.
So when I walk over to Sunset on such a splendid morning as this, I am not looking for proof of God’s glory. I don’t need to. I see it in the sunrise, feel it in the chilly air lightly stinging my nose, hear it in every bird’s delirious song.
God is not up there; God is down here, all around me. I struggle to express the joy I feel in his presence. Mere words, by which I earn my keep, are not nearly up to the task.

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