so long summer … well, not quite yet

Lake Michigan sunset
Labor Day 2014: The air is warm and moist, with just enough occasional breeze to slightly stir my American flag. The undercurrent sounds of crickets, birds and a train whistle remind me I’m not working. But tomorrow I will be. That’s how Labor Day works.
Remarkably, the window of summer has already begun to close. How quickly it has come and gone. Feels like yesterday I put up the flag, Fourth of July morning, when summer seemed broad and long. Now it’s narrowed and short, only so many mornings like this left. Only so many more sunsets on Lake Michigan. There are never enough.
But what a sweet summer it’s been! So many glorious days. For some it’s been: “Hot enough for ya?” “No it’s not as a matter of fact!” But for me it’s been perfect, a welcome abundance of mid-70s days and cool nights, and a surprising scarcity of sodden, muggy, sun-blistered afternoons. It’s been a summer of going outdoors and not wanting to come inside when the street lights come on. Boyhood revisited.
Thanks be to God for the glory that has been: Watching the stars come out over Crystal Lake. Holding hands with Andrea on long walks. Playing Frisbee in the Big Lake with old friend Gary. Watching the Tigers win behind from home plate with old friend John. Taking early evening bike rides through Millennium Park. Ordering up an ice cream cone, Mackinac Island Fudge, sugar cone single-dip please. Sitting on this porch reading the morning paper with good strong coffee.
All without leaving Michigan. What a beautiful place to celebrate summer.
But then came the quickening signs of fall. High school cross country runners loping past on city sidewalks, or high school football players crunching helmets on Union field. Time to start thinking about fixing the porch steps before another winter of ice build-up. Time to start planning out those projects at work. Long meetings.
It is Labor Day, after all. This means labor restarts in earnest tomorrow. Not if you’re a roofer or a farmer or a highway builder. But if you work with your head, it’s time to seriously start using it again. Summer has given you its peace and quiet and blissful walks along the shore in bare feet. Your footprints have long since washed away, and you may have seen your last sunset sinking into the big water.
It’s OK to miss it already. It’s just the rhythm of the great world turning round. It will all be back soon enough, calling you to the water and the sky and the lazy languid days.
I’m not quite ready to say goodbye, though. Just for this Labor Day, at least, summer is still here, sweet and moist with the slightest of breezes.

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the world is aflame, with war, flowers and sunsets

Park 1“You name it, the world is aflame,” a former national security aide recently told The New York Times. Calling the world “a very tangled mess,” Gary Samore said it’s more than your garden-variety complicated place for U.S. foreign policy. “What’s unusual is there’s this outbreak of violence and instability everywhere.”

Let us count the ways, shall we? Israel and Gaza nonstop shelling each other, a passenger plane blown out of the sky over Ukraine, the Ebola virus going nuclear in Africa, Boko Haram kidnapping school girls in Nigeria and ISIS making Al Qaeda look like nice guys by being as evil as any James Bond nemesis …

Actually let’s stop counting. It’s too depressing and downright scary. This has been the worst news summer I can remember. If I want this much political drama I’ll re-watch “Homeland.”

It’s oddly disconcerting that while the world is aflame with so much death, disease and destruction, summer in this cozy corner of the world has been unusually beautiful. I don’t know about where you live, but West Michigan has seen a succession of splendid days, a bit on the cool side but conspicuously absent the shirt-soaking, soul-killing heat. It has been a summer that pulls you outside, to pull weeds, take walks, pump your bicycle or drive to the lake.

It is with a whiff of residual Catholic guilt still echoing from my mother’s upbringing that I enjoy these blessed days. Forgive me father, for I have sinned the sin of indulging my senses in the world’s beauty while many elsewhere suffer and die. I should do something about the suffering and dying, yet I take a bike ride through the woods and over the river. It is the sin of shutting out pain and evil.

My world is aflame with flowers, glittering lakes and stunning sunsets.

I sePark 2e its splendor by riding a mere few miles from my home down the Kent Trails bike path, which takes me to Millennium Park. It is flecked with wildflowers and kissed with sparkling water. Herons feed on it, children splash in it and boaters paddle through it. The park is a modest piece of Eden, affording blessed moments of quiet when you stop the bike and listen to … barely anything.

To immerse myself in this rare beauty takes an effort of will. I must block out the flaming world and let my eyes focus on the quiet world. I must set aside the anxieties of what to do and let myself feel who and where I am. It is a kind of pedaling meditation.

The flaming world returns soon enough. Perhaps a blessed bike ride helps me deal with it when I get back. Whether it does or not, it is one indulgence I must make. For the days pass quickly, and you only get so many glimpses of Eden.

Frankfort sunset

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cool of the morning, God in his garden

Andrea's flowersIt is the cool of a summer morning. Mid-July. My slippers are soaked from walking through dew-drenched grass to feed the birds, who now feast on the seed I poured them in Andrea’s backyard. A blue jay’s caw pierces the quiet like a razor. Birds flit over rooftops and light on the feeder. The sky is soft blue lightly streaked with clouds, the air moist and still. The still-rising sun catches the dew with glints in the green. Mourning doves coo in the near distance, singing their melancholy psalms. The birds eat busily. All is ready for … something.

An army of worries awaits me, couched in their fields of trouble, just now emerging from their tents and stretching their arms. They have plenty of work for me. I don’t acknowledge them yet. My mind wants to stay here in the cool summer morning, thinking about nothing but what I see and hear. Is there a way to live like this? Doubtful. Life will not have it. These are only interludes of peace afforded very early on a Sunday like this. God is in his garden pulling up weeds. I need only to be still with all of this, just now, because soon the day will pull out of the driveway and be on its way. I will go with it wherever it takes me. Only now, for a bit longer, will it allow me to just be here, with the birds and the dew and the melancholy psalms.

Here I am poised halfway through July, at the midpoint of the great long year. So much has happened and so much yet will happen. I don’t object to what has happened or contest what will. This too must just be as it is. I can’t stop the flow of events nor should I. I can only surrender to the will of life like a river pushing me along. I think I know what’s coming around the bend but at some point I’ll be surprised. I will direct the course the best I can, knowing I could be upended at any point.

But this belongs to the army of worries, already trying to pull me out of the moment. This sweet moment, this only now. As private as sleep. Who else is on his porch drinking in the new day with a cup of coffee? Who else is pulling weeds besides God, her face still fuzzy with dreams? How long before Andrea hits the road in Ann Arbor, leaving her sister from surgery and coming to me to continue on our way? “What new battle will this day bring?” So asks Marshall Crenshaw, who may already be at work on a new song. “Just this morning I felt like trouble’s play thing.” Because there will be trouble; that much we know. It’s just a question of what we do with it. Hopefully it will not capsize us.

But there is no trouble now. Only me, and the birds, and the dew, and the soft blue sky. Except there – an airplane in the southern sky, heading west. Who is on it? Where are they going? What new troubles will their day bring?

And now the birds burst away in a shock of flurried wings. Worship is almost over.

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the miracle of flight: tiny bottles and brief intimacies

The guy sitting next to me on the flight to Des Moines was youngish, mplane in skyid-20s probably. I couldn’t tell if he was friendly or not. I wasn’t feeling especially so. I decided to read for the two hours it would take us to get there.
But there is something about sitting cheek by jowl next to a person on an airplane. You are in a fairly unnatural situation, thrust together in this gigantic hunk of flying metal 30,000 feet in the air. Surely there is an underlying sense of shared peril, no matter that statistics say you are safer than driving on I-96. As Louis C.K. says of griping airline passengers, “Did you soar through the clouds, impossibly? Did you partake of the miracle of human flight? You’re sitting in a chair in the sky!”
So back to the guy next to me going to Des Moines. There is a natural tendency to introduce yourself to a fellow passenger whose elbow is touching yours after you’ve both figured out which seat belt belongs to you. And truth be told I didn’t have much to read anyway. I asked him where he was going.
It was a convention of Wells Fargo interns. He was a business major working at Wells Fargo’s Philadelphia office, learning to do what they do there. Resisting the urge to ask if he got to ride the stagecoach, I plumbed more details about his life. Turns out he was a very friendly guy and told me about growing up in a town north of New York City, and how much he loved the life of the Big Apple.
Me being me, it didn’t take long to ask if he was a Mets fan or a Yankees fan. Yankees all the way. I gritted my teeth and told him I was a Tigers guy, and we smiled at our shared awareness of that ancient rivalry. We spoke of the great Jeter and Cabrera and the Yankees’ injury problems and their phenomenal new pitcher Masahrio Tanaka (who has since gotten injured himself). The young man’s baseball knowledge was comprehensive and historical, creating an instant bond between us I never would have guessed by looking at him.
Had we been traveling farther I would have dug deeper, asking about what his parents did for a living, if he had any siblings and what movies he’d seen lately. As it was we parted pleasantly as the plane landed in Des Moines, not having gotten each other’s names but gotten something deeper about our shared love of baseball.
This kind of intimacy on short notice is one of the little blessings of air travel. As Jerry Seinfeld notes, everything on airplanes is little: the tiny liquor bottles, the wee bathroom, the slight delays. The little acquaintances we make are nice reminders that, when forced into close quarters, our first instinct is to get to know one another.
This means we start out looking for what we have in common. “Philadelphia, huh? I have a cousin who’s from there! It’s a pretty nice city isn’t it?” We are predisposed to find things we like in common and about each other. And we take more interest than normal in who this complete stranger is and what he or she does in life.
I once had a pretty long plane conversation with a guy who worked for a food company in Hudsonville, not far from my home in Grand Rapids. We talked at length about the food industry, the pros and cons of organics and the increasing attractions of downtown GR. By the time we landed I felt I knew this young man fairly well, at least enough to write a brief Wikipedia entry about him.
My most memorable airplane acquaintance was a lovely woman named Doris Dudley. She sat next to me on my first flight to England back in 1976. It was an overnight and my first international flight, so I allowed myself a few tiny bottles of vodka with orange juice. I warmed happily to Doris Dudley’s tales of growing up in London and sleeping in the subway during Hitler’s bombing blitz. She had a merry voice, or at least it sure sounded merry to me as the little bottles emptied. By the time we landed at Gatwick I would have taken her as my grandmother.
It’s really too bad we don’t extend this sort of curiosity and generosity to people normally. More often than not we tend to notice how strangers seem different from us and judge them accordingly. And if we get into an online argument with them, you can just forget about any kind of bonding. It’s more like target practice.
Would that our daily interactions were more like airplane conversations, cheerfully getting to know each other in our chairs in the sky.

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Faith On First reviewed in land of the Twins

Front coverLifelong Tigers fan though I am, I was pleased to see a review of “Faith On First: Thoughts on God, Nature and Sacrifice Bunts” in The Visitor, a publication of the Catholic Diocese of St. Cloud. It is written by John Rosengren, award-winning author of eight books including “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes” and the recently released “The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption.”
Writes Rosengren, “Honey is able to find the spiritual dimension of seemingly ordinary events and normal people in daily life through a variety of lenses. … Rather than gushing with sentimentality or proselytizing with righteous fervor, Honey gently probes these people and situations to uncover their goodness. The result is easy reading, one column giving way to another, with a gradual reassurance that the Spirit moves freely through it all.”
The full review can be read here.
I’m grateful to Rosengren for his generous review, and to all of you who may have read the book. If not, it may be purchased here from Schuler Books & Music. If you’re looking for some beach reading or pregame inspiration for the All-Star Game, it may be just the thing!

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thank you, Jimmy Fallon, for all this and more

jimmy fallonOne of the little joys Andrea and I have been sharing lately is Jimmy Fallon’s weekly thank-you notes. They are such harmless sources of momentary diversion. His “slow-walking family walking in front of me on the sidewalk” is one my favorite bits of my favorite waste of time. With his ridiculously goofy observations and musical mimicry Mr. Fallon has reminded us it is possible to be funny without being mean, tasteless and vulgar.
So on this beautiful and totally tasteful Memorial Day, I’d like to send out my own thank-you notes just because it’s probably the only day I will have time to do so for the next six weeks.
* Thank you, John Sinkevics, for playing with me in the Honeytones all these years and also having a May birthday. Do you think Arcade Fire would sing “Month of May” just for us?
• Thank you, West Michigan, for providing us the most gorgeous Memorial Day weekend in memory. I spent every waking minute outdoors, and some of the sleeping minutes as well.
• Thank you, Jimmy Fallon, for making it impossible to say “thank you” without thinking of you. I even say it like you now, although without the melancholy piano backing.
• Thank you, The Both, for reviving my faith in power pop. If Aimee Mann’s voice plus Ted Leo’s guitar doesn’t make you believe, you might as well hold onto those Todd Rundgren CDs until the day you die.
• Thank you, driver approaching my side street at 30 mph, for not using your turn signal so I had to wait 10 minutes before pulling out.
• Thank you, maple trees, for covering my lawn with your tiny offspring. I wish I could let every one of them grow up straight and tall, but alas, I must mow.
• Thank you, girl in Pet Smart, for saying “Even those people who love winter are over it.” It’s true, I am.
• Thank you, Cheerios, for never changing. I love you just the way you are.
• Thank you, earth, for shooting up all these flowers, plants and weeds and leaving me to figure out the difference. Why didn’t you make poison ivy with warning labels on it?
• Thank you, Pope Francis, for making all us non-Catholics feel good about the Catholic Church again. Now can you do the same for the Protestant church?
• Thank you, Monica Lewinsky, for reminding us you exist. We hope someone hires you.
• Thank you, Marshall Crenshaw, for recording “Fantastic Planet of Love,” so I could drive around listening to it this morning and feel cool.
• Thank you, men and women who died in battle, so that we could enjoy a beautiful Memorial Day and I could write silly blogs like this. And thank you, friends, for reading them!

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and now, back to those golden oldies … from the ’90s

Garbage  Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

In a class I was teaching at Grand Valley State University a couple of years ago, I presented a segment on rock stars who had died at age 27. I focused on Kurt Cobain, figuring my room full of 18- to 21-year-olds would relate better to the Nirvana front man than to Jim Morrison.
How wrong I was. Most of them looked at me with blank stares when I cued up “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Maybe some of them had heard the Weird Al Yankovic version but they sure didn’t know anything about Kurt Cobain. Of course not, you dope, I said to myself – these kids weren’t even born in 1991 when “Nevermind” came out. Kurt Cobain meant about as much to them as Tony Bennett.
With Nirvana’s recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, signifying 25 years since the release of their first recording, the point was brought home to boomers like me: The ‘90s are no longer a modern decade. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is now an oldie.
Think about it. If you were 15 in 1967, digging Sgt. Pepper, the Stones and the Doors, an oldie was a record by Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly from the 1950s. A song 25 years old would have been recorded in 1942. We’re talking Glenn Miller and Dinah Shore.
This does not compute. I just can’t think of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as in the same category as “In the Mood.” But generationally speaking, there we are.
The ’90s, despite giving us the first Iraq War and the rise of Newt Gingrich, also revived rock. The Seattle grunge scene brought back the electric guitar from those cheesy ’80s synths and drum machines. So in an attempt to put the ‘90s in their proper perspective and my mind in a sunny mood, I hereby offer a few of my golden oldies from the decade of we-didn’t-know-how-good-we-had-it:

“One of Us” by Joan Osborne: I swoon over the grinding guitars and Joan’s soulful voice contemplating God as a slob on the bus. Even if she no longer sings it, my band the Honeytones does, so there!
“1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins: A groove that hooks me like a pike in Lake Superior and pulls me along for a 4-minute thrill ride. Billy Corgan’s rat-in-a-cage snarl is under control in the service of a gloriously transcendent chorus.
“Stupid Girl” by Garbage: An early bit of sweet nastiness from the decade’s best band. They’ve never been huge, but fans of the mesmerizing Shirley Manson and co. will never understand why.
“Basket Case” by Green Day: The definition of irresistible. Punk purists sneer that Billie Joe and the boys sold out with this full-throttle joy ride of adolescent angst. Poppycock. It was just so damn good that lots of people liked it. Horrors!
“Follow You Down” by the Gin Blossoms: A three-minute trip to jangle heaven. If you don’t smile at this song you need regression therapy, back to the days when all you needed was a sweet tune on the radio to make you feel on top of the world.
“Breakout” by the Foo Fighters: Not one of their better-known songs but certainly one of the best with which to bang the head. They come no cooler than Dave Grohl, who can scream with the best of them while gamely playing the dork on video.
“She’s So High” by Tal Bachman: He seemed to have learned some nice licks from his father, Randy, but it’s Tal’s gorgeous falsetto that lets him get away with hitting notes as high as the ledge from which the winged damsel leaps. Whatever happened to this guy anyway?
And now for two entries from our guest star John Sinkevics, my bandmate and maestro of the music blog
“Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.: Perhaps the perfect R.E.M. single, a brilliantly compelling nugget that not only represented the heart, soul and sound of one of the era’s most important rock bands, but also struck a chord with mainstream audiences, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard 100 — their highest charting U.S. hit. And to think it featured a mandolin …
“Smooth” by Santana with Rob Thomas: For a few years, it seems, this song was omnipresent — on radio, TV, you name it. And it deserved that sort of treatment: It’s a unique and catchy pop tune starring an iconic guitarist and a captivating rock voice.

Hey, you know what? That was a pretty darn good decade of music. I’d love to hear what you thought of it, and what you listened to.

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