August 12, 2016

August 12: ANDRE DUBUS – We Don’t Have to Live Great Lives

ANDRE DUBUS: August 11, 1936 - February 24, 1999


Originally published August 12, 2015.

I had no intention of writing tonight. Like most every night, I planned on finishing up my day with the same self-dismissing review of the day that I go through every night: not enough attention paid to my family, not enough time spent writing or drawing or playing music, another day without exercise, et cetera, et cetera… It’s not a behavior uncommon to me. I’ regularly disappointed with myself, to the point that it no longer feels like a failure in behavior, and more a failure of character. I’m not a person who makes stupid choices; I’m a stupid person who makes reasonable choices (for a stupid person). But I was watching the new Chris Farley documentary, I Am Chris Farley,which ended with a prayer Farley carried in his wallet. Farley is another person I’ve long admired (and written about in this blog), so I was touched by the prayer, called “A Clown’s Prayer”:
“Dear Lord, as I stumble through this life, help me to create more laughter than tears; dispense more happiness than gloom; spread more cheer than despair. Never let me become so blasé that I fail to see the wonder in the eyes of a child, or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged. Never let me forget that my work is to cheer people, make them happy, and make them laugh. Never let me acquire success to the point that I discontinue calling on my creator in the hour of need, and acknowledging and thinking him in the hour of plenty. And in my final moment, may I hear you whisper, ‘When you made My people smile, you made Me smile.’” 
The prayer made me think of a story that novelist Andre Dubus III told about his father, the writer Andre Dubus. When describing his father’s influence over his own work, Dubus III said, “It’s not his fine work. But seeing him walk daily into his downstairs study in our tiny rented house and try to write something beautiful for someone he would probably never even meet. It’s that image that gave me permission as a young man to view writing as a legitimate line of work to devote one’s life to.” Both stories are reminders that whatever gifts we have are not just gifts for ourselves, like a child’s Christmas toy. The gifts we have are to be shared, and denying those gifts is denying… well, everyone. Which is difficult to reconcile when you love the people who give of themselves, but find it easy to ignore and avoid that path yourself.

August 11, 2016

August 11: ROBIN WILLIAMS - Ending the Never-Ending Battle

ROBIN WILLIAMS: July 21, 1951 - August 11, 2014


Originally published August 11, 2014.

I was just thinking about Robin Williams a few days ago. We were driving out of town to visit family and I was listening to some podcasts and he was mentioned in two different podcasts. In both instances, he was discussed as a lover and a supporter of comedy, and the comments about him were glowing. I have a lot of comedy heroes, and for me to pretend that Robin Williams was one of them would be a lie. But listening to the positive comments about what a difference he made in the lives of these comedians, I felt a warmth for him that was beyond the warmth one feels for an artist because we're so in love with their art. It was the kind of warmth you feel as you grow older and realize that sometimes you don't have to set the world on fire; sometimes you just have to be nice and appreciative and supportive and that creates an environment where many other people can set the world on fire. As a young man, I was only interested in the former. As I grow older, I am beginning to see the value in the latter. And it was within that reflection that I found a certain fondness for Robin Williams.

June 24, 2016

June 24: ROY O. DISNEY – Behind Every Dreamer, A Realist

ROY O. DISNEY: June 24, 1893 – December 20, 1971


Originally published June 24, 2015.

Near the end of their lives, my grandmother shared a number of stories about the early years of her marriage to my grandfather. Despite leaving school in the ninth grade, my grandfather’s tireless work ethic and indefatigable belief in himself had led to numerous successes as a small businessman, and he and my grandmother had amassed a healthy retirement savings. My grandmother had more than a few stories of my grandfather believing in family and friends who had regularly proven themselves undependable. Yet my grandfather was always willing to support the people he cared about. In a number of cases, my grandfather lost his entire investment, but over the years my grandmother had learned not to hold a grudge against my grandfather’s support of oft-losing causes. When I asked her why, she answered confidently that she came to know that my grandfather would just work hard enough to make everything right again. It was a rare set of skills which my grandfather displayed over and over throughout his life – the ability to bet on people, but also hedge the bets with his own hard work and ingenuity. It’s not a tactic for the faint of heart, and most people would quickly grow frustrated and filled with contempt, but not my grandfather. Throughout his life, he supported the dreams and goals of the people he card about – however misguided they may have been – without asking for recompense or to share in the spoils. There are few people with that kind of attitude, but some have gone on to support some of the world’s greatest visionaries, including Roy Disney, the older brother of Walt.

June 23, 2016

June 23: WILLIE NELSON’S RED-HEADED STRANGER - Epic Country Stories

WILLIE NELSON’S RED-HEADED STRANGER : inducted to The Library of Congress National Recording Registry, June 23, 2009


Originally published June 23, 2015.

A friend of mine recently asked me for a list of great country albums. The recent shift in country music to “rock music with a fiddle” has shifted the great country music of past decades completely off the map, and it was difficult for him to find evidence of what country albums are truly great and/or influential. Modern country is more influenced by ‘90s guitar pop than by Hank Williams or Merle Haggard, so I compiled a list of albums. I struggled with raking the albums, but I could certainly group them into “the Top Ten”. And of those top ten, two of them were from Willie Nelson. Interestingly, despite a career that has spanned over 50 years and a discography of over 100 albums, the two albums were Willie’s two concept albums from the early 1970s: Phases and Stages and Red-Headed Stranger. Unlike typical country albums, whose songs were a collection of stories that generally stay within a fairly limited set of topics (love, death, heartbreak, family, alcohol), Willie’s albums of the early 70s were album-length stories. Phases and Stages was the story of a marriage that had fallen apart. Loosely based on Nelson’s recent second divorce, Side One of the album was a series of songs detailing the divorce process from the perspective of a long-suffering wife of an unfaithful man. Side Two were the songs from the perspective of the husband. As far as I know, it was the first concept album ever released by a country artist. But the album’s theme was as depressing as the individual themes in country music. At the end of Side One, the wife dances alone drunkenly in a bar, now over the hill and looking for love, but aware that she’ll never trust enough to be happy. And the unfaithful husband closes out Side Two with the admission that his poor character is set in stone, and he’ll never be a good husband or man. It wasn’t an album of redemption; it was a tale of word-down acceptance. It was a tale told in millions of divorces, and as such, it was a brutally honest album. Which made the redemption on the follow-up Red-Headed Stranger even more striking.

June 22, 2016

June 22: KRIS KRISTOFFERSON - A Quiver Full of Arrows

KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: born June 22, 1936


Originally published June 22, 2015.

A good friend of mine has returned to central Ohio during the summer break from his university teaching job in London. As we were catching up over lunch, he mentioned that I had come up during a lecture about Shakespearean acting. In the lecture, he and another professor were talking about how critical it is for actors to have multiple passions – not just a passion just acting. They were asserting the idea that multiple influences and passions would access different parts of their brains and their emotional landscapes, and these experiences would become like arrows in a quiver, and allow the actors to access more emotions and experiences while on stage. My friend used me as an example of someone with multiple passions. As we shared lunch, he re-told the story, and described me with the most humbling and flattering examples: scholar, cartoonist, father, singer. He said, “They’re impressed with you in London.” But as flattered as I was, I felt like the examples – while technically true – were misleading. I’m a singer who doesn’t practice very often and gigs less than once a year. I’m a cartoonist who hasn’t drawn or published in years. I’m a scholar inasmuch as it feeds projects like this or my job or my own curiosity, but I certainly haven’t published much or produced anything of import in a long time. In reality, I have the potential to have a quiver filled with arrows, but I’ve failed to fill it over the years. In reality, I am an average husband, an average father, and a hard working-but-underappreciated employee. And that’s about it. Because as many talents as I may have, when it comes time to access and embrace them, I rarely do. I regularly have people ask me, “Have you drawn anything lately?” or “How’s the music stuff going?” and when I admit that little is happening, they give a slight nod of understanding and their faces twist into a position that says “that’s a shame”. And it is a shame. Not because it’s wasted talent; nothing in this world is more common than wasted talent. It’s a shame because people who regularly fill their quiver with the arrows of passion can often create works of staggering originality. One of the easiest examples is Kris Kristofferson, who went from janitor to country superstar at age 34. He was an overnight sensation. One that could not have occurred without a quiver filled with arrows, a Rhodes scholarship, a rugby career, a heavy willingness to slog through his own shame and addiction, and a rented helicopter landed in Johnny Cash’s back yard. As grateful as I was for my friend using me as an example, he should have used Kristofferson. Because unsurprisingly, Kristofferson eventually expanded his quiver to include acting – another passion in which he excelled.

June 18, 2016

June 18: THE WILD BUNCH - The Inexorable Walk Towards Whatever

The Wild Bunch: premiered June 18, 1969



When Warner Brothers screened Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch for the MPAA and assorted film critics in 1969, the reaction was decidedly mixed. It was a Western, but a Western without heroes. The protagonists spend the film working for the villains. The Wild Bunch themselves was a broken-down pack of worn losers, and the film’s moral center was a tool of a fascistic railroad. The film started with a robbery and cold-blooded murder by the protagonists, and ended with an entire village being slaughtered, including the angry murder of a woman. 1969 was the beginning of an era of anti-heroes in cinema, but even then, seeing William Holden play a cowboy who angrily calls a woman “Bitch!” before shooting her dead was shocking. And none of this takes into account the violence of the picture. The Wild Bunch is easily one of cinema’s most artistically, realistically violent pictures. Peckinpah started by using advanced camera techniques, hundreds of extras, and hundreds of thousands of bullets. But the true violence was in the glee of it all. When the Mexican Army drags one of The Wild Bunch behind a car, the villagers cheer and celebrate. Children hop on for a ride. It was all too much for some critics, who stormed out. When the film ended, critic Rex Reed attacked Peckinpah’s character and amorality during the post-screening press conference. But Roger Ebert, when given a chance to speak, offered up a defense. He knew that the film was brilliant, and would usher in a new era of cinema. But what was the film’s message? That the West (expansion, imperialism, manifest destiny, pioneering) was dead? That violence is pointless? That the world is a morally ambivalent place? That you can’t trust the good guys?

The genius of The Wild Bunch is that all of those are true. It’s a film so rich and contextual that it truly can mean multiple things to anyone. And it has always been in my list of Top Five All-Time Favorite films for different reasons, at different times. Lately, I’ve been viewing it through an entirely different perspective.

May 26, 2016

May 26: DOROTHEA LANGE - Learning to See

DOROTHEA LANGE: May 26, 1895 - October 11, 1965


Originally published May 26, 2014.

When you take an 80-day break from a project on "expresssing gratitude to ensure focus on the positive influences of your life", there's usually a damned good reason. But make no mistake, running underneath that reason are the simplest of declarations: "I'm not feeling cognizantly grateful" and "I'm not sure my influences are positive enough to reflect positively upon me". But as I was driving around the central part of the state today with my kids, placing Memorial Day flowers on the graves of my grandparents and great-grandparents, we shared stories of our family history. Some funny, some serious, all pride-worthy. And in the quiet moments between counties, when the radio played a classic country song only I knew and all there was to look at was the fields of barely-sprouting corn, I had to face the difficult question that haunts me too often.

"Would my grandparents, great-grandparents, or ancestors be proud of the man I've become?"

When I tried to answer honestly, I never fared very well.

April 25, 2016

April 25: PRINCE - Fearless

PRINCE: June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016


I was just getting to a place where I was able to accept that we lived in a world without Merle Haggard when I got the news that Prince was dead. Merle’s death was sad, but not unexpected. He’d been in poor health on and off for a couple of decades. He was a man who had lived a rowdy life and he was nearing 80. But Prince was totally unexpected, even in light of his recent emergency hospital visit. I’ve been a Prince fan since junior high, originally drawn to the 1999 album by a friend relaying a rumor – in hushed, half-amazed/half-terrified whispers – that “Prince has sex with women on stage… during concerts!” I remember checking the album out from the local library and being afraid of what I might hear. After all, music so powerful it could lead a woman to public sex in front of a stadium of people? That must be powerful music. But it wasn’t. It was “Little Red Corvette” and “Free” and “Delirious”. Good music, no doubt, but not some siren song that could lead women into a pan-sexual frenzy. It was pop music. Pop music that I enjoyed, but that was all. It wasn’t until a Prince-obsessed friend explained the complexity of Prince’s music that I began to truly appreciate him. I started buying all of his albums, and held Prince in the rarefied high regard reserved for the very few singer/songwriter/musician/producer in existence. In my opinion, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys is the only other true master of all four roles, and his tenure came with huge gaps in productivity, wide creative misses, and mental illness. But Prince was not only productive for over 35 years, he was consistently impressive. And while he and Brian Wilson both weaved amazing complexity into (what appeared to be) typical pop songs, Prince’s career always felt edgier. More dangerous.

April 2, 2016

April 2: MARVIN GAYE - The High Watermark of Soul

MARVIN GAYE: April 2, 1939 – April 1, 1984


Originally published April 2, 2015.

When I try to describe the way I sing, I tend to refer to the singers I emulate. I deprecatingly say that my voice sounds like a weaker, less soulful version of Joe Cocker or Otis Redding. Interestingly, one of the comments I regularly hear is that I sing “like a black guy”. It’s a roundabout way to call me a soul singer, which has always been a name that we don’t easily assign to white males – particularly white males raised in privileged surroundings. We regularly diminish or qualify that designation, often calling it “blue-eyed soul”. Even I am uncomfortable calling myself a soul singer, because my earliest exposure to soul music was songs in which the voice and emotions of the singer resonated with me. But it was Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On that first brought me to understanding why soul music was widely-considered a black genre. In one album, Marvin Gaye – known before the album’s release for silk-smooth love songs and moody remakes of earlier Motown hits – walked America through the dramatically-shifting landscape of African-American protest. More importantly, he created an emotional portrait of the depth and breadth of a marginalized culture. What white America saw as an indistinguishable group, Marvin Gaye showed as varied and complex, reacting to different types of threats in different ways. Some argue that What’s Going On is the quintessential protest album. Others label it the quintessential soul album. Either way, when I first heard What’s Going On, I remember wondering if I could ever reach into myself and communicate that broadly, yet honestly. I remember wondering if anyone raised like I had been could. Thirty years later, I still wonder.

March 30, 2016

March 30: BATMAN – Atonement without Resolution

BATMAN: First appearance, Detective Comics #27, on March 30, 1939


Originally published March 30, 2015.

I just celebrated my 45th birthday, and my family made plenty of good-natured jokes at my expense about being closer to 50 years old than 40. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a birthday that caused me mental anguish, but this one did. Perhaps it was moving inexorably closer to 50 years old, but I think it had more to do with recent experiences with therapy. I think part of the process of therapy has exposed how many things within me remain unresolved. It has illuminated how many moments in my life have never received atonement. Combine those missing pieces with the ever-quickening march of time, and I feel some anxiety about ever being resolved. Because one of the most eye opening parts of therapy is learning how far the healing process goes. That it doesn’t end when the trauma ends. That is doesn’t end once you’ve learned to live with the trauma. That it doesn’t even end with atonement. That beyond that, there’s a journey beyond atonement into acceptance and while the new-found state can’t be called “innocence”, it’s remarkably similar. It’s a state beyond reaction and beyond pain and uncorrupted by grief and fear. And I’m realizing that not only am I a long way from that resolved state, but that I never even knew that state existed. I never even knew it was a goal I should have been shooting for. Because all too often, heroic male archetypes don’t seek resolution. They are cowboys who carry their dark secrets like badges of honor. They are brooding loners like Marlon Brando who wallow in the pain of the trauma. And some seek atonement, and go no further. In 1939, one of the most relateable superheroes was created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger. Batman was not only relateable because he was human through and through, but because he pushed to resolve his trauma farther than most male archetypes, but never quite far enough.