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Against All Odds

Jason Micheli —  May 12, 2015 — 7 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x68311.jpgAgainst All Odds

Third Week in Easter

The waiting room at my oncologists’ office is long and narrow, reminding me of a bus or a sound booth. I prefer the latter, I suspect, because of the small round raspberry-colored CD player that lies on the floor in the room. Minus the color, it’s the same model my youngest son uses to listen to his Awesome Mix Volume I while he plays with his Legos.

The CD player- my oncologist’s not my son’s- is tucked underneath a wicker end table whose glass top itself is buried underneath stacks of ‘Life with Cancer’ brochures and newsletters.

When I’m not imbibing chemo-poison at the stem cell center cross town, I visit this office most every morning for lab work and dressing changes and check-ups. Sometimes my appointments are so early in the am I arrive before the receptionists.

The CD player is always turned on. 


Always already calibrated to the same DC soft rock station, promising ‘the best mix of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s’, a canard that roughly translates to ‘we play the same 2 dozen songs you heard on the radio when your babysitter drove you to Odyssey of the Mind practice in the 5th grade.’ 

You know the radio rotation I mean: Rod Stewart’s ‘Broken Arrow’ and criminal cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Have I Told You Lately,’ lots of Lionel Ritchie (post-Commodores), UB40’s ‘Red, Red, Wine,’ the obligatory Whitney Houston cut, filled out by anything from Genesis (post-Peter Gabriel) or Phil Collins (pre-Disney).

When you’ve got stage-serious cancer, I guess even ‘Easy like Sunday Morning’ beats Wagner or, say, Tom Waits.

And maybe there’s a certain genius to a ‘best of’ playlist so limited it could all fit onto one of those mix-tape cassettes I was woefully optimistic in giving to a girl in the 6th grade. Because we all- no matter our age, color or creed- know these songs. More so even than age, color or creed these song unite us- trust me, after hearing them every day at the oncologists’ office I know.

Just last week, as Phil Collins sung-spoke his way through his plodding single ‘In the Air Tonight,’ every patient in the oncologists’ waiting room appeared preoccupied with their Washington Posts and their iPads or distracted by the dire straits ahead; that is, until Phil Collins finally got to his ostentatious, ’80’s, synthesized drum solo and six of us seated there, waiting on word of our cancer, spontaneously joined in Phil Collins’ completely gratuitous drum solo, beating on our tablets and paperbacks and binder clipped insurance claims or just making that pursed mouth noise reserved for ’80’s drum effects and fight scenes in Indiana Jones.

Even the medical supply salesman, I spied, was tapping on his large wheeled brief case and not so silently mouthing the words ‘Oh long…’

A few days before that I noticed how I wasn’t the only one in the waiting room singing softly along to Extreme’s cigarette lighter worthy single ‘More Than Words,’ the slow dance song that ended my 8th grade year and began, I liked to think at the time, my manhood. In case you think Extreme was whiter than shopping at West Elm after watching a Pauly Shore movie, I was joined in their power ballad by an older black man who looked not unlike the harried cop Dad in the ’90’s sitcom Family Matters.

Several times a week in the waiting room, Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’ comes on the radio (godhelpus) and whenever it does Paul, the real estate novelist (who never had time for a wife), is not the only one talking to Davey (who’s still in the Navy). Everyone’s joining in with their hushed ‘La, la, la, la’s.’

Some songs everyone knows.

Last Thursday, I and a gruff tatted up older man who wore his leather-worked wallet on a chain affixed to his leather-tooled belt (you know, the kind of guy you see at Kings Dominion or dog fights) both caught ourselves singing along to Cyndi Lauper’s candy confection‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.’

When we got to the start of the chorus, he looked over at me, awkwardly, and shrugged:

‘Shit, after what this chemo’s done to my testosterone, I’ve got as much right to sing this song as anyone else.’

After 3 months of sitting in this waiting room, the soft-singing and hushed humming and toe-tapping have become so ubiquitous you notice it when no one here is responding at all to the music- or, possibly, responding too much.

Like one day last week when the Boss’ title song from the movie Philadelphia come on the radio, the Tom Hanks film about a losing battle with AIDS.

No one sang.

Though, I’m willing to bet we all knew the words as well as I do.

Tom Hanks might’ve had a different disease, but who’s to say his odds were any worse than ours?

Speaking of odds-

Yesterday I sat thumbing through my Elmore Leonard novel, waiting for the nurse to call my name, when a favorite of mine came on the raspberry radio, another Phil Collins’ song: ‘Against All Odds.’

It’s quite possibly the greatest pop song of all time.

As soon as Phil Collins crooned his initial query ‘How can I just let you walk away?’ I could tell he had the rapt, nostalgic attention of every patient and family member in the waiting room.

And no sooner had Phil Collins gotten to his money line, the line where in the music video it cuts from Phil to Jeff Bridges rolling in the sand with _________, ‘You’re the only one who really knew me at all’ than all of us there that morning for sticks and pricks, blood work and bad news were joining in the refrain: ‘So take a look at me now…’

And we were all still singing, like the English-speaking world’s most subdued flash mob, when we got to the end: ‘…and you coming back to me is against all odds and that’s a __________________________’

See, you know it too.

All of us were singing or humming or whistling:

The 50-something business woman with the cane and the discourteously loud iPhone key strokes.

The 20-something hipster hanging on to his 3 day beard, wearing a crooked Dodgers cap and an overlarge cardigan that hung down to the knees of his skinny jeans.

The 60-something insurance looking type with a dandruffed blazer and a mauve toupee every bit as outdated as the Palm Treo in his hand.

The lesbian couple with the matching Osprey backpacks on their laps.

And me, the Seth Godin lookalike erstwhile clergyman.

All of us, clouds of varying darkness threatening over our heads, were singing about the chance you got to take even if when it’s against all odds.

Thanks to the radio’s best mix of yesterday, today and tomorrow that hasn’t changed since yesteryear there are some songs that everyone just unconsciously knows, songs you can finish on your own after the shower is turned off or the car is parked or the nurse calls you back to take your vital signs.

According to Mark’s Gospel at least, one of the last things Jesus does on the cross is sing:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It’s the first line from the 22nd song. The next line of the psalm sings:

“Oh my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

The Church typically reads Jesus’ cry of forsakenness on Passion Sunday, when many are in worship, and on Good Friday, when no one is, and most often we use Christ singing this snatch of song to proof-text our interpretations of another bit of bible music. Isaiah’s Suffering Servant songs.

When mixed into Isaiah’s playlist, Jesus’ cover of Psalm 22 on the cross becomes an instance of God’s turning God’s back on the suffering Christ.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” begins to sound as obvious as a Top 40 single:

God has abandoned Jesus, the vicarious sinner.

Jesus on the cross is alone in the most existential possibility of the word; he’s experiencing something worse than betrayal and torture and crucifixion, the sheer and total separation from God that is rightly due all of us woebegone sinners.

But “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is only the first line of Israel’s 22nd song.

More importantly, Psalm 22 is a song everyone in Israel would’ve known.

As Jews, Jesus’ listeners would’ve had all 150 psalms committed to memory. They would’ve sung many of them a minimum of 3 times a day as part of their daily office. They would’ve had no choice but to know the song that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” like I stubbornly know all the words to Sir Mix A Lot’s ‘Baby Got Back.’

They could’ve sung Psalm 22 right along with Jesus, and maybe those near the cross that Friday did just that in the same hushed tones with which I heard a mom and her bald, 30-something daughter sing along to Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’ last Friday.

Some songs everyone knows.

Jesus’ listeners would’ve known the song that begins with feeling forsaken ends- builds towards, is more like it- on a different note entirely.

Faith-filled and confident in God’s vindication.

So which is it?

Is Psalm 22 a Good Friday text, as we’ve most often made it?

Or is it actually an Easter passage, foreshadowing resurrection from the dark side of the cross?

What kind of song is Jesus singing? Does he sound bruised and battered and resigned like Springsteen does in ‘The Streets of Philadelphia?’ or does he sound nonplussed and defiant, against all the odds, like Phil Collins?

Does Jesus, with his last bit of humanity, feel forgotten, forsaken? Or is that first line he sings meant to trigger a song in the collective memory and convey his faith, of feeling graced?

The other day, a couple of days into my latest round of chemo-poison, handing me my most recent blood work, the nurse practitioner sent my already nauseous stomach for a roll:

“…so it could just be a quirk of how your body’s responding to the chemo, or it could mean the cancer’s worsened in your bone marrow…”

I gulped.


And looked up from the printout.

“Of course…there’s no way to know for certain until you have a PET scan later…”

Like a dirty band-aid, cancer just pulls away the veneer from what you knew already in the basement closet of your mind:

Life is incredibly beautiful and terrifically shitty.

Sometimes simultaneously though, more frequently, the two attributes are proximate and subsequent to one another.

Life, cancer reifies, is not unlike St. Luke’s Emmaus episode, a story we read during Eastertide but one, I believe, we could just as properly read on Good Friday.

After all, isn’t the ‘miracle’ of having our eyes opened to Jesus’ presence among us but a reminder that he’s also just as often absent from us?

Is not Christ’s appearance in the breaking of the bread also subsequently (if not simultaneously) his disappearance?

Which means every sacrament, the intrusion of the holy into our world, is precious precisely because it’s also at the same time a kind of exit. It’s both a faith-filled, saturated moment and a forsaking- in the leave-taking sense of the world.

Life is grace and it’s achingly awful all at once or right after the other in no particular order. It’s feeling humbled and straight flush lucky for the covered dishes and cards dropped at your door, but it’s also feeling incredibly alone, scratching your head and wondering, self-pityingly, how people can go on with their lives when something like this is happening to you. It’s feeling good, with halftime in your treatment within sight, and then feeling brained by a bit of- if not bad then- uncertain news.

If every Sunday, as the Church likes to say, is ‘a little Easter,’ celebrating the certainties of the resurrection, then that leaves at least one of six remaining days to be ‘a little Good Friday’ for us.

To feel wronged. Forgotten. To feel the umbilical chord of God’s presence ripped from your belly and wonder when (if?) it’s coming back.

What we might not normally prefer to admit in the pews cancer makes unavoidable: life is like that, if not for you personally then certainly for the preponderance of people.

So that song Jesus sings from the cross- it’s got to be both.

If the cross is ground zero for Jesus taking on our full humanity, the expanse of our mortal experience, then his singing the 22nd song has got to be both, feeling faith-filled and forsaken. It can’t be one or the other, as our preaching typically demands of it, because our lives- the lives enfleshed in his life- are equal parts #blessed and #forsaken.

If life really is the sum of the song Jesus sings on the cross, then faith is not what so many skeptics suppose, particularly when the C-word injects a discordant note.

Faith is NOT a crutch amidst life.


Because if life is a reliable and merciless pendulum between feeling faith-filled and feeling forsaken then to have faith is to feel the absence of it- no, the fleetingness of it- that much more acutely.

To see Christ at work in the world is also not to see him at work in the world.

To NOT see him even more clearly than those who lack the eyes of faith.

Maybe that’s why the ending of the 22nd song goes unsung or unquoted at Mark’s cross, perhaps the faith-filled notes at the end are only genuine, trustworthy, because of the feelings of forsakenness that preceded them.

Maybe the author of the 22nd Psalm wasn’t only a good songwriter like Phil Collins. Maybe he or she was truly, fully, no bullshitting human too.

Just like Jesus.

There’s a song, one of my favorites, by Lyle Lovett called ‘Fat Girl.’ It’s not a pop song; it’s definitely not the kind of song you hear on the radio. It’s too brief and unromantic and bracing:

The fat girl
She always stayed inside and played piano
And she told her mother
The children made her cry
And her mother told her
They don’t mean it
They don’t mean it
They don’t mean it
They don’t mean it

Now the fat girl
She ain’t fat no more
And lord how she plays piano
And she sings loud
And she sings low
And she sings of love
And blind passion
But she don’t mean it
She don’t mean it
She don’t mean it
She don’t mean it

The fat girl, because of what she’s been through, no longer means what she says.

I guess that’s my biggest fear (aside from, you know, a painful and premature death) in all this: to get to the point where I no longer mean what I sing preach.

Or pray.

Or practice.

The only way to avoid it, I think, is to avoid the pop pieties we prefer and instead stick to the kind of music Jesus himself sings.

My Cancer Playlist

Jason Micheli —  February 19, 2015 — 29 Comments

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517Ash Wednesday: 2/18/15

The day before I left the hospital, per my oncologist’s orders, I had a dual lumen port installed in my chest, just opposite my heart. It’s a device, an accessory if you will, into which the poison will flow when I return in two days for my first bout of chemotherapy.

An orderly named Nathaniel wheeled me down from my room to a unit whose name I missed in the wincing, DUI-like jingle-jangle that was Nathaniel hitting every bump, corner, laundry bin and stray wheel chair along the way.

In his defense, he was distracted.

Nathaniel was Ethiopian, which I could tell from his complexion and his accent. He was, he told me freely and for no apparent reason, an Orthodox Christian, which led to my ill-advised confession to being a man of the cloth.

As soon as Nathaniel found out I was a ‘priest’ (which happened just as we passed my nurse’s station), he ceased looking at the route ahead of the $35,000 bed to which I was chained by way of compression socks and IV needle and instead he zeroed his attention on my ‘sense of peace here in the hospital.’

Is how he put it.

‘It must be wonderful,’ he rhapsodized, ‘feeling the Holy Spirit overshadow you.’

Is this guy serious? I thought to myself. Or is it the morphine?

But what I said was:

‘I don’t know Nathaniel. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she wound up an unwed, teenage mother. I’m not so sure I need any overshadowing on top of the- you know- scary, stage-serious blood cancer.’

But Nathaniel wasn’t listening to me. At all. He was too excited about having a genuine Christian talisman in his presence, albeit one- according to the nurses- with strong vital signs and alive for at least a little while longer.

‘With the Holy Spirit, I imagine you feel no pain, no pain at all’ Nathaniel said beatifically, just as he bumped the side of my bed against the elevator door, sending what felt like a 9.0 fart engulfed in flames through my recently incised insides.

Once delivered to my pre-op bay, I waited while several nurses stopped by my bed to reassure me how I would ‘experience no pain’ while they sunk what looked like a diaphragm with purple spermatozoa into my chest and attached it my jugular.

‘You’re not going to knock me out?’ I asked in disbelief.

‘We’ll administer a mild sedative. You won’t feel a thing’ the last nurse promised.

‘Really? How many of them do you have in your chest?’ I asked.

Huffing at the pain- in- the- ass-impossibility that was patient 5421, she walked away only to return a few minutes later to explain how if my chest port ever got infected then it would be A) excruciatingly painful, B) ‘compromise my treatment’ and C) ‘quite possibly kill’ immune-deficient me.

‘Kick ass’ I said like Maverick about to take-off.

They wheeled me into a room that had a basementy, 12 Monkeys feel to it where the nurse pitilessly instructed me to climb onto the operating table, which in my sutured, doped-up state was like asking John Goodman to scale a pommel horse.

Holding my bowels with my left hand and trying to cover my bare behind with my right, I attempted a ‘maneuver’ that felt (and probably looked) like a full-body dry heave.

I wound up splayed down over my knees on top of my face with my hairy, recently sponged-bathed butt sticking up in the air.

Seeing my futility, they picked me up and moved me the way lifeguarding students handle accident dummies.

They laid me out on the table, wrapped a sort of inflatable mattress around my circumference and positioned my head across my left shoulder- so I couldn’t be a witness to the carnage to come, I suspected. Informing me they’d just administered a mild sedative, someone, who I couldn’t see but who smelled of Axe Body Spray took to shaving my chest.

‘Sigh’ I sighed.

I’d already had one shave job that week.

‘Say,’ I said, ‘If I gave you $50 cash would you just go ahead and give me a full body wax?’

‘Not during working hours’ Axe Body Spray replied creepily. When he finished his hasty man-scaping, a bracing sensation struck me.

‘Is that…? rubbing alcohol?’ I asked, feeling the liquid ignite all over me- especially around my nipples-before dripping down my sides.

‘Yes’ he said ‘

‘Lovely’ I said, ‘For a second there I forgot about the bone-crunching pain in my gut.’

Like I said, I’d already gotten one half-assed shave job before my intestinal surgery.

Thanks to Axe Body Spray, from my Twig and Berries to my Adam’s Apple, the only hair on my upper body now resides on top of my shoulders.

And my hands.

Seriously, my top half now looks like the love child of Justin Bieber and Samwise Gamgee; actually, given my weight loss, I look more like the bastard child produced by a Kiera Knightley affair with a short-order cook from a Greek Diner.

Like I said, lovely.

Not to worry though. While doing some online cancer research, I inadvertently discovered that they actually make pubic hair wigs for chemo patients.

No joke, they’re called ‘merkins,’ made from real or artificial hair, and come in snap-on and velcro varieties. But that- after I throw up in my mouth- is an essay for another day.

As the drowsiness set on me, the nurse asked: ‘What kind of music do you like?’

‘Oh, just about anything’ I lied to avoid conversation.

‘Bluegrass?’ she asked.

‘Actually, yeah, I like bluegrass a lot’ I responded.

‘Hmm, not me,’ she said before turning it to what I could tell was one of those sackless, soft pop stations that purport to play ‘the best songs from the ’80’s.’

Sure enough, Tears for Fears were just finishing up wanting to rule the world when the Belinda Carlisle song ‘Heaven on Earth’ kicked on.

Just as I was going lights out to the world, I considered that if Belinda’s right, if heaven is a place on earth, then (in addition to Cleveland and Walt Disney World) it’s anywhere but here. Near me.

I woke up without realizing I’d been asleep. ‘Everything okay?’ I asked, not even sure if they’d begun.

‘Sure,’ the nurse said, ‘you didn’t move at all, except when you bounced your hips a little to ‘Raspberry Beret.’

I blinked my eyes awake and felt the dull ache in my baby bottom chest, just opposite my heart. I turned my head and saw the wires with input heads on the end dangling down my torso.


When I showed the chest port to my boys later that evening, they both immediately compared it to Tony Stark’s arc reactor. It’s not a bad analogy. The arc reactor, after all, not only powers Tony Stark’s Ironman suit but it keeps Tony’s body from slowly poisoning itself.

It’s a sound analogy, but really the chest port resembles auxiliary audio cables coming out of my breast.

The effect of which is to make me look like a piece of stereo equipment.

As though if you stuck an antennae up my bum in the AM and plugged me into a speaker, I could play All Things Considered for you. Or, I keep thinking, music.

If you plugged me in to your car stereo or your surround sound system, what music would MP3 me play?

What soundtrack for the movie Jason has Cancer is recorded there just across from my heart?

I imagine the cuts from my pre-diagnosis days would include something like REM’s ‘Shining, Happy People’ or maybe something from Astral Weeks and Miles’ Birth of the Cool album. You know, the kind of music you’d sample for the theme ‘blissful ignorance’ and postured cool.

When I expressed my first fart after surgery, the sign they’d put Humpty’s insides back together again, I probably would’ve played ‘I’m So Excited.’ And when I dropped my first post-op deuce a couple of days ago, MP3 me probably would’ve blasted Handel’s Hallelujah chorus or maybe Elton’s ‘Rocket Man’ or, since we’re talking crap, anything by Coldplay.

The night Ali climbed into the hospital bed with me, damning my leaky bile tube and laying right on top of it, and wiped the night sweat off of me and held me until the nurse made her get out, the night we learned I had Mantle Cell Lymphoma.

It’s cheesy but if you’d plugged me in that night I would’ve played Phil Collins’ power ballad ‘Against All Odds.’

Over and over.

With me as Jeff Bridges in the music video, and cancer as James Woods, and Ali as whoeverthatactressis.

Ever since the evening my GI doc called after my CAT Scan and asked if I was sitting down, there have been plenty of singles like Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’ and Zeppelin’s ‘Dazed and Confused’ rattling around inside me. Except, when I’m with my kids. No matter how shitty I might feel or how depressed I get, the soundtrack for when my boys enter the room would probably be the Shins or the Decembrists, something fun and airy and lackadaisical enough to hint at the possibility of happy endings.

And since I belong to a church, one of my tracks is surely Joe Cocker’s cover of the Beatles’ ‘With a Little Help from My Friends.’

Most of the time, though, if you plugged me in and never pressed pause, I bet the music I’d play would include plenty of tracks from the Cure or Morrissey or the National, you know, the kind of music that makes you want to pull the shades and drink by yourself all day, munching on rat poison while you watch a Full House marathon- mostly because I fear- FEAR– that if you plugged my breast into your Bose, you’d discover that I come with a hidden, bonus track. One that wasn’t listed when you bought the album but has been there the whole time nonetheless and can’t be deleted.

Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’

If you plugged me in and never pressed pause, I fear you’d eventually end on a cut like Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’

The funny thing about fear when you’re a Christian (especially a pastor) is how other Christians treat fear like its anathema.

Verboten. More cancerous than cancer, like its a tumor that threatens the Body of Christ.

To be afraid, to pay attention to the prognosis, to weigh the odds and fear where you’ll end- all of of it, many unwittingly imply, is the opposite of faith.

After all, if you trust God then you shouldn’t fear what tomorrow will bring. Let go and let God. Give it over to the Lord. Trust Jesus. Everything happens for a reason. He never gives you more than you can handle. Have faith that all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.

Whatever happens, He has a plan. Have faith, not fear.

Christians get it honest, I suppose, this fear vs. faith way of thinking.

‘Don’t be afraid’ is perhaps the most common refrain in the testaments. Yahweh, his angel Gabriel, Jesus himself are constantly telling people not to fear.

And the other night in the hospital when I couldn’t sleep and was flipping channels on the TV, a bouffant preacher hawking a bible study curriculum on the Trinity Broadcasting Network reminded me how the New Testament letter from John says that fear is the opposite of faith and that perfect love (for the Lord) casts out all fear.

From where I sit in the cancer chair, that’s horse shit, even if it is in the bible.

And, I’m not even sure it’s true.

I mean, sure, it’s true if what John means is that love, as in Love; as in Jesus, casts out all fear. It’s true if what John’s really after is that faith, as in Jesus’ Faith, is the opposite of (our) fear. And maybe it’s true if what John has in mind is action, causation; that is, provoking faith and love in someone is the opposite of provoking fear in someone.


But otherwise, the notion, hawked by that TV preacher and so many other well-meaning Christians, that the presence of fear equals the absence of love is total rubbish.

If there’s one thing stage serious cancer does, it’s inject an ample dose of clarity into your life.

Here’s what my dosage has revealed: I’m afraid because I love.

I’m not afraid for myself, for what the treatment or the cancer will do to me. I’m not afraid of the pain or discomfort. I figure if I can live for a month with a 10×10 inch tumor obstructing my poop chute, I can handle chemo and bone marrow transplants.

I’m not afraid for me. I’m afraid because I love.

I fear what this cancer will do to my boys, to their happiness and joy and innocence and faith.

And while we’re on the subject of faith, I fear what it will do to my congregation’s faith to see one of their pastor’s handed such a huge crap-flavored lollipop. Speaking of church, I’m afraid of the stress this places on my colleagues, who got left holding the bag with literally a day’s notice. I’m afraid if when I return to work, it’ll be as a shell of my former (without peer) self.

I’m afraid of the burden and grief this will bring my friends and family; I actually visualize seeing it in their eyes.

I’m afraid of the toll this will take on my wife, having to attend to the ‘…in sickness and in health…’ part of her vows earlier than expected. I fear losing not our marriage or our family but the one- the freaking perfect one- we’ve built and enjoyed with our kids. In the back of my mind, I even fear practicalities like what this will cost, and therefore what will it cost us in terms of the dreams and goals we previously harbored.

I’m riddled with fear and for St. John or a hair-sprayed TV preacher or well-meaning well-wishers to suggest that means I lack faith or love seems to me completely tone deaf.

If I didn’t have so much and so many I love, I wouldn’t give a damn and I could take this shit sandwich stoically. But because I do, there’s no way around it. I’m afraid. And if that somehow puts me at odds with Jesus, well then I guess we’ll have to sort it out when I meet him, which I hope is later rather than sooner.

If you plugged MP3 me into a surround sound, you know what track you wouldn’t hear playing from somewhere just west of my heart?

You’d never hear Neil Young’s single ‘Hey, Hey, My, My.’

You’d never hear it because of that line from the chorus, where Neil sings:

‘Its better to burn out/than to fade away…’

My wife won’t have it. She’s determined we’ll grow old and gray and fade away together; in the meantime, I’ll have to ignore the Johns and the TV preachers and just trust that if the people in my life are worth Jesus redeeming then they’re worth my fears too.

11613895804_6a71362216_zThe Grammys once again surprised everyone who forgot something happened the Sunday before the Super Bowl. The show made news more for its explicit choreography and its trivialization of marriage. It used to be that artists crossed taboos to be prophetic not to push their products.

Oh well, no one seriously interested in music as an art form tunes into the Grammy’s.

Nonetheless, I thought I would mark the occasion of the Grammy’s by ticking off the Top Ten Albums of 2013 as voted on by me and my boys, who are 11 and 8.

If not definitive, this list at least stands as a testament to their good taste in music:

#1 Modern Vampires of the City ~ Vampire Weekend 

My boys’ favorite band, bar none, put out their best album thus far and one with belief-oriented themes too.


#2 Trouble Will Find Me ~ The National

Would’ve made #1 if I meddled with the voting. The sort of sorrow that makes you feel human and thus happy in spite of it all.

#3 Reflector ~ Arcade Fire 

Arcade Fire put on the best live show we saw this year.

#4 Monomania ~ Deerhunter

The background music for my ’13 sermon writing.

#5 B Room ~ Dr. Dog 

Lo-fi goodness I wouldn’t have discovered without Taylor Mertins.

#6 Pushin Against a Stone ~ Valerie June

Produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, this album sounds like the soundtrack to the movie Quentin Tarantino never made.

#7 Live at First Ave ~ Trampled by Turtles

My favorite bluegrass band’s first live album- TbT make bluegrass you can run to.

#8 Let’s Be Still ~ The Head and the Heart

The folk band add texture for their second album.

#9 On the Edge ~ Frank Sullivan and the Dirty Kitchen 

Another frenetic-paced bluegrass band. I discovered them on the local bluegrass NPR station. I linked them live below.

#10 Lightening Bolt ~ Pearl Jam

This gave me flashbacks to 8th grade.


1280px-Sufjan_Stevens_playing_banjoPraise be to the Lord of Hosts, I’m old enough to have avoided the Miley Cyrus career arc from Disney ingenue to Madonna wannabe. The New Kids on the Block were enough for me- to think, I actually got made fun of in the 7th grade for NOT going to the New Kids’ concert at the Richmond Coliseum. Look who’s the loser now.

If age is not the reason I’ve avoided Miley Cyrus then certainly it’s because I’m a music fan.

Anyways, I’ve passed the last few weeks, like you probably, going from somebody who previously was only semi-conscious that someone named Miley Cyrus existed to somebody feeling as though I’m SUPPOSED to feel righteously indignant over what Miley Cyrus is doing to the morals of America.

Or, it’s never said, what the music industry does to the morals of America by demoralizing people like Miley Cyrus. miley_cyrus_wrecking_ball

A couple of weeks ago Sinead O’Connor wrote a maternal letter to Miley Cyrus that made news for days. Apparently the chanteuse of ‘Nothing Compares to You’ felt empowered to draw plenty of comparisons between Miley and her own young self.

This week Sufjan Stevens, a (sometimes, quasi Christian) musician with more talent in his upper mandible than either Sinead or Miley possess in toto, wrote this hilarious letter of his own to Cyrus:

Dear Miley. I can’t stop listening to #GetItRight (great song, great message, great body), but maybe you need a quick grammar lesson. One particular line causes concern: “I been laying in this bed all night long.” Miley, technically speaking, you’ve been LYING, not LAYING, an irregular verb form that should only be used when there’s an object, i.e. “I been laying my tired booty on this bed all night long.”

Whatever. I’m not the best lyricist, but you know what I mean. #Get It Right The Next Time. But don’t worry, even Faulkner messed it up. We all make mistakes, and surely this isn’t your worst misdemeanor. But also, Miley, did you know the tense here is also totally wrong.

Surely you’ve heard ofPresent Perfect Continuous Tense (I HAVE BEEN LYING in this bed all night long [hopefully getting some beauty sleep?]). It’s a weird, equivocal, almost purgatorial tense, not quite present, not quite past, not quite here, not quite there. Somewhere in between. I feel that way all the time. It kind of sucks.

But I have a feeling your “present perfect continuous” involves a lot more excitement than mine. Anyway, doesn’t that also sum up your career right now? Present. Perfect. Continuous. And Tense. Intense? Girl, you work it like Mike Tyson. Miley, I love you because you’re the Queen, grammatically and anatomically speaking. And you’re the hottest cake in the pan. Don’t ever grow old. Live brightly before your fire fades into total darkness. XXOO Sufjan


jam-circleI think we all know where I stand when it comes to bluegrass. The rest of you can have your Chris Tomlin pablum or your oppressive baroque toccatas or all that (completely) unironic tedium from the 19th century which fills the bulk of the United Methodist Hymnal.*

As far as I’m concerned, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, and Jesus Christ would be a fair second place substitute for the Holy Trinity and one that would make me reconsider my denominational affiliation.

I’m well aware its considered trendy now. If so, then consider me a round peg in the circular bliss that is the banjo. My church’s Bluegrass Easter Sunrise is the largest attended service of the year. As I often tell folks why bluegrass makes for good worship music:

‘It’s as soulful as white people can get without being cringeworthy.’ 

Paula Spurr at Geez Magazine (great publication by the way…it’s like a leftist, Canadian version of First Things, which I also love) has a great piece ‘In Praise of the Banjo.’

“Stand and sing with me, number 422 in your hymnal. Ladies on verse two; men on verse three; all together on verses one and four.”

This was how I experienced worship growing up. A man stood at the front and led us like a choir. We had no say in anything.
As the years went by, worship morphed from the choir experience to some sort of karaoke rock concert, the band leading you through its set list, the words projected on the wall. You could stand or sit as you wished, but it was still a very directed experience. As a member of the audience (I just can’t call it a congregation), I had very little responsibility for the worship experience and none at all for the music, which was so loud that I could sing off-key and it wouldn’t matter.

I don’t attend church anymore, and the main way I experience music now is in the bluegrass genre . . . banjos and doghouse bass, mandolins and fiddles.

I wish music in church was a lot more like bluegrass.

In the jam circle, everyone participates.

There’s no leader. Everyone gets a chance to pick a song, everybody plays and everybody takes a solo break. If you don’t want to, you can pass and nobody minds. Those who can’t play an instrument are encouraged to sing or clap along. Sure, there are the hot players who form bands and put on concerts, and we’ll go watch and sing along, but mostly we just gather every week and jam.

Wouldn’t church be crazy if it were like that? Each member sharing in the responsibility of the music, helping other members enter in?

But churches are too big. You don’t get to know the person beside you. You just sit and enjoy the show. It’s one of the many reasons I quit going. If you need me, I’ll be on the front porch pickin’.

Click here to see the full piece.

* for those of you whose feelings are hurt, this is what writers call ‘hyperbole.’ 

I frequently hear people bemoan the need for some new music. New driving tunes or a new running playlist.

Well, for all you parents out there who stand back and  tolerate &&%$#@ music by Raffi, Justin Bieber or even Jack Johnson (sorry Andi) here are my (prematurely cool) boys’ TOP FIVE BANDS along with their favorite song,

Give these a try.


1) Vampire Weekend (‘White Sky’)

2) Lumineers (‘Big Parade’)

3) Decembrists (‘Rox in the Box’)

4) Arcade Fire (‘No Cars Go’)

5) Welcome Wagon (‘I’m Not Fine’)


1) Jack White/White Stripes (‘Little Ghost’)

2) The Black Keys (‘Howlin for You’)

3) Kanye West (‘Jesus Walks’)

4) Band of Horses (‘Ghost’)

5) Spoon (‘I Turn My Camera On’)

*6) For Both Boys: Willie Nelson (‘I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover’)

Ali and I are spending 11th Anniversary at Merriweather Post Pavilion, taking in the My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses concert.

And though, only because its our anniversary and no one takes their kids out on their anniversary, right, my boys are currently in the care of a babysitter, they both think My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses are kick-a#$.

If there’s one thing I’d like to look back upon and brag about in terms of parenting, then it’s that Ali and I have steadfastly refused to allow our boys to listen to sucky pop music.

No, Kate Perry, Justin What’s-His-Name, or Raffi for my boys. No, they like Jack White, the Kills, Wilco and the Dead Weather. At bath time, or just anytime really, it’s the Decembrists. My boys don’t know the words to ‘There’s a Hole in My Bucket’ but they CAN sing along to Bon Iver’s cover of ‘The Outfield.’

Gabriel, my youngest, cried- seriously- when I told him that Jack White was now a solo artist and there would be no more White Stripes albums. Meg White is now right up there with Darth Vader and Trunchbull in Gabriel’s pantheon of villains.

When I look at the gray creeping in to my beard or the extra pound that’s snuck on to the scale or when I spy the fatigued looking wrinkle under my eyes in the morning, my grief is assauged somewhat in knowing that, at least, one day my sons will know I only let them listen to music that was cool. And even if I don’t know how to fix the car and even if I never was in the army, I at least know a good band or two.

Here’s a good piece from the NY Times about one’s kid and the Beatles.

“DO the Beatles have any other playlists besides ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’?”

So asked my 5-year-old as we sat on his bunk bed, staring into his iPod and listening to Ringo Starr sing “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

Even on this important year in Beatledom, the 50th anniversary of Ringo’s joining the band and finalizing the makeup of the Fab Four, I decided not to pounce on my son with the obvious correction. For Beatle love must flower on its own terms. I would not tell him that “Sgt. Pepper’s” was an album, not a playlist. That it was an extremely important album. That a genius had produced it.

Instead I told him that the Beatles did indeed have many playlists, they had fantastic playlists, monumental playlists. Playlists like “Rubber Soul,” “Abbey Road” and that magnum opus, “The White …” um, Playlist.

Then another troubling question.

“When the Beatles recorded their playlists, did they record them on voice memo?”

When my son behaves well I temporarily upgrade him from his creaky old legacy iPod and let him tinker on my iPhone. There, thanks to a baby sitter whose name I curse, he has discovered the voice-memo function. He uses voice memo for impromptu jam sessions with himself and crams my phone full of gigabytes until it freezes. Tears often ensue.

“Absolutely not,” I told him. “The Beatles never, ever used voice memo. They didn’t even have voice memo. They didn’t even know what voice memo was.” I went on to tell him that the Beatles put their songs on something flat, circular and black called an album.

“Where is the button on the album that you press to make it record?”

“Yeah, well, you see,” I said, scrambling. “They didn’t record directly on the album. First they recorded on a tape recorder. A tape recorder has a button.”

“But when you use a tape recorder, what do you record on?”


“Oh, like masking tape?” he said, lunging for the art-supply drawer where both he and I knew three rolls of unused masking tape lay. I grabbed his arm before he could execute his plan.

“No, not masking tape.”

“Daddy, you’re hurting me.”

“Sorry,” I said. “But you can’t record voice memos on masking tape. They used something else. Something called recording tape.”

“Where is our recording tape?”

“We don’t have any. Recording tape doesn’t exist anymore.”

Seeing exasperation, he tried a different line.

“Do the Beatles live in a house?”

Oddly enough, this was something I can remember wondering myself, back in the early ’70s, a few years after the Beatles had torn themselves asunder. My own first experience of the Beatles was the film “Yellow Submarine,” in which, fans will recall, an early scene gives the very distinct impression that the Beatles do in fact all live together in a house. A giant house with mysterious doors that open and close at random, with surreal claptrap objects pouring out into corridors and the cartoon Beatles following behind in an old roadster.

“Well,” I said, “I think sometimes all the Beatles stayed in the same house. But I’m pretty sure each Beatle had his own house.”

“Whose house did they go to when they wanted to record playlists?”

Interesting question.

“I guess they probably went to Paul’s or John’s house.”


“Because Paul and John wrote most of the songs. But mostly they went to another house.”

“Where was that other house?”

“Abbey Road.”

A blank stare. A long pause.

“Can we go to John’s house?”

I knew somehow we were headed down this road that led past Abbey.

“No, we can’t.”

“Why not.”

“Because John is dead.”

“How did he die?”

“I don’t know,” I lied.

A long pause.

“Who else is dead?”


“You mean there are only two Beatles left?”

Click to continue.