Wednesday, June 30, 2021

I Want a Funeral

When I move on to join the invisible choir; when I kick the bucket and, then, quickly following thereupon, buy the farm, just to be sure I did things properly, I don't want a "Celebration of Life." I want a good, old-fashioned, tear-jerking, black-clad funeral. 

Have whatever you want for your loved ones. Call it what you want. I'm not judging you. These things are personal choices and no one can be told they are doing things "wrong" and I'm not trying to do that. It's just that, for me, I think the best thing to do when someone dies is to be somber and sad. We're wired to cry when we lose loved ones, and cry we should. 

I get it, though -- the whole "celebration of life" thing. A while ago, I lost a close friend. He was younger than I am and we lost him to an unseen heart ailment. He wasn't religious, so there was a remembrance...thing. I don't think anyone called it a "celebration of life" but we spent most of our time sharing funny stories. (He was the most obnoxious, irreverant, inappropriate, foppish oaf I have ever known, and I [and we all] loved him for all of that.) The whole thing was full of laughter with a sprinkling of tears. 

But, it's weird. I find a strange sense of open-endedness in his loss. That's the best I can describe it. Of course, I'm not the important one here. As long as his family got what they needed from the day, that's all that matters. 

In the end, I think I want a little more gloom at my funeral: people standing in the rain in sunglasses, looking all pale and drawn; distraught loved-ones having to be pulled away from my coffin so it can be lowered into the ground; a priest who intones like Max von Sydow; low, slow-rolling thunder; Barber's "Adagio for Strings" running through everyone's heads; one of my sons, kneeling under a rising crane shot as the rain falls, yelling "Why!? WHAAAYYY!!??" up to the deaf,  leaden heavens... That kind of thing. 

Call me grim. (I'll wait.) 

My biggest loss, ever, has been my dad. We had a traditional, Catholic funeral. I wrote this and read it, tearfully, at times, and there were many tears because of it. We only moved away from long-standing tradition in two ways. First, there was no open coffin; he had said, many times in his life, that he did not want that, so that was non-negotiable. Second, he was cremated. I have a small regret about this. When I visit his grave, I really don't feel like I am visiting "him." To have known he was under that headstone in his physical form (at least in my memory) would have been comforting to me. Ashes don't feel the same. 

In the end, all of tthese post-death procedures are for the living. My dad, being dead, doesn't care about any of this; neither does my friend. In the end, I want my family to do what they want -- whatever they need. But I strongly urge them to consider going about things in the way things have been gone about for centuries: tears, gloom and black clothing. Somehow, we decided, at some point, as a human collective, that this is what we needed. There must be a reason for that...

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Vinyl Word

I couldn't resist the title. Sorry. 

So, records... Old-fashioned, 33 RPM, vinyl records...

Don't run away -- this is not going to be an audiophile post, I promise. I'm not a fan of most 'Philes, to be honest with you. I am a fan of the Phillies, but not of the 'Philes, just to keep things straight. 

(Too much coffee this morning. Mea culpa.) 

Anyway, records. I like them. I just patched up the old stereo system with a new amplifier -- which gets used mostly for watching movies in 5.1 surround. (Surround just makes movies so much cooler. The first fight scene in the not-bad Gibson movie, The Patriot, will sell you on the merits of surround sound, if you are not already a believer.)

But, having gotten a turntable a few years ago, I have been rebuilding a record collection. 

There is a camp that argues for the merits of "analog" sound (records and tape), versus "digital" (CDs and MP3s) but, as a musician who works primarily in the digital world, I see the merits of both. (I do think, however, that one can hear a major difference between MP3s and streaming, as opposed to CDs or records. Too much to go into, here.)

This is not about sound quality, though; it's about the experience of listening to a record. 

When I decide to listen to an vinyl album, I have to put it on the turntable, drop the needle and sit back to listen. There is no easy "pausing" and there is no skipping of tracks without standing up, walking across the room and lifting the needle -- after which, one has to find the notch between tracks and carefully put the needle down in the right spot, which is usually a question of trial and error, laced with stifled profanities. (The other day, listening to Sting's The Soul Cages, I actually sat through "St. Agnes and the Burning Train." Who does that?) 

With a record, one commits to the act of listening with attention in a way one doesn't with playlists. And, halfway through, one needs to flip the record over. This, to me, is a refocusing of attention and an awakening of the body: standing up re-awakens the brain, which is why I sometimes tell my classes, mid-session, to stand up and then sit down again. 

And we can't forget the fact that albums were created as songs grouped together around a central idea or theme or vibe, in the past -- or, at the very least, were written during the same timespan and, so, share similarities, if only as a result of the songwriters' preferences or artistic development at the time. This is a completely different experience than setting the phone on "shuffle." (Around the time of the inception of the iPod, I had a young student tell me he listened to new albums on "shuffle" so he never got tired of the order. But the order was chosen for a reason...or, used to be.)

Undeniably, there is an element of nostalgia for a guy my age in listening to actual records: the large-scale cover art; the liner notes; the lyrics. But, listeing to a record used to be an active process, whereas now music has become more of a background thing for most people. 

I like the connection and the committment of listening to a record. And, yes, sitting between loudspeakers that are moving actual air and hearing sounds generated from a needle traveling through actual grooves in actual material must, in some way, make a difference. 

In case you are wondering, no: I never understood why people were nostalgic about the cracks, pops and jumps. They still suck. Which is why I highly recommend re-releases on 180 gram vinyl. 

Now get out there and spin stuff. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A Eulogy for Nuanced Thinking

Nuance is pretty much dead. On social media, it's so dead that I have recently decided to stop being satirical. People -- even people I think are pretty smart -- just don't seem to see it anymore. Over the past few years, things that I said with shades of blue and tan and green have been stolen from me by the groupthinkers and turned into explosions of bright yellow and, now, any reference to my nuanced ideas are seen as another voice in agreement with the screaming binary crowds. (Heck, I might as well mix metaphors. There are no rules anymore, right?)

(Swift is turning in his grave right now.) 

For instance, I have long criticized the fact that "science is the new religion." You can find posts about it here, going back to 2010. Then, along came the climate-change deniers and, counter to it, the "trust the science" movement. Now, on one side stand those who ignore science and, on the other, are those who blindly follow anything a scientist says -- who treat science as a depository of incontrovertible fact and see lab coated rsearchers as vestment-clad priests and priestesses of truth. So, if I question science, even after doing considerable reading on it, I must be seen as one side by a fool and by the other as one of their own. 

Fake news? Good old Mr. Trump killed that one. Again, for years, I complained about misleading and outright phony news. Now that he, in his inimitably oafish and cro-magnon-like way has appropriated the phrase, if one complains about the news with its biases and clickbaits, one is seen as a conservative who is only doing what the former president did: trying to kill news he does not agree with. 

I have also written about "wokeness," ridiculing it as a complete paradox: people claim to be "woke" -- which should be a state of the highest level of the achievement of rationality -- when, in fact, all they are really doing is subscribing to a pre-written script. But the conservatives killed that, by making it a slur and a joke. Worse, if one doesn't like that phrase, it will be assumed he is a racist. (God forbid someone call a Black man a "thug." Shame -- another very good word dies...)

I have also long pointed out the need to help our kids to be a little tougher; to allow them to believe in their own strength and ability to get through diversity. Then, along came things like meme of the eighteen-year-old lad storming the beach at Normandy alongside a picture of a "millenial" young man with tattos and stretched earlobes, wearing a pink tank-top and a tutu.  (See how much kids have changed!) Now, if I wrestle with the idea of weakness in our kids, I am pretty much percieved as calling them "snowflakes," which I certainly am not. But nuance, schmuance. You're with us or against us. 

For the love of all that is holy (oh, wait, I must be a religious nut for using that phrase and religion is 100% horrible... forgive me, angry masses...), I can't even express an English teacher's concern for the use of the word "they" as a singular pronoun without being implicitly accused of not caring if young trans people commit suicide. I made the mistake of pointing out this awful bit of writing from a local news Instagram: 

From Channel 6 News: "Singer Demi Levato has revealed they are non-binary and are changing their pronouns, telling fans they are 'proud' to make the change after a lot of self-reflective work."

My light-hearted quip that "telling fans that they are proud" is confusing and asking trans people to just invent themselves a new pronoun was met with questions about my concern for the well-being of others. I pointed out, on the thread, that "one begins to feel that if one ctiticizes a small thing about marginalized people that one is bound to be accused of dismissing them as humans." I've even been told that my assertion that the truth about a police incident between white officers and Black suspects or traffic stop subjects is not the important thing: one should always be on the side of the cop or the side of the Black citizen. 

How is that a remotely sane attitude? How does change happen with this idea?

So, and I mean this proverbially: don't put your arm around me. I don't want to be on your team. Teams are the reason people can't or don't think anymore. If you agree with me when I sound liberal, it doesn't mean I am a liberal and if I express a conservative view, it doesn't mean I am a conservative. 

I suppose the fools have always been louder than the thinkers. The problem is, there has never been a free and deafening megaphone like the Internet. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Waiting Room Thoughts: Marriage

The other day, I had to bring my wife to the hospital for surgery. This is usually way more difficult (emotionally) for me than it is for her. As a nurse, she is at home in the hospital and her familiarity with procedures and the overall atmosphere makes her sort of nonchalant about the whole process. (She's home and doing very well now.) 

Me? They say: "We have your phone number. The surgery will take about two hours. You can go home or to a Starbuck's and we will call you when it is done. She'll be in recovery for an hour anyway." Nope. Ain't happening. 

I have to stay in the waiting room. Something feels wrong about being farther away from her than necessary during a major operation. So, I spent three-and-a-half hours (she took longer than usual) pacing, watching awful morning TV programming (why are soap operas lighted so minimally?) and absently reading a Star Wars book that a student had given to me. ("You HAVE to read this Mr. Mat. It's great." Any decent teacher knows that this means I really did have to read it. Fortunately, the dude who wrote it is, at least, a pro; the book is what my favorite professor used to call "chewing gum for the brain" -- not a bad time-killer, in the end.)

It's always an emotional moment, sending one's loved one back into surgery, especially now, at the tail end of COVID, when one is not allowed into the pre-op room. (For my wife, it's "Meh. It's surgery." For me, it's, "Things happen. Anaesthesia is dangerous. People get infections...")  I always feel a quick, strong rush of emotion after she is gone. As I sit down, I usually reflexively say an "Our Father" to myself because, while I have never really been the religiously demonstrative type, I have always been faithful. It's at that point that I am generally able to pull myself together. And fret...with some modicum of dignity. 

Sitting in waiting rooms does lead one to think, though. And think, I did. 

We were the first ones there, arriving at six in the morning, so I watched husband after husband bring his wife in. I saw at least five long, affectionate, embraces goodbye. I heard accompanying, whispered, I-love-yous. I saw the husbands sit (they didn't want to leave, either) and wring their proverbial hands, staring uninterestedly at morning talk shows. They cared, as I did. They were in love, as I am. They were married these women, in the truest sense of the word: joined together, body and soul, and the breaking of that connection hurt. Daily life might not do it, but risk (or, at least, perceived risk) brings out the bond. 

Of course, these five husbands and myself are only anecdotal evidence (only a sample of the massive population of the world) but it raised a question: If these randomly-gathered people and myself are so clearly in love after so many years, how real is the media portrayal of the decline of marriage?

TV and Internet are dangerous windows. They are, in the end, a tiny portal of information, filtered through a tiny representative portion of the world's population, represented by the producers, writers, presenters, etc. They are the gatekeepers of information. They don't represent the collective voice of the world, at all. And neither do we six husbands represent all of the husbands in the world, but a quick, random sample might just imply that marriage and love are okay and they, the media, who have always favored the grim over the optimistic, might just be forcing a tainted characterization. 

If fifty percent of marriages fail, it doesn't mean the other fifty percent are not good, real, good-old-fashioned bonds, right? There is a lot of love out there. Maybe it's not so dire. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The New Glass Menagerie

My sons are good young men. I am immensely proud of what they have become. And, I am especially proud of how they weathered the COVID storm. My younger son had to do half-online high school and my older son had to start college online. They performed admirably and with grace. 

But, a few weeks ago, my younger son sort of reflexively said that his circumstances (being really busy -- new job, school play, etc) was "affecting his mental health." I quickly pointed out that being miserable and overwhelmed is not a decline of mental health; it is a natural reaction to a difficult situation. He was quick to acknowledge it and it was obvious that he understood that the lingo of the day had simply crept into his statement. 

I mentioned, to him, a bit by our favorite comedian, Sebastian Maniscalco. Maniscalco talks about people going to therapy for depression and about his father's reaction: "I've been depressed for thirty years." This gets big laughs, but it is a comic implication that the older generation didn't run to therapist when things got tough -- they "dealt with it."

Of course, we don't want to take this philosophy too far, right? We want to outgrow the foolish bravado of not seeking help when we need it. But, as in all things, we need to seek balance. 

I think we are turning the world into a kind of glass menagerie. We are creating people who feel as if they could shatter at any time; who think that being sad is a sign of trouble; that being taken surprise by emotion is always a dangerous situation. 

The other day, I was listening to a radio program and they were doing a piece on young men who had fallen into prostitution. They introduced the piece by warning the audience that some of the details in the story might be "disturbing." My first thought is: how could it not be disturbing? Isn't that idea implicit in the anounced subject. My second though what if it is disturbing? Is the listener going to shatter to pieces?


I often find myself, here and elsewhere, lamenting the complete inability of humanity to seem to be able to ever do anything but the extreme. If one listens to the chatter about mental health, one might assume, if you will forgive another literary reference, that we live in a world full of Roderick Ushers. 

Can't we teach our kids and others to be strong when they can and to seek help when they need it? I believe this is the intention of mental health professionals and the media, but I can't help think that it is recieved as: "Seek help, because you can't handle pressure alone." Somehow, in the minds of the many, I thihnk it just becomes a constant stream of rominders that one simply is not strong enough to make it without reliance on others. 

I don't want my sons to swallow their misery. I don't want them to be stoic and incommunicative. But I do want them to be strong enough to deal with stress and high levels of difficulty. What I don't want is for them to feel like any breeze of sadness is going to blow them off of the shelf to shatter on the floor. 

We're not good at balance, though -- this society of ours -- and I think it always comes down to one thing: too much work. Why tread water in the center of the pool when one can just cling to an edge?