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all quiet on the western front

You know you have those books you were supposed to read but you never did – the great big classics – Moby Dick, anything by Tolstoy, some great early feminist novel, but you never did and while you feel some sort of guilt, you also know that there are a billion books and you cannot be expected to know all of them and if someone wants to call you out on one book then screw ‘em.

That being said, you absolutely HAVE TO READ “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I was obliquely aware of it and especially in the praise of it. I knew it was a “war novel” and while I’ve enjoyed novels with war in them, I was no aficionado. But still it was impressed upon me that this book was IMPORTANT. And it is.

I finally nabbed it from my mother’s bookshelf while we were preparing her move and eventually picked it up to actually read. A slim little book so I figured, might’s well have at it.

This book has changed my life. I think I needed to be transported through amazing language to the dirty, wet, filthy, angry, bloody, stinky, trenches of war. This book does that. And while I know that modern warfare is different, I can only assume that many of the same emotions and fears and bewilderment that Erich Maria Remarque felt are also felt by terribly young, modern soldiers as well. War is war.

It stopped me in my tracks. I always knew war was bad and opposed it mostly as again, a modern, basically aware man, but this flung it all right up into my perfectly safe – thanks to soldiers, and diplomats, and peaceniks, and generally good people – face. I know I can’t know what any soldier in the blaze of war goes through, but this guy gives you a pretty fucking good idea in this book. And to say, it ain’t pretty, would be pantywaist’s clever turn of a phrase. It’s blood ugly.

It shames a person for so many reasons; we’re part of the humanity who creates these situations, we make war. But also because I’ve never had to experience what the soldiers do – not the fucking generals, by the way – but the frontline slugs. I’ve always been basically physically perfectly safe, I’ve never lacked a meal or something to eat, alcohol is always available and affordable. But not for these guys; not at all.

A piece of bread, a sip of cognac is everything. Especially after a day of shelling and explosions, dismemberment and splashing blood, looking into the eye of the man you are about to kill. That’s the cutting edge of life, at its worst.

I read much of this in a comfortable chair overlooking a glistening Lake Superior, safe and sound. But read a book that struck the fear of our manmade devils right into my heart.

 

right

Nice Windows

So there’s quite the kerfuffle about Pope Francis bagging a bit on the childless couples who act like their dogs and/or cats are even remotely decent substitutes. And I get that that is maybe a bit old school Catholic style. But I’m right there with him! I’m so tired of my childless friends talking about this new restaurant or that great band they saw. Screw that! How about you procreate – as we were all meant to do! That’s the only reason why you’re on this earth – the only real reason! Everything else is window dressing! That pottery you do? Whatever. The music you make? Fun, but ultimately pointless. All those great art shows? You wouldn’t miss them if you never saw them.

And yet the rest of us – the beaten and down-trodden who carry the future of the world on our shoulders and our credit cards – double-down, the women go through the amazing sacrifice of giving birth and the two of us (hopefully) feel the tectonic shift beneath our feet and realize that one now true truth: It’s no longer about me any more, it’s all about you. I live for someone else.

And you with your hip concerts and surprise trips to Costa Rica! You with your spotless houses and planned dinners! You with your facebook posts about all the kidless fun you’re having! You!

Have you ever cupped your hands to catch the puke of a little girl? Realized long after changing a diaper that you had poop beneath your fingernail? Have you ever listened to the banal goings on of a six-year-old orator on a car trip for 2.75 hours? NO, YOU HAVE NOT! And even if you have you could leave the little pains in the ass behind when you head home to your great new awesome HBO series binge-a-thon!

Yeah, I’m jealous. Really jealous. You got it made. I’m screwed. But you got to admit I got it right with the whole evolution thing. Crap out kids – the genetic coupling, halving yourself. Passing on the genes. Only the strong survive. That’s the only real reason we’re here. The rest is window dressing.

But I got to admit that your windows look awesome, god damn it.

blows my mind

So my buddy was telling me about somebody he knows who somehow knows one of the really, really big Hollywood producers, like, just hugely big, like, you know, worth bajillions of dollars and produces movies and tv and whatever, whatever it is they do, and in that sick Hollywood culture people would literally just drop down on their knees and suck his dick to just to get him to read or to look at their, you know, script or to get it produced or whatever so and the guy is you know and he, and he lives it and acts it and he’s so absolutely full of himself to the point he’s just this bizarre Hollywood sick shit, you know, like, this guy, you know, I mean, he just absolutely believes he is as big and as amazing as these people treat him and they do. And what’s so interesting about that is he knows this person who knows this producer more closely and in fact has spent time with him at his home once a year for like thanksgiving or something and the guy this producer guy is the same at home and the people around him at home treat him the same way as the Hollywood sycophants all do so this guy’s life is like it’s as sick at home as it is elsewhere he’s so absolutely full of himself that, that, that, that no matter where he is he has to be sort of treated this way, and acts this way, this sense of, you know, this sense of, deserving, that he deserves all of this, I can’t think of the word there, but … and so, and so, and so I’m thinking about this and thinking god, how do you get like this? How can you possibly be that way? And so I’m thinking about it and I was struck by a really weird thought that so if you took this guy and everything he’s created, like everything he’s created – all the tv shows and all the movies and everything he’s done and everything he’s created and you just could somehow just erase it from history or just pluck it out and throw it away as if it never existed, and what struck me about that is that the world would not be any worse off – at all – like not at all, like nothing would be affected in the world some other movies or tv shows or whatever would fill in there and if we did not know what we’d seen, even if we enjoyed one of his movies or whatever greatly, even if we knew that, but if we didn’t know and it wasn’t created, it would have zero effect on the world. Like none whatsoever! But if you think about this if you took one teacher out, or one nurse out, and what they’ve done in the world, you know, it would have a very profound effect on the people who, who learned from them – or they cared for or whatever, you know, it would be a hugely profound effect, and it’s the same like with our sports stars, I mean, we pay these guys like millions of dollars to like run down the field, or like slap a puck really hard , or kick a ball or do whatever it is, you know, but if you take anyone of these billionaire, millionaire, I guess, sports stars out and the world would be none the worse at all – like, not at all. Nothing would be affected. Zero. Zilch. It’s like we pay the most money, in a lot of cases, it’s now always true, but in a lot of cases, to the people whose effects, true effects on the world and our lives is the least, I mean, think about that, we pay the most money to the people whose effects on the world, truly profound and meaningful effects on the world, are the least, that blows my mind. That just blows my mind.

06.24

So I’m thinking more about this and realizing there are really two types of jobs. Those that on some light level affect the world and those that affect it immediately and profoundly and forever. I’m of the former. I work in marketing and while it’s important for me and my clients, if everything I’ve ever done was suddenly erased, not a whole lot would change. But if my brother would similarly disappear, all of the work he’s done to help people’s vision would also disappear. The Target CEO, not much. The Target employee who helped me find the very important gift I was looking for, yep. Entertainers, absolutely not. Plumbers, yes.

This isn’t very well thought out, but am I serious about it? Yes, I am.

06.17.14

Happy Birthday, Dad. You’d be 83. I graduated in 82 – not sure there’s a connection there, but I like numbers so I see something obliquely significant. The universe works on numbers – physics – so maybe that’s where we need to look to look beyond our insignificance.

83 years on this planet has to be a win. I know it is as a dedicated Sunday obituary reader. I see the numbers – the ages – the multitudes in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and now 90s, so I know that lasting into the land of the octogenarian is a win.

A win for you and a win for all of us. To love someone and then have them for so long is exactly what we live for. Early deaths are tears in our lives, our families and our psyches. They serve a purpose – they remind us of the fragility of it all, but they rip at our souls. Old deaths show purpose. They remind us of the reasons we fight to stay alive – not only for us but for the people we love, and more importantly, who love us.

We loved you – love you, but the distinction is profound. I’ve yet to pick up your ashes. I know they’re perfectly safe where they are and I really don’t know what on earth to do with them, despite our plans to do something earthly with them.

I’ll never forget the births of my children. That’s about as profound a moment as you can experience. Everything about me dissipated. It was now entirely about them. All selfish desires went from life to just plain selfish. But then again, it is about me and how I live my life for them. You did that for me. You lived your life to make certain we were provided for. Not that you didn’t live your life for you, you did! But underlying whatever you did was the knowledge that you had us and would provide for us and then make certain we lived our own lives.

Well done, old man! Happy Birthday! Your birth led to mine and your mind made certain I lived a good life. I am working – struggling – to do the same for my kids. It’s a struggle, you know/knew that. But it’s worth it. For living for yourself is one thing, living for others is a multitude of things.

seems rather obvious, and then not at all

Back in 2003, as our elected officials were all cheerleading our invasion of Iraq, it seemed so blatantly obvious to all of us that if we did, eventually the civil war that is happening right now would certainly come to pass and it blew our minds that they didn’t see that. Not a one of the regular folks I talked with believed Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” and lo and behold we were right. Not one of us believed we could bomb the country of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds into some sort of submission without creating a huge power vacuum that would be filled with the same terrorists and radicals we purported to be fighting against, and lo and behold we were right again.

None of us liked Saddam Hussein, and Saddam Hussein, no doubt, ran the place with a hot iron fist, but he was also obviously in no position post-Kuwait to be any real threat to the region, let alone the United States. In addition, he hated Al Qaeda, or religious zealots of any kind (he seemed to believe that there should be no god before him), and would not tolerate anyone who would threaten the stability of his country, for that matter. Remove him and they will move in, we said, which they did.

One passing glance at the history of the entire Middle East and one should have been able to suss out that our bombs and “nation building” would not lead to some sort of shiny democracy a la the United States. It staggers the imagination to believe that they believed it themselves. These were not stupid people so the real question is why did we really invade Iraq? The oil? Payback for W’s dad’s war? Anger that we didn’t take him out then and there? Or maybe this Sunnis kill Shiites and vice versa over and over is exactly what they wanted. Who knows? They know, but no one is about to tell us.

 

 

 

Oh, Henry!

Everything’s blooming! It’s Minnesota at its – finally – best! We wait through autumn, when we’re not waiting at all, and in fact, wondering expectantly at the big brown die-off, through the darkening fall, then Christmas and New Year’s and a slight warm reprieve from the deepening doldrums, and then the real winter, the one that stays long after its welcome, through February, March, even April, May. This year was brutal on our souls. Brutal and unforgiving, unstoppable. The strongest among us whined like kids kept out of the carnival.

But here it is! Glorious! Yet we always forget. Every year. Holy shit! A flower! Green grass! Like we’ve never seen it before. The soil lets loose its gases, which hop us up like goofballs. The air mists moisture, smells sweet, coats our lungs. The flowers shock and bushes burst. The trees all leafy, some big blooms above, fluttering, breezy, then petals scatter all over the ground. Soft, sweet snowflakes, warm and oily.

It’s just June 2nd. Twenty days to the actual Solstice. So much summer to enjoy! We feel guilty. Haven’t we had enough already? Let’s not get fancy. We’re better than this. Stronger! Forgetting the brutality we’ve just suffered, suddenly so forgiving. It wasn’t that bad, right? I know you’ll do it again, but I forgive you this one time. Because now is good – really, really good.

 

 

Tell it like it is

My dad’s obit appeared today in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Saint Paul Pioneer Press and the Sioux City Journal and will also appear in the Lake County Chronicle on Thursday. What does that mean? Our little final story will hit three papers near to where he’s most recently lived and soon one where he really recently lived.

I’ve read the obituaries every Sunday for the last 25 years of my life. Since I was 25, I guess. I don’t know what got me into that habit, but the habit I got. It’s become a ritual for me because I find myself wanting to know who’s dying. And more than that, and here’s how most obituaries so fail, why. I was certain to mention what ailed my father before he died because I think it’s terribly important. An obituary without a cause of death is just a greeting card. With a cause of death, it’s a statement of fact.

We, the living, need to see what’s killing the rest of us – no matter how awful or what we think wrongly is embarrassing. It’s the truth that we need to recognize together. There’s no shame. Suicide or aneurysm or cancer or car accident. The truth of the matter is what matters. It’s what will touch us to be aware of what is killing the rest of us. Lewy Body Dementia isn’t pretty, but I’ve now heard from others that have loved ones that suffer similarly. That’s good. Because they find solace in the diagnosis, reason and love. And shared experience.

When I read those that do tell the whole truth, I feel alive. When I read those that don’t, I’m not sure exactly how to feel. Yes, I revel in a life well lived, but beyond that it’s what behind door number one. You guess. But you could never possibly figure it out.

Death by any means is noble – whether it is an old woman dying in her sleep at 95 surrounded by family or a young person suffering from mental illness who commits suicide. It’s entirely equal and important. Obituaries need to spell it out and allow us to respond as human beings. Even a suicide bomber. We should know that, see who they were and who loved them, and we’ll be that much closer to knowing what causes something so hideous, and maybe be there to affect such a decision in the future.

But that is extreme. What about the rest of us and all the diseases and accidents that take us out of this life? The more we know, the more we can understand and be prepared and aware. Cancer, stroke, old age, [insert that which killed your loved one here] – let the people know. Let them know what took this great person’s life so they, the rest of us, can be aware with the ones we love.

We hear statistics, trends, numbers, chances, but they’re just that. Not human beings, but numbers. Give the body a reason. Give the people a chance to understand and maybe respond. All death is noble, if we take the time to understand why. Life is what we’re living, death is not just a concept, it’s more true than you can ever be yet. Tell it like it is. Let that be your favor to the future.

The death of a loved one quickens life

The death of a loved one quickens life, it really does. Like most things around death, it’s slippery and hard to explain. But the sadness seems to open windows and let in the light of life as if something of that which animated them shines through you. I can feel that now with the passing of my dad a week ago today.

Clarity’s a good word – the same thing that comes with presence, but a bit more Technicolor than anyone of us sees on any given day or through any daily meditation. I certainly see more clearly than I did last Friday, despite the tears that muddled my eyes.

It mimics the freedom those with the worst diagnosis often eventually feel. To understand one’s mortality is to gaze deeply at the wonder of living. It’s once removed but profound nonetheless. It’s beautiful and I know exactly who to thank.

Thank you, Dad, for life and for this. I thought you had already done enough for me.

First a father, then a friend

See ya, Dad! Glad you could finally get the hell out of that memory care crap. As much as those people are saints and angels, it was a living hell for you, sir. You spend the last thirty years of your life on 13 wooded acres with streams and deer and fox and bears and a view of “the largest fresh water lake in the world,” as you were wont to say, then the last three months in a glorified hospital room, dubbed your “apartment”. You were a “resident” but I preferred a “guest” hoping your stay wouldn’t really add up to any sort of actual residency.

And it didn’t. It was as if you looked around you and said, “No, thank you.” You rallied for a few weeks and seemed darn good – if all the mumbling, confusion, hallucinations and falling down constitutes darn good. But it’s all relative, and you quickly crumpled and exited with great class.

You and mom must have had quite a connection. She up north suddenly struck with the thought – the compulsion – that she needed to get down here to see you on Friday. “Mom,” I said, “you’re coming next week.” “No, I need to see Bob.”

We saw you Friday early and you smiled when I whispered to you, “Dude, mom’s coming today and it would be a perfect time to get the hell out of here.” When we left you almost broke my hand squeezing it and you almost hugged Jana and I inside out. I wondered if you didn’t have a plan.

She came, you sat on the deck in the sun together – as you did on various decks, docks and beaches throughout your 57 years together – you had a little dinner and when she ran to the store, you took the opportunity to leave this strange little planet in the care of the nurses, who gussied up the old bod in some nice pajamas, combed your hair and laid you down on the bed like the best of open-casket moments. Brilliant! Mom got to be there and you know just how important that was! God, I love you, Dad. And Mom.

I know you had no time for religion, the afterlife and all the rest. You were a scientist – a surgeon who had to go into work at 2 am and piece together some poor kid whose parent’s station wagon was t-boned by some drunk in a big old Buick. That boy never did anything to deserve a skin-bag full of crushed bone. And you did everything you could. And mostly it worked, but sometimes it didn’t. And the little boy, or girl, or teenager, mom, dad, grandmother – whoever – would die. There was simply no room for some sort of caring god who answers prayers in that world. What god would answer this mom’s prayer over here for the new couch and then allow this mom’s kid to be crushed to death on a dark highway, whether or not she thought to pray.

We talked about the afterlife and you were curious – as any good scientist would be. But you knew you could not know, nor could anyone else without proof, real proof; stories in old books and old men’s promises from pulpits do not constitute any sort of proof whatsoever.

So we left it at that knowing we didn’t know… but now you do! I’ve no idea where you are – let me rephrase that: I’ve no idea where your soul is (if that can be separated from the body; if there is such a thing as a soul) but your corporeal self is lying in a drawer awaiting the great cremation oven. It’s got to be great, and by great I mean, big. Some a bit more religious might see that as a metaphor of you burning in hell for your agnosticism. I see it as the incredibly unselfish choice of someone who really doesn’t believe they should take up 28 square feet of earth for eternity.

We’ll toss the ashes out on Lake Superior and maybe some on South Long Lake. I know you think that sort of thing is silly, at best, but we’ll enjoy it. I’ve got to tell you that the guy at the cremation society said that if you’re tossing ashes outside anywhere you should “mind the wind!” Can you imagine? We make great speeches, open the lid, toss the ashes that are you (not really) and whoosh! It all blows back in our faces! You’d love that just to drive home just how silly all this is. I know you would.

So where are you? Can’t you give us a sign? Move a chair, or a lamp, jeez, how about the cursor? That can’t be all that hard. Are you IN some sort of heaven? Or OUT there in the firmament? Jetting from star to star, universe to universe? Are you everywhere? Flowing with the energy that moves all things? Or will you be reborn a black bear? (Colin came back as a rabbit. I see him everywhere.)

I’m just like you, Dad, I’ve no idea how that all works, and will never take it on faith from any man – ever. You instilled that bullshit alarm in me from an early age and it’s there and it’s calibrated and it has never, ever failed me. For that, I thank you dearly.

I also thank you for that sense of wonder and curiosity that is the flipside. You instilled that in me as well and it’s made my life richer than I could imagine. In fact, we had many a cocktail conversation about the existence of the god concept and what that might look like if it did/does exist. These were wonderful conversations that, of course, didn’t really lead anywhere. Instead it was the journey, as they like to say.

So now you know – or at least you know where death leads us – all you dead people know! Good for you, dead people. But maybe in death you learn what death is, but all of you are still knocking around wherever with no more proof of a god than we have here on earth. Who knows? Well, you do.

I’ll keep that curiosity and sense of wonder at the world, nature, the universe(s) and pass that right on to Olivia and Ben. I’ll hold my hand out in front of me, like you did, and think, “Look at that thing, it’s absolutely brilliant!” And it is! I told that to some people at work just the other day and they also looked at their hand, moving their four fingers and the mind-blowing opposable thumb, and I’m pretty certain that they will also never see it the same again. You taught me that there’s enough right here in our physical world to explore, learn from, and wonder about without conjuring all-knowing and eternal gods and the like. We don’t know how gravity works, but we’re running around telling people what the creator of everything thinks? Good Lord.

We were best buddies at the end. Even after that sick disease wrecked your brain to a place where I only got glimpses of you, we still connected. We could sit in confusion for an hour and then you’d suddenly give me a look that said, “Don’t worry, Luke, I’m still in here.” I loved those moments. I loved all the moments. I even loved the shitty moments that pepper the care of a guy with your disease. I learned a lot in the last year. You taught me right up to the very end.

I love you. I will always love you. Godspeed! (Yes, I had to say it!) And don’t forget to stay in touch! I’ll be listening, my friend.

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