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April 2007

Bye, Bye Tactile Pleasure (Part Two): The Loss of Album Art

MojoIn a post I made here over a year ago, I lamented the advent of the digital revolution, that is, the rise of digitally downloaded music and even digital books. But I'm not sure my dismay at the lost tactile pleasure of holding a CD and perusing its liner notes really got to the root of my pain, to the sense of loss I feel.

In a recent special collectors issue, the British music magazine Mojo addressed "The Greatest Album Covers of All Time." For me, turning the glossy full-color pages of this oversize issue was a trip through time as well as a visual delight. I had almost forgotten how much has been lost, first with the advent of the CD, and now with the trend toward digital music downloads. You see, I can never can never quite get over the fact that when albums were really albums, you really had something. When I download a song, I do not feel that I have anything, really. It doesn't seem real or significant.

Let's say you're in my eighth grade class. You've just finished lunch at my junior high school and you make your way to the courtyard where groups of kids cluster. There's girls over there along with a few defectors, guys who have gone over to the dark side, actually talking with girls. There's two or three losers and loners, by themselves, like unfortunate untouchables in the sometimes cruel world of high school. There's freaks -- well, let's call them emerging freaks, as they are not old enough to be real freaks with long hair and weird clothes and mannerisms (it's the early Seventies, people), even though that one, Davis Zeigler, did tell me he was trying to expand the cosmic consciousness of his deskchair. (I'm not sure what that was about.) Wait. Who are those guys lugging 10 to 15 albums around under arm, huddled together poring over the album art and liner notes? That'd be me and my fellow audiophiles. I had something. I really had something, back in the days when albums were albums, when you had at least 576 square inches of visual imagery to closely examine when you bought a record. You see what we've lost? Looking at a CD is like looking at a thumbprint of a person. I want the whole thing, something big and grand.

ThickCarrying around those albums I knew I had the real thing. I not only had music, I had concept, a visual statement, a band bio (albeit abstact), identity, community and more -- much more than a song on an Ipod. I had something. When I looked at Peter Blake's surreal cover for The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, I knew I was getting more than just music. I was buying into a statement about life and music. I knew more than just a song. I remember so many of them: Jefferson Airplane's Bark, which came in a grocery bag for Pete's sake, or Jethro Tull's Thick As A Brick, which looked like a very unusual newspaper, Grand Funk Railroad's E Pluribus Funk which was round -- something we'd never seen before! Then came the psychedelic covers, like The Beatles Revolver, designed by Klaus Voorman, or the red velvet feel of the Bee Gees (pre-disco) Odessa album,The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request, with the three-dimensional photo on the front. My, they were great days, with so much to look at, a hey-day of artistic control of product we have not seen since.

HousesBut back to my point: when you had an album then, you really had something. You could touch it, feel it, look at it, and finally listen to it. The album was like an icon of the band, a window into who they were. The band had a full pallette of color and sound from which to make a statement. As I huddled there with my buddies, deciphering what in the world the artwork on Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy album (home of "Stairway to Heaven") meant, I was a part of something bigger than me, something transcendant, something spiritual, something you could touch. We've lost that now.

When God gave us His revelation, it was incarnational and multidimensional. The Ten Commandments came on tablets of stone, the words etched by God Himself. The Law and the Prophets came on parchments, scrolls, things that you could touch and see and even smell. And God's final revelation came in a three-dimensional living breathing man, that you could see, hear, touch, and (I assume) smell. The Gospel is so deeply inacarnational, taking shape in the stuff of the physical world, in particular things and particular people that you can see and hear and touch.

And that's why I like albums, the real things. They're little incarnations, something you can interact with in a multi-sensory way. They're some artist's gospel incarnate, the real thing.

Now maybe you're under thirty and don't know what in the world the big deal is. Well, I think you really do know the sense that something fully incarnate is better than just the idea of something or the single sense of something, sort of like a Starbucks coffee -- the taste, the smell, the warmth, and the experience is far better than just the taste of the drink. Do you understand? It's the way we're wired.

And finally --- Sam, if you're reading this, will you mail me back Traffic's Shoot Out At the Fantasy Factory? I mean, come on, it's been 33 years since you borrowed it. Please. I need the real thing.

Father's Eyes: A Review

Fathers_eyesFor those who struggle with the effects of an abusive home environment, Cherie Burbach's recently published book, Father's Eyes, may provide hope and solace. Burbach, the daughter of an abusive, alcoholic father who ultimately took his own life, chronicles her journey through despair to Christian faith, from struggle to search to surrender to embrace --- the embrace, that is, of God the Father's love. The poems are honest, accessible, and cathartic, no doubt, for Burbach as well as others who may share her experience.

That being said, I have to say, with Garrison Keillor, that "[s]elf-expression is not the point of it, people!" In a funny and yet insightful article a number of years ago in The Atlantic Monthly entitled "The Poetry Judge," Keillor makes the pithy observation that "[e]xperience becomes literature when it no longer matters to the reader whether the story is true or not." He's right. Good poems are the ones that bring pleasure in the reading -- so much pleasure that you might just read them to the person sitting next to you. Writers and readers of poetry love the sight and sound of language; meaning and content must be carried along by such words.

The sense I have in reading Father's Eyes is that I am peering into Burbach's journal. When I read "I am the guilt of my father's illness/ I am the burden of his death/ I am evidence of his addiction," I am sympathetic. But because I do not share her experience, I must decide whether to read the poems because I love the writing, and I can't say that I do. I encourage her to use more concrete, particular images, to write about a wider array of topics, and to drop the personal pronoun. For someone who loves writing, I suspect there are good poems to be written and, ultimately, she will write them.

"In The Father's eyes/ I'm His child./ His delight./ He wants me here,/ and I belong." We can celebrate God's embrace of Cherie Burbach and hope her book will help other strugglers. with abusive home situations. We can also watch for more developed and mature writing in future books. And we can celebrate the Father who rescues us and gifts us with the ability to glorify him in our writing and other vocations.

The Children of Hurin: A Review

HurinSince I rank J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as one of the Top Ten books of all time, I was naturally compelled to read his posthumously published novel, The Children of Hurin, when it was released last week. Reading it I was reminded again of his expansive imagination and worldmaking ability. In the end, however, The Children of Hurin is simply a fine story brought to print through the dedicated efforts of Tolkien's son, Christopher.

The story reads like a Shakepearean tragedy, only its setting is of a different world, the Eldar Days of Middle-Earth, long before the time of the Hobbits of The Lord of the Rings. If you try and fit all the pieces together, the family trees, the names and places, the historical context, it is quite maddening. I quit that early on and settled down in a good story.

The story focuses primarily on Turin, the son of Hurin, a man and yet one who became the foster-child of an eldar, an elf-king by the name of Thingol, when his father was captured by Morgoth (the satanic force in the Eldar Days.) Turin becomes a mighty warrior, proud but yet one with pity (mercy). His fateful life has many twists and turns, but overall it is tragic. The world is getting darker, beset by Mordor's orcs and a dragon named Glaurung. There are moments of peace and happiness that Turin knows, and yet he seems fated to see whatever good thing he does or touches have a dark lining. All that is good seems to turn to bad in his hand, the result of Mordor's curse on him. And yet, all is not lost -- there is the hope that help will come from Valinor (the place of the Vala (equating, perhaps to angels) one day. But not this day.

Turin's life is one of loss, in many ways. Lost love, lost friendship, lost honor, lost family --- and yet, as in The Lord of the Rings, the unseen hand of providence seems to be at work. Evil is truly evil Good is worth fighting for. Honor matters, as does friendship. Even in the midst of darkness, we are inspired.

If detail matters to you, Christopher Tolkien has provided some context with his preface, introduction, genealogies, and appendices. But read the story first. Enjoy the tale.

Housekeeping: A Review

HousekeepingIf it's true, as Scripture says, that we are "aliens and strangers" on the earth, without a home here, then Marilynne Robinson's 1980 book, Housekeeping, may be a reminder of what it really means to sojourn on the earth, to be ever longing for a true home. Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, dropped off by their mother with their competent (if reclusive) grandmother who cared for them until her death, and who then came under the care of Sophie, an eccentric and perhaps mentally ill aunt, a former drifter. It is and remains throughout the story an odd homelife for the girls.

Particularly for a first book, this is fine writing. The characters are well-drawn and rounded. We may not fully like them or understand them, but we know them and are sympathetic toward them even as their behavior frustrates us. Sophie is by any standard an inept caregiver and housekeeper. She collects magazines, which pile up in corners; saves cans, which line the walls; allows birds to roost in the second floor of the house; and so on. The girls barely eat, often miss school, and receive little emotional support from Sophie. Sophie wanders the woods, sits in the dark for long periods of time, sleeps in her clothes --- in other words, she lives the life of a drifter though she is, for a time, "housekeeping."

We might say, "how awful!", but even with all that we are sympathetic. Sophie is not unkind. She cares for Ruth and Lucille as best she can. It's only that she cares so little for the things of the world, for possessions, for permanence, for money, for reputation. She is, in the end, only passing through. A transient. She is unatttached to the world and its ways, and though we may not wish to be unattached in the same way or to the same extreme, it is a refreshing remoteness; we know her strangeness.

This is a story of loss and abandonment, and in this it suggests our own exile here on earth. Our loss is the fallen condition in which we live, the bent world we inhabit, and the estrangement we feel. Nothing can quite satiate our appetites, nothing slake our thirst. We are discontent. Ruthie says that "Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell, or so the story goes. And while He was on earth He mended families." It's an odd way to put it, as God was not so much "pulled" as voluntarily followed us, bearing our infirmities the Word says, and yet Ruthie has it about right. She says "he walked on water, but He was not born to drown." I'll say not.

There is a sense that we are drifting too. And yet thank God Home is on the horizon, that our condition is neither permanent nor fatal. Our hope for permanence will come to fruition if beyond the boundaries of this world.

Housekeeping was prescribed for me by my wife as punishment (as she did not like these characters who could not seem to help themselves, but read the book because I suggested my daughter give it to her). But I'll take a licking like this anytime. I enjoyed the book, and I recommend it to you.

Sirius Gets Serious

Sirius_logoOcassionally I listen to Sirius Disorder, Channel 32, because I like the eclectic nature of it and the sometimes rambling commentary by DJ Michael Tearson. Today I felt like calling him.

I jumped into Channel 32 when Tearson was in the middle of a commentary on the killings at Virginia Tech. Basically, this is what he said: "What's happening to us? Something is wrong. We must be evolving or mutating, I mean devolving." He went on like this for a few more minutes, wondering why innocents are killed, what is wrong with man, and so on. It reminded me of the reaction after 9-11, when the enormity of evil confronted us. People searched for some reason as to how people could murder innocents in such a way. And then the moment passes and they move on.

What would I say to Tearson? It'd be no answer to point to religion, of course, as many people have been killed in the service of that cause. But I would begin with his recognition that something is wrong with man. Years ago an Atlantic Monthly headline article put it this way: "Why Can't We Be Good?" An event like that of this week brings home to people that we can't be good, only less bad, perhaps.

I might say something like this: "Michael, if you look at history you would see that this is not a new phoenomena. People have always committed atrocious acts. [Herein list a litiany of horrors if he is unconvinced.] You're really noticing something true about the human condition: we're bent people, capable of good but also bent toward evil. Christians call that sin -- a condition of living against the purpose for which we are created, outside the Creator's plan. [Michael also said this kind of violence is not what we were made for.] So, the question is how we get better. History shows we're not very capable of making much progress on that. For every Mother Teresa, there are more Stalins and Idi Amins, whether grandly evil or eveil only in petty regards. We obviously need some outside help --- outside religion, outside the therapeutic society, outside social engineering. We need someone or some thing big enough to change us from within. Isn't that what Jesus promised?"

It's refreshing to hear the truth in an unlikely place -- Sirius Disorder. But the fact of our fallen nature like so many other creational truths is unavoidable. Let's hope Michael Tearson prompted a few listeners to wonder why we are as we are.

Little Bitty Unhappy Centers

Marketplace"We awaken and find that we have jumped into a culture moving at breakneck speed, powered by great economic forces dedicated to servicing and expanding the appetites of the voraciously hungry selves we've become, and we eat and eat and eat and we're just as hungry as before, so we eat and eat. . . and we're still empty. Hungry. Alone. And we realize that we have become, as we see in flashes of dark honesty, tiny centers, the tiniest centers imaginable. And these tiny centers are not holding."

(Eric Miller, "Nuclear Centers," in Touchstone Magazine, April 2007)

One of the many positive things about being with many elderly people is that they are more often than the middle-aged or young beyond the foolishness of consumption. Either they never had the money to follow their passions where they will, where their appetites took them, or having the money, they realized too late in life, perhaps, like Solomon, that all chasing after wealth, possessions, and sex is vanity, meaningless, that "[a]man's efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied" (Ecc. 6:7). My mother, for example, is and has been for years unfazed by new cars, new clothes, new carpet, new restaurants, and so on. In fact she, like so many elderly people, find comfort in the familiar, the tried and true or, at least, the known rather than the unknown. Culture motors by, going somewhere barely articulable ("you deserve it!"), and here they are smelling the billowing exhaust of progress, only when the smoke clears they sense a certain peaceableness and contentment about where they remain. Why, after all, they say, would we want to go to Europe when the beach is so nice? Why would we want to try the Red Robin when the Barbecue Lodge where we've eaten well for the last 20 years is perfectly fine? To say they may discover something new is no answer at all for them.

What Eric Miller is lamenting and critiquing in his short article is our loss in the West of a defining center, one which has historically been a Judeo-Christian framework, one that filtered down through nation, neighborhood, church, school, and family. We found our identity as part of something larger than ourselves, something not driven or defined by the market but by the people we lived with and not the ones we shopped with. As he says, when we want to have a sense of belonging, when in other words we are lonely, "we end up looking for the codes and symbols of those who are part of our own self-selected, generation-driven market niche and follow along, being sure to reserve the right to leave (whether job, church, town, or marriage) at a moment's notice, and so protect our 'freedom.' Sadly, this form of belonging is a faint shadow of the sort of thick membership that words like 'commonwealth' and 'neighborhood' and 'family' and 'church' and 'college' demand." Solomon's wisdom echoes down the centuries: such a life is hollow and empty, and still we chase it.

We laugh at the routines of the elderly at times, their aversion to change, and while it's true that their comfort and tradition can blind them to the God-given opportunity that a new thing may yield, they often have a contentment that we lack. For example, every now and then I have lunch with two gentlemen in their late Sixties, men who have not retired but who have given up the day to day occupational ladder-climbing. Both can well afford to eat where they will, and yet they inevitably and routinely meet weekly at a restaurant sandwiched between a thrift store and a repair shop in a local, somewhat dated strip shopping center for meat and vegetables --- the familiar, the good, and the true. It is not new. It does not fit any market niche. And yet they enjoy a certain community in this place, one hand to mouth and the other free to wave and shake hands with the various people they see in that restaurant.

When I am with my mother, I realize that she wants for nothing, nothing, that is, except to see her family and to enjoy familiar places and routines. For some older folks that's a withdrawal, a kind of giving up on life; for others, a deep contentment and rest, a reflection on the fact that much that passes for life is vanity and the rest can't be bought.

We're not really happy being the center of our world, particularly when everyone is a center. We can't hold it together too well. Deep down we don't know who we really are and where we're really going. Our strivings would be humorous to God were they not so sad.

I know real life doesn't reside in the new and shiny. I've had shiny things, and they grow dull. But the pull of appetite is strong, and I am weak. Thank God "the one who is in [me] is greater than the one who is in the world" (1 Jn. 4:4). He is the real bread of life, the only one worth hungering after.

Why We Go Home

Memory_tree"[M]emories are by their very nature fragmented, isolated, and arbitrary as glimpses one has at night through lighted windows." (Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson)

After I rounded the corner on Surry Drive, I came to a stop next to a field of foot high grass. I used to dread cutting the grass in that field. It felt like it took all day, back and forth and back and forth with the push mower, sweat pouring off me. Now it looks smaller by far, unkempt too.

"Where did we live?"

"Right there, Mom."

I have my Mom in the car with me, her car really, as she doesn't drive any longer and this car is easier for her to get in and out of with her arthritis. Her face is a bit puzzled, I think, and I wonder what she is remembering. Maybe she's like me. I could sit here in the car and conjure up at least two dozen memories of this house and its environs within five minutes or so. But I wonder what she remembers.

"That's where the Nodars lived, on the corner, that house."

"Norma lived there? That house is too small."

"Yeah, that's it alright. Next door were the Helmanns, and then the Highfills, and then the Jewish family --- what were there names? --- then Bobby's house, and the Hahns.' I'm pointing them out with my finger, somewhat amazed that I can remember.

"Oh yeah."

I move on. I know it looks suspicious, a strange car sitting here scrutinizing houses. For a moment I imagine seeing a Dad out in the yard of my old house, walking up and telling him I used to live here, hoping he'd ask me in. I mean I haven't seen my old bedroom in, well, maybe 30 years or so. But no, I suppose that won't happen, or if it did, it'd be a bit wierd.

What am I looking for? I'm not sure. But I think I want to recollect who I am and where I came from. I draw some reassurance from that, that I had a home and maybe that I'll have one beyond this earth, that though we all grow older and move away the old places are still there and the memories we have still inhabit them.

I drive on. No one out. I try to see what would have been in my childhood: a purple Sears Spyder bike with high handlebars and a banana seat; a backyard game of capture the flag played over three or four backyards, walking to the corner store scheming up some superhero adventure, laying in sleeping bags on the sideyard of a house wondering if I could make it outside all night. It's an odd feeling. Those memories are near enough to touch, almost, and yet 35-40 years away. In fact, were I to stop the car I could stand in the very spot where certain things occurred --- like where the neighborhood bully Brad Bullah inexplicably helped me fix my bike, and act of kindness when no one else was around --- and yet the memory occupies (or occupied) that space in a different time.

I think this odd feeling we have in the presence of places that evoke memories is God-given. It's speculative, of course, but I suspect that when we attain glory we will somehow see the passage of time in a different light. And while we will not be God, the one who is timeless (and outside time), we will be eternal, and that must bring a different perspective to these memories. I can't believe we simply forget everything, because in forgetting we lose who we are.

"Let's go by Momma's house. I haven't been over there in a long time."

"OK." She's talking about her mother's house, my grandmother, who lived in the same house as long as I knew her.

I drive on, repeating street names, like Pender, Gracewood, Conrwallis, Pembroke, and so on, faintly comforted by the sound of the spoken names, the fact that they have endured. And in my mother's face I see the light of recognition, as through a glass dimly. One day it will all be clear. One day we'll all get home.

The Pursuit of Happyness

HandNo, I'm not talking about the recent movie which I have not seen. Rather, today's events provided a stark contrast between two lives --- that of writer Kurt Vonnegut, who died today, and that of Apollo 16 astronaut and 10th man on the moon, Charles Duke, who I heard speak tonight. both of whom pursued happiness. Duke became a believer in 1978, four years after he walked on the moon. Vonnegut never did.

I am not intimately familiar with Vonnegut's books, though I know the titles --- like Slaughterhouse-Five, the one most people know about. My wife can summon to mind a disturbing image from this book, which was required reading in her high school. Slaugterhouse-Five is an absurdist classic, a crazy part sci-fi trip through time with Billy Pilgrim (also later the name of a quite good band) which is also a plea against the butchery of war (hence, the title Slaughterhgouse-Five, which was the name of the POW camp in which Vonnegut was confined during WWII). Vonnegut was intimately familiar with the hell of war, having witnessed Nazi cruelty as well as the firebombing of Desden by the Allies. He made it a darkly funny and yet deeply serious polemic against war. Some men come to faith in such circumstances; some don't. A modern day Mark Twain, he did not embrace faith but, according to what I read of him, believed that the only thing redeeming in mankind was human kindness. And yet what a slender reed upon which to ground hope.

Charles Duke, on the other hand, presented a very common life story, one we have all heard. He pursued a career in military avaiation, became a test pilot under Chuck Yeager, entered the NASA Astronaut Corp in the Sixties, and eventually went to the moon and back on Apollo 16. And yet at the pinnacle of success his life as husband and father was a shambles. His wife came to faith. Later, he came to faith. He experienced a turnaround in his family life. Now that's an old story, one you can read about in his book, Moonwalker, and when I listen to such stories, I hear the broken record of human existence. It's like life is one story of men making idols of everything but their Creator, and I'm tired of the song and ready to move on, not just in my life but in the big story of human life. I want a new song. I appreciate what God did in Charlie Duke's life, but part of the story (the pre-conversion part) is like fingernails on chalkboard. I want to say "Please stop."

Thinking about these two men makes me both sad and glad: glad that Charlie Duke found a new song, and sad that Kurt Vonnegut, a man who knew much of the fallenness of man, settled for one outward indicia of God's grace, human kindness, as the only answer to what he perceived as the meaninglessness of life. Would that he had followed that evidence to its source and embraced the Singer Himself.

A Song I Knew By Heart: A Review

SongWhenever I finish a good book, one that has the power to pull me into a world of its author's making, I cannot immediately take up another story. First there is a sadness that takes hold, a sense of loss of knowing the characters and their world. And then there is a sense of betrayal, of disloyalty, if I begin on a new book directly. I have to lament the passing, even the death of one world before entering another. Thus, I am in mourning since finishing Bret Lott's beautiful tale of loss and regained faith and hope, his 2004 book entitled A Song I Knew By Heart.

Author of the acclaimed Jewel, a bestseller (particularly after Oprah gave it her seal of approval), Lott has written a modern day story which draws inspiration from the biblical narrative of Naomi and Ruth. Aging Naomi, a transplant from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina to New England, and her daughter-in-law Ruth, both struggling with the loss of their husbands, decide to return to Naomi's childhood home in the South. Naomi believes in God and yet suffers under the hand of a God who would allow such loss. In addition, she carries a dark secret which she cannot come to grips with. Her hope is to return home, to the light coming through the pine trees that she remembers, and to what distant family she has, in the hope that she can be healed there. She is, as is Ruth, and yet not in the way she thinks.

The light Naomi dreams of is a metaphor for hope, one that resurfaces throughout her journey. This is how Lott writes of it:

Light, and the way when I was a girl it fell through the pine and live oak I grew up in a thousand miles away from here, the way it fell through palmetto and magnolia and water oak too. Light sifting down through the woods to spread like scattered diamonds on the ground before me as I walked to the creek. Bright broken pieces of light on the pinestraw at my feet so many perfect gifts of warmth.

Lott writes well, as if he knows the place (and he should, as he lives in Mount Pleasant). He describes the surroundings, the loss Naomi experiences on discovering the change to her homeplace, the family she comes to know again, and the range of emotions experienced by someone who is dealing with loss and regret as only one who knows something of it can. Though there is much sadness here, there is ultimately hope, just like in the biblical narrative. There is, finally, a Naomi that is not empty, but filled.

I encourage the reading of this book, particularly if you want to understand and empathize with those who have experienced loss, who struggle with secrets they have difficulty surrendering to God, and to feel vicariously if not in a real way what family at its best means. Read it. You won't forget it. Put it on the shelf, look at it now and then, and remember that you lived there once, for a time.