Saturday, June 27, 2009

Looking for an exit ramp

A few weeks ago, my son told me that he’s adopted a new morning routine, one that involves putting pen to paper rather than booting up his laptop. Since he’s on the south side of age 30 (an arbitrary demarcation of trustworthiness), I admit that I immediately snapped to attention.

He told me that his rationale for writing, sans computer, was his recognition that technology was negatively impacting his productivity as a writer. He reasoned that since he awoke at 4:30 am (a full 2 ½ hours prior to his work departure), this was early enough an hour to be moving his writing forward, yet he was keenly aware that time was being wasted. Astutely, he saw that it was technology’s lure via the web—its information (neither good, nor bad) preening, beckoning him in the dark, a mouse click, or a few key strokes away, all he had to do was depart from his writing task at hand and it could be his—was a supreme waster of his time to write.

When he told me this, something resonated with me. Eureka!! My own morning writing routine, one that I’ve maintained for more than five years, had been co-opted by web surfing for information. Given that I have an hour for writing pursuits in the morning before I have to depart for the office, I had begun filling it with peeks at box scores via MLB.com, reading a couple of well-written literary blogs, and before I knew it, my hour for writing had been reduced to 15 minutes, or less. When I did the quick calculation, it was apparent that I was pissing away writing time to the tune of 2-3 hours per week, and a more significant portion of monthly writing time. Since I require a day job to stay ensconced in necessary materials (i.e. food and shelter), I recognized something had to go if I have any aspirations of continuing to produce a book every year, or two.

Returning to methods that have served mankind well pre-internet is no earth-shattering revelation. Much like television, the digital elements of the internet lure you in, casting a stupor, dulling your senses and more often than not, dispatch the writing muse off to visit some other more worthy soul.

Writers and thinkers more astute than me have recognized technology’s deadening qualities, recognizing it as a killer of creativity. Names like Wendell Berry, Neil Postman and Jacques Ellul have all written eloquently and voluminously on the topic. No less an “authority” than Michael Lewis weighed in on the subject way back in 2001 with his book, Next: The Future Just Happened, in which he closes the book with a chapter titled, “The Unabomber Had A Point.”

Rather than heed these warnings, and the cautionary caveats of other like-minded people, lazy non-intellectuals immediately get their hackles up when their beloved technology is challenged. Interestingly, they don’t even know why they’re so put out when technology and the internet come under attack, just that it holds a pseudo-religious sway over their undernourished worldviews.

Men and women that have long ago gone soft mentally, forsaking the heavy lifting of the mind, don’t bat an eye in lobbing ad hominem attacks at men (and women) who put forth strong intellectual arguments against a blind embrace of technology.

While I wouldn’t put my son in the same league with these intellectual giants, at the same time, he’s no lightweight when it comes to considering life’s thorny questions. Likewise, he’s far from being a neo-Luddite, a common refrain hurled at thinkers like Postman, and in particular, Berry. Without an axe to grind, Mark recognizes that an aspiring writer has regular demands made upon his time from living life, and that there are a finite number of hours available each day, period. For him, it’s all about the productivity factor.

On the other hand, for the past decade, or longer, I’ve listened to all the claims made about technology, and in particular, the information super highway. All of these promises and purported benefits have begun to ring hollow.

When I first hung a right and took the onramp and merged amidst the world wide web, it was akin to standing on a vast ridge, overlooking a wide-open frontier, as far as my eye (and imagination) could see. The vista seemed fraught with positives and great promise. Limitless access to information seemed too good to be true (remember the adage, “if it seems too good to be true…).

Since I’ve always been someone that was (and remains) hungry to learn and continue to push back against my own intellectual limits, the internet (interwebs?) seemed like a perfect new development. Instead, 10 years on, I’m now attuned to my own laziness, or maybe, an ease with taking liberties with shortcuts. All of this crept in, like a thief in the night, with my laziness masquerading as intellectual curiosity.

So, how do you combat it, short of canceling cable and internet, or going off the grid?

For me, I’ve tried to remember what life was like before I had the internet at my fingertips. How did I gather information? Print was the primary method; books, newspapers, and other publications. Obviously, the local library was a resource.

I’m not going to get all pious (and hypocritical) on my readers and tell you that I no longer use technology because you know how untruthful that would be, given that I’m still blogging an all.

What I am doing this summer, however, is decreasing my time mindlessly surfing for information. I’ve cut down on my participation with social media. I’m reading books, including this one. I’m also back to listening to baseball via the radio mainly, which allows me to read or write, and not be a slave to the constant flux of digital images in the evening.

I'll continue to post to my blog (s), but probably not daily. When I have something to share that has involved some thought and effort at setting it down first, on pen and paper, then I'll labor a bit and form it into something semi-intelligent, and then post it. I'm learning that it's is better to ruminate first, rather than immediately regurgitate. These posts will be a bit longer, and most likely an essay, or something resembling one.

Where will all of this take me? I’m not sure, but eventually, I hope that my increased writing productivity means that another book will materialize in the future.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fathers and sons

I don’t really know the history about how we ended up with Father’s Day. I could go to Wikipedia and cut and paste it into my post, but since I’m writing my first drafts by hand, on a legal pad, trying to minimize time wasted on the web, I don’t have this option. Furthermore, of late, I’m attempting to do as many things as possible with a pre-internet mentality.

For me, the father/son relationship has often been a tenuous one. I’ve spent portions of 47 years loving, but not liking my father, and trying to avoid duplicating his mistakes. That’s not to say that my father didn’t have positive traits that he passed on to me, because he certainly did. It’s just that my dad and I were so different.

Every father/son struggles with the generational divide. Whether it’s music, fashion, drugs, religion, or even political ideology, there are always pitfalls bound to cause friction in the father/son dynamic.

Before I became a father myself, I was clueless about understanding that dynamic. When my own son was born, I gained a new perspective. I was now standing in my father’s shoes. It wasn’t a perfect solution, and I didn’t suddenly start spending every weekend doing projects with my dad, but I now began cutting him slack for the first time.

When Mark was born, my wife and I were living in Indiana, 1,500 miles from our parents. Mary’s parents came out to visit us three times during the four years we were marooned in the middle of the county. Because of my father’s aversion to flight, my parents never made it out.

I’ve gotten better in later years, finding some common ground that I can cover with my dad. We still can’t talk about politics, religion, nationalized healthcare, guns, sustainable development and many others things. I’m learning to steer clear of these.

I don’t like to admit it, but I’m much like my dad in many ways, however. I have a short fuse. I lack patience with people who don’t see the world in the exact way that I do. I am capable of being a “bull” about getting any project done, which has allowed me to will two books to completion.

When I was younger, and my baseball career was on an arc upward, my father would squat in the backyard and stab at fastballs I flung towards him, as I worked on aspects of my delivery and mechanics. He rarely missed one of my baseball games from the age of nine, up through high school, when I was the local pitching phenom, destined for great things at the University of Maine.

Alas, shoulder woes derailed bigger and better baseball dreams for me, and my father. I still remember (and it causes me pain) coming off the mound at Deering Oaks in Portland, after a particularly awful performance the fall of my freshman year at UMO, and knowing that I didn’t want to do this anymore. I sat on the grass between games with my parents, not interested in my mother’s sandwiches, and saying that I was thinking of quitting. My often stoic father was near tears, trying to will me onward, thinking that it was just a matter of mechanics that we could once again work out in the backyard. No amount of explanation would convince him that it was part physical (my shoulder was shot), but more the lack of desire that I once had to try to throw a baseball past an opposition hitter.

From there, our relationship became fractured, as marriage and religious choices created a chasm that I no longer was willing to cross.

Indiana and fundamentalist Xianity imposed necessary distance between us. Since they wouldn’t fly, and driving didn’t occur to them, I didn’t see my father and mother for two years. We’d visit once, mid-exile, when both our parents paid for plane tickets bringing us back east for two weeks.

Back in Maine, I got another glimpse of my dad’s emotional side when we deplaned in Portland, and he saw his grandson for the first time.

****

Mark facilitated a thaw in our father/son d├ętente.

It wasn’t the equivalent to a two-state solution, but at least it deescalated some of our heated rhetoric from the past. Upon returning to Indiana, I attempted to write semi-regularly to my father (and mother).

The Bible has a passage where it states that “the father’s sins are visited upon the sons.” My own parenting style incorporated elements of my father’s, with patience not always being one of my own virtues.

Spending as much time bonding with my son when he was small was something that was generationally different between my father and I. I was also six years younger as a new parent than my father was.

Just like my own dad, however, when Mark got older, I was there to play catch with him, coach Little League, drive him to hockey, and bond with him via sports, much like my own father and I did.

And like my own dad, I also set the bar quite high with expectations, and even said things that I now look back on with deep regret, for I know how it made me feel when my father was tough on me for an 0 for 4 night at the plate when I was 11, or 12. I also put unrealistic pressure on Mark to be perfect.

Mark’s own mother was more of a buffer. Unlike my own mom, who knew little about baseball and would often duplicate my father’s disappointment when I fell short of perfection in baseball (and many other things), Mary was more sanguine in her post-game assessments, providing Mark with a hedge from my dark moods.

Mark is now 25, and lives 3,000 miles away. I’m amazed that given his less than perfect father, he has become an amazing young man (after being pretty amazing during each successive stage of his development).

While we shared and continue to share a bond through sports, we also connect on a number of other levels, including books, and developing our respective writing crafts. Six weeks ago, I got to attend a major book event, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, when I visited him in California. Our Saturday, walking amongst booths filled with small press books, and new fiction showed me that our bond is much stronger than shared baseball experiences.

This morning, I got a call from Mark at 5:30 am, west coast time. He’d been up all night working, he said. He just wanted to call to wish me “happy Father’s Day,” and we talked about sports, life, and the wine tasting Mary and I are headed to later today.

His call was all I needed to know that while I wasn’t the perfect father, I had been good enough, just like my own dad.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Army of hate?

There have been on-going reports about neo-Nazi recruitment of Iraqi War vets, and members of various right-wing hate groups swelling the ranks of the U.S. military, including the security bulletin issued by the Dept. of Homeland Security. That one caused the right-wing noise machine to go batshit.

Now Matt Kennard at Salon comes out with this (via Orcinus):

Since the launch of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military has struggled to recruit and reenlist troops. As the conflicts have dragged on, the military has loosened regulations, issuing "moral waivers" in many cases, allowing even those with criminal records to join up. Veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder have been ordered back to the Middle East for second and third tours of duty.

The lax regulations have also opened the military's doors to neo-Nazis, white supremacists and gang members — with drastic consequences. Some neo-Nazis have been charged with crimes inside the military, and others have been linked to recruitment efforts for the white right. A recent Department of Homeland Security report, "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment," stated: "The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today." Many white supremacists join the Army to secure
training for, as they see it, a future domestic race war. Others claim to be shooting Iraqis not to pursue the military's strategic goals but because killing "hajjis" is their duty as white militants.

Soldiers' associations with extremist groups, and their racist actions, contravene a host of military statutes instituted in the past three decades. But during the "war on terror," U.S. armed forces have turned a blind eye on their own regulations. A 2005 Department of Defense report states, "Effectively, the military has a 'don't
ask, don't tell' policy pertaining to extremism. If individuals can perform satisfactorily, without making their extremist opinions overt … they are likely to be able to complete their contracts."

I'm not doubting any of these reports. In fact, I was of the opinion that because we are currently engaged in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan that military recruiters would be experiencing difficulty with meeting their recruitment quotas.

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to have a long conversation with a recruiter for the National Guard. I asked him that question, and I was surprised by his answer.

He told me the exact opposite of my assumption--he could be increasingly selective in his choices of candidates. Given the economic downturn, and his branch's generous tuition program for college, he was getting a better class of recruit than ever before. He told me that the "typical" recuit from the past--the kid that underachieved, tending to get poor grades, and not have much in the manner of successful outcomes up to that point--was getting bypassed by the best and the brightest, seeing the Guard as a positive option for them.

So, who to believe? I didn't think the National Guard recruiter was trying to blow smoke up my ass, but maybe he was doing exactly that, as an attempt to counter the reports coming out about our service organizations. Or, maybe his experience as a Guard recruiter was entirely different than the other branches.

Either way, it is somewhat troubling if our military has become a training ground for militias and other hate groups. It is also problematic if the only options for college grads with increasing college debt is to do a tour, or two in a battle zone.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Finishing what you start

I read with interest John Schlegel's article for MLB.com, about the uptick in complete games this year in the majors.

In this era of sub-100 pitch counts, and managers babying over-priced arms, it seems counterintuitive to put much money on the complete game ever making a comeback. But Schlegel indicates that complete games are up again this year, which shows upward movement on the trend line that began last season.

According to Schlegel, complete games in the major leagues hit their low point in 2007, with 114 total. Last year, the number rose to 136. If this year's pace is maintained, pitchers could challenge the 170 mark.

I have always found it odd to treat the human arm like a tube of toothpaste, thinking that there are a finite number of "squeezes" in that tube.

Back when Nolan Ryan and other pitchers of his era were routinely throwing 140-150 pitches per start, and completing their games, going every fourth day, I might add, fewer pitches broke down. This may have had something to do with the mindset and toughness of the pitchers of that era. They didn't expect, and never received the kind of kid-glove treatment today's young pitchers receive.

Roy Halladay of the Blue Jays has the complete game mindset, as does young Zack Greinke, of the Kansas City Royals. Greinke has five and Halladay three, leading the parade. Other pitchers have been getting into the groove of the complete game of late also, like Jered Weaver of the Angels, who has two this year, having never thrown one before this season.

Speaking of Ryan, he's back with the Texas Rangers, serving as president for the club. In this capacity, he's been quite outspoken against pitch counts for the team's pitchers. It's early yet, but the Rangers pitching has been as consistent as any Texas staff in quite some time. In fact, it's probably been 30 years since the club ran out consistent starters, going back to 1977, when the rotation consisted of Doyle Alexander, the ageless Gaylord Perry, Bert Blyleven, and Len Barker. Roger Moret, former Yankee killer was also on their roster.

I heard Sox manager Terry Francona, on the Dale & Holley Show the other day. The conversation was about John Lester and the amount of innings he logged last year and concerns Sox management might have for him this year. Basically, the issue was pitch counts.

Francona, to his credit, is less concerned with specific pitch counts, as he is with Lester and other pitchers, "staying within their delivery," especially when they get deep in the game, or approach the 100-pitch threshold. I took this to mean that Francona was referring to what old-schoolers used to refer to as mechanics.

Francona is right. If a pitcher begins straying from his delivery and is obviously laboring, given the strength of the Sox bullpen, then by all means get them out of there, before they get hurt, or blow up the game.

On the flipside, if Lester, Beckett, or even Wakefield are dealing through seven, don't be afraid to bring them out in the 8th inning. Francona, to his credit has done that of late. Lester's recent complete game is a testament to the soundness of that strategy.

On the subject of Lester; has there been a more dominant pitcher in baseball of late? His last three starts have shown that with his stuff, when it's right, is untouchable. Three straight double-digit strikeout totals over his recent starts, which by the way is the first time it's been done in Red Sox history by a southpaw.

Now that Lester and Beckett are pointed in the right direction, it would be nice if the grossly over-compensated Dice-K could give us more than five innings per start.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Losing my religion; LN Pt III


A few final thoughts on Larry Norman

Along the way, I lost track of Larry Norman. Several moves disconnected me from his mailing list (which I signed up for that night in Palatine), and the newsletters from Solid Rock stopped coming. His tapes disappeared as the world moved from tape decks, to CD players, and beyond.

In 2001, I made one last attempt to reconcile with the Church. The world, post-9-11 made many of us stop and consider what we were doing, and reflect on what was important. Later, some of us would forget, or disavow the decisions we made out of fear, or confusion.

Mary and I started attending a local church, with a contemporary focus, particularly in its music. The Vineyard fellowships, which ironically got their start back in the mid-1970s from the merge two small Bible studies, one of them meeting in Larry Norman’s home, in Los Angeles, had a congregation nearby. Drawn by the casual style of worship, and the praise music centered around a worship band, we started attending semi-regularly. It wasn’t long before we were encouraged (coerced?) into a small group Bible study.

During this time, I reconnected with Norman’s music via his website. Twenty years is a long time to try to catch up with, but I found out that during much of this period, particularly the past 10 years, Norman had dealt with an array of medical problems that had beset the Christian rock legend, particularly issues with his heart. This prolific songwriter’s output had dropped to a trickle, and he rarely performed live, any longer.

It was sad reading about how this pioneer and spiritual giant was now struggling with his health, and had experienced a couple of life-threatening episodes during this period of time. Compounding the problem, Norman lacked health insurance, which prevented him from receiving adequate healthcare. It was ironic that the man who had penned songs like “The Great American Novel,” lambasting America’s leaders for “starving their children” to go to the moon, was now a victim of that very same systemic abuse, ground down by our failed system of healthcare. Worse, charlatans like Joel Osteen, with his prosperity gospel focused on riches, and James Dobson, who found a way to make Jesus into a pro-war Republican, with his gospel promoting American exceptionalism, lived like kings.

Both Mary and I weren’t long, even for a contemporary style congregation, like the Vineyard. For all its talk about openness, and a new approach to Jesus, it was similar to the fundamentalism I had run from, nearly 20 years prior.

One Sunday morning, the Vineyard pastor, Ralph Grover, stood up and tried to twist scripture, using pretzel logic, advocating for George Bush, Republicanism, and making a case for the war in Iraq being a “just war.”

We both looked at each other as if to say, “we tried,” and we knew that this would be our last Sunday at the Vineyard, and probably at any church.

As I work through this essay on Larry Norman, I realize that his music is one of the last vestiges remaining from my failed spiritual journey, a journey that often brought pain, frustration, and plenty of disappointment. Interestingly, over the past two weeks, as I listened to Norman’s music again, I didn’t find his spirituality grating, like much of what I witness from the church, and particularly, the dark nooks and crannies of right-wing religion.

All of us are flawed human beings. Xians might attribute this to the problem of sin. The psychology community uses dysfunction to characterize human shortcomings. Whatever our lack of perfection, or self actualization might be attributed to, it is evident that none of us measure up, much of the time. While humans can be compassionate, moved to deeds of heroic proportion, they also are capable of depravity, and savage cruelty.

Yet, much of conservative Xianity tries to maintain the veneer of perfection, and leaders that are righteous and holy in ways that commoners are incapable of. That wasn’t the message I heard coming from Larry Norman.

A documentary, Fallen Angel has surfaced that portrays Norman in a less than favorable light. I’ve followed some of the back and forth that’s taken place, including comments made by Norman’s brother, Charles.

None of this changes my thoughts on Norman, his music, and what he stood for during his lifetime. What is does, however, is demonstrate the danger of putting anyone on a pedestal, hoping that their music, their writing, or their advice can usurp individual responsibiliy for our own lives.

The Orange County News ran an article on the film and the ensuing controversy, last October.

It is too bad that Norman wasn't alive to answer the charges that at this point come down to he said, she said, with Larry forever silent, now that he's left this planet.

****

When Norman passed away in early 2008, the mainstream press lined up to lionize him as "the father of Christian rock." The Christian press did much of the same, even though it virtually ignored everything he ever sang and wrote while he was alive.

Now that Larry's passed on to some other place (he always said his next stop would be Heaven), we'll never know the truth behind the stories that filmmaker David Di Sabitino dredged up about Norman. As I wrote earlier, none of this matters personally to me at this point.

Here's the skinny on Norman for me, in 2009.

He was a prophetic individual, and an immensely talented singer, songwriter, and before his health issues--a powerful preacher, with a personal compassion for fellow human beings.

Norman's outspoken nature, and particularly his willingness to point out the serious flaws endemic in much of American evangelicalism in the 1970s, calling the church back from its embrace of the Nixonian Republicanism of the time, in my opinion, was the major reason why so much abuse got heaped upon the man and his music (as well as his appearance) by the church, and so-called believers in Jesus.

When Norman penned a song like "The Great American Novel," he was condemning America's neglect of its poor, while simultaneously waging war in Vietnam, and racing the Soviets to the moon.

A recent listen to Norman found that song (and surprisingly, most of Norman's catalog I have on hand) sounding as relevant to 2009, as it was, when released back in 1974. Thirty-five years have done little to chance the corruption of politicians, or changed their focus on things that do little to help the day-to-day lives of most Americans.

The church, on the other hand, still hasn't heeded Jesus' call to "feed the poor," nor has it moved away from embracing right-wing values, at least in significant portions of its evangelical quadrant.

The focus of our military has changed, however. We no longer find our enemies living in Vietnam, and the surrounding jungles of that region. Now, our enemies are Islamic, and living in caves in the Middle East (at least according to men named Beck and Limbaugh, who have the approval of many Xian leaders, continuing to beat the drums of war in 2009, just like they did in 1974).

Space, the final frontier, doesn't warrant the attention that it did 30 years ago, although Reagan and some of his acolytes still think a space shield would be a groovy thing.

No, today's politicians regard perpetual tax cuts to the wealthiest among us as more important than universal healthcare. In fact, for most conservative Xians, the policies of conservative politicians trump the teaching of Jesus, every time.

Our current president, flawed in his own unique way, claims to be a follower of Jesus. Like Norman before him, he faces attacks from the very same church, mainly because his values don't meet the purview of the zealots on the right end of the political (and religious) spectrum. Some go so far as advocating murder, in the name of preserving human life.

As a musician from San Francisco once sang, "What a long strange trip its been," and I'd echo, continues to be.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Pearl Jam sucks ass

I once owned the soundtrack for Singles, on cassette. Pearl Jam contributed two songs to the movie soundtrack, and band members Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, and Stone Gossard made cameos, members of a fictitious grunge band, including Singles star, Matt Dillon. The band was called Citizen Dick. What many people don’t know is that the band had yet to hit it big prior to their movie appearance, and in fact still were known by their original name, Mookie Blaylock, their original name, named after the former NBA point guard. Pearl Jam’s members were all huge basketball fans.

In the early 90s, after Nirvana’s Nevermind blew things up for alt-rock, it changed the post-punk music context forever. Camps formed in the indie rock world, and bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and others, were now considered “sell outs” by the indie rock “purists.”
The heavier grunge sound would be coveted, sought out by major label A & R people, and a feeding frenzy ensued to sign the next Nirvana, spawning a host of lesser-talented sound-alikes, filling the airwaves of alternative radio stations.

At the time, I was doing a weekly radio slot at the low-power FM college station, WBOR (Bowdoin College). I was one of the handful of community members that they allowed slots for. I took a great deal of pride in my indie rock credibility, always trying to make sure my show was true to indie rock’s non-commercial values.

The DJ community at ‘BOR, made up mainly of fans of small label, indie rock, looked down their noses at bands like Pearl Jam, considering them to be sellouts. It never seemed to matter whether the band had at one time been relevant for ‘BOR’s playlist. Once they crossed an arbitrary threshold of popularity, there was no going back. They had become persona non grata to the Bowdoinanistas.

I’ve been thinking back to this mid-1990s period this week, mainly because Portland’s WCYY has been running through their top 1,000 songs, based upon listener’s votes. It’s been a great ride all week. So many of the songs I haven’t heard for years. Some of them have been quite evocative, bringing back memories (some great, some not so special) from a period of time that was much different than where I’m at right now.

It’s been awhile since I’ve spent this much time listening to radio of any kind, particularly alternative rock.

I’ve enjoyed listening to Robin Ivy’s morning drive time slot, and her Zodiac Zone. It brings back memories to the halcyon days of high school, almost 30 years ago, when the Cosmic Muffin was holding zodiac court, on WBLM, back when it was a freeform giant.

Mark Curdo, the station’s evening DJ is a hoot. His passion and knowledge of music is apparent. He’s the closest thing that ‘CYY has to the former indie rock freaks that made ‘BOR great in 94-95.

A musician friend of mine hates Pearl Jam. He sees them as the embodiment of all things that are wrong with music—corporate, mega-stars, and as he frequently says, “sellouts.” I wonder if he’s not feeling the same kind of jealousy I sometimes feel when I scan other blogs, and see 20 and 30 comments about topics that I don’t think are terribly deep, or particularly well-written. It’s probably partly driven by jealousy, and partly fueled by a sense of why them, and not me?

BTW, Pearl Jam has been making frequent appearances throughout the top 1,000.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Keeping the faith; LN Part II

The Night I Met Larry Norman

During the winter of 1985-1986, my charade as a Bible school student was finished. Three semesters of fundamentalist Baptist legalism was all I could take. Just shy of my 24th birthday, I was stranded in the middle of the country, another Hyles-Anderson washout, with a wife and young son.

Stuck in the middle of the country, 1,500 miles from our extended families, my wife and I were struggling to remain connected to any kind of organized practice of faith.

During that time, the only spiritual lifeline at all for me was my own personal study of the Bible. No longer tethered to the wooden, literal dictates of Hyles-Anderson College, which tried to regulate all aspects student life, I now was free to read the scriptures for myself. It was surprising how that freedom opened me up to seeing new things that I’d never considered before. In addition to my time studying the Bible, I also was beginning to read again, something I had no time for when my life was classes from 8:00 am to 1:00, dinner with Mary and Mark, and then off to work in Chicago. Saturdays were taken up with soul-winning, and then Sunday was church in the morning, time for lunch, study time, and then back to church in the evening. Not exactly a schedule that allowed much time to think, or consider much beyond the world of Jack Hyles.

Now that I was no longer in school, I felt like I had a life again. During that time, I was free again to listen to my own choice of music on my commutes to and from work. Most of what was playing in my tape deck was secular, as I was tired of the kind of musical drivel that passed for Christian music at Hyles-Anderson. The was also mixing in some contemporary Christian rock, including Larry Norman.

I don’t recall the exact circumstances, but I learned that Norman was going to be playing at a church in Palatine, Illinois, on a Saturday night in January. I really wanted to see him live, but given the distance—Palatine was about 100 miles northwest of where we were living, in Hobart, Indiana—and the fact that both of my cars were undependable at best, the trip seemed risky to make the trek in the dead of winter.

Mary knew I wanted to go, and she encouraged me to attend the show. Plus, it was my long weekend from my job at Westville Correctional Center, where I was working as a med tech.

I spent Saturday morning going over my ’68 Impala—I checked the tire pressure, made sure my oil was topped off, and had a spare quart on hand. The Impala burned a quart of oil per week, but I was fond of her land yacht qualities on the highway, which is why I chose to take her on my journey, instead of my 1974 Plymouth Scamp.

Saturday night was bitterly cold as I hopped in my Impala and headed to Palatine. I had several Larry Norman cassettes for the ride, and my directions in tow.

The non-descript church in Palatine was one of those contemporary styles, with the cookie-cutter design, surrounded by a sea of asphalt. There were just a few cars parked near the entrance, signifying I was an early arrival.

The mercury was hovering near zero, too cold to sit in my car until more people showed up. Gathering my courage, I headed across the lot and entered the main foyer. I was greeted by a young girl, probably from the church’s youth group. Sweet, and wearing a perpetual smile, she welcomed me to “Palatine Bible Church” (I honestly can’t remember the name of the church, but it was one of those generic non-denominational church names that were just becoming popular). A gracious hostess, she directed me to a table with freshly brewed coffee, and donuts and pastries, with the charge of “make yourself at home.”

Filling a cup with coffee, I was interested to see what was happening in the auditorium, as I could hear the muffled sounds of amplified music leaking into the lobby. I asked if I could head into the auditorium and she said, “sure.”

Cup in hand, I made my way into the darkened auditorium, and sat in the back. I saw Larry Norman and band down front, swathed in stage lighting, working their way through “Why Should the Devil Have All The Good Music?” as part of the band’s sound check.

Alone in the dark, I got my own personal pre-concert lasting about 20 minutes. Norman looked just as I’d seen him on tape cases, album covers (I had once owned several of Norman’s records before unloading my vinyl as part of my fundamentalist purging of the “devil’s music”), and PR photos. Weathered, with a soulful face, and his signature long blond hair—yes, that was Larry Norman down front, on stage, and I was there to see it!

He seemed to be having a good time, long before the show started. He joked with the band members, made some suggestions between stops, and brought a genuine warmth and genuineness to the practice set that I’d again witness later, when he poured his heart and energy into that night’s performance.

When I ventured back out into the light of the church entranceway, people had begun arriving. There was now merchandise, more food, and a mix of mainly young fans, and a smattering of older fans.

The show was phenomenal. Norman’s band, the Young Lions, were tight, with a punk rock look—spiked hair and a Mohawk were on parade—and all about 15 to 20 years younger than Norman, who was pushing 40 at that time.

His guitar player opened the show with a couple of acoustic numbers. Then out came Norman and the crowd went crazy. A duet followed, and then it was time for Norman and Company to crank it up and rock out for Jesus.

I’ve been to many rock shows since, both smaller shows, as well as the arena rock variety. Norman’s show that night stands out as one of the top five I’ve ever attended.

The band rocked for over an hour, mining liberally Norman’s older and better-known material, with a newer song thrown in here and there. The band then broke for an intermission for snacks and for some of the smokers to “fire one up” outside in the parking lot.

Wandering about the lobby, I was shocked when I saw Norman come through the auditorium doors and greet some people he obviously knew. Rather than hide out backstage and chill, here was this Christian rock legend, interacting with his fans. This was not something I’d ever seen, as performers of a certain stature and level of popularity tend to distance themselves from the “little people.”

It wasn’t long before he made his way over to where I was standing. He walked over and said, “hi, I’m Larry Norman.” I told him a little about my background and he was very genuine when he told me that “many of us get burnt by the Church.” This was obviously true for him, as the Church had been shunning him and his music for almost two decades, at that time. We chatted a bit more, and he thanked me for coming.

What impressed me the most was how “real” he was in person. He obviously didn’t have to take the time to talk, and connect with people at his show. It was obvious to me that this was part of who he was.

After the break, Norman was back on stage, this time however, alone at the piano. For 30-40 minutes, he treated us to his quieter material, extensive in its own right. Between songs he talked, and ministered to the crowd. Both storyteller, and street preacher, rolled into one, Norman had a way of making you laugh, reflect, and look deeper into your life. He didn’t do this in the typical preachy, “I’m holy and your not” schtick common with most preachers in three-piece suits common to the Xianity I had come out from.

The show was already approaching the two-hour mark when Norman brought the Young Lions back onstage and they tore through a 45-minute set of material from Norman’s newest album, “Stop This Flight.”

Afterwards, standing in the lobby, towel draped around his neck, Norman shook hands, hugged friends, and posed for photos. He also spent time praying with some people, as his capacity to minister to others was evident to me, watching him interact with others.

The evening was a magical one for me, and something I have not forgotten.

Over the next 20 years, my own faith would fizzle, and was eventually usurped by doubt and skepticism, primarily because for every Larry Norman I’d encounter along life’s highways and byways, I’d find hundreds, if not thousands of so-called believers that had no pulse, warmth, or conviction of sincerity.