Rachel, Our Father, and Me

 

I don’t know. No one ever knows his own father himself.

οὐκ οἶδ’· οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον αὐτὸς ἀνέγνω. 

Homer, Odyssey 1.201

 

“To remember the past, you tell a story about it. And in recalling the memory, you tell the story again.  It is not always the same story, as the person telling it does not always want the same things….As children become better storytellers, they become better rememberers. But their memory system also becomes more susceptible to distortion.”

Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light, 98

 

When our father died, it was as shock both for its suddenness and for the cliché we all suffer when we lose someone who was part of our life: we (thankfully, in a way) don’t know how to cope with the erasure of a human being, the deletion of a presence that was part of our lives for their entirety.  But in writing about him over the past few years, I fear that I have done a disservice to him and to us.

In keeping to the age-old injunction of not speaking ill of the dead, we have erred too far and have created a fictionalized father, a man who in our telling is far closer to the father we wish we had known than he ever was. There is nothing wrong with such a hagiography on the surface, but in a world in which biology is ever more carrying the weight of destiny and where the stories we tell have always shaped the way we view and judge ourselves, such distortion through omission can have dangerous effects on what we believe to be true about our lives and our decisions. If I willfully change the way my father was and completely elide his faults and his fears, how can I be sure I won’t make the same mistakes when I tell my own stories?

Neuroscientists have shown (as some psychologists have suspected) that the act of recalling a memory exposes it to distortion. Memories recalled often become part of the stories we tell about ourselves and their details will change to suit both the needs of the tellers and the audience. I don’t want to write to slander my father, but I want to give him the fullness and complexity he deserves as a human being. We are all slightly less-than-stable compromises of divergent desires and often destructive beliefs. Learning to accept the contradictory strains in our loved ones is necessary to acknowledging fully the often hypocritical tensions in ourselves.

Elliott Smith, “Memory Lane”. “All anybody knows / is you’re not like them / they kick you in the head / and send you back to bed.”

When my father died, I expected some trouble. He was a man who it would not have been surprising to discover was leading other lives. He lived a rich fantasy life—always dreaming that he would accomplish something great, that he would end up someone different. It fell to me to try to make sense of some of the messes he left behind: years of unpaid taxes; a maze of debt and collection bureaus; accounts tied to strange addresses; unopened summonses and bills.

I had the strange voyeurism of entering into my father’s email account, at first to contact some business associates who owed him money, and later to sift through his last few weeks of correspondence to try to figure out whether or not he knew how sick he was. (He did. Forty-eight hours before his death he sent an email to his older sister, writing “This is the sickest I have ever been.” He still waited another 36 hours to go to the doctor.)

This type of textual analysis was probably my safest way of handling grief. As a student of literature, I practice the ancient art of Philology, described once as “the art of reading slowly.” No amount of slow reading, however, could brace me for all the discoveries I’d make. Infidelity, I could handle. Debt and delinquency? This had been the story of my/our lives. But during the process of arranging for my father’s funeral, writing a eulogy, and trying to make an initial reckoning of his accounts, I started corresponding with one of my father’s business associates, a man I will call Felix.

Chvrches, “Lies”. This will make sense in a minute.

Felix emotionally and generously confided in me that my father had become a close friend, in part because of his empathy regarding Felix’s daughter. His daughter had suffered from an “unknown progressive neuro-muscular disorder causing severe dystonia” and the pain she endured alongside the uncertainty of her diagnosis (which seemed to indicate a shortened life) wracked him and his family with the kind of suffering that only parents can imagine.

Felix made it clear that my father changed his life because he was always there just to listen and because he inspired him with his love of his family and his expressions of religious faith. He also inspired him, Phil revealed, because he shared with him his own story of loss, the loss of his daughter Rachel.

We never had a sibling named Rachel. But I didn’t say this to Felix because he had forwarded me an email from my father where he wrote

“Every day I wake up thinking of my daughter –Rachel – go to bed thinking of Rachel. We had 4 children – now 3 but the blessings and gifts they have brought blow my mind […] but always Rachel is the background- never goes away- but I have still have joy and overwhelmed with blessings.”

Felix assured me in the email that he had never mentioned this email to anyone. Even as I type this now I can smell the stale smoke in my father’s office where I read this for the first time. I remember calling my wife in to read it. Under the pall of our grief, we couldn’t process this, we couldn’t make sense of what it meant or whether it was possible. Soon, like my father, I was waking up and thinking about Rachel.

A

Typhoon, “Young Fathers”. Nothing has made me think more of what my father was like as young father than being a father myself.  Did he change my diapers? Did he hold me the way I hold my son and think about the terrible and beautiful brevity of life?

My mother had a miscarriage before me and after me and, as family mythology goes, was told she wasn’t able to have children. When I was younger and the whole family was more religious, they told me (the oldest) that they hadn’t had a child until they joined a new church and started to pray. I was baptized and confirmed in that church.  The minister was my godfather. I have a picture of him holding my daughter.

But when I asked my mother, in a probably less than sensitive way, if there were any other children or if they had planned on naming one of the miscarriages Rachel, she thought it was absurd. It didn’t seem to me likely that my father had spent years brooding in secret over a miscarriage when he had three healthy children. But he was a man who looked good in a disguise.

In the days before the funeral, I imagined myself as part of a future story. In my fantasy, I interviewed distant relatives and friends about his past, the type of people who might know about a lost child, about a baby born out of wedlock whose brief existence had been hidden from my mother. It was not inconceivable to me that such a thing might have happened. As the long hours past, it seemed more than likely that this was Rachel: a brief alternative life in the past whose loss had festered in my father as a metonym for all of the other lives he could have lived. Or, as that fourth child, that extra helping of happiness that might have tipped the scales in a middling life.

The Beatles, “Nowhere Man.” A ‘friend’ in high school once told me that this song should be my anthem. It was cruel, but it was true: I have long lived only half-engaged with those around me. My father was the same. Or more.

As the first step in this imagined memoir (the type of rangy self-discovery at home in The New Yorker), I emailed a friend of my father’s, a woman whose name would bring explosions of rage to our home, and asked her directly if she knew anything about it. She, who had known my father differently but quite well for years, said she would have been shocked if there were or had been another child, that my father loved his children so much that it would be inconceivable that he would have never mentioned Rachel. And, then, she added enigmatically, “He did say last summer that he would have named your [daughter] Rachel, if it was up to him.”

After my father’s funeral, things spiraled downhill for my family. We eventually got most of the finances under control (although we’re still working on it); two new grandchildren were born over the next year; and my mother suffered some of the most harrowing effects of grief. I left the issue of Rachel aside to protect her and us from the uncertainty. But I never stopped mulling it over.

Muddy Waters “Fathers and Sons”, Appropriate and inappropriate for this post. But my father would probably appreciate that.

I eventually concluded that there were three possibilities: (1) that my father had emotionally connected with a miscarriage, naming it Rachel and keeping the pain to himself; (2) that he had fathered another child who died (or was estranged); or (3) that he had made up the child drawing on his experiences to empathize with Felix. Given the absence of any evidence for the first two options, I decided that the last was most likely.

What does it mean to believe that your father was the kind of man who would fabricate a dead child in order to make a connection with someone? Is this even possible? What was the name Rachel to him and why did it recur in different contexts?

My father was a man cut off from many people by his deafness and his aloofness (probably interconnected). He was also capable of long-term deceit (for self-defense) and short-term confabulation (to try to keep others happy). If he did manufacture the memory of a child, I am almost certain he did it with a full range of emotions drawn from the rest of his life and that part of him wanted to believe it. We make up stories all the time. We all bend the truth and introduce new details into old stories. If he invented a Rachel to console Felix, he did it because he wanted to feel with him, to be his friend, and through grief to be more fully human.

Pearl Jam “Better Man”.  This song has always made me think about my father and myself.

But perhaps this conclusion is still just more evidence of me creating the father I wanted to have rather than acknowledging the man he really was.  To some, inventing a dead child might sound diabolical. But, given the other options, it speaks to me of someone who wanted to feel, of a man who into his last days was trying to be something real.

And this in turn is a lesson on the complexity of what makes each one of us who we are.

 

 

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Pop-Ambiguity

“I have climbed highest mountain / I have run through the fields / Only to be with you”
“I still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, U2

For years I have contemplated what I still see as one of the greatest three-song sequences on any rock album: the first three songs on U2’s 1987 release The Joshua Tree (“Where the Streets Have No Name”; “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”; and “With or Without You”). Love them or hate them (and I suspect once most of us get past any U2 antipathy created by the last decade there will be more love), these songs are immediately recognizable and eminently successful.

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The Musical Treasure Trove

So, I have been thinking a bit about re-reruns (prompted, I must admit by a This American Life episode about re-runs). This thinking has dove-tailed with some of my thoughts about the repeatability of the cover song and the tension between one ‘performance’ and another. Part of this thinking is a tortured attempt to try to justify what I am about to do today: repeat one of our posts. What happens when you repeat a repetition?

Like my brother, I have found that the busyness of normal life (whatever that means) has gotten to be a bit overwhelming. The end of the semester has brought me a pile of grading, a CV-length of promised articles, and two children who are growing faster than I can imagine. This has kept me (guiltily) from having the time to write a quality post while also making me wonder whether or not this blog is doing what it should.

See, it has been suggested that the posts are too long and too discursive–and, as readership has ebbed and flowed, I have wondered what the worth is. This contemplation lasts a few minutes because, when it comes down to it, I enjoy writing this blog even if the act is entirely masturbatory.

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Tribute to a Friend

My brother and mother experienced a devastating loss today. They had to say goodbye to a dear member of the family, the loyal golden retriever Remy. Remy was my father’s best friend and when our father passed away, Remy became the younger J’s dog. I like to think that the spirit of our father lived on through Remy.

He was a good dog, very faithful and loving. He was always patient and was great with people of all ages. He tolerated my daughter pulling his tail and chasing him screaming “DOGGIE!” over and over and he didn’t flinch when my niece repeatedly asked “Pet Doggie???” one Thanksgiving, and then ran away after a second-long pat on his body, only to start the whole process over again. Remy was well-known throughout the town; my mother’s and brother’s friends and neighbors would frequently play with him on their visits and would even dog-sit if his owners went out of town.

Remy sleeping with The Sister's dog Morgan

Remy sleeping with The Sister’s dog Morgan

I think that several folks will be affected by the loss of our good friend Remy. The loss was sudden and was a tough blow, but we can take comfort in the fact that he lived a great life. The dog lived days full of love and provided warmth and joy to my brother and mother daily. Some people don’t have the connection to their pets as others do, and to many, a dog is simply an animal. But Remy truly was a member of the family, an important member of the pack and he will be remembered forever.

I wanted to write a tribute for Remy to help my brother and mother remember the good times and know that folks everywhere are thinking of them and Remy. So here are some songs to get it started…most are silly, and I do this intentionally to try and keep the mood light in a tough time…there are plenty of sad songs out there about dogs, mostly country, and I tried to stay far away from those.

Cat Stevens: I love my dog

The lyrics in this song are a little silly but I think they hold true. Remy was deeply loved and was always there when you needed a smile.

The Beatles: Martha My Dear

This is a song about Paul McCartney’s pet sheepdog. This song is also a little bit silly, but it’s appropriate here for a couple of reasons. First of all, Paul clearly loves his dog dearly, just like my mother and brother loved Remy. Plus, Mom and the younger both like the Beatles, so why not include this?

Elvis Presley: Hound Dog

So Remy was not exactly a hound dog…he didn’t have the greatest sense of smell and certainly didn’t bark all that much, but when he did, he made it known that he wanted something! I wanted to include this song because how can someone really write a post about dogs and NOT include it?

George Clinton: Atomic Dog

Up there in doggie heaven, our boy Remy will spend a lot of time with dancin’ dogs, countin’ dogs and funky dogs. Hopefully he isn’t exposed to too many “nasty dogs.”

Norman Greenbaum: Spirit in the Sky

Not a song about a dog…but this is appropriate given the fact that our boy Remy is joining our father in the afterlife. Plus our dad loved this song probably as much as he loved Remy.

So there you go, brother. Feel free to list other songs about dogs. Listen to these songs and think about Remy, know he is in a place where there are unlimited treats, leash-less walks and lots of dog toys. He’s out there somewhere, keeping our dad company.  I’ll close with a quote, and I think this sums him up:

To call him a dog hardly seems to do him justice,
though inasmuch as he had four legs, a tail, and barked,
I admit he was, to all outward appearances. But to those who
knew him well, he was a perfect gentleman.

-Hermione Gingold

On the Radio (Flashback): Time Bomb

In the mid 1990s I used to work about 45 minutes away from home at a gas station–much to the chagrin of my parents who couldn’t understand why the hell I had to drive 45 minutes to pump gas when there were perfectly good places to pump gas in our home town.  The long and the short of it was: (1) I didn’t want to be caught pumping gas by someone I actually knew and (2) there was a girl involved (the place was owned by her father).

As with most things, the law of unintended consequences had a powerful showing here.This was the glorious year of the Ford LTD Stationwagon.  First of all, since I was young and driving a lot not only did I get into my first fender-bender, run out of gas during a snowstorm and receive my first, second and third traffic citations, but I also got to listen to the radio constantly at a time when alt-rock was king. During many of my long drives into the cold, I heard songs by the band Rancid.

I can’t listen to this song without getting happy now. What the living hell was wrong with me?

As I mentioned a few months back when I was going through my obsessive phase with Palma Violets, I was dismissive of almost everything in second-wave punk for no good reason. Although I grudgingly acknowledged the quality of Green Day (and who didn’t? the radio played us all into submission), Rancid–with its snarling vocals and stripped down sound–seemed easy to mock and easier to dismiss. And yet, when I listen to it now, it seems so much more transgressive, immediate, and authentic (again, whatever that means) than a lot of the other schmaltz I thought was good. (“Wonderwall? What the fuck?)

I think that a good deal of my suspicion of punk’s second sailing has to do with poorly held and even more poorly defined ideas of authenticity and originality. At 16, I thought that such words had meaning and had no concept of things like appropriation, homage, and metamorphosis. Even worse, when it came to a band like Rancid, I was too fucking ignorant to know that two of the members were old-timers from Operation Ivy who had enough cache and real DIY punk character to make the members of Green Day blush. Hell, Rancid never even signed with a mainstream label.

So, I guess the lesson here is that if you’re worried that someone else is a poseur, you should probably check into their bona fides and, even before that, do the whole monkey in the mirror thing and make sure you’re not a complete fake. I’m trying to make amends for this and many other asshole moments in my youth.  Just today I downloaded the album.  My kids are going to be rocking out with safety pins this afternoon.

And what do you think of all this, my brother?

Stressed Out: Can’t get enough Hip Hop

I was hanging out and having a beer with an old friend who just moved back to Maine from Key West. We had on the music OnDemand old school hip hop channel and this funky little diddy came on.  It sounded very familiar but new. I love the organ flourishes and generally dig the old school production vibe. The Bulldogs did not sound familiar which is unfortunate. 

It’s been a stressful week and hip hop tunes have been helping me through it.  Last Tuesday, my 91-year-old paternal grandmother broke her leg while volunteering at an old folks home, the irony of which doesn’t escape any of us. I’m very close with my grandma and probably hyper-sensitive to most things since last Thursday was also the three-year anniversary of my father passing away which my brother mentioned in a post on that day. Seems like things happen in waves because just a few days later, one of my students ended up in a mental facility for some reasons I’m not going to share here and although she is physically ok, I’m not sure when she will be joining us again. Things are high stress right now and one thing that has been helping me is continuing my quest for new hip hop songs.

I think the big reason hip hop is a welcome distraction is I haven’t listened to it a lot again until recently and it’s like a three and half to four-minute respite from the current difficulties of life. I feel calm while listening to sick beats and I try to not think about any of the problems going on while it’s playing. This rarely works, but I get at least one minute of mental peace per roughly four minutes of music. 

Of course, some people have much bigger problems like extreme poverty, disease and violence. This fact doesn’t make me feel better.  My Grandma is already in a rehab center, I can’t do anything about my dad passing away except mourn him and continue trying to live well and I will support my student when/if she returns in every way I can. Of course, I can say these things until I’m blue in the face but it won’t erase the pain I feel or the regret from being able to take more action. So, I’ve been taking short mental vacations via hip hop and I try to just focus on the rhymes and beats, analyzing why one song works when another doesn’t. A pleasant surprise has been how much I’ve enjoyed listening to Kanye West, especially this epic jam.

I know he’s egotist and I know he’s a shameless self promoter, but I think I like him. His music is good and I suspect his whole act is a perfomance art type of thing not unlike Lady Gaga or any of these other pop stars doing weird shit to gain attention. The difference is that I like listening to Kanye’s music. I also kind of want to “run away” from some of these issues and I also think some people in my life who could help out more with stuff are douche bags. But of course, you can’t control anyone but your self and the best thing to do is lead by example. You can’t control what anyone does but yourself.

There are positive notes. My band was asked to do a benefit for four kids in high school whose father and his girlfriend just died in a car accident. I feel lucky to be able to help someone by organizing a show and playing bass.  I got my principal, a far more seasoned musician than myself, to come open for us and share in some jams. The whole community came out to support the cause, including many of our fellow teachers. The total money raised that day was something along the lines of $22,000 to help cover everyday bills for the kids and to do some repairs they needed on the house they just inherited. Like the irony of my Grandmother hurting herself while helping people younger than she is, I don’t lose the message that three years after my parent died traumatically, I got a chance to really help kids half my age deal with the abrupt loss of their parent.

Hopsin has some ill jams and I keep finding new ones I can vibe to. I do need help and I’m getting it to some extent, but hip hop helps me beau coup right now and I’m happy I’m able to find little things like listening to these jams that assist me when I am stressed

My grandmother has spent her life helping others around here, creating a center of calm in a sea of chaos. I have encountered no one else yet in my life who can be so solid in their help of others with no desire or expectation of anything back. It tears a fucking hole in me to see her in this position of weakness because she has been one constant, perhaps one of two consistent ones, in my life. When my brother was away or my parents were unable, she was there to tell me how to be a good person and how to solve whatever problems came my way.  I sat with her and the dietician yesterday and we gently hassled her for not eating much at all and how she can’t heal up right if she doesn’t eat. I assume she will come out of this as she has survived multiple wars, two dead husbands, a dead son and a dead step daughter. She’s the toughest person I know and I’ve been to a lot of dive bars.

Believe it or not, Granna has seen the band several times. She gets a standing ovation whenever I announce my 91 year old grandmother is in the crowd and the one song she always requests is this jam by Dick Curless. Even though she grew up in the mid-west, she loves this song about the woods up in Maine and all the truckers who perished on the wintry roads.

It is possible that Granna doesn’t want to eat and probably not even the hand of God will change that if that is the case. My brother brought this point up to me last night, much to my chagrin, but he is a voice of reason as usual. As tough as the woman is, if she’s done fighting, then that is how it is and no amount of my tears or fears will change that. I will be there for her regardless, just as I was there for my Dad, there for my student who is in the hospital and the way my band was there for those kids in need. Maybe I take too much on but when my time is up, I want to feel like I did everything I could to be a good person and attempted to leave the world a better place than I found it.

This is my favorite song ever, at least in the instrumental format. I think I wrote on it a little on my post on guitar solos because Duane Allman is probably my favorite guitarist ever. No this isn’t hip hop, but it is very soothing to me and definitely what I want at my funeral if I ever have one.

NKOTB Fan: A Confession

Now that my brother has ‘outed’ me, I have no choice but to embrace and then explain my identity. Yes, it is true, I was (although, unlike my sister, do not remain) a New Kids on the Block fan. The Younger J, out of kindness or because of the failure of youth’s memory, does not paint the picture in its true horror. I was not just a fan, I was a fanatic.

I had NKOTB posters on my wall. I had a fine collection of NKOTB pins, collectible cards, and every album (up to Step by Step and including the Christmas album). I watched their specials on TV; I envied my friends who had the concert tapes. I missed out on their concerts, but they would certainly have been revelatory experiences.

I definitely had this pin

As you can probably imagine, I took some abuse for this love. When I wore my pins to school, I heard sneers and catcalls. (I may have been pushed into a snow-bank, or two.) But, at the end of the day, it didn’t matter, because I had Donny, Danny, Joey, Jon and Jordan (well, not really Danny, who liked him anyway?)

How did this happen? How did I fall in love with one of the most annoying, overproduced, pop-crapular ‘bands’ ever? How did I, who came to exhibit such fine and discriminating taste (please understand the sarcasm), start here? Three answers: crazy parents, isolation, and girls.

First: the Parents J, well, mostly the mother, were a little extreme in the 80’s. They went from free-loving, getting stoned in small airplanes, driving across the country in snow storms with an infant, to attending church regularly, forbidding television, and exiling violent toys in a few years. As a young kid, I could not watch MTV (I saw “Thriller” at a babysitter’s house and FREAKED out), could not own G.I Joes (until I prevailed upon them in my first ever rhetorical triumph); even Nickelodeon was considered too vulgar (there was something about “You Can’t Do that on Television” that made my mother crazy).

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