Watch my Garden Grow

In a post not-too-long ago, my brother compiled a song-list for gardening. I think a lot of us have such informal sound tracks—sometimes we make them on purpose with iTunes playlists, or, in the old days, a mix-tape. Music is so elemental and visceral that it easily cleaves to our daily lives; in addition, our steady modern diet of television and movies all set to finely selected soundtracks conditions us to hear musical accompaniment for everything.

Or something like that.

The reason my brother’s post is worth going back to (other than the fact that it is fascinating and his list is pretty great) is also connected to what music does for us and to us: it makes us remember. But the kind of memory my brother talked about doesn’t come from music alone, it comes from working the land where my father put his hands, from turning the soil my father toiled over, and from tending the plants my father left behind him.

See, my post is about how my brother’s relationship to the land my father left us is a metaphor for his grief and the way he is honoring my father’s memory. My gardening music and my abandonment of the land is equally metaphorical. We have both been set adrift by our grief; our reactions have trapped us in turn. I’ll have a list of gardening music too.

Song 1: Rogue Wave: “Publish My Love”—a song I could not get enough of when I first got my own property. I can still recall pulling weeds in the rain with my headphones tucked under a hooded sweatshirt.

Let’s start with something unnerving. A few months before my father died, he gave a group of books to his only grandchild at the time, my daughter. Among them was a book entitled The Farmer, perhaps selected in remembrance of a book I loved when I was a toddler called Farmer Jones. Inside the book, my father wrote “You come from farmers. And always remember—you sow what you reap. Sow what you reap.”

What my father wrote

I didn’t find this epigraph until my father was a year gone. And when I did, I immediately started weeping. Never mind that we have long been crap farmers or that my father mysteriously  (or mistakenly) reversed the phrase “reap what you sow”. All I could think of was what he was thinking when he wrote that less than two months before he died. Did he have regrets? Did he know more than we did?

Song 2: Feist, “Mushaboom”—another song that I brought with me from NYC. I always loved the simple life evoked by the singer, the small house, children, the quiet. My wife and I bought and gutted a foreclosed house and did everything we could together from painting, to tile, to refinishing cabinets. The outside was mine alone.

My father and mother bought several acres of mixed woods—white pine, some scotch pine, birches in the front, a sprinkling of old apple trees, lilac bushes and some poplars near the road—and spent years taming it and creating a lawn. While he left most of the trees, my father was tireless in clearing scrub and fashioning gardens at my mother’s whims. His creations weren’t perfect, but they absorbed his sweat, his energy, his life.

When I was young, my father and mother grew vegetables in the back yard of our old house.  I still remember picking green beans from the garden and shelling peas. To this day I cannot snap into a fresh green bean without remembering the walk up the hill, the smell of the old Irish setter, and the cold, dark colors of my family’s first home.

Song 3: John Denver’s rendition of “The Garden Song”. I think I learned this song from my mother; I know I sang it in kindergarten and I am pretty sure my father knew the words. I often sing the first few lines for my children now. My eyes never fail to water.

I live in one of those ridiculous suburbs that have green lawn rules and where the local HOA can fine you if your yard is not up to community standards. The threat of fines wasn’t what made me want to make my yard look good, however.  Every time I looked at my lawn, I could hear my father telling me to take pride in what I owned. I knew how to plant, water, weed, prune, build stone walls, care for trees, prepare garden beds from scratch—I knew all these things because I had done them with my father.

Even during the summer my daughter was born, I was out in triple-digit temperatures mowing, edging, weeding and watering my lawn because I knew when my father came to visit he’d tell me where I needed to re-seed, where I needed to aerate, because he’d tell me to take pride in what I own. Now, let me be clear, even if I had let it all go to weeds, my father would merely make a joke of it. But he took yardwork so seriously that I couldn’t imagine not doing so.

Song 4: Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”—in my last year of serious yardwork, I fell in love with this song. It’s haunting falsetto vocals, and distancing, alienating feel, almost made me feel cool under the hot sun.

The summer after my father died was the driest in generations. It cost more to water the lawn than it did to pay HOA fines. But this is not why I stopped working on the yard. I couldn’t handle it. When the lawnmower wouldn’t work, I fixed it the way my father would; when the soil needed aeration, I tried to do it myself and failed, unlike my father. Every time I put on the gardening shoes and looked at the dry dirt edged with green and browns that only comes from long afternoons in the garden, I thought of those afternoons I spent as a child watching my father in the yard and then, later, helping him.

And I couldn’t handle it. I selfishly thought of all the hours he spent in the yard and not with his children. Then, I thought of all the energy he expelled for something that suddenly seemed to superficial and silly. I told my wife that I had too much work to do; I told my neighbors that it was unethical to water in a drought; I told myself I had to spend more time with my daughter before a new child arrived.

But the truth was, I think I only worked on my yard because I wanted my father to be proud of me.

And now? My brother lightly (and not so lightly) mocks me because I have hired someone to do it for me. We live in a different house in another community with an evil HOA and I refuse even to buy a lawnmower. Unlike my father, I don’t get any pleasure from working this land.It is dry, it is barren, and the work seems a performance for others, not a search for a deeper understanding of self. Even though I own it, I feel like a temporary visitor. I know I will sell this property; I will never leave it to my children.

This place, and this world, I am just passing through. I cannot bear to garden here, because every plant that dies and every one that blooms reminds me of what is coming and what has gone. I cannot garden anymore, for now, because my father’s voice still echoes.

Sow what you reap?

Song 5: Micah P. Hinson “Yard of Blonde Girls”—imagine if people grew like flowers? This song has one of the best ‘builds’ of any song I have heard in a while. Hinson knows his crescendo.

My brother tends the land my father works and it is both a statement of his love for my parents and a metaphor for how we tend the memory of those we lose. He tries to keep everything my father planted, but time changes it—what he can, he makes better; what he cannot improve, he casts aside.

I ignore the land I own because my father never touched it. I tend his memories elsewhere, trying like my brother to cast aside what is of no use, and to bring to health whatever my father planted—my brother, myself, my sister, my children.

Inch by inch, row by row. My father made his garden grow.

The Death of a Cat

Note: Last week, my brother had to say goodbye to his dog. My sister has already finely eulogized him.  The pain was especially sharp since the dog was our father’s dog.  After our father passed away, Remy was a symbol of our grief and a daily reminder of the basic visceral nature of loss: he awaited our father’s return every day and never seemed quite to adjust to his absence.

I can’t claim by any measure that my response has been empathetic or emphatic enough. Our family has a long history with pets–our lives have in large part been defined and periodized by our animals. Animals, paradoxically, teach us how to be more human. They teach us how to feel fully, to love selfishly and selflessly, and how, finally, to die. For Remy, the case was even more tortured: he died from complications of a lung ailment three years after our father died of pneumonia. know that this is coincidence, but we cannot help but see some twisted meaning, some correlation in the living of lives and the coming of death.

And this too teaches us about the differences between animal and man. We create meanings for the world rather than just inhabit it. We memorialize pain and loss and by doing so cherish it and the passing of time. But I was estranged from this animal and this passing by space and time. But my story too is bound up like my siblings’ and parents’ in the joy and loss of cats and dogs. So, here it is:

Two years ago I had to have my cat put to sleep—she had a thyroid problem and her body was shutting down. The end rapidly approached as she retained more and more fluid and it became harder for her to breathe. I held her as the doctor administered the medicine; it seemed quick and painless. For the following few days, I lived one of those interminable moments waiting for feeling either to come back or to stop completely.

This may seem more than a bit dramatic, but I have a complicated history with cats. The Family J didn’t always have cats—our mother was allergic and both parents were dedicated dog people. When I was in fifth grade, however, a young kitten showed up on our doorstep. That cute, furry thing was the beginning of trouble. We all fell in love with her. We fed her milk, lavished attention upon her, and begged to bring her inside. When she was still at our house after two days, our mother gave in.

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Christmas Jams: Where’s that Spirit at?

Bootsy Collins of James Brown and the  JB’s and Parliament Funkadelic fame can make anything funky and nails this yuletide jam right on the head. How have I lived 28 years and missed that this album was created? Lucky for me,  I have a cool new friend who teaches science where I work and he illuminated me after lunch one day last week.

As much as I tell everyone who will listen that I hate Christmas music, this year I have spent more time than ever seeking out holiday jams I can endure in a season I really don’t like in general. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas has been a time I wish I could avoid completely since the passing on of my father three years ago this January.  The few Christmases after college and my post college break-up spent with just my parents  (while my siblings lived too far away), left me with some great memories.

My father hated Christmas and always acted like a jerk because his own father died decades ago in the winter time under some very traumatic circumstances. I don’t think that mourning ever really left him during those months and I now know exactly why he was so evil on Christmas mornings. Oddly enough, I actually look back at some of his temper tantrums about the trash caused by opening presents with a laugh because it was such absurd behavior. He’d circle with his giant black garbage bag wearing a frown/grimace hurrying us to unwrap presents so he could take away the leavings.  We all handle grief different ways and the loss of his Grinch imitation is polarized every Christmas morning.

I picked this record up at  a Goodwill when I first moved home and wanted my parents to embrace my record player and all the space it took up in their dining room. This makes a classic song really sing with the crisp lazy sounds of the slide, adding a blues feel to what is for many a very depressing time of year. This one works the opposite for me though, perking me up each time I play it. He was a legendary neo-classical guitar player who actually signed Leo Kottke to his first record deal. 

I’m thankful my brother and his family came home for Thanksgiving and my sister’s family also made the trek, but it looks like both will not be making the trip back for Christmas for a myriad of logistical reasons that are a bummer but a reality of the adult lives we have chosen. So that also makes the holidays a little worse to bear as well, with the further fact that this time of year always makes you take stock of where you are in life.

I should be ecstatic because I have come a long way this year, finding a job I love that is going well, a band that continues to improve and a wide circle of friends whose holiday gatherings I can crash without feeling like a third wheel to anyone’s family time. But I seem to focus on another Christmas missing my father and wondering why I haven’t settled down and had kids like so many around me have. My general malaise probably has as much to do with lack of Vitamin D as anything else. So, in an attempt to change my mindset, I have thrown myself into decorating for Christmas and discovering new holiday jams.

This is like a sure-fire smile right here. I’ve spun this record an endless amount of times at this point, predominantly while doing Christmas activities ranging from trimming to the tree to making cookies to having an eggnog with friends. I love the vibraphone in this. Most of the album’s tracks sound similar and that’s not a bad thing.

After going out with some fellow teachers Friday night, I picked up a six-pack of local beer and went home to spend the next several hours decorating my house with my mother. For two years now, I’ve stalled putting up such things until it was almost too late but this year I was inspired to get everyone in the mood for this holiday season. Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass band really gets everyone upbeat and a beer or two doesn’t hurt. I was so enthusiastic that the next day, I decided to walk through the woods where we grew up in Maine and cut my own Christmas tree down. We never did this as children, but I really liked the idea and I know my Dad would have as long as he didn’t have to do anything.

Buck Owens did Christmas songs? This is great, you can put pedal steel guitar on anything and I’ll like it. Also, the whole blue Christmas thing is a vibe I know far too well and this is cathartic to hear.

We had to hike almost a mile into the woods to find anything remotely acceptable because it comes to find out that Christmas trees are actually pruned in a specific way to foster that appearance and it rarely occurs naturally in the wild. We ended up cutting down a 40 foot balsam fir halfway down with a buck saw and then cutting 8 feet of the top of that piece. It still took both of us to bring it the whole way out and not have it become covered in mud and it only took a minute to realize the stand we put it into had a giant leak which soaked my carpet.

We got a new stand and put it up and no tree has given me as much happiness as this tree. Sure, its funny looking and closer to Charlie Brown than Martha Stewart, but I cut that tree and lugged it in. I need to focus on a steady girlfriend first, but if I ever have kids, we are doing it the old fashioned way because it feels a whole lot better every time you lay eyes on it.

Also very cathartic for those moments when you just wish the entire Christmas season never existed. 

The house is looking pretty Christmassy and I have made come cool plans for Christmas day beyond the regular viewing of Die Hard which we have had in place for some time. I have got a few Christmas presents, one of which is the promise to my 90 year-old Grandma that I will shave my horrendous mustache prior to the Christmas Eve church service, and this is also improving my spirits. We have tried to make a family rule of no one buying presents for each other this year so we can all save money so I hope everyone is actually doing that because I sure am.

As difficult as this time of year is for me and for so many else out there in the world, I know I feel better after trying to get into that Christmas spirit.  Whenever life gets hard for me, I find that baring down and working through it is the best solution. It’s always best to try to focus on the positive no matter how down you get which is often way harder than it sounds.  Holidays are really a minor thing and what you really want is a whole year of quality family, friend and life experiences. I know I’m getting closer to that every year so from the bottom of my heart, have a great holiday and a happy new year!

I cheated on this one and googled “funky Christmas songs” and wound up with this gem. I could not think of a better funk name than The Jive Turkeys, what a score!  I will for sure be dancing around the tree to this for many years to come.  I sure hope my nieces and nephews like funk music when they grow up!

(Back to) Birthday Songs

As this post goes live, I will be thousands of feet above the ground in an airplane headed for the pacific ocean. On this, my 35th birthday,

Yes, looks peaceful. But have you been on a three hour flight with toddlers?

Yes, looks peaceful. But have you been on a three hour flight with toddlers?

my wife decided that we should all take a break from the oppressive heat of our adoptive state and take our children to California, to see the ocean for the first time.

I wrote the post below in anticipation of my first birthday after my father passed away. That first year was both rough and revelatory–I lost a father, became a father again, and tried however I could to come to grips with the magnitude of the loss. No one really knows what it is like to lose someone until it happens. Fathers–as I learned too late–provide an unspoken almost undetectable sense of security.

So many of my early posts were suffused enough with regret and sorrow that I now feel almost embarrassed by their maudlin and self-indulgent character. And yet, as a record of my grief and transfo Continue reading

Kris Kross star died of drug overdose

http://www.nbcnews.com/entertainment/kris-kross-star-died-drug-overdose-6C10519235

We don’t usually just link to news pieces, but I cannot allow the passing of Chris Kelly to go without mention. When I was in junior high, this band was the bane if my existence.

This is not a triumphal post, however. What a pity to lose one so young, one whose life burned so brightly and briefly. His devolution into drugs and denial is a lesson about the emptiness of fame and materialism.

Bu it is also a lesson for all ot us about the fleeting nature of life.

Rest in peace. Jump, jump.

Birthday Songs

It’s not my birthday
It’s not today
It’s not my birthday, so why do you lunge out at me?
When the word comes down, “Never more will be around”
Though I’ll wish you were there, I was less than we could bear
And I’m not the only dust my mother raised
I am not the only dust my mother raised “It’s Not My Birthday,” They Might Be Giants

Note: The following was written on or around my most recent birthday.  Since many of our posts are asynchronous, there is no way it is being posted on my actual birthday. In fact, this post represents thoughts and feelings that are several months gone by. Note as well, the clever epigraph. Today I post this in honor of my father’s birthday.

Birthdays are strange things. Some cultures make a big deal of them—a birthday can be like Christmas and Mardi Gras combined. In others, you have to pay to feed and entertain your friends. Some even—gasp—treat them like normal days. Should the day you separated from your mother be such a big deal when you would have certainly perished without round-the-clock care? Why not celebrate conception days (apart from the unknown dates and the yuck factor)?

In our culture, generally speaking, we set up birthdays to get steadily worse as we age. When we’re children, birthdays are prime acquisition and requisition opportunities. We count down the days to dessert, theme parties, and presents from doting elders. As we enter adolescence, birthdays become a series of transformative milestones: at 13 you’re a teenager, at 16 you can drive, at 18 you can vote (or, more importantly, buy pornography and cigarettes). This trend continues into your twenties: 20 is a nice round number and at 21 you can drink (legally). Even if the rest of the twenties are somewhat anticlimactic by comparison, for most of us they are still filled with lubricated celebrations and a suspension of normal behavior and responsibilities.

Even 30 is (a bit) exciting. And then? If you don’t grow up and get a job, have a family and all that jazz, birthdays just become another excuse to overindulge except that the cast of companions dwindles (as everyone else grows up and gets a life).  The party becomes a routine; the routine gets old; and the clock moves faster and faster.

So at some point, I figure, we all start to think: what the hell are birthdays for? Do we want to mark that we’re another year older? I guess it is important to mark the cycle of a year, to stop and recognize how we’ve changed and what we’ve gained. But, on the other hand, marking the turn in the year and tallying up debits and credits also brings into focus what we’ve lost.

And this is the truth of human life—the longer we live the more opportunity we have to develop attachments to things (people) that we will definitely lose (unless we predecease all of our attachments). The horror of this truth is strong enough that it persuaded ancient Stoic philosophers to develop ways of living that downplay attachments altogether.

(See, for instance, the work of Seneca the Younger, who quips in On the Brevity of Life that while most people complain that life is too short they are dead wrong. Life is plenty long; most of us just waste it.)

The obvious outcome is that while we define ourselves on a day-to-day basis by what we have (a spouse, children, family, job, things, etc.) as we age, perversely, we become defined by what we’ve lost (hair! Health. Loved ones.) So while birthdays and holidays are the appropriate time to be thankful for what we have, they are ultimately and inevitably the time we take measure of what is gone. As we age, we become defined not by what we are but by what we are not; note: we cannot keep track of the years we have left, so we keep track of the years that are gone. To be human, fundamentally, is to be defined by loss.

This is my first birthday without my father. On his birthdays, he always demanded only one thing: to be left alone. I am, for the first time, starting to understand that request. Who wants to be reminded of one year passing faster than the year before? Who wants to be reminded of the rapidly approaching end? I don’t know what my father really believed—I think he had some faith in an afterlife. My hope is that when I go, I will be proved suddenly wrong. (If I am right, I will never know it.)

My father also spent nearly every birthday recounting his age in relation to his father’s. My grandfather died at 49; my father was convinced he would expire by the same time. He made it a dozen years longer. Am I going to spend the rest of my life thinking about that number (61)? Am I already more than half-way there? Or can I assume an even dozen to spare?

I have written before about what my father meant to me. The Younger J has also written about how disappointed he would be to find me spending the remaining (good years) of my life fretting about him. I have a good job; I have a great family; and I think I have good health. But the truth is, I am not really worrying about him, about whether or not he knew he was alone when he died or about whether or not he regretted all the things he didn’t do. I am really upset about me. Nothing teaches you about your own mortality like becoming and losing a father in the same year.

When my wife asks me what I want for my birthday, I pause and tell her the truth: my father back, my parents solvent, my siblings well. I daydream about being able to choose between something gigantic like world peace and my father’s life along with the thoughts that would run through my head as I hesitated. None of this is fair, of course—but some portion of grief is always an expression of self-indulgence.

So this year I can measure what I have lost at about my height, my weight plus 28 years (less a considerable amount of hair). I miss him, truly; but I really miss the sense of security of knowing he was there. Now, I must be him—a ‘father’ to my own siblings, a caretaker (from afar) for my mother, and a father to his grandchildren. Let me be clear: I don’t feel cheated or burdened. I just wish I could have asked him more about it first.

What a great way to spend a birthday. Shall I lighten it up, cheaply?

There is nothing more annoying than the “Happy Birthday Song” (except for updates of it performed in theme restaurants). So, for my birthday, I have come up with some other birthday songs. Unbirthday songs. Celebrate with me: it’s not your birthday, not today.

  1. “Unhappy Birthday”, The Smiths

What A better way to desacralize the birthday than to cheat someone else of his joy. Note the nice connection to mortality in the lyrics:

I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday

Because you’re evil

And you lie

And if you should die

I may feel slightly sad

(but I won’t cry)

  1. “Gemini (Birthday Song)” Why?

Why? is one of my favorite bands with one of the most recognizable and distinct sounds out there. This is the first song by the band I ever fell in love with. I am not precisely sure why this is a birthday song, but again, there’s a nice sense of the meaning of mortality in marking the passing of another year:

Then I wept

with my face in your night shirt,

trying hard as hell to say

“until death separates us,”

loosening the skin on your breastbone,

I painted your nails

and you sleep

while I write all this down.

  1. “It’s Your Birthday,” 50 Cent

Does this song have to be explained? This one goes out to everyone who’s sharing my birthday (even though it isn’t his or hers) and still wants to party like its 1999:

We gonna party like it’s your birthday
We gon’ sip Bacardi like it’s your birthday
And you know we don’t give a fuck, it’s not your birthday

  1. “Birthday,” Sugarcubes

Birthday blues? There’s only one way to deny it—engage in activities that transcend your mortal bounds! Sow those oats! Bjork’s quirky band the Sugarcubes gave the world this song with strange but somewhat understandable lyrics. That is, if the bird is what I think it is. If it isn’t phallic, then I am clueless:

Today is a birthday 
They’re smoking cigars 
He’s got A chain of flowers 
and sows a bird in her knickers 

  1. “Birthday Sex,” Jeremih

Staying with the theme more subtly established by the Sugarcubes, who doesn’t want birthday action? (as much as most of us don’t want to hear about it…). What is interesting about this song is that the male singer is characterizing his couch lovemaking session as a gift for the woman, which, of course, is the way it always works out. Right?

It’s your birthday so I know you want to ride out

even if we only go out to my house

sip more weezy as we sit upon my couch,

feels good, but I know you want to cry out.

 

  1. “Birthday Song” Ben Lee

And to end: a warning about the motivations and consequences of birthday parties.

Staying up ’til dawn won’t take its toll

‘Til we get old

And drinking is just the way

We keep away the cold

The Death of a Cat

Not too long ago I had to have my cat put to sleep—she had a thyroid problem and her body was shutting down. The end rapidly approached as she retained more and more fluid and it became harder for her to breathe. I held her as the doctor administered the medicine; it seemed quick and painless. For the following few days, I lived one of those interminable moments waiting for feeling either to come back or to stop completely.

This may seem more than a bit dramatic, but I have a complicated history with cats. The Family J didn’t always have cats—our mother was allergic and both parents were dedicated dog people. When I was in fifth grade, however, a young kitten showed up on our doorstep. That cute, furry thing was the beginning of trouble. We all fell in love with her. We fed her milk, lavished attention upon her, and begged to bring her inside. When she was still at our house after two days, our mother gave in.

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Watch my Garden Grow

In a post not-too-long ago, my brother compiled a song-list for gardening. I think a lot of us have such informal sound tracks—sometimes we make them on purpose with iTunes playlists, or, in the old days, a mix-tape. Music is so elemental and visceral that it easily cleaves to our daily lives; in addition, our steady modern diet of television and movies all set to finely selected soundtracks conditions us to hear musical accompaniment for everything.

Or something like that.

The reason my brother’s post is worth going back to (other than the fact that it is fascinating and his list is pretty great) is also connected to what music does for us and to us: it makes us remember. But the kind of memory my brother talked about doesn’t come from music alone, it comes from working the land where my father put his hands, from turning the soil my father toiled over, and from tending the plants my father left behind him.

See, my post is about how my brother’s relationship to the land my father left us is a metaphor for his grief and the way he is honoring my father’s memory. My gardening music and my abandonment of the land is equally metaphorical. We have both been set adrift by our grief; our reactions have trapped us in turn. I’ll have a list of gardening music too.

Song 1: Rogue Wave: “Publish My Love”—a song I could not get enough of when I first got my own property. I can still recall pulling weeds in the rain with my headphones tucked under a hooded sweatshirt.

Let’s start with something unnerving. A few months before my father died, he gave a group of books to his only grandchild at the time, my daughter. Among them was a book entitled The Farmer, perhaps selected in remembrance of a book I loved when I was a toddler called Farmer Jones. Inside the book, my father wrote “You come from farmers. And always remember—you sow what you reap. Sow what you reap.”

What my father wrote

I didn’t find this epigraph until my father was a year gone. And when I did, I immediately started weeping. Never mind that we have long been crap farmers or that my father mysteriously  (or mistakenly) reversed the phrase “reap what you sow”. All I could think of was what he was thinking when he wrote that less than two months before he died. Did he have regrets? Did he know more than we did?

Song 2: Feist, “Mushaboom”—another song that I brought with me from NYC. I always loved the simple life evoked by the singer, the small house, children, the quiet. My wife and I bought and gutted a foreclosed house and did everything we could together from painting, to tile, to refinishing cabinets. The outside was mine alone.

My father and mother bought several acres of mixed woods—white pine, some scotch pine, birches in the front, a sprinkling of old apple trees, lilac bushes and some poplars near the road—and spent years taming it and creating a lawn. While he left most of the trees, my father was tireless in clearing scrub and fashioning gardens at my mother’s whims. His creations weren’t perfect, but they absorbed his sweat, his energy, his life.

When I was young, my father and mother grew vegetables in the back yard of our old house.  I still remember picking green beans from the garden and shelling peas. To this day I cannot snap into a fresh green bean without remembering the walk up the hill, the smell of the old Irish setter, and the cold, dark colors of my family’s first home.

Song 3: John Denver’s rendition of “The Garden Song”. I think I learned this song from my mother; I know I sang it in kindergarten and I am pretty sure my father knew the words. I often sing the first few lines for my children now. My eyes never fail to water.

I live in one of those ridiculous suburbs that have green lawn rules and where the local HOA can fine you if your yard is not up to community standards. The threat of fines wasn’t what made me want to make my yard look good, however.  Every time I looked at my lawn, I could hear my father telling me to take pride in what I owned. I knew how to plant, water, weed, prune, build stone walls, care for trees, prepare garden beds from scratch—I knew all these things because I had done them with my father.

Even during the summer my daughter was born, I was out in triple-digit temperatures mowing, edging, weeding and watering my lawn because I knew when my father came to visit he’d tell me where I needed to re-seed, where I needed to aerate, because he’d tell me to take pride in what I own. Now, let me be clear, even if I had let it all go to weeds, my father would merely make a joke of it. But he took yardwork so seriously that I couldn’t imagine not doing so.

Song 4: Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”—in my last year of serious yardwork, I fell in love with this song. It’s haunting falsetto vocals, and distancing, alienating feel, almost made me feel cool under the hot sun.

The summer after my father died was the driest in generations. It cost more to water the lawn than it did to pay HOA fines. But this is not why I stopped working on the yard. I couldn’t handle it. When the lawnmower wouldn’t work, I fixed it the way my father would; when the soil needed aeration, I tried to do it myself and failed, unlike my father. Every time I put on the gardening shoes and looked at the dry dirt edged with green and browns that only comes from long afternoons in the garden, I thought of those afternoons I spent as a child watching my father in the yard and then, later, helping him.

And I couldn’t handle it. I selfishly thought of all the hours he spent in the yard and not with his children. Then, I thought of all the energy he expelled for something that suddenly seemed to superficial and silly. I told my wife that I had too much work to do; I told my neighbors that it was unethical to water in a drought; I told myself I had to spend more time with my daughter before a new child arrived.

But the truth was, I think I only worked on my yard because I wanted my father to be proud of me.

And now? My brother lightly (and not so lightly) mocks me because I have hired someone to do it for me. We live in a different house in another community with an evil HOA and I refuse even to buy a lawnmower. Unlike my father, I don’t get any pleasure from working this land.It is dry, it is barren, and the work seems a performance for others, not a search for a deeper understanding of self. Even though I own it, I feel like a temporary visitor. I know I will sell this property; I will never leave it to my children.

This place, and this world, I am just passing through. I cannot bear to garden here, because every plant that dies and every one that blooms reminds me of what is coming and what has gone. I cannot garden anymore, for now, because my father’s voice still echoes.

Sow what you reap?

Song 5: Micah P. Hinson “Yard of Blonde Girls”—imagine if people grew like flowers? This song has one of the best ‘builds’ of any song I have heard in a while. Hinson knows his crescendo.

My brother tends the land my father works and it is both a statement of his love for my parents and a metaphor for how we tend the memory of those we lose. He tries to keep everything my father planted, but time changes it—what he can, he makes better; what he cannot improve, he casts aside.

I ignore the land I own because my father never touched it. I tend his memories elsewhere, trying like my brother to cast aside what is of no use, and to bring to health whatever my father planted—my brother, myself, my sister, my children.

Inch by inch, row by row. My father made his garden grow.

Baby Music Makers

(Don’t be confused by the content of this post, it is not about baby-making)

My younger sister has recently given birth to a daughter (Welcome to the world, Niece J!)—for those of you keeping score, that’s two babies in under 6 months for the Family J (and three in two years). As the clan expands, the important questions are: (1) when do babies start blogging? And (2) when will the Younger J contribute to this project?

(On second thought, maybe he should wait.)

People who don’t have children often weigh the merits of little ones against what is lost. Parents lose independence, freedom, all that jazz. So, I have not been out to many nice restaurants, seen a live music performance, or slept more than 6 hours in a night in two years. With this, outsiders, strangers to the bizarre ritual of parenthood, place the other joys: daily dousing in vomit, urine (and sometimes shit); trips to the pediatrician, emergency room, all-night pharmacies; money lavished on diapers, daycare and clothes worn only once or twice.

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Songs for Dad

Note: Our father passed away unexpectedly a year ago. We wrote about him as part of developing the idea of this blog. He is responsible in no small part for both of us and everything we do. We miss him greatly.

Long before my Dad actually died, when we first came up for the idea of a doing a music blog as two brothers, one of our first topics was songs we’d play at our father’s funeral. It was supposed to be a joke as my father, the Elder, and I have always shared a morbid sense of humor.

Examples include: my father making us promise that we’d suffocate him with a pillow if he ever became what he called a “vegetable”; Dad daring my sister to touch our deceased step-grandfather at his wake; asking us to stuff his beloved golden retriever so he’d always be there with him. The retriever, now mine by default, is staring at me as I write this and I can assure you it would be funny, albeit very creepy.

My father died probably exactly the way he wanted except far too soon–but I’d imagine that’s the same for everyone. He didn’t suffer long. He was never a “vegetable” and there wasn’t a huge fuss over him because no one had any clue how sick he was until it was too late.

This is turning too much into a eulogy and I have already done that. Let’s shift to the actual topic of the day, songs for my father. I want to talk about songs I remember him really liking as well as some songs that were actually used at his funeral and his wake which was really more of a party (what he wanted when he died).

Before I launch into the songs and why, I need to emphasize that the man was deaf from a young age–so deaf at the end that there was no existing technology to improve his hearing. They somehow fucked up in the incubator and pumped in too much oxygen and it blew one of his ears out and left the other severely damaged. I had a friend who sells hearing aids test him last fall and he was 90% deaf at 61. Many people didn’t realize how deaf he was because he was crazy skilled at reading lips; talking with him one on one seemed no different from conversing with anyone else.

I was lucky to have a best friend for a father and this was hard fought.  It wasn’t until circumstances dropped me in the parents’ house after grad school that we really solidified our relationship. I wouldn’t trade the last year and a half I got to spend with him for anything and I hope in some way this piece of writing will spurn people to get to know their parents if they don’t already.. Lastly and most selfishly, I need to write this as I am still having great trouble dealing with the loss and although I am crying as I write, I think it will be cathartic in the long run.

He once told me of seeing Jimi Hendrix during his opening slot for the Monkees in the Midwest sometime in the late 1960’s. Even with a head full of acid, he described the music to me as “a bunch of monkeys banging on trash cans in the jungle”. He couldn’t hear anything above the distortion.

Needless to say, he wasn’t into the jam like I was. He liked tight song structure and succinct lyrics like all of the folk songs he loved . That being said, I think one will see the amusement in some of the songs he enjoyed as it was very unlikely he ever had any idea what the lyrics were saying. He never explained why he liked songs the way the Elder and I will spend endless hours discussing minute details of long dead musical artists and this is one of the many small parts that made him who he was. He liked stuff and the reasons why either didn’t exist or not for us to know.

1. “What a Friend we have in Jesus/ Swing low Sweet Chariot”-Traditional

Christian Hymns: Both of these songs were played at the services for my father and for good reason. He loved the old spirituals and would always tell people that he and I had a Sunday morning choir group, followed by an off key hum before launching into either one of these tunes in his perceptably terrible singing voice. The man was very good at a lot of things but singing was never one of them. Hell, he was almost completely deaf, cut him a break. I sometimes sang with him because he found great amusement in it even if no one else did; other times, I just laughed because it never ceased to be funny to me.

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