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.

 

 

Mother’s Day

Yeah this isn’t the most cheery song, but it’s clearly about mothers. I’m lucky because, although I may not always see eye to eye with my own mother, she has been there with unwavering support my entire existence. Lastly, I spent a lot of time listening to this song with my best friend Jay in his Honda accord while in high school when my mom was probably wondering where I was and what I was doing. So, thanks for never calling the police on me Mom!

Mother’s day is upon us again and I figured I’d write a quick post after just cooking breakfast for my mom, doing some gardening at the family compound in Maine and then going to see her sing with an adult community chorus that she has joined after which I will cook her a steak on the grill while enjoying a few Coronas (which are her favorite). I don’t always get along with my mother as well as I could and there have been a wide swath of conflicts over the years covering everything from when exactly I was coming home with her car to throwing up in her azalea bushes to not picking up after myself almost ever. I don’t always show her how much I do care about her but she knows deep down that all three of her kids got her back and we will do anything to help her as she always has done for us.

My mom laid the foundation for my love of music more than any one person and set me on the musically charged path in life that I am now walking. There was music in our house nearly all the time whether it was from CDs, the radio or my mom playing the piano. All of us kids got all of our music skills and appreciation from our mother. More on that in a minute.  Every year for her birthday and sometimes Mother’s Day, I get her some discs at the local music store and there is always at least one soul/r&b record like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, or whatever new one I can find.

It has not been an easy couple of years for my Mom. Beginning with my father’s passing three plus years ago, she had a run of bad luck that included some health issues which put her into the hospital for a few weeks back in 2011, health issues of her parents, various financial issues from  the untimely passing of Dad and the very recent loss of our favorite furry friend Remy. Through it all, she has remained steadfast in dealing with her problems and pushing on, making a joke when she can and still helping others even when she could barely help herself.

This selflessness is another thing all three of us kids got from her, as well as the ability to relate to damn near anyone we meet which makes us one of the most versatile family of conversationalists that I’ve ever come across. It used to embarrass us when my mother would start talking to people she didn’t know on the subway in NYC when the Elder J lived there, but now I see it as a genuine desire to learn more about people and to spread kindness wherever possible.

Another one of the many oldie style tunes that I associate with my Mom and Dad playing at top volume in whatever P.O.S. car we were rocking at the moment. She often tells the story of one of her brothers singing this song at her grandfather’s funeral while everyone was weeping upstairs. This is not a bad funeral song.

I sat in my garage the other night thinking about what else I need to build some Adirondack  chairs out there as I have cleaned out my father’s woodshop for me to use. My Mom came out and was pretty sad about missing our beloved golden retriever and the waterworks started. One of the few grievances I have with my mom is that she has always been a crier. Like, she cried every time I headed back to college after a visit to Maine, which was pretty often.  She cried so much that I barely responded when she did it which made me feel like a bad son.

A lighting bolt of knowledge struck me as I sat in the garage and I started to tell her how she personally is responsible for my love and knowledge of music and no one has done anything for me that means as much as this does. The waterworks really started then, but I think they were more tears of joy than of melancholy.

I took piano lessons as a youth but didn’t stick with them which is one of my biggest regrets. I was trying to transpose the guitar chords of this old folksy song to the piano the other night while singing it and couldn’t figure out why the D chord sounded wrong. My Mom knew the answer but said “Just keep trying, you will figure it out” knowing full well I had to stick a minor note in there to make it work which I eventually figured out through trial and error. It was a lot more helpful to make me figure it out then to tell me and this is just one of the slices of musical genius in my mom.

I’m not sure I could even properly explore all the ways my mom influenced me when it comes to music. This blog is one of the biggest examples that everyone can see as she is clearly the foundation of the Elder J’s, Sister J’s and my love and appreciation for music as well as how it relates to your life. She gave us the opportunity to listen to all types of music, the access to musical instruments/lessons even if we didn’t stick with them and the undying support in whatever musical journeys we chose to take.

Music is an integral part of all of our lives as each one of us plays instruments and sings to our students/children every day. Music is the number one best thing in my life, the one thing that is always there for me and never lets you down. My bass playing isn’t anything to write home about, but it makes me happy and it allows me to make other people happy and even to teach what I know to both my students and any friend who wants to sit down long enough to pick something up. Life would not be fun for me without music so besides the decades of money, time and patience you have given me Mom, I thank you most for the gift of music. All three of us would be completely different people without it and I hope I can continue to try to repay you.

Spoiler Alert: My Mom’s name is Mary. My Dad was  “Hey Jude” guy but I will forever associate “Let it Be” with my mom. Thanks Mom, I couldn’t ask for a better parent.

The Pixies: The Coolest Alternative Band

Top five of my favorite Pixies songs and classic example of the loud-soft dynamic.

Since we have covered multiple bands from the nineties recently, specifically Pearl Jam and Soul Coughing, I wanted to go back a little further before  writing on the latter band (because they are also one of my favorites). When “Smells like Teen Spirit” dropped back in the early 90’s, Kurt gave an interview saying he was trying to rip off the Pixies on that groundbreaking song. They were one of his favorite bands he said with a smile, with their loud to soft sound dynamics. Let’s be honest, that’s what made the song work, the juxtaposition of of the mumbled vocals with the loud and nearly grating crunchy guitar licks and shouts. This song will probably always represent the Gen X slackers and grunge sound and we have the Pixies to thank.

The dynamic here is almost all vocals, my favorite being when Frank Black screams “THEN GODDDDD IS SEVEN”. I have a good friend who only listens to Hip Hop, but for some reason, I got him into the Pixies and he routinely cites this as his favorite song. Also, I learned about this song via the Bloodhound Gang and their hit  “Fire Water Burn”.

After Bloodhound Gang, I stole the Elder J’s albums by the Pixies and became transfixed. I was already into Led Zeppelin, the Foo Fighters, Nirvana and The Beatles amongst all my other early musical influences. The Pixies fit right into this mold, even without a lot of guitar solos that I loved even at a young age.  They write interesting songs lyrically with a consistent unique sound that is never overbearing, which may be antithetical to my love of prog rock but I’ve always liked a variety of tunes. I didn’t know until recently that the band started at UMass at Amherst and that Kim Deal didn’t even own a bass when she answered lead singer/songwriter Frank Black’s ad for someone who liked both Peter, Paul and Mary and Husker Du. That’s funny stuff.

Kim Deal is not a crazily intricate bass player, but she is solid and inventive while also laying down some sweet backing vocals and the occasional lead like on this track supposedly dedicated to well endowed males. She left the band as of June 2013 which sucks because she was a driving force and  an inventive artist while not being the most musically trained individual. Hey, maybe it’s Breeders reunion time!

From the early touring years, after getting big in Europe, problems arose between Kim Deal and Frank Black with one incident where Frank threw a guitar at Kim while on stage. They butted heads due to musical/personal differences and what sounds like Frank’s desire to be the sole writing force. Kim was a headstrong woman and never fully warmed to the fact that Frank saw himself as the leader because he was the lead singer. They didn’t even talk for much of the last few years in the early 90’s before the hiatus and she quit for what sounds like forever last June. On one hand, this sucks. On the other, the tension helped to create some of my favorite music of the last thirty years and make a permanent mark on alternative music.

This was probably the closest they came to a pop song and another one of the first few that I heard by the band. It was this song and  “Monkey’s Gone to Heaven” that got me to delve into their albums further and discover tracks like “Caribou” and “Gigantic” amidst what is quality output pretty much throughout. A big selling point for me has been that you can listen to their albums all the way through and never need to skip a track. Few bands are like this anymore.

The Pixies never got huge, getting most of their airplay on college radio and alternative stations. They never to my knowledge got into heavy drug use, with Frank Black once saying the hardest stuff he ever got into was marijuana and it never allowed him to do anything more “creative than parallel parking.” They also never got big enough to become real conceited, except for a few things I’ve read about Frank Black. They don’t even take credit for creating anything new with sound dynamic, with Frank saying they didn’t know how to play any other way except for loud and soft, even calling it “dumbo dynamics”. Their uniqueness and a few other reasons is why they may be the coolest alternative band ever.

My brother wrote on this song before and it deserves another mention. The use of it in the end of  Fight Club may be my favorite use of a song in any movie ever. I’m thinking it’s right up there with “Born to be Wild” in Easy Rider and “Damn it feels good to be Gangsta” in Office Space. I believe Frank wrote the song about scuba diving in the Caribbean while abroad at UMass.

The Pixies are cool for a myriad of reasons. First, they seem to be very modest about their role in alternative music and I think that’s rare in a recording industry rife with arrogance and narcissism. They’ve been compared with the Velvet Underground in that they never had mainstream commercial success, yet they have influenced scores of other bands. Secondly. they have a very unique sound which is unlike any other band I’ve ever heard. As with Primus, progressive rock and most of the bands I really like, I think this is important above all else. Not just in their music, but also in their lyrics which often deal with Biblical themes and other topics atypical of traditional alternative music. Lastly, I have loved them since about elementary school and this can be said about very few bands for me, Zeppelin being the only band that comes quickly to mind. I haven’t seen them live but I hope to and I hope Kim comes back. Long live the Pixies!

This has always been high on my list of favorite Pixies jams. I love the “Buy me a soda” lyrics, even though it sounds like it has to do with a hands preacher when I read the song’s lyrics as a whole. What I’d do to be able to go back to 1987 and see them in their prime.

Bad Band Names (and good ones?)

The subject I am about to touch upon–and don’t be distracted by the brevity with which I treat it–is one that is close to my heart because I was in two bands for nearly four years each and both  had rather terrible names. How do I know that the names were bad? When people ask me what the names of my bands were, I am too embarrassed by them to even utter them. In fact, I often find myself saying a silent prayer of thanks for the fact that both of my bands disappeared before the full rise of the internet. It is very, very hard to connect my proper name with those terrible, awful names.

This band has some pretty good beats and a rather tough sound for some ladies. Where are they now? While a rose by any other name still sounds as sweet, words have intrinsic attractiveness based on their sound and that sound’s relationship to the language at large. If a thorned flower were called ‘turd’, would we have bands named the Stone Turds and Guns N’ Turds? The sound matters.

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Music, Marijuana and Misery: A Case for Casualization?

Ok. I may be blowing up the blog with this one. But here it goes.

Wiz Khalifa featuring Snoop Dogg, “Young, and Wild and Free”

A few weeks back, my brother wrote a great post about dealing with his students’ attitudes about life and, in passing, things like substance abuse. He talked about their difficult lives and the way that music influences their views about the world. He self-mockingly provides a PSA when he writes:

I love the vibe of this song  and dislike much of the content. My one major problem with Wiz is the constant reference to and glorification of marijuana. I personally don’t care what he does on his own time. However, he definitely influences young folks all around to think that smoking pot is not only ok, but actually a good thing that will make you have fun all the time

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Tame Impala: There’s one in my Yard

I have already broken my commandment of writing a long post and a short post each week, but it’s not due hardly at all to procrastination. In fact, I only recently got a real job where I have to be consistently engaged and no choice but to show up everyday, but I am sure the Elder is still sour with me as he should be. I will get into the details of my new job later since I think I could write volume on it at this point. Instead, check out this song that I know my brother mentioned at some point and I heard last night on a commercial.

This song, by Tame Impala, is badass. It’s like a dirty sounding T. Rex with all the fuzz and buzz one could want from a seriously righteous sounding garage band. I had to applaud the band for making the song and my brother for catching some thing cool before me. I can’t even remember what I was doing because I don’t know what the commercial was for.

Luckily, I heard the same song the next day on the weekly Psychedelic Breakfast on the classic rock station that I listen to every single Saturday morning even if I am up the whole night prior. True story is that the only thing that keeps me from listening to this show is geographical and apparently one can listen to it online so even if I am out of the state, I can still jam to this amazing set of music.

Naturally, they have a song called “Led Zeppelin” which almost sounds like a psychedelic version of one of that huge band’s song but with like a techno backbeat. Pretty cool.

After hearing the song and then getting the name from the DJ, I immediately remembered my brother talking about the band. These Australians describe themselves as a psychedelic band so it’s excellent I heard them on the aforementioned show. The song above grabbed my attention because of the name and ended up being very cool.  I have been scanning through their songs on the YouTubes and find them to be consistently awesome. They have this classic late 60’s, early 70’s feel with some sick riffs and the psychdelia of middle-era Beatles and early Pink Floyd but with more cohesive songs. Clearly, there’s a little prog rock in there too which I obviously love. Nothing insane for guitar solos so far, but give me some time!

After numerous mentions of the word Apocalypse, I still can’t spell with the word without spell check.  

To wrap up what is supposed to be a short post, I do in fact have a tame Chevy Impala in my backyard. Over two years after his passing, my father’s P.O.S  sedan with over two hundo on the engine still remains in the vacant spot where I should have heirloom tomatoes or some shit growing.  I finally have gotten the paperwork and enthusiasm to get rid of it and hope to sell it within the month and clear up the garden space and my mind because I know the old man would want it gone if it wasn’t running. I need to reboot my iTunes account and buy the whole album by Tame Impala and figure out more songs that rock while doing my spring clean up. This one definitely sounds like the Beatles.

This sounds so much like “I’m only Sleeping”.

This sounds to me a lot like the Revolver era of the Beatles that I probably like more than any other era and a heavier dose of psychedelia then they were into at the time.  This song, with the title of “Feels like we are going backwards” makes me think about my new job in education and almost every aspect of my life right now but I feel alright about it. Sometimes life does push you backwards which really just prompts me to push a little harder and try to think of how to do things differently. Spring is here and the glass is half full so let’s get on it!

Why I love the guitar solo.

One of my favorite solos ever, almost certainly the favorite for the mighty Led Zeppelin. I’ve loved this one for over a decade which is not the same I can say for those old Foo Fighters records. Just listen to how he keeps building the solo until there is a climax, not unlike a sexual experience. Many people, including an interview I can now not find with Jimmy Page, have ascertained that songs like  “Stair way to Heaven” are modeled like this for that exact reason.

The Elder and I talked about Mumford last week and he commented on my post after some back and forth that he thought most guitar solos are “superfluous ostentation” which I think is the equivalent of tail fins on a car. They look cool and add to the overall picture but don’t really do much for the ride. (He continues the debate here.)

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