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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New Music: Saintseneca, “Happy Alone”

“He who can talk to himself, will have no need of another’s conversation”
qui secum loqui poterit, sermonem alterius non requiret
Marcus Tullius Cicero

 

A few days ago, my phone pinged, I looked down and I received the following tweet from my old college friend and our sometime contributor, Another J.

 

 

Another J has known me just slightly longer than my wife has and since we were in a band together and have shared music for over a decade, he knows my tastes pretty well.  He nailed it with this one. I hear some Rogue Wave in the vocals, some Typhoon in the song structure, and some wild vowels that remind me of Frightened Rabbit.  There are male and female vocals. They use acoustic guitars in angry ways. There are backing vocals that go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ and they use a banjo in a non-abusive way (unlike, say, Mumford and Sons).

 

Here’s the lead single from the album:

 

 

The only problem is that the album comes out April 1st. I want it now! I listened to the whole album through NPR’s First Listen and I don’t think that this is the best track. It is actually a little conventional–in the way the Decemberists are in the song “July, July”, which is a great song, but rather poppy in comparison to the rest of their ouvre.  Here’s another Saintseneca track with an acoustic bass and some strangeness that reminds me again of some odd combination of the Decemberists and the early days of Arcade Fire (if they unplugged).

 

“Uppercutter”

The facial hair kind of kills me. I don’t feel hip enough to pre-order this album, but screw it. I’ll do it anyway.

 

Also coming in April: some new and fresh posts. I promise.

Top Songs of (my) Year 2013

FatherTimeSomehow, another year has turned (as the Greeks would put it) and I find myself already contemplating writing retrospective and best of the year reviews. My sense of awe and disbelief derives not from actual disbelief since I can distinctly remember my life last year and where I was when I wrote the restrospectives of a year ago. No, my surprise comes from how fast it has all gone .

The alacrity of our passing years is in part perspective (the more you do something the fast it seems to go; objectively speaking, time itself has not been altered). And yet, in addition, the rapid transit of time is still accelerated more by our myriad modern distractions (I’m talking to you, 24 news cycle, twitter, social networks, etc.) and the busyness of my time of life—early career, young children, somewhat lame blog…

Is the enjoyment of life necessarily limited by speed and quantity? My suspicion is that the answer is yes. But the fact is that I don’t really want to contemplate the answer, because the only solution is to give stuff up. And I wouldn’t know where to begin. The fullness of my life is a blessing more than a curse.

Today isn’t about the busyness or the blog. I want to celebrate the fact that I still take time to enjoy music and that another year has brought me another group of songs I will always love. So, here are the ten songs I will most associate this year with in no particular order.

“New Distributor Cap”, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities

Some how I missed this alt-folk band years back. When I discovered it when I was writing a review of the Breeders’ Last Splash, I fell into one of those “wish I had been a different person reveries”. This song is sweet, and true. The central conceit—that the singer will fix the car for the girl he likes—is just so simple and universal as to be adorable. The fact that the music and recording is low-fi only brings into relief the greatness of the song even more.

(And this made me promise myself that I’d finally get around to writing about Small Rock. Just next year)

 “Best of Friends,” Palma Violets

I wrote about this song earlier. I listened to it every day for two weeks. Hell, I’m listening to it now. It is one of those songs that makes the rest of the album pale in comparison. It made me rethink Rancid. (And I’ll write about that next year.) It would be higher on the list if I had convinced my wife and children to like it.

“Dreams of Cannibalism”, Typhoon

When The Only D called me out on Typhoon and predicted I would like it, I was skeptical, but that crazy guy knows me too well. I love the album White Lighter. I love this song because it is so characteristic of how creative, dynamic and just damn musical this artist is. His songs are heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.

I have shed a tear listening to this music while running in the wee hours of the mourning. Thankfully, it was always in the dark.

Late March, Death March,” Frightened Rabbit

I am going to cheat on this one and add in two more songs. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”, and “Twist”. Earlier in the year I wrote how it would be impossible for me to write about Frightened Rabbit. I haven’t changed my opinion, but I have grown to love this band even more. The group’s most recent release (Pedestrian Verse) isn’t their best, but it is still pretty damn good.  I have gone days with the line “like mother said, less heart more head” from this song bouncing around in my head. It is now nearly a mantra.

“It’s Time,” Imagine Dragons

Yeah, I wrote about this song. Then, my children fell in love with it. Then it exploded and Imagine Dragons turned up everywhere. (I still don’t believe that LeBron James listens to the band.) My kids call this the “clapping song”. When my daughter sings along with the last line “I’m never changing who I am”, it chokes me up. I won’t lie.

“Super Bon Bon.” Mike Doughty (from the release, Circles)

I never thought I would get so excited about Mike Doughty again, but I was really interested to listen to this release of Soul Coughing ‘covers’. When my children heard it, they loved it and were at first perplexed by the fact that there was another “Super Bon Bon” that sounded different. They named the original recording “Drum Super Bon Bon” and this one “Small Super Bon Bon.” I play whichever they ask for. So, Mike Doughty, you made the list.

“Closer,” Tegan and Sara

When Tegan and Sara released their new album I did my usual contrarian thing and reviewed what I hold to be their best album (The Con) instead. But this song has grown on me enoguh that I listen to it a few times a week. I love these artists. I will probably buy every recording they ever make.

“Let’s Go,” Matt and Kim

Matt and Kim have always been a bit of a curiosity for me. I think that they are maknig dance music but I really like to run to it. It is memorable but not always that deep. This song is a little more complex than some of their numbers. The real reason it made it to the list is that I have ehard the song 20 times in the past five days. My daughter fell in love with it and I cannot resist when she asks for a song.

“Some Nights”, Night Riot (Used to be PK)

I grew obsessed with the song “Berelain” which I discovered just around the time I finshed the final book of the Wheel of Time series. I actually like this song more. How did it end up as the penultimate song to this list? Every time I hear it, I think, hey, I like this song. And, every time, it seems like a new revelation. That’s a pretty neat thing in a time when repetition kills everything.

“Every Time she Turns Around it’s her Birthday”, Caribou

I have written about this song a few times. I love it. But that’s not enough. No, the progressive and somewhat unstructured music is not just entertaining but it is also transformative. I haven’t heard a song that makes me feel like my state is altered in a long time. This one makes me feel, well, different. Listen.

Happy new year. May next year be even better.

Fall Recent Acquisitions, Part 1

Over the past few  months I have purchased many new albums but I haven’t had the time or inspiration to write any new album reviews. And yet, my tremendous sense of self importance leads me to share my opinions with the world. Here, the first of two posts about my musical acquisitions.

 

The Dunwells, Blind Sighted Faith

I may have been hungover or especially weak, or experiencing some temporal rift or suffering some sort of mind/body crisis. I heard this song on the TV and thought it sounded really great. In honesty, I think that the cooking fan was on, the kids were screaming, and I had a cold. I downloaded the album, started it the next morning in the car, and lasted about two minutes before I shut it off. This is so plastic I can hear the creaking and smell the cellophane. Needless to say, I have not been listening to this album

Caribou, Up In Flames

I love this band, this guy, and these songs. I actually can listen to this album while running and so I do. This is great music to get lost to and there really isn’t that much else out there that is the same. Thank you, Caribou. Thank you.

 

Jaimeo Brown, Transcendence

I loved this album when I heard it on the radio. Here’s the problem: I don’t really listen to jazz albums when I am (1) at the gym or (2) running. So, to be honest, I haven’t listened to this nearly as much as it deserves. I may return, I may not. Whatever the case, I was really excited when I downloaded it.

 

They Might Be Giants, Nanobots

Oh, TMBG, I can’t stop loving you even though we’ve grown our separate ways. It has been a full decade since I really liked a TMBG album and, yet, I dutifully purchase each one with the irrational hope that this one will turn back the clock and reunite us. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t. The songs, when they don’t seem formulaic, are small and uninteresting. I think that the band needs a long break or some type of epiphany.

 

City and Colour, Bring Me Your Love

I heard this song at the gym while listening to Pandora and was a little overtired and depressed. I thought I really liked it. The song is just fine. The album? Glitzy, overproduced and shallow. The songs are more fit to a top-40 pop artist than a rock-band. There is some real shmaltz here. Beware.

 

Biffy Clyro, The Vertigo of Bliss

This band was suggested to me by iTunes. I don’t know why I keep falling for that, but I actually think this crew has some potential. The sound is a little too polished–another indie band that’s a bit overproduced–but it does seem creative enough that I will actually listen to this album a few times. There is some Superdrag and Eels-lite aura to the sound that makes me think I may end up liking it.

 

Typhoon, Hunger and Thirst

This song is so sad. This album is so sad it makes me want to die. But the artist has some shades of a less egotistical Bright Eyes and really has some creative ideas about music. Listen to the background instrumentals in this song. Then consider the almost perfect and effortless vocals. This guy made me immediately buy almost everything he has published.

 

Typhoon, White Lighter

If Hunger and Thirst is sad and creative, White Lighter  brilliant and manic. It is the better album in every way. But it still makes me want to die, Of course, I have listened to this record almost every day since I acquired it.

This song makes me think that the artist, should he be able to deal with his health issues, should produce for other artists as well. Just think about the choices made with this song. The basic music and lyrics are maudlin and better thanaverage, but the musical choices made at every juncture make it stronger and more memorable. I really, really like this album.

 

The Dodos, Visiter

I have no idea why I haven’t listened to this album more. The lyrical and musical combination strikes me as something somewhere between the best stuff of Of Monsters and Men and the least emo Ben Gibbard solo material with some Grizzly and Bon Iver thrown in for good measure.