50 Years August 10, 2011Posted by markgeil in Family, People.
Tags: anniversary, parents
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Sunday evening I had the distinct privilege of attending a party for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. They were married on July 21st at 7:00 in a small Church of the Brethren in Virginia back in 1961. Here’s the happy couple:
They were teenagers, 18 and 19 years old, with the sparkle of young love in their eyes and unsuspecting of the future ahead of them. They were two hours away from buying a farm, in keeping with their lineage and the typical expectations of the area, before someone else got a loan before them because he had a cosigner. They would have been a good farming couple, but God had different plans. Dad has always been good with his hands, with an aptitude for engineering and building stuff, so he landed an apprenticeship at General Electric. Then they really ventured out into the unknown when he got a job at IBM and they moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. That’s where I was born, and my parents still live in the same house I grew up in.
My brothers and I were called upon to give speeches at the party. Here’s mine:
Hi, my name is Mark.
Most of you don’t know me because, well, I’m the third child.
There is no photographic record of my childhood.
My birth was an inconvenience because I apparently interrupted one of my brothers’ little league games.
Steve used to call me “the tax deduction”.
Mine was a life of hand-me-downs and also-rans. Of patches sewn on top of patches on the knees of old blue jeans. Of used Nerf footballs that already had little chunks of foam torn out.
Yes, my brothers got all kinds of attention, what with Steve running into his brick walls and Eric choking on his chicken bones. Was I jealous? No, of course not. Well, I’ll admit I was insanely jealous of Steve’s authentic Batmobile, complete with Batman costume and cape.
And I was a little jealous of the pictures. Steve and Eric, in their cute little monogrammed sweaters and caps, in a professional portrait studio. Me, naked in the back yard by the swing set.
[I'm the one on the horse, with the curiously elliptical head.]
How is it possible, then, that I have grown up to become at least marginally well-adjusted? It’s safe to say that Mom and Dad had a lot to do with that. I suppose I’ve exaggerated a bit, and they did give me some attention during my childhood. In fact, as Sarah was putting together the slide show, I even noticed actual pictures of myself! One in particular made me smile.
It’s a picture of Steve about to shoot his beloved younger brothers.
It was taken at an old Pony Express Station in Nebraska when I was 5 years old. We were passing through on a trip to California, in a mini-Midas RV with a big orange stripe on the outside, following our Triple-A TripTik. The Pony Express station wasn’t on our route, but I really wanted to go. And Mom and Dad said, “Sure”, and we left the TripTik route behind.
I had a great time at that Pony Express station, dreaming of cowboys and galloping horses on wide open plains. I bought a little wooden model of a fort, I think, and spent several quality days putting it together.
Here’s what this picture symbolizes for me. First, let’s not miss the point that our dear mother consented to a five-week trip across the country crammed into a mini-motor home with our whole rambunctious family of five! And then, seven years later, she did it again, and this time the majority of the occupants of the RV were teenage boys!
And let’s not forget that Dad saved up vacation for years on end so we could take those trips. And that he, from such humble beginnings, was able to establish such a wonderful career that afforded us so much.
They’ve both taught me so much about sacrifice and selflessness. About priorities. And about the kind of love that will say, even to an oft-forgotten third child, “Sure, let’s go to the Pony Express Station.” I make decisions now with my own children, and sometimes, when they’re good decisions, I stop and realize, “That’s exactly what Mom and Dad would have done with me.”
In reality, my childhood was grand. We had the run of the neighborhood, a fertile landscape for games of Cowboys and Indians or football on that knee-scraping cul de sac we simply called
“the circle”. We had adventures, like lowering each other into the storm drain to chase a wayward ball. We chopped wood and made forts, and rode our bikes down hills that looked impossibly steep to 8-year-old eyes.
And all through it, we had a Mom and Dad: to keep us in line when we needed it, to bandage the scrapes and pull out the ticks. To encourage the creativity and freedom, and to make sure there was always a safe refuge in that dear little house on Woodlea Drive.
Mom and Dad, you loved us like Christ first loved both of you. You taught us what a good marriage is all about, and what it means to be a good parent, and the beautiful flock of grandchildren here tonight is your legacy. Thank you for everything. God bless you, and happy anniversary!
I could have gone on and on about what great parents Mom and Dad were, and are, and about how many lives they’ve touched in their own simple way, but I didn’t need to. The room full of family and friends were a living testimony. Following our speeches Dad said a few words, though tears, and went back to his seat to join his beloved bride when applause turned into one of those spontaneous and completely sincere standing ovations that are so rare. Mom and Dad sat and held hands, and though she heard the applause she had not noticed the standing. Dad prompted her to turn around, and her look of appreciation and surprise is one I’ll long treasure.
Here’s that flock of grandchildren I mentioned, nine great kids who love their “Ge-Ge” and “G-Dad”. May we be so highly favored that, like my mom and dad, our lives and our marriages impact generations.
A Story Tucked Inside December 9, 2010Posted by markgeil in People.
A student walked into my office with a question about the final exam. After I answered the question – something about a particular acceleration problem, I think – he tentatively mentioned that he had some stuff in a notebook he wanted to show me.
“I was in the Marine Corps, a sniper,” he said as he started thumbing through a spiral-bound notebook full of meticulous notes in the orderly, all-capital-letters handwriting favored by engineers and, apparently, military. He went on: “I realized the other day that some of what we learned has a lot to do with biomechanics.”
He began to show me pages of sines and cosines, sketches of shooters at elevation relative to targets. Indeed, they were fascinating little physics problems with horrible realities attached. I asked about the effects of wind, and he mentioned a certain range beyond which it can significantly alter the path of a bullet.
Another page had sketches of the view in the scope of a long-range rifle. He mentioned that the ticks in the scope – “mils”, I think he called them – were used to calculate range. I told him I think the same principle is used in surveying equipment. He didn’t know that.
During this pleasant but somewhat academic discussion, I noticed for the first time a substantial scar running vertically down my student’s neck, just under his jaw bone on the right side. I pretended not to notice, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, but I knew right away he had a very powerful story tucked inside somewhere.
I told him about the young Marine from our church, Todd Love, who stepped on an IED in Afghanistan in October. He lost both his legs and an arm. He’s just been transferred to Walter Reed to begin a long and arduous recovery. Then, as nonchalantly as one might discuss the weather, my student told his story.
His scar was also from an IED, a propane tank that had been filled with plastic explosive and buried just below the surface. “They had been watching our maneuvers for a while,” he shared. The mine was placed specifically to target his unit. I could tell from the scar that the shrapnel that pierced his neck couldn’t have been closer to the carotid artery.
The story flowed, but at the same casual pace and tone. I began to learn that the damage had been horrific. “I lost this eye,” he said, gesturing to his right prosthetic eye, “and pretty much this whole side of my face.
“They tried to take bone from my skull and reconstruct those… what are those little bones in the ear called?” he asked.
“Hammer, anvil, and, oh, I can’t remember the third,” I replied.
“Yeah,” he said. “They tried to replace those, but it didn’t work. I can’t really hear much from this ear. It’s almost like if you held a pillow over your ear, all the time.”
Remarkably, he said all this without sadness, or resignation, or the slightest desire for pity. He might as well have been telling me about his other classes.
He went on to tell me how he actually came back to play football only a year after his injuries, until he got blindsided a couple of times and decided it might not be a good idea. He also quietly shared that he wished there was a prosthetic eye with a camera in it that actually worked. I wish I could go build one.
I only briefly expressed the admiration I felt for my student, because he didn’t seem too interested in admiration. I was so grateful for his story. It reminded me that everyone has a life story that deserves to be told. I reminded me that in my random encounters with strangers and acquaintances I must never forget that some of their stories contain extraordinary challenges and exemplary courage.
And, since it’s Christmastime, it reminded me that the need for Peace on Earth is as great as ever.
Hutchmoot: Starting to Listen August 12, 2010Posted by markgeil in Church, Music, People.
Tags: Andrew Peterson, Hutchmoot
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Friday marked the second time I had driven from Kennesaw to Nashville all by myself in order to attend an event beginning with an Andrew Peterson concert. The first time was a couple of years ago when I was covering GMA Week for Christianity Today. I left at the crack of dawn to arrive in time for a breakfast sponsored by Compassion International featuring an AP acoustic show. I remember he covered Sometimes by Step by Rich Mullins, and it was sublime. This time, he would be kicking off Hutchmoot with a release concert for his latest, Counting Stars.
First, we all gathered for our first meal, prepared by Evie Coates, a brilliant mixed media artist and, apparently, chef. Introductions before dinner were another reminder of the value of the real world over the virtual one; on the Rabbit Room, Evie had always been “Long-E-sound-EEEEvie” to me. Turns out I was wrong, It’s more like Eh-vie, as in, “Drove my Chevy to the levy but then Evie was gone.” I just made that up, but now I’m enjoying singing it to myself.
Hutchmeets happened around the table, then more after dinner, then I started getting anxious because getting to the concert sooner might mean getting a better seat. I decided to grab a snack for the road from a stash I’d discovered in the Living Room, this warm and charming gathering place in the church, then hit the road. To my surprise, right there in the living room sat five or six Rabbit Roomers, including Andrew Peterson himself. I paused for a moment to process this unprecedented phenomenon, then thought to myself, Why should I dash off to the Andrew Peterson concert when I can sit right here and chat with Andrew Peterson? The argument’s logic overwhelmed my impatience, and there I sat. I Hutchmet the group (see how much mileage I’m getting out of that word?). Someone asked how I broke my hand. I told the story. More lazy chatting ensued. Finally, someone looked at a watch and mentioned to AP, “Shouldn’t you be getting to your concert?” I thought of my ever-so-punctual wife Amy, who would have been freaking out.
The venue was a few miles down the road from Redeemer at the Barn, a converted chicken house used by a megachurch in Brentwood for concerts and such. Those few miles of road were adorned with stunning mansions that seemed to be owned by people who valued appearances over privacy. There they were, right there on the main drag, with all their six-car garages and ostentatious fountains. I figured if any of the occupants were tithers, the megachurches were set.
I got in line, had another Hutchmeet with a new friend from Iowa, and noticed the arrival of Mr. Peterson to his own concert. Most of the folks in line were waiting to buy tickets, and soon someone saw our Hutchmoot nametags and shuffled us on in. The Person With the Very Important Hand Stamper noticed that I was a “Hutchmaster”, a title that sounds fanstastic but only means I registered early, and invited me to one of the reserved seats. There happened to be one on the front row center aisle, so, being not shy, I took it, alongside my new friend and the pastor of the host church, Father McKenzie. His name always makes me think of that sad line in Eleanor Rigby, but I never told him that.
The concert was the sort of affair that can only happen in a place like Nashville. Brilliant musicians were in the audience, just to watch. The venerable John Mays from AP’s record label stopped by. Just as Andrew started one song, Andy Osenga (Caedmon’s Call et al.) walked in. Peterson paused, mentioned that Osenga had co-written the song and invited him to sing backup, Osenga obliged, scurried down the aisle, hopped on the stage, and sang away. Delightful.
The first half hour or so was all requests shouted from the audience. I shouted, ”Let Me Sing”, not because of a sudden and overwhelming desire to sing, but because it’s my favorite AP song. Well, I didn’t really shout it, since I was 5 feet from Andrew, and my request got overwhelmed in the cacophony from the audience. My new friend next to me really did shout, and his request, Little Boy Heart Alive, was heeded. AP started the song, then decided to tell a story about his little boys, then asked their permission to tell the story since they were sitting right down front. It was a hilarious yarn about the time the lads decided to live off the land for 48 hours and wound up eating a songbird.
Next, Peterson played straight through the new CD. I had seen him do the same thing the previous week in a charming and sometimes bizarre online performance for HearItFirst.com. This time, though, he was accompanied by an extra half-dozen players, and the songs took on new life. (Plus, I was five feet away, and not watching through a little computer screen.) I got particularly caught up in the shrapnel of hope that finally lights The Last Frontier. The evening was grand and memorable and it set the mood for Hutchmoot as a Fellowship of the Story, if you will.
I drove back to the hotel on lonely streets lit by the afterglow of the Light of the World in my heart. Yes, that sentence couldn’t be more over-the-top, but I was over, too, so hopefully you will forgive me. I still didn’t quite understand what God would say to me through the rest of the weekend, but I had a pretty good idea He would say something, and I’ll take that anytime.
Hutchmoot August 8, 2010Posted by markgeil in Music, People.
It’s Sunday morning, and I finally have a chance to write. I’ve been thinking constantly about writing and music for two days straight, all the while longing to tell you about it, and all the while better understanding why I long to tell you about it.
It’s the third day of Hutchmoot, a conference organized by the fine folks at the Rabbit Room. The answer to “what’s a Hutchmoot?” tests anyone’s skills at brevity. It’s a gathering of people interested in the craft of storytelling through music, literature, film, and visual arts to learn, foster community, and hear from master storytellers. Sounds like a hippie commune.
The Rabbit Room is a site founded by musician and author Andrew Peterson to do all of the above, only online. Hutchmoot is the grand realized dream of turning an online conversation about a book or song or movie into a face-to-face dialogue, replete with all its gestures and rhythm, and informing that conversation by some pretty heady pondering of the Source of it all.
The made-up name is derived from Hutch, a place where rabbits hang out, and Moot, which means discussion and has something to do with Entmoot from some Lord of the Rings book. Now it sounds like a geek commune.
So it was that I came to this hippie geek commune on Friday afternoon. I stocked my CD case anticipating conversations with people who not only know these CDs but also appreciate them as much as I do. I also guessed (correctly) that I would meet folks who stocked their own CD cases because they like holding cover art and liner notes and lyrics in their hands too much to just download everything. On the basis of those two points alone I knew this would be a refreshing community.
On the drive from Kennesaw to Nashville there is a stretch of highway that meanders back and forth across the state line beside rivers and mountains. It’s exceedingly beautiful this time of year, a rolling sea of greens with contrasting swaths of sunlight and shadow. Even as it delights me it tells me I’m close to Nashville, a city consecrated by music and storytelling.
My first stop was the cheap airport hotel I booked on Hotwire, a hotel festooned by a huge banner welcoming an Army Psychological Operations unit. Men in camouflage fatigues are everywhere here, possibly inserting little hidden bugs into my brain to control my thoughts. Well, hopefully not.
I dropped off my bags and made the short drive to the church hosting the event. A little paper sign that said HUTCHMOOT PARKING IN BACK delighted me more than I expected. It’s been said before (and said here) that while good conversations can happen online, community cannot. Yes, all the online stuff is real enough. But the physical act of printing a sign and posting it in the grass in front of a building, that’s the sort of concrete detail that never happens online, and it occurred to me that it was the first time I’d read this silly made-up word Hutchmoot when it was not on a computer screen.
I have much more to say, but it will take a few days. It’s time to check out now and go to church. There, I will have a very fresh perspective of my Creator God and why He created me and what the act of creation is all about. And so, I will worship.
Ode to a faithful conference attendee June 8, 2010Posted by markgeil in People.
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Jacquelin Perry was at the conference I attended last week. The conference dealt with pediatric prosthetics and orthotics, and Dr. Perry’s presence was palpable. She’s a world-renowned physical therapist and orthopedic surgeon, and the second edition of her landmark book on gait analysis was just published. I use her name and describe her theories often in my lectures. And there she was, listening to speakers, asking questions or giving advice, being polite to the younger researchers who wanted to meet her. Except for this one exchange:
Young PT: “Dr. Perry, it’s an honor to meet you. I wanted to talk to you about…”
Dr. Perry: “I can’t stay. I’m going to take a nap.”
See, Jacquelin Perry is 92 years old.
She attended UCLA in the 1930’s, when tuition was only $27. She paid her own way by working as a dishwasher in a lab for 40 cents an hour. After she graduated she joined the Army, trained as a PT and served for five years, then got her MD from UC San Francisco, over five decades ago. She never slowed down, and her list of accomplishments and awards would fill this site. She was already “Woman of the Year for Medicine in Southern California” by 1959. And here it is, 2010, and she’s still attending conferences.
She gets around pretty well with a walker, no doubt acutely aware of the intricacies of every little movement disorder that slows down her 92 year old frame. Her speech is a bit slurred, but the words nonetheless reveal a still-quite-capable mind. I’ve seen her at meetings before, over the past decade actually, but I’m still always amazed that she would continue to attend sessions to learn more about some new detail in gait or medicine at an age when most of us would dream of our 30th year of retirement.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Jackie Perry still wants to learn. There are several types of learners. The school kid in the required class, fighting off boredom, just wants learn enough to get by. The college student in the elective far outside his major has a curiosity, maybe even a hobby, and he would like to develop it. Jackie Perry and others like her (I think the late John Wooden fits this category) have a passion. She has found a subject which fuels her fire and she wants to continue learning about it, even into her 90’s, because I suppose she couldn’t imagine doing anything better.
So here’s to Jackie Perry, who seems to have enjoyed her life’s work so much that the concept of retirement just doesn’t really make any sense. In May of this year she said, “My life course has profited from several timely opportunities, and I grabbed each one.” I am duly inspired by her example, and can only hope that I maintain an inkling of her desire to keep learning and growing, regardless of age.
The Scourge of Pride January 26, 2010Posted by markgeil in People, Philosophical musings, Posts with titles that sound like a horror movie.
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My dear wife is planning a party. I’m the party guy in our house, but not the planning guy, so sometimes she plans the parties and I simply reap the benefits. It’s not fair. See, there’s an introvert/extrovert thing going on. I am energized by people. I quite enjoy bouncing around a room, chatting with this person, then that person. Amy, on the other hand, while certainly not anti-social, is not big on chatting. The very idea drains her. But she is gifted at planning and I am not. So, she still plans parties for me. It’s love.
This party is different, though. Sure, this party will have music, and snacks, and even chatting, but it will also have saws and drills and possibly even tool belts. This is a drywall hanging party, and though it’s right up my alley, I would not have planned it myself.
We’ve been finishing our basement for years, and we even have one room (the bathroom, surely the most important of all) actually finished. The gradual process has been a drag sometimes, but it’s also helped us think through what we want out of every room. Now, the gradual process is accelerating. A new location is needed for the Monday night Bible study that Sarah and I attend, and we’ve been planning the biggest room in the basement for that very purpose. So, as of yesterday, I have two weeks to finish the Bible study room.
Deadlines are very good things for me. I can pack the work in if I know a deadline is looming. So, I’ve packed the work in, and now the room is almost completely ready for drywall, painting, and flooring, the final touches that abruptly make a space of studs and wires look finished. Thus, the party. Come to our house and hang drywall! And possibly even slop the mud and tape on the drywall! I can see the engraved invitations now.
We are fortunate to know lots of folks with lots of experience hanging drywall. They are mostly guys, buddies of mine (or sons of buddies of mine), and I suspect they would all be happy to come over and lend a hand. So why is Amy planning the party and not me? I asked myself that question last night. Part of the answer is my aforementioned aversion to planning. But that’s not all. There’s an unusual hesitancy here that seems different, and I think I’ve just now figured it out. I don’t like to ask for help.
It’s not that I think I’m inconveniencing someone else. I’ve gone to lend a hand at other peoples’ houses plenty of times, and I actually enjoy it. In fact, the idea of going to someone’s basement to hang drywall sounds really fun to me. It’s making measurements and cutting stuff and getting dirty. It’s a few laughs along the way, and some witty teasing of the person who keeps driving the screw through the paper. It’s takeout pizza and the smell of brownies coming out of the oven upstairs. It’s community personified.
That is all well and good if it’s someone else’s house. I just have this hesitancy about asking all these guys to come over to my house and help me. That hesitancy has a name: pride. To ask for help is to declare your dependency on someone else, even for a brief moment. It says, “I can’t do this alone,” and too often that question leads me to wonder why and to puff myself up into a defiant declaration: “Sure I can! I’m good enough, and skilled enough, and I don’t need any help!” Oh, the scourge of pride.
I think that every single sin contains an element of pride. Consequently, I try hard to remind myself of my dependency on God, of my need for grace to “save a wretch like me.” I say prayers that say, “God, I am lost without You; teach me to rely on You completely.” But then I won’t ask for help from a bunch of guys when I need to hang some drywall. I won’t admit when I’ve made a mistake. I spend great effort developing a persona of all encompassing adequacy and ability. I speak of humility to God while the pride still rattles around like a rusty chain in the back of my head.
So, I have decided to join the party planning. I will ask for help and advice and I won’t pretend I’ve got it covered. I will learn about community and humility, and as an added benefit, a room will get finished, and 20 high schoolers will have a place to learn about an all-sufficient God.
Counting January 7, 2010Posted by markgeil in Family, People, Travel.
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An emerging purple sunrise lit my rearview mirror as I drove west in silence. We like to leave early for our family road trips, and we usually have a rule that no one is allowed to talk until 7 a.m. When the kids were younger, we hoped that decree would encourage them to go back to sleep. Nowadays road trips are so easy it doesn’t really matter if they sleep or not.
Silence is foreign to me. I’m never in the car without the stereo on, and I usually have some sort of background music on at work. Still, I know the quiet is good for me. It makes me thoughtful and reflective. The calm on that morning drive allowed me to marvel at the sunrise and steal a few glances at the sleepy children behind me. We were on our way home after seven days in North Carolina visiting family during Christmas. The combination of fresh Christmas memories, the road home, the sleepy kids, and the silence led me to a do something that’s as trite as a children’s song but so healthy: I counted my blessings.
On the way home, I counted home as a blessing. We looked forward to going back home, even as we drove toward a house full of Christmas decorations that would need to come down (one of which was my massive pre-lit arch that barely fits through any of our doorways), full of fixtures and appliances that are near that 10-to-15-year breaking point, but full of warmth and familiarity and comfort. We have grown our roots here for more than a decade, so they have gotten pretty deep. We laugh a lot here, and we’ve gotten good at establishing a place where the travails of the world can be met with reassurance and love.
Home is a place of “favorites”. My favorite old sweatshirt is here, along with my favorite music and mattress and recliner. I know where the buttons are on the remote control without looking, and I know just how long to microwave the popcorn without burning it.
I counted the blessing of my kids, dozing in my back seat. Rebekah’s blonde tresses were a tangled mess, and I quietly laughed at how poorly she manages mornings. Maybe it’s that bright hair, or that sweetest of smiles, or that endearing lisp; something about her just makes her a ray of sunshine. Hannah sat beside her, her caring confidant. To see Hannah in any state of repose is a tiny bit alarming, but she did look peaceful and beautiful in her reverie. On this trip, as on so many others, Hannah’s joie de vivre had infected a house full of people. I’m glad she’s not gotten too old to go wild. Sarah Kate was not in my rear-view mirror. She rarely is. She spreads herself over the entire back of the minivan, either sleeping or reading, popping her head up occasionally like a gopher surveying the overworld. Sarah adores family time, so seeing 25 cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents on one trip was heartwarming to her. I could tell, because her eyes are so completely revelatory, and on this day they were vivid.
I counted too my wife, not quite asleep in the seat beside me. I am blessed that she will spend all this time with my family in cramped quarters: in twin beds in my first childhood bedroom, around a dining room table made for six or eight but somehow accommodating a dozen or more, on shopping outings during which the itinerary is not her own but must be coordinated among other women and kids and minivans. That’s not what I counted as a blessing that morning, though. I counted the knowledge, no, more than that – the cerebral and emotional and spiritual connection – that we are genuinely made for one another. Somebody stop me before I write a Keith Urban song.
I counted other things in that silence, some less profound, like the surprising number of miles on the odometer, and how well the van has held up during all those journeys. I wondered what had become of the inflatable yard decorations I had taken down before we left. They were full of water, and I stashed a couple in the basement and one on the back porch. (Yes, we put out three enormous inflatable yard decorations. That’s how we roll.) Then I remembered my Christmas presents and the kids’, and I looked forward to playing with them.
Even today, a week later, I can’t remember all the fun stuff we did over Christmas and the funny lines that made me laugh so hard. Give me a few months and I’ll struggle to remember just how many people we visited with. But this I know, and this I will remember: I am blessed.
Back in the USSR November 3, 2009Posted by markgeil in Family, Music, People, Philosophical musings.
Tags: Billy Joel
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I don’t like to think of myself as an old man. I’m not quite in my 40’s yet, and by some measures of life expectancy I’m not even halfway through my time on this Earth. Still, I feel like an old man when I start marveling at how the world has changed all around me in such a short time.
The latest occasion for my “Hey you kids, get off my lawn!” sentiment is a bargain-bin CD purchase. I nabbed Billy Joel’s KOHUEPT for just a couple of bucks from… actually, I don’t remember which store. The memory fades when you’re old, see. It’s the live album Joel recorded during a rare concert tour of the Soviet Union. It is by no means his best work, but for me it’s more of a souvenir of another time. I remember seeing the double-album with its sparse Communist-red cover back in 1987, when album covers were glorious 12”x12” works of art. I remember wondering how the Dylan cover sounded and how “Allentown” would play before an audience of similarly disenfranchised Soviets.
I played the CD this morning and heard Angry Young Man. I remembered seeing Joel perform this song live a couple of times here in the USA, marveling at his piano rampage. Then I thought about playing the song for Hannah and Rebekah, our two pianists. And then I thought about discussing the concert’s significance with Sarah, who’s taking European History in school right now. Then I felt old.
What’s in Sarah’s history books was my life. I imagined my side of the conversation with my daughters about the CD.
“This was a huge deal back then. It was very rare for a US performer to be able to go to Leningrad and play a concert.”
“No, Leningrad doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s Saint Petersburg.”
“Well, people couldn’t go there because the USSR was isolated from the USA. We were terrible enemies. I used to be worried that we would have a nuclear war.”
“What was the USSR? Well, …”
They’re all such foreign concepts now, concepts relegated to history books. That’s a striking distinction. Everything that I have lived is contemporary for me, and everything in the history books is old. It could be 1942 or 1542 – it’s all history. Now, my contemporary is my children’s history. I know it happens to every adult, but the inevitability makes it no less jarring.
The opening track on the CD is called Odoya. It’s a traditional Georgian song recorded at the Jvari Monastery on a hill overlooking Tbilisi.
During a business trip I had occasion to climb that hill and walk through that very monastery. I simply got a visa and a plane ticket and I went. I took pictures (with a digital camera, even!). Once I was there, I was free to roam the country, the Republic of Georgia. A short time ago, in my lifetime, it was not the Republic of Georgia. It was just the USSR. I could not have visited, and I would not have been free to see the sites. The changes are astonishing.
They say that history and culture and events are cyclic, but today I disagree. The world I live in today is radically different from the world I lived in as a child, and it doesn’t feel like a cycle; it feels like a torrid rush. And even as I sound like an old geezer trying to explain to my children how the Cold War affected everything from the Miracle on Ice to Billy Joel to the nationality of the bad guys in professional wrestling, I take solace in this one thing. The world I inhabit today may be radically different than yesterday, but it is not fundamentally different, because it is still inhabited by people. People are fundamentally the same, and I think they always will be. We are beautiful but flawed beings, every one of us in need of salvation. That is constant. Today, I’m grateful for constants.
Revolution Number Nine September 9, 2009Posted by markgeil in Music, People.
Happy Nine Day. We’ll have a day like this (9-9-09) for the next few years (until 2012, if you’re counting), but this one seems extra-special. SEPTEMBER has 9 letters, and so does WEDNESDAY. Could also be because nine is such an interesting number. When I was little I learned all kinds of math tricks you can do with nine. I’ve forgotten most of them, which I’m discovering is a common occurrence, especially as my kids ask me math questions that I’ve long forgotten. I do remember one interesting trick with 9-mathematics. If you add the digits of 9 times any one-digit number, you get 9. To wit: 9 x 2 = 18, and the two digits of 18, one and eight, add to nine. 9 x 3 = 27, and 2 + 7 = 9. It works all the way up to 9 x 9. Go ahead, try it. Fun for hours, depending on your math skills.
Today is also special because it’s the big release of the Beatles remasters and the Beatles Rock Band. I asked Hannah’s friend Molly, who has Rock Band, when she was getting the Beatles game so I could come over and play. I’m thinking me as Ringo on drums, Hannah on guitar, Molly on vocals, and her dad Jim on bass. Left-handed of course. Have to be authentic. Molly said she was going to ask for it for Christmas. Too long for me to wait, I told her. Jim, are you reading this?
Entertainment Weekly published a list of the top Beatles songs and albums, an exercise in derision. Sgt. Pepper at number seven? White Album ahead of Abbey Road? Yougottabekiddingme! Let me not then add my own ranking to the fray. Instead, here are a few Beatles songs that have a special meaning for me, in no particular order. Feel free to add your own to the list.
Here Comes the Sun: I can still see the beam of sunlight on the blue shag carpet in my room. It had been a long winter. I was a teenager, and sometimes teenagers just have long winters. I saw that beam of sunlight, and the little fuzzy things that float through that air that are apparently always there, but you can’t see them until they’re illuminated by a sunbeam, and I smiled, and I played this song.
Nowhere Man: I loved this song when I was little, and I’m not sure why. I do recall one day, laying on my brother’s bed with those gigantic vinyl-padded old-school headphones on, the ones that covered half your head, listening to the Red Album on his record player. Nowhere Man came on, and I knew all the words, and I closed my eyes and sang with gusto, at least until a looked up and saw my brothers having quite a laugh at my expense.
Eleanor Rigby: This is a more recent memory. A few months ago I bought a fabulous music book with guitar chords for 90 Beatles songs. Every now and then I’ll just page through the book, playing song after song. It wasn’t until I played this song and felt its chord progressions that I fully understood the characters and their depravity, described so fully in just a few lines of words and melody. The Beatles were brilliant.
Hey Jude: Who doesn’t have a Hey Jude memory? I have several, but one that comes to mind today is from Psychology class in my senior year of high school, taught by the late Greg Gault. The class was famous for the unit on subliminal messages, during which Mr. Gault would show us the hidden pictures on Camel cigarette boxes and Coca Cola ads, and then he would take out his record player. We listened to Queen backwards, tore apart “Hooked on a Feeling” in almost criminal fashion, and scoffed when Mr. Gault tried to reveal all the hidden drug references in “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It was amusing to see him take on the Beatles, who did very little to hide their drug references. (Had he not heard “Dr. Robert”?) His take on “Hey Jude”? Drugs. All drugs. I still remember one line in particular: “The movement you need is on your shoulder.” Never really understood that line. According to Mr. Gault, it’s when you’re shooting up, popping that needle right in your shoulder. Do druggies even do that?
In My Life: I rediscovered this song during that same senior year, and though it’s written and sung from a much wiser voice than I had at the time, I took it to heart with all the excess sentimentality and melodrama a 17-year-old can muster. I was certain that these friends around me would be there forever, that I would remember these places all my life, just like the songs says. And, I was convinced that all those people and memories would pale when I would think of my love, my high school sweetheart. “I know I’ll never lose affection for people and things that went before. I know I’ll often stop and think about them, [but] in my life, I love you more.” Yeah, like that ever happens.
Guess what? It did happen. I married that high school sweetheart, and every time I hear that beautiful song I think of her.
So, happy 9-9-09 to Amy and to all.
A time to mourn August 25, 2009Posted by markgeil in People.
I had something to say yesterday. It was a funny, even flippant story about cutting down a tree this weekend. Instead, I went to a funeral. Now I don’t feel like telling that story anymore.
Our neighbor Anita died a few days ago, along with her unborn son. Nobody is quite sure why. She was young and healthy, married with three kids already. Now she’s gone.
My eyes teared up so many times at the funeral yesterday. For some reason, I feel like writing them down. The first time was when I watched Greg, Anita’s husband. He walked down the aisle, and he looked strong. He was carrying their youngest child and was flanked by their 7- and 8-year olds. Really, they all looked strong, and so brave. At the end of the aisle was the casket, and by the time Greg reached it, everyone else had paid their respects. Then, as Greg watched, with Penny in his arms, the casket was closed.
We sometimes try to say that funerals are celebrations, and parts of them usually are, especially when we know as in Anita’s case that this is a passage to a far better place. Still,it’s physical, visceral moments of finality like this that make them so sad, no matter how much you try to celebrate. It was so hard to bear the sight of the casket closing. There will be memories, and photographs, and stories, but oh, the physical void left in passing.
A second moment: Greg and Anita’s oldest children, Ben and Julia, participated in the service. Julia sang a beautiful song, Mercy Said No, and played the piano. She was radiant. Then Ben walked up to the stage. The microphone was adjusted to his 8-year-old frame. He held a folded sheet of paper, and he spoke, clearly and calmly. “These were some of my mom’s favorite verses.” I marveled at a child so small, so brave, experiencing something no child should have to experience. He read verses about comfort that were so fitting. I prayed the verses back for him.
A third moment: Throughout the funeral, Julia, the seven year old, had the face of someone leaning toward the celebration instead of the grieving. She smiled sometimes. You could tell she was not oblivious to the circumstance, but she exuded peace. In fact, she was a comforting presence that ministered to a room full of people many times her age. Later, at the graveside, she stepped out of the white limousine, the hardest of rides. She sat in a chair covered in velvet, under a tent, as the casket was placed above the grave. Her smile faded. Her bottom lip quivered. She rested her head on her father’s shoulder, and quietly mourned.
A final moment: Little Penny would not leave Greg’s arms all day. Even at the reception, in the receiving line, though many offered to take her, she wanted nothing to do with anyone but her father. She is too young to understand how her life has been forever changed, but she is old enough to know that something is missing. I hugged Greg, and through tears I told him how proud I was of his children. Inexplicably, Penny reached out her arm and touched my shoulder. She said, “Mama. Mama.” And then she started to cry.