I’ve been working in my garden a lot lately. Not vegetables. No, it’s plants of all types – a mature perennial garden. Hosta, lilies, astilbe, coral bells, sedum, fern. Lots of fern. Way too much fern. And a lot of plants that only my wife knows their name. It’s a lot of work.

Every year I’m impressed anew at the rapid rate of weed proliferation, By the time I know what’s coming back from the previous cold winter, the weeds have already taken over. It’s always too late for prevention, so I focus on remediation.

My back gets tired and I get achy from being hunched over, or on my knees, or hauling bags of mulch, but there is something zen for me about working the dirt. I get filthy, caked in mud, pounds of dirt under my fingernails. A dirty spectacle for sure, covered with grit and grime and sweat.

It all can be so overwhelming. My yard is not that big, but even so, looking at the vast proliferation of thistle, and creeping charlie, and those stupid little maple trees, and fern – too much fern – and other things that I otherwise like, but have migrated to places I don’t like, taking this all in together can be overwhelming and paralyzing. I have this desire to fix it. All of it, quickly. But I can’t. It’s too much. It’s not possible.

So I break the pieces down. I’m going to focus on this little chunk of the yard today. This chunk is going to look great, even if the one next to it does not. Maybe I’ll work on that one tomorrow if I’m not too tired. Seeing a small chunk completed makes me happy, and temporarily satisfied, even as I consider the enormity of what remains. Maybe, eventually, I’ll get to all of the pieces, maybe I won’t, but today there has been progress.

As I work the dirt, breaking it up in my hands, digging, burying, trimming, redistributing, I think about things. Lots of things. It’s quiet around me, but within, not at all. These things just keep rolling through my head. My older son, trying to launch as an adult, struggling with his mental health over the last six months. It’s been so hard to watch, and to feel so powerless and to feel so scared. I think he’s coming out the other side. The new job helps, and his new girlfriend. We see a lot more of the old him these days. It’s trending well.

My younger son – lovely, kind, and decent. A joy to be around. But ordinary things are frequently so difficult for him. What does the future hold for him? Everything in his life so far has cut a new path, one not well walked by others. Maybe it’ll all be fine. I’m sure it will all be fine.

My wife, things are changing for us, you know? After 30 years together, we’re heading into new space, as we have other times in the history if us. We’re evolving and changing and maturing as individuals, and sometimes our marriage gets dragged along for the ride. Where will it go? How will the story turn out? I don’t really know, but I’m preparing for the journey.

I sometimes think about John and Barb, my old friends, from whose own garden I drew so much inspiration. Mine will never be as nice as that one, but I’m trying. Maybe mine is just different. Maybe it doesn’t need to be that nice.

There’s my job, my relationships, obligations, problems I need to address, repair, prioritize. So many things to do. So many things I can’t control. So big is all of this, so wide and vast. So daunting. It’s too much, when you look at all of it, and I don’t know how I’ll possibly take it all on.

So I work the dirt in front of me, on my hands and knees, with my little hand trowel, with sweat dripping down on the leaves, breaking it up the soil in my hands, digging, burying, trimming, redistributing. I just need to get this little 10×10 chunk of earth right. That is my goal for today, to fix just this spot right here.

But there’s this thing that happens, every once in a while. Sometimes, if I allow myself such a moment of zen, I look up and look around at this vast, uneven, ever-evolving, partially groomed garden, and what I see is something amazing, and glorious, and perfect.

40, Revisited


Tonight, I will see my fifth U2 show. The first one was 30 years ago. It was November 3, 1987, at the former St. Paul Civic Center, and the first of two shows. The tour was supporting The Joshua Tree, and the show we are seeing tonight is the 30th anniversary of that record and that tour.

Thirteen years later, Jen and I began attending a small church in Minneapolis called Bryn Mawr Presbyterian. Being a small church, members are sometimes called upon to do things you would never see in a larger church, and in in my case, in 2000, not long after we joined, I was asked to “deliver the message” aka Preach. I’ve done it maybe a dozen times since then, but this time was my first.

This is the story I told back then. It seems relevant to revisit it again, given the occasion. The problem is, I don’t have the original anymore. It was stored on a hard drive that crashed a few years ago and I was not able to recover it. I thought I would try to rewrite that story, but then I realized a couple of important things. First, my memory, as it turns out, is not so great that I can recall the text of a meditation I wrote nearly 20 years ago.

Second, and more importantly, I had a realization: The story has changed over time. My life experience is different now and even if I could recreate that story, it would be nothing more than a snapshot in time from my past. As a result, this story not a replica, but is a new story, inspired by the original.


Something happened in the room that night. I can’t explain it, but I know others experienced it too. For years after that night, whenever I encountered someone that had also seen that concert, the first question always asked was “which night were you there?” We all knew that something had happened, that we’d been touched in some way, even if we weren’t sure what it was. It was warm, spiritual, communal – it was like church. The question that always came out eventually was – “Was there something in the room that night?”


The song is called “40”. It’s from U2’s “War” album. For years the band used it as the final number to close its shows. I’ve never been one to pay attention to lyrics all that much, but I was always taken with the musical aspects of the song. As is the case with most songs, I am usually drawn to the sound of the instrumentation, and in a rock song like 40, that means the interplay between guitar, bass and drums. I hear the vocal too, but I hear it more as just another instrument – just another musical element of the song.
40 does this interesting thing. It starts very small, with just the bass, adding drums and then guitar. It builds, and then the vocal is introduced. As the song continues to build, it eventually reaches a peak, and then begins to wind down, deconstructing itself as it concludes. As a show closer, the effect is very cool. Each band member, as their part is peeled off, leaves the stage and does not return. First Bono and the vocal, then Edge and the guitar, then Adam and the bass, and finally Larry playing the drums all alone on the stage. Then he concludes and, the show ends, the lights come up, and everyone goes home into the night.
What is 40 about? I never really cared or paid attention. Was it about impending middle age? Who knew. I only knew that I loved how the song made me feel when I heard it and how it perfectly tied a bow onto the end of a U2 show.


In the early part of my youth, my family did not attend church, but later we began to attend a nearby Catholic church. I guess you could say I “grew up Catholic” as that is where all my formative religious experiences came from. Both Mom and Dad were Catholic in their upbringing. Mom had a little more church experience than Dad, and I think they wanted to make sure I had a religious experience growing up. She always said it would give me a foundation to help me decide for myself what I wanted as an adult. She was right.

I was a pretty good experience, as a young person. I connected with other kids my age and we formed a tight-knit group. We went to CCD and confirmation together, took retreats up North to the Boundary Waters, participated in bowling leagues, and generally looked to one another for support and comfort as we navigated our adolescence. I have very fond memories of those experiences and the friendships I made. Some of those friendships extended into my adulthood, and others did not last.

Despite the strong bonds formed with people in the church, as I grew older and began to think more critically about the teachings of the church, about what it believed, and about what it said I needed to believe to be an observant Catholic, the more I began to ask questions. It became increasingly difficult to reconcile what I saw and heard. It was become a sort of hypocrisy, one that revealed itself to me in different ways. As this unease continued to grow, I began to believe that I could not continue in the church without becoming a full-fledged hypocrite myself. So, when I became old enough to make my own decision, I ran and never looked back.


Paul David Hewson – aka Bono, for those of you who don’t know – was born in 1960 in Dublin, to a protestant mother and catholic father. She died in 1974 when he was 14. Dad made it a lot longer, passing in 2001 at the age of 75. The early experiences with church and religion formed his world view. The tension between his catholic and protestant influences created a certain balance, one that has permeated the band’s music and philanthropic causes.

Full disclosure: I love Bono. Even though some people describe him as self-righteous, an elitist hypocrite, and a pompous, self-aggrandizing gasbag, I love him. In fact, these are the reasons I love him. Not because he is all of these things – who knows? I don’t know him, so I have no idea if these descriptors are true. No, I love him because of how he uses his pulpit as a forum for discussion of topics that a lot of people would choose to avoid – HIV/AIDS, hunger, extreme poverty, the plight of refugees, human rights, etc. – all things that most reasonable people can agree are bad.

Perhaps such social consciousness, paired with the excesses of a successful life as a rock star, can easily make one a target for criticism. I can accept that. Maybe U2 is just not your cup of tea? I get that too. I don’t like Bob Marley – so sue me. But me? I am huge fan, and will glad weather the occasional “Shut Up and Sing” hurled at him. Some people have their Lennon, or Beatles, or Stones, or Marley, or Springsteen, or Vedder, or Morrissey. For me, that band is U2, and that person is Bono.

My favorite Bono story revolves around the late Senator Jesse Helms. The two became friends, despite their vast political differences and views of the world. Bono arranged a meeting to discuss an AIDS relief package for African nations. Helms was chair of the Senate Foreign Relation committee at the time, and any such conversation would have to flow through him. Rather than confronting Helms on his previous statements, who called LGBT people “perverts” and “weak, morally sick wretches”, they focused on their common ground in their biblical upbringing, ultimately reading scripture and praying together.

This connection created a bridge, one where the topic could be discussed as an issue of faith, free of politics or sexual morality. Through several conversations, Helms became convinced that the modern-day AIDS epidemic was no different than New Testament stories of Jesus healing the lepers, and that people of faith had not just an opportunity to do something about it, but an obligation. Later, on the occasion of the Bush administration issuing a $5B AIDS relief package to Africa, the president said in his speech “Dick Cheney walked into the Oval office, he said, ‘Jesse Helms wants us to listen to Bono’s idea.'”


I never really had too much difficulty in school while growing up. Grades came pretty easy to me. I was always the smart kid. Even in first grade, the teachers let me read stories aloud to the other kids. As I got older, while some kids passed me by, I never really had a hard time in school. I could get an A or B just by showing up.

When I got to college I began struggling right away. My past success was no predictor at all of future performance. As quickly became Cs, and sometimes worse. I changed colleges a couple of times and things didn’t really improve. As it turns out, intelligence was not nearly enough. Success in college required effort, drive, organization, and commitment, and I had none of these at that time. At one point, at the University of Minnesota, I bottomed out, grade-wise, and then dropped out. So, after what was a fairly humiliating college experience, I went to work.

I had a series of not-great jobs, and was generally miserable. Choosing to not go to college is a perfectly acceptable thing, if that is what you want – but it is not what I wanted. I had failed, and it reflected back at me constantly. Dropping out and working was probably the best thing for me, but at the time I could not possibly have been convinced of that. I just saw myself as a 21-year old failure, with no prospects, and no hope that anything good would come my way. In that mindset, feeling like a loser, it is easy to make bad choices, ones that a confident person wouldn’t make. So naturally, I made many.


Jen and I started church shopping in early 2000. Ryan was five, never baptized, and we’d begun to wonder if we needed to give him some type of church experience. I’d been away from the church for 15 years. I can’t say I was angry, as any lingering feelings about my previous experience had long faded. I was just being reminded anew that religion, by its very nature, is a strange thing. I appreciate the power for good that it can be, and am distrustful of its bureaucracy and rules, which often puts people second in line in importance behind those rules. More than anything, however, I am naturally suspicious of anyone that says they have all of the answers, so I headed into this process with a wary eye.

I felt that I’d moved on from my Catholicism, so going back there was not an option. So we decided to explore. We tried the Unitarians. That didn’t seem much like church to me – more of a political rally or community meeting. Then we tried the Quakers. It was ok. The quiet contemplation was nice, but so far removed from the high-church experience I grew up with that it still seemed very foreign. Everyone was nice, but it all seemed weird. I was beginning to think that there would never be a good fit, and considered giving up.

At some point in our process, Jen found a website for a small in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis. It was Presbyterian, and other than being Protestant, I had no idea what that meant. Truthfully I still don’t, not exactly. I didn’t really want to go, but she used her wifely-powers to convince me. We went, and amazingly, it was Ok. I didn’t think it was that weird. It had a nice mix of casual and high-churchy things. It was new, but with a certain familiarity in ritual. It stated an openness to all kinds of folks, which we were able confirm in our observations. It had a cool gospel choir, and a rich musical tradition. So we came, and we stayed.


Some time after we’d been attending the church for a while, I was up late. It was that moment in the day, after all the chaos that is part of a typical day in the life of a young family, where it was peaceful and quiet. Jen and Ryan (this was BE – Before Evan) were asleep, and I was up, decompressing from my day. Frequently at this time of the day I’d be sitting in front of the computer with my guitar, looking up chords and tablature for songs I know. Frequently it would be The Beatles, as the songs are fun, the chord progressions are often interesting, and it was easy enough to play and sing along at the same time. On this night I was digging through the U2 catalogue.

There are so many great songs. Sunday Bloody Sunday. Bad. Pride. With or Without You. One. The challenging thing is that not all of these songs are too intuitive to play on an acoustic guitar, at least when you compare them to the recording. But eventually you find that pattern, and like a good Beatles song, you can just sing along.

It was that night I revisited a song I hadn’t thought about for a long time – 40. I remembered the cool way the song started, and tried to emulate the bass intro. Eventually I worked out some chord voicings that sounded ok. I finally got to the lyrics, and after a bit of singalong, I had a sudden and shocking moment of clarity. Sitting in front of me, in plain sight, were the words to Psalm 40. I mentioned I’ve never been much for lyrics, and hadn’t been much for church either, and so until that moment I’d never made the connection.

I raced to find a bible and looked up the passage. As I read it, I sat there stunned, and a wave of emotion began to wash over me. In that instant, all the fragments of my life began to come together into a story that started to make sense. I thought about growing up in the church, both the good and the bad. I thought about my life as a young adult, feeling like a failure at the the things that were most important to me, and how low and dark that time of my life was. I thought about my family and the path I’d taken to where I was at that moment.

Most of all, I thought about that night in 1987 in St.Paul, and how everything in my life at that time was part of a story that I didn’t yet understand, that things were happening even in my dark moments, that I wouldn’t see until much later. At that moment, I felt trapped in a life I didn’t want but could not escape. What I know now is that show was a lifeline, a way to buoy me and give me a moment of inspiration when I most needed it.

What I didn’t understand in November of 1987 was the things that were directly, immediately in front me that I could not yet see. I couldn’t see then that in just a few weeks I would meet a pretty girl who would quickly become the love of my life and we’d set off on a grand adventure. I didn’t know that shortly after that I’d return to college full time, finish strong, and later complete graduate school. I didn’t know that I’d have two lovely amazing sons, and that being a dad and husband would become my most fulfilling, important calling. What I didn’t understand until much later, until sitting in front of a computer with a guitar and a bible, was that night in 1987 was the beginning of a new chapter in my life, a narrative that would propel me forward 30 years, to today.

There was definitely something in the room


I waited patiently for the Lord, he inclined and heard my cry
He brought me up out of the pit, out of the miry clay
I will sing, sing a new song. I will sing, sing a new song.
How long to sing this song. How long to sing this song.

He set my feet upon a rock, and made my footsteps firm
Many will see, many will see and hear
I will sing, sing a new song. I will sing, sing a new song.
How long to sing this song. How long to sing this song. that night.

Lost Hope

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, but today seems like the day to scratch out a few words. I’ve had a huge lump in my throat for the last few days, and I’ve found myself frequently wiping my eyes as I read the news.

Jacob Wetterling disappeared about two months before Jen and I were married in 1989. It had such large coverage in the papers and on TV. As the story played out, it transitioned from a rescue, to a recovery, to an advocacy movement. Patti’s face was everywhere. She was fierce and persistent. I don’t know if she knew that her son’s disappearance would forever changed how we deal with child predators, not only in Minnesota, but across the nation. Even if she did, she would not have cared. This was personal.

And now the monster has been arrested, told his story, and been sentenced, all in the short span of five short days. As a parent – a dad – I am brokenhearted. I feel ill, angry, and so sad. I think about the family and the distraught state they are in. I think about the community, still stunned and in disbelief over what happened in their backyard. Most of all, I think of Jacob.

I read the testimony that came out of the hearing today, and it took me to a new depth of horror and sadness. I think about an eleven-year-old boy – I’ve had two of them – and how he must have been feeling at the time, in a state of shock – scared, confused, and alone with no one to protect him. How, with a bit of guilt in my heart, I feel relief that he died quickly, that he did not suffer over an extended period of time as so many other kids do. Beginning to end, it was all over in just a few hours.

For the family though it has gone on much longer. I’ve read many comments on the case since Thursday that say similar things.

Now the family can start the healing process.

Now there is closure.

Now we know the truth.

It is over, and there is solace in knowing that.

Now we can move forward.

These comments are well-intended – I understand that – but they are such bullshit. Knowing the truth does not make it better because the truth is horrifying. Knowing what happened to Jacob does not make it better. It makes it far worse. It amplifies the horror. It changes it from a series of hypothetical scenarios to actual, fact-based storyline that you can play back in your mind over and over and imagine what your child must have been living and feeling in those final moments.

I grieve for Jacob, but my heart is with mom and dad tonight. They’ve lived 27 years keeping a glimmer of light that things would turn out ok, and that was crushed last Thursday and made vivid today. The family is getting this new and real today, after 27 years of hope. There is no closure. There is no moving forward. The only hope left is that you can get up and put your feet on the floor again tomorrow.

The most hopeless part of this is that realization that there is nothing anyone could have done to prevent any of this from happening. These were just ordinary folks living their lives. This is the sad fact that we must all accept: While we can hope not to accidentally stumble onto a monster’s path, the truth is: The Monsters live among us.

To Jacob, I hope you knew much much you were loved. To the rest of the Wetterlings, I am so sorry. May you find whatever peace you can.

Reflections from Asbury Park

At 49 years old, my first Springsteen concert is in the books, and I need to process what I have just witnessed.
The Hype: The guy who sold me a beer before the show asked me “have you seen Springsteen before”? After I replied No that this was my first time, he replied “well you are in for a real treat”. The dude had wicked BO so it was hard for me to focus on our interaction at the time, but later I understood. I had very high expectations heading into the show, perhaps too high. I can safely say my expectations were exceeded.
The River: The first two hours of the show were dedicated to The River, the 1980 album that he described as his “first adult record”. I didn’t know how that was going to go, given that I only know maybe a third of the 21 songs. When we saw Stevie Wonder perform “Songs in the Key of Life” there were many moments when I found myself looking at my watch. This didn’t happen with The River. Sure, there were a couple songs that made good bathroom-break material, but overall, viewed as a complete work, beginning to end, I found it to be very engaging, sometimes moving, and occasionally extraordinary. It didn’t matter at all that we knew so few of the songs from that record.
After The River: When “The River” portion of the show ended, he gave his band and the audience about 20 seconds to gather themselves before launching into Badlands. The transition was breathtaking and thrilling. He then played for another 90 minutes, knocking out one huge song after another. I love The Rising, and was very happy to have the opportunity to see it live. The six-song encore was perhaps the finest, most intense and entertaining 30 minutes I’ve ever seen in any concert.
The Boss: Bruce himself, at 66, is an amazing physical specimen. He basically did three-and-a-half hours of continuous calisthenics, bouncing across the stage, side-to-side, and front-to-back. He fell back into the audience and crown-surfed for 40 feet during Hungry Heart, still holding his microphone and singing up to the ceiling. He brought a 91-year old lady and a teenage girl on stage to dance with him during Dancing in the Dark. I’ve never seen any performer put out that much energy on stage. Never…not even close.
The Band: With the possible exception of Nils Lofgren, there are no virtuosos in The E Street Band. Individually, they are fine musicians. Collectively, however, they are the finest rock-and-roll ensemble out there. When The Boss describes his band as “the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, hard-rocking, booty-shaking, love-making, earth-quaking, Viagra-taking, justifying, death-defying, legendary E Street Band” he is not overselling anything at all. Wow. Wow. Wow.
OK, I Get it Now: At the beginning of the show, after the lights came down, Bruce greeted the crowd with a “…are you ready to be entertained? Are you ready to testify? Are you ready to be transformed?” The crowd was clearly ready to do all of these things, but it was at the end where I truly understood what he meant. Had I been transformed? Hell yes I’d been transformed. I’m not sure I’ll ever look at a live show the same way again. It was an exhilarating and, yes, transformative experience. I was left with two questions: Why did we wait so long to do that? When can we do that again?
Line of the Night: Jen, looking over at me, after another amazing moment, and saying “I think we are witnessing a genius.”
The setlist, for those of you who are interested in such things:
  1. Meet Me in the City
    — Beginning of The River —
  2. The Ties That Bind
  3. Sherry Darling
  4. Jackson Cage
  5. Two Hearts
  6. Independence Day
  7. Hungry Heart
  8. Out in the Street
  9. Crush on You
  10. You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
  11. I Wanna Marry You
  12. The River
  13. Point Blank
  14. Cadillac Ranch
  15. I’m a Rocker
  16. Fade Away
  17. Stolen Car
  18. Ramrod
  19. The Price You Pay
  20. Drive All Night
  21. Wreck on the Highway
    — End of The River —
  22. Badlands
  23. No Surrender
  24. Prove It All Night
  25. Backstreets
  26. Because the Night (Patti Smith Group cover)
  27. The Rising
  28. Thunder Road
    — Encore —
  29. Born to Run
  30. Bobby Jean
  31. Dancing in the Dark
  32. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
  33. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
  34. Shout (Isley Brothers cover)

Secret Garden

My first Springsteen show is nine days away, and I’ve been obsessing a bit over his body of music. I’ve discovered- they were new to me, anyway – so many musical gems.

This song is certainly no rarity, but it is rarely played live. It is a lovely piece of work that takes on a depth  on stage that I’d never expected.