40, Revisited

Prologue

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.

I

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?”

II

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.

III

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.

IV

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.'”

V

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.

VI

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.

VII

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

Epilogue

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.

In Memoriam: A Note From Bob

Now that I have passed on to the great beyond and possess otherworldly superpowers, I have written my own obituary.

I passed away peacefully in my sleep, in the early hours of November 7, 2015. I will be remembered mostly for my barking, my big body on skinny legs (I am NOT a Whippet, for God’s sake), and barking. I enjoyed warm places to sleep, food, and incessantly warning my humans of their impending doom, by barking. I was named for famous television personality Bob Barker. Even though I never met him, I heard he is very fertile – much more than me – particularly since the whole neutering thing happened (thanks a lot for that, by the way). The humans called me Bobby, except when they were too tired or lazy to say the whole thing, and then it was just Bob.

I was preceded in death by the mean/bitchy meow-thing (Penny), wussy/boring meow-thing (Critter), teeny/frail meow-thing (Sally), and nice/weirdo meow-thing (Harriman). To all of my long-gone frenemies, it makes me very happy to know that I outlived you all. That fact puts a smile on my face, and now that I am once again fully-abled, a happy wag to my tail. My smile is even better now that I have all of my teeth back. Wherever it is that we all are right now, please don’t look me up.

To the surviving red menace, The Ginger, the orange meow-thing, I say sayonara and good riddance, even though you didn’t completely suck. I forgive you for all of the times you randomly bitch-slapped me for no reason other than I was a dog. I forgive you for all of the times you entered my bubble and tried to snuggle with me. It was terrible. And ok. Sometimes. Not really. Most of all, I ask that you take care of the humans now that I am gone. I can no longer bark at things on their behalf, and you seem to have their confidence. I know you are worthless because you cannot bark, but the least you can do is to grimace menacingly at things with your snotty, mangled, deformed face. It just might be scary enough to ward off evil. It’s all on you now. Soldier on, you disgusting beast.

To my humans, I say thanks for giving me a good life, enough to eat, a soft place to lie down, and a forum to do what I did best: Bark. I’m sorry for all of times I pooped on your floor, pissed on your rug, or inconveniently barfed on something that you value. I understand why sometimes you had to yell at me, and there are no hard feelings. You handled all of that with incomparable grace, and I thank you.

To Young The He, thank you for being exceedingly kind and nice to me. I knew you less time than the others, but in our almost 13 years together, I grew quite fond of you. I liked how you talked nice to me and petted me, even though I know you like the orange meow-thing a little bit more than me, for reasons I’ll never completely fathom. You are a sweet, kind boy. I will miss seeing who you will grow up to be, but whoever that is, I know you will be extraordinary.

To Older The He, I knew you my whole life. You were only 4 when we met. You were a little, blond touslely-haired thingy, and now you are a big hairy thingy. I’m sorry I was never much for fetching the ball, but I appreciate you playing with me nonetheless. I loved all the naps we took together, especially when we were both little. I have watched you grow up to be a fine, decent, kind young man. I know my leaving is hard for you, but both of us are going to be ok. I’m very proud of you. You are at the beginning of an amazing adventure. Go out and be great.

To Other The He, I know you loved me even though you were frequently crabby with me. Thanks for paying for all of the things. Thanks for putting food in my bowl. Thanks for loving my people and taking good care of them. Thanks for doing your best to help me here at the end when I was a hot mess. And that time at the PetSmart when I unloaded a quart of Bob’s Finest on your favorite pair of Sebagos? Do you remember that time? I do, and I would totally do that again if I had another chance. That was the best. What a great day. May you live a long life with dry shoes, mon frère.

To The She, I don’t know where to start. We have been constant companions for 17 years. You let me follow you from room-to-room for all of that time. I’m sure it was annoying sometimes, but you never once complained. You let me sit next to you wherever you were, even when I smelled very bad because I snacked from the meow-thing box. You always talked nice to me, always put a blanket on me (we both get cold, don’t we?), even when I was a pain-in-the-ass, or put my bodily fluids on something, or was just inconvenient. I never felt more loved than when I was with you. You were my whole world. Thanks for being my person. I know this is all very hard for you, and that you are terribly sad, but don’t be that way for too long. You gave me a great life, and that is what you should be thinking about. I love you.

To everyone else, thanks for letting me bark at you so hard and so loud and so long that I nearly passed out. I cherish those memories. If I was annoying, I’m sorry not sorry. If I pooped on or near you, or peed, or barfed in your general vicinity, I’m actually am really sorry. These things happen. Thanks for understanding.

I guess that’s it. It was a good ride. Thanks for all of it.

Always be good to one another, and Bark On.

Bobby

Until Next Time…

This is the eulogy I wrote for my friend John McLaughlin, which I read at his memorial service at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, on December 12, 2014.

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I met John about 14 years ago. He and Barb wandered into this place not long after Jen and I did, and we hit it off right away. As friends, the four of us clicked. Ryan was maybe 6 at the time, and Evan would come along a couple of years later, and the kindness Jen and I enjoyed was extended to our boys too. We loved the old house, the yard, and that big old swing in the back. We connected.

When I joined the Cedar Lake Seven in the fall of 2000, we were between guitar players. The previous guy has moved to Hawaii, and while we didn’t have too many guitar numbers back then, when he left, we were all a cappella. Our lead tenor had recently left the group too, so we were a little undermanned. After John strolled in to this place, he was quickly recruited by Greg – He was a twofer — he could play guitar, and he had a lovely high tenor voice, both things that we needed badly. Continue reading

Road Trip

I write in bursts, and now seems like a good time to pick it up again.

My friend John McLaughlin died yesterday, and it is weighing heavily on me today.  John was a friend of mine for 15 years.  We started going to same little church right around the same time, and we hit it off right away.  He was 17 years older than me, but that didn’t matter.  It just worked.  I feel sadness and loss, but a busy day at work mostly kept me from thinking about it.  Now that I’m home, I need to get this out.

John died because of a disease called PSP, which gradually robbed him of his charm and dignity, year after year, bit by bit.  It was a terrible thing to watch an intelligent, vibrant man slowly deteriorate in such a way.  At first, many years ago, we didn’t know what was going on.  In hindsight, it all makes sense. I don’t want to talk too much about this though, so I’m going to tell a story instead.

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Don’t Be Stupid

I have something I need to confess.  I share this so that I may unburden myself, to submit my actions for your collective consideration, and ultimately, your judgment.  Here we go.

I helped my son build a beer pong table for his dorm room.

Now I’m sure you can now see why I needed to confess that.  It’s something I’ve been wearing as a yoke around my neck for the last week or so, I need some spiritual relief.

Beer pong, for the uninitiated, is a game frequently played by college students. It involves a pool-rack configuration – a triangle – of cups at each end of the table.  Contestants try to throw or bounce ping-pong balls into the cups, which contain various types of beverages. If your ball lands in an opponent’s cup, they must consume said beverage. All your cups are gone?  You lose. House rules vary, but that is the general idea.

You may be asking yourself, why would Rick do such a thing?  Why?!  Doesn’t he know that this is only going to encourage the kind of ill-conceived shenanigans that we warn our college kids to stay away from? Doesn’t he know what a bad example he is setting for his son, that he is providing tacit permission for his kid to carry on, to indulge in Animal House-like behaviors, ultimately at the expense of his college success?  Doesn’t he know that he has made the path to debauched excess that much easier to navigate?  Haven’t you thought of these things?  Good grief, man.

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Gooyash

I found this while cleaning up some files on my hard drive.  It is something I wrote for our second Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church cookbook.  I am a member of a gospel choir called the Cedar Lake Seven, which is based out of BMPC, and this story chronicles some of the adventure we had when touring Hungary in early 2002. It also provides my take on Hungarian Goulash, one of the more memorable meals we had on our trip.

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In the early 2000’s, the Cedar Lake Seven had an opportunity to visit Hungary.  They was the result of an exchange, a partnership with the Reformed Church of Hungary.  The Hungarians had been to Minnesota a few years earlier, and made the gesture of inviting the Americans to come and see them.  It took a few years for it all to come together, but we made a plan to go in the fall of 2001.  After September 2001, the world changed, and we had to alter our plans.  We would up delaying our trip by a few months, and it moved forward in the spring of 2002.

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