May 4, 1970

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Water Tower Ruins on the outskirts of Kent, Ohio.

When you grow up in Northeast Ohio, May 4 haunts you before you even know it. Sometimes you realize it after the fact, or its effects are oblique, not explicit.

My newly-minted English teacher was a hippie with platform shoes, magnificent sideburns and shoulder-length shag. He was an awful teacher, who failed to hide his contempt. Even 6th graders could tell how much he got stoned, could see his anger over being trapped in room full of poor, stupid, rural, white kids. Years later I figured out why there were suddenly teachers like him. It was better than going to Vietnam.

But, teaching was better than that Ravenna boy who thought he’d be safe in the National Guard. A decade later, alcohol, acid and his guitar made him paranoid, a best friend one minute, worst enemy the next. We humored his lie about taking classes, being excused from duty. Eventually he admitted that he got sent to shoot his friends. He was still young when he drank himself to death.

I attended Kent State in the 1980s, a journalism student in the hall that presides over the field, on that hill. I demonstrated against the new ROTC building. Cops beat a boy who hung a poster where he shouldn’t have, and I knew that nothing would change. In every job interview the HR drone murmurs: “I see you went to Kent … that … how tragic …” And with a stiff smile, I explain that there is no better place to study journalism, a case study in crisis reporting, historic First Amendment blahblahblah … while thinking “Will this stain ever erase?”

I thank my friends who told me their truths about May 4. My adored drama teacher who hunkered down in his dorm, terrified. My co-worker who showed me where she stood, looking stunned and uncertain, in a famous photograph. An artist friend worked with veterans who asked him “Did you go?” I truly hope they l believed his answer, “No, but I did all I could to bring you home.” But every soldier hears so many lies. My lifelong companion is a “townie,” proudly tear gassed as a young teen while protesting the new gym on sacred space. The gym covered the stain but can’t erase it.

My parents were liberal, but I remember at the time, they were like many “Good Americans”. If “those kids” hadn’t done “that,” this tragedy would not have happened. But, I am proud that, together, we learned more about the world, and listened to other voices. My mom became my equal in cynicism, knowing that that “outside agitators” are ghosts made up by authorities who don’t want us to question them.

I still spend a lot of time in Kent, but not today. I carry too much of it in my heart, even though I was not really there.

Punk Rock Grief Counselor

Random musings on others’ emotional postings on social media:

1. Grief is grief. No one has the right to tell anyone how to grieve, how long, in what manner. But it is essential to respect each other’s grief. I think we all know death, but experiencing the slow death of a loved one is unique. If you haven’t experienced that yet, I hope you never do, but don’t judge what the caregiving survivor feels or how they behave.

2. It is possible to make great music with musicians who are garbage as people. I did.  And, don’t judge bandmates’ significant others. They chose them. Respect that, and leave it alone. (However, always say “I told you so” post-breakup, if appropriate.)

3. As a young punk in Kent/Akron, many of us “grew up in public,” drunk underage, sneaking into clubs & bars. It gave us the freedom to hone musicianship, write songs, some good, some dreadful. Not everyone wants to leave that behind, grow older get more sober. Those people don’t understand that the music was serious. Some of us really wanted to produce quality work. We separate “showmanship” from craft, but to some, those personae were jokes, part of the scene, funny stories.

As Dag Nabbit would say, Go blow a dead bear.

4. A couple of you may know that I will be waiting for you in hell.

After I have a beer with Dag.

There are a million Stiv Bators stories in this half-naked city, ours is one of them…

Happy memories of good friends — including Keith.

sound of the sea

6.28.19 poster

It was just after Halloween 1983. I was working day shift at a local restaurant when my manager summoned me to the phone – a personal call.

It was Valerie Seeley, the booking manager for the Cleveland Agora. Our conversation was short but sweet – the second guitarist for Jimmy Zero’s band was sick, and the group wouldn’t be able to open for Stiv’s Lords of the New Church that night at the Agora. Would we, the terrible parade, be able to do the show?

I thanked her and said I would get back to her by the end of the morning. As I hung up the phone, I knew the clock was ticking. The first thing I would have to do is contact our drummer Paul Strachan, an amiable sort who could flip a switch and become a ferocious rock dynamo. Paul was a student at a nearby college…

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Guidelines for Dem Candidates

Political observations on the early bird 2020 presidential wanna-bes:

1. Dear Dem Senators: How about you stick around and actually accomplish something before running? Dems control the House, so let’s see if we can actually pass some bills. (Like election reform…) Trust me, it will make your bid for Prez more convincing.

2. I’ve been consistent regarding my distaste for Bernie: Zero leadership during his legislative tenure; a vapid appearance here in Cleveland where I spent $35 to hear superficial talking points, zero policy; and, he’s only a Democrat when he wants something. Tried to politely engage with one of his rabid acolytes yesterday…. (Yes, I was bored, conflict amuses me.) Acolyte insists that I am wrong because he voted against the Iraq war (admirable), Dems are “rats,” segued to Hillary attack. If you don’t know how to debate, block me. Seriously. I might as well talk to a MAGAt.

3. Please learn how laws are made. The power is in the Senate. We need election reform or Russia will just retain the monster we have today. It might be too late.

4. All empires fall eventually. See #3.

Babyland

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This is not the cemetery I pass, but I like this one too.

I drive past a beautiful cemetery to get to work. The road passes the very back, where the infants and children are buried. Another cemetery in town calls it “Babyland,” although I’m not sure this place has named that section. Every holiday, those tiny graves explode with color as grieving families decorate with stuffed animals, flowers, battery-operated candles. The Grief R Us collection from the nearest toy store, perhaps?

There is one grave near a small pine tree that caught my eye. Someone stashed a folding chair and a small cooler near the tree. I did not think much at the time, because homeless people hide their possessions in many places. A cemetery would seem safe. Or, maybe this was a worker’s break time set up.

It is someone who keeps a vigil, every afternoon. I see him on my return trip around 5 every weekday, rain or shine. He sits in the chair with a large drink cup from a quickie-mart, in the same position facing the tree every day. Even in zero weather with snow pouring down, he keeps his vigil.

Like many people we observe but do not encounter, we wonder. Are you grieving and is your vigil bringing you to peace? Are you blaming yourself and reliving what went wrong? Did you promise to never leave them? I hope you get the answers that you look for in that tree and at that grave. When I go by, I ask the gods to bless you.

Soul Searching

There were many things that went wrong between mom and me when she went into hospice care. She did not have a neat diagnosis like cancer, with a defined trajectory of decline.

“Failure to thrive.”

In fact, hospices don’t even like the term. Too vague. Your body says it has had enough and takes charge after years of being pushed around by pills, procedures and a cycle of hospital stays. You can’t eat, you lose weight, weaken and die.

Mom and I were oil and vinegar, and she needed a different kind of child for this part of life’s journey. Her doctors were unable to articulate what was happening and delegated “the talk” to me. So, we began with something improperly resolved and destined to take a long time. She was angry, needy and confused, especially when it became clear that the “death sentence” was not immediate.

Mom was a sensible Catholic. Unchurched, she prayed often as she pleased, no need for an intermediary. When I confessed to be a devout pagan, she asked “Why can’t you just be a Catholic and ignore the parts you don’t like? It’s what we all do.”

Indeed.

She enjoyed praying, meditating and having faith based on being kind and good to others. “I like rituals,” she commented when I showed her the sugar skulls a friend brought from Mexico. “I’ll put them on yours and dad’s graves after you’re gone.” I promised. She smiled. I rarely made her smile. Too intense, too impersonal, not sentimental.

Eventually she did need the more formal aspects of her religion. A few oblique comments were made about talking to “someone.” Then it turned into a contest for her soul.

One of those generic Christian pastors from the Cornerstone Vineyard Raptureland Mall Church in Suburbia dropped by and smelled the chance at a soul. Suddenly her room was full of a “prayer circle” that resembled a group exorcism. (Without levitation or speaking in tongues.) “Too many people in here,” she fretted.

I did my best “Jesus kicking the moneylenders out of the temple” imitation. Did anyone think to ask for a priest? There’s a church across the street… But, mom just moved here last year and was sick so fast she never made it over to Saint Moneybags on the Square. So, its THREE clergy were just too busy. A kind nurse of mom’s tribe called a family friend. He interrupted his date to stop by. “Good,” I thought. “He’s ignoring the parts he doesn’t like, either.” I appreciated the Ohio State sweatshirt, too.

So mom received last rites with compassion and warmth from a young priest she never met before. His touch was soothing, his voice warm and kind. He earned the right to claim her soul.

 

I’ll show you his papers

I took out my grandfather’s immigration papers yesterday. There are many things wrong with them. I am proud of some of those errors. He was maybe Slovak, probably Ukrainian. When he left Europe, he was a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So, he did not go to Ellis Island, he came into the Port of Baltimore.

My first grade teacher did not like my reaction when she told that tired fairy story — The one that begins with everyone looking longingly at the Statue of Liberty when they first see America. I think I was told to be quiet and sit in the corner for a while.

It was not the first time an adult had lied to me. It was not the first thing that is wrong with my family’s immigration story. We all have those Slavic roots and came with papers from that dead empire. We left from Bremen before World War I erupted, then dug in and scarred the continent. That particular steamship line went to Baltimore. I can show you the papers to prove it.

The name is not my grandfather’s. There is some ink carefully smeared across it, but you can plainly see it is not him. He died estranged from us, so I never could ask. I know very little about him, except he entered this country using another man’s identity, clumsily trying to hide it. He got away with it. He stayed, started then left a family.

There have always been people like us.