Like most men of his generation, he didn’t express his love verbally much, and was probably a little uncomfortable doing so, but he showed it by being dependable and providing a platform from which we all could thrive.
I once suggested that he should exercise more often, eat better, etc. He said, “I’m like an old car. The gunk in the engine is holding it together. If you steam cleaned it, everything would fall apart.” Always with the jokes. Maybe his absolute refusal to take life seriously was the secret for his almost zen-like peace. (I have very little of that. I’m a railer, a protestor, a denier of reality.)
He survived a childhood with loveless parents who never even acknowledged Christmas or birthdays, and who never once said “I love you”.
He survived sadistic teachers who beat him with sticks. One kicked him so hard, he fell and injured his tailbone so badly, he felt the pain off and on for the rest of his life.
He survived the mean streets of Belfast as a child, littered with the budding psychopathic children of profoundly dysfunctional adults, one of which launched an unprovoked attack on him, trying to gouge his eye out (literally). He had trouble with that eye for the rest of his life too.
He left school at 14 to support his family by working in an Irish linen factory.
He survived multiple altercations as a B-Special reserve police officer.
He was a semi-professional boxer.
He was a business owner and kept his doors open for 40 years while other businesses run by men with higher education rose and fell around him. Everyone who called his office got more than great service, they got a joke and a story and a laugh, and they were made to feel important as a person as well as a client.
He was an activist fighting to restore peace in Northern Ireland during “the troubles”. He was interviewed on radio and television and contributed many articles on the Irish conflict to the L.A. Times. He received death threats for standing up to terrorism, particularly after the LA Times published an article titled Who Killed Little Michele?
He lost his stomach to cancer when he was 45 but never complained. He just kept going.
He lost his firstborn son, my only sibling, when he was 64 and my brother was 37. He supported him for twenty years of drug addiction.
Despite his lack of education, he was considered an intellectual by all who knew him.
Despite the lack of love from his parents as a child, he never brought up their past with them, took care of them financially for the rest of their lives, and spent his vacations there doing repairs to their home, and he did it all without expectation of reward, because that’s what he was supposed to do. The first time I saw him cry was when his mother died. The second time was when his father died. There was no resentment in him.
None of his problems made him bitter. On the contrary, he sang for the better part of every day, in the shower, in the car, anywhere the need overtook him. The neighbors often thanked him for serenading them every morning too. I spent my childhood listening to Irish songs coming from the bathroom as he got ready for work, and I would wake to a house filled with the scent of Old Spice cologne.
He was the one everyone at the pub called on when they needed a song to help them forget their troubles. My dad enjoyed nothing more than singing and watching his friends dance.
He was hard on my brother and I sometimes, but nowhere near as hard as his father had been on him. But now that I’m a father, I know that there was love even in the moments I was most frightened of him, because he wanted me to grow up honest and strong. Compared to his own father, he was an absolute prince.
Even when Parkinson’s and dementia was starting to erase him, he looked at me one day, probably after noticing that I was troubled, and said, “Don’t worry about me, son. You know I’m a tough old bird.”
And on his deathbed, after a month of hell, flooded with the morphine that would finally stop his tremendous, unconquerable heart, when I thought those hellish diseases had erased him completely, when I was sitting in the corner with my face in my hands, my dear friend Dean, who was praying over him, asked if he was ready to see heaven. He nodded yes.
Then Dean said, “Mark, he wants you.” I looked up and saw him reaching for me. I rushed to him. In a moment of perfect clarity, he pulled me to him and gave me a kiss. Thanks to a thoroughly incompetent Kaiser hospital (Panorama City, California), he was unable to speak the entire month he was there, so that kiss told me everything he couldn’t. (I threatened to blow up the hospital for making his last month so much harder. Apparently, you can’t say things like that anymore. I had a security detail attached to me for the rest of his days there.) That kiss and hug told me, “Thanks for fighting for me, son, but I’m ready to go now if you’ll let me.”
It took 36 hours after that for the morphine to stop his heart. Despite the difficulties we’d had with each other over the years, I cried like a baby on his chest for almost all of his last day and a half on earth.
The doctors couldn’t explain why it was taking so long for him to die, but I knew. They had never encountered a heart like his before. They had no idea who was lying on that bed. They were thinking in terms of ordinary men.
I found a little treasure online recently – old photos of Ireland from the 30s and 40s, many of children finding creative ways to play. (I’m always hoping to find my father or mother as children among them.)
Many of their games would be considered offensive today (cowboys and Indians, pointing fake guns at each other) or just dangerous (swinging by a rope around the “May pole”, building boxcars and racing them down hills, leaning planks against first floor windowsills and climbing up them, etc.
Then I thought of children today who spend most of their time staring vacantly at TV screens or video games on computers. The streets are deserted, even on a Saturday afternoon. I have a terrible fear that we’re failing them, but don’t know where or how to start to correct it. Complaining feels pointless, like putting up a billboard on a road nobody travels anymore.
Human beings tend to know what they want, but not what they need, especially children. I wonder if vicarious, simulated adventure can take the place of real adventure, at all. Adults were better stewards of childhood once. Yeah, they were dirty, and they bumped their heads, skinned their knees, and broke bones more often, but they lived – with a capital L.
Innocent Lost, Trust Betrayed.
I can’t stop thinking about little Cannon Hinnant and all the children who have been killed this year by the madness that seems to have infected America.
I don’t know what the solution is, except perhaps mandatory, nationwide classes in how to control emotion, because that’s what every sociopathic idiot has in common – total inability to regulate their own impulses. They have chaotic minds, and lead chaotic lives, and the kids are dragged into them. Misery truly does love company.
I once heard some cynically conclude that being a tribute artist is a “waste of a life.” I disagree, for several reasons.
- They help diminish the grief of losing our favorite artists, and there are fewer higher purposes than softening the burden of grief.
- On one hand, it’s sad that nobody on the stage was actually in the original band. On the other, these are people who have obsessed, even more than the biggest fan, about every detail of their music. This makes them worthy of respect. After all, it’s the love of the music that matters, not who’s singing it. Of course I’d rather see the actual artist up there, but someone who loves them that much is worth watching too. We can’t bring them back to life, but capturing their spirit sure helps lighten the load of missing them. It’s about love and celebration of all they were and all they gave us.
- If the band/artist absolutely nails the original band’s sound down to the smallest detail, we can close our eyes and remember our own smallest details – of when that music first grabbed us, made us feel more deeply, learn something new about the world or ourselves, and gave us the kind of joy only music can.
Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about when I say “nailed it.”
When I listen to a Beach Boys tribute band like The Fendertones, I remember driving home from the beach (I was born and raised in Southern California) with my high school girlfriend, stroking her hair as she lay sleeping on my lap (cars had couches for front seats back then), the sun setting in my rearview mirror, and The Warmth of the Sun playing on a cassette tape. I think of laying on lounge chairs by my parents’ pool, drenched in Tropical Blend tanning oil, my eyelids bright red from facing the sun, friends jumping off the roof into the pool while Fun Fun Fun blasted from a radio. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m listening to the actual Beach Boys. These guys loved them as much, maybe even more, than I ever did.
Very few artists had a greater influence on me than John Denver did, particularly his love of the environment, and promotion of sustainable ecology and human compassion. For that, there’s this guy – Jim Curry – who has John Denver’s voice DOWN –
Or Ted Vigil, who looks like John’s twin brother and does a darn good impression of him too –
I suppose I just love people who love the same things I do. They’re my family whether or not we’ve ever met. I love surfing culture thanks to The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, The Surfari’s, Frankie and Annette movies, and access to Malibu, especially now that I’m leaving California due to overcrowding, crime, gangs, etc., I love the people who help keep my memory of it alive, and who make me feel like maybe all is not lost after all.
My usual jogging path along the railroad tracks in Burbank, California, has gotten worse and worse in recent months. Trash everywhere and a lot more homeless people.
I walked by a couple who were living in a very nice tent. They even had a generator. He was chewing her out about something as I approached, then she furtively pointed at me and he stopped, but as soon as I passed he went back to yelling at her. The part I caught was, “Look at this right here! If I didn’t pick it up, it would sit there for a year!” He then picked up some item on the ground. (This did not distinguish the item at all because there was no furniture in the tent and everything was on the ground. )
Apparently, they were having marital issues because he doesn’t think she’s a good enough “tentkeeper.” I can’t blame the guy for wanting to maintain some dignity under those conditions, but I couldn’t understand why he would be so abusive to the one person on earth who is willing to suffer with him.
Bob Marley said, “Everyone will hurt you. The trick is finding someone worth suffering for.” I suppose the message here is to appreciate the people in our lives. They suffer when we suffer, and that’s worthy of respect, at least.
Real Life vs. The Movies #1
I had another “no wonder I’m a writer” moment recently.
In movies, the candy man sings, rides a rolling ladder and showers happy children with candy.
In real life, a pimply teenager stares at an iPhone constantly, ignoring the one child customer right in front of him, and doesn’t smile when you buy his damn candy.
Conclusion: Real life can really suck sometimes.
My Last Night in Athens
It was my last night in Greece and I only had fifteen dollars in my pocket. I had to decide between a meal and a bed. I chose a meal, and one last night of wandering. I could sleep when I was back in L.A. It was a Saturday night in July so there was plenty to see and do. The Greeks love to celebrate, and they don’t need a reason.
After dinner, I went to a music festival for an hour, then walked over to the Acropolis to get one last look. I was momentarily disappointed when I found the gate locked, but there was only a chain link fence around the base of the hill. Not exactly a fortress. I walked to a secluded spot at the perimeter, threw my sleeping bag and backpack over the fence, and crawled under it. I would have to keep my eyes and ears open because I saw armed guards with dogs there a few weeks earlier when I first visited.
Once inside, I walked to the Theater of Dionysus, talked to the statues holding up the dais, and delivered a monologue at center stage under the stars to whatever forgotten gods on Mount Olympus might be listening. For a theater major, it felt pretty amazing to have this stage all to myself, the same stage Thespis, the first actor to ever play a character in a play on a stage (according to Aristotle), once stood. (For those who don’t know, this is where the term “Thespian” comes from.)
Then I chose one of the cracked seats (sixth row, center, thank you), pulled a half-full bottle of red wine from my backpack, and imagined I was an ancient Greek watching some passion play. It wasn’t difficult. All I had to do was look at my feet and the brown leather Greek sandals I had bought on Mykonos months earlier.
The wine and the hour made me drowzy, so I hiked to a cave in the uncarved stone at the base of the hill supporting the Acropolis, laid out my sleeping bag, took a candle and a book of poems from my backpack, and invited some great company over (Frost, Longfellow, Dickinson, et al) as I watched hot air balloons glowing against the night sky in the distance, at some other festival.
Finally, sleep took me until I was awakened again by a high-pitched squeal. I held my candle up to the sound and saw . . . bats. Dozens of them, clinging to the walls. Though the night was warm, I got inside my sleeping bag and zipped it over my head, hoping they wouldn’t try to bite me through it.
I awoke at dawn, and went out the way I came in. I was spotted by a guard from the top of the hill. He yelled but I just kept moving. Thus ended six months in Europe. I arrived home twenty pounds lighter, with less than a dollar of change in my pocket, but with a heart and soul filled to bursting, and a mind filled with dozens of new stories to tell my grandchildren. If I had spent that last fifteen dollars on a bed, I would have had nothing to write about. That old saying is true – “It’s better to wear out your shoes than your sheets.”
Just a House
I found a photo online today of one of the four houses I lived in as a child. (Chimineas Street In Northridge, California.) Just a house to anyone else but much more to me, of course.
I played Frisbee with my brother (now gone) in the summer on that grass.
I helped my dad (now gone) wash his car in that driveway.
My dog Skipper (a black terrier mix) pulled me on my skateboard down that sidewalk.
I planted a pine sapling in the front lawn because it was growing by a block wall and I knew it would be pulled out and thrown away when it got too big. It is now that giant pine tree on the right. It’s a strange thing to be able to climb a tree you planted. (One of those things that lets you know you’ve been around a while.)
I rushed home from school at Darby Elementary to eat scooter pies and watch Scooby Doo in that living room.
My brother and I shared the bedroom on the left. My bed was by the window. I used to look at the stars and pray, certain God heard every word. Lots of comics read under the covers with a flashlight, too.
I would trade a year for five minutes in that house again, at that time, with my brother and father. So much changes, and memories can be so clear that decades feel like days, even minutes.
Those of you who have lived long enough to know what I mean, have a listen to this song by my favorite singer/songwriter, David Wilcox. I think you’ll like it.