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Goodbye Shaw, Hello Dutchtown

Long before my ex wife and I divorced, I’ve thought seriously about leaving Shaw. It’s not that I don’t like this neighborhood. Far from it. Everything I’ve loved about the person I have become, I’ve learned from this place. But, among the things I’ve learned in my near-decade in Shaw, it’s that love is complicated.

When Nikki and I were still together, we looked at a couple of houses outside the neighborhood. At the time, we were still planning on having children – most likely by adoption. And, since both job and income changes were a regular fact of life for each of us, we wanted less of a house payment – possibly none, given the right situation. And, we didn’t want to give up the amount of space. If anything, we wanted room to grow.

So, we stumbled upon a house we seriously looked into buying, in Old North St. Louis. When I mentioned that to a relative, recently, he shot back with the remark, “That’s where people go to die.” I wish people didn’t feel this way, about the City I love. But, they do – comfortably from their homes well outside City limits.

I spent nearly four years of my life as a Neighborhood Improvement Specialist, in some of the most challenged parts of the City. Doing that kind of work confirmed something I already knew in my gut. Beauty is everywhere, if we look for it. In neighborhoods that are only known to most people by sound bites and TV stand-ups, you’ll find blocks and neighbors who fiercely care, with homes that are more meticulously maintained than the one I just listed (under contract in less than a week, thanks to the efforts of residents and our previous alderman) – in a high-market-value area. That’s not meant to minimize long-standing, generational challenges. Those exist, too, and we are long overdue to address them. It merely serves to challenge stereotypes that are perpetuated, even within our City.

Old North St. Louis, by the numbers, is one of the safest parts of the city. Until the recent crime spikes of the last couple of years – which impacted neighborhoods citywide, Old North saw huge reductions in both person and property crime. The old 14th Street Mall was redeveloped into Crown Square, and has hosted some of the most incredible events this city has seen. Since the phrase of the day is “racial equity,” and lots of well-meaning people like to talk about it – allow me to introduce you to a neighborhood that is thoughtfully doing something about it – with near universal buy in. How I wish we could achieve that in Shaw.

Our credit wasn’t good enough to get the loan we needed, so we had to pass. I met the person who bought the house, though. He lived in the neighborhood, and the house was an opportunity for him to own a home. It went to the right person.

Other North St. Louis neighborhoods have been doing this sort of work for years, with little recognition. Places like Hyde Park, which has seen the formation of a true neighborhood organization, over the last four years. The Lindell Park historic district in Jeff VanderLou also defies those stereotypes, as does Academy in the 18th and 26th wards. The private street known as Lewis Place got some major infrastructure upgrades, thanks to the hard work of residents, partnering with Ald. Terry Kennedy. The 21st Ward is a political powerhouse, carrying on the tradition of the old 20th, before it was moved to the South Side. And, there are parts of the O’Fallon neighborhood that look every bit as stately as blocks you would find in the Central West End.

Yes, Northside Regeneration is a festering cancer. And, the residents of Old North, JVL and St. Louis Place are demanding accountability. As they should. Yes, vacant and crumbling housing stock exists. And, a significant number of voters said “no” to a creative solution that would, in my view, honestly and correctly address the problem of vacant buildings in distressed areas. That particular vote is being rightly litigated by the City, and my hope is that the decision is overturned.

We can talk these problems to death, but unless they’re in our back yard, we don’t care enough.

My last assignment put me in the 25th Ward. For all the talk of high crime in North St. Louis, Dutchtown actually led the city in police calls for service, when former Mayor Slay and his office put together the P.I.E.R. Plan, at the end of 2015. Stereotypes may be a time saver, as The Onion once put it, but given the data, they just don’t hold water. And, still, there are amazing assets that point to its inevitable rebound.

Like any neighborhood, including Shaw, you’ll find residents who care, who keep up their homes, help out on their blocks, and try to make their corner a better place. Go to a Dutchtown West meeting, and you’ll find them. Go to a Dutchtown CID board meeting, on the other side of Grand, and you’ll find them. Go to one of the many community engagement meetings facilitated by the Dutchtown South Community Corporation, and you’ll find them. Beauty is everywhere, if we look for it.

Like gingerbread homes? Dutchtown has them – mainly West of Grand. Still prefer red-brick and white-stone beauties? Those are East of Grand. Like a huge tree canopy? All over the neighborhood. Parks – including Marquette, with the only free outdoor pool in South City, cafes like Urban Eats, the original Ted Drewes, Merb’s Candies, new places like Urban Matter…it’s all there. And, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend two excellent institutions – The Feasting Fox for authentic Bavarian food, and Grbic’s for fine dining, Bosnian style.

Like the 8th Ward, I have family roots in Dutchtown. My mom’s cousins lived on the 4300 block of Virginia, and all of them would walk to St. Anthony of Padua for mass. St. Anthony’s is still open, and there are residents working to keep it the anchor it’s been; it’s one of many South City parishes that hosts a fish fry during Lent.

Dutchtown is in a pocket of South City that has an incredible influx of people who don’t look like me – whether they moved to St. Louis from another country, or to another part of the city, while crossing the so-called Delmar Divide – which is, in many ways, an invented mythology. The original divide was Mill Creek. Delmar came much later.

At any rate, when my ex wife decided she wanted a divorce, Dutchtown ended up on my short list, along with other neighborhoods where the prospect of finding a small house was more doable. I had a hard enough time caring for the 2K square foot home I just sold. I wasn’t going to do it again, unless I could afford to pay people to do the kind of necessary work it takes.

It’s also the place that offers the least expensive market-rate rent for a single person with a large dog.

In coming to accept this eventual move, I looked at several factors. Size of house in the neighborhood, should I buy again, was chief among them. Familiarity with the neighborhood was second. Home prices being third, since I wasn’t going to put myself in the same position I’d done before. And, neighborhood/ward dynamics being fourth.

Home prices ruled out a huge chunk of the city. Home sizes, both North and South, ruled out the other chunk. Familiarity narrowed it down, then, to three areas.

  1. Tower Grove South: Love the proximity to South Grand. Its where Nikki and I originally looked, before moving to Shaw
  2. Gravois Park: Love the older architecture, and the recent development booms bode well.
  3. Dutchtown: Same as point two, with closer proximity to South Grand. Less development booms, but equally thoughtful neighborhood planning.

It was the fourth criteria that sealed it. I’ve spent nine years in Shaw, with several of those in neighborhood leadership. It was a divisive neighborhood when I moved in, and unfortunately, it will remain one after I move out. Frankly, I’ve found it tiresome, and while Dutchtown certainly is experiencing the pains of change, I’ve not found near the amount of vitriol that I’ve experienced in Shaw, and witnessed in other places. I once saw an all-out, online throw down between older liberals bashing younger liberals, in a different part of South City from where I used to live. Honestly? It stopped me from moving anywhere near the place. I’ve gotten too old for that crap, I guess.

And, I struggle when those of us from wealthier neighborhoods throw out platitudes about gentrification and property values. As in, “I care about gentrification, so long as I can be the last person that does it.”

To quote someone I heard in a less wealthy neighborhood, “We wouldn’t mind having that problem, right now.”

Perspective matters, especially when the words we use become loaded tools to fire off at anyone who sees the situation differently. Yes, we need to be more thoughtful about planning. And, yes, it’s okay to want your single greatest investment to appreciate in value. We can do both, and do it better.

It’s easy to love a neighborhood when, physically speaking, it’s a nearly finished product, or when it’s viewed as up and coming. From that perspective, it’s easy to throw invective and talk about the state of the city, having not experienced significant parts of it. From that perspective, local elections can seem like popularity contests, and opportunities for long-time political foes, both within and outside the ward, to settle old scores – no matter how much the voters, themselves, may care about the issues at hand.

It’s harder to go somewhere and be part of the solution, in love with a neighborhood and all its imperfections. It’s harder to plant roots. And, it’s just as hard to re-settle.

In reflecting on my years in Shaw, I saw both the best and worst in people. I saw neighbors come together, after a tragedy, to show care and compassion. And, I saw neighbors pile onto one another, online, in ways that would make any stranger wonder why anyone would want to live in such a place. Frankly, it’s made more than a few residents question the same thing.

Again, love is complicated. Which is one of the things that Dutchtown residents seem to get.

It’s possible, for example, to have a taxing district that provides necessary additions to fundamental services, and put real effort into making the place equitable and inclusive. It’s possible for newer, younger residents to partner with long-timers, and reach out to a community that is much more transient than the place I’ve left – and welcome everyone. We are, after all, in this together.

It’s possible to work for a healthy rental inventory, and hold out-of-town and out-of-state property owners accountable – even if that sometimes means both residents and elected officials need to hold feet to the fire, working against State laws that are counter to our City’s interests, and other municipalities that have gone too far.

And, it’s easier to find common ground, when the problem is right in front of you. For all its division, Shaw had a much more robust neighborhood organization, and a much more connected neighborhood, when there was a serious need for these things. The unintended consequence of success is the loss of this institutional memory.

Indeed, love is complicated. And, loss is painful. But, without love, what else is there? And, love without hard work isn’t really love. It’s adoration. Fandom. And, at a neighborhood level, it can amount to seemingly high-school cliquish behavior that serves neither the neighbors nor City well.

In moving, I’m losing a neighborhood that has made me who I am. And, I kind of like that person, today. In spite of my losses – marriage, job, house, neighborhood – I’ll still choose love, every time – practicing it imperfectly, learning as I go.

I’ll take the best parts of my experience in Shaw with me. It will always be my wish that those divided could find the common good in all we seek – even if the chances of that realistically happening in my lifetime are slim. For that kind of dynamic to change, Shaw has to want it. And, someone needs to be left holding out that hope. A group of someones, preferably.

Until then, I look forward to contributing in my new home, where I can. My dog needs a place to play, so there’s a start.

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Gen X Is Still Tired of Everyone’s Crap

A friend of mine wrote a post that has inspired this. He was, I believe, referring to the current sociopolitical tensions, both nationally and locally. His perspective is that of a Baby Boomer, among other things. From his view, the current tensions have much to do with Boomers expecting “obedience,” and Millenials demanding “respect.” My immediate thought was, well, what about Generation X – which happens to be where I fit into the scheme of things? The short answer is, it leaves us where we’re used to being – on our own.

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Bender has always been my favorite.

The actual time period used by demographers to describe Gen X is in dispute. If one goes by strict fertility rates (the reason for the Baby Boomer moniker, in the first place), one would be looking at a time period after 1964. In fact, a majority of the people born between 1961 and 1964 do not self identify as boomers, and have distinct cultural and historical experiences from their older siblings. So, in my non-scholarly opinion, I’m gonna go with the period between 1961 and 1980 – though, even the end period is in dispute.

I was born in 1971, which puts me square in the middle of this time period. Like so many of my generational cohorts, I spent time as a Latchkey Kid. My parents divorced when I was 12 – exactly on their 13th wedding anniversary. That wasn’t planned (they swear!). It was just how the court dates worked out. That particular event put me in the norm of another increasing trend – divorce rates. By 1980, the US divorce rate was 52%; by 1985 it was 50%. So, I went from the oldest of two, in a two-parent, single-income home, to a single-parent home, with mom working doubles at a nearby restaurant, so that she could keep us in the Webster Groves School District, and in a house she really couldn’t afford. It brought forth all sort of insecurities within me, though I’ll cover those topics another time.

As a child, before all Hell broke loose at home, I was interviewed by a local TV station, because of a project our class did, related to the Iran Hostage Crisis. It was a helluva sound bite for a 10-year-old, but then again, I’ve had the gift of sounding good – even when I was a mess on the inside – for as long as I can remember.

I grew up with Reagan as Godhead, Morning In America, the first of many revisits of our role in the Vietnam War, the beginning of Nixon’s reinvention as an elder statesman (News flash: he was still a conniving, manipulative President, who disgraced the office forever – with his lackeys serving political roles up to now. The current White House occupant shares many of his traits, to the tenth power).

My teen years were within one of the most self-centered, self-absorbed decades in history. Spare me your ’80s reminisces. Unless you wore the right clothes and drove the right cars, the ’80s sucked. About the only good thing that came of the 80s was cable – specifically MTV. That stands for Music Television, though you wouldn’t know it, today. Damned Millennials.

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The original, iconic image associated with the channel that changed the music business.

I’m sure much of that perspective was colored by my parents’ divorce. I became nihilistic. Cynical. Disillusioned. Disaffected. Pissed the f— off. Ask my parents. All four of them. They’ll tell you.

Then, things shifted, as they often do. The economy tanked. I went to college. The Berlin Wall fell. The late Nelson Mandela was freed, becoming the first black president of South Africa, representing the African National Congress party. Spike Lee released Do The Right Thing, featuring Public Enemy, and its anthem, “Fight The Power.”

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It’s too easy to poke fun at Flav’s clock. He was the hype man. That was his job. Music and lyrics are what matter.

By the end of high school, the obscure stuff known as “college music” was becoming mainstream, with bands like U2 playing stadiums and R.E.M. signing to a major label. The B-52s had a Top 40 hit, and by college, artists that we would now classify as “indie” were being signed in droves. A handful of the previous generation retained relevance. My top three favorites in this category are: Prince, David Bowie, Neil Young.

And, then, around the same time that the Soviet Union fell, Nirvana happened – bringing with them other rising bands that were often incorrectly grouped together as “grunge,” for the style of clothes that most of us wore, at the time. I was always more “goth” than “grunge,” but these bands spoke to me – with their unapologetic guitars, and wailing voices. Kurt Cobain’s scream was that of a generation that felt lied to. Eddie Vedder sang to every abused child in America, he once joked. And, Soundgarden – one of the most technically proficient, badass bands to come of that era. I am still heartbroken over both Kurt Cobain‘s and Chris Cornell‘s suicides. Where Kurt’s voice was the banshee wail of an untrained singer, Chris’s voice was our answer to Freddie Mercury. I think of that aria, and damn it, I still get goosebumps.

We voted for a President who “smoked, but didn’t inhale.” We learned about his many indiscretions – one of which would land him at the center of an impeachment trial that was really a farce – especially considering the current White House Occupant. We stood with Hillary, when she was indignant about playing the traditional role of First Lady. We winced, by the time she talked about a “vast, right-wing conspiracy.” Once again, we felt let down (Note: she wasn’t wrong about that, as future events would prove such).

I didn’t vote in 2000, and regret it to this day. It is the first time in history that the Supreme Court of the United States decided a Presidential election. And, it never should have happened that way. At the time, I felt it was par for the course, and I wasn’t having any of it.

After 9/11, I questioned everything. And, even further in the runup to Iraq. I wanted us to be the strong actor in an evil world, however, I knew the implications of middle-eastern conflict. I had bought into the conservative lies about Clinton being a weak President, however, I kept questioning the actions of the current administration. And, as more became revealed about the manipulation by Nixonian proteges within Bush 43‘s Presidency, I could no longer stand with things as they were.

This time, I was in an even greater minority, as a professed Christian who voted Democrat. I consider myself such, to this day.

Obama wasn’t the savior that so many of us wanted, but I knew that was going to happen. Our generation has been here, before. The difference is, we went from being flamethrowers to learning how to sustain a fire that burns at all times.

We grew up – at least, theoretically. We got married. Some of us raised kids. Many of us got divorced, ourselves, and in the process  of living life, learned to forgive our parents. We realized there’s no manual for this crap. We learned early that the world wasn’t giving us anything, so we needed to figure it out.

In midlife, our generation is characterized as entrepreneurial, having achieved work-life balance, and happy. I’m not so sure about that last one, but the first two I’ll take. If you have a family, take care of it. Be present, engaged. If you want something, go after it. Make it happen. Create it, if it doesn’t already exist.

Build bridges, where there are none.

And, that leads me back to the original quote that started this whole thing. No doubt, we’re seeing a generational shift. And, Gen X is still sick of everyone’s nonsense. A lot of us are looking at this and saying, “for God’s sake, work this out!”

At the same time, I come back to a favorite line from an old prayer: It is better to understand, than to be understood.

I get why the Boomers want “obedience.” In one sense, they’ve created the rules that work for them, and expect everyone else to play by those rules. In another sense, they’re looking at their own past mistakes, and don’t want to see future generations replay them. We Gen-X’ers are learning that sometimes, it’s okay to listen to them. As we approach midlife, suddenly, “they” aren’t so old.

And, I get why the Millennials demand “respect.” They’re seeing a world they’ve inherited that is pretty messed up, because previous generations – mine included – have kicked the can down the road. Change is not only necessary, it is the only constant in life. So, in this way, I stand with my Millennial siblings (because of remarriage, I’m now the oldest of five) who can’t understand why some of our earlier fights were such a big deal at the time – or why change seems so slow.

Sometimes it feels like we’ve become the adults in the room, trying to put each tribe in their corners, lest the fight do permanent damage. And, sometimes, the hardest and most adult thing to do is let go.

I’ll spend, hopefully, the rest of my life seeking the “wisdom to know the difference.” In the meantime, it remains my goal to be a student of history, an encourager of history makers, and – most importantly – a fierce backer of bridge builders. We need to remember the real enemy – often, ourselves – and stand together, as much as possible. It’s gonna take all hands on deck.

Paul Fehler For 8th Ward Alderman

FeaturedPaul Fehler For 8th Ward Alderman

The upcoming special election in the City of St. Louis’s 8th Ward is a big freaking deal, to state the obvious – and paraphrase Joe Biden, at the same time.

Alderman Stephen Conway, a longtime fixture in city politics (and son of former Mayor Jim Conway) was one of the Board’s most senior members. Whatever anyone’s feelings are about seniority vs. newcomers, that seniority comes with some benefits: institutional memory, a deep understanding of parliamentary procedure, and a working knowledge to get things done.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a change in Board makeup – some newer faces who look at our City’s challenges, and are unafraid to call out imperfections. This, too, is important.

And, based on these value statements, among other things I’ll get to, I am supporting my dear friend and longtime neighbor, Paul Fehler, as the Democratic nominee to replace Ald. Conway. This was not a decision I took lightly, as I have deep respect for the other candidate seeking that nomination. So, rather than go into a comparison/contrast, I want to tell a story about friendship.

I first met Paul through our neighborhood’s former listserv, Shawtalk, when he called out my block for a successful National Night Out party, in 2010. I’d love to take full credit for that, but really, all I did was plant the seed and energize neighbors. They stepped up in ways I didn’t even think of, and made it a success. Good leaders inspire that in others.

I was able to do that, because I listened to the concerns of others, while I was co-block captain. My initial motives were to make the block safer for my ex-wife and me. In the process, I learned of a bitter feud that divided longtime residents, and sensed serious discord. National Night Out was an opportunity to begin that process of righting a fundamental wrong. And, it proved successful. I’ve seen Paul do very similar work, over the years.

After that initial encounter with Paul, he reached out to me privately. Turns out, he was producing a film called The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. That film would become a globally-recognized piece of work, and should be required viewing for anyone who cares at all about St. Louis, urban planning, public housing, racial tensions and public policy.

Paul allowed me to see an unfinished version of the film, and I came away gobsmacked. I went home and wept for my city. I changed how I viewed our city’s troubles. Much to the consternation of well-meaning friends who wanted to do good, but couldn’t see that good requires action, I couldn’t stop talking about it. And, I couldn’t stop focusing my efforts on making my own neighborhood both safe and inclusive. Good communicators inspire that in others.

When I stepped into the role of 1st Vice President, and later President, of the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association, Paul would continue to challenge me in uncomfortable ways. I was heavily invested in the City’s Neighborhood Ownership Model – a good model with systemic challenges that I’ll get into, another time. He would challenge me to not play into others’ fears, in order to recruit neighbors. I didn’t see it that way, at the time, as I saw myself challenging neighbors to quit talking and start doing.

Both of us learned from that experience. And, I watched Paul get involved in neighborhood leadership, as a vice president, and chair of the Safety committee – the very place he was challenging me to do better.

When I took a position with the City of St. Louis, as a Neighborhood Improvement Specialist, Paul and I would meet regularly. He would ask me questions about City processes and operations, and he would offer insights as to flaws within how we were doing things. I, too, considered myself a potential change agent from the inside, and I saw immediately the value in those discussions. It’s critical to understand the rules you want to change, before you change them.

Even now, he’s exhibiting that principle, going directly to members of the Democratic Central Committee on both sides of Delmar, and listening before he talks. Because, that’s always been Paul’s heart.

I know few people in this world with as much thoughtfulness as Paul Fehler – along with the willingness to put those thoughts into action, by building the necessary consensus to get the right things done. It’s what I’ve tried to do – however imperfectly – in my own leadership roles. It’s what I still hope to do, even though I’m no longer a City employee.

My early-childhood roots are in the 8th Ward. My mom and dad lived in a 2-family, on the 4500 block of Flora, when I was a kid. That particular part of Southwest Garden continues to have a special place in my heart – so much so that my ex-wife and I lived across the street, before we bought our house in Shaw – one that we need to sell, because, unfortunately, my professional ambitions came at the expense of my marriage. Not a problem for Paul, Nadia, and Henry. They’re all in.

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Stolen from Nadia’s Facebook page. I’m kinda partial to Henry. So are they.

Again, I very much appreciate and respect the other candidate, who has her own support. I wouldn’t have voted for her as Committeewoman, if I didn’t think she was up for the job. I will not tolerate any divisive or negative comments about either candidate on this blog post, or on my social media profiles. Our neighborhood suffers from enough division, and that breaks my heart more than few know.

All I ask is that you consider my thoughts, along with those of others, and make an informed choice. I’m laying mine on the table, for the ward, for the City, and for a good friend. Here’s a video from the man, himself.

 

 

 

Koan Of Shame

FeaturedKoan Of Shame

I’m a morning person. Sort of. I’ll wake up early, without an alarm, and – once I’ve shaken off the cobwebs I’m moving along. Sometimes, the dog is my alarm clock, and I’m on her bathroom schedule. Either way, I’m up. So, I might as well do something.

Lately, I’ve been working on making the best use of that time. Mostly by being still. Quiet. Doing what I can to get the internal dialogue that’s so often a part of my day to shut the hell up. Sometimes, I’m successful, and other times…well…take recently.

Much of my internal dialogue, the last few weeks, has centered around wanting to throw in the towel – to undo all of the hard work I’ve undergone in the last six months. And, when that dialogue becomes a shouting match, the impact ripples into every facet of my life.

Maybe not shouting, per se. Maybe loud and insistent. Like an intense family meeting, or my dog, when she sees a random creature she doesn’t like. Which is all the time.

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The dog. This is why I could never stay mad at her.

I like to think this isn’t my normal resting place – this deep level of negativity and despair. But, really, it’s the undercurrent that has subconsciously driven much of my life. To sum up…

Calling divorce a humbling experience is like calling being struck with a sword slightly painful.

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The only time I’ll get away with mixing Star Wars with Monty Python. Deal, purists.

I loathe failure. Which puts me in good company. I don’t know too many people who like it. I see all sorts of motivational quotes from famous people who talk about how they learned the most from their failures, and used those incidents to become successful, later on. That sounds peachy.

I wish I could say I look at failure the same way it’s pictured in those shiny motivational posters. Someone screws up, misses the big shot, doesn’t achieve the business goal, fails in relationships – repeatedly, loses their run for the Presidency, because the Electoral College favors less populated states, and 50% of the electorate decided to sit this one out.

Pick one. They all suck.

The posters would have you believe that all those people simply brushed off the dust, got back up, and did it again. And, it’s a lie.

I’m fortunate to be close to some amazingly successful people, and can tell you that, with each failure, was a period of grief. Anger. Bitterness. Self pity. Perhaps to lesser degrees, and for smaller periods of time, but no one is immune from being human.

Feelings may not be facts, but they are, in fact, real.

Lately, it’s become important to trace the feeling back to the internal dialogue that may be causing it. And, that takes a certain amount of internal quietness. Which leads me to mindfulness. And, the study of Zen. And, it hit me that my long-standing internal drama functions as its own koan – and, not in a good way.


The reason I hate failure so much is that I’m rarely kind to me. As much as I want to think I have this instant likability, I don’t like myself too much. If at all. Success becomes the fix that blunts the inner pain, quiets the negative koan. Laughs in its face and flips it the bird. It’s fleeting, temporary, and then, it’s off to the next thing.

Failure is not an option. Which is, to use the vernacular, bullshit.

My hatred of failure, and ultimately, of myself, leads me to make rash choices, react quickly, keep moving. Do not sit. Do not feel. Do not acknowledge how much it hurts. Just. Keep. Going. Dodge the demons. Fake-throw and run.

Watch closely for the fakeout

The thing about demons is they’re persistent. Patient. Crafty little bastards. And, when they finally catch up to me, they’re pissed. I guess if I was part of a pack of howling, shiftless, spawn of Satan, running after some dodgy asshole, I’d be a little miffed, too.

So, there I am, face to face with a child of Beezelbub. I’ve just laughed in his face, given him the finger and made him chase my ass. It’s not much different from when I experienced this in grade school, with real-live bullies. Except, then, I usually got my ass kicked.

This chase scene is rather Benny Hill-ish – except not bawdy or humorous.  So, maybe, not at all like Benny Hill (I just wanted to get Yakety Sax stuck in your head. Have I succeeded? Good.).

And, it’s an illusion.

First off, the wiry little fucker is only in my head. A figment of my overactive imagination. The culmination of years and years of bad thinking, picked up from a multitude of sources – each with their own set of broken agendas.

This particular lying asshole demon wants me to believe I’ll never succeed. Never get what I want. Or, it would have me believe that I’m an impostor. That any success is fake. Ready to be snatched from me at any instant.

Any screw up is merely confirmation.


The first time I confronted this, in any healthy way, my therapist told me I needed to re-frame my concept of failure. Instead, I needed to look at what I learned in the experience. And, I needed to practice self compassion. He challenged me to call out the negative thoughts as harsh. Because, they are. And, he challenged me to ask the question about the source of the thought. From where, exactly, is it coming? Why would I possibly think such a thing?

In so doing, I have just made the unconscious conscious. I’m staring that son-of-a-bitch demon in his beady eyes, ready to throw the first punch.*

Jung

Right now, I’m scratching the surface – becoming aware of tiny acts of self-sabotage, in which I engage almost daily. I’m realizing that, when such a thing happens, my subconscious is screaming for help. And, this time, it’s a true scream.

Which gets me back to my study of Zen and mindfulness. A true koan forces us to examine our perception of things, abandon ultimate dependence on reason, and connect to intuitive enlightenment. I’m nowhere near there. I’m still learning how to be – to breathe in and out, and let the waterfall of thoughts simply be. Don’t try to control them, stop them or force them out. Let them be.**

Lately, that’s been more difficult. The thoughts and the feelings are strong. Fierce self hatred is so ingrained, and people fail my expectations regularly. But, every time I breathe in and out, every time I sit down and articulate things, I’m throwing a punch at that scaly, worthless demon. With enough practice, I connect. Connect enough times, and the bastard goes down. He might get up again, but I’ll be ready.

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Mama said, “Knock you out!”

*Most modern-day therapists would say the unconscious mind is not the enemy. This is a departure from Freud, who called it a storehouse of repressed thought. And, it’s a shift from those would treat the unconscious mind as a superhighway to achievement – then wonder why the constant barrage of positive affirmations aren’t working. The above links are to the same article, which gives the unconscious mind the proper respect it’s due.

**I identify as Christian, which I may discuss in later postings. The concept of Zen meditation does not conflict, at all, with the teachings of Christ. For more on this, I highly recommend Christian Zen, by William Johnston – a Jesuit priest, serving in Japan on the heels of the Second Vatican Council. Also, this app has been immensely helpful.

We’ve gotta do it for the (fur) kids

Yesterday morning, I received a phone call from my dad, who has been amazingly helpful to me, monetarily and otherwise, while I pick up the pieces of my past life, and prepare to start anew. So much so, that he has power of attorney over my legal and financial matters. He had three things he needed me to do, yesterday, as part of that process. One of those items included finding a place for all of our animals. My ex is currently taking care of the dog, but that has limits, due to her apartment. I’m staying elsewhere, while a crew of family from both sides is getting the house ready for market. Instantly, I thought of the possibility that our cats could end up in a shelter – which is an inevitable death sentence.

As ugly as our divorce has been, and as angry as we’ve been at one another – for lots of reasons – our views on animals are one of the things we have in common. And, the thought of sending any of them off to die, simply because we weren’t providing the best home…well, that’s just unconscionable for both of us.

Immediately, I went to work, contacting friends in the rescue community, coworkers who also happen to be big animal lovers, and a post on Facebook, looking for assistance. And, I assured my ex that I would do whatever I could to keep them out of a shelter. She, of course, knew I would. Within minutes, I found someone who can care for the dog, while I get settled – which takes a huge burden off my ex, and allows her to take in a couple of the cats. We’re still working on getting one cat re-homed – and she’s our biggest challenge.

Our stance on re-homing has been influenced by two things; 1) Our work in animal rescue (Nikki volunteers for a local cat fostering organization, and I often work with residents over animal-related issues). 2) Several years ago, we took a cat back to the APA, who was having all sorts of issues peeing everywhere. We tried everything we could think of, and nothing was working. I was the one who talked my ex into dropping the cat off at the APA. It’s a decision both of us regret, to this day – especially after we figured out what may have caused her problem.

The cat was declawed (something we are now dead-set against). For non-cat people, think of it like this: declawing is the equivalent of chopping off your fingers at the knuckle. If done correctly, the long-term consequences are minimal – especially, if they’re indoor cats. If done at too young an age, the consequences can mean constant pain for the cat. In other words, regular litter was causing her pain. We found this out, a few years after we had made that decision to drop the cat off at the shelter. And, we could have handled it differently. We sent her off to die over something that could be fairly easily remedied, by using different litter (think of shredded paper, rather than sand). I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life, and I wasn’t about to add another bad decision to the list.

Both of us grew up with animals, but when we were dating, I had none. She had two cats: Stella and Missy (short for Mistletoe, because she was adopted around Christmas). Missy – the tortie we ended up taking back to the APA, bonded with me right away. Stella took a while, but I remember the moment she climbed in our bed and sat down on my chest. Her cats were now our cats. For the first three years of our marriage, we were a two-cat household. Within a month or so of giving up Missy, we ended up with Leah, after someone from Nikki’s work posted a message about needing to find homes for a litter of kittens. Both of us fell in love with the spunky calico kitten, and she quickly attempted to assert herself as the boss of the house – much to Stella’s consternation (she doth protest too much, anyway). Eventually, they began to tolerate one another…and, then, we bought a house.

Within a week or so of moving in, one of Nikki’s friends asked if we could take in her Russian Blue mix. “Sure,” we said. We have a house, now. We’re set up for a third cat. This didn’t sit well with the other two, but that’s normal, and eventually, it passes. Usually, that’s how it works. Her former (and, now current) guardian named her Graysee, ’cause she’s gray…see? We kept the name as it fit her personality, and she bonded with us right away. Again, we figured the situation would sort itself out, just as it did between Stella and Leah.

Then, along came Rocco. He showed up on our back porch, and we realized he was domesticated. Later, we found out that our neighbors across the alley had taken him in, and put the word out that he needed a home. With no takers, they turned him loose, and because we’re suckers, he became Number Four. And, that seemed to traumatize Leah. We tried different remedies, but none seemed to work, and so she became isolated. It’s not a life that any cat deserves, and when we were faced with re-homing cats, as part of the divorce, we knew she would be our greatest challenge.

Thankfully, we don’t have any human children in the middle of this mess. Though, I think it’s fair to say that both of us grieve that we either couldn’t afford, or weren’t able to have kids. We poured our energies into the fur babies. At one point, we had seven cats and a dog. Did I mention we’re suckers?

And, then, we separated. And, then, Nikki decided she didn’t want to be married to me, anymore. To be fair, I was miserable, too. And, our divorce is for the best. But, that decision meant making some other tough decisions – such as which cats to keep and which ones to re-home. Within short order, we were able to re-home three of the cats. And, while we’re sad about that, we know they’re in good hands with their new guardians. Deciding who would get which animal was actually a very easy process. Nikki knew she wasn’t going to be set up for taking care of a dog, and I was going to take one of the cats. That still left our beautiful, but incredibly frightened calico – who really needs to be the only animal in a house.

Today’s coordination of efforts required my ex and I to work together on a set of solutions. We’re still figuring out what to do with Leah. I’m sorting through a couple of options to, possibly, get her in a better place mentally – which might allow me to take her. And, regardless, re-training our 66-pound bull in a china shop has to be a priority.

For today, the two of us were able to set aside all the garbage we’ve put each other through, and work on what’s best for our fur kids. It’s not unlike what divorced parents try to do with their human kids. All I could think about was how much it would break both of our hearts to put any of our animals in a shelter. Our hearts are broken enough, already. And, it made me reconsider some of my apprehension about letting Nikki have a key to wherever I end up, so that she can see Lola whenever she wants (provided she messages, first).

I’ve been so caught up in my own pain, and so angry over the battle between the attorneys (an absolute waste of time and money), that I couldn’t consider my ex’s pain. Our common love for the animals changed that – at least, for today.

The fact is, Nikki and I will always love one another, even if we made a horrible couple. Today, my grief is less about the loss of my wife, and more about how we got here. I think about the years wasted, when we could have been with better partners. I think about how both of us deserved better. We made a sincere effort, but at the end of the day, it simply wasn’t meant to be. And, frankly, I’m tired of being angry and resentful. I’m tired of feeling bitter. I’m. Just. Tired.

And, thankful. Both of us are compassionate animal rescuers, and it’s been the one place where we’ve been able to keep a united front. So, I’m working on letting go and moving on. Hopefully, so is she. Because, we’ve gotta do it for the (fur) kids.

Brokedown Palace: Confronting Prejudice, And Finding Solace In Loss Through Music

Brokedown Palace: Confronting Prejudice, And Finding Solace In Loss Through Music

Fare you well, my honey. Fare you well, my only true one. All the birds that were singing, are flown, except you alone. (Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter)

If my brother-in-law ever reads this, he would find it rather amusing that I’ve referenced what was once one of his favorite bands. He was, for all intents and purposes, a Deadhead. One of my favorite stories he told me was about running into Jerry at The Grind. Some of us are old enough to remember the place, in its original Maryland Plaza location. These days, Maryland Plaza is the picture-perfect representation of gentrification. Back then, it was still a bit bohemian, a little rough around some of the edges as you got east of Newstead, but a wonderful place for a bunch of crazy college kids to hang out and escape suburbia.

Back then, I was “too cool” for The Dead – largely due to the caricatured representation of its fans – especially during their high point in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when people started to deify Jerry – something that really frustrated the band.

One of our greatest flaws as humans, is that we allow our prejudices to close us off – whether that’s artistic elitism or the fear of people who don’t look, act, or worship like we do.

Bob Weir has become one of my top five favorite guitarists. The man plays rhythm guitar like a jazz pianist – and that was very intentional, as he studied Bill Evans (Miles Davis’s pianist) and McCoy Tyner (John Coltrane’s pianist). He had me there. The Cool period of Jazz is my absolute favorite. His fans include Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth and the members of The National.

From a technical standpoint, their Wall Of Sound remains one of most innovative PA systems created, and was the model for current line-array systems – allowing the music to sound GOOD and LOUD.

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One of their tech crew went on to head up audio post-production for Skywalker Sound. Dennis “Wizard” Leonard has made many of your favorite movies sound as phenomenal as they look. He was in charge of the live-to-recording mix of Europe ’72.

As per usual, I’ve gone fanboy and digressed.

Lately, I’ve found such great comfort and catharsis in the lyrics – and so much damned respect for each of the band members as musicians (all without the assistance of psychedelics).

“A lot of Garcia’s music was about death. That’s an appeal of the man that you have to discover over time. You don’t see it, immediately, because of the way he presents – historically – as this sort of big, happy hippie icon. You get to know, as you listen to the music, that actually, he’s a deliverer of dark news, you know. And, that’s when you begin to really take him seriously.”Nick Paumgarten from the docu-series Long Strange Trip

As I’ve said before, many people listen to music simply for background noise, or to keep the party going, etc. And, there’s a place for that – one, of which, I need to be mindful. But, my relationship to music has been so much deeper. I’m told that obsession was such for me, long before I could remember it.

My earliest memory is crawling and bumping into one of my dad’s Bose 901 Series II speakers – part of his own elaborate sound system. When I was eight, he began to trust me with the big-boy toys. He taught me how to set recording levels, and I learned my first lesson about being careful with high-end gear, when I damaged the diamond stylus on his Technics SL-1100 turntable – released the year of my birth and predecessor to the legendary SL-1200 series, which became the professional standard for radio and club DJ’s alike. It was recently resurrected by Technics and costs thousands, today.

And, because he has an engineer’s mind about EVERYTHING, my dad taught his eight-year-old about signal paths. Which switch did what. Which cable connected to which device. I became a natural troubleshooter, so it should be no surprise that I spent several years producing commercials and running live sound. I owe you for that, Pop.

In short, music was my first escape mechanism, my first love, a career path, and my current therapist. My favorite artists tend to have a bit of a dark side to their writing, and as such, I’ve been able to jump into the fire, so to speak (inadvertent Harry Nilsson reference, but I’ll leave it). So, whether it’s an obsession with Radiohead‘s discography, starting with Kid A, Dave Matthews Band’s Before These Crowded Streets, The Dead’s version of Morning Dew from Europe ’72, just about anything from Nine Inch Nails, or Pink Floyd’s The Wall – all of it has served a purpose. It’s been a way for me to face my own demons, grieve them, and move on, one step at a time.

For any Pink Floyd fans, I highly recommend Roger Waters’ recent documentary on his three-year tour performing The Wall. The man is 72 years old, worth a quarter of a billion dollars, even after four divorces, and he is still grieving the death of his father in WWII. Call it the universal human condition, if you will.

Today, I face the prospect of losing everything – as if losing my wife to divorce wasn’t enough. I’ll be involved in some practical measures to put me back on a path to healthy coping skills, but to be honest, I don’t hold much hope of gaining any kind of meaningful life back. Much of that is the consequence of my own bad decisions, and unhealthy behavior. And, while it’s important to own that, the consequences aren’t any easier. And, the hope of rebuilding isn’t there. I’m leaning on the only people in this world that I have ever been able to trust – my family. I’m leaning on their hope for me, because it’s all I can do, right now. And, in the meantime, I grieve. And, I trust the music to be there for me.

“Going to leave this brokedown palace, On my hand and knees, i will roll, roll, roll. Make myself a bed in the waterside, In my time, i will roll, roll roll.” (Garcia/Hunter)

Isn’t this where we came in?

Isn’t this where we came in?

The difficulties of extenuating life circumstances, a need to process deep-seated pain, a comment thread on a Facebook post, and a several-weeks-long obsession with Roger Waters’s recent documentary on his three-year world tour.

It’s funny how seemingly unrelated events can connect. A quick preface…

The last six months have been full of both upheaval and stasis – none of which is happening at the most opportune times. When I want things to stay static for a moment, they change. When I want things to move forward, I get another roadblock. Rinse, repeat.

My wife of ten years and I are getting divorced. I won’t comment on details, as the legal proceedings are – for better or worse – still pending. It’s in the attorneys’ hands, now, so let the continuances…well…continue.

And, we still have a house to sell.

In that time, I’ve gone through the five stages of grief numerous times. And, I’ve gone from committing to turning the ship around to just wanting to set fire to the damned thing and jump.

The first is impossible. It’s among the most humbling of moments to read a legal document, in which a standard line states that “the marriage is irretrievably broken.” Sadly, no truer words have ever been written, concerning our predicament. It’s probably the one thing, on which, both of us agree.

The second is irresponsible and unhealthy. Which, leaves the third option: do what’s in front of me, in as much time as it takes.

I could get into all sorts of reasons why this frustrates the living shit out of me, but it wouldn’t be prudent, right now.

All I know is, recently, I found myself at a point of despair similar to where I was, emotionally, when all Hell broke loose in September. The ninth, actually – our ten-year anniversary. Thus, my several-week obsession with Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and specifically, the role bassist and songwriter Roger Waters played in its conception.

 When Syd Barrett went schizophrenic and was unable to continue as front man for Pink Floyd, Waters stepped in as chief songwriter. He was the band’s intellectual – a tortured soul, who channeled that angst into broader commentary on mental illness, politics, the music industry, authoritarianism, and – finally – his own damn demons.

Some people look to music to get them out of a specific mood, make them feel better, etc. I don’t. I’m in it for the catharsis, and it was clear I had some of my own damn demons to exorcise.

In the midst of this phase, I posted an article on Facebook, concerning a young, incendiary, conservative host who was suspended from her job.

What stayed with me was an off-tangent conversation I ended up having, related to the comment I wrote along with the post. I wrote, “Be nice to people on your way up. You may need them on your way down.” An old classmate – someone, with whom, I don’t interact regularly – responded. He agreed with the sentiment, then apologized for an incident that took place in 7th grade. He had tripped me, apparently, while I was holding a huge stack of books and supplies. I say “apparently,” because I don’t remember it. I assured him there were no hard feelings. And, truly, there weren’t. Kids are mean and stupid. Myself included. Most of us outgrow our childish behavior, and some don’t. Or, don’t outgrow all of it. Again, myself included.

But, because I am the kind of person that can over-analyze a plate of food, I asked myself why. Why didn’t I remember the incident? The likeliest reason: 7th grade was part of a year that included other deeply traumatic events. It was bad enough that I was in a new school, with new people to make fun of me, because of how I walked (the product of a mild form of Cerebral Palsy) or talked (the product of a precocious childhood, surrounded by adults, and a well-above-average reading comprehension level). It was even worse that I was one of the working-class kids from Rock Hill, all of a sudden surrounded by the old money of South Webster Groves. Money and status were important to me, at the time, and dad had made it clear that we were on our way up…until October 1983.

That was when my parents announced their divorce. My dad was both my hero and champion; home was safe. Irrational as it was, I was afraid I wouldn’t see him again. Also, he was the sole breadwinner. I’m sure you can figure out the very real impact that had on my day-to-day life. Really, though, this isn’t about a decision my parents made, especially now that I find myself in a similar boat. This is about how I coped with it – or didn’t. How I internalized horrible beliefs and attitudes about myself, and the world around me.

At the time, I convinced myself and others that, really, I was fine. I wish I had been more honest.

I responded, in part, by comparing myself to others who I thought were worse off – so that I could feel better. I became less invested in studies and more invested in being liked. Or, at least, not hated. And, I built my own wall – only to have it become my eventual, and repeated undoing.

After decades of unhealthy coping mechanisms, followed by occasional fits of growth, I realized that I was capable of being that right combination of witty, charming, intelligent, personable.

I learned that I was capable of casting vision, coming up with a plan, and sticking to it – while allowing some of that plan to change, if needed.

I learned that I could persevere, no matter how bad it felt, and how many times I wanted to throw in the towel.

I learned to do what I love and love what I do. And, I learned that there are any number of things I can do – both vocationally and as hobbies – that fulfill my core passions of art and activism.

Slowly, I am learning to be okay with me.

Every once in a while, however, I get hit with a curve ball. Someone says or does something critical of me – especially in a public or semi-public forum – and immediately, I’m that kid who would get humiliated in public on a daily basis. It’s confirmation of my worst fear: that I am not worthy of being valued, liked, accepted, loved. That I am an impostor, and my success can be snatched up at any given moment.

And, while those new incidents take me back to a familiar place, the lessons to learn are new. The first having to do with holding seemingly contradictory beliefs in tension. It’s possible for an incident to feel very familiar, and in parallel, recognize that it is not the same. At least, that’s what my therapist said. I’m told that this tension of beliefs is a critical first step to breaking the familiar narrative – one that keeps me in the role of victim and justifies any number of bad decisions.

The second lesson deals with my unconscious beliefs about safety, security and trust. They developed before my parents’ marriage blew apart, and shaped my reaction. Today, those unconscious beliefs continue to shape decisions – good and bad. The more I’m able to make the unconscious behavior conscious, however, the better off I am in the long run.

As part of my quest for safety, security and contentment, I still look for hope in the external. And, that isn’t necessarily bad. But, externals can change in an instant. Frankly, it pisses me off that these things come from within. Historically, I haven’t had the faith that I could pull off such a feat.

Every once in a while, any number of my well-meaning friends who share the same faith as me point out that I should seek hope in the eternal. While those individuals are correct, I still want to punch them.

I’m overdue for another reading of the book of Job.

What I do know is that the last 40-something years of operating the same way haven’t worked.

Six months ago, I came up with a plan – much of which is on hold until the divorce is final. But, this – writing – is part of that plan. I have no expectation as to where it would take me. Only the goal that I would improve over time. For me, that’s huge.

And, it’s confirmation that the best thing I can do, today, is stick to the plan, do what’s in front of me, and keep things moving – at whatever pace I can. To never sacrifice direction for speed ever again.

I’ll never slay my demons – not permanently. I don’t think that’s really possible. But, I can rise above them, day by day. And, sometimes, it’s important to protect myself from their intrusion.

I just need to be careful that the wall I build doesn’t close me in or swallow me whole, so I can still deal with the difficulties of extenuating life circumstances…