For, what seemed like the five-billionth time in my life, I was on the phone with my father, the successful businessman, asking him to help me out of a jam of my own making. I was in my 324-square-foot studio in St. Louis’s Midtown, while he was on his 50′ yacht, with my stepmom, in Key West.

“I don’t even know what to ask you, anymore, because you’re very selective with what information you give me,” he said, the tone of his voice going from pleasant to exasperated in about the time it takes a speeding driver to go from 80 to 55, upon seeing a traffic officer.

I won’t get into all of it, because it’s standard stuff – frustrated father lecturing his kid. I’ll only say that I got what I needed, financially from him – as seems to always happen. But, at what cost?

They say that both failure and rejection are a part of life…whoever the heck “they” might happen to be. “They” haven’t lived MY life, wherein such events happen on the regular. Failure and rejection have, in fact, defined my life – and, continue to do so, despite my best efforts to rewrite the story.

And, with every closed door, every “no,” and every avoidance by others (I believe the kids call it “ghosting“) – with every conversation that starts off with “you’re so good at this, but…”

Every time I’m faced with acknowledging how much I fail at life, the feelings of unworthiness only grow. And, that’s where a drink seems like a good idea – only because I haven’t found a foolproof way to painlessly and successfully end it all.

Sometimes, I feel like I would be relieving those close to me of a heartbreaking burden. No more would my failures exasperate them, no more would anyone question what could have been done differently. No more would anyone wonder how it is that I could be destined to a life of futility.

Even then, the chances of acting on any thoughts are slim, if for no other reason than this: given my track record, the thought that I would end it all properly is wishful thinking. I’d probably fail at that, too, and do so in such a way that the consequence would make my pathetic life even worse.

And, that’s why escape through substances always seemed like the best way forward. Depending on one’s perspective, it’s either a good or bad thing that I am so broke, I have no money, with which, I could purchase alcohol. This, more than anything, has saved me, over the last six months, as I’ve struggled to pay for a 324-square-foot studio with the well-below-livable wage that I’m paid, at a menial job.

I am unemployable, anywhere else.

The Christian faith teaches that those who don’t believe Jesus is God – and/or those who do, but who don’t submit their wills and lives to Him – are destined to be separated from God, forever . In eschatology, this eternal separation is referred to as The Doctrine of Hell. In Evangelical circles, this has become the primary sales pitch for becoming a Christian. All over America, there are thousands of awkward conversations going on, right now, wherein some well-meaning believer, is trying to sell some well-meaning non-believer, that they’re gonna go to Hell. And, that’s why they need Jesus.

I’m living out mine, right now – the unholy culmination of bad decisions, traumatic experiences, and dysfunctional support networks. I don’t disagree with the concept of eternal separation, or in the twin doctrines of grace and mercy. I just don’t think “fire insurance” is the most important reason for me to believe in Christ, and submit to the will of God.

What I would argue, is that the most important thing a broken human can hear is that God loves them. No matter what.

No matter how many times one gets into financial trouble, or falls into addictive behaviors, or gets rejected by another broken human being – or no matter how many times we allow our hurt and pain to negatively impact the lives of others, through our own hurtful actions.

This is a love beyond anything we can imagine as humans. Those closest to my situation, who have witnessed my decades of travails, have shown an incredible level of grace and mercy – along with the very human emotions of anger and frustration. I would imagine that most people see me as someone to pity, rather than admire or respect. Or love.

Which, ultimately, is why I would rather not be here. In the end, I stay because it’s not my place to check out. That, I guess, is me – quite literally – submitting my will and life to God.

And, that must seem insane to anyone reading this, who has read how I feel. I wouldn’t disagree totally. I would only say that such a submission has produced some good things, too: more authentic relationships with friends and family, a continued friendship with my ex-wife – a woman I hurt deeply over an 11-year period, and who deserved much better in a husband. I have a boss who believes in my ability to change attitude, outlook and behavior, such that I can become a better person, and a better leader. He’s seen me remain teachable, and that I attribute to submitting one’s will.

I get to serve with a group of creative and technically-minded folks at my church. I’ve never had so much fun doing something I love, while pushing – each time in the booth – to learn one more new thing, get better at one more element, to give my very best.

And, I have a handful of friends – people, with whom, I can be honest, who love me for my imperfections and hold me accountable for changing my behavior.

“I would miss you,” one of them said to me, recently, “you’re one of the most intelligent people I know. We’re able to have discussions about anything. And, you can write. I can tell that you’re focused on using the exact word.”

If I were putting the good and the bad down on a list, I’m not certain the good would outweigh the bad, right now. And, I don’t have a ton of hope that things will change. This morning, I’ll clock in at my low-paying job, and deal with some of the most high-maintenance customers I have ever encountered in my life. I’ll do my best to lead and coach a group of coworkers, and serve our guests in a way that’s memorably good. Tonight, I’ll go to a meeting, to which, I’m committed, and find someone who can cover my weekend commitment, related to tonight’s group meeting. Because work.

Today, I’ll block out some hours in several days, over a week in November, so I can pick up several hundred dollars worth of work in what’s becoming a second job. Today, I’ll have to deal with more BS, related to my poor financial situations. And, I will go to bed alone, tonight; the dog will eventually make her way to her own bed.

And, today, I just might pray that something changes drastically. Because, if this is as good as it gets, I can’t accept it. I simply won’t.


When it’s just not working, anymore

A couple of weeks ago, I walked out of my apartment building, headed to a training event for my church’s new building – an opportunity to get involved in AV/Tech in a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility.

My car was gone.

While it briefly flashed through my head that it might have been stolen, deep down I knew better. First and foremost, like most mid-level and up cars built from Y2K forward, my VW has an immobilizer system. It’s gotten harder to just flat break into cars, these days (which is one of the reasons we’re seeing an increase in carjackings).

Second, I knew my parking tickets were accumulating – at this point, almost daily. Ever since I moved into my new apartment, I struggled to make the numbers work. I thought I had budgeted correctly. I thought I had given myself margin. When it became apparent that I was going to be playing catchup, I thought I could do it successfully. I chose to ignore the tickets, knowing I did so at my own peril. The final cost to address those consequences will be enough to threaten my living arrangements.

I swore I wouldn’t let myself get here, again. And, in doing so, one more time, I found myself at an emotional low equal to last year, when my ex wife filed for divorce, hired a ruthless attorney (knowing I would eventually be footing the bill), and refused to do anything to assist me in getting our house ready for sale. In the midst of all this, I reconnected with an old acquaintance, in what became an attempt to move on to my next chapter. It ended horribly, in the most passive-aggressive, mean-girl fashion one can imagine, and once again, I was the grade school kid who was bodyslammed on the pavement, in front of my mother – who was waiting to pick me up. I was the seventh-grader, who was tripped by a classmate, at the suggestion of someone else. I was the kid who was mocked for just about anything and everything imaginable.

I get flashes of this insecure feeling, whenever I deal with a rude customer at my current job – which just so happens to be in those same stomping grounds – a sought-after suburb that has been the subject of numerous national profiles, for its so-called image of Americana. In reality, much of it is populated with a particularly self-impressed, entitled bunch, who don’t have near the amount of wealth they want you to believe they do. I know rich people. They don’t act like this. In fact, if my financially successful father ever got wind that one of his kids was acting like this, we’d be summarily called out. Which is as it should be.

I got flashes of this, toward the end of my time in Shaw – an equally self-impressed bunch, with that irascible combination of privilege and self-righteousness. I’ll call them “Woke Rich.” They’re perfectly comfortable telling you to check your privilege – while sitting in a half-million-dollar house, on a street with private security.

Mind you, I have zero problem with wealth. I’ve benefited from access to said wealth. More times than I care to admit, since it was often the result of me getting myself in a jam. My problems are with entitlement and hypocrisy. But, are those really the root of my problems with the so-called “beautiful people” – the “cool kids”?

Or am I still wounded from my childhood traumas, of which there were many?

Probably both, and truthfully, more of the latter than I want to confess. Because, more than the physical pain I endured at the hands of others, what I dread most is humiliation – especially in public.

Because, I couldn’t handle these things with an equal amount of physical measure, I learned to channel that anger toward my mistreatment in a written voice that was equal parts authoritative and acerbic. I learned I could cut people to the core in an argument. But, more often, I took it out on things – destroying books, CDs, stereo equipment, flat-screen TVs, kitchen windows, drywall. I angry drove. I stuffed my emotions to a breaking point, then exploded, regardless of who might be around.

Sometimes, I still do these things. And, while my more glaring behaviors are no more, it is clear that a life full of resentment only leads to futility and unhappiness. And, for me, it will eventually lead to self-destructive behavior – which I can no longer afford.

The full catalogue of those resentments, and the motivations behind them, became perfectly clear, some time ago. The tools to address them, became things I would start to put into practice, with some success. And, yet, here I am, dealing with the consequences of impulsive decision making, and reactions based in anger. I am, at once, clearing away the wreckage of my past, while dealing with the continued mistakes of the present.

And, it is painfully clear that my old ways of coping simply won’t work. If that is my one takeaway – two months shy of (yet another) one year of sobriety – then, so be it. Some of us are sicker than others. And, I am grateful that my ACA-subsidized health insurance allows me access to good psychiatrists, psychologists, and any necessary medicines – with minimal copays…actually, none, when it comes to the meds I need.

In his first sermon in my church’s new building, my pastor put it this way: “you can’t build a new building over old junk.” Another writer, whom I deeply respect, put it similarly: “Have we tried to make mortar without sand?”

Am I willing to discard my old junk? Doing so, is going to mean involving other people – including and especially mental health professionals. Doing so – for me – is going to mean dependence on some power greater than my own. This is more than esoteric tilting at windmills. Because, if I was so capable of willing my behavior away, I would have done it already.

Honestly, I don’t have much hope that doing these things will result in the abundant life that others tell me is possible. I only know that the alternative is continuing in my current perception of reality – which will only result in further heartache, bitterness and pain.

Today, the best I can do is believe that others believe. And, take action accordingly – which means going after the community I crave. If I’ve done any one thing correctly, over these last ten months, it’s been exactly that. And, I believe that they believe it’ll work.


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.

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.

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.




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.


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)