Acrobat (Songs for Amanda #5)

friendsonbeach

. . . don’t let the bastards grind you down.

~ U2, “Acrobat” – 1991

A Facebook comment, if we are open and willing to receive, can be a tiny epiphany, a “sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something.”  To some, an epiphany is “a revelatory manifestation of a divine being.”  Or, to put less of a spiritual twist on it, “a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization.”

Pick whichever definition you prefer, for all are applicable depending on your chosen perspective.

I choose All of the Above.

Let’s begin with Amanda.  We recently crossed paths on the wall of a fellow friend who is contemplating giving up cigarettes.  Again.  Long-time readers know I can relate to that repetitive and infuriating grind.  She wrote, “Not smoking won’t ever limit what you can do, it will simply give you something that you can regress to in a weakened state.”  Wise and holy counsel, that.

Since giving up Camel Turkish Silvers 428 days ago, I’ve treaded where weakness lurks.  Felt that tightening in my neck and heard the accompanying sirens.

One won’t kill you.

I sat in my car.  Smacked the pack with a series of satisfying slaps sharply against the center of my steering wheel and unwrapped the packaging.  Even pulled one out and smelled it.  Deeply.  My fingers never even trembled.  And then, though I’ve never heard it before, I listened to Amanda’s voice.  Quiet, yet laced with grit and fire.

Don’t.

I didn’t.

She sent me a video recently.  Amanda, keeping her end of the bargain that began this series.  I watched it and wept.  And laughed.  And contemplated what it really means to go to the ends of the earth for a friend.

Or, the end of the blogosphere.  That’s where my friend Mark went.  After I asked on Facebook, with tongue tentatively planted in my cheek, whether I should continue to blog, he wrote the following on my wall:

markfacebook

And then he wrote a post about me: “He’s helped me learn that there are people out there who have lived entirely different lives than I have, yet we are all connected in our desire to love and be loved. He’s forced me to stop settling for gimicky rhetoric and fill everything I write with soul.”

My wife had to give me a hand off the roof after that.

True friends call bullshit.  They also call you on the phone.  Mark has done both.  And so here I am.  Blogging.  Maybe that in and of itself is a beautiful thing.

I mentioned it earlier, but it bears repeating: I have been smoke-free for 428 days.

The other night, as I wondered numb and sleepy out to my car, a friend called my name.  She’s a smoker.  So was the person she stood chatting with.  They were puffing away, and I didn’t even notice.  An epiphany of sorts . . .

This November marks the 20th anniversary of U2’s Achtung Baby.  All that chopping down of the Joshua Tree made me believe again.  And the song that resonated with me then, and perhaps does so even more today, is “Acrobat.”  Ironically, it’s the one song from the album that U2 have seldom performed live, perhaps because, as Edge writes, it is “slightly snarling and cynical . . . I don’t think that is what people come to U2 for.”  Bono admits it is “a song about your own spleen, your own hypocrisy, your own ability to change shape and take on the colours of whatever environment you’re in, like a chameleon.” Amidst songs brimming with “dark romance,” this song slithered straight into my heart and buried its mischievous teeth.  As Edge sums up, “We were always suspicious of irony, hiding behind a wink, clever-clever lyrics at the expense of soul . . . But, in retrospect, I think we followed that idea through to the end and actually discovered that irony is not necessarily the enemy of the soul.”

Irony.

I spent many years, in myriad arenas of life, pretending to be something I wasn’t.  Among “friends.” In church after church after church.  In school and at work.  And I am not proud to admit that I sometimes still do.  It’s easy, after all.  To appear to have it all together, damn the cost.  To perform as one who has performed forever and with little effort, and yet to cringe somewhere deep inside with every pantomimed movement or every parroted word.  Living this way is hard.  Sometimes necessary.  Seldom rewarding.  Always an end-run around the truth.

The remedy?  Not letting the bastards grind you down . . .

Don’t believe what you hear
Don’t believe what you see
If you just close your eyes
You can feel the enemy

When I first met you girl
You had fire in your soul
What happened your face
Of melting snow?
Now it looks like this!

And you can swallow
Or you can spit
You can throw it up
Or choke on it
And you can dream
So dream out loud
You know that your time is coming ’round
. . . don’t let the bastards grind you down

No nothing makes sense
Nothing seems to fit
I know you’d hit out
If you only knew who to hit

And I’d join the movement
If there was one I could believe in
Yeah I’d break bread and wine
If there was a church I could receive in
‘Cos I need it now

To take the cup
To fill it up
To drink it slow
I can’t let you go

And I must be
An acrobat
To talk like this
And act like that
And you can dream
So dream out loud
. . . don’t let the bastards grind you down

What are we going to do now it’s all been said?
No new ideas in the house, and every book has been read

And I must be
An acrobat
To talk like this
And act like that
And you can dream
So dream out loud
And you can find
Your own way out
And you can build
And I can will
And you can call
I can’t wait until
You can stash
And you can seize
In dreams begin
Responsibilities
And I can love
And I can love
I know that the tide is turning ’round
. . . don’t let the bastards grind you down

This post marks the end of the “Songs for Amanda” series and the beginning of new things yet conceived, so I want to mark this occasion with a giveaway.  As has become obvious during this series, I am a big fan of U2.  They have influenced me in ways innumerable, informing my heart and soul at nearly every turn.  To enter, just leave a comment telling me who/what/where/when has had that kind of impact on you.

Who “moves” you?

What touches your soul?

Whose voice do you hear cheering you on when you feel weak?

Where are you when you feel like you can conquer the world?

Which book is dog-eared and highlighted with hope?

Think about it.  Then take a moment or two and share with me what helps you keep it real.  I’ll appreciate and honor this glimpse into your soul.

Next Monday, September 5th, at 6:00PM Eastern, I will randomly pick one winner who will receive a stud (don’t laugh) tape (actually, a CD, since tape is, well, obsolete) of some of my favorite songs.  Not just U2, but a wide variety of songs spanning the decades.  I’ll also include a personalized set of liner notes, detailing how each song has influenced me.  The cool thing?  I haven’t even made the CD yet, so it will be tailored to you, Dear Reader.  I could just make a playlist and post it somewhere like Spotify.  But I roll old school.  And it’s a gift for a friend.  You’re worth it.

I’m looking forward to hearing your heart.  And I’m sort of looking forward to blogging again.  So there’s that . . .

Winking smile

[Flickr photo is by Vinoth Chander and is protected]

New York (Songs for Amanda #4 – The BlogHer Would’ve Edition)

Still, I’m staying on to figure out my mid-life crisis . . .

~ U2, “New York”, 2000

BlogHer. Sooo last weekend, right?

Indeed. Such is my life as-of-late, always running late. I make it to work on time, however, so there’s that. But publishing posts about quitting and U2 and those sorts of things? I’m as timely as a leisure suit during Eighties Week.

But let it never be said that I am one to let my lack of punctuality – or, rather, my knack for not being Johnny-on-the-hip-spot – hold me back. I’ll say what I want, when I want to say it, and not one single, solitary minute sooner.

Some things need to percolate . . .

So, BlogHer. I didn’t go, for two reasons:

1) They didn’t invite me to speak.

2) . . .

Number Two. All the real reasons I didn’t go. Too numerous to enumerate.

(???!???)

I would have arrived feeling a bit giddy. My head would have been all spinny and weightless. After checking into my room and donning an appropriately casual yet I’ve Got My Shit Together ensemble, I would have headed out. Only I wouldn’t have had a posse. An entourage. Peeps I know and hang with on a regular basis. Like Pee Wee Herman (and yet so NOT like Pee Wee Herman) I am a loner.

A rebel.

Yet I would have decided to not let this part of me keep me from connecting. Through the match-making wonder that is Twitter, I might have learned of a get-together at this or that bar, or in this or that corner of the lobby, and moseyed that direction. I would probably have recognized a person or two and chatted them up, but eventually I would have made my way to the wall and adorned it with my wallflower self. Ever the observer, I would have relished the opportunity to just sit and watch. And yet at some point, I would have realized that one doesn’t go to New York to be an observer.

One must jump in.

So I would have jumped. I would have attended this or that session and listened to this or that Blogging Superperson and taken some notes. I would have smiled if they glanced my way, and I would have picked their ear if the opportunity had arisen. And at some point over the course of the weekend, I would have surely thought:

I can do this! I can be a maddeningly successful blogger! I can hone my content and gain readers and create a clearinghouse of cheekiness that people will give their right arm to partake in.

I would have gotten all dizzy with this realization and finally have forced myself to leave all my heroes in the lobby and go to bed. They would have begged me to stay, but I would have waved them off and retired. To my room. Where I would spent hours considering these two opposing parts of my personality . . .

One side that wants to be a part of the crowd, and the other part that abhors the possibility. The me in the lobby vs. the me in my room. When I am either, I want to be the other. And the challenge lies in figuring out how to reconcile the two . . .

*****

46:13:33:28

*****

All this – my ruminations and fumbling keystrokes – come to you courtesy of my contemplation of various U2 songs. They are my spiritual companions during this effort to quit smoking. And “New York” is one of those songs that sneaks into your psyche and says everything you have been thinking about. Dwelling on.

So, I offer this one to Amanda, who went to BlogHer. In New York. I hope she had a better time than I might have. And to @Kat1124. She begins her smoke-free journey today. Here’s to success, my friend . . .

In New York, freedom looks like too many choices
In New York, I found a friend to drown out the other voices

Voices on a cell phone
Voices from home
Voices of the hard sell
Voices down a stairwell

In New York
Just got a place in New York

In New York, summers get hot, well into the hundreds
You can’t walk around the block without a change of clothing

Hot as a hair dryer in your face
Hot as handbag and a can of mace

New York
I just got a place in New York

In New York, you can forget, forget how to sit still
Tell yourself you will stay in, but it’s down to Alphaville

New York

The Irish been coming here for years
Feel like they own the place
They got the airport, city hall
Dance hall, dance floor, they even got the police

Irish, Italians, Jews and Hispanics
Religious nuts, political fanatics in the stew
Happily, not like me and you
That’s where I lost you

New York

In New York, I lost it all to you and your vices
Still I’m staying on to figure out my mid-life crisis
I hit an iceberg in my life
You know I’m still afloat
You lose your balance, lose your wife
In the queue for the lifeboat

You better put the women and children first
But you’ve got an unquenchable thirst for New York

New York

In the stillness of the evening
When the sun has had its day
I heard your voice whispering
Come away now . . .

[Flickr photo is by kennymatic and is protected]

Bad (Songs for Amanda #3)

Let it go . . .

~ U2, “Bad”, 1984

I hadn’t thought about it for a few days, having become quite accomplished at setting aside the typical and familiar in exchange for the unexpected. I had new tunes in the car instead of the tried-and-true tracks.

The smoking tracks.

I had been so busy scanning the horizon, the land to the right and the left, that I almost missed it.

The exit. The off-ramp exactly one cigarette from my front door. As I let off the gas and gently tapped the brake pedal, I reached for my pack of smokes on the dashboard.

Of course, they weren’t there.

Funny how so many thoughts can flood the mind in a millisecond. I recalled how this exit is where I used to light up the last cigarette of my drive home from work. From town. From All Points North. I remembered that I’m forgetting to smoke. That I hadn’t looked at this road, this commute, this spot in the right-hand lane, the same way since I quit.

And yet, there it was. Another, lingering series of habitual thoughts and their accompanying movements. Ghosts, creeping down the staircase of my mind.

So instantly that I surprised myself – I took a breath. I think I had been holding it. I breathed air. Crisp, clean country air mixed with exhaust and dusty Indiana clay.

And I cried. You know, how your breath catches, and your eyes mist up? In a heartbeat?

And then another thought, foreign and dissonant: I am succeeding.

***

I have been away too long. Yet I have been living. Working. Writing elsewhere. Breathing deeply. Watching the numbers climb . . .

26:09:08:50

Twenty-six days. Nine hours. Eight minutes. Fifty seconds.

Unlike they do for poor Donnie Darko, my numbers are increasing, counting endlessly and gloriously up instead of hopelessly down toward the end of the world.

***

Amanda is on the mend and writing better than ever. Her latest post? Holy crap. Amanda has a way of taking very specific events and wringing from them notions with which everyone can relate. Bono does that here as well. Having looked hard at his beloved Dublin and its fascination with heroin, he then puts into words the deeper, and darker, ideas and feelings others may never take the time to fully flesh out.

Within “Bad,” writes Irish publisher Niall Stokes, is a restlessness that speaks volumes. You begin to imagine the narrator prowling his room in the darkest hour before dawn, wrestling with the temptation to take the plunge. There is a desire to go over the edge, to experience whatever the other side might throw at him. The feeling is so intense that he can’t express it clearly. His thoughts emerge in disconnected fragments. He repeats himself. If you wanted to get tough about it, you’d argue that “Bad” says nothing. But it’s a trip – a tense, nervy, intoxicating, exhilarating trip.

If you twist and turn away
If you tear yourself in two again
If I could, you know, I would
If I could, I would
Let it go
Surrender
Dislocate

If I could throw this
Lifeless lifeline to the wind
I’d leave this heart of clay
See you walk, walk away
Into the night
Through the rain
Into the half-light
Through the flame

If I could through myself
Set your spirit free
I’d lead your heart away
See you break, break away
Into the light
And to the day

So let it go
And so fade away
So let it go
And so fade away

I’m wide awake
I’m wide awake
I’m not sleeping
Oh, no, no, no
I’m not sleeping
Oh, no

If they should ask well maybe they’d
Tell me what I should say
True colors fly in blue and black
Bruised silken sky and burning flag
Colours crash, collide in bloodshot eyes

If I could, you know I would
If I could, I would
Let it go

This desperation
Separation
Condemnation
Revelation
In temptation
Isolation
Desolation
Isolation
Let it go, aha

And so fade away
So let it go, aha
And so fade, fade, fade away
So let it go
And so to fade away

I’m wide awake
I’m wide awake
Wide awake
I’m not sleeping
Oh, no, no, no

[Flickr photo is by respres and is protected]

Ultraviolet (Songs for Amanda #2)

There is a silence that comes to a house
Where no one can sleep
I guess it’s the price of love
I know it’s not cheap

~ U2, “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”, 1991

Fourteen days, fifteen hours, eleven minutes, three seconds.

A pile of moments without a cigarette.

Moments I am now even more grateful for, having just read Amanda’s latest post.

I had planned to come here and write about how this week’s selection in the Songs for Amanda series has seen me through some very long, dark nights of the soul. How when one takes the leap and sees, even if only in the recesses of the imagination, what the naked eye cannot, then that thing becomes more real than anything we may ever experience. It is a mysterious and slippery thing that has many faces, and speaks in myriad voices, but is intensionally one.

But I will spare you my ramblings. Instead, I ask that you go, hear her bleed, and love on her.

Please . . .

Sometimes I feel like I don’t know
Sometimes I feel like checkin’ out
I wanna get it wrong
Can’t always be strong
And love it won’t be long

Oh, Sugar, don’t you cry
Oh, Child, wipe the tears from your eyes
You know I need you to be strong
And the day is as dark as the night is long
Feel like trash, you make me feel clean
I’m in the black, can’t see or be seen

Baby, baby, baby…light my way

You bury your treasure
Where it can’t be found
But your love is like a secret
That’s been passed around
There is a silence that comes to a house
Where no one can sleep
I guess it’s the price of love
I know it’s not cheap

I remember
When we could sleep on stones
Now we lie together
In whispers and moans
When I was all messed up
And I had opera in my head
Your love was a light bulb
Hanging over my bed

[Flickr photo is by NASA Goddard Photo and Video and is protected]

Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own (Songs for Amanda #1)

And it’s you when I look in the mirror / And it’s you when I don’t pick up the phone

~ U2, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”, 2005

I’m ten years old, or so, and wandering the streets of the apartment complex where we live, somewhere in northwest Ohio. A headstock, stained the color of an individually-wrapped caramel abandoned in the sun for too long, sticks out of the corner of an industrial-sized and green garbage bin. To me, it is a rose, blooming and beautiful. I pluck out the instrument and drag it home. That is bookend the first.

The second is me dragging it again, only this time back to the garbage bin.

The stuff in the middle is timeworn and difficult to decipher. For example, I can’t recall anything else about the guitar, its color or make or whether it had strings or hardware. Nor can I remember why he told me I couldn’t keep it. Odds are the guitar had sustained irreparable damage, something I would have had no inkling or ability to recognize. Or perhaps my father had no inclination to go down a road paved with lessons and the endless practicing, and requisite noise, that come with learning an instrument. In many cases, desire is not enough. Or maybe the brush off came after no thought at all, for him a moment of annoyance that could be ended simply because he said so.

Those details are lost to me, but the bookends remain.

***

Bono shares of a similar experience in U2 By U2, the band’s 2006 coffee-table-style autobiography. His grandmother owned a piano, and as a child little Paul Hewson would stand under the keys, reach up and pluck them one by one, “playing with it the way kids do, just making noise – but it is not really making noise, it is making music.” Years later, as a tormented teenager, “I would put my foot on the pedal and hit keys and I remember how the room would change shape, because the note would get this cloud of reverb around it, become cathedral-like.” After her death, the family had to decide what to do with the piano. Bono searched their small home for a corner where it could sit, but his parents wouldn’t have it. In a home abounding with dark, deep humor but short on romanticism, keeping the piano lacked practicality.

Years later, his own death imminent, Bono’s father Bob confessed that he’d always regretted never becoming a musician. In light of that, Bono writes:

. . . you would think that the first thing he would do is to make sure his kids have that opportunity. But no – sell the piano. Sell the fucking piano. It’s amazing. If you were a kid like me, that is like someone taking away your oxygen tank. You can’t breathe.

There’s a lot in that. I think the seeds of ambition were sown, paradoxically by this repression of the spirit. If you keep telling somebody not to do something then that might just be what they become driven to do. Megalomania might have started right here. I was going to have my revenge on the world. Everyone was going to have to listen to me! Of course, I didn’t know what it was I was actually going to say or play, but the world was going to have to listen. Which, of course, is really psychological shorthand for ‘my father would have to listen’. When it gets down to it, there’s only ever really one person in the audience.

***

According to the Quit Smoking Tracker installed on my Palm Pre Plus, as of this very moment I have been smoke-free for 6 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 55 seconds. I have not spent $57.15 on cigarettes (Instead, I bought some relatively inexpensive plastic storage shelves for the garage and a new hose – kink-free and sans holes – for the garden), and have avoided 230 cigarettes. It also tells me I have not inhaled 0.35g of nicotine and 4.62g of tar.

Numbers. Like seconds, they pile up.

My father and I get along fine. At this point in our relationship, there are so many nuggets of this or that, rooted deeply in the dirt of the past and refusing to yield to whatever tools we may wield in our attempts to dig them up. We can do dates and places and events, but the stuff that we felt, and still feel, is like that iconic mosquito stuck in the amber of time. We can look at it, but never again bring it to life, no matter what Michael Crichton says.

Maybe that’s for the best.

But there are time when reminiscing about the stuff of the past can be fun. For example, the other day he came with me up to the BSA camp to spend the evening with my youngest son. His grandson. I had made arrangements for him to be shuttled around on an EVI because previous and lingering injuries to his hips and back would preclude a walk across the camp. He protested a bit, said he could make it, but he soon realized I had thought this all out to his advantage. And in it there was no shame. We sat and chatted with the scoutmasters about Wood Badge and old-school scouting, back when he directed Chicago’s Scouting for the Handicapped program. Seeing him smile at remembrances of long ago made me happy as well. The scars diminished, and the pain subsided, even if only for as long as it took to scarf down some dutch oven cobbler. He has surgeries coming up that hang above his head like Damocles’ sword, reminders that time is slipping away, and life is never as easy as we often strive to make it look.

So we have today. I will see him this afternoon. I will pile my brood in the van and I will drive them up there, where we will all swim and then cook out and eat and then watch the sky as it is set ablaze. We may even talk about this post. He reads this, you know, when he’s not harvesting crops or hatching baby emus on Facebook. As much as I like to think I write for each of you, he is often the target audience. I say things here I can’t say out loud, or couldn’t with any modicum of clarity or profundity. And he is perhaps hearing me clearly for the first time.

***

Tough, you think you’ve got the stuff
You’re telling me and anyone
You’re hard enough

You don’t have to put up a fight
You don’t have to always be right
Let me take some of the punches
For you tonight

Listen to me now
I need to let you know
You don’t have to go in alone

And it’s you when I look in the mirror
And it’s you when I don’t pick up the phone
Sometimes you can’t make it on your own

We fight all the time
You and I… that’s alright
We’re the same soul
I don’t need… I don’t need to hear you say
That if we weren’t so alike
You’d like me a whole lot more

Listen to me now
I need to let you know
You don’t have to go it alone

And it’s you when I look in the mirror
And it’s you when I don’t pick up the phone
Sometimes you can’t make it on your own

(This is it)
I know that we don’t talk
I’m sick of it all
Can, you, hear, me, when, I, sing
You’re the reason I sing
You’re the reason why the opera is in me

Well hey now, still gotta let ya know
A house doesn’t make a home
Don’t leave me here alone

And it’s you when I look in the mirror
And it’s you that makes it hard to let go
Sometimes you can’t make it on your own
Sometimes you can’t make it
Best you can do is to fake it
Sometimes you can’t make it on your own

[Flickr photo is by tofer618 and is protected]