Steve Martin's nonfiction

Among the stickers affixed to the BART ticket machines in the Embarcadero are those that warn 'Soft, old bills JAM!' They bring to mind, always, a group of flabbying middle-aged guys, all conveniently named Bill, gathering in one of their garages to play a few tunes.

On an unrelated note, the New Yorker's summer fiction issue this year gets off to something of a grim note, with a number of pieces (which, now that I think of it, are not actually fictional) about the deaths of family members. To my mind, the most striking memoir is Steve Martin's, in which he writes about his disapproving and fairly cold shouldered father. Rather than attempting to dig into the words and analyze how they come together in such a way that poignancy and pathos seem present in equal measure, I offer up an excerpt:

'I walked into the bedroom where he lay, his mind alert but his body failing. He said, almost buoyantly, "I'm ready now." I understood that his intensifying rage of the last few years had been against death, and now his resistance was abating. I stood at the end of the bed, and we looked into each other's eyes for a long, unbroken time. At last he said, "You did everything I wanted to do."

I said, "I did it because of you." It was the truth. Looking back, I'm sure that we both had different interpretations of what I meant.

I sat on the edge of the bed. Another silence fell over us. Then he said, "I wish I could cry, I wish I could cry."

At first, I took this as a comment on his plight but am forever thankful that I pushed on. "What do you want to cry about?" I finally said.

"For all the love I received and couldn't return."

He had kept this secret, his desire to love his family, from me and from my mother his entire life. It was as though an early misstep had kept us forever out of stride. Now, two days from his death, our pace was aligning, and we were able to speak.'


Sacred hatred

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod wins, hands down, the title of Intolerant Religious Organization of the Month.

An article in today's Times reports that the president of the Synod's Atlantic District, the Rev. David Benke, has been suspended from his post because, according to his church, he 'offended God, the Bible and all Christians..."dragged" his faith...to the level of Islam, committed heresy and violated two of the Ten Commandments.'

All of these offenses stemmed from Rev. Benke's attendance at an interfaith prayer service at Yankee Stadium last September, 12 days after the World Trade Center was destroyed. His elders claim he broke the First Commandment ('I am the Lord thy God') by 'worshiping together with "pagans,"' and the Second by 'putting other gods before him.'

To his immense credit--and with my incredible admiration--Rev. Benke has refused to apologize, as the leaders of the church have demanded in exchange for lifting their ruling against him, and has appealed that ruling. He's hired lawyers and has a solid team of backers. According to the article, the Reverend says he is 'waging war against religious intolerance, and an insular view of faith that not only prevents unity among peoples but promotes violence.' While his aims are inspiring, it's more than a bit maddening to realize that once again, the voices within organized religion calling for change, tolerance, and inclusion are almost never voices from the top, and those who are in high leadership roles almost always seem to do their best to silence the murmurings from below.

It's true that change always needs to start somewhere, and that that somewhere is almost never in the seat of power, religious or governmental or corporate. And it's gratifying that there are, relatively speaking, so many people willing to risk censure from their higher-ups in order to at least make some noise. But here's hoping that this noise--which is of particular importance in a society, like the US, that makes such lofty claims for itself--doesn't get drowned out or, worse yet, ignored altogether by those with their hands pressed over their ears.


Night, Death, Mississippi

Tired as I was last night, I found myself painfully awake at 11.30, 11.45, somewhere close to midnight and, after a respite, half past one. There is, as ever, too much in my head, and no one around but me to discuss it with, which leaves me reeling, aching for some sort of release--hard to come by in mid-day, near impossible at night.

I've never suffered from the sort of insomnia that might rob me of rest altogether (knock on wood), and always manage to will myself to sleep through some combination of sheer fatigue and repeated reminders that whatever I'm preoccupied with on the verge of unconsciousness can wait until the morning. The worries will still be there; the lists of things that must be done will rewrite themselves come sunrise; whatever pleasant thoughts may be keeping me up won't be gone for good if I succumb to sleep. But pushing those things aside tends to be an arduous process, and one at which I'm not particularly skilled.

Last night as I lay in bed with the usual set of fears (albeit with some recently added variations) racing behind my eyes, I found myself suddenly thinking of a line from Robert Hayden's 'Night, Death, Mississippi':

O night betrayed by darkness not its own

Whether that was just another example of the constant storm of lyrics, lines, words, phrases kicking up dust in my head or an attempt by my subconscious to steer me away from the melodramatic path to which I seemed to be making strides, I can't say. I do know, though, that it pulled me up and back, away from the details of my own fretting, at enough of a distance to show me more of a diffuse picture, to dilute the worries and uncertainties and doubts enough to allow me, finally, to sleep.

Night, Death, Mississippi
A quavering cry. Screech-owl?
Or one of them?
The old man in his reek
and gauntness laughs --

One of them, I bet --
and turns out the kitchen lamp,
limping to the porch to listen
in the windowless night.

Be there with Boy and the rest
if I was well again.
Time was. Time was.
White robes like moonlight

In the sweetgum dark.
Unbucked that one then
and him squealing bloody Jesus
as we cut it off.

Time was. A cry?
A cry all right.
He hawks and spits,
fevered as by groinfire.

Have us a bottle,
Boy and me --
he's earned him a bottle --
when he gets home.

Then we beat them, he said,
beat them till our arms was tired
and the big old chains
messy and red.

O Jesus burning on the lily cross

Christ, it was better
than hunting bear
which don't know why
you want him dead.

O night, rawhead and bloodybones night

You kids fetch Paw
some water now so's he
can wash that blood
off him, she said.

O night betrayed by darkness not its own