Archive for January, 2013

January 24, 2013

Future Ink

There is a list, written on the back of a Waukesha State Bank deposit slip and pinned to the cork bulletin board in my bedroom, of doodles and scribbles. When each entry was inscribed, each represented a potential tattoo. Three of the entries found their place on my arms and are now crossed out with a single line. Most of the other listings, having seen their significance fade, have also been crossed out.

The three that made it to my flesh are the Chi Rho, the Star of David integrated with the Alpha, and the Cross integrated with the Omega. The rejects include melodramatic lyrics, sophomoric egotism, and pure whimsy. Still on that list without their names crossed out are the logos for the Minnesota Twins and the Washington Redskins.

When I was eighteen, I started looking at tattoo designs. Influenced by the art in my church, I was looking at variations of the Chi Rho. I wasn’t hiding it from my parents, nor was I telling them about it. I was in my room researching designs when my dad walked in.

So, you’re thinking about getting a tattoo, huh?

Uhh…yeah…

Well, you’re not getting one without me.

If I’ve never mentioned it before, my dad is awesome. Unfortunately, it took us two years and the fact that I was transferring to an out of state school for us to align our schedules. My mother thought we were prodigal idiots as we left the house. Her tune changed when my dad returned with a red heart emblazoned with her name etched into his bicep.

I spent little time contemplating what was next: it was definitely the Star of David integrated with the Alpha, followed by the Cross integrated with the Omega. The challenge lay in the specific designs. They were a theological set, whether or not I got them simultaneously, and they needed to match. Over the next three years the plans followed the seasons, cycling activity and dormancy with no results and no regression of desire.

A friend wanted to get his first tattoo and was also having trouble settling on a design for Habakkuk 2:1. We set a date a month out, picked a studio in Wicker Park, and frantically began sketching designs. I hammered out what I roughly wanted; my company’s design department polished. I walked out of the studio on a brisk November evening with blackened, bloody biceps and no plan as to what next.

That was fourteen months ago.

Since then I’ve contemplated getting pray without ceasing around my bicep. I’ve also starting planning a family tree of sorts with my grandparents’, parents’, and siblings’ initials. Both are still gestating.

But the Minnesota Twins and Washington Redskins. These might be my most fierce loyalties outside of those to my God, my family, and baseball and football as institutions. I came out of the womb wearing nothing but a backwards Twins cap and a Louisville Slugger. So these two teams’ logos are still on the list. Nothing gaudy, just the classics; probably one on each arm.

But they may never grace my skin. Call it a New Year’s resolution of sorts if you wish. But I’ve decided that I will not get either until that team wins its respective sport’s championship. Until the Minnesota Twins win the World Series. Until the Washington Redskins win the Super Bowl.

I plan to be in Minneapolis and Washington D.C. for those championship parades, whenever they happen. Perfect time and place to be canvas. I could be ninety, rolling my wheelchair into the tattoo parlor. I could only get one or I could die without either. The significance of either tattoo would be that much higher, the victory celebration only more poignant.

Confession: I would be partially pained if I had to get the Skins’ logo first. Having to confront the possible reality of that last sentence was painful; I almost reneged on my resolve. I see magical seasons in a healthy RG3’s future; let’s see what magic the Twins can conjure. I hope it’s a lot. And imminent.

So, I wonder, how many of my peers have tattoos or plan to get tattoos. It’s very arbitrary age range, but those between the ages of 20 and 35. How many?

January 16, 2013

A Bit of Goose Down, Harbored

He is already in the pew when I walk through the sanctuary doors.  I genuflect and take my seat four rows back. He has been there every Sunday that I’ve been there over the past four years, so I have no reason to assume he’s ever missed a Sunday, outside of the fact that he’s human, but given my seasons of spotty attendance, I make no guarantees.

But he’s impossible to miss.  He imposes himself upon your memory. His smooth head is free of nicks and the goatee surrounding his pursed lips is conscientiously trimmed. The skin of his brow balled up at the top of his nose as he scowls warily ahead. The first time I saw him, a Wisconsin Badgers football t-shirt, of the team unity variety, was stretched across his shoulders.

What had happened to him? I am, not for the first time, perplexed. He is six foot five, two hundred forty-eight pounds of muscle, and another fifteen pounds of fat. Why is he not at least on an NFL back-up? He could devour any foursome in this church. Why is he here on a Sunday and not preparing for a coliseum?

We have been standing through the processional of Lift High the Cross, and we remain so as the priest leads us in the liturgy:

“Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins.”

“His mercy endures forever,” we reply in splintered union.

The worship band, making one of its better organ-less attempts at traditional sober church music, leads us in a variation of the Kyrie.

“Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy; Christe eleison, Christ have mercy.”

I stare down, toeing decade old gum, as the priest corrals our cries for mercy in the collect. I listen, comprehend, and affirm without my memory retaining the procession of syllables.  As we take our seats, the readers approach the lectionary. “A reading from the letter of Saint Paul…”

Again, I hear words I affirm, but five minutes later will be unable to recollect their reading. Instead, the focus of my attention is the infant in the arms of his grandmother immediately in front of me. In a white onesie sporting horsehide stitches and pinstripes, he sits upon her jackknifed left arm, following the most recent visual stimulation: the cross earrings dangling from her ears. His chubby hands clench and unclench at the air excitedly as his eyes grow wide, absorbing the light reflecting from the golden surface. Finally, unable to restrain himself, he lunges with both uncoordinated hands for her earlobe. He misses. The cross dangles freely but perturbed.

The child chokes a giggle at the dancing ornament. He bats at it twice with his right hand, grabs his grandmother’s chin with his left, and is jarred by the solid object his hand encounters.

“…word of the Lord.” The reader swallows the first word of the liturgy. I empathize.

“Thanks be to God.”

Grandmother turns toward the tiny fiend pinching the loose skin of her chin, her jaw dropped in mock surprise. The babe stares for a moment before excitedly waving his arm as a fledgling trying to rise from the nest, his own mouth opened in a cavernous, toothless smile; his attempts at flight falter and he merely lunges forward catching himself with the folds of his grandmother’s neck.

We rise with our Alleluias as the Gospel processes to the center of the Sanctuary. The deacon reading is old enough to have a ten year old in Sunday School, but young enough to still fit in Apple’s commercial paradigm.

“The Gospel according to Luke.”

“Glory to you, Lord Christ.”  I am one of a handful to cross my brow, my lips, and my heart.

The good news of my salvation is proclaimed, but my attention has yet to leave the child in his grandmother’s arms. His tiny eyes catch mine intruding upon his personal space. I respond to his sober stillness with a smile and he counters with a concerned scowl and grips his matriarch’s thin blouse all the tighter.  A second’s pause. Then I purse my lips, puff my cheeks like a balloon, and pull back the drapes of my eyes. My tiny audience widens his own eyes in surprise before tossing away his caution, unclenching his jaw to open the toothless chasm and gasp out a giggle.

“The Gospel of the Lord”

“Praise to you, Lord Christ.” And we drop back to our seats.

The sermon commences and I concur, but this afternoon I won’t recall what was said. The hazards of being a visual, not auditory, learner. It certainly doesn’t help when there is an infant constantly distracting me with his affinity for laughter. The sermon is the worst time to be exciting a child, and I’ve started a game he is unwilling to finish. When I cease to play, his boredom frustrates him and he begins to fuss. He manages to grasp Grandmother’s dangling earring, and he cries as she extracts it from his grasp; she whisks him off to the narthex, freeing my focus to either return to the sermon or explore the room—it’s a draw.

We rise for the Creed and we fall for Confession. We stand for the Peace and sit for the Offertory. We rise for the Doxology and yet bow our heads for the Celebration of the Sacraments. And we kneel again to contemplate the impending distribution of Grace to a collection of broken individuals.

My own contemplation is distracted as my gaze falls upon his shaved head. How many Sundays have I stared at the back of that head? He is nearly an enigma, but for her constant, complimentary presence. The white plumage, permed into manageable curls, is all that is visible as it barely reaches his slouched shoulders in the pew. My own grandmother, in a northern Minnesota nursing home, has the same hair, though it is probably thinner now than it was three years ago.

The LEMs are positioned, prepared to share the Paschal feast they bear. The usher waits to piously allow a trickle of postulants forward; there is no need for haste, loaves and fishes will feed five thousand, our bread and wine will feed five hundred. The sluice-gates creak open and the first row trickles out.

The usher takes a second step backwards, and the linebacker rises. Maybe he’s just older than I think he is. No, that can’t be; there are no flecks of grey in that goatee. Instead of quickly stepping into the aisle to his left, he cautiously leans to his right, a near genuflect, and gently wraps his massive right arm around her frail frame, gently supporting her far elbow as she lifts herself, grasping his left hand with her own. He guides her out of the aisle until they are clear of the pew and they reconfigure her left hand in the crook of his jackknifed right elbow. She is bit of goose down harbored in the lee of his stonish build. Baby steps, more of a shuffle, down the inclined aisle toward the holiness. The Eucharist is placed in her wrinkled and blotched hands and she lifts glory to her lips. He stoically accepts the Host himself before escorting his charge to the chalice and then along the long walk back through the pew, negotiating the hazards of purses and hymnals. Her gait is ponderous – when they return to their seats, the act of sitting is deliberate and labored, even with his aid.

As their procession ends, the usher releases my pew. I genuflect and somberly proceed toward the table, to eat the same bread and drink the same wine, our lips on the same chalice today that was used last year and the year before that to administer the same sacrament of four millennia. I cross myself before each portion and declare firmly my Amens after, though not with the volume my father does. I retreat to my pew, genuflecting and kneeling again in contemplative prayer.

The worship team invites the congregation to stand as they finish the contemporary communion songs, but I remain on my knees. When I do join the standing ranks of saints for the Prayer of Thanksgiving, I see the doting grandmother has returned from the narthex and the child is asleep on her shoulder. She sways gently and tiny tear stains are evident on his cheeks.

“The blessing of God Almighty, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you now and forever more.”

“Amen.”

As the worship band plays the intro to the recessional hymn I open my hymnal to 390, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation. Oh, how this congregation needs an organ! Towards the end of the second verse the Cross passes my row and I genuflect. The caravan of clergy, acolytes, LEMs, and choir recede and we offer the fourth verse toward the bare altar, cleared of the broken bread.

“Praise to the Lord! O let all that is in me adore him! All that hath life and breath come now with praises before him! Let the amen sound from his people again; gladly forever adore him.”

As I close my hymnal and grab my coat, the deacon’s voice projects from the speakers, “Go forth into the world in peace, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.”

My voice mingles with a congregation of sons and daughters, lifting the prayers of mothers upon grandmothers and fathers upon grandfathers, who have shared the same feast, “Thanks be to God.”

 

This is dedicated to my grandmothers, Doris Kelley and Terry Schlossberg, for loving me when I am a brat and for their holiness and faithfulness. I love you both, even when I am a brat.

January 4, 2013

2012 in Review: Jake’s Year of the Rapper aka Not your Grammys’ Rappers

I know that three days into 2013 is not really the time to be reminiscing on 2012, but it really can’t be helped.

Polling my friends and family regarding my musical tastes, the first word to come to their mind would be “screamo” as a generic label for any artist that has the slightest rasp in their vocals. My mother loves to pigeonhole my music as people vomiting.  But these descriptions hardly encompass the fullness of my music collection.

This past year in particular has departed from this stereotype as double bass pedals and chugging guitars have stepped aside for computerized beats and synthetic harmonies; torrents of lyrics delivered smoothly in lieu of coarser belched vocals.

While certainly not comprehensive of all the rap CDs which debuted last year, these were the albums that made notable impressions on me.

P.O.S – We Don’t Even Live Here/Never Better

My introduction to Minnesota native Pissed Off Stef (to use the most amicable of the pseudonyms) was the video for the lead single, “Fuck Your Stuff.” The anarchist anthem of one disenchanted with both political parties in the midst of election season excited me for the album release. As I waited, I delved into P.O.S’ older releases, in particular, Never Better, which only made me more excited for the new album. Never Better juxtaposes P.O.S’s machine gun delivery with beats deeply rooted in punk rock. I was particularly taken with the title track, as well as Graves and Terrorish. Days before the official release of We Don’t Even Live Here, the entire album was streamed. To my extreme disappointment, the new album’s dance heavy beats were a significant departure from Never Better. However well P.O.S pulled the dance hall style on the album, it wasn’t what I was hoping for. Disappointed, I gave it a second a listen. While the second single, Get Down, stood out with Fuck Your Stuff, I was dissuaded from purchasing the album. I do, however, need to thank this cd’s release for introducing me to Never Better.

Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music

Killer Mike’s Southern roots have afforded him collaboration opportunities across the industry, most notably with Outkast. But for this effort he turned outside of the Atlanta region to seek out New York’s underground producer Jaime Meline, aka, El-P. What could have been an uneven mixture of styles is seamless. Killer Mike and El-P locked in a studio doesn’t result in a back and forth struggle of two disparate artists attempting to dictate the style but instead yields a delectable whole comprised of El-P’s futuristic tonality arranged in traditional Killer Mike southern flow. The album starts strong with the lead single, Big Beast. While the rest of the album is solid, no track approaches the intensity of the opener.

Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, m.A.A.d City

The youngest artist on this list, Kendrick Lamar is my age, and yet even outside of his artistic career, he has a lot more life experience than I do, if his autobiographical album is to be taken at its word. Good Kid, m.A.A.d City is the story of young Kendrick growing up in Compton, attempting to walk the line of the Good Kid throughout the troubled m.A.A.d City. Unlike the other albums on this list, GK, MC features a plethora of skits, giving extra texture to the narrative. Unlike R.A.P. Music, Kendrick doesn’t lead off with his strongest tracks, but instead distributes and builds the entire album. While his vocal tones can initially be disparaging, Kendrick is very adept at varying his delivery to match the atmosphere demanded by every beat. Lead single, Swimming Pools, is a perfect example, as Kendrick delivers three verses in three different voices as the song’s tones demand. Other album highlights include The Art of Peer Pressure, Money Trees, and m.A.A.d City. In a moment of narrative mastery, Kendrick builds the album until the mood is sufficient for the haunting twelve minute “ballad” Sing About Me/Dying of Thirst. While his vocal tones are a taste to be acquired, Kendrick’s use of polyphony is perfectly suited for the narrative he constructs. To say that it is excellent for its technical finesse would be to undersell what is truly an excellent album.

El-P – Cancer for Cure

I was quite unsure what to expect of this album. All my previous encounters with El-P were individual vicious diatribes. But every review I heard was that this was a signature album and contestant for album of the year – and it is, despite the ever present spleen of El-P. His superlative production is evident from the first with building intro of Request Denied. The futuristic sounds that El-P used to subvert the southern style on Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music have full reign. But this is also a rap album, not just a beats album and El-P delivers handily with plenty of vitriol. When he is able to control his vicious verbiage the album is strongest (Oh Hail No, True Story, and Stay Down); when he slows down his delivery and increases the acrid distrust and self-pity the album falters (The Jig is Up and Sign Here).

Aesop Rock – Skelethon

I could gush on this album all day. Not only is it my clear choice for Rap Album of the Year or straight up Album of the Year, it is in the running for my favorite album ever. Over the last six months it has taken only the occasional hiatus from my car’s CD player – only the guilt of ignoring other artists has driven me to play something else. This is Aesop Rock’s first entirely self-produced album and it is in turn his most consistent and coherent.  The most unique album in this list is the most likely to repel listeners with its unconventional beats closer to indie rock than Dr. Dre and a lyrical style closer to William Faulkner than Jay-Z. Skelethon, an attempt to clean the skeletons out of the closet, is a character study, from discontented teenagers, to donut entrepreneurs, to bikers, to elementary-aged Ace Rock, to his deceased friend Camu Tao. The stream of consciousness lyricism is dense and convoluted to many and an understandable complaint, but some find all the more pleasure in the complexity. The satisfaction of matching Aesop word for word, measure for measure, is all the greater considering the illogical word play. Despite dealing with some very dark material, Ace manages to bring balance with songs regarding eating your vegetables and getting haircuts. Highlights? The whole album. Most significant tracks? Zero Dark Thirty, Racing Stripes, and Tetra.

Finally, Gopher Guts closes the album with a humble confession of AR’s crumbling relationships. Contained within is one of the most haunting depictions of divorce I’ve ever heard: I go from moving in packs/to sharing food with a cat/to, “Ma, it’s me, I accidentally sawed a woman in half”.  The imagery with which Aesop Rock conveys his honesty is unmatched and his production skills mirror his lyricism to create the best new album of any genre I’ve heard in years.