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That’s What It’s All About

May 20, 2010

This is an excerpt of memoir that I’m noodling and may pitch to a self-publisher someday…

As you approach the half-century mark, it’s difficult to deny that there is more of life behind than ahead of you. You are amazed at how you once embraced the myth of invincibility, and you agonize as your children cradle that same self-deception. You realize that life could end at any moment. The heaviness of your congested legacy settles in like a bad chest cold.

Micky Taylor was the first red-headed kid you ever encountered. Like you, he was the youngest in the family. Like you, he had two older sisters. Did you meet in kindergarten or first grade? You know you went through grade school together and you think maybe he was in the same Cub Scout den. Memories don’t come into focus until around junior high school. It’s late winter in Pin Oaks, Iowa, cold and damp and gray outside. You’re in the eighth grade, sitting in the school cafeteria on a Saturday morning. The art teacher, “Freaky Ron”, has invited several budding musicians to put together a couple of rock bands for the upcoming spring talent show. You’ve been playing guitar for a couple of years and the desire to be a rock star inflames your soul like sunbeams through a magnifying glass. Micky  Taylor already has a group. They will perform Smoke On The Water in the show. Freaky Ron tells the rest of you to quit picking breakfast out of your noses and get ready to play. You find a slot and spend the better part of the morning arguing about what to call yourselves. The name “Purple Haze” sticks, despite lack of adhesion. Fadeout.

Lights up, new scene. You’re watching Micky’s band, “Piper,” play at the new Pin Oaks teen center.  The facility is destined for destruction — property being one of the corners they cut to reduce costs. It’s built atop the old city dump, and as the garbage settles into compost, cracks will form in the foundation. In just a few more years methane gas will approach toxic levels, but tonight all that stinks is the music. Geez, you could do so much better! They’re still playing Smoke On the Water. You have to admit they’ve improved, expanded their repertoire with songs like Brother Louie, Blue Suede Shoes, and Jumpin’ Jack Flash; and you revel in teenage rebellion as they sing “you can kiss my ass” instead of “it’s a gas gas gas”. But YOUR band — Harasy — is infinitely better. You perform songs with sophisticated lyrics and luscious vocal harmonies. You cover bands like Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Eagles, and the Beatles. You sing Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, Take It Easy, and Back In the USSR . True, you have yet to land a real gig. Your only audience has been a handful of wannabe groupies who listen to you practice in the drummer’s parent’s basement. And it was Micky’s band, not yours, that was featured in the high school newspaper. But your day is coming. You’ll show Micky.

Friendly competition continues through high school. You and Micky don’t share any classes that you can remember. Instead you share conversations, cigarettes, and an occasional joint between classes in the school’s designated “smoking square.” Micky’s red hair blossoms into a well-coiffed Afro that you secretly admire, while coaxing your blow dryer to work a miracle with your wimpy, sun-bleached blondness.

Mona Junction, summer 1976.

As a senior you quit Harasy and form a folk duo with Dan Picht. You call yourselves Mona Junction (not sure who Mona was or if she ever even existed), develop a small following and play numerous gigs throughout the school year. You graduate and work for a year at Fredrick’s House of Music. Mona Junction fades away as you move 90 miles from home to attend college. You don’t remember what became of Piper. Micky stays in Pin Oaks. You think he maybe went to a trade school or community college, but you lose touch. Not that there was ever much of a touch to begin with.

Halfway through college Dan invites you to stage a Mona Junction reunion. You’re booked to play in the front room of a Pin Oaks biker bar called the Circle Lounge. You play a couple of sets in competition with pinballs and pool tables. In between sets you reconnect with high school friends. Micky Taylor strikes up a conversation, says he hasn’t been playing much guitar, but recently bought an acoustic. He’d like to learn some of your licks. Would you want to get together and jam sometime? “I could bring over a 12-pack,” he bribes.

You don’t really remember your response. Probably an insincere, “Sure, that would be cool,” but regardless, you know it was a lie. You’re a college boy and Micky’s blue collar. You’re going places and Micky is stuck in the sticks. A few years later you learn that Micky drowned along with Randy Rollins, another blue collar among the Pin Oaks working stiffs. They had been fishing on the Pin Oak River. You surmise that reefer and Budweisers helped drag them under.

Lately you’ve been wondering, why Micky? Why not you? Why didn’t you die when you rolled the Chevy Vega in the ditch? Why didn’t you die all those times that you overindulged in alcohol and reefer and God knows how many other controlled substances? Why didn’t you take Micky up on the offer to get together and play guitars? You had supposedly become a “Christian” just 13 months earlier. Why do you take such a Hokey Pokey approach to faith? You guess your left foot must have been “out” that night.

Magician-comedian Penn Gillette tells the story of a Christian who gave him a Bible following a Penn & Teller performance. He praises the man for the easy-going, inoffensive manner in which he shared his faith. He compares and contrasts this to knowing someone is going to be struck by a car. “How much would you have to hate that person to not tell them what’s about to happen?” he asks. “How much would you have to hate that person to let them walk out in front of the car and be killed?” Penn Gillette is not a Christian because the man gave him a Bible. He still professes to be an atheist. The bullet-proof point he makes is that the man’s approach was so humble, so unpretentious, so much more palatable than the notch-on-the-gunstock variety. Militant evangelism does more to push people away than it does to love them and draw them into the family of God.

You don’t believe you hated Micky Taylor. You just didn’t love him. You really didn’t even like him that much. Hate, love, like, what difference does it make? Micky’s dead. You had an invitation to engage, you could have shared life with him, doing something you both dearly loved to do, something you were indeed created to do, and you turned it down.

Would Micky be alive today if you had lived out your purpose in that moment? Maybe, maybe not. To claim that you could have “saved” him is to shoulder way too much power and sovereignty. But if you had allowed love to take the lead instead of fear — because that’s what it was, you were afraid to engage with Micky at anything deeper than a superficial level because he might laugh at you — if you had allowed love to lead and redeemed your purpose Micky might be all about redeeming his purpose right now. He might be doing what he was created to do and moving toward the Creator. But he’s dead. You’ll never know if you could have made a difference. But you’ll always be haunted by the possibility.

This is not the same as guilt. And you don’t know the status of Micky Taylor’s soul. You pray for him, and you believe in a Creator who is loving, just, and sovereign. “God will have mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and harden whom He wants to harden.” His ways are not your ways, and His grace is sufficient to cover even your cowardly response to Micky Taylor’s invitation. Micky’s soul is in God’s hands, not yours. The question is, what are you going to do now? Not out of guilt, but out of love for God and love for people and a sincere desire to live life on purpose?

You are weary your duplicity. You are pissed off at the Fred Phelps and Pat Robertsons of the world, and pissed off at yourself for allowing their brand of Christianity to muzzle your faith. You want to come out of the closet but fear holds you back. You’re afraid to take risks and engage in relational activity that draws people into the mystery of God’s irrational love. You’re afraid people will brand you with the Phelps-Robertson stereotype, despite clear evidence that the Penn Gillette’s of the world are receptive to a humble approach. You’re afraid to face any criticism in any format, despite consistent affirmation from people who value your words.

Courage is not the absence of fear, but the presence of faith.

You wrote that — in a fit of inspiration more than 10 years ago. How can such words of wisdom pour out of you without first sinking in? Why does it take so long for truth to descend from your head to your heart? It is yet another illustration of your fickle faith in Hokey-Pokey land. You remember Micky Taylor: any life — including yours — can end at any moment. You regret that there is no rewind, no chance to re-record, no “off” position on a coward knob that goes to 11.

You remember a scene from the 1987 film, The Untouchables; Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is trying to recruit an Irish cop, Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), to join his fight against Al Capone.

Malone: You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do?

Ness: Anything within the law.

Malone: And then what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they’re not gonna give up the fight until one of you is dead.

Ness: I want to get Capone! I don’t know how to do it.

Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! And that’s how you get Capone. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I’m offering you a deal. Do you want this deal?

Ness: I have sworn to capture this man with all legal powers at my disposal and I will do so.

Malone: Well, the Lord hates a coward. [He jabs Ness with his hand, and Ness shakes it]

Malone: Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?

Ness: Yes.

Malone: Good, ’cause you just took one.

Later, shot full of lead from a Tommy gun, Malone reminds Ness of his promise. With his dying breath he says, “What are you prepared to do?”

Face to face with your internal enemy, what are you prepared to do? When he pulls a knife, will you pull a gun? When he sends one of yours to the hospital, will you send one of his to the morgue? Eliot Ness did not allow his friend to die in vain. What are you prepared to do?

Maybe this is what lends purpose to Micky’s abbreviated life. If it motivates you to face down your fear, to act out of love, to redeem your purpose, to encourage others to do the same, then Micky will not have died in vain. You realize that today is a new day, a new invitation to join the dance.

You put your left foot in, you take your left foot out, you put your left foot in…

…and you “click”.

Malone: You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do?
Ness: Anything and everything in my power.
Malone: And *then* what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way because they’re not gonna give up the fight until one of you is dead.
Ness: How do you do it then?
Malone: You wanna know how you do it? Here’s how, they pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone! Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?
Ness: I have sworn to capture this man with all legal powers at my disposal and I will do so.
Malone: Well, the Lord hates a coward. Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?
Ness: Yes.
Malone: Good, ’cause you just took one.
9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2010 10:58 pm

    Still love this story. & I love the button at the end. wondering what it would be like to do this in plain first person?? maybe a personal preference of mine…

    • May 21, 2010 7:18 am

      Hmmm… it’s not 3rd person so would that make it 2nd person? I should’ve paid closer attention to Mr. Vermulm in Composition & Rhetoric. D’oh!

      Either way, the story has been this way in my head for so long, it’s difficult to conceive it in any other format. And I’ve been so immersed in it for the last several days that I’m ready to put it aside. But I’ll be Bach, and when I am I’ll give serious consideration to your suggestion.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. erichaynes permalink
    May 21, 2010 7:40 am

    I’m with Christina — reading it with that perspective disconnects me from the story, even though it reads as if it is coming at me, or from me, or around me…I don’t know! It makes me feel like I should have to related to every action/event/opinion/feeling and once I hit that first one that I don’t relate to, then I’m thrown out of the narrative, and I miss the larger point because my mind starts wandering on its own, inside the void that is my own non-story.

    I wonder if a literary tool like this only works in a much smaller narrative…


    • May 21, 2010 7:54 am

      Check out “Cherry” by Mary Karr or “Bright Lights Big City” by Jay McInerney (you can do the Look Inside thing on I’m not yet ready to wave the white flag. Need to hear from someone who fits the profile of my Ideal Reader. But don’t let that stop you from firing away!

  3. June 4, 2010 12:05 pm

    Wow, this was very touching! Ihave known Mickys in my life, I know how it feels, regret-but this story gives me hope. Thanks!

    • June 4, 2010 12:13 pm

      Hi Deborah, thank you very much for reading. There is hope! And I can see from your web site and facebook page that you are actively engaged in redeeming your purpose. Keep it up — the world needs artists like you!

  4. Joe permalink
    June 25, 2010 2:42 pm

    I like 2nd person. There should be more things written that way (so long as it lends itself to 2nd person) because for me, it forces slower reading and deeper engagement, just because the style is unfamiliar. Not so prone to whipping through it. And once your mind makes that switch the mechanics get out of the way and it reads quite well. Doesn’t work that way for everything, but I think it works for this!

    • June 27, 2010 5:17 pm

      Thanks for the outsider’s perspective, Joe. I am biased toward 2nd person but one of these days (when I have too much time on my hands) I’ll try rewriting it in 1st person just for comparison.


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