Saturday, March 26, 2011

INDIANA BONES - Digging Up My Midwestern Roots

I was born in a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, even though my parents lived across the river in New Albany, Indiana at the time. So it's 'Louisville' on the birth certificate. There was a year or so we lived in Louisville proper when my dad pastored a congregation there. I was in kindergarten I believe. I can still picture the average working class neighbourhood of small-to medium-sized wood-panelled and brick houses (ours was red brick I think). Three or so concrete steps and metal rails composed what we had of a back porch. (I ripped my lips off when I tore my open mouth away from those frozen rails one winter. True story.) In the house we had a ‘den’ that was off the kitchen by a step down, in which I loved to run madly round in circles, arms held out to my sides, lips vibrating in a buzzing noise, whenever my parents would play the ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ record on the couch-sized wood-cased record player.

But the rest of my upbringing was an Indiana one and I’m very much a product of Middle America, the Midwest more specifically, Indiana in particular: I grew up on the East Side of Indianapolis, the capitol city (in Marion County). I’m a product of wide-open flat cornfields and cow pastures punctuating working and middle class neighbourhoods, mostly a dozen or more miles out of downtown but still part of the greater metropolis of ‘Indy’. I’m a product of big blue skies, of cold white winters, warm wet springs, long hot summers, and crisp bittersweet autumns. I’m a product of tight electric air before a fierce downpour of rain and of the never-seen-with-my-own-eyes terrifying rumour of a nearby tornado, the aftermath of which could be seen plainly on the evening news or on a drive through a nearby town. Grassy Creek Elementary School regularly had 'tornado drills', rows of children with their heads between their knees lined along the corridor walls like folded up bugs.

My most formative years were the decade of age seven to seventeen—the 1980s. So I’m Ronald Reagan, John Cougar (Mellancamp), Michael Jackson, Run DMC, Bryan Adams, Max Headroom, Mad Max, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Jim Henson, John Carpenter, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael J. Fox, MTV, The A-Team, Manimal, Automan, PacMan, Space Invaders, Atari, Commodore 64, Donkey Kong, Q-bert, Alf, The Cosby Show, Facts of Life, Eight Is Enough, Different Strokes, Family Ties, Magnum P.I., Knight Rider, Miami Vice, Ocean Pacific, Panama Jack, Bahama shorts, parachute pants, muscle shirts, bandannas, Vans, Air Jordans—whatever came down the pike, I guess.

I was a pastor’s kid, a churchgoing boy in a devout, fairly 'low church' Southern Baptist-cum-Jesus-Movement family. My Dad was a working class post-hippie rock’n’roller who, still rooted in this half of his identity, became also a seminary-trained pastor-evangelist. That pretty much defined us culturally as a family. Stacks of rock'n'roll records and shelves of theology books. Loud music and Bible reading. Rock concerts and churchgoing.

I grew up on all the stories from the Bible (mostly learned in ‘Sunday School’ every Sunday at church). I knew them all forward and back by the time I was ten probably. I mean I really did – there wasn’t really any bit of the Bible I hadn’t heard of, wasn’t familiar with. I thrilled to many parts of it, but regardless, it was just the air I breathed. The God of Moses and David and Jesus and Paul felt very near and real, across the Eastern ages right down to me and my Western adolescence. I also discovered Greek and Norse mythology at the elementary school library and soaked myself especially in the Trojan War with those mighty heroes Ajax and Achilles and Hercules. Oden and Thor and Loki were only dipped into but I had deep respect for Thor as my Norse Hercules. Books on Trolls and Goblins and Ogres were also much appreciated with awe and some fear. ‘Factual’ books about, on the one hand, dinosaurs in the incomprehensibly remote past, and, on the other hand, flying cars, wrist-watch video phones, rocket ships, and colonised moons and planets in the surely oh-so-attainable, not-too-distant future also supplied part of the standard imaginative fare of those years.

And comic books: I preferred (and still do) Marvel over DC any day of the week. Reasonable respect to Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, the Flash and their ilk. But, for me, it was really all about X-Men, Spiderman, Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Avengers, Micronauts, Moon Knight, ROM, Ghost Rider, and the rest of that inexhaustibly inventive throng.

And a fairly random assortment of novels and stories. Some childhood standards like Where the Wild Things Are, Where The Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and even the lesser known Charlie and the Glass Elevator), Ralph S. Mouse, White Fang, Call of the Wild and that sort. But also some standards and some bypaths of fantastic literature: Chronicles of Narnia, Chronicles of Prydain (Lloyd Alexander), The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, Screwtape Letters, Edgar Allan Poe to mention some of the more memorable tomes.

And, of course, the popular movies: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., Goonies, Uncle Buck, Fletch, The Jerk, Blade Runner, Princess Bride, Back to the Future, Ghost Busters, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Road Warrior, The Thing, Dark Crystal. (Some of these were sneaked.) It seemed like a magical decade for a boy.

Baseball and basketball and football were in the air and on the television. Super Bowl, Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, World Series, NCAA, NBA, NFL: they’re part of who I am as an American, but I never truly cared for them, even when I sincerely tried to (I was pretending, playing a role, which was fun for a short while). I played soccer for eleven seasons, enjoyed it, played well on defense, and I wrestled for a few years in junior high, enjoyed it too, but dropped out after a few seasons, unwilling to hack the intense and frequent practices. I tried skateboarding latterly but only liked the music, the ‘look’, and the general counterculture associated with it. I was pretty terrible at it. But even without much sports or athletics, I spent many long hours outdoors exploring woods, climbing trees, wading in creeks, chasing and play-fighting with friends at all hours of day and night in all seasons.

I had a sort of ‘puppy-love’ girlfriend or two, danced at a few dances, longed and pined secretly, tried my hand at a love poem or two, held hands whenever I could, and eventually got way over-committed in a few late teen relationships.

Somewhere around sixteen, two life-shaping things happened. One was that I became self-aware of a huge disenchantment with mainstream culture and what it cared about and was struck with the desire to strike out and figure out a way to ‘be different’, which I did as best I could as a Midwestern kid. (I’d been unconsciously seeking this for some years.) After some misspent early teen years courting heavy metal, I now finally and fully discovered punk rock and realised this was the main musical medium for me. I began scheming to sing in a band.

The other was that my latent, childhood, familial faith woke up with a vengeance and I experienced God in a profound way like I never had before. It swept me right off my feet and switched on an insatiable spiritual thirst and hunger that sent me questing after Jesus (because his was the only divine voice that called to me and he was the one who jumped inside my soul when I said ‘ok, Sir’). Reading the Bible, praying, going to church, ‘evangelising’ others became exquisite peaks of experience, not chores at all. Make of it what you will, I whole-heartedly and besottedlyloved Jesus in blissful naivety and blessed simplicity. My time of running from that and furtively returning would come a little later.

Growing up I was generally an incurable underachiever. From first grade onward I ended each year with an overflowing folder of backed-up schoolwork that, if I and my parents promised I would finish, then the school would pass me on to the next grade. I was a lazy daydreamer. Schoolwork was hard work (because it required focus and sustained attention, not necessarily because I couldn’t understand or perform the work) and imagining fantastic tales in my head constantly and easily overtook my mind and pleasurably passed hours on end, at school and at home. I had an inexhaustible wide-screen, full-immersion cinema in my own head and the temptation to look inward and enjoy the epic entertainment there was just too great for my young undisciplined soul, especially when the alternative prospect was schoolwork.

A few teachers did manage to get me writing some small amounts of poetry and fiction in the early years, which they (along with my parents) encouraged me I had a gift for. I loved it. But I was too lazy to do much of the hard work of getting all that wonderful stuff out of my head and onto paper. At some point I discovered this little alternative called ‘song lyrics’. Those came thick and fast and easy. I was a writer from the depths of my soul and I simply had to write and I was profoundly relieved to finally discover that lyric writing was the path of least resistance for me. (Choosing to follow this path, though successful to a certain degree, would also keep me undisciplined for any other form of creative writing for decades to come.) The songs I wrote were total crap for the entirety of my teenage years and I’m completely torn about having lost all my notebooks full of that trash. I’m so glad the world will never have the slightest chance of seeing them. Yet wouldn’t I love the morbid, macabre thrill of looking over them and ruefully relish the resultant cringing and self-loathing?

But I had found what I liked and, more importantly, what I could actually do. It wasn’t until I’d graduated high school that band members finally came along and it wasn’t until I was married a few years later that the opportunity for putting some of those songs out permanently arrived. I liked what I did. Lots of other people did too. (That surprised me, but, without meaning too, I just took the approbation in stride and kept at the craft with pleasure and not a little pain too.) I was never entirely happy with anything at all that I created, but I kept seeing potential in it that I hoped I could ‘get right’ the next time (which always became the next time after that).

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