“Alexa, Fart.”

The Gambler passed away today and a tiny spark lit up the cobwebs of my memory hole. Around a decade or so ago (holy shit has it been that long?)… my Grandpa was wandering around in a listless fog warbling “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucilllllle” over and over again in his empty house. My Grandma had died a few days earlier, and my Grandpa was to follow her to eternity a few months later. As I rummaged through their smelly basement I unearthed Kenny Rogers’ “TEN YEARS OF SOLID GOLD” on vinyl, along with an album of JFK’s speeches, a whole mess of Bing Crosby and some Polka. I listened to “Lucille” today. It takes roughly 47 minutes to get to the chorus ’cause Kenny got so much storytellin’ to get off his chest.

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As a youth I listened to a lot of crap. Other than a few Beatles albums, my parents record collection was filled with hilariously bad ’70s folk and soft pop country beauties. Thanks to the wonders of Spotify, I’ve recently rediscovered my favorite song from when I was 8. A goofball country cover called “Elvira” which has a chorus made up of nonsense words like “Giddy Up, Oom Poppa Oom Poppa Mow Mow.” For 36 years I thought that number was sung by the band Alabama. Turns out it was by something called “The Oak Ridge Boys”. Whatever. Same diff.

My father has continuously bludgeoned me with Gordon Lightfoot albums for 40 odd years. To this day it’s all he plays in his car and at his house. For his 65th birthday a few years back he took us to see the old bastard at the State Theater. The only time in the last decade where all 4 of his male children were in the same room with him due to various feuds and various distances. I got so plastered that I couldn’t remember which ramp my car was parked in and wandered around downtown Minneapolis in the pouring rain for an hour, completely lost. I thought it was humorous to purchase my father a giant glass of scotch for $26 at the venue and try to make him finish it. Lightfoot’s voice sounded like barbed wire hell, but the tone of his acoustic guitar was like a warm nostalgia bath.

Quarantine sucks eggs. Lucky for me, my work did not start making us work from home until Friday. Which meant my wife had to try to chase two kids around and get her work done remotely for a good part of each day. I got a taste of this on my first day working from home yesterday. To say it was mildly annoying would be the understatement of the century. My head nearly exploded as my kids screamed song requests into the Alexa and jumped off the furniture while I attempted to write my yearly performance review. I don’t know how my wife did this for 4 straight days or what in Hades is going to happen in the coming weeks. God bless every teacher in America, you deserve a million dollar raise.

The Earth is currently a simmering cauldron of denial, fear, paranoia and we’ve decided to horde all the 2% milk. Yet my biggest gripe is getting The Lumineers’ “O-O-phelia” belted into my ear tunnels by children. Clearly we are all spoiled rotten brats. An extremely aggravated Mother Nature has decided to hulk-smash the phantom construct in which we toil.

During my first work from home day I “allowed” my wife to leave for a few hours and run around and do some hoarding herself. She reported in about the various weirdness, ATM lines and missing bread. She also said something that really struck a chord with me. There was a line around the block at the liquor store. Now that I have been sober for awhile, I don’t think about this stuff much. I usually just shrug my shoulders, maybe chuckle a bit, and say “that’s not for me”…but I can’t help thinking about what I would have done had the Coronavirus hit 2-3 years ago. I’d have probably been in that line, grumpy as fuck, trying to get the right flavored IPA that I needed. I’d probably be obsessing with OCD levels of absurdity:

“OK, I need this one for when I am done working from home, I need this one for when I grill, I need this one for the season premiere of Westworld, I need this for when I re-watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for the 8th time….no screw that…no beer…I’ll make Rick Dalton whiskey sours for that.”

It really says something about the human condition that when the apocalypse is upon us, all we care about is booze and toilet paper. Really? Not me. Something about that just repulses me. Of course if I go much longer without my Key Lime LaCroix water, I may cut a motherfucker. 

When I was 8 I dove deep into my parents music collection. Sure the music was corny, but there was something genuine about the storytelling that made it interesting to me. I loved Kenny Rogers “Coward of the County.” It was a crazy wild story and even more engrossing than the little Star Wars storybook I listened along to with a 45. It felt so grown up, it made me feel like I was in on the meaning of life. But by the time I was 9, I was already rebelling against my parents. “I want to listen to MY MUSIC, not this old man stuff!” …my parents allowed me to buy a cassette of Twisted Sister’s “Stay Hungry” and wander around our gravel driveway with one of those one speaker cassette players cranked to tinny ear splitting (all treble) levels.

It always feels so trashy and stupid when a celebrity dies. All the social media tributes swirl aimlessly for days. Sweet tributes to the has-beens we haven’t given two shits about for decades. The problem with the cynicism towards these posts, is that music and art tend to burrow themselves deep into your core. Deeper than you can even imagine. It’s the first thing people turn to in times of tragedy. Who doesn’t know someone that has “divorce songs” or that song they played over and over after their Dad died? Who doesn’t remember exactly what song was playing when they danced their first dance at their wedding? Who doesn’t laugh about songs their kids made them play in the car on repeat on the way to school (burn in hell KIDZ BOP!)…

At some point every human needs to be uplifted, I don’t care who you are or what you believe in. That’s why there will be some album that comes out in the near future that will be known as “the coronavirus album” – something akin to Springsteen’s “The Rising” following September 11th. Some people will laugh at this album’s unbearable cheese…but they will always think of this time in history when they hear it. It’s astonishing to think about what sparks the magic of your memory. It doesn’t have to be cool, it doesn’t have to have any relevance to anything, it doesn’t have to have any merit whatsoever. It just is.

So send out your sympathies to Prince, Chris Cornell, Kobe Bryant or Tiny Tim if you need to make yourself feel better. Who am I to judge?  An awful Kenny Rogers song brings me to tears and I can still live with myself.

I wonder what will spark nostalgia from 2020 when my kids are my age?  I hope it’s not paranoia or Donald Trump or lack of Pasta. Fuck Pasta. Who needs that much Pasta?

Maybe they will have nostalgia for all the times they asked Alexa to fart. I know my greatest memory of “The Quarantine” so far is seeing my son laugh when Alexa played Jingle Bells using nothing but farts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another human being laugh as hard as that. Pure joy can come in any form. Remember that when you are hoarding Bud Light Lime, and I’ll remember it when I am wiping my ass with lyric sheets from 70’s country records.

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My Funeral Suit.

I’m going to write about death now.

Did you know the 1996 hit song “How Bizarre” has an accordion in it? At least I think it does. I’m positive I heard it in there on my way to buy Bubly water instead of beer. I am about to embark on the annual family vacation to Duluth, MN. My first completely dry excursion there. No breweries, no can beer out of a cooler after a long hike, no flights of beer at Grandma’s Saloon while the kids down Mac & Cheese. Bone. Dry. Sober as a judge.

I am positive that was a damn accordion. But who really listens to the song “How Bizarre”? It’s pretty much designed to be unobtrusive, moderately funky elevator music. However, if you think about it long and hard for some odd reason, like I was about to do…”How Bizarre” is a brilliantly crafted piece of bubblegum pop trash. The annoying vocal inflection of OMC’s lead singer is just slightly off kilter…not too much…but just enough to make you listen about 10% closer. It’s odd without being too weird. The disgustingly catchy hook and idiotic storytelling are just icing on the cake and somehow keep you from nodding off completely. If this song was a smile it would be a wry smirk from on overconfident nerd you think you recognize, but cannot place. Fuck it. I gotta google if this has an accordion in it. This is very important to me at this moment. I don’t know why. I need the answer. I find none. I do find out that the lead singer’s name was Pauly (that’s perfect) and that he died in 2010, just eight days before his 41st birthday. How bizarre.

I received an alarming phone call from my father while I was vacationing in Duluth. His tone of voice took on an inflection that I have never heard it take before. I didn’t just listen to him 10% closer, I listened 600% closer. This was something new. This was something really, really bad. Now five days later I am driving south for Winona, MN. My funeral suit hangs frumpily in the back seat of my 2012 Jeep Liberty. It had just been worn a few weeks earlier. It hadn’t even been dry cleaned.

My funeral suit is a dull, unobtrusive grey number that I wear with a simple black dress shirt. No tie. Fuck ties. When you are a boring dad in your 40s you are allowed to become Sonny Crockett from Miami Vice if you like. Nobody gives a fuck. You might as well be invisible. This is my “groutfit”… there are many like it, but this one is mine.

This is the 3rd time I have worn the groutfit in the last year and a half. The first of these 3 times inspired my very first post on this here sober blog. When I was in the foggy mist of the first 30 days sober, the big D word seemed like an important monumental thing to write about. After that, I felt like I had written all I had to say on the subject. I felt like I had sufficiently depressed myself, and now it was ok to soberly move on. Clearly though, when an 88-year-old grandma dies…no matter how poetic you make the details sound…this is the “quaint” version of death. I know this now.

I also know that there will be much darker times ahead. Even more terrible then the other 2 times I wore my groutfit this year. Like when someone extremely close to me dies. I know that just around the corner lies the kind of uncompromising sadness that makes you question your very existence, and I know it’s coming for us all. I also know that Bob Dylan said: “death is not the end” and that it may or may not be true. This is okay though, as long as the living are still there to comfort you.

I bought my first funeral suit in 2009 when my Grandpa Lowell died. Actually, it was the first suit I ever bought that had 2 matching pieces. I was 33 years old. My brother was with me and he got one too. A guy at Men’s Warehouse in Maple Grove, MN sold them to us. This guy must have really had a good laugh when we walked out. My first funeral suit was navy blue with white pinstripes. He set me up with a yellow shirt and a yellow paisley tie as well. Quintessential mourning wear.

My brother had the good sense to go with an all-black with white pinstripe ensemble. It looked like a Harlem zoot suit designed by Johnny Cash. When we got to the church to meet our younger brothers, both of them looked like they had robbed Goodwill of mismatched suits 3 sizes too big for them, then paired it with whatever black accessory they could find at Ragstock. My littlest brother still looks cooler than me in the picture though. There are two reasons for this… the first being that he actually IS cooler than me (he played in a band silly), and two he found a skinny tie that looked like Mr. Pink’s in the movie Reservoir Dogs. I looked like freakin’ Nic Cage in The Family Man when his wife buys him the green Armani suit that is on clearance because it’s 10 years old.

As I drive out of the Twin Cities with my funeral suit, I listen to Spotify. I have found what I think is the unofficial soundtrack lineup for Joaquin Phoenix’s upcoming movie ‘Joker‘…lots of depressing heavy music on there. Good. Do your worst. The song “Sweetness Follows” by REM comes on and I drift into hazy highway daydream driving. “Sweetness Follows” is the most epic funeral song ever written. When I drove back and forth from the Twin Cities to Rochester, MN as my Grandpa Joe was dying I played REM’s Automatic for the People repeatedly (yeah the one with ‘Everybody Hurts’…eh…I was a rookie whadya gonna do?). I never cried once in the 3 times I drove down there (my Grandpa Joe practically raised me when my parents got divorced). However, the floodgates finally opened the last time I drove back home. He died that very evening. I wasn’t there. I felt something snap on that ride back. I just knew it was over.

“Sweetness Follows” is one of the most depressing and also one of the most surprisingly uplifting songs I have ever heard in my life. Randomly hearing it at this exact moment in time is like a warm fuzzy blanket. I am deep in thought. I miss my exit. When I come to my senses, Bowie’s “Life on Mars” is playing. Where the hell am I?  Hastings, MN? During the last 4 minutes and 22 seconds, I could have been beamed up and prodded by alien life forms or the puppeteer of ALF for that matter. I could have kept driving down the same road for 18 more hours if that song had kept looping. I could have been crushed by an oncoming vehicle like Elliot, my 16-year-old cousin. He too was listening to Spotify.

I had originally wanted to write a blog post about a man named Aaron Klein. Aaron was a fantastic human. He had an earnestness for life that I’ve never seen in anyone else before or since. He was so earnest it actually became downright annoying at times. Aaron worked with me at the network as a director and producer for 14 years, including the last few years in which I was his manager. I still remember the exact moment he told me he had some weird back pain. I told him to go to a chiropractor. A year later I was surprising him with a cake for his “retirement” to stay home with his kids. A year after that I was hugging him and telling him I loved him as he lay on his death bed. 36 years old, with a wife and 3 young children. It was hard to put on the funeral suit a week later. The hardest.

That tragedy coming full circle completely gut-punched us for the last month at work. I just couldn’t write about it. Didn’t have it in me. It was hands down the most devastating thing I had witnessed in 43 years on this planet. Until I got that call in Duluth from my dad. My uncle’s youngest son…my 88-year-old grandmother’s youngest grandchild…one of the two teenagers who pall-beared her casket with me on that frigid North Dakota morning in 2018…was now suddenly and shockingly erased from this earth. That was literally the last time I saw him too. When 4 of us (we didn’t have enough people for the usual 6 man crew) hilariously near-fumbled a casket down a flight of stairs in Carrington, ND (see blog post: “Formaldehyde”). Unbelievable. He’s gone? Just like that? What the fuck???

I am at Elliot’s service. I go through the receiving line (a line which would snake forever I’m told and last more than 2 hours). I am barely able to form words when I see my uncle, his oldest son Ian, and Elliot’s mother. I sit mouth agape for the entire service. Probably looking something like the hordes of teenagers that file through the funeral home, jaws on the floor at the sight of all those flowers and the thought of the supreme finality of death.

I can’t cry. Even though I sit directly behind the bereaved and feel a pit in my stomach the size of a beach ball everytime they start crying. I just can’t possibly comprehend the loss they are feeling, it’s unattainable to my mind’s eye. There are words read from my uncle’s hand about “not enough time” and a speech from the poor vacationer who drove the other vehicle. Beautiful words and profound closure of what happened at the accident scene. It is a vortex of pain. It is a wake-up call that is burned like a brand into everyone who walked through the door that day. Death is not the eternal sleep. Life is the slumber and death is the vicious alarm for which there is no snooze button.

I leave immediately after the ceremony. I feel an unstoppable need to drive two and a half hours home through darkness and the world’s biggest river bugs splattering my windshield in order to hug my kids before they go to bed. Like Nic Cage in Brett Ratner’s cheesy 2000 movie The Family Man, this is my “glimpse”. This is the good Lord sitting me down for some cocoa and saying “you think you have it bad because the network laid off 20% of it’s staff 2 months ago….well…get a load of this raw shit you groutfit-wearing fuckhead.”

I better get busy living I guess…life begins at 43?

I read a David Lynch quote recently which bluntly and succinctly sums up the last month for me:

“I don’t think that people accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense. I think it makes people terribly uncomfortable. It seems like religion and myth were invented against that, trying to make sense of it.”

We are all one-hit wonders. We all have hidden accordions in us. We grab onto every distraction we can to remind ourselves that we aren’t animals that decay or die suddenly. Every person on this earth is a one-hit-wonder named Pauly or Sugar Ray or Tommy Tutone trying to milk a decades-long career from one flash-in-the-pan melody. In the end, we all end up playing State Fairs and go to a potluck in a church basement after a funeral. I no longer fear this. It is inevitable.

When I get back home my kids are already asleep, all worn out from their 2nd day of the new school year. I find a card in my pocket. Elliot’s family has given out memory cards to everyone at the service. You’re supposed to write down a memory of him and keep it with you always. I couldn’t think of anything to write at first, but then I remember the North Dakota trip and jot down “4 Man Crew.”  I take a picture of it, text it to my uncle, fold it up gingerly and stick it in my wallet.

Another thought floats through my head, fleeting but relevant…something from the service about remembering Elliot’s family on what would have been his 17th birthday on Oct. 1st. I briefly consider putting a note in my phone to remember to call my uncle that day. How the fuck am I not going to forget to do this? Wait…Oct 1st? I check the funeral home leaflet with Elliot’s obituary on it. Then I remember something…

On October 1st I will be exactly 1 year sober.

How Bizarre.

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