Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Lyrical Mythology

It’s that time again.

The first day has dipped below the horizon in the rear view mirror of this school year, I can connect most of my students’ names with their faces, and the first essay is striking procrastination into the hearts of nearly one-hundred seniors. In years past I’ve pondered writing this first assignment—an informal essay examining personal mythology—along with my students, but I always seemed to find something else to do instead. I’m not proud of that fact, but regrets won’t get it written this year either.

Like most of my students, I’ve spent the past few days contemplating what shapes my understanding of my place in the universe. We started the year discussing Joseph Campbell and the idea that a mythology is the set of beliefs true to the people they’re about. So what’s true to me? What beliefs do I hold that help me understand life, the universe, and everything?
I’m not an overly spiritual person so, while I do believe in the existence of a power far beyond human comprehension, most of my beliefs aren’t deeply rooted in one particular organized religion. I believe that the universe is full of mysteries and that, while we think we’re hot stuff, humans are pretty insignificant in whatever grand scheme is in place. I believe in morality, the Golden Rule, and the absolute perfection that is the peanut M&M. I believe that you’re only as old as you feel and I feel pretty darn young (despite Rice Krispie knees and my students’ blank faces when I reference The A-Team or The Facts of Life).

I believe that attempting to ignore Dr. Phil on the guest lounge television of the Honda dealership while waiting on an oil change and tire rotation is not conducive to brainstorming. Despite the distractive bickering of whiny husbands and controlling wives seeking approval from the good doctor, there is one belief I can’t shake—a belief that would have been the first scribble in my notebook if I hadn’t told myself to stop and find something more significant. Instead, I turned my back while this belief miserably moped from the corner like a dismissed diva, furtively followed my thoughts from behind the Honda merchandise cases like a painfully shy child, nervously nagged from the showroom Civic like a backseat driver, boldly burrowed into my flesh and refused to let go like a hook-fueled pop-40 hit, and brazenly burned holes in my soul so big guilt finally gushed out and the only choice left was to accept that down to my very core I believe “life is grand, love is real, and beauty is everywhere.”

I’ve always loved lyrics and the way songs speak to the significant moments in life. A song that bounces around your brain as a catchy, breezy summer sing-a-long for years suddenly morphs into the perfect description of how you feel about the boy/girl that’s got your heart palpitating. A power-ballad that you loved to scream at the top of your lungs while driving down the highway with your windows down suddenly morphs into a tear-inducing reminder of the boy/girl that’s left your heart shredded and disfigured. A song you liked as a teenager annoys the hell out of you in your twenties, but returns sweetly during mid-life musings. Sometimes the simple maturation that comes with the passing years is all it takes to awaken new appreciation for the way words fit together in a song.

The first time I heard those ten simple words, “Life is grand, love is real, and beauty is everywhere,” so exquisitely arranged, I was watching Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers perform at Pop’s in Sauget, IL. I started my relationship with Roger’s lyrics back in the early 90s and the days of the Refreshments, but we separated when he sought independence from the constraints of mainstream radio and record companies. Despite not being together, the memories we made through those early songs still held a special place in my heart and the lyrics guided me through the fog of youth. I connect more to Roger’s songs than those of any other artist despite the fact that he often sings about the arid Mexican borderlands while I’m stuck in the humid Midwestern Ozarklands. So ten years later, when I discovered Roger was coming to the St. Louis area, I knew I had to see him, had to rekindle the flame.

I stood in the smoky darkness of Pop’s seediness while riff-propelled words eased their way into my ears and settled in my soul. Songs both familiar and new drifted from the stage. That night Roger reminded me of the power of music with ten simple words in the song ‘Better Beautiful than Perfect’. Ten simple words that fanned the passionate embers once again into a steady blaze and burned deep into my mythology: “Life is grand, love is real, and beauty is everywhere.”

Life is indeed grand—absolutely grand. While I believe humans are insignificant in the ultimate scheme of the universe, I passionately believe that life is worth living. Sure I grumble when the alarm rings at 5:05 a.m. and I’d rather ‘snooze’ then stumble out from the comforting warmth of my bed, wipe away the eye boogers (great social equalizer that they are), and hope for the grogginess to fade quickly, but I would never pass up the opportunity to experience the complex reality of being human. I’m fascinated by what it means to be alive: literally and figuratively. I’m amazed by the way the human body works and the way the human brain allows us to process interactions with internal and external stimuli. I’m astounded to think that the experience of being human connects me to every other human who has graced this planet and even those who’ve walked on the moon. I’m thunderstruck when I ponder how I go through the same motions (which is why my dance moves are a bit dated), breathe the same air (with a few more additives), communicate the same way (well, with some minor additions like Twitter and texting), eat the same food (pizza’s been around forever, right?!?), and struggle through the inevitable ups and downs of life as my ancestors. And therein lies the true grandness of life: it’s a struggle, it’s a challenge, it’s complex, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure, it’s strict rules to follow, it’s a clear lake with a muddy bottom, and it’s certainly never quite what you expect. But that’s exactly what makes it amazing and so worth the effort.

Love is real—but not just fairy tale archetypal happily-ever-after love. Love is real because it is bound to the same complexities of life: it isn’t perfect, it has flaws, it’s fickle, and it takes work to get it right. It’s easy to see that the concept of love exists within the human experience. Hollywood, romance novels, and Disney-groomed singers tell us that every day. But while I know that love exists, I know that it is real because it isn’t simple. It forces us into the midst of universal battles between passion and anger, desire and hatred, yearnings and revulsions. Love that we have for friends, family, and significant others is filled with these battles. For instance, I absolutely love Mini-Me and ‘The Wubster’. I would do anything for them, give anything to them, and sacrifice everything because of them. I’ve loved them from the moment I first laid eyes on each of their disgusting little faces (What? They were covered in afterbirth…once they’d been cleaned up they were adorable). Those boys are my pride and joy and I can’t believe how something as small as a one-minute-old child can evoke such strong emotions. Of course, as much as I love them, at times they drive me crazy and remind me how much I enjoyed my former freedom. There are moments (see some of my earlier blogs) when I really, really miss sleeping in, lazing away weekend mornings, eating a meal without someone having to poop as soon as the food arrives, looking at the front door and not seeing the time-out corner, or relaxing the moment I walk in said door after work. Love is real because it forgives my selfishness, impatience, and frustration in those moments. Love is real because actually returning to a life of those moments would be vapid and meaningless.

Beauty is everywhere. I’ve always been fascinated by the marvels of Earth (opposable thumbs, thunderstorms, chocolate, snowflakes, volcanoes, roses, aurora borealis, the duck-billed platypus) and those beyond (shooting stars, Saturn’s rings, comets, Pluto [I still believe in you!], nebulae, black holes, galaxies far, far away). I wake up every day ready to experience the beauty of the world around me, whether it’s something I see every day (the smiles on my wife and kids’ faces) or something I’ve never experienced before (if I could give you an example it wouldn’t be something I’ve never experienced, natch) because I know that beauty can be found in all aspects of the universe. Actually, not all aspects. Truth be told, I see nothing beautiful about those burrowing, hideous, eyeless critters that terrorize the poor, defenseless grubs seeking sanctuary in my yard and the blades of grass that just want to keep their roots in the dirt and keep reaching for the stars. One of my students read this and proclaimed, “Moles are so cute with their little snouts and feet!” What was I to do? Crush her idealistic view of one of nature’s cruel jokes? Nah. Instead I’ll simply follow her example and search out the beauty of nature, the beauty of mole…traps. Of course, I guess I understand. I think Mini-Me and ‘The Wubster’ are absolutely adorable, but, while my wife and I may think they’re lovely, the boys are not always viewed as such in public. When we go out to eat at restaurants there are times when people around us smile and wave and enjoy watching the boys play, and talk, and make a mess. There are other times when the boys’ behavior makes the people around us want to puke. Beauty’s certainly in the eye of the beholder, but at least that eye doesn’t have to look far to find rewards.

So, yes, life is grand, love is real, and beauty is everywhere. The world around me is beautiful, complex, imperfect, amazing and unique and, as part of it, so am I. Roger and the boys are coming back to town in October. If you want to find me I’ll be there in the Duck Room, standing towards the back, singing along to those ten simple words.


  1. i really enoyed reading this mr. j! such great writing with the touch of dry humor that i find hilarious and try my best to use in my own writing.

    hope the start of the new year is finding you well.