Monday, September 24, 2012

Fear of Failure

I am setting out Saturday on a rather wild adventure.

I am participating for the first time in the City-to-Shore ride for MS. My leg will comprise a 75-mile bike ride from Cherry Hill, NJ, to Ocean City, NJ. Riders can choose more mileage than that, including a whopping 150-mile ride in which, after arriving at the Shore on Saturday, they turn around and ride the same 75 miles back on Sunday.

There is also a 25-mile loop along the way, in case any riders want to log a full 100 on their odometers.

I'll be content finishing 75, thank you very much.

I am participating as part of a team. The captain, a good friend of ours, has made this ride maybe four or five times in past editions of the event. We have supported her in the past (the ride is a fundraiser, after all), but this is the first time I've ridden with her.

It is something I've thought about for a long time -- yes, it is a "bucket list" item -- but I never quite mustered the courage to try before.

And now, I'm questioning my sanity.

I have had all summer -- jobless --  to "train," an activity I engaged in with regular outings on my bike. During the summer swelter, I would dutifully pedal a couple of miles, grateful for the breezes that cut the humidity. And best is when Claire, our middle button daughter, would join me.

At my best, I traveled 30 miles in one ride. I took the nearby Schulykill River Trail 15 miles toward the city of Philadelphia, turned around, and came back the same 15 miles. I fell into a groove of pacing myself, and frankly, the test wasn't as bad as I had imagined it.

But looming in my thoughts is the knowledge that that ride represents less than half of what I'll face on Saturday.

I'm dreading failure. Being still without full-time employment has made me very sensitive about failure. I feel like I've let down my family in the fact that I was let go from my former employer in the first place. I have also felt the sting of rejection in the numerous job interviews that resulted in nothing -- no offer, no job, no hope. 

So failing at this ride will leave me very deflated.

I am therefore making every effort to cross that finish line.

I was discussing all this with Eileen, and she brought me a new perspective. She's good at that. One of the reasons I love her so deeply.

She re-framed my outlook by pointing out that this is a fundraiser. For a charity. To benefit people with MS.

In that light, it's really not about me at all.

And then there's this. Owing to the generosity of friends and family, I have been fortunate enough to raise a considerable sum for this outreach. Each rider is required to raise $300 to be able to participate. I began trolling for donations back in may, and to my utter shock (and deepest gratitude), I've amassed more than $1,000 for MS.

A generous outpouring from friends. Friends who believe in me. Friends who are there for me.

My favorite film of all time, It's a Wonderful Life, hinges on the message that George Bailey finds written in his copy of Tom Sawyer at the end:

No man is a failure who has friends.

It rings in my head as I consider this ride and my ability to finish.

No Man Is a Failure Who Has Friends....

In that respect, I've already crossed the finish line.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Emotional Keys

I went to a funeral this morning. I didn't know the deceased. I went there as organist, playing music to ease the pain of the family's final farewell to a loved one.

I have long ago lost track of how many funerals I've provided music for over 35 years of being a church organist. It is a lot, I imagine. When I think of my own passing -- someday a long time from now, God willing -- I hope that among those greeting me on the other side are the souls of those I helped bid goodbye. After all, when it comes to passing through the Pearly Gates, I figure I'm going to need all the help I can get.

This morning's funeral was the second one I attended this week. The first was for my Aunt -- my mother's sister -- who passed away from complications of Alzheimer's. Just like Mom did.

Funny enough, the music director at my Aunt's church is my former music teacher; he was the one who opened the doors to me for reading, interpreting, presenting, conducting, and praying with music. We caught up a little and then he asked if I'd like to play something for my Aunt at the Mass.

I declined. I was there as a mourner only and wasn't interested in taking the bench.

Playing a funeral requires a deep level of emotional distancing from the tears, tissues, hugs, and remembrances. That distance requires a totally separate frame of mind for me to competently play. It's about focus; it's about brain-power; it's about attention. All of which fly in the face of being able to grieve myself. Or share in others' grief.

I describe it this way: When I play, I am in work mode. Which means I am in a totally different realm, necessitated by the faculties needed to play the organ in the first place and to monitor continually what's going on liturgically.

It's the difference between helping to lead worship and simply participating in worship. It's also the reason I chose not to play Mass for either of my parents' funerals. Or my Aunt's. I wanted to participate in those liturgies. Not help lead them.

I'm asked a lot whether playing funerals bothers me. Not really. The ability to take myself out of the sadness and grief and operate in that work mode comes very much in handy.

But it's not 100%.

I can recall playing for the funeral Mass of the pastor of my first "true" church job. Despite its questionable use in Catholic Liturgy, the "Our Father" by Albert J. Malotte was a favorite of this priest. It's here, if you need a reminder:

It was included in his funeral Mass, just as it was at every Mass he celebrated. But midway through the introduction, it all hit me: He was gone; the piece's unorthodoxy would come to light by his successor; and this was likely the last time I would play it. And so in a wash of emotion, the tears crept down my cheeks as I maneuvered through the measures.

The only other time I can recall having difficulty with a funeral liturgy is when I was serving as music director/organist at a nearby Protestant church.

The choir there was very small but very dedicated, and I clicked in a big way with one of the baritones, Neil. Neil was a handful of years older than I, but he had a quick wit and a generous laugh and a heart as big as all creation. We became fast friends.

He was a man of quiet faith, but his belief ran deep. And perhaps never was it more tested when his 20-something son was killed accidentally, shot as a mistaken burglar by an overly zealous neighbor.

Neil and his wife Marion and his other children were understandably shattered. And the church family was rocked to its very core, hit in the spiritual solar plexus with an out-of-nowhere wallop.

The the date was set for a funeral service and naturally I would be playing. I assumed work mode would take over and I would be fine...

And for most of it, I was.

The sanctuary was packed. Neil's son had a wide net of friends, and the seats quickly filled to capacity. So they stood in the back. And the aisles. And took up just about every square inch of space. I remember clearly that some of the youthful mourners sat cross-legged behind the organ bench itself, so eager were the bereft to share in this family's pain.

I don't recall exactly what triggered it. Maybe it was at the very end, watching Neil and Marion leave the church, shadows of their former selves, hunched over as if their pain was a great weight that they were trying to bear on frail shoulders.

I know the music in my vision blurred and then washed out completely. I couldn't see anything through my crying. But somehow, I pressed on and finished the service.

As bad as it can be for me in these few instances where emotion takes over on the bench, I do consider myself lucky. I can hide behind the console. And fall back on memorization skills to get me through when the score turns watery by my quiet sobs.

But the singers in these situations have it far, far worse. They are front and center, depending on the geography of the church itself. And they've got to sing -- they've got to be able to use their voices and breath control to form the words that bring comfort.

Lucky me.

All I need are fingers and feet. Neither of which turn quivery or crack under duress.

So if you ask me to play a funeral and I accept, fine. But if I politely decline, know that it isn't because I don't want to give you that gift. It's because I'd rather stand with you. Lean my shoulder into yours. And grieve right along with you.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Purple House

Ah, another political season is upon us. Once more, a slate of hopeful candidates leave their corners and engage in one verbal donnybrook after another, hoping to send the other guy to the mat. Or at least the ropes.

We are now in the throes of convention season. Followed by debate season. And then survey season. Which will be followed up by attack-ad season. And then counter-attack-ad season. October surprise. November comeback. Cue the marching bands.


Forgive me for being rather blase about the whole thing.

I think after a certain number of elections, it becomes easier and easier to yawn through all of it. From the primaries to the exit polls, the rhetoric from all sides just piles up on itself in a growing heap of promises, half-truths, fuzzy explanations, sketchy details, spin, finger-pointing, baby-kissing, flag-waving, and thumpy-happy theme music.

Wake me when they've swept Pennsylvania Avenue clean of the confetti and let me know how it all played out, willya?

It wasn't always this way for me. My roots were planted in fertile soil for healthy, meaningful political debate.

Mom was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. She was a depression kid who lived with a steady fear and distrust of financial institutions and believed that the best form of government is one that supports the everyday social needs of its citizenry. She saw the manner in which FDR saved the nation from financial ruin through his alphabet soup of recovery plans, and she continued to believe that it was the government's responsibility to ensure that the poor would never suffer in that manner again. As a nurse, she wanted a President who felt people's pain and did his level best to ease it.

She loved the Kennedys, hated the Nixons, and pulled a straight-ticket D-lever her entire life.

Dad operated from the right, having been attracted to the Republican way of thinking, especially in its support of the military. He was a Navy man, serving during the Korean War, and made his career as a Naval Engineer, drafting aircraft carriers. Budget cuts from the peacenik Ds in Washington took bread and butter off his table, so he voted consistently with the GOP. He felt the role of government was as protectorate on a global scale. As a civil servant, he wanted a President who was strong against all enemies, both foreign and domestic.

He disliked the Kennedys, but he grew to dislike the Nixons as well; in fact, his vote for Nixon was the last he ever cast in a presidential race, declaring them "...all crooks." His views drifted more moderate after his retirement, but none of the subsequent candidates ever caught his attention enough for him to pull the curtain on a voting booth for the rest of his life.

Mom and Dad talked politics a lot. And when they would argue -- sometimes heatedly -- they would retreat to our basement laundry room. There, they would square off, putting a pair of sneakers into the drier so that the metallic clumping noise of the Keds careening off  the inside drum would cover their shouting.

I think that was for our benefit -- the boys -- so that we wouldn't hear them at odds with each other. What they didn't know is that we would huddle above the heat register in the dining room and eavesdrop.

And when it was over, it was over. They would calmly re-climb the stairs and go about their business.

So our house growing up was neither red nor blue. It was red and blue. Purple.

Dad used to say that neither one of them should bother to vote at all, as all they were doing is cancelling each other out. He'd tease Mom: "I'll stay home if you stay home."

And she'd eye him suspiciously...

"No," she'd say. "I'm going."

"Okay," he'd counter. "So am I."

There is no such political divide in my own household. Eileen and I both lean right, mostly from a pro-life point of view, given our Roman Catholic faith. But I am altogether aware of the hypocracy that stance can sometimes represent: Pro-life, sure, but I was thrilled to see Al Qaeda blasted to smithereens and cheered with the rest of the country when Osama Bin Laden ended up with a bullet in his temple.

If a baby's life is sacred, isn't al-Zwahiri's as well? I struggle with these questions.

I do get a kick out of hearing/reading other people's reactions to the stumping and the speechifying. As an undergrad, I took a class in the U.S. Presidency, and the professor -- a former pol himself -- noted again and again the purposeful limits on what the C-in-C could actually do. Or not do.

For instance, I'm fairly sure the President of the U.S. cannot set or re-set the price of gasoline on a nationwide basis. Or the price of raspberries. Or loose leaf paper. Or weight loss pills. Or anything else, for that matter.

Not sure he can create jobs, either. Unless he hires a Georgetown teen to cut the White House lawn.

But I think that job is taken.

Facebook has been an interesting canvas on which to watch all this play out.

I am a recent participant in the Facebook phenom, and this is my first presidential election cycle there. The notion that someone's viewpoints will be changed merely by the post of an article -- amid a steady stream of chatter, baseball score updates, high school reunion news, and other digital blather -- is amazing to me.

"Thank you, friend, for posting a link to this <article/video/blog entry/podcast> on <insert Candidate A/B name here>. I had no idea before <reading/viewing/listening> to this information that he was such a <philanderer/fatcat/greedy SOB/scum bucket/schnook> and that his opponent is exactly the kind of <political genius/visionary leader/caring individual/devoted American> that we need to lead us through our most challenging challenges. I am totally convinced now to vote for <Candidate B/A>.

"And with that decided, let me give your post a big, thumbs-up LIKE

"And go vote for my America's Got Talent faves!"

I just don't see it.

I'm not a Tea Bagger, although I'd like to see government on a federal level become less invasive. And yes, that's another point that can be at odds with a pro-life outlook. Hands off guns; hands on uteri. I get it. I get it.

I also know that nobody is going to balance the budget. It is probably to the point that no politician could balance it even if he/she wanted to. But none of them will dare say that.

Nor the words term limits.

Nor the words flat tax.

But I'm getting into my own biases for things I'd like to see from Washington.

I'm also not so into the GOP that I can't see its faults.

For one, the GOP seems to have ceded to the Ds the rights to all the cool and hip candidates. Barack Obama is cool and hip. In fact, he may be all cool and hip and without substance at all.

I did not vote his way, as I found him inexperienced -- a charge I still lobby at him -- but there's no denying that he's glib, friendly, funny, confident, charming, and an excellent speaker.

All the GOP seems to put up cycle after cycle is a slate of BWGs. Boring White Guys. C'mon, Right. Bob Dole? Really? John McCain? Meh! Even Mitt is on the bland side. 

I liked Reagan (he was the first presidential candidate I ever voted for) but do not worship the ground he walked on. I did hate Bill Clinton and could never quite forgive him for being a liar and a cheat. And for what it's worth, I consistently found many of George W. Bush's mutterings to be absolutely cringe-worthy. "Mission Accomplished." Insert foot in mouth.

It's a Washington tradition, seemingly. Exhibit B: our thick-tongued, loose-lipped, rattle-brained VPOTUS Joe Biden.

As for the rest of it and where we go from here, I'm sorry to say that it really won't matter to my day-to-day existence. Wednesday, November 06, 2012, I'll still rise, dress, take the dog out for a walk, put on the coffee pot, and sludge off to my day's work, such that it is. And the day after that. And the day after that. I'll pay taxes. I'll go to church. I'll buy groceries. I'll get my hair cut.

President Obama. President Romney.

Excuse me for this, but does it really matter?