The Priest with the Cold Hands

When Rita was in intensive care there was a moment where it seemed like it was all over and her mother told me to go find the priest.

I went down to the chapel and there was an old, old priest in there. As old as Methuselah. I was frantic and I couldn’t get the words out.

That old priest held both of my hands in his and the words he spoke were like the wisdom of the ages. They slowed the whole world down and we all made it through another day.

Always go to the funeral – redux

A few years ago, the wife of a dude I used to work with died. I didn’t really know him well – and his wife not at all – but word got around and a friend of mine said “are you going to the funeral?” I said “well, no probably not. I didn’t really know him that well. I feel like I would be intruding.” My friend told me “That’s really not the point. It’s not about who knows him. It’s about being there.” and he sent me a link to an essay on the Internet called ‘Always go to the funeral’. It’s an amazing essay and it changed my mind about a lot of things to do with religion.

Here’s a little snippet.

On a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.

http://thisibelieve.org/essay/8/

Among my circle of friends, we have have adopted this rule and have a little ceremony when someone dies, that goes like this.

“Are you going to the funeral?”
“What’s the first rule of funerals?”
“Always go the funeral.”
“See you there!”

Now it’s my turn.

My Dad died last week and I am so very, very sad. We now have a big family debate about how to honour his passing. Dad fulfilled a long-standing ambition to retire to Spain (actually – he always said Portugal, but Spain is right there next door) and, after decades away, my family is worried that there is no one left who remembers him to remember his passing. There’s also a bit of a debate as to whether whether a christian memorial service is appropriate for a man who did not have a religious bone, vein or gristle in his body.

The Spaniards were very efficient with the cremation. The cremation was not even a thing but now we want to do something with a bit more significance and the choices at hand are:

  1. Scatter ashes in Footscray Meadows – the scene of many of a childhood memory.  Dad taught me to fish there. Most of my early misdeeds were there. That’s the first place I ever tried to cycle across a river. I have very fond memories of Footscray Meadows.
  2. Memorial service at the church in Rectory Lane. It’s the only church I really know well. My Dad was married there (first time round) and I was christened there along with my brothers and sisters. My grandmother was buried there a couple of years back.

The nub of the debate is whether it is inappropriate – disrespectful, even – to a man who was not so much an atheist as a never-really-gave-religion-any-thought-iest to give him a memorial service in a church. Here’s my response.

I am the biggest atheist I know but I think the one thing that religions do well is a funeral. Secular funerals feel kind of empty to me – like they are missing the point. I think the best kind of funeral connects you with two thousand years of western tradition and then sends you to the pub where you drink Guinness and laugh about the awful couch that your parents had in the 1970s and the good times that you shared and then you cry about the loss that you all feel. That’s a funeral. Scattering ashes in a park is not quite the same for me.

My sister Carol researched our family tree a few years back. She traced our heritage back many generations – back into the 16th century – and discovered that no one in our family moved more than two or three miles from Footscray in all those centuries. But in a generation or two we have scattered to the four winds. I have cousins all over England and Northern Ireland and in France and Australia and we made it all the way to California. My dad’s family was not from Footscray though. His was from way, way north – about 4 or 5 miles north- in Eltham.

So, is it appropriate to give a decidedly non-christian from Eltham a Christian memorial service in Footscray where all his children were born and christened? I can’t think of anything more appropriate.

My sister is a bit worried that it’ll be just us there in that church – four sad children remembering the life of a very special man and the very special lady who took care of him during his most vulnerable days. If it’s just us, it’ll be wonderful. But I’m willing to bet that there will be more than a handful of folks who remember us and are willing to fill the empty pews behind us. I hope you’ll read that essay and remember the edict: Always go to the funeral. I’ll buy you a Guinness if you come. You can buy me one too.

I’ll never forget the moment – at my nephews’ christening where my sister and I had to renounce Satan and all his works and we looked at each other and my sister said something like “This is the bit where we get struck by lightening or arrested for perjury “.  But I feel very grateful for the privilege of being a godfather even if neither I nor more my god sons believe in God. Religious ceremonies are not about religion, they are about ceremony and tradition and the Church of England does those particularly well.

That little church in Footscray is like a Tardis for me. Sitting in those pews transports me back through my memories and even further back into the memories of so many centuries past.

I shared some of these thoughts once before in Don’t Break the Chain. I imagine a chain of tradition and mythology stretching back for a thousand years and we shouldn’t be the ones to break it. It’s too precious.

A Fresh Look

It’s hard to miss Terry Gross if you are a commuter in Silicon Valley. As much as I intend to leave the office in time to hear the endlessly entertaining Kai Ryssdal, by the time I have shut down the computer each evening and made it to the car, seven o’clock has crept up on me and it’s time for the far less entertaining Terry Gross with FRESH Air. Just the way she says it annoys me.

Songs for Young LoversRoger Ebert died this week and one of the best things about famous people dying is that Terry Gross always has an interview with them from 1987 when the famous person was at the pinnacle of their abilities and Terry Gross sucked a little bit less at interviewing. Of course, Terry had several interviews with Roger and even one with Siskel and Ebert together that was quite delightful.

I appreciate Terry Gross’s interview recycling because I’ve long had a theory that we have an obligation to remember great people before they got old even, or especially, when we only ever knew them as old or infirm. Inside every old person is a young person who doesn’t really understand that he’s old now. We should all make a better effort to get to know the young person.

My favourite example is Frank Sinatra. People of my generation think of Frank Sinatra as an old man who sang romantic songs in an old man’s voice. Close your eyes and conjure up Ol’ Blue Eyes singing My Funny Valentine. Did you picture someone like who looked like this?

Old Frank
Old Frank

Sorry, you got the wrong guy. Songs for Young Lovers was recorded in 1953 . When Frank was in the prime of his superstardom in the 40s, he looked like this.

Young Frank
Young Frank

And… he had the same voice as that old guy!

The next time you play some romantic Frankie tunes, don’t make the mistake of imagining that old dude whose voice your grandmother was partial to. That’ll snuff out your spark of romance in no time.

Imagine this guy instead.

Young Frank
Young Frank with Hot Young Grandmother

You can play this game with a whole geriatric ward of interesting old folks. That dude who sang Heartbreak Hotel? He wasn’t an overweight lounge lizard in a sequined white jumpsuit.

It was this guy.

Elvis, Heartbreaker.
Elvis, Heartbreaker.

The Man in Black – another guy who sounded ancient?

The Man in Black
Walking the Line in 1956

Who else sounds ancient? Oh yes, the inspiration for a thousand blog titles, Mr Bob Dylan. The guy who sang Blowing in the Wind looked like this.

Bob Dylan
How many roads, Bob?

Roger Ebert’s very best writing flowed when the tributaries of underground memories trickled into his stream of thought as in this meandering tale wandering through the London of his youth and his later battle with infirmity.

On my imaginary walk I could have turned right at the end of Jermyn and walked up St. James to Piccadilly, and down to Park Lane, and up toward Notting Hill, and I could have passed the Mason’s Arms on my way to Pembridge Square and nodded while passing the Hyde Park West Hotel, where I had a tiny room with a window that opened to allow me to stand on a wide roof overlooking London. I could have had lunch at Costa’s, behind the Gate at Notting Hill, the famous movie theater. Or headed on west to Lord Leighton’s House. Or I could have simply walked out the far end of Pembridge Square and stopped for lunch at the Sun in Splendor– the Evening Standard Pub of the Year in 1968. Why do I know that?

I realize this could get boring. It probably already has. I’ll try to get to my point. Sometimes when I write, you understand, it’s like when I walk around London. When I set out I have a general destination in mind, but as I poke around this way and that, I find places I didn’t know about and things that hadn’t occurred to me, maybe glimpse something intriguing at the end of a street, which is how I found Chiswick House, which I had no idea existed.

We should all do Roger a favour and banish the old chubby with the missing jaw from our imagination. Remember, instead, the young chubby who always wanted to be a great writer and be thankful that he achieved his dream.

A young, aspiring writer
A young, aspiring writer

During the Fresh Air interview mash-up, one interviewee said that the secret to Ebert’s movie reviewing was that he didn’t much care how good a movie was; he cared how much he enjoyed it. His writing was like that too. I’ve been following Ebert’s blog for several years and he always gives the impression that he is writing to delight himself and his delight is infectious. I adore the way he wanders off topic into his own memories and shares them with such simple clarity that they become mixed in with your own.

Reading an Ebert story inevitably makes me want to write one of my own but, as I have a rather busy weekend of me, I’ll have to settle, Terry Gross-style, for replaying a favourite story or two that I stumbled across this morning when I happened to click this link.

The first is about the damage that hidden shame can wreak. Ebert takes a passage from his review of The Reader and turns it into a recollection about a shameful passage in his own history.

Roger Ebert has written a powerful, meandering essay about shame. The essay takes many twists and turns and each one of them is fascinating journey in its own right.

It starts out as a review of the movie The Reader

I was watching Tony Scott on the Charlie Rose program, and he said, in connection with “The Reader,” that he was getting tired of so many movies about the Holocaust. I didn’t agree or disagree. What I thought was, “The Reader” isn’t about the Holocaust. It’s about not speaking when you know you should.

My Deepest Shame

The second is about the limits of empathy and the terrible thinks that happen when your empathy is too limited.

That brings me back around to the story of the school mural. I began up above by imagining I was a student in Prescott, Arizona, with my face being painted over. That was easy for me. What I cannot imagine is what it would be like to be one of those people driving past in their cars day after day and screaming hateful things out of the window. How do you get to that place in your life?

A Beautiful Mind

In every Ebert story, there is always a whispered shout-out to some character from the past who had an influence on his life. Roger, you are in my past now but, muse be willing, the influence of your stories will live on in mine.

Friends don’t let friends sing Happy Birthday

It’s an awful song. I mean, it starts off well enough.

Happy birthday to you.

It gets straight to the point and you know what the song is going to be about right there in the first couple of words. It lacks a certain imagination and creativity but it could be worse. I’ll give it a B-.

But then it kind of goes down hill from there.

Happy birthday to you.

What the fuck! That’s exactly the same as the first line!

What? Couldn’t they find anything to rhyme with you? Like, maybe shoe, loo, cue, poo, dew, do, stew? To a first approximation, most words in the English language rhyme with you. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of many words that don’t rhyme with you. C-.

How about the next line? It can’t be worse than the previous one, right?

Happy birthday dear <name-that-doesn’t-quite-fit-the-metre>

Now they’re just messing with me. To start with, I’m getting fed up with every line starting with the same two words. It’s stupid but the last bit is just inane. Although most words rhyme with you, most names don’t. Let me think for a minute. I’ve got Sue, Lou and Mister McGoo. There aren’t any more. Most names are like Chester or Meredith.

But that’s not the worse part of it. Most names don’t fit the metre so you have to torture them until they do. There is a handful of names that you could ram in there without damaging your eardrums but if you are unfortunate enough to only have one syllable get ready to put your name on the rack of tuneless stretching. Let’s try it…

Joooooooo-ooooohhn!

Can you imagine if people always massacred your name like that? But this is your birthday and people are supposed to be nice to you on your birthday.

Now imagine the fate that awaits people with more than two syllables like, Ragged Clown or Barnaby S. Winthorpe the Third (as most Americans are named). There is no way that you are going to cram Barnaby S. Winthorpe the Third in there without someone getting hurt. But that’s not going to stop our intrepid songsters. Take a look at how they deal with this lyrical conundrum…

BarnabyS.Winthorpethe Thuuuuuurrrr-eeerrd

They crammed like 18 syllables into a space meant for one but then they took that last syllable and chopped it in two!! That’s crazy! Why would they do that! It makes no sense at all. F.

I’m not even going to touch the word dear which has all the fondness and affection of an overdraft letter from your bank manager. It’s too depressing by far.

Maybe they’ll find a way to redeem themselves in the last line.

Happy birthday to you.

Aaargh! THEY USED THE SAME LINE AGAIN!! My head just exploded!

With lyrics that bad, the song is already in the running for Worst Song Ever but we haven’t even started on the melody yet.

happy-birthday-to-you

The melody is basically the dirge section from the national anthem of some third-world dictatorship played at the wrong speed on out-of-tune instruments. You don’t need to know any more. Chopin’s Funeral March is more uplifting. F.

So here’s my recommendation.

If you place any value on good taste and if you don’t completely hate your friends or your children, you will never ever sing this abysmal song ever again. They’ll thank you for it. I know I will.

Cancer – something to laugh at

PJ O’Rourke has cancer. And he laughs in its face.

I looked death in the face. All right, I didn’t. I glimpsed him in a crowd. I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, of a very treatable kind. I’m told I have a 95% chance of survival. Come to think of it — as a drinking, smoking, saturated-fat hound — my chance of survival has been improved by cancer.


I have, of all the inglorious things, a malignant hemorrhoid. What color bracelet does one wear for that? And where does one wear it? And what slogan is apropos? Perhaps that slogan can be sewn in needlepoint around the ruffle on a cover for my embarrassing little doughnut buttocks pillow.

Furthermore, I am a logical, sensible, pragmatic Republican, and my diagnosis came just weeks after Teddy Kennedy’s. That he should have cancer of the brain, and I should have cancer of the ass … well, I’ll say a rosary for him and hope he has a laugh at me. After all, what would I do, ask God for a more dignified cancer? Pancreatic? Liver? Lung?

Funerals for atheists

A little while ago, Jeff and I attended a funeral because Julio reminded us that you should always go to the funeral and on the way back we talked about how the one thing religions really do well is funerals and that it was a pity that atheists didn’t have anything as good.

The discussion led to all kinds of ideas and eventually a business plan for Kev and Jeff’s House of Death. A big part of the funeral experience comes, I think, from the comforting traditions. Traditions are always difficult things to get going of course but, if enough of us put our heads together, maybe we could come up with a few.

Coincidently, Scott Adams is planning his funeral today, too. One of his readers suggested a sad clown for his funeral. Just sitting up front, moping, not saying anything. One idiot poster was surprised that an atheist would want a funeral at all as though atheists don’t believe in death or something. I had always hoped for one of those Tibetan jobbies with the long sticks and the vultures but Georgina is against it. Most likely I’ll end up with one of those gatherings where my best friends sit around and laugh and get drunk and tell stories like at the best funerals that I have attended.

Religious funerals have a built-in advantage over atheist funerals because they help explain the whole what-happens-next issue in a way that is comforting to children. I know what happens afterwards, but it would be nice to have a story to tell my five year old daughter – something that weaves in the Circle of Life with a generous helping of how extraordinarily lucky we are to experience life in the first place.

Julio, Fabienne and Morgane, our thoughts are with you.