What this year looks like is up to us

It seems no matter who you are or where you stand, 2016 was an emotional year. For me, 2016 certainly had extremely highs and scary lows, as I got married in June and then almost lost my father when he was involved in a horrific head-on in Yellowstone in September. We lost Prince, Bowie, Princess Leia, Willy Wonka and the great Muhammad Ali.

I could go on and on with reflection, but instead I’d like to move forward, and first ask, “how are you?” Really, I want to know. Some of us are hurting after 2016, and some of us aren’t, but we all still share this beautiful country and this beautiful county. At church, the congregation is asked to welcome those attending, to shake hands with a neighbor. It’s too bad such opportunities don’t also occur at work, sporting events or even happy hour.

The political season brought out the worst in a lot of us, as it often does, but this year, most can agree, really took the cake on a local, statewide and national level. And, as is the case any election year, there are winners and losers. We have to come together now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t express concerns. We should feel comfortable talking to people when we see something that disturbs us. Like Jack Kornfied said, “Whatever your political perspective, now is the season to stand up for what matters. To stand against hate. To stand for respect. To stand for protection of the vulnerable. To care for the natural world.”

This is not about red and blue, Kornfield writes, it’s about “standing up for the most basic of human principles, for moral action and the prevention of harm.”

What the next four years look like is anybody’s guess, but what this year looks is up to us. That’s the beauty of new year’s resolutions. And, this year, instead of focusing on how much to work out or personal ambition, I’m going to focus on family. I’m going to focus on what truly makes me grateful day in and day out. I want to enjoy my time with my wife and step-son, do fun things together and go places we haven’t been. I want to keep in better touch with my sister, brother-in-law and three nephews in North Carolina. Grateful to still have my father around, I want to spend as much time as possible with him and with my mother. It’s a blessing to have them in Montana, and I don’t want to take that for granted.

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It can be easy to focus on the negative, and there will be plenty of it as the year goes on, but I recommend those reading this take the higher road and focus on the positive. Don’t lose sight of everything you have that you love. When you think about it, I’m sure you can find plenty. And when you search your soul for the positive, you may find something that surprises you. You may think of a long lost friend or family member. Call them. Get back in touch.

Let these emotions be the ones that guide you throughout the year, be it about relationships, business or politics. As Kornfield observed, “listen deeply, bear witness, honor everyone and choose actions wisely and courageously.”

Happy New Year to all.

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

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Nothing compares…paying respect to Prince

Editor’s note: As it’s New Year’s Eve, I thought about some of my favorite stories from this year, and this is the one that first came to mind. Losing Prince was a big part of the year for a lot of us, and getting married was a big part of the year for Kari and me. This essay captures the grief so many of us went through this year (be it Prince, Bowie, Carrie Fisher, Gene Wilder or one of the other icons we lost) and it also tells our love story.

——

“Dearly beloved…
we’re gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”
-Prince, “Let’s Go Crazy”

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a Prince fan. If you’re not a Prince fan, you might be dating or married to one.
Growing up, I wasn’t a Prince fan. When I was in high school in the late nineties and early 2000s, he was a symbol, and I didn’t understand.
“He used to be a Prince,” my dad, a now-retired Presbyterian pastor and musician, told me.
His outlandish dress, his high heels, his feminine dancing. He was somewhere between Madonna and Michael Jackson. My dad called him “the Dennis Rodman of pop.”
The first time I ever heard of Prince was in 1992. I was a nine-year-old looking for Bobby Brown’s latest album at Wal-Mart and I stumbled upon “Lovesexy” (featuring Prince posing nude in front of a purple flower) and my mom shook her head.
“Some people think he is a sex icon,” she told me.
Again, I didn’t understand.
I didn’t understand Prince’s versatility, nor did I understand his innovative, creative voice. He bended and broke genres, he fused pop, rock, jazz, blues and soul, and he did it his way.
He had a vision, a voice and he let it pour out of him like purple rain from the sky.
I remember the first time I really heard “Purple Rain.” My blues-guitar playing friend Hambone and I were bowling after a gig at a coffeehouse in Georgetown, Kentucky. The chorus was going and I remember not caring about bowling anymore. I wanted to hear it again. That spiritual outro stayed with me, sanctifying me.
“This is Prince?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Hambone said. “Prince is awesome. He’s a killer guitar player, too. You haven’t heard this?”
I had many moments like that with fellow musicians. My old roommate at the University of Kentucky put on “Musicology” during a jam session one time and I was like, “I didn’t know Prince got that funky.”
Then Prince played the Super Bowl in 2007 when the Colts beat the Bears in a rainy blowout. Being from Indianapolis, I was in Indiana at a sports bar in Bloomington watching that game with my best friends. That’s a night I’ll never forget. One of my best sports memories. And we were singing “Purple Rain.” It couldn’t have been more perfect. It hadn’t rained during a Super Bowl in 40 years.
Although I was into “Purple Rain,” I didn’t really seek Prince out, but he’d keep popping up, whether from someone telling a story about when they saw him playing a sensational drum solo at the age of 15 at a club in Minneapolis, a middle-aged man requesting him while I played an acoustic jam session at a dive bar in Glendive, Prince was around, and respect for him was evident among many walks of life.

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My Prince impression at Epcot December 2000

But it wasn’t until I met Kari, my fiancee, that I began to realize his magnificence.
Kari is a die-hard Prince fan. There is no other artist she gets as excited about, no other artist that makes her dance or sing like he does. This was clear when we had a dance party, getting down to Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Songs of All-Time early in our dating lives. I couldn’t believe how many songs he had on that countdown: “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Purple Rain,” “When Doves Cry,” ”Kiss,” “Sign of the Times”  and “Nothing Compares (Sinead O’Connor sang it, of course, but he wrote it).”
I was blown away, and, after that, started paying more attention, listening to his albums and watching the movie, “Purple Rain.”  The opening live performance of “Let’s Go Crazy” in itself is worth watching.
Being a guitarist and singer and being in love with a Prince fan, it was only natural I started covering him a little, playing an acoustic version of “Purple Rain” and a chill, bluesy version of “Little Red Corvette” in the style of Mike Zito. I did them for Kari, but – while singing his songs and paying such close attention to his lyrics – I realized again how complete the songs were and how cool they were. I started playing “Purple Rain” with my band, with Headhunter playing the sax on the climax. We did this once when a storm was about to hit, and impact hit as soon as Headhunter started the solo, but that calming presence I felt in Georgetown hit me again. When you step into that world, you feel at ease.

April 21, 2016
When I saw an unusual story come in about someone not breathing at Paisley Park in Chanhassen, Minnesota, I didn’t want to believe it was Prince. We just lost Merle Haggard, Glenn Frey and David Bowie. Could it be?
At 57 years old, it was hard to accept that he was gone, especially for Kari.
When I called her at the library, she’d already heard. One of her childhood friends had sent her a text. Years ago, they’d vowed to go see a Prince show together someday. I could tell Kari had been crying when she told me. Kari had told me he was who she wanted to see more than anybody. Now she didn’t have that chance.
“He was looking great, was touring and putting out a lot of great music,” she said. “I just don’t understand. What was it? The flu? And he was found in an elevator? Was he trying to get help? Oh, that’s so sad.”
As you know, Prince broke the internet that day. Any concert footage or videos people could find, they posted. There were photos, anecdotes and tributes by fans, friends and stars like Bruce Springsteen, Chris Cornell, Chris Stapleton and others. We were all shocked, so we grieved together, many of us learning more about him throughout the day.

Paying tribute
Two days after Prince’s passing, I had a songwriter’s showcase in Lewistown, sharing the stage with local musicians and my father, who came up from Big Sky.
Kari was there with her mother, and they were both wearing purple.
Like my mother, Kari’s mom didn’t much care for Prince, either, but that night it didn’t matter. She grieved him with her daughter and my mom listened to my dad and I play “Purple Rain” as Headhunter stepped forward and played the sax. They were in it with us, and we grooved, we all blended together. People sang along and then moved their head back and forth as Headhunter brought it home. As the outro rolled on, we felt euphoric, just as Prince would want us to feel.
My dad couldn’t believe he’d just played along to Prince, putting in guitar fills that accentuated Headhunter’s solo.
“I thought I’d raised you better than this,” he joked.
Later that evening, I was able to show my dad what Prince was capable of by putting on his righteous solo during a 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne and others. Unquestionably, he stole the show.
A phenomenal guitarist himself, my dad never put Prince in the same class as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page when it came to guitar skill.
“That’s Prince?” he asked.
Prince could do it all, whether it be shock the audience with an out-of-this-world guitar solo, shock them with a remarkably bizarre wardrobe or belt a song out in a way that would put even Michael Jackson to shame. He is a great loss to the creative world and a great loss to musicians everywhere. Fortunately, however, he will live on, as he has enough music in the vault at Paisley Park to last another lifetime.
Whether a Prince fan or not, I’d say it’s hard to be a musician and not at least be a Prince appreciator. And if you haven’t given him a try, take a listen to “Purple Rain,” and let it guide you. As I listen to it now, I hope he’s in a place that looks and feels as majestic as the song sounds.

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Performing “Purple Rain” tribute with band the week we lost Prince

Afterword
Today, walking Lewistown’s Main Street with Kari after lunch, a calm, subtle rain coming down on us, we stepped into the outro all over again, as the end of “Purple Rain” played outside of the Western Bar. Kari, wearing a purple sweater, stopped our conversation, grabbed me, kissed me, and said, “Listen.”
And, together, we transcended, stepping back into Prince’s world, purifying ourselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.
Not really.
But we had a moment, and we had that moment just as many have around the world thanks to Prince’s vision, artistry, creativity, talent and his remarkable individuality. There will never be another like him.
Here’s to Prince and his Purple Reign. May he live on forever.

And Happy New Year!

(originally published April 29, 2016 in Last Best News)

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Elfin’ ain’t easy: A day in the life of a North Pole Adventure volunteer

“I think you are too late.”
That’s the text I got from fellow elf Jennifer Johnson, who was unaware Solomon and I had just boarded the North Pole Adventure with the non-elf families at the Hanover boarding station.
Elves are supposed to pre-board at 4 p.m. at a different location, but by 4:30 the train had moved to pick up the “muggles.”
It was a close call, but we made it in time to find our place on the Indian Creek railroad car, where we teamed up with Elf Hayes, whose long, curly black hair, big red-and-green hat and his green-and-white Mexican poncho sweater made him look like a “reggae elf.”
I took the more traditional elf approach, wearing a bright green elf costume complete with bells on all ends and a matching stocking cap.
We had to provide our own elf costumes, which had made me a little nervous. Where was I going to find an elf costume?
“My mom has one,” my fiancée said. “She made it herself.”
The costume also came with red tights, but I couldn’t bring myself to wear them.
Still, my costume did the trick, although it was a little tight.
“Do I look ridiculous?” I asked Jennifer when I found her.
“Charlie, you’re dressed as an elf. Of course you do.”
Solomon, my fiancée’s son, was also an elf, wearing a red and white Santa T-shirt and green pajama pants. He was happy to participate, but was mainly in it for the money.
Yes, we got paid to be elves, thanks to the Lewistown Chamber of Commerce, who is still looking for volunteers. Sometimes they even recruit elves, which was the case for us.
“Hey, Charlie, you want to be an elf?” Liz at the Chamber asked when I was in the office this fall.
“Why not?” I said. “Can I bring Solomon?”
Sometimes you choose to be an elf; sometimes being an elf chooses you.
And, let me tell you, being an elf isn’t just fun and games. Being an elf carries great responsibility.
“We elves can make or break the experience,” the elf handout says. “Santa is counting on us to do a great job.”
If that’s not motivation…

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Solomon and I “elfing” on the North Pole Adventure Train 2015

“All aboard”
Solomon and I turned off our phones, handed out nametags and naughty-or-nice tags and visited with the children, parents and grandparents.
Being Lewistown, it was no coincidence I’d know some of the people on board, but I wasn’t expecting Justice of the Peace Kelly Mantooth, his wife, two of his daughters and all four of his grandkids to be in our car.
We all have our roles to play in the community, and Kelly’s presence made going from reporter to elf feel a little more unnatural. Not long ago, I was mediating his debate.
One of Kelly’s daughters on board was Kristen Mantooth Yeley. A former Miss Montana, Kristen was celebrated by the Chamber before the train took off and thanked for her contribution to the train ride as author and illustrator of “Lewis’s Train.”
A popular children’s book, “Lewis’s Train” is read by the elves on the way to see Santa. It tells the tale about an orphan child who finds the magic of Christmas on a train ride to the North Pole.
“Pretty much everything that’s in this book is what we do on the train,” Elf Hayes said. “We pass out hot chocolate and cookies, we sing carols and spread the holiday cheer. Everything Santa does on the train is in it, too. He gives all the kids a magical gold coin.”
Now a mother of two little boys, the magic of the North Pole Adventure has even more meaning for Kristen.
“It’s really wonderful to ride the train with my boys,” she said. “It’s special.”
The trip is special for all the children, as most of them can’t hold back their excitement.
“We’re going to see Santa,” Elf Hayes told one wide-eyed 6-year-old.
“Santa!” the kid screamed
“That’s right. Santa. We’re flying to the North Pole. Can you feel it? We’re flying!”
To keep spirits high, we led the train car in carols, singing all the standards: “Jingle Bells,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “12 Days of Christmas,” “Here Comes Santa Claus” and the list goes on.
We even did “The Grinch,” but that didn’t go over well. Neither did “Grandma Got Ran Over By a Reindeer.” Sometimes an elf can lose a melody.
Nevertheless, we reached the North Pole, a sight that made the children melt with joy and genuinely impressed the parents.
“Look,” one woman said to her young son, pointing out the window. “It’s gorgeous.”
Waving out the window, we could see Santa wave back, walking down the sidewalk away from his beautifully lit red-and-white North Pole ranch home.
Santa’s path to the train shined bright with multi-colored Christmas lights. You couldn’t miss him. Even yards away you could make out the red on his robe and the white on his beard.
As he waved to the children, they waved back, many giggling joyfully.
“I don’t know what’s got my boy more excited,” one dad said. “Santa or the hot chocolate. He definitely has a sugar rush going.”
When Santa came to our car, the children were giddy and the parents were all smiles, snapping photos on their cameras and phones.
The Christmas spirit had captured them.
On the way back to the Hanover boarding station, we sang more carols and, as the children started coming down from their sugar rush, Elf Hayes led us in a game of “naughty or nice,” calling out the names of people on the car one by one, while asking the rest of us if they’d been good or bad this year.
The car also votes on whether or not the elves were naughty or nice, too.
Solomon was voted as “nice.” Elf Hayes and I were voted “naughty.”
Then we played a game of “Santa says,” which has the same rules as “Simon says.”
“Santa says rub your stomach. Santa says stand up. Santa says jump up and down.” You get the idea.
By the time we got back to the boarding station, we were pretty wiped out. Keeping the train car entertained and the children engaged can be tough, but we persevered, as many children wanted more. Some children, however, were even more wiped out than we were, and had fallen asleep.
As the passengers exited the train, we waved goodbye and sang, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Some children and parents even sang along.
Solomon was into it, too, giving high fives to the people as they passed, celebrating the Christmas spirit.
“This was fun,” he said.
“Ready to it again?” Hayes asked.
“What?”
I’d forgotten to mention the second train.
“Elfin’ ain’t easy,” I said. “Elfin’ ain’t easy.”

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus Dec. 2015)

Afterword

The very next year, my wife tried out elfin’ at the Lewistown Public Library, where she works as a librarian’s assistant. For “story time” with the children, she put on her mom’s costume and brought joy to kids, parents and elder patrons alike. I’d also like to point out she looks a lot better in it. Much better.

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Elf Kari adorably reading a Christmas book about a penguin on Dec. 16.

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Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart: a reflection on Scott Weiland

When I think about Scott Weiland, I think about his April 28, 2015 performance with the Wildabouts at the Brewster Street Icehouse in Corpus Christi, Texas. Watching him sing Vasoline horrifically off-key, it was evident in his zombified stage presence we’d already lost him.
“I hate to say it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we heard on the news that he’s dead,” said Mark Munz, my friend and Indianapolis-based musician, just a few weeks before his passing.
Sure enough, on the morning of Dec. 4, 2015, I woke to a text from Mark informing me Weiland was dead at 48, leaving behind two children and thousands of broken hearts.
But like his ex-wife Mary Fosberg Weiland wrote in a letter to Rolling Stone, Scott’s kids (Noah and Lucy) and the world didn’t just lose Scott Weiland – they also lost hope.
And, sadly, they saw it coming, as did those of us keeping up with him in one form or another.
According to Mary, Scott “was a paranoid man who couldn’t remember his own lyrics and who was only photographed with his children a handful of times in 15 years of fatherhood.”
He was no role model, and she didn’t want his death glorified. Sadly, since, we’ve lost many other artist. Although old age and illness played a part for artists such as David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, Prince’s death was also a result of suffering. For Prince, it was pain, and he didn’t have the right medications to manage it. The pills became an addiction, and his life became increasingly difficult.
Mary’s letter about Scott went viral instantly, and people heard her voice. Weiland’s death wasn’t as glorified as some of the others. His fame was not as sustained through the decades, either, and a part of that plays into his paranoia and destructive behavior, as is evident in his ironically titled autobiography, “Not Dead and Not for Sale (with David Ritz).”

scott-weiland-memoir
I applaud Mary’s courage and her healing honesty.  For those of us who are grieving, it’s important to understand, and to ask the hard questions, like “who’s next?” and “how do we save a tortured artist who doesn’t want to be saved?”
There are always signs, and the signs are often portrayed in art of the sufferer. Some of Scott’s best material came from his misery – “Creep,” “Big Empty”  – but there was more to Weiland and more to Stone Temple Pilots than sorrowful songs. They made remarkable music and often had fun doing it, creating colorful hits like “Plush,” “Interstate Love Song” and “Lady Picture Show” that were staples of 90’s alternative rock. From 1992-1997, STP was one of the biggest rock bands in the country.
But life for Scott wasn’t as wonderful as it appeared. He got wrapped up in the glory, living like rock and roll royalty. Tragically, his behaviors and addictions started landing him in courtrooms and treatment centers.
I remember worrying STP was going to break up in 1998 after Scott got busted for heroin, his second arrest and first after spending time in rehab. No. 4 was unexpected and miraculous for STP fans. They were back. Scott was back.
No. 4 was a great rock record. STP stuck to their roots with some hard-hitting rockers like “Down” and “No Way Out” but matured musically, getting Beatlesy with “Sour Girl” and “I Got You.” On the last song of the album, Scott even showed his crooning side with the majestic, underrated ballad, “Atlanta.” We’d see more of his crooner side on his 2011 Christmas album, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

Seeing Scott live (X-Fest 2000, Deer Creek Music Center, Noblesville, Indiana)
Mark and I got the chance to see STP live during their No.4 tour, headlining an X-Fest that included performances by Papa Roach and Green Day.
Opening with “Crackerman,” the energy was insane. People were crowd-surfing, women were screaming. Scott was dressed in a white fur coat and a silk scarf, dancing like Mick Jagger. That was a big part of his performance persona. Unlike many of the grunge rock stars, Scott was a showman. Nowhere was he more alive.
The show was mesmerizing. Mark and I saw a lot of shows together back then and agreed it was one of the best. Standing in the front row, we also had the good fortune of seeing the band interact. They were together, in-the-pocket, delivering a performance driven by genuine appreciation for the songs.
What I remember most was “Sour Girl.”  Scott’s voice was strong, flawless. He sounded like he did on the record.
We walked out of that show amazed and excited for the next opportunity we’d get to see STP. We were hopeful, anticipating many albums to come.
That wouldn’t last long, as reports of Scott’s drug abuse continued to derail his career.
Somehow, STP still managed to put out 2001’s Shangri-La Dee Da, which featured, “Hello, It’s Late,” a song that foreshadowed the end:

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Nothing matters again
I didn’t think we’d last that long
But I’m just sitting on the Merry-Go-Round
And the music is too loud
It’s just a game that we used to play
I didn’t think we’d take it all the way
It kills me just because it can’t be erased
We’re married

My dad told me when he listened to Abbey Road in its entirety, he knew it was over for the Beatles. He knew they were saying goodbye.
Similarly, “Hello, It’s Late” was STP’s “In the End,” at least for two 18-year-old guitar-playing rock fanatics in Indianapolis. I have a feeling we weren’t the only ones who felt that way.
It was never the same. Velvet Revolver hardly felt real. Forming shortly after Audioslave, Revolver felt like a desperate attempt to keep rock alive. Bands were being thrown together like NBA teams, grouping the best talent money could buy and trying to make them work. Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined the Lakers, Scott Weiland joined Guns N Roses.
Nevertheless, they had some remarkable moments, such as Scott’s melodic testimonial “Fall to Pieces.”
Every time I’m falling down
All alone I fall to pieces
When Scott was alone, he must have been devastated. All the people he hurt. All the time he didn’t devote to his kids. Did he feel guilty? Did he feel empty? Or did he just not allow himself the opportunity to even be alone?

Parting words
People ask, “What could have saved Scott Weiland?”
Grace would have saved him, just as it would have saved Jimi, Janis, Jim, Kurt, Layne and all the other stars who have fallen well before their time.
Jimi Hendrix once said, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, then there will be peace.” For Scott, it appears love was more a lyric than an action he practiced. And without love, what’s left of a man?
Without love, a man starts to look like Scott did this spring in Corpus Christi: a shell of his former self, sedated and secluded, ready to die.
On Dec. 3, Scott made his choice, one his children, friends, fans and family will have to accept. It’s hard, just as it’s been hard for those who needed him the most to understand why he was only there a handful of times.
May Scott be a lesson, a warning to those so wrapped up in themselves or their addictions that they fail to love. Don’t let idolatry, selfishness and greed destroy you. Never lose track of what’s most important. Never lose hope.
In closing, I believe Saint Ignatius said it best: “Try to keep your soul always in peace and quiet, always ready for whatever our Lord may wish to work in you. It is certainly a higher virtue of the soul, and a greater grace, to be able to enjoy the Lord in different times and different places than in only one.”

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The Beam: Cherrell and Nico, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016

“My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.” – John 15:12

“When they talk about each other, they glow,” Father Jamie Weber said during the beautiful ceremony at St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“There is so much joy in their eyes,” he said. “Their whole face lights up.”
All of us present at the wedding knew exactly what the priest was talking about. We knew that look.
In fact, Cherrell had the beam before her and Nico even went on a date.
“I remember that look,” my wife, Kari (Cherrell’s aunt) said. “Whenever she talked about him, you could tell he was special. She was giddy.”
Cherrell had been crazy about the cheerful, kind bearded young Nico. Everyone knew it: her friends, co-workers, even parents of patients (they both worked at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital).
Everyone knew…except for Nico.
“Nico’s been in this relationship for two years,” said Mica, Cherrell’s maid of honor, “but Cherrell’s been in it for three.”
“We all knew Cherrell was in love with Nico,” the priest said during their ceremony. “Except for Nico.”
“It all started with epilepsy camp”

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The happy couples: Cherrell and Nico, center, flanked by Kari and myself

At Epilepsy Camp, Cherrell started falling for Nico, blown away by his natural talent working with the children. And Nico saw Cherrell doing the same. He started to wonder about this bubbly, fun, energetic, nurturing kind girl who was always popping up.
It wasn’t long after camp the two went on their first date (Cherrell asked). And on that first date, Nico was sweeter and more chivalrous than Cherrell could have imagined. That’s what Cherrell told Mica.
“She didn’t even know that kind of chivalry still existed,” Mica said.
Cherrell fell deeply in love

From the beginning, everyone had a feeling the two were meant for each other. For one, they look so good together. And, secondly, they compliment each other remarkably well both with their looks and their personalities. Kari and I knew just from a few selfies and a FaceTime.
The wedding sealed the deal further. Before, we were convinced they’d get married. Now we’re convinced they’ll live a life of joy and love, spreading the emotions everywhere they go. They’ll be great nurses, great people, great parents and a wonderful part of each others’ families.This was clear at the wedding. The families couldn’t ask for a better new addition.
“Everyone loves Cherrell,” Weber said. The congregation smiled and nodded.
Mica echoed this.
“I’ve never heard anyone say a bad thing about Cherrell,” she said. “If I ever do, I’ll kick their ass.”
Both Cherrell and Nico exude kindness, love and joy. They’re truly remarkable people, and they deserve each other. They have a nice community in Cincinnati, good jobs and a lot to build on.
Everyone knows they’ll soon be parents. What a lucky little fella.
“May your love and your bond carry you forward,” Weber said.
With all the problems in the world, with all the poverty and depression, domestic violence, hatred, anger, division, death and destruction, it can be easy to lose sight of all we have to feel fortunate about, all the reasons to be joyful. If I get discouraged, I’ll think of Cherrell and Nico. I’ll think of their family-to-be. I’ll think of the way they beam when they talk about each other, and I’ll think about my wife, Kari, and how I “beam her up” every chance I get. That’s pride, and, when you have it, you don’t even know you’re doing it. It’s not intentional. It’s love – a love that brightens you and empowers you every step of the way. It’s worth celebrating.

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State of Bliss: Part 3

“Well, settle down, I won’t hesitate to hit the highway
Before you lay me to waste
Settle up and I’ll help you find
Something to drive, before you drive me insane”
-Audioslave, “Getaway Car”

“You ever seen condoms in a vending machine?” Chad asked.
A generic-looking two-pack of condoms dropped to the bottom. There was no brand, just a gray box that said “condoms.”
“Just in case,” he said, a naughty grin on his face.
“Better check to see if they’re expired,” I said, only half-joking.
“Who gives a shit. They’ll work.” Chad put them in his pocket and grabbed a pack of cigarettes from his coat. “You want a smoke?”
“Sure, man.”
We went outside and lit up.
I looked again around the campus: the snow covered most of the red on the ‘Go Cardinals’ banners, and the fresh pack of white sparkled in the streetlights.
Three girls not dressed for the weather walked out of the dorm, ignoring us as we continued to smoke. One was a tall brunette decked out in a Ball State University button-down and a red and white skirt. Another was wearing a red and white beanie, a sexy, silky black blouse and jeans. The third was shorter and a little plump. She walked with less enthusiasm, her hands buried in her hoodie. The two in the front giggled excitedly as they disappeared past the dorm and out into the night. Chad could care less.
Chad and I didn’t really know what a typical Friday night was like on the Ball State campus. We didn’t go here. He was still living at home, I went to a private Christian college 40 miles north, the next exit after James Dean’s hometown of Fairmount. Ball State was my escape. It was Chad’s, too, or perhaps it was just our way of going backwards, of not propelling toward our future: a place of debauchery and bad decisions, an endless party.
We were young, free and wild, and – best of all – we were visitors.

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From left, Noah, Chad, Danny and myself in Muncie fall 2002

Chad ran his cigarette-free hand over his hair, wiping the snow off. He shivered ever-so-slightly but didn’t bother zipping his beat-up coat. Maybe the zipper didn’t work.
“The first time I visited Ball State, Screech was in town doing a solo show,” I said.
“What?” Chad said. “Dustin Diamond?”
“Yeah, man, I hear he is just all about shock value now, like Bob Saget. People pay to go see Screech say ‘fuck.’”
“And State of Bliss can’t get a gig,” Chad said. “See, what’s the point?”
Chad still talked about State of Bliss like they were together.
“What do you want to play?” I asked.
“I want to play what people don’t want to hear,” he said. “I want to play what I love, and people don’t give a shit about it anymore.”
“Just be yourself,” I said.
“I wish it was that simple. I wish I knew who I was. Music was all I wanted, and now I don’t like the direction it’s going. I want to change the direction, but it’s a fucking machine that would suck me in, chew me up and spit me out. Grunge is over, and alternative is getting stale. Nirvana didn’t go to the mainstream, the mainstream came to them. The same can’t be said for Creed, Puddle of Mudd or Godsmack. They’re trying too hard and turning what we love into shit.”
“What about Audioslave?” I asked.
“They’re not a band – they’re a bunch of talented guys put together to come up with some songs. Again, it’s the machine: a media machine. When I listen to Audioslave, I don’t feel like they have an identity. Half the time Chris Cornell sounds like a dying Rod Stewart.”
Chad took a drag off his cigarette. As he exhaled, the smoke looked like an extension of his breath in the cold, frigid air. He always looked cool when he smoked. Effortlessly cool, like James Dean. There was just something about him, something that got your attention even though he wasn’t really asking for it.
And when he knew he had your attention, he often didn’t want it.
Chad chucked the cigarette on the concrete and stomped on it angrily.
“You know what really pisses me off? Pop culture defines our time, and we missed the boat. We’re   Sheryl Crow’s ‘Soak Up The Sun’ and Nickelback’s ‘How You Remind Me.’”
“I can’t believe you sang that song in Tyler’s basement,” I said. “Why did that happen?”
“Yeah, well, what can I say? I got sucked into the machine. My own worst enemy. A rock impostor.”
“Well, you sounded better than Chad Kroeger, at least.”
“Who doesn’t? Ha. I don’t want to pose as someone posing to be like someone else. I’d rather live in the gutter than make it that way. I want to rock on my own terms, you know? But I’m fuckin’ stuck, man. I want to get out of Indy and get to Seattle or something. Austin, Texas. I don’t know.”
“Then do it,” I said. “Just because you don’t like where the mainstream is going doesn’t mean you have to give up on your own dream. Go for it.”
“How?”
“Put another band together, start gigging around the area, market yourself. You’ve got it, man, just make it happen.”
Chad took out another cigarette and looked out at the parking lot. Two guys with Sig Ep sweatshirts were walking toward their fraternity. We could overhear them talk about their plans to get laid.
“I need money first,” Chad said. “I don’t even have a good electric.”
“Then get a job and save up, work toward it.”
“Yeah,I don’t know. I hate decisions.”
Chad took off toward the parking lot and signaled for me to follow him.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ve got something in my car.”
As we trudged through the snow, Chad started singing Audioslave’s “Getaway Car,” laughing.
“You little asshole,” he said to me. “You had to bring them up.”
Chad walked over to his car, a white Mitsubishi Eclipse parked near the dorm.
Ever so often he would slide on the sidewalk, the first big snowfall of the year bringing out the child in him.
“I’ve got some shit to figure out,” Chad continued. “I’ve got to piece a band back together and piece my relationship back together.”
“Beth?” I said. “You’re still wanting to get back together? With condoms in your pocket and a chick waiting for you upstairs?”
“Speaking of that, why don’t I just swing you by Danny’s? You guys hang out for a bit. I’ll let you know when we’re done.”
“You sure Amy will be cool with that? You bailing afterward?”
“I’m not gonna bail,” he said. “She said she wanted to have everyone over in her dorm tonight. She wants to hear us play. I’ll make it a quickie.”
“Good luck with that.”
“I need luck, but I don’t need luck when it comes to this,” he said.
Although the windshield was powdered with snow, a red and white parking ticket was still plenty visible in the corner.
“Bastards got me again,” Chad said, looking at me mischievously. It was the same look he gave me before crashing his old truck into a shopping cart last year. I can still hear Mr. Weed’s whiny voice complaining about my “company of friends.”
Chad grabbed the parking ticket and violently tore it to shreds, throwing it down on the ground and jumping on it.
Laughing maliciously, he waved his body around, pretending to be drunk, acting like Jim Morrison.
“I don’t know about you, man, but I want to have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames,” Chad joked. “Let’s smoke another bowl.”

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A Thanksgiving toast

“So what is Thanksgiving exactly? I mean, what’s the story?”
Ryan, a young, curious, rambunctious Australian, couldn’t resist asking the question to Americans he was sharing a meal with in Peru on the first night of a four-day trek through the Andes to Machu Picchu.
The Americans ­– Emily, Mary, Jon and I ­– looked at each other and smiled, taken aback by the question.
When was the last time we’d been asked that question? Or had we ever? And where do we begin?
“Well,” I said. “Thanksgiving represents a time in the early 1600s when some of the first Pilgrims arrived in America and were welcomed by Squanto and his tribe.”
“They had a great feast,” Emily added, “and gave thanks, hence, Thanksgiving.”
We explained, however, that the history of Thanksgiving is hardly looked at anymore, as mainly the holiday is looked at as a day to get together with family.
“And watch football,” Jon added. “There is always a Cowboys game and a Lions game.”
While talking with Ryan and his “blokes,” it made us think a little deeper about the day. And, now, seven years later, as I reflect on that moment, I ask myself: what does Thanksgiving mean to me?

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Inca Trail 2008

When I was a child, you couldn’t have Thanksgiving without talking about the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, Squanto and the Pilgrims. Somewhere there are pictures of me from kindergarten wearing a paper Pilgrim hat. I loved the story. In fact, the first book I ever read by myself was about Squanto. He was a hero to me.
But what made Thanksgiving special – even back then – was the time around the dinner table with mom, dad and my older sister Rebekah.
“Charlie, what are you thankful for this year?” my mom would ask.
Like many families, that was our tradition the last Thursday of every November. We’d go around the table and share. I valued it then and still value it today.
Here’s what Thanksgiving means to me: it’s not about who is playing the Dallas Cowboys, and it’s definitely not about who is playing the Detroit Lions. It’s not about gearing up for Black Friday deals. And it’s not even about turkey. Sure, turkey is nice, especially for nostalgic reasons, but my fiancée is vegetarian, so I’ve come to accept (and enjoy) vegetarian lasagna, even if I am the odd carnivore out.
There is a rich history to the holiday, yes, but much of the history is dark. Relations between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans did not stay peaceful for long. A master communicator, Squanto was also a master manipulator, as he tried to take advantage of both the Natives and the English for his own personal gain. If it weren’t for the ship “Fortune” arriving to Plymouth when it did, Squanto would have been executed. Nevertheless, the guidance he provided the early American immigrants on how to set corn, how to fish and how to solicit other assets was invaluable.
Today, when I think about Thanksgiving, I give thanks. I give thanks for my health, my family, my relationships and I give thanks to live in such a beautiful place as Montana. I am also tremendously thankful to live in the United States of America. Sure, sometimes we are frustrated with what’s going on politically at the state or national level. Sure there are times when I find something to complain about, but on Thanksgiving, I am continually reminded how we too often take what we have for granted. If we gave thanks more often, we’d appreciate what we have more.
It may not be that simple, but then again, it very well could be that simple.
And if ever someone were to ask me about Thanksgiving again, perhaps that’s what I’d say.

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus November 2015)

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