Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Eulogy for Ruth Ann Durkin (1941-2024)

It's hard to know where to begin, so I'll begin with gratitude. I know how lucky my brother Glenn and I were. 

One of the circumstances of my mother’s life is that she found herself divorced at a young age, with two raucous toddler boys to care for. It’s easy to forget now, but at the time, this circumstance carried far more stigma than it does today. She could have responded in all kinds of negative ways. Instead, she chose to step up for her sons. 

I’m sure it must have been scary, overwhelming, and lonely for her. But as a child I never sensed that. To me, she was always the one who knew how to size up a situation. Possessed of practical wisdom beyond her years. Confident. Unintimidated by any who dared threaten her home. A single mother is considered an easy mark by some, but I can’t remember her ever being taken advantage of. 


There’s a cassette recording of one of my elementary-school birthday parties, and the cacophony of kids is deafening. Occasionally, though, her voice cuts through, with a directive calmly given. An authoritative eye in the storm; firm yet kind. She called it her “teacher voice.” Listening back now, I realize she was creating stability out of thin air for my brother and me.


Her extroverted personality made her a keen observer of human nature, and as I got older, she perceived how I was different. “You’re a free spirit,” she’d say. I wonder if she knew that she’d helped with the freeing. She was certainly the first to encourage me to live a life that mattered to me—to follow my proverbial dreams. Being the first, her encouragement was determinative.


It remained so even after she began worrying about what she’d unleashed, and how I was going to earn a living. I’m still amazed at how she negotiated that cognitive dissonance. She’d insist on attending my shows, though the music must have sounded to her like the noise of those early birthday parties. She’d fret about the prudence of my moving 3,000 miles away to attend grad school and start a new life—and then she’d turn around and gift me the car to make the trip. 


Some of the best relationships happen when you don’t always understand the other person, but you love them deeply anyway. Isn’t that parenthood, ideally? I still have memories of being rocked to comfort by Mom, when I was too young to explain the reason for my hurting, and when I’m sure it was obscure to her. I’m grateful to have been the recipient of such unconditional love. I’m really going to miss it now.


Thank you for everything, Mom. I’ll always love you.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

How to Resist Amazon and Why

The first time I heard of Amazon was in grad school, in the late nineties. In a seminar, we were discussing the reading list, some of which couldn’t be accessed at the USC bookstore. One of my classmates, with a twinkle in his eye that I wasn’t sure how to interpret, pointed us to this new thing on the web. (It was new to us, anyway. The site had existed for a few years by then.)

It might’ve been a devilish twinkle, now that I think about it. To a book-addicted twentysomething on a teaching assistant’s budget, Amazon seemed heaven-sent. It wasn’t. Even the name was a fake-out. You’ve probably already used faux Amazon in some capacity several times today, but its namesake has been burning for decades, a canary in the climate-change coalmine that most of us have grown to ignore—at least in part because when we hear the word “Amazon,” disappearing rainforest is no longer the first thing we think of.

Should any company be that large, wealthy, and ubiquitous? Obviously not, Danny Caine persuasively answers in How to Resist Amazon and Why (just out from Microcosm Publishing). Caine owns The Raven, an indie bookstore in Kansas—exactly the sort of establishment Amazon seems engineered to destroy. But this only makes him “biased” if you think caring about your community is a bias. In engaging prose, he sets out a head-spinning list of Amazon's abuses—it turns out that stealing the name of an endangered planetary wonder is the least of it.

There’s the predatory pricing—a loss leader strategy (cheap goods, quickly delivered) that decimates small businesses, to the tune of at least one bookstore closure every week in 2020, a year in which book sales overall actually rose. This in turn obscures the company’s true calling, which is collecting data and selling related services, like cloud computing, with all the attendant messiness around user privacy. There’s the cavalier approach to employee safety, and the recklessness that enables core elements of the Amazon brand—overnight delivery and free shipping. There are the conflicts of interest—Amazon hosting a marketplace it also competes in. There are the counterfeit or hazardous products—because when you’re an “everything store,” some of what you sell is going to suck. And there are the usual afflictions of the corporate super-rich—the aversion to paying even modest taxes, the pushback against antitrust legislation.

Maybe more than all that, though, is the numbing familiarity. I had to work to remember when I first heard of Amazon, because it felt like I had never not heard of it. As Caine suggests, we’re constantly tempted to use it even if we know it’s a problem, because it’s so damn convenient. In a way, convenience itself is the product. Amazon is a lifestyle store as much as anything else, selling the dopamine hit of the best deal. Yet it’s also what capitalism has brought us to. As consumers we assume we need companies like this—monolithic, top-heavy, gig-economy companies—to survive in an objectified, overpriced world. But do we? Should we?

Maybe there’s no quick fix, but slow fixes are better than no fixes. I’ve put Caine’s book next to my laptop as a reminder to stop adding shit to my Amazon cart. You should read it and consider doing that too.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021


One of the videos documenting last Wednesday’s violence shows a mace-saturated woman named Elizabeth, upset that someone stopped her and her associates from “storming the Capitol,” because “it’s a revolution.”

Those of us who weren’t there sift through these fragments of visual evidence, like the scattered pieces of some shitty, tedious jigsaw puzzle. There are a million details to get our heads around. I see this video, and maybe my thoughts are like yours. I don’t know Elizabeth. I’m sure she has people, and a past. I doubt she would have gotten away with a mere macing if she’d been Black. I doubt she has studied any actual revolutions, or history at all. I doubt she sees herself for what she’s become: cannon fodder in a monumental delusion. I’m certain her presence in that mob was predictable.


She’s wearing a scarf imprinted with a piano keyboard design. Why does that dumb detail jump out at me? In the eighties, in high school, a dear friend of mine owned a scarf like that. It seemed harmlessly tacky back then—goofy band-geek garb that made adolescence more bearable. Now, I see that scarf on Elizabeth, and I want to scream. Talk about the banality of evil.


There’s a scene in Back to the Future where Doc Brown, in 1955, is astonished to learn that Ronald Reagan will be president in 1985. (“Then who’s vice president?” he asks sarcastically. “Jerry Lewis?”) Knowing where Reagan’s revolution led, the joke isn’t funny anymore. Even a failed insurrection causes lasting damage. I’m sure Elizabeth has people, and a past. Her presence in that mob was predictable. It was all predictable. I turn away from the video, but I still want to scream.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Silent Night

This year, for the first time in twelve years, I won’t be playing the organ for Faithful Savior Lutheran Church’s holiday services—just as I haven’t been there for any services since the pandemic hit.

An agnostic from my twenties, I initially took the Faithful Savior gig in a professional capacity. But I grew to love it, too. Though I never became a believer, at times, the music, the people, and the moment all lined up just right, and I’d feel, if not the pull of faith, then something like Wordsworth’s “intimation of immortality”—a strong impression that I was part of something larger than myself. The Christmas Eve candlelight services, which always concluded with the hymn “Silent Night,” particularly tended that way.

That hymn turned out to be more resistant to cliché than I expected. Playing it for the Lutherans, I’d think not of Bing Crosby, but of World War I—the “war to end all wars” that didn’t—and its 1914 Christmas truce, when, after months of pointless, bloody stalemate, the shooting briefly stopped, and along the western front, soldiers of both sides ventured into No Man’s Land, exchanging cigarettes, chocolate, and unexpected small kindnesses. Many songs were sung during those thirty-six hours, but the high point may have been the “Silent Night” performed by German officer Walter Kirchhoff, who had been a tenor with the Berlin Opera.

A hundred years later, when I listened to the voices of the elderly congregants striving to fill the dark, glimmering church sanctuary, I’d wonder how Kirchhoff had sounded, standing under the cold December moonlight, in the thick mud, amid the stink of rotting corpses. The truce hadn’t lasted, of course. But I’d try, in my own “Silent Night,” to summon its spirit of hope in the face of hopelessness, toward the transmutation of grief.

I’m trying to summon that spirit again this year, even if we can’t have the music. And even in my unbelief, I pray that you find it too. Happy Holidays, friends.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020



While responding to accusations that she’s a tyrant lying about the dangers of COVID, Renae Moch, public health director in North Dakota, asked a pertinent question: “Why would I want to do that?”
This, to me, is the strangest thing about the resistance to common sense that is now making a bad situation much worse. It’s stranger than the argument about freedom, which lacks the self-awareness to notice its own compliance, evident in the belief that a retweeted meme counts as independent thought. It’s stranger than the argument about not living in fear—with its deep anxiety about masks, vaccines, and governments. And it’s stranger than the argument about inefficacy, which somehow concludes that because recommended measures are not guaranteed to eliminate spread completely, they can’t greatly mitigate it.
In fiction, I obsess about characters’ motivations. Maybe that’s why Ms. Moch’s question jumped out at me. If public health officials, hospital spokespeople, and (most of all) nurses and doctors are trying to put one over on the rest of us, the obvious question is: why? What’s their motivation? What are they getting out of it?
I’ll tell you what they’re not getting out it. Sleep. Comfort. Safety. Respect. Empathy. Peace. Decency. Gratitude.
It being the season for the latter, I know where I’m directing mine this year.

Friday, November 20, 2020


Life is so easy when you don’t have to make room for the experiences of other people. Theory of mind and the rhetoric of empathy can seduce us into thinking we fully understand what’s going on in each other’s heads. As a parent, I’ve seen the millions of ways—incremental, usually innocent, often problematic ways—we impose identity on children, before they’re even born, and before they can think and speak for themselves.

I wish we could sit more with the uncertainty at the beginning of each life. To value each person for who they might become rather than how they are categorized by a pregnancy ultrasound, or a cultural expectation. After all, we are all always becoming—even if that’s only to become more of what other people thought we were to begin with.

Today is the International Transgender Day of Remembrance. Let’s make those losses matter, and make the losses stop.

(Image from Peter Boag’s Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, a highly recommended account of gender nonconformity in the American West.)

Monday, November 02, 2020

Jan's Sign

My neighbor Jan has been updating this sign every day for the past 250+ days. (I only know the figure because, on the other side, he’s also been tallying the number of days in quarantine.)


Mostly, I’ve appreciated this countdown. Whenever the shitstorm got too big to see, it was good to have a small, undeniable number to focus on—if only for a moment, during my morning walk with the dog. “November 3 is election day” turned out to be one of the few real-world truths that couldn’t be corrupted by delusion, woo-woo, or conspiracy-mongering.


It’s surreal, though, after four years of hell (maybe five, since COVID-time ages you twice as fast) to finally be here, on the eve of whatever’s going to happen tomorrow. I’m guardedly optimistic, in a don’t-hold-me-to-it kind of way. The data is certainly more encouraging than it was in 2016. And while the man in the White House and his crew may be good at being bad, they’re not superhuman—their luck will eventually run out. Still, facts are not feelings, and I’m more anxious about the torrent of emotion that’s coming. 


This past weekend, I was surprised to awaken from the kind of deep sleep I hadn’t experienced since I was a kid. The morning light glowed burnt-orange and red—colors that had come late to the trees in our part of town. I let myself sink into bed for a while, immersed in what I now suspect was something like the “oceanic feeling” that Romain Rolland once spoke of—exhausted but energized, and with no sense of separation from the world. But I couldn’t tell if my heart was healing, or steeling itself.


So many people have lost so much in such a short period of time. We have so much work to do, and to un-do. But I’ve been thinking of MLK’s famous phrase, and reminding myself that, even if the moral universe is less of an arc than a zig-zag, he was absolutely right—it moves toward justice. Let’s move it that way tomorrow.