“I want to stay connected to everyone.”

Mar 03

Tomorrow is Liam’s 14th birthday. It’s also the anniversary of the day that last year, Eric made the decision to remove his ventilator. Because this year I’m hoping to focus on the former, I’m writing some words now about the latter, looking through my Facebook messages and emails with Eric from the time.

ericbaseballA few days earlier, the subjects of our messages were mundane (though of course we all knew things were going downhill). I’d gotten a message from him asking if we’d sent a Bite Squad gift certificate.  We had, but it apparently arrived with no indication of its source. (Confidential to Bite Squad: Maybe tell recipients the name of the folks from whom they’re receiving a gift certificate!)

And then, on March 3, Eric must have posted something suggesting that the end was near, as I asked him if he was “heading into, I don’t know the right word, the final run.”

(Scrolling through Eric’s Facebook page to find what he posted, it is a hell of a challenge to get through the March 11-12 posts without just weeping.)

Aha! Found it. He posted a link to a column entitled “Death, the New Normal,” which discussed the process of getting used to death as one gets older. The column closed with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge Without Music,” a poem I also quoted in a piece I wrote during the process and, if memory serves, in the eulogy I gave at his funeral. The poem ends, famously, with “But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”

Deep down in the comments thread, after friends noted their own refusal to approve or be resigned, Eric wrote: “On the other hand, resignation must come, eventually.” He was ahead of the rest of us. Honestly, he’s still ahead of me; I am still pretty damn far from approving.

(As an aside, as an epidemiology dork, I love that the fact that the previous post from him was a link to a story about a psychology journal banning the use of p-values.)

Anyway, so, I wrote to him on the 3rd asking if I was reading his post correctly. He agreed that he did feel he was getting through the end: “I’m so tired all the time and I sleep a ton. My only desire is to stay connected until the time comes.” And: “I’m thinking of working with hospice on stopping the vent, a matter of weeks. All I need from you is to stay connected.”

I asked about the alternative to removing the ventilator; he responded: “The alternative is to sleep more and more as things progress. It seems I could shorten that and be more aware when I pass.” In response to my question about whether awareness was a goal: “Since I want to stay connected to everyone I want to stay aware rather than fade away, although fading away may be more peaceful.”

My response: “I can see how having some measure of control could be appealing and a way to make it your process rather than the disease’s or a machine’s, if that makes sense. It also must be difficult to plan your own end, though once you’ve accepted it I assume it is easier.”

Eric responded without dancing around it: “Picking a day is really freaky. I’m still looking for some wide advice from hospice.” I said I hoped they had some wise advice, since I sure didn’t. His arms were tiring out, he wrote, but he said he wished he could have a time frame so he could plan. Without any firm predictions, he made his own plan and chose a date (March 12). A few days later, we talked about the process; he was frustrated that there were still details to be set up (I learned later that the IV provider was hesitant to let the doctor prescribe IV pain meds, fearing it was too close to assisted suicide, so they ended up with patches, I believe). “Once all of that is set, it will go better,” he wrote.

battleThen the day before, we messaged some more about logistics, and I sent him a photo of the setup that our friend Paul Hagstrom set up for digitizing some old Battle of the Band videotapes; he was glad his kids would see it eventually. He wrote me after he got back from getting the IV line done: “I got to experience some spring like weather on the way [home], which was nice. See you tomorrow.”

Around the same time, my mom was sending him daily—lovely—emails, with stories about me, about grandkids, about goats—about what Eric called “regular things.”

Her, on March 10: “I have no words of wisdom. I will just observe that you are living until you die, as you intended, and I admire you immensely. You are teaching again.” Eric responded: “It’s funny, I think a lot about my maternal grandmother lately, who had a long slow death from cancer. I have a funny feeling she’s helping me get through this. She handled her death with a lot of grace.”

He continued: “I don’t need words of wisdom, I just like hearing from people. My days are full of sleep. Let’s hope tonight is too. We talked to the girls about the fact that my vent won’t last much longer and we grieved together. I’m getting a large IV at the hospital tomorrow because the nurse couldn’t do it at home, but then I’ll be coming back home. That’s how they will administer the sedatives on Thursday. I feel 90% peaceful about it, and 10% nervous, which I think is reasonable.”

Actually, you know, another quote from my mom’s emails feels about right—something I’d forgotten until going back through my emails tonight. She told him a story about a conversation she and I had when I took a semester off to work on Paul Wellstone’s first Senate campaign, and finished it: “You know that your girls are going to be remembering what you taught them. They may not be dropping out of college to work on somebody’s Senate campaign, but the things they have learned, and are learning, from you are settled into their bones, and will serve them well.”

She was right. A couple of days later, Eric died, on as close to his own terms as could be achieved with ALS, teaching all of us around him until the end. And staying connected to everyone. I’ve written about it before, but the extended periods of eye contact he made—with every single person in the room, and, I firmly believe, with so many more people by extension—made it so Eric fulfilled his fundamental goal:

“I want to stay connected to everyone.”

Still connected.

Still miss the hell out of him.

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Best of 2015

Oct 28

treesSometimes I post my whole Fids & Kamily ballot; this year I just love all of my top ten (and beyond!) so much that I don’t want to do that, other than saying that the best family record of the year for me was Molly Ledford & Billy Kelly’s Trees.  Funny, sweet, catchy, sometimes a little melancholy, smart: it’s so darn good.

Here’s the rest of the list, in alphabetical order (in the way that iTunes does it):

  • Alastair Moock & Friends – All Kinds of You And Me
  • Gustafer Yellowgold – Wisdom Tooth of Wisdom
  • Jazzy Ash – Bon Voyage
  • Lori Henriques – How Great Can This Day Be
  • Lucky Diaz & the Family Jam Band – Adelante
  • Red Yarn & Friends – Deep Woods Revival
  • Renee & Friends – Simpatico
  • Suz Slezak – Watching the Nighttime Come
  • Tim Kubart – Home

Records that came really close:

  • The Bazillions – On the Bright Side
  • Bunnyclogs – Whales Can’t Whistle
  • Cat Doorman – Calling All the Kids to the Yard
  • Lloyd H. Miller – Sing-a-Long History Vol. 1: Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
  • Pointed Man Band – Flight of the Blue Whale
  • The Pop Ups – Great Pretenders Club
  • Turkey Andersen – s/t
  • Vered – Hello My Baby

And way more.  It was a good year.  Go buy some music.

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Some Numbers

Oct 10

47: The (approximate) number of folks we’ve had come by the studio since we moved to Austin just over three years ago.

28: The (approximate) number of acts I’ve booked for shows in Austin since moving here (doesn’t include The River’s Family Music Meltdown & Book Bash back in Northampton).


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The Voicemail.

Jul 14

A few months ago, motivational speaker Tony Robbins managed to get two out of three right on Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me.  Normally this would be of passing interest at most, but he happened to be playing for “Bill Childs of Austin, Texas.”

Hey, that’s me!

Well, today I got the voicemail message from Carl Kasell.  I also got a special treat for listeners of the radio show — but you’ll have to wait until this weekend’s show to hear that.  But you can hear the message that callers to my cell phone now hear, featuring him reciting, beautifully, some of the lyrics to They Might Be Giants’s “Dr. Worm”:

(Click to the left of “00:00” if you don’t see a play button there.)

Huge thanks to Carl and the nice folks at Wait Wait.  It’s a total delight.

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Jun 19

We’re traveling and so we recorded a few shows ahead of time.  So I can’t do anything on the radio about Charleston, and I don’t know that I would or should anyway.

But I do want to write a little bit here before our day in London starts.

When a person of color, or a person of a non-Christian faith, does something horrific, the narrative is about the group or groups to which they belong.  And just as often, when a white or (nominally) Christian person does a similar act, the narrative shifts to being about mental illness, and how surprising the act was.

Of course we have to talk about mental illness, and of course a fully healthy person doesn’t do these things (though lets steer clear of making this yet another chance to stigmatize those with mental illness).

But we can’t end the conversation there.  I think we have to think about how children are raised — with love or with hate, and with active conversations about race and class and differences and privilege.  And about guns.  When those conversations are not part of our culture, it’s not at all surprising that these killings keep happening.

I don’t know anything about the Charleston killer’s childhood beyond what has been reported, and I don’t know if that’s all been accurate. I’m not saying a thing about his parents.

But I do know that he walked into a place that welcomed him and sat down next to people who were raised to welcome visitors with open arms and open hearts and open minds.  He at least pretended to pray with these loving people, and then he stood up, looked around at them, these people who had welcomed him and prayed with him, and he shot them to death.  With a gun given to him by his parents.

It’s reasonable to ask why I’m posting about this on the website for a children’s radio show.  Jessica Luther, an Austin mom, posted this on Twitter yesterday:

“A 5yo black girl survived last night by playing dead. Surely my 6yo white son can survive a conversation about why she matters.”

Maybe naively, I think part of that conversation can be started and facilitated through music.  Music that celebrates love and difference and play and fun and history and the future.  Music that gets kids dancing together, spinning together, singing together, holding hands together.  Music that asks interesting questions and hopefully gives parents a chance to talk about some possible answers.

So, put on some music, hold your kids, and, if the time is right, have a hard conversation about what happened.  It can only help.

Love you all.

As usual, Elizabeth Mitchell (here with Dan Zanes) is a great place to start.  Hopefully the embedding will work:

P.S. Please don’t make the narrative be just about the South, either. South Carolina has some amazingly wonderful and loving people, and every state has its problems. Certainly there are regional issues but these are not issues unique to anyone or any state.



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Radio Nerd Dog Whistles

May 18

You might have seen this post I did over at Zooglobble about how to introduce someone to the current world of music for families.  (And Dave Loftin did one too.)  That was based mostly on the playlists from the first couple of weeks on the air at KUTX, but obviously only the songs from people who were doing music for kids.

I thought it might be worthwhile to look at the rest of what we’ve played early in our tenure here on KUTX.  I sort of think of these as what political hacks call “dog whistles” — things with multiple meanings, except where in dog whistle politics the additional message tends to be “I think them gays are icky too but need not to say that out loud,” my additional message is more like “Hey, music nerds, you’re safe here.”

So far, the radio nerd dog whistle songs have included:

  • Brian Eno, I’ll Come Running – I still remember in the early fall of 2005, when we’d first launched, another volunteer at Valley Free Radio coming up to me and saying, “You know, I thought what you were doing was interesting and stuff, but it was when I heard Eno that I really got what you were doing.”  It’s no surprise that it was the third song we played on KUTX.
  • Elizabeth Mitchell, Lovely Day – Yes, this was on the Zooglobble list too, but it fits here too, because (a) it’s originally by Bill Withers, one of the finest songwriters and singers in history; (b) Elizabeth and Daniel have a long and amazing musical history outside of family music; and (c) I really wanted to also play Withers’s Lean On Me, but don’t think I can play that without crying yet (listen to this show and read this post for why).  I’ll get there soon.
  • The Ramones, Spider Man – It’s the Ramones.  No explanation really needed.  (As an aside, I filled in for my friend Elizabeth McQueen in doing an interview with John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants for her great podcast This Song.  His choice for the song to discuss was the original Batman theme.)
  • Asylum Street Spankers, Sliver – Again, this is on the Zooglobble list, but here because (a) the Spankers only did one (amazing) family record and (b) it’s a Nirvana cover, and a song that is not obviously something you’d play for kids.
  • Mates of State in-studio – I could have held onto this until later and gotten more songs in, but this seemed totally perfect to me.  I mean, sure, part of it is that I just adore MoS, and one of my great joys is that they did a Guided By Voices cover on the Science Fair CD (the end, with their kids singing? gets me every time).  But again, it signals something about our show that I don’t think any other show for families does (or if they do, I don’t know about it).  Those were two songs by a really well-respected internationally touring band that you cannot hear anywhere else in the world!
  • Prince, Starfish and Coffee – again, like the Ramones, probably doesn’t need much explanation, though I will also note that this is a bit of a shout-out to the many Minnesotans resident here in Austin.
  • Carrie Rodriguez in-studio – Carrie’s Sacred Heart Project is fascinating and gave us an opportunity to share some Mexican history — musical and otherwise — from someone whose music I think is accessible to kids without being aimed at them.  I’m also trying to be more intentional about having Spanish language songs in particular.  And again, her second song (“Lake Harriet”) was about one of Minneapolis’s lovely lakes.
  • WillieUnveiledWillie Nelson, Won’t You Ride in My Little Red Wagon? – It was frustrating not to get get Willie into the first week’s show, so he definitely was getting in the second.  He’s so fundamental to Austin music (there’s a statue of him!) that it was a necessary wave to the history of the town.  Plus, uh, he’s Willie Nelson.
  • The Pixies, Tony’s Theme – Same category as the Ramones, really.  I figure a lot of current parents grew up on the Pixies (and Nirvana, etc.), and the rest at least heard them on (sigh) “Alternative Classics” or whatnot.  This song (and Prince, too, I suppose) makes a particularly good example of us finding kid-friendly songs from bands that most do not do that, and not just songs that get contributed to kids’ compilations (though nothing’s wrong with that).
  • Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Ever since I heard this done on 89.3 the Current, I’ve felt like it’s one of the very best versions of a song with roughly 34 millions versions of it out there.  Sharon Jones, of course, also appears on the Baby Loves Jazz releases, and does a fine job there, but the Dap-Kings…well, they’re ridiculous.

I still feel like we’re in introduction mode and will be for quite a while.  This week, the nerd whistle songs will include Loretta Lynn, Dean Jones with the Felice Brothers, Louis Armstrong, Fugazi, Frank Turner, and Cornershop.  Should be fun!

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