I am grateful to have had the rewarding opportunity to publish STAND magazine and to be involved in a project that gave a damn. The best part of this work has been the incredible men and women I’ve met along the way.
Unfortunately, it has become increasingly clear that STAND does not have a sustainable path forward and so we are ceasing publication. There are no plans to publish another issue in print and there are no plans to continue as a web-only magazine.
Thank you for your interest in STAND and for your support over the years!
Jackson Cunningham and Josh Bluman founded JJ Suspenders several years ago after having difficulty finding the right suspenders to wear to a friend’s wedding.
Here Josh shares with us more about the background of the company and what men should consider when purchasing suspenders.
How did you get interested in suspenders?
In 2014 we were shopping for suspenders to wear to a friend’s wedding and after visiting dozens of shops all we found were boring looking or overpriced suspenders. We then went online to look at buying a pair and realized that most of the suspenders being sold were cheap, mass produced and coming from just one or two companies. The only suspenders we liked came from a company in England, but this came with high shipping costs, outdated designs, and poor customer service. So, we thought it was a great business to get into where we could make something really unique!
What makes your suspenders different from other brands?
We think about suspenders A LOT. We think about how to make the perfect width, which fabric we will use, which type of leather, the length, the style of buckles. This will be instantly noticeable if you buy a pair. Some specific unique things that differentiate our suspenders from others:
dual clip/button attachments (so you can rock them with any pants)
unique one-of-a kind designs and fabrics
sturdy clips that don’t break
What factors go into choosing the right suspender?
I would start by thinking about when you plan on wearing them. If it’s a formal wedding or cocktail party, you might want to look into our classic or formal suspender lines. If you are going to something more casual, then the leathers might suit you perfectly. Check out our suspender style guide with a lot more info about choosing the right pair.
Do you plan to expand to produce other menswear items?
We are thinking about it. Any ideas?
How can men learn more about JJ Suspenders and get in touch?
Check out our website at jjsuspenders.com. Lots of cool suspenders and guides to check out and send us an email if you ever need help!
Yury Kunets is a Russian composer, musician, producer and businessman. In collaboration with award-winning American conductor Lee Holdridge and Grammy award-winning British recording producer Christopher Alder, Kunets began recording a series of symphonic music albums. The first album, Renaissance, was recorded 2011 in Kraków with the Wroclaw Score Orchestra. By the end of 2014 he had recorded several new compositions in Warsaw with the Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra and the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir for an album called Dedication. A new work, titled Reflection, is expected in 2019.
We corresponded with Kunets about his work in music.
When did you first compose music?
I started to make music at a mature age, but I first experimented with composition when I was five. I heard music and played it by ear, but I always wanted to come up with something of my own – something unique and individual.
Who are some of the composers who have influenced you, and is there a piece of music that has had a significant impact on you?
Russian classics have always been the inspiration to my work. In particular, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. And of course, the classics of classics–Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin. I like nature very much and that’s why I can endlessly listen to the Seasons of all six greatest composers!
It is never too late to begin. It is much worse to regret what hasn’t been done.
Russia has an incredibly rich cultural legacy. Are there other art forms, such as film or painting, that inform your work or your themes?
An artist creates his works with a brush, a sculptor with a stack, a poet writes poems, a musician plays various instruments, etc. All this is art. To me cinema is one of the greatest arts. And of course I pay attention and focus on various disciplines. And many people tell me that my music is cinematic.
What inspired you to begin recording symphonic music at this stage in your life, and what have been some of the challenges you’ve encountered?
Inspiration, in my opinion, is a spiritual, emotional lift, a kind of magic. And there are much more possibilities in symphonic performance, a wider range of sounds, and when you are writing a new piece of work, you imagine these sounds, instruments. But to write is only one part of the story, then comes the arranging, the recording with the orchestra, the album release, the promotion and so forth.
Sometimes it takes years to bring a piano version to the final product. It all needs great patience and funds.
What suggestions do you have for someone who might be considering making a change in their career to pursue a new creative venture?
To start out in a new creative way, you should first believe in yourself and in what you do. And I think, it is never too late to begin. It is much worse to regret what hasn’t been done.
You refer to your work as the composition of sustainable piano and symphonic music. What is meant by the word sustainable?
In my music I aim to preserve my heritage and Russian roots and thus my cultural spirit through timeless classics and symphonic and lyrical melodies. My symphonies mirror my feelings, philosophical reactions, and emotional being at a particular time in my life. Little stories about human existence, always in connection and surrounded by nature are being preserved in my compositions to give it their sustainable character.
How has your work changed since the release of your first album in 2011 and what can listeners expect from your new music?
A lot has changed since the first album. I gained some experience, became more confident in my composing plans. With every record, I take a new approach, meet wonderful people, real maestros and of course I achieve something new. My music is filled with all this, but it remains lyrical.
Nashville music producer Tony Brown got his start in gospel music, was a pianist for Elvis, became president of MCA Records Nashville, and has produced over 100 number-one country songs. We spoke with Tony on STANDcast 59 about his life in music and his book Elvis, Strait, to Jesus.
In the interview that follows, Tony reveals another of his passions: style.
There’s a strong connection between the music business and the world of fashion. How did your interest in clothes and style get started?
Even at a young age I noticed that celebrities, whether entertainers or athletes, had a certain “look” on the street; an extension of their personal style. The more famous they were, the more they expressed their taste in clothes, cars, or anything pertaining to self-expression. It just seemed to come with the territory! I took notice!
How would you describe your style?
My style is best described as “cool-casual,” at least that’s how I describe it. I wear a lot of nice, black jeans—with almost everything—t-shirts, pull-over sweaters and buttoned-up shirts. I really like Paul Smith, YSL, Kooples … just cool stuff. If I need to wear a suit, I usually wear a slim-cut, Italian-style with one button, an open-collar instead of a tie. I like leaning more towards “cool,” as opposed to “buttoned-up.”
“Fashion is for people who don’t have style.”
You worked with Elvis. Did you incorporate anything from him in terms of developing your own look?
Elvis didn’t inspire my look except that I noticed he was always Elvis, 24/7.
I try to present myself with my look, no matter what I’m doing. I know that sounds a little narcissistic, but I feel it’s a requirement that goes with someone who actually cares about how they put themselves together, especially if they are somewhat of a public figure. That’s just my opinion.
Who else has been a part of influencing your style and how did they influence you?
I think I’ve always noticed people who put themselves together, and do it really well. When, actually, that’s style in itself! I saw a great quote from this old dude who was a very cool, cowboy kind of guy and he said, “Fashion is for people who don’t have style.” That pretty much says it all.
Who are some of the musicians and performers working today whose sense of style you admire?
Don Was, the producer for the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, and the label-head for Blue Note Records. Kacey Musgraves has been through a number of looks throughout her career, yet she has still maintained a distinctive style that is all her. Pharrell Williams, artist and producer: he always seems to be in front of the curve, when it comes to style and fashion—he’s always on the GQ best dressed list.
Eyewear. You wear a lot of sunglasses. What makes a great pair of sunglasses for Tony Brown?
Glasses are just part of my look, particularly Matsuda glasses. I don’t like to be photographed without a pair on. I have different styles and colors for different moods or attitudes. That’s just me.
Many men as they age pay less and less attention to their appearance and style, yet you’ve managed to continue to look effortlessly cool into your seventies. How do you do it and what suggestions can you offer for other men wanting to maintain a sense of style as they mature?
I think some men just naturally start feeling the need to dress more mature, or as it’s called, “age-appropriate”, as they get older. Sometimes their careers dictate that. But being in the entertainment industry, and especially on the creative side, it gives me license to dress the way I feel most comfortable performing my work. My style is an extension of my work as a record producer—blending in with musicians and artists—as opposed to looking like an executive, which is also a part of my job. To me, that is definitely one of the perks of my profession. But I can definitely dress up when required—trust me!
Taking care of yourself and your appearance doesn’t mean just clothing, but also looking healthy and fresh. Skin care is one of the main things I pay attention to, and maintaining a good haircut that fits your style. Staying on top of all your grooming habits just makes sense to me—a little vanity never hurt anybody.
Why does the body remember what the mind tries so desperately to forget? Author and lawyer Karen Stefano begins to answer this question in her new memoir, What A Body Remembers (Rare Bird Books, June 11, 2019), in which she revisits the 1984 summer night at UC Berkeley when a man follows her home and assaults her at knife point. After a soul-chilling struggle, she manages to escape –– but will she ever feel free again?
What a Body Remembers is an honest, from-the-gut account of one woman’s journey to regain her power and confidence—a journey that continues to this day.
What a Body Remembers chronicles a deeply emotional and traumatizing part of your life. How did you manage potential triggers while writing about your experience?
I engaged in what have become my standard rituals of self-care: exercise, talking to a therapist, allowing myself plenty of down time/quiet time—something I’ve come to need more and more of over the years.
But I didn’t always succeed. Walking to my office one morning (broad daylight, safe and busy street), a man was running behind me and I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was a scene way more panicked and unhinged than the scene in the book with the jogger in the park. That poor man. He apologized to me profusely (though he had done absolutely nothing wrong). The look on his face said he knew: this woman has been assaulted on the street before. This woman is a trauma survivor. There were several similar incidents during the time it took to write this book. Writing this story brought all the trauma right to the surface and I was hyper-susceptible to triggers
Why do you feel that it is important for others to know your experience?
As I shared with more and more women what this book was about, I can’t even count how many said, “Yeah, something like that happened to me too.” And they would share their own story and that simple act of sharing would unburden them I believe. This was before the #MeToo movement began. Now this story is more relevant than ever. It’s important to speak out, to let others know they’re not alone, to let everyone know there are many ways to heal.
You discuss the frustrations of dealing with unsatisfactory legal maneuvering after your assault. Do you feel like this has improved at all in recent years? Gotten worse? Stayed the same? Given your personal experience and your professional work as a lawyer, how do you think this can be improved?
Things have improved significantly since the time of my assailant’s trial. There have been changes in the law to enhance victim’s rights and many District Attorney’s offices have a victim liaison office. But based on my experience as both a lawyer and as a victim in the criminal justice system, there is still room for improvement.
I believe our bodies will eventually revolt if the mind refuses to address trauma.
How? Start with simple communication. Most victims don’t have the first clue what to expect from the system and that alone is extremely anxiety-inducing. DAs have to view themselves as advocates for victims in the system, just as criminal defense lawyers act as advocates for their clients. Simply telling a person what to expect procedurally from the system goes a long way toward helping those individuals navigate that system—whether they are victims or persons accused of crimes.
You were a victim of a brutal crime, and yet you went on to become a criminal defense attorney, defending people accused of committing crimes as atrocious as the one committed against you? How do you reconcile this?
This is something I address directly in the book, within the full context of all of my life experiences, and when you read my story the rationale for this paradox becomes clear. It was an unexpected path and one I wouldn’t change. I will never apologize for spending eight years of my legal career defending the rights of the poorest, most damaged, most under-privileged in our society—and those were 99% of my clients.
And frankly, it’s a large part of what makes my story so interesting. The victim who goes on to become a prosecutor—that’s expected—that’s not interesting. The victim who suffers a brutal assault, who works in law enforcement, who goes on to defend persons accused of crimes, who is good at it, who sees the humanity even in her clients who have committed atrocious violent acts, who finds her own voice in doing this work—that’s a journey worth reading about.
How did you come to accept and cope with the reality that some things — even life-altering things — are outside of our control?
This is something I struggle with, and I don’t think I’m alone in this struggle. We need to plan, work hard, and take massive action to push our life in the direction we want it to go. And yet, in order to feel peace, we have to accept that so much in this world is out of our control. Those two realities are difficult to reconcile.
What advice do you have for others going through similar experiences, especially for those who are in the beginning stages of processing their assault?
Ask for help. Be kind to yourself. Watch what story you’re telling yourself internally. Don’t say, “I’m going crazy.” Adjust that self talk to, “Something terrifying happened and I am processing this and it’s going to be uncomfortable and take some time…” Or something along those lines, something that creates an internal narrative that is more compassionate toward yourself. Make necessary life adjustments. Basically do the opposite of everything I did!
If you have the resources, go to therapy. If your first therapist feels like a bad fit (as mine was), find someone else, but go.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known in the immediate aftermath of your assault?
So, so much. And What A Body Remembers examines this from the other side of 30 years and all of the life experience those years gave me. Primarily, I wish I’d had a better understanding of the criminal justice system that I was thrust into against my will. But how would that have even been possible? I was 19 years old, a sophomore at UC Berkeley. I had no real life experience yet. But that’s one of the undercurrents of this book: life takes us places whether we’re ready or not.
These experiences stay with us and shape us in ways we may not even understand. How did you reconcile your attacker’s impact on your life after the assault?
As chronicled in the book in the year following the assault—I didn’t. There was no reconciliation. Due to a variety of factors—being so young and naive, having little in terms of a social network, lacking financial resources, working in a police department where the social code was BE TOUGH AT ALL TIMES, my strategy was denial. My mantra, as you see early in the book, was I’m fine.
But the terror became too great. I had learned something horrifying: that I wasn’t safe, that men do jump out of darkness and attack women at knife-point, that I’d gotten lucky, and that as bad as it was it could have been so much worse. I learned life really did change in an instant.
Eventually I did engage in acts of self care. I pulled back from patrolling the dark, crime-ridden streets of Berkeley even though doing so bruised what was left of my ego. I finally talked with my mother about what had happened.
Slowly the PTSD dissipated—on its own time-frame, not mine. It lay dormant for decades. When it started back in 2014—not coincidentally at another period in my life when things seemed to be crumbling—I finally said, okay. I’ve got to get to the bottom of this. And as readers will learn, the things I discovered from my excavation were nothing less than stunning.
Can you elaborate on your chosen book title – What a Body Remembers?
I believe our bodies will eventually revolt if the mind refuses to address trauma. That’s certainly what happened to me: I lied to myself and everyone around me post-assault by insisting I was fine—even as my body—in the form of panic attacks triggered by the sound of footsteps—told me otherwise.
For me, my body held the trauma inside it for 30 years and counting—even when my mind seemed to have moved on. Hence the title of the book.
For people who are not intimately familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, what is it? And what role has it played in your life?
I don’t hold myself out as an authority on PTSD, but in my personal experience: it’s your body refusing to forget what your mind has worked so desperately to push down.
The American Psychiatric Association defines PTSD as a reaction to an extreme traumatic event. Psychiatrists say that when people live through trauma, memories get connected in their minds with what they saw, heard, smelled or felt at the time. Fear becomes linked to the sensations that occurred during the event. These sensations become triggers – in my case, the sound of footsteps.
As far as the role it has played in my life, it was acute in the months following my attack. Then it fell dormant for decades. Suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, it reappeared again. PTSD brings terror into everyday events: walking down the street, going for a run. It makes you feel completely out of control. It makes you feel like a crazy person. Logically you can argue why the panicked reaction makes no sense – but your body isn’t going to listen. It’s going to judge what reaction is appropriate – and that reaction is to experience terror and to demonstrate vigilance, even hyper-vigilance.
How does PTSD affect relationships with friends, family, significant others and other acquaintances?
As shown in the book, my PTSD primarily manifested in two ways: a fear of the dark (a bit of a problem when you work in law enforcement and have to put on a police uniform and patrol a sprawling campus and surrounding crime ridden streets in darkness!); and a severe trigger by the sound of footsteps behind me.
My PTSD made me clingy – nearly destroying my relationship at the time with my boyfriend. Oddly, it also made me withdrawn, furthering the cycle of depression and self-loathing I experienced. It distanced me from my own mother because I was too ashamed to tell her about my assault. I couldn’t trust even her to not say something to make it all worse.
What’s next for you?
I will continue writing, continue sharing my stories in the form of essays and also fiction. I’m currently at work on my next book, a novel this time. By sharing our stories we render ourselves vulnerable and I believe there’s a lot of personal power in that kind of vulnerability.
I also plan to continue my own personal journey of healing and self care and personal growth. As I share in What A Body Remembers, my therapist has told me I’m a “work in process.” To which I’ve replied, “Aren’t we all?”
Murray A. Lightburn’s new album could very well be the sonic equivalent of STAND Magazine’s tagline: It is a record for men who give a damn. When I mentioned that to Lightburn, he laughed and said, “I probably give too many damns.”
For more than two decades now, Lightburn and his wife, Natalia Yanchak, have formed the nucleus of the Canadian indie-rock band The Dears. Lightburn’s second solo album, Hear Me Out, came out earlier this year from Dangerbird Records. It is melodic, soulful, moody, grooving, mellow, stirring, contemplative, upbeat, downbeat–you name it. The record practically sounds like life for a man with young kids, a marriage, friends made and lost, and a pocketful of dreams–some realized, some dashed, and some still forming or re-forming.
The first half of our conversation took place while Lightburn ran an errand because what else distills modern, fortysomething dad life more than dropping the kids off at school and then doing some work while waiting in line? When he revealed that he was renewing his driver’s license and health card, I have to admit, it almost felt like he was trolling us Americans for a moment because I have waited longer for a coffee order than he did to renew his driver’s license and medical insurance at the same time. Sigh.
Our conversation ranged far and wide. Like most conversations these days, it touched on politics, but we also chatted about marriage, fatherhood, adult friendships, and, of course, his music. The interview is edited for concision and flow.
Mitch: I was playing your album the other day, and my four-year-old always wants to know who we’re listening to. He said to tell you, “Murray, you’re a great singer.” I promised him I would use his question first, and he wants to know, “Murray, how are you doing?”
Murray: That’s a really good question. Actually, I have three answers for that. One is my public answer, which is “GREAT!” The other is the answer I would give my wife, which is, “I have a lot of tension in my shoulders, some butterflies in my stomach, and I’m feeling a little stressed out.” And then there’s the one that I keep for myself, which is, “How are you doing, Murray?” And that answer is a lot darker than I care to get into, you know? If you ask anybody that question, they have three answers, and there’s always the one they keep to themselves.
The only complication I would add is maybe a fourth because I have a work self that’s different than all of those.
For me, my public one and my work one are the same. This is a discussion Natalia and I have a lot. We get worked up about stuff–and the world is definitely filled with strife–but we are living in a generally uneventful part of the world, in North America. For us to have any complaints is kind of laughable.
As I get older, I use that filter a lot more to taper my adolescent “woe is me” stuff. When people complain on social media, I think, can you imagine what it would be like to live during World War II? Your house could be fucking bombed anytime? Armies are invading your neighborhood and country and taking over?
Life is overall better now. Violence is at an all-time low. That said, I understand that America is in a rough spot politically, so, well–
It’s staggering to witness from up here. I’m in line (at the government office), and that’s the cost of having a health card up here. You have to wait for the bureaucracy. But you shouldn’t have to go bankrupt if you have to go to the hospital. If you’re sick, you’re gonna be okay. I can understand the opposition to that idea, but I don’t know anything else. It just seems normal to me to have that at my disposal, to be able to go to the hospital with my wife and have a kid.
(At this point, Lightburn’s number is called. The entire process, including wait time, literally took five minutes.)
I feel like I’m on the Daily Show and you’re just trying to rub our faces in how easy that was. That was 1/100th as long as it takes me to get my driver’s licenses renewed, and that’s just for driving, not health care.
Anyway, we are living in interesting times, so why a soul record now, in the middle of this moment in modern history? What drove you to make this record with a classic sound right now?
For me, it always goes back to trying to emulate Mom’s home cookin’. Being a Black kid, some of the music of my childhood was soul music. Now I almost exclusively listen to Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and so on.
(The solo records) are a different animal than what The Dears band does, so I really take advantage of this latitude that I have going out under my own name. If I take the expectations that come for The Dears out of the equation, I suddenly have a blank canvas. The music that I like to listen to and want to listen to, that’s what I’m pulling from, and that’s where I’m coming from.
My kid is involved with Rock Camp for Girls, and I cry at every show they do. It just blows my brain to bits to see anything that my kids do. It turns me into a bawling mess.
I like to listen to great singers and great songs, so I tried to make a record that reflects a guy trying to be a great singer and trying to write great songs. It always boils down to those two components, if those aren’t checked boxes, there’s no point in moving forward. So, I really worked hard on the songwriting, the lyrics, the melodies, and the vocals, even though everything I listen to on the radio now is devoid of melody. And the lyrics are mostly banal and boring. They’re not really revealing a lot, whereas I wanted to make something that was fully loaded. It’s not a low-investment record. It’s a big investment.
At the same time, I wanted it to sound like something that could be played in the background of any chill situation. I would hope this is a record people would put on when they’re hanging out with friends or at the coffee shop. I didn’t want anything abrasive or off-putting. But, there’s a lot of flute on this record and I realized the other day a lot of people don’t like the flute for some reason.
Having the flute as part of the instrumentation of this record was very personal. And the saxophone, even though Howard (Bilerman, the producer of the album who has also worked with the likes of Leonard Cohen and Arcade Fire) was against it. The saxophone is a personal instrument to me, so it had to be there. Howard connects it to cheesy ‘80s songs, but I have a relationship with the saxophone that goes back to the golden age of jazz, through my dad. My parents’ wifi name and password are based on John Coltrane.
So you really grew up in a saxophone-rich environment.
Yes. My father played. He taught me when I was learning guitar. He’d see me trying to learn stuff on guitar, and he’d pick up his sax and teach me a melody. Even though I don’t really have a close relationship with him, that’s why (the sax) is personal. There were literally only two things my old man and I could talk about, and that was music and baseball–specifically the Expos–when I was growing up. And there would still be not a lot of words involved.
It’s weird, but those sounds? I can’t break away from them. He also played flute as well, so I grew up hearing those sounds in the house, going back to my earliest memories. Now I look at my son who’s six-years-old, and we have a totally different relationship than I did with my father. I can see him and my daughter absorbing stuff.
The other day my daughter and I went to a thrift store, and I saw one of these little toy Casio keyboards there. She’s thirteen now, so anything I have to offer her will immediately be rejected. I accept that, so I willfully do not try to push anything on her. It’s like, you’re on your own journey. If you discover music, great. So, not five minutes later she sees the same keyboard. If I buy it for her, she’ll probably never pick it up. She sees it and immediately wants to buy it, so I’m like, YES! She’s into it.
Now she has a ukulele; she’s really good at it. She has this keyboard. She’s so naturally gifted to learn melodies and chords, and she doesn’t want any music lessons. She has to figure it out on her own, just like her old man. I absorbed a lot of music growing up, and now it’s a big part of how I produce music. Now I see my children absorbing stuff through their mom and dad. Who knows what’s going to come out of it.
Your dad was trying to teach you how to play instruments back in the day, but you’re letting your own kids come to you. Your own kids are the ages you were when your dad taught you, so are you realizing things about you and your dad now?
I don’t know. My dad comes from a completely different place. He grew up in a very poor country, came to Canada in the ‘60s, and was subsequently treated really badly upon arrival. He hated it. Literally, people were calling him n—er every day at work. That’s Quebec–I’ve lived here all my life.
Our experiences were very different. Calling him a mentor is not entirely accurate. If anything, he was almost a deterrent. He would hear me working on demos at home when I was a teenager getting into multitracking, working on my own compositions, and he would hear them and say things like, “Well, you’re not much of a player, but you’re definitely a composer.” That’s the kind of shit he would say.
I’m able to acknowledge how much my brain has refined my ideas of being a man, especially in 2019. That might be the crux of the record.
But, by definition, that’s what I am today. “Composer” is on my business cards. I don’t know if that’s just because I accepted early on I wasn’t going to be much of a player or musician in that way, but I was the ideas guy. I definitely don’t see myself saying things like that to my kids. My kid is involved with Rock Camp for Girls, and I cry at every show they do. It just blows my brain to bits to see anything that my kids do. It turns me into a bawling mess. On the flipside, I’ve played dozens and dozens of shows around Montreal, and my parents have seen me play live twice–and the second one they left early. My mom only revealed why they left, like, a month ago, and the show was ten years ago.
My friends and I have talked about this generational shift too. Every time my kids do something cool, I tear up, but I guarantee my own dad never teared up, even when I hit an actual home run. I try to figure out what’s behind that. Is it because we’re closer to a “good life” than our parents were?
Our parents are a different animal, man. My dad was born in ‘35. Think about the world he was born into. The world was repairing itself after ravaging itself. Literally a world war. Unprecedented. It affected everyone, so it was a much harder world. They kind of lightened up in the ‘60s–even though the ‘60s were pretty fucked up in America–and then there was the ‘70s where people just didn’t give a shit anymore. (Laughs.)
And that’s when WE were born! In that larger scope, everything kind of makes sense.
Absolutely, and I think that’s why we’re more emotional. In some ways the stakes are higher because we’ve been given a gift of not having to worry about a world war over our shoulder. I think this leads to some of our problems with helicopter parenting now. Parents are trying to micromanage their kids because the stakes seem higher.
Absolutely! We’re terrified of them going to the corner store whereas our grandparents were terrified of tanks rolling down the street. When I was a kid, you would leave the house in the morning like it was a job, and you would just be gone until the sun went down at dinnertime. The only thing you had in your stomach was Dr. Pepper and Fritos.
I look at my kid on her fourth box of Nerds and think, yeah, that’s what I did too. It’s really important for us as parents to remember how we grew up. My kid’s room is a disaster, and my mom says she couldn’t even go in my room because it was horrifying. And now here I am vacuuming my house because I have a fucking mortgage as a functioning, taxpaying member of society. That perspective gives me some kind of solace.
This takes us back to your album. It seems there are themes of maturation, like in the song “Change My Ways.” You’re a new person now. Talk to me about that in your record. We grow and change and now we have mortgages. Is that a theme in the record, or am I making that up?
It is and it isn’t. It’s a subplot. The main thing is about relationships and the important relationships of our lives. That is the driving factor of any sort of growth and positive change. If I had never met Natalia….
There are a lot of adult males who can’t let go of being a fifteen-year-old. I don’t really like that idea much. We don’t need to hold onto our youth, nor do we need to embrace getting old. Some balance in our journey is required. I’ll be 48 this year, but I don’t feel like I’m almost fifty. I’m able to acknowledge how much my brain has refined my ideas of being a man, especially in 2019. That might be the crux of the record.
Will Smith had this thing on Instagram about making decisions based on what’s right and true, not what you like or dislike. He was preaching to the choir there. We make a lot of decisions because of what we like or don’t like instead of what’s right or true, and that screws us up a lot of the time.
That’s what an adolescent would do. We Generation Xers have struggled with that, it seems. We even have the phrase “adulting” now, but it’s not “adulting”–it’s just what you do.
Having kids puts that in perspective. You feel dumb and childish if you act like a child in the presence of an actual child. You have to get your license and health card renewed, you know? The parameters become so defined. It shrinks the real estate for you to wallow in any sort of childish bullshit. Once you get into your thirties, that stuff is over. When I see older guys chasing after a twenty-year-old, it’s like, what are you doing? You look ridiculous. How do you not see this person as someone you should be helping as opposed to someone you want to take advantage of, you know what I mean?
Absolutely. You should be reminding her to, like, wear a bike helmet, not hitting on her.
Yeah, I don’t get those guys at all. I just don’t, but that is part of the culture of being “a dude,” which is totally gross. I just don’t subscribe to it. I’m content with my domestic situation. There’s some jackass who tried to legally change his age from 64 to 40. Look, there are younger, stronger, better looking men than you who are taking over. Use your wisdom. Use your power for good, not for evil.
Yes, exactly, and have some dignity.
That’s my favorite word: dignity. In rock and roll, which generally is the world I live in, it’s definitely a young person’s game. There are younger, better-looking versions of me, and I’m fully accepting of that. That said, the younger better-looking version of me doesn’t have the experience I have to impart through songs. Like you noted, I have a million stories. I write them every day and put them into songs, and I hope people will relate to that stuff. If they get a nugget from something I wrote and say, “This song is really speaking to me,” that is my role. It’s why I keep doing this.
I’m not playing by all the rules of the younger version of me. I’m not trying to present myself in some hipster way because that ship has sailed. There’s a lot that comes with that, and that’s what I was trying to say on this album. It’s on all those songs.
I have a lot of failed relationships in my life, and I’ve learned from every single failed relationship. It’s not like I sabotaged them, but I’ve learned I could be more forgiving. Balance is hard. Turning the other cheek while not being a pushover–that’s the difficult thing. It’s also hard knowing how much to invest in a relationship. How much is this relationship damaging who I am? This record is trying to examine that baggage, to go through the trash of that and come out with something beautiful, hopefully. It’s kind of like a weird therapy session.
It’s ultimately about the ability to communicate. Without the ability to communicate, your relationship is dead in the water. If you’re not using words, you’re making a lot of assumptions, reading between lines as a result and seeing stuff that’s not there. I changed my working habits because when the kids are around you literally cannot finish a sentence without the kids butting in. So parents have to talk later. Then the day goes by and you didn’t talk about what you wanted to talk about, and the next day it all happens again.
I used to work a lot at night and come to bed late. I’d still get up early to take the kids to school, but I realized that by not going to bed together at the end of the day, Natalia and I never got a chance to talk. Now, no matter what I’m doing, I shut it all down at 9:30, make sure the kids get their shit together and get to bed, and then we’re just alone in bed by 10:00 to talk about whatever. The news, what’s going on with each other, just sit silently and watch a movie together, whatever. Without that opportunity, you just keep going and don’t communicate. You fall out of sync.
This album is called Hear Me Out because it’s about paying attention, especially to the heavy, important stuff, and getting it out into the open.
A lot of the modern way we communicate with each other is with written text, abbreviated, and super-fast. As soon as an email is beyond two paragraphs, I just make a phone call. It’s faster and my tone won’t get misinterpreted. A lot of people assume we can read between the lines in all this text written half-assed while on the john or walking down the street. This album is called Hear Me Out because it’s about paying attention, especially to the heavy, important stuff, and getting it out into the open, or else it’ll be the end of the relationship.
Most of what you’ve said so far about relationships is on marriage, and that’s 100% true for me too. We know that men aren’t very good at maintaining adult friendships, though, so how do you find this applies to male friendships? How can men maintain friendships into their forties and beyond?
It’s really hard, and I think it’s due to different levels of growth. It’s gonna come to a head at some point, where you can’t be friends with this person anymore because this person is too advanced for me or too far behind me. There are the guys who still go out four nights a week, and there are guys like me who go out four nights a year. I’m sure it applies with women as well, but we just don’t know because that’s their problem. (Laughs.)
We have our own set of problems that don’t get examined. Not that anybody wants to hear a man in 2019 complaining about the problems men have, but we do have a lot of fucking problems. Men, in general, have boxed themselves in. The challenge is to find a way to get out and to navigate in a meaningful way again. With adult men, there’s a crossroads. Maybe I’m not gonna hang out with you anymore.
I like how you put that. Yeah, there’s no space to hang out and have conversations if people are at very different levels of growth.
All of this could sound shitty and holier than thou, but it’s just not where I’m at. I’m a big believer that everyone is on their own path. My first big life epiphany happened in my late twenties, when I realized I had to make a change, like you see in the movies or with Saul on the road to Damascus. Once you’ve opened that door and you’re open to making changes, you can have more epiphanies. You see things in a new way that is positive. Once you’ve embraced that, you’re open to growing, and it’s exciting.
But if that door is closed and you’re just kind of bro-ing along, you might just be wandering the streets doing whatever, chasing meaningless shit. I was always open to looking at a bigger way of life and how to grow. I don’t know why or how. It’s interesting.
Your definition of epiphanies is basically a definition of growing. How do we help grown men who aren’t open to this to grow?
I’m not sure. Some people still hang out in the high school student lounge, you know? You thought you escaped that when you finished school, and now it’s creeping back into adult life through social media. It’s like, my god, this is horrible.
It’s a reminder that some people really liked that stuff in high school and want to keep it going.
YES! I have friends like that. They keep in touch with everybody. That’s a huge investment.
We all do it differently. Like you said, we’re all on our own paths.
It comes back to being receptive to new ideas. I definitely view things differently now, and that’s positive.
A retelling of the famous myth of Parsifal and the Fisher King is the backdrop for this intended healing work. The myth is called a “living myth” and in this unique retelling of the story (my take on it), I have chosen those aspects pertaining to healing men’s masculinity (particularly related to sexual addiction). A contemporary man’s whole sense of self-worth and potency in this world is often based on his own (and others’) perception of his masculinity/sexuality (or his penis, like Priapus). James Wyly writes that the central core to most men is “his phallus, his libido, his ego and his ability to potentiate his own destiny.” The Parsifal myth is a medieval story of restoring unity to misaligned masculinity.
The main players in the story include Parsifal, a young man from Wales, The Fisher King of the Grail Castle, and Kundry, a queenly, mysterious, mystic woman (a female counterpart of Merlin), along with Parsifal’s mother Herzeleide, who carries the sorrow of Parsifal’s father’s actions. Lastly, Parsifal’s father Gamuret, a man equally wounded by Patriarchy and absent in Parsifal’s life.
At the heart of the Grail Castle lay the Holy Spear and the Holy Chalice. The two divine implements represent the masculine and feminine principles, which when combined in perfect wholeness produce light into the kingdom of the Fisher King. The Holy Chalice represents the feminine aspect of feeling and beauty that both contains and transforms. The Holy Spear represents the masculine strength required to stand erect and guard the precious Grail. The Grail Castle had fallen upon hard times; the spear had been stolen. The Fisher King was wounded in his testicles by the Holy Spear as it was stolen. The King was henceforth “too ill to live but not ill enough to die” (the modern malaise for many men). The wound to The Fisher King signifies a wounding to man’s sense of potency and his self-esteem. The wounding in this “private part” of himself will not heal and equates to The Fisher King’s “fall from grace” (the noble part of the king has fallen from grace).
The Fisher King’s kingdom has been laid to waste—the meadows and flowers are dried up and the waters shrunken. The suggestion is that any malaise to the king is mirrored in his kingdom. This implies that if there is a wound to the “nobility of inner man”, then the whole personality (his whole world) will be troubled. As if by magic, whenever the Fisher King is healed, the lands and people surrounding the king will be healed instantly.
According to legend, the healing of the king and the kingdom will only take place with the coming of “the good grail knight”, an “innocent fool” (Parsifal) who will restore health to the Fisher King, his land, and its people by asking a specific question. The pure knight will ask the perplexing question, “whom does the grail serve”? Should the knight fail to ask the question, then everything will remain wasted.
Parsifal’s mother, Herzeleide (meaning “heart’s sorrow”) feared that a fate, which killed her husband, would overtake her son, so she raised him to know nothing of knighthood and to be ignorant of his heritage. How many mothers try to instill in their son’s integrity, to guard them from the foolhardiness of their fathers and brutal society?
The Parsifal myth is a medieval story of restoring unity to misaligned masculinity.
Parsifal grew up without a father, often the case for today’s youth. Parsifal’s father was allegedly Gamuret, a young knight who decided to journey to the Middle East to seek his glory and fortune. A blow from a lance pierced his head and he was killed in action. When Queen Herzeleide heard of this, she went to live alone in the forest and gave birth to Parsifal while still in mourning. Herzeleide’s mourning was in knowing that her husband loved another and was married, albeit illegally, to Queen Belakane (a Muslim). His gallantry had amounted to nothing and resulted in grief to all and ultimately death to himself. His “gallantry and charm” was empty bravado, as there was no connection to either Herzeleide in Europe or Belakane in the Middle East (nor to his young son to be).
Parsifal’s youthful years were spent in the forest. “He grew up handsome, strong and athletic. He was later called ‘simple’ or ‘innocent fool’, not because he was indeed unintelligent, but for his guileless innocence, his simple perceptions and faith” (Oderberg, I.M., 1978). No sooner had Parsifal “come of age” when he encountered knights riding through the forest. He was so taken by their godlike appearance that he immediately wished to become one of them. He told this to his mother, and she wept because she had tried to protect him from the wiles and ways of knights. She begged him to stay with her, but his heart was set, and at last, she gave him her blessing to go. So, Parsifal went off into the world where his naiveté and sincere enthusiasm atoned for his social blunders. His own inner sense of maleness was still shaky and adolescent. King Arthur eventually knighted Parsifal and he had many adventures and “as if by chance” he found himself at the bridge leading to the mysterious Grail Castle.
Parsifal earned the right to enter the castle and with young eyes filled wide with hope, he walked in. According to myth, men get two opportunities to enter the Grail Castle. The first time in their youth, a “gratuitous” gift (given by God?) allows young men to experience the potential of their “numinous self”. The second Grail Castle opportunity is not gratuitous and coincides with a man’s mid-life crisis; a time when men re-evaluate their whole lives and hopefully re-discover meaning and potency. Inside the castle, there was a hushed expectancy, as everyone knew that an “innocent fool” was prophesied to ask the healing question to revive the king and The Grail. Parsifal felt a great stirring within him to speak, but alas, he said nothing. He heard the ladies of the court snigger “he is just a pure fool”, laughing audibly, and gazing upon a dumbfounded Parsifal. Surely, he was not the chosen one, they mused. Parsifal again stood motionless and speechless, overwhelmed by it all. Parsifal was ridiculed and deeply wounded by the Grail Castle experience. The Grail Castle vanished into the mists and Parsifal found himself back in the world of time and space, on the edge of a forest licking his wounds.
It seems every young man experiences a woundedness to his masculinity at the time of puberty; a Fisher King wound. “It is painful to watch a young man realize that his world is not just joy and happiness, to watch the disintegration of his childlike beauty, faith, innocence and trust”, wrote (Johnson. R. 1989). This step into maleness, into daily “work-related” life is difficult and often harsh. To leave, in a sense, the wonders of a maternal–primordial inner fairy-tale world for a “reality” that is competitive and demanding, is a rigorous transition. The onset of puberty in boys brings them face to face with the physical reality of being a man. Newly found biological urges and cultural sexual fantasies impact enormously on a young man’s sense of self.
As boys grow up, their erotic self (largely through masturbation) is indirectly condemned to the toilets, posters, pornography, and fantasies of a private inner life. This is due to masculine sexuality not being successfully integrated by our cultural structures, family, schools, professional training, religious institutions, etc. This sends sexuality underground into the hidden, shadow, shady part of boy’s life. There is often silence for young men at this time, with no healthy discussion about a boy’s emerging sexuality, so his sexuality can often be self-perceived as dirty, sinful, disgraceful and hidden from his family’s knowledge. As a result, young men split off from themselves, acting out their sexuality in the shadows of their life. It is speculated here that a boy’s puberty experience and wounding stays with him through life, to eventually be consciously redeemed.
Young men have other wounding experiences around the time of puberty that further impact on their fragile sense of masculinity. These other wounding experiences can include a boy’s first love, loneliness, a first sexual encounter (often a disaster), sexual abuse, separation or divorce of parents, parental pressures to “succeed”, being rejected as not one of the boys, a non-conformist attitude to collective male standards, being sensitive or different, or being unathletic in a culture that prizes athleticism, and so on. Each man has his own tragic story of loss of innocence and woundedness.
The wounding is experienced as a loss of meaning and a loss of hope for the future, coupled with destroyed self-esteem and isolation. This masculine wound is directed to his generative ability; the ability to be creative within himself and be externally potent in the world. The young man feels psychologically impotent, with no self-love and therefore little capacity to relate with inner beauty to the world. He is left with a haunting sense of incompleteness and emptiness and is too young to face it. Without the ability to articulate what he is experiencing a young man finds it too emotionally overwhelming. So, young men hide their woundedness and run away from the dysfunctional self.
It seems every young man experiences a woundedness to his masculinity at the time of puberty; a Fisher King wound.
Parsifal now must learn, search, and find his own way; to eventually be worthy to re-enter the Grail Castle for the second time. He muses that returning the spear to the rightful owner will produce healing to the King, redeem himself, and restore life to the Kingdom. A mighty quest is conceived. His wound has metaphorically ushered Parsifal into the beginning of consciousness, and while searching in the world for completion, as the years pass, he does the necessary outer (and inner) work. His mighty quest may be seen simply as more adventures in the material world, but in truth, it is a search for wholeness.
Modern man charges off hoping to find something that will make him feel good again (heal the masculine wound). Many young males pretend to be cool and chase monetary pursuits in an attempt to make their way in the world. Young men generally hide the wounded part of themselves and endeavor to prove themselves by getting material objects or bedding fair maidens to feel like a man and feel better, but alas only for a little while. Boredom, restlessness, emptiness and woundedness remain. A quest for outer glory is undertaken largely to inflate an already wounded masculine ego, to bolster self-worth, potency, and male prowess in this world.
Our Western culture teaches young men that everything can be reduced to physical possessions, women, money and entertainment. Men may seek out women after women; however, a woman alone can never cure a man of his deep wound. Generally, men do have a belief in finding the “perfect woman”. In this belief he is unconsciously looking for something to give his life the meaning and wholeness he senses is achievable. Men ultimately find out that it’s not possible for a “perfect” woman to redeem his soul, as she is earthly, and fallible (with her issues too).
We, as boys and men, are bombarded by sexual images daily and much of the time (for males) infidelity and casual sex is indirectly encouraged. “Sowing one’s wild oats” is a culturally endorsed practice for young men and the collective understanding suggests that if a young man has many sexual encounters, he will feel good about himself and will feel like a man. Then it is assumed that he will later “settle down” and be a good husband and father. This adolescent masculinity is endorsed informally by our culture. This “adolescent masculinity” has three aspects: the “Don Juan legacy”, an un-integrated erotic life, and an inability to relate authentically.
Don Juan was beset by erotic thoughts and pursued the lofty sexual instinct of the moment, in the “trickery” of his life. A man’s woundedness is inflated by sexual “conquests” and he will often retell his sexual exploits to other men in order to win their admiration. Western definitions of masculinity congratulate a man for his “Don Juan” trickery, his coolness, his dispassionate reasoning, “conning”, and outsmarting others. Young men quickly learn this path and pursue female conquests outside of their primary relationship (in the shadow). A young man might be unable to relate authentically yet be rewarded by peers for his cunning and guile with girls and in business. This keeps boys and men alienated from their authentic selves.
Modern man’s emptiness is seduced by Don Juan’s adolescent masculinity and quest for sexual exploits. Man’s tendency to seek out (or repeatedly fantasize about) sex apart from his primary relationship, carries a terrible cost. Sexual addiction and obsessive sexual thoughts are quite common in men. This takes a toll on men’s well-being and results in restlessness, moodiness, depression, relationship problems, and a decline in health, bringing additional harm to his already wounded self. The dark side is dominating him. The noble, honest part of himself is seduced by shadow activity. Man is ultimately alone with his secret life, his sexuality, and his dark thoughts.
Modern man is badly wounded and is “too ill to live but not ill enough to die” (the Fisher King malaise) and the path towards true masculinity is rarely seen or modeled for him to emulate. In the myth of Parsifal, the Holy Spear (the true masculine spear) was missing and hence was split off from the Holy Chalice, representing feeling and beauty. For each man the journey is to learn, heal, and change his life to live the way of true noble masculinity.
Parsifal, eventually came to the whereabouts of the Holy Spear, yet before he could re-capture it he encounters Kundry, the beautiful and alluring sorceress. Kundry has been “bewitched” and trapped into service by the “dark side”. This is instructive to men about the erotic temptations they face and how to hold true masculinity intact. Kundry had been sent to delude Parsifal into wrongful actions, which would automatically have set the Holy Spear out of reach. I am indebted to Joseph Kerrick’s work here, and I paraphrase his words, which eloquently illustrate the temptations that Parsifal encountered:
Kundry was dressed in seductive finery of a regal courtesan so that any man who looked at her would see his heart’s desire. He [Parsifal] encountered Kundry, lying on a divan; he felt himself go flush with the flames of lust. She twined her arm about his neck like a serpent and drew him into a kiss. He pulled away disturbed, clutching his heart. “What!” said Kundry, shaken out of her role by this inexplicable outburst? “The cost of such bliss,” said Parsifal “would be endless cycles of doubly-damned torment for both of us.” At this she ripped off her flimsy raiment and spread, her arms and legs wide, offering herself desperately for a thrust and a penetration that did not come. Parsifal only stared at her with love; his fool’s look gone, though not his compassion. (Kerrick, J., “Parsifal and the Holy Grail” 1999).
Parsifal knew in his heart that to “partake” of Kundry was in fact a dual act of dishonoring himself and Kundry. He chose to embrace his own erotic thoughts, to acknowledge their presence. He embraced Kundry and refused her offerings and in so doing made himself and Kundry whole.
By Parsifal’s compassionate rejection of Kundry, he assumed more strength, nobility and merit to his being. With this right action he had both asked and answered the famous question “what or whom does it serve” to act in this way. Not only did Parsifal pass this test, but also through his compassion towards Kundry, her “soul and queenly self” were restored and she emerged from the entrapments that had bewitched her. Kundry, in fact, was so thankful for being redeemed by Parsifal that she showed him where the Holy Spear lay. Symbolically, the finding of the Holy Spear was Parsifal proving his true masculinity, brought about by the feminine aspect of himself (his corrupted Kundry nature). The feeling, compassionate side of Parsifal enabled him to become whole and “one”, not split-off from his true masculine “phallic self”. Overcoming Kundry with such nobleness of being, he earned the right to re-enter the Grail Castle for the second time.
Over twenty to thirty years of knighthood, Parsifal had earned the right to learn and re-gain entry to the Grail Castle for the second time. Parsifal had “untangled himself from the collective mother and patriarchal complexes and emerged as a man capable of potentiating his own unique destiny” (Wyly, J, 1989). Parsifal’s first act in the grail castle was to touch the wound of the Fisher King, (his wounded testicles) with the spear. This act by Parsifal made it plain that it was the king’s inappropriate sexual behavior and his trickery that had caused his malaise (the wound). The Fisher King had severed the kingdoms’ connection with the Holy Grail, by allowing “shadow/shady activity” to take place within his soul and the Grail Castle. Parsifal then asks the famous question, “Whom does the grail serve”? Immediately the gathering was made aware of the answer: “The Grail serves the Grail King”.
Parsifal, in giving “voice” to the mystery of what is important to uphold in the kingdom, knew that “the Grail is located within himself”. The question “whom does it serve” meant that man must choose to give service to his conscience, his deity/soul and honor that kingly noble part of himself. With the Holy Spear returned, the Fisher King was instantly healed and immediately the Holy Grail enactment commenced restoring light into the kingdom. The land instantly transformed back into fertility and the waters flowed again. Parsifal knew the reason for his own suffering, as well as the Fisher King’s (and modern man’s), for he had transcended the suffering that results from being split-off from his integrity. Achieving true “kingly” masculinity in this sense is a courageous accomplishment, not a birthright and is birthed through suffering, self-reflection, personal growth, and consciousness in all actions.
Parsifal’s “secret to success” as such, was his lack of trickery (refusal of artificiality), his inner code of honor, and overcoming infidelity. Parsifal (like many of us), set out on the hero’s journey wanting The Grail to serve him (his ego) but in the end he knew that we all serve the Holy Grail. Parsifal in serving The Grail simply learned to listen and honor his own conscience and uphold it with true masculinity. Parsifal listened and honored his own “inner” voice and knowing; and therefore, turned a corner and was safe. For without integration of duality there remains “split-off-ness” within the man. “Unless man in his individuality can differentiate himself from “collective” patriarchal standards, both will go down together” (Wyly, J, 1989).
Truly, we are made whole or empty daily as each action modifies our own character and sense of being in this world. If man does something wrong, then he must not take shelter in trickery and trivial excuses, but rather make a noble-hearted effort to resolve his fault within himself and make clear reparation with others about it, in the exterior world. For whatever we do or feel toward another person (each day), has a deep psychological impact on ourselves and on the other person. We may come to know and be our “ordinary” selves (without inflation) and experience all the inner warmth, human vulnerability and beauty that has always been with us. Truth has never abandoned us. To live as “free” men, means not selling or enslaving one’s own soul and integrity to “cultural stereotypes and patriarchal standards”. Heroic myths live forever, as does Parsifal in the heart and soul of modern man looking for a way forward into knowing SELF.
“Only as an individual, undivided, can man continue on his journey, meet the feminine (within and without) as an equal opposite and fulfil his creative destiny” (Wyly, J, 1989).
Richard A. Sanderson M.Ed., B.A (Psych). Is a retired Lecturer-teacher, health-exercise practitioner, mystic, and humanitarian. Lives in Albany, Western Australia. This piece is edited and abridged from a longer version. To request the full length, detailed document email Richard Sanderson at email@example.com.
In episode 60 of the STANDcast Dwayne Hayes, editor in chief of STAND magazine, is joined by Dr. Dain Heer, author of the book Return of the Gentleman. Dain discusses his interest in questions about manhood and masculinity. He also talks about what it means to be a gentleman, what it means to honor oneself, and the elements of intimacy. All this and more on STANDcast 60.
Episode 60 fast facts and info:
• Special guest: Dr. Dain Heer
• What does it mean to be a gentleman
• How do we honor ourselves
• 5 elements of intimacy
Frazz is Bryson Elementary School’s custodian and songwriter. Artist and writer Jef Mallett has never been a custodian. Beyond that, feel free to draw all the comparisons you’d like.
Featured in over 250 newspapers and visited on-line at Gocomics.com by tens of thousands every day, Jef’s comic strip has a brand of gentle humor, wit, and quiet social commentary that makes it a daily must-read.
Born in 1962 in Lansing, Michigan, Jef was raised in Big Rapids, on the west side of the state. That the rapids in Big Rapids, while beautiful, are decidedly not Big might be the touch of whimsy that inspired Jef’s benevolent and good-natured humor.
First a musician (he’s the son of music teachers and his brother has a PhD in music), then an EMT, and then, a nursing student, Jef’s young life was not without risk. He was an early adopter of hang-gliding, a top regional bicycle racer, and he later became a fine triathlete with two finishes in Kona to his credit.
These days, Jef’s passion is open-water swimming. He’s completed the Boston Light swim, America’s oldest open water swim. It’s an 8-mile slog from America’s first lighthouse on Little Brewster Island, around Thompson Island, and back ashore at the L Street Bathhouse in South Boston.
He’s twice done, in 2007 and 2015, the Mighty Mac Swim, a 7-mile open water swim across the Straits of Mackinac from Michigan’s Lower to Upper Peninsula. Swimmers battle 5-10 mph currents as they swim alongside the Mackinac Bridge. He’s done the Golden Gate Swim three times and swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco four times. “None of those swims,” he adds, “were to escape incarceration.”
Jef knows how to suffer. “The perfect training,” he says, “for someone in the comic strip business.”
He paid the bills as an editorial cartoonist and graphic artist for the Booth Newspapers group while he tinkered with the characters who would become Frazz.
I think that’s true for a lot of guys. It’s not like we sit down with a glass of wine and spill our guts. Most guys these days, the ones I’m friends with, are pretty good about sharing their stories, but there needs to be some ancillary activity.
Jef’s main protagonists are his alter-ego Frazz (Edwin Frazier to those in the know) and a young African-American kid named Caulfield. Caulfield spars continually with his teacher, Mrs. Olsen, a hairbun wearing, donut eating, coffee guzzling teacher who would look at home in a 1950s sitcom. Consider her kindly and baffled. Mr. Burke is the fourth-grade teacher we all would have loved to see at the front of the classroom. Once overweight, he went on a Frazz-inspired training plan and routinely schools Frazz on the basketball court when they play one-on-one. They all work for Principal Spaetzle, the man would give nearly anything to be a Renaissance Man like Frazz. Not a monk, Frazz makes time with Miss Plainwell, the school’s first grade teacher and a frequent training partner of Burke and Frazz. Jane Plainwell is modeled on Mallet’s wife Patti.
We had coffee near his home in southeast Michigan. As if either Jef or I needed more caffeine.
Jef, we’ve known each other a long time, since our days racing bikes in the 1980s. I’ve always admired your work and your sense of humor. Tell how you went from an editorial cartoonist slash graphic artist to doing Frazz.
It was a combination of things, Dave. First of all, even though I am really political, I mean, I have very strong ideas about why people shouldn’t be such giant dicks, editorial cartooning has limits. Your work has to be topical so you can’t ever work ahead, not by more than a day or two. That’s a big limit. I’ve become a pretty good artist, I like to take my time and make sure the art is as good as I can get it, and you don’t have that with a cartoon. It’s like the difference for you between writing a magazine piece and cranking out daily news stories for a website, right?
In ’96, I did this kid’s book, Dangerous Dan, and that’s where the whole Frazz thing, still unnamed, started to gel in my mind. Dan was a kid, this daydreamer, his notebook was this flying carpet, that kind of thing, and I was traveling around the west side of Michigan doing literacy stuff with the book. I’d read the book to assemblies, show off the art, as one does, and just about everywhere I went, I noticed something. There’d be a gym or auditorium full of grade schoolers, and they’d be noisy as all get out ‘cause that’s what kids do when they’re set free from the classroom.
I’d be waiting in the wings as teachers, principals, whoever, would try to quiet the room and give me an introduction. They almost never could, right? But every so often, I’d see the custodian walk out there. Forty-five seconds by the principal of shouting “Quiet! QUIET!” Much waving of hands, all of that, and it never worked. But when the custodian would walk out there, the kids would settle right down. He’d just hold up both hands, say, “Hey, come on now…” and it was, just whoosh, dead silent. After this happened a couple of times, I realized, these guys have something with these kids that the rest of us adults don’t know about. That was the genesis for Frazz as a custodian in an elementary school.
You’ve made no secret that Frazz is essentially you. You’re interested in damn near everything; all kinds of music and literature and sports, you’ve got as much intellectual curiosity as anyone I know.
True. I can’t fake that. I’m not that savvy. I had a bunch of Frazzes in my life, I was lucky like that, so when Frazz started taking shape, it had to be me. Write what you know, I guess. Lucky for me, I started doing Frazz a little later in my life, when I did come to know myself a little better. It might have been a disaster with my post-adolescent self.
Remember reading Of Mice and Men? Slim, the jerkline skinner? “there was a gravity in his manner…” remember that? I tried to give Frazz some of that, he takes people seriously, doesn’t matter who, Frazz pays attention.
Look, I hate smart-asses. It would’ve been easy to have Frazz become that guy. Those are the quick jokes, the easy jokes, people would laugh, but in my mind anyway, it wouldn’t make Frazz a very sympathetic guy, now would it? And guys who aren’t sympathetic, well, they don’t age well. When someone is talking to Frazz, Frazz pays attention. We all like that, don’t we, we like to be heard? Frazz is a guy who gives a damn, for sure. He’s attached to these characters I’ve built around him, just like me.
Let’s talk about your characters. I want to talk about Caulfield last. Tell me a little about Miss Plainwell. That’s Patti, your wife, right?
Caulfield last? Way to bury the lede, Dave.
I prefer to think of it as building dramatic tension.
Right. Anyway, Jane Plainwell, that’s Patti. Jane teaches first grade. Geez, those folks have immeasurable patience, just like Patti. And a great sense of humor. I never intended for Frazz to be a monk. I mean, he’s a 30-year-old guy, a musician, an athlete, for sure he’d have a relationship. But I needed someone special, she’d need plenty of depth. When Jane first started appearing in the strip, it was a little bit of unrequited love on the Frazz side, he was pining away a bit, all moon-y, and then, just like in real life, they started to spend more time together, and a relationship started to build. I had to flesh out her character a little bit, give her a story, too. Since I took a lot of Frazz from my life, it made sense to me to take a bit of Patti’s story and put it in Jane.
Frazz and Caulfield aren’t color-blind. They know one’s white, one’s Black. They recognize it, maybe even revel in it a little.
With Jane, I was walking a tightrope. It would’ve been easy to turn her into a shrew, the comic strip version of an internet troll. Frazz does have these moments of ego, and Jane is good for popping that bubble, so I fought hard to have her not do that in a mean way. It’d be a cheap joke, and I try to head in the other direction.
Mrs. Olsen, at first glance, is not too sympathetic a character. She’s heavyset, not what most would consider attractive, and a bit of a grump. You can tell, though, that she cares a lot about the kids. When you read the strip regularly, you get the sense that there’s a pretty deep connection between Caulfield and Frazz and her. A little respect, maybe?
She did start as a foil, mostly, but that was too shallow. She’s been a teacher all her life, so you have to respect that. And so I did. She’s a composite of a few teachers I had, plus one that Patti had. At first, she was the butt of too many of Caulfield’s jokes, and that was turning Caulfield into a smart-ass. I hate smart-asses, even though I’m one myself sometimes.
About her, er, morphology? Mr. Burke trimmed down, why not her, too?
I’m scared of obesity. I’ve seen it wreak a lot of havoc on people’s lives. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve always been a cyclist, triathlete, now a swimmer. I just know it’s a better way to live. I love Mrs. Olsen. Her being overweight, or her being skinny, she’d still be the same person, but I don’t see her personality leading her down that road. She’s such an incredible creature of habit. This isn’t a body-shaming thing, although I’ve been accused of that. She’s a good person, and she happens to be obese.
I mentioned Mr. Burke. He might be the best fourth grade teacher in the history of the world. And will Frazz ever win a game of one-on-one basketball with him?
Might be? Yeah, Mr. Burke is wise. He’s a sage. The basketball games are a great device. It’s a chance for two adults to talk about relatively adult things without the kids around. I think some of the best moments in the strip are when Frazz and Burke get the chance to share their lives.
I think that’s true for a lot of guys. It’s not like we sit down with a glass of wine and spill our guts. Most guys these days, the ones I’m friends with, are pretty good about sharing their stories, but there needs to be some ancillary activity. Golf, for sure, is one. I don’t golf, but I can tell. After a run or swim, you get all those endorphins going, you feel pretty comfortable sharing the issues. Used to do that on long bike rides, too. I’ve read about therapists who took patients out for runs before sessions. I can see how that would work. Maybe Frazz should try darts?
Oh, right. About Burke’s weight. It got started playing hoops. Frazz would ramble on about a great run or swim or ride, how much fun it was, how good it felt, and Burke’s kind of a thoughtful, open guy. He was getting tired a lot. His knees and hips hurt. It was pretty clear that Frazz’s life was not bad, and I think Burke wanted some of that in his life.
I like to think that between us all, we’ve made the world a little kinder, maybe a little more thoughtful. For a guy who draws a comic strip, that’s a good legacy, don’t you think?
Burke’s message is transformative. I don’t think it was heavy-handed, it seemed natural to me. It’s not like I have control over these guys, you know. Like Faulkner said, “I just start ‘em up, then I follow them around and write down what they do.” Burke figured the weight thing out on his own; he didn’t have any help from me.
Will Frazz ever win? Well, first they’d have to start keeping score, but, no. Frazz is like me, and I suck at ball sports.
Mr. Burke looks a lot of Hawk, the Avery Brooks character from the old Spenser: For Hire. Or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, if that’s more your thing.
Yeah, that was a choice. I draw what I’d like to see. Brooks always plays the wise, tough guy, right, maybe a little on the quiet side? So, when Burke slimmed down, that’s what I saw inside him. He started taking on that look as he lost weight, so I went with it. It was never a “How will this market? How will this play?” kind of thing.
I’ve never taken “the market” into account in the strip. My strip makes me a living. I’m happy. I’m satisfied. It wasn’t like I thought some connection between a popular star and Burke would be good for syndication sales. If it does, that’s just a happy accident. Mostly, it was like Michelangelo and that block of marble. “I carved away at the stone until David revealed himself.” Well, on a much lesser scale. He just started to look more and more like Hawk.
What about Principal Spaetzle?
Spaetzle is just, well, frazzled. Sorry, old joke. He’s simply a good man who’s reached his limits. He was probably a pretty good teacher, not a great one, and he aged up into administration. He’s always well-meaning. He loves and hates to see Caulfield coming. He would have loved to have Caulfield’s spunk and spirit himself, but he knows that Caulfield is quicker, sharper, smarter than he is, even if Caulfield doesn’t always realize it himself. He’d love to be as cool as Frazz, too, even though Frazz would be the last one to see himself as cool. He’s the boss you’d turn into if you’re not careful.
I’ve noticed that Coach Hacker shows up very little these days. Is that happenstance or a move on your part?
It’s a move. We all had a Coach Hacker in school. Dim, a little mean, so closed down. Every time Hacker showed up, the joke was always the same. He wasn’t 3-D enough. It was always the dumb jock joke. Most jocks these days aren’t dim. Plus, with all the CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) brain issues around football, it’s not funny. I got tired of him. It was an old bit. I have characters swirl in and out. Some of them don’t even get named. If Hacker has something to add to the conversation, he’ll show up. I have all those folks in my head. Sometimes they speak. Sometimes, they don’t.
The Venn diagram of Caulfield and Frazz crosses in a place where no one else’s, none of my people, cross. Their relationship is sacrosanct; it is the strip.
Frazz, we all understand him. He’s grounded. He’s a custodian, a musician, an athlete, a guardian. He gives a huge damn. Huge, no pun intended. These people around him are his life. They matter. So Frazz needed a counterpoint to make this work.
Caulfield is a pure questioner. That’s what he does. Like that “Question Everything” bumper sticker. The thing with Caulfield, he pays attention. To everything and everybody. He’s not a true little kid. He deserves more credit than that. Little kids react to their impulses. Caulfield, not very much. He observes, he processes, he questions. He exists in this netherworld of questioning. That’s why he needs Frazz. I’m Frazz, sure, but as a kid, I was a bit of a Caulfield. Not as much, but I liked to know why. How come? What if?
You know how they say attorneys never ask questions that they don’t already know the answer to? Caulfield, he may not know the answer, but he already knows what the next question is. Most classes I was in had a kid a little like Caulfield, maybe not so wise, but always asking “How come?” so Caulfield is a nod to the nature of school. A lot of those ‘How come?” kids are doing it to stroke their egos, but Caulfield is just incredibly curious. It’s that curiosity that kids lose as they get older and turn into us.
That was a very conscious decision on my part. I wanted a Black hero in my strip. When I was working the Dangerous Dan literacy circuit, I met a lot of really cool, really bright, Black kids. I wanted them to be represented. I knew that if I did the Frazz-Caulfield thing properly, the white kids would be on-board, and the Black kids would get it. I decided that a Black kid was perfect for Caulfield. It works. Plus, it gives me something more to work with. Frazz and Caulfield aren’t color-blind. They know one’s white, one’s Black. They recognize it, maybe even revel in it a little.
But you gotta realize that these two, Frazz and Caulfield, aren’t friends. They’re not buddies. One is a little kid with kid issues, the other’s a grown-up. They’re not peers. I made that decision early on. Frazz is a good adult, one who looks out for his kids. And when Caulfield needs a little straightening out, Frazz is there to straighten him. If they were peers, that’d be really heavy-handed. Think about it; this white guy always telling the Black guy what to do. Not good. But when it’s a caring adult and a thoughtful kid, well, that works.
You have about 15,000 Facebook fans. I’m a regular reader and I’ve noticed, you’re doing fan interaction right.
Ah, yes. The Frogg (Frazz-Blog). A few years ago, the social media director at my syndicate, Andrews-McMeel, asked me if I’d do some social media. Facebook. I figured I’d give it a try. Turns out, I’m pretty good at this social media stuff. Well, my readers and me.
If you go to GoComics.com, it’s a whole different thing; those folks are all angry at each other and the world, they really like to pee in the champagne, so I don’t visit there too often, but the Frogg is different. It’s my Facebook page. I put thought into every Facebook post so I’m writing a couple hundred words of exposition about each strip every day. That’s good, I like to write, it keeps me sharp. In a way, it’s cross-training for the strip. The Frogg isn’t about one-liners or snark. It’s about how I developed the day’s strip. My readers are smart, damn smart, and they’re thoughtful. I get a lot of ideas from readers for strips. Heck, my readers can even disagree without turning into vermin. Weird, right?
It’s two-way. I do respond, maybe not every day, but I’d say four days out of every five. It’s a pleasure. I’m not scared of the trolls because we don’t really have any. Somehow, just by being Frazz, we’ve built a good community online, between me and my readers, and between the readers, too. I like to think that between us all, we’ve made the world a little kinder, maybe a little more thoughtful. For a guy who draws a comic strip, that’s a good legacy, don’t you think? I do.
In episode 59 of the STANDcast Dwayne Hayes, editor in chief of STAND magazine, is joined by Nashville music producer Tony Brown. Tony got his start in gospel music, was a pianist for Elvis, became president of MCA Records Nashville, and has produced over 100 number-one country songs. Tony talks about his life in music, as documented in a new book, and also discusses a life-changing experience that helped make him a better man. All this and more on STANDcast 59.
Episode 59 fast facts and info:
• Special guest: Tony Brown
• Background in gospel music
• Experience with Elvis
• Accident and getting sober
• Becoming a better man
• Book: Elvis, Strait, to Jesus