The Death of a Great Man

My grandfather passed away this week (on my father’s birthday) at the ripe old age of 93 years old. The following is a tribute speech to him that I presented at today’s funeral service.


On behalf of my family, we want to thank everyone for coming here to celebrate the life of this extraordinary man who I was lucky enough to call my grandfather. Us grandkids called him Papa. And for those who don’t know me, my name is Erik, and I’m his oldest grandchild and most likely his favorite one too (wink, wink).

Ever since I can remember, I’ve known my grandfather as a quiet man, a stoic man, a loving man, and an incredibly handsome man. But he was immensely humble and never took himself too seriously – well, except his hair. His hair was a serious matter. His hair had to be combed perfectly every single morning before he’d show his face to anyone. Even his own family.

A couple of weeks ago, when he was extremely frail and barely functional, I helped him to the bathroom. As soon as we flipped the light on, he slowly raised his head and gazed into the mirror with squinted eyes and cried out, “Oh boy, my hair, just look at it.”

He was a man always put together, never messy or disordered, always sharp looking. He took pride in his appearance. He was a man of tradition, a simple man who belonged to the past, to a long-forgotten era. A man who never asked too much from the world. And I adored him for that.

My grandfather lived to be 93 years old. And what a life he lived.

I remember at times just looking into his ancient eyes and being captivated knowing darn well that these tired, bloodshot eyes had seen firsthand so much of history and profound change over the last century. It was a reminder of just how connected we all are to the past. Whenever I gave my grandfather a hug, it hit me sometimes that I was hugging a man that was hugged by his grandparents who were born from parents of the Civil War era. It was amazing to think about and it really put time in perspective for me.

But through it all, through the death of so many loved ones, the death of his long-time wife and his precious daughter, and the death of most of his close friends and siblings, my grandfather never lost his dry sense of humor, or his charm, and he never became jaded in life. He remained kind-hearted and humorous all the way to the end.

A few months before he passed, I remember taking him to one of his regular doctor visits for bloodwork. As the young pretty nurse drew a vile of his blood, he looked up at her with a little smirk on his face and said, “well, dear, did you leave some in there for me?”

“Yes Mr. Bays, I left you a little, you silly old man you,” she replied. And then he would laugh that laugh that we all knew so well.

My grandfather loved people and he always made deep connections all throughout his life. He could go anywhere and have a friend – he was that kind of guy. He had a genuine interest in people and their day to day lives. He was one of the most personable people you could ever meet.

And… just let me tell you, he loved his grandchildren and he loved his great grandchildren. So much. Always bearing gifts on our birthdays, always there at our ball games, always rooting us on through life. He really was a special man.

My grandfather, Ralph Bays, was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1928, on the brink of the Great Depression in a small coal mining town in West Virginia. His father was a coal miner, and, like himself, a loving and caring man. His mother was a housewife and a highly religious woman who dedicated her life to the needs of the family.

Less than a year after the conclusion of WW2, at 17 years old, my grandfather joined the army where he was stationed in California and worked as a carpenter. After a short stint in the army, he joined the Air Force where he served as a firefighter in the Korean War.

With honorable discharge papers in his hand, he came back home to West Virginia where he met a little red-headed firecracker of a woman who worked in a department store at the time – my grandma. They eventually married and had two daughters, the youngest being my mother.

And speaking of my mother, I just want to acknowledge her and give her the praise that she deserves for giving up so much of her life in the last few years to take Papa in and take care of him. She was so unbelievably strong in the final days, rarely leaving his side and catering to all his needs. All while trying to work full time. I’ll never forget that. Thank you, mother, thank you for everything you do. You’re an amazing human being.

I’m going to miss my grandfather. So much.

I’m going to miss the smell of his cigars wafting in the midafternoon breeze. And the way he slurped his coffee every hour of the day.

I’m going to miss the way he closed his eyes and nodded his head when an old-time country song came on the speaker.

I’m going to miss the way he let out that childlike chuckle every time he watched those rambunctious squirrels chase each other in the backyard.

I’m going to miss all the hugs that he was never too shy to give out and I’m going to miss the sound of his old husky voice when he always said “I love you, boy” every time he saw me.

As we celebrate this great man today and continue his legacy, I just want to leave you with the heartfelt words of the brilliant Albert Einstein: “Our death is not an end if we can live on in our children… For they are us, our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life.”

I love you, Papa, I’m going to MISS YOU.

Sitting in the Cemetery

Now and then I like to stroll into an old cemetery and just sit for a few moments in complete silence under the midday sun.

It’s strange I know but being there alone feels like being in a little sanctuary far from the suicidal world that we’ve created for ourselves. The birds, a subtle hum of the afternoon, the dead flowers scattered around the decrepit gravestones – just taking it all in.

Being fully there and pondering on the impermanence of it all, the brevity of breath, death death death – to feel it deeply, to let it quiver, to be completely frightened to the core by the mystery of it. That’s perspective.

I’m standing still in the green grass with rotting bones beneath my feet – bones that were once draped with skin, hair, and blood vessels – bones that were once people who suffered, loved, and had secrets, and jobs, and children, and strong beliefs only to forever vanish from the pulse of life. Mostly forgotten.

It’s a conscious elevating experience every time. A mid-day meditation that forces you into a state of gratefulness for the modest little miracles around you – the ant, the dandelion on the sidewalk, the mole on your neck, the fallen leaves under the mighty oak.

To acknowledge the shortness of life and to live not in denial but with complete awareness of our imminent death – to keep it as a companion in your front pocket as a reminder of our brief visitation on this amazing planet.

I can’t help but be reminded of what the great German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, once said: “If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself.”

The American Life is Killing you, The Interview

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The great documentary filmmaker, Alden Olmsted, set off across America in an old classic convertible. His aim: to get a little closer to the soul of a nation during these trying times.

America Unmasked is the name of his latest project.

I was honored that he chose me for an interview in the wake of a viral post I’d written in February.

Here’s Alden:

“In February of 2020 poet and writer Erik Rittenberry wrote a blog post that would change his life, and maybe mine too. When Medium picked up ‘The American Life is Killing You,’ Erik’s simple but honest post about losing our souls and our way via consumerism and neglect for awe, the post went viral, and struck a nerve. As a documentary filmmaker I wanted to interview Erik immediately, but from Northern California, Florida isn’t exactly next door.

Cue a historic shutdown and not only did I have time, but a check from the Federal Gov’t that would pay for the gas.

Finally, on a humid Thursday in late June, I landed in FL and got what I wanted, a candid unpacking of a difficult topic, by two questioning souls. I hope you enjoy it and are compelled to ask yourself – is this life killing you? Would you even know if it was? What do you really want? Are you willing to go against the machine of materialism to find it? Have you thought about God? And how to find him? Have you searched your heart for the purpose of your life?

Erik isn’t a guru, and I’m not a theologian. We’re just two guys willing to explore the harder questions about what we’re living for, and to acknowledge when we’ve been sold a lie. Comments are welcome.

Subscribe to my journey America Unmasked right here on YT. More info on my films and projects at http://www.aldenolmsted.com”

And here is the interview:

The American Life Is Killing You

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“I believe we are a species with amnesia, I think we have forgotten our roots and our origins. I think we are quite lost in many ways. And we live in a society that invests huge amounts of money and vast quantities of energy in ensuring that we all stay lost. A society that invests in creating unconsciousness, which invests in keeping people asleep so that we are just passive consumers of products and not really asking any of the questions.”

~ Graham Hancock


If you’re in the same boat as the typical American, your dilemma might look something like this:

You’re enduring some type of chronic illness, over-stressed and rushed, unrewarding job, little or no savings, greatly in debt, fat mortgage, two vehicles in the driveway with a 5 or 7-year loan on each, lots of gadgets and toys to keep you occupied, huge TV, little free time for yourself due to your career and a demanding spouse, weekends filled with church and/or senseless entertainment, and a bathroom cabinet heavily stacked with pharmaceutical tic tacs to help cope with the emptiness of it all.

 

This is probably you and it’s OK. This is considered normal in America. You are a success. You’ve achieved the American Dream. Your obedience and education and hard work have paid off. Congratulations.

But the problem is that you’re miserable and shallow and quite possibly unhealthy and a little dispirited and you’ll likely die of either heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or suicide in the not so distant future — statistically speaking.

Or you’ll make it to old age with this all too common deathbed regret — wishing you had the courage to live a life true to yourself, not the life of what others expected of you.

Despite living in the richest country on the planet with a gargantuan military (and budget) to keep you so-called “safe,” you’re frightened and unhappy more than ever before. Seems your material abundance and chronic hustle and “good citizen” ideals have done nothing for your happiness or well-being.

In fact, this status chasing, security-obsessed, hurried American lifestyle is draining you of your life energy. It’s killing you. It has been for some time. And you feel it.

This article is for you. Let’s go.

Continue reading

Reverie

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Midnight moon bleeds in the violent dark,
subtle breeze, evanescent shadows,
stars harmonize in the ancient night
as the bare branches of cold trees
quiver and shiver against the
backdrop of the unfurling
of the universe
around me.

And there I am, sitting campfire
in psychedelic reverie
away from the
menagerie
of the asphalt world,
descending
descending
descending
into the never-ending
dimension
of the timeless
where the kaleidoscopic
streams
wash away the conditioned
dreams
spawned out of a doomed
civilization.

The voice says:
divorce
yourself from what you think
you’re seeing, and look to the
source
of your being, where the mind
discerns with splendid purity
the essence of the primordial
beginnings of it all.

And it’s there, right there
in the dark dungeon of myself
where the inherent guilt,
invoked by our long-ago eviction
from paradise,
burns
burns
burns away
by the fierce light of
the return
the return
the return
and the plump little cherubs smile
as the music plays and the flaming
sword is lowered as the gates fling
open, and I, once again, walk into
the glory of the garden,
the infinite reservoir of
nothingness,
as the night throbs
to the greatest silence
there ever was.

Knowledge is Power?

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“We are surrounded by mystery, by what we don’t know and,
more dramatically, by what we can’t know.

~ Marcelo Gleiser


When I was young, I was told by the caring grownups around me that “knowledge is power.”

My parents told me this, my teachers, and the silly politicians I saw on TV even mouthed these sentiments.

I remember the grey-haired preacher man on Sunday mornings telling the congregation to always “seek the truth.” He never gave a levelheaded description of what that truth actually was, but he wanted us to seek it.

So I did.

I’m a curious creature by nature and I love life and wanted to know about the world I live in. I wanted to understand human nature to its core.  I wanted to know why we go to war, cry, love, hate, believe, and fear.  Where we came from and why we so easily give our allegiance to so many symbols and idols outside of ourselves. Why we cling to belief systems that limit our brief lives in the here and now in hopes of a better afterlife. Continue reading

Go Back To Sleep America

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“In war, truth is the first casualty.”

It just came out recently that hundreds
of US Officials including three
sitting presidents, yes, even the
one you adore today (he can’t be bought!!)
or the one you worshiped before (Change!!)
knowingly lied out of their teeth
to you and I and the rest of the American
people about the motives, cost, and purpose
of the war in Afghanistan.

This went on since the beginning.
It was an unwinnable war since the start
and the war wagers knew it all along
and they still sent our youth over there
to die with zero objectives.

The longest war in American history —
two trillion dollars
three thousand American deaths
and the murders in your name
of more than 150,000
innocent Afghans.

But no one cares.

No one cares as long as the lies feed
into our illusions and superstitions
of our home-brewed reality, it’s ok.

We’re patriots. We never question war.
We obey and comply. We’re patriots.
War is good. War keeps us safe.
Jesus loves war too.

No one will be punished for this holocaust.

No one will be held accountable
for the hundreds of thousands
of senseless deaths.

No one cares too much that our
children are being ordered to die for lies
in foreign lands to fatten the pockets
of the sociopaths that sent them
over there.

Over a hundred active construction projects
in Afghanistan worth more than $110 million
in development funds.

Go back to sleep America.

Never question anything, America.
Your government is in control
and they have
your best interest at heart.
Just keep waving your flags and singing
your anthems and shopping…

Ignore Hemingway even though he was
right: “in modern war, there is nothing
sweet nor fitting in your dying.
You will die like a dog for
no good reason.”

Go back to sleep America.

Sketches Of A Hollywood Night

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Only one night in Hollywood,
we leave our little bungalow
under the Hollywood sign,
me and a buddy, and make
our way down to Hollywood Blvd
where bums sleep on brass stars
and the fragrance of rotten piss
and despair wafts thru the air.

Hollywood – the backdoor
of civilization – remnants of a dying
world. The wild-eyed tourists are
scattered like ants with phones out
trying to make sense of it all.

We duck into a dive bar called the
Frolic Room. Bukowski used to drink here.
There’s a painting of his damaged face
hung high up over the cash register.
No one in here has read Bukowski. No one
in here has read anything worth a damn.
The hipster clientele that now litters the place
deprives the ambiance of its nostalgic wonder.
We sit and drink and ponder old Hollywood.
A pop song comes on the jukebox.
A grown man with a slavish smile
dances to it. We shake our heads
in disgust and drink harder.

Then, in walks a blonde beauty with her uninspiring
man and they slowly make their way beside us
at the bar. She orders vodka. He orders water.
It was doomed from the start. He moseys on
to the bathroom and she makes eye contact
with me, gazes brazenly at the tattoos on
my arms, slides in a little closer and smiles
that devilish little smile that got her this
far in life. The devil tends to whisper in
ears of the lonely. I don’t look at her. I stare
straight ahead as my buddy says, “holy shit man,
she wants you.” I take a sip of beer and eye
the painting of Bukowski. Love is a dog from hell,
he told us. Her “man” comes back and they take a table
in the back of the bar. We down our 3rd drink.

I look out the door into the street.
The commotion seems senseless to me.
What are they after, these people? The
idea of progress has got them
all in a frenzy. Perhaps they’re
running away from themselves.

I scan the bar to see if there’s anyone
in this legendary place with a little style,
a little edge. I can’t find one. Our eyes
meet once again by mistake as her man
sits across from her. She takes a sip from
the straw of her vodka drink, does a little
something sexy with her tongue, then bats
those little bedroom eyes as I turn away.
They pay the check and walk out into the night,
her poor man completely in the dark
of the preceding scandal.

After another drink, we pay and head out too,
buy a six pack from a seedy convenient store
and drink beer up on a hill under the Hollywood
sign. We talk poetry and philosophy and listen
to the sirens and watch the lights of the city
flicker below us as we await the doom of
another dawn.

The Artist

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A good artist is always a threat to the establishment and to the established beliefs of the people. A good artist pierces thru the wall of allowable opinion. To be a great artist is to always be a rebel in the society they’re born into.

Almost all art forms these days are too delicate, sanitized, stripped of profundity — therefore sterile and dull. The edge is gone in most art. The truth is watered down. Most artists these days sacrifice their art to the weak politically-correct vibe of the day.

Not Dave Chappelle. He’s not only saving comedy with his fearless truth-telling out-of-bounds witticisms, he just might be the man, the light, the prophet that saves all art from its impending doom. Ignore the anemic critics and watch his Netflix special. And if you get offended, live better.

Fewer Leaders

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I’d burn every goddamn flag in this world
if it’d help people realize we’re all one.

We need fewer leaders and more individuals.
Fewer anthems and more community. Less blind
obedience and more awareness. We need to
turn off the news and wake the fuck up
to our true potential as human beings.

This world will continue to be a slaughterhouse
as long as you let these half-baked political
demagogues influence you.

The reason that there are no solutions
is because no one is asking the
right questions. And this
irrational division we see
today is doing nothing but
instigating the next
senseless slaughter.