Sunday, March 19, 2017

Dreams of Animals

When I was a teenager, my father told me about a dream he had had. The memory stands out, in no small part, because it’s the only time I recall my father telling me about a dream. It stands out, too, because the dream was about me.

In that dream, there was a bird in the window. I forget the particulars but maybe it was nesting there, or fluttering in some state of suspension, half inside, half out. In my visualization of the scene, it happened in my childhood bedroom with the perpetually dusty windowsill, over the stringy yellow carpet we never vacuumed.

There was a bird, my father said, and while he was considering how to get rid of it, I came at it. I slammed a pillow against the bird, its chest, its head, and sent it plummeting to its death in the yard twenty feet below.

My mother intervened in the story, perhaps trying to make sense of it in an honest interpretation, perhaps scrambling to spin it. “Your dad thinks of you as a warrior.”

The dream must have rattled my father. To not only speak of it, to carry on and recount his own feelings from that scene. “I felt bad for the bird.”

I understood him. That though I remained a gangly, quiet, largely unassertive kid, the world was coming for me. We had started our not-yet-legal driving lessons in vacant sections of the shopping mall parking lot, and he had seen me grow frustrated at his instruction and lay my foot a little heavier on the gas to take a turn more sharply than I ought to. A new obsession with basketball had lent me a habit of dribbling an old Nerf soccer ball around my room. I was growing up and my father--or at least his subconscious--recognized my potential for calamity and disaster, less out of design than poor judgment and poorer communication, entwined in a body that was evolving from boy to man, enabled by the onset of meaningful responsibilities in my life.

My father didn’t see me as a warrior. He saw me as rash and blunt and awkward enough to murder an innocent bird before he could enact a more prudent and humane course of action.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that it was only a few nights later when I dreamed of another animal intruding on our home. This time it was a foot-long lizard--bizarrely out of place in our upstate New York habitat--and for some reason, in this dream, I was convinced it was an insect, and I needed to squash it. I folded my hands together, interlocking fingers and came down on the creature’s back. Sometime between devising my plan and making contact, I recognized how foolish it was. That this was not, in fact, a bug, and that I was not coming down with enough force to meaningfully hurt, much less kill a creature of this size. I pressed down and like my non-dreamt rubber alligator of similar proportions, the creature deflated in the middle, beneath my weight, puffing out gently at each end where the air had diffused. The lizard turned on me, though, not with alarming speed or aggression, perhaps because in this dream space I was not equipped to combat it. The lizard’s mouth latched onto my neck, toothless, and began to suck at me. I couldn’t pull him off and became aware that the creature was sucking away my life, and I would die on that kitchen floor without assistance.

My mother and father were there and cognizant of what was happening. They chastised me for attacking the lizard in the first place. It was unclear if they’d help me.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Kelly’s Burned Down

I remember my twenty-first birthday. It wasn’t the first time I had drunk. But it was the first time I drank at Kelly’s.

Kelly’s had a reputation. There was no mistaking it as a dive--in Geneseo, a small college town without any legitimately nice or hip bars to speak of, Kelly’s Saloon was the lowest of the low. Walls littered with Sharpie writing. Dim lighting. Rows upon rows of bottom-shelf liquor.

Freshman year, my eighteenth birthday had fallen on the first day of classes, one of the loneliest experiences of my undergrad years for having made exactly zero new friends, in an era before Facebook birthday reminders and a week before my RA was equipped to start posting happy birthday banners outside anyone’s room.

Senior year, we celebrated.

We started at Kelly’s. I recall five or six of us lining the bar. The traditional insistence that I not buy my own drinks on that occasion. Asking for a rum and coke watching the heavily tattooed bartender pour rum up to the top line of the glass, then filling in the difference with a dash of Coca Cola from the tap.

One drink in and my face had turned bright red, my head had gone light. I was staggering.


Ten years after graduation, I got word of the fire.

There was an electrical fire on Main Street. Kelly’s had burned down.

I saw it on Facebook, posted by an old friend, then dutifully shared the news article with a caption approximating a Wilhelm scream of “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Word spread, different news articles, different outlets, the same sparse facts. No conspiracy. Little in the way of human interest stories. Just word of the fire.

Then the jokes, circling around incredulity that the bar, notoriously soaked in alcohol hadn’t exploded.

The sentimentality came afterward as we realized what we had lost. I hadn’t set foot in Kelly’s for at least five years, but the bar remained an especially poignant point of nostalgia for the knowledge that it hadn’t changed and it never would. It was the kind of bar that probably should have been improved upon, cleaned up, renovated, decades earlier that had resisted even cosmetic adjustment, and circled around to grow all the more charming for always remaining the same dank hole in the wall.

When I began to write this post, I tried to research if there were a Kelly that the bar had been named after. Maybe it’s a generic Irish name for a generic Irish pub that peddled green souvenir t-shirts with white shamrocks printed at their center. Maybe it was the original owner’s last name. Maybe it bespeaks the name of a woman someone once loved. I imagine a story of unrequited love, or the proverbial one who got away, or a woman who, herself, died in some fire or plane crash or other random happenstance not unlike the destruction of the bar itself, and a forelorn lover who drowned all sensation of love in beer after beer, whiskey after whiskey.

I found nothing.

But therein lies another piece of the charm of a place like Kelly’s. A refusal to succumb to such romanticism, a place that lived in the here and now of pouring stiff drinks for the embittered, the lushes, the celebratory. The townies. The college kids who had just turned 21, or who were making the most of their fake IDs.

In the mode of the day--disasters and recovery narratives, the next news that broke about Kelly’s centered on word that the business would come back. Timelines. Fundraising efforts.

I hope it’s all true. Sort of.

But then there remains that selfish part of me that knows Kelly’s will never be the same, and thus never be mine again.

Just the same, in an exposure of my own sentimentality and idealism, I exchanged texts with an old college friends in the days to follow. Vowing that when Kelly’s returned, so would we. Believing that everything burnt might one day rise from the ashes.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Honk and Nessa

From early in our relationship, Heather and I noticed certain affinities in common. We met on account of working for the same summer program. We had our first real and personal talk on account of her playing my favorite Indigo Girls song in her office one day. We found that we both have a love of Muppets that is rooted in childhood. We enjoy beaches and travel and gringo-style tacos.

And childish things.

We started long distance. I would visit her home in San Diego, where I discovered Nessa--a Cabbage Patch doll from Heather’s childhood. One of the few possessions she had the chance to hold onto across many-a-move as a child, and even more moves as an adult. She treasured Nessa. Had both taken pains to keep her in good condition, but also still slept cradling Nessa in her arms as often as not.

Heather would come to my apartment in Baltimore, and she discovered Honk. A My Pet Monster whose impractically heavy plastic nose had long ago broken from his face, so that his inner white stuffing burgeoned to the surface. Propped on his feet, Honk stands about two and a half feet tall. I had had him since he stood chest-high on me--an oversized inanimate buddy who I had sat beside in my first attempts at writing stories back in elementary school, and who had bodyslammed on my bed in any number of pro wrestling fantasies.

Heather and I talk about having children, and, more immediately, about adopting cats. In the meantime, Honk and Nessa have functioned something like surrogates. I put them together on a mini-papasan chair when we first moved in together. Heather worried that Nessa looked scared of the monster beside her. Later, I posited that they looked as though they were on a date with each other--telling one another stories, their upward gaze representative of them looking at the stars, muddling through the faintest, most abstract knowledge of what constellations might await them.

Heather always says hello to Nessa and Honk when she comes back from trips, and a number of times I've welcomed her home with comic drawings of what they were up to while she was away.

We’re careful never to cover their faces when we drape dirty clothes over the papasan. We want to make sure they can breathe.

For all of this silliness and play, I think the heart of our care for this inanimate pair has less to do with indulging childhood play than an extension of who Heather and I are--a drive to externalize our community of two, and to share more pieces of who each of us once were with each other. To pretend that Honk and Nessa are as excited to be with each other, and with us, as we are to have them near.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

My Fantasy Career

We want control.

Backseat drivers. Commenters on political news articles. Armchair quarterbacks.

Fantasy GMs.

I had my introduction to the world of fantasy sports in high school. I forget the mechanics of how it worked, but I recall friends luring me into the world of fantasy baseball--a sport I never much cared for, and could never really claim to know all that much about. A fantasy I chose to partake in more to be part of the crowd than out of a genuine interest in the game. I drafted a relief pitcher--the best relief pitcher, mind you--with my first draft pick. My friends scoffed. Apparently, you didn’t start picking relief pitchers until much later rounds of a draft.

My main memories of this first foray into fantasy sports was waiting for moments when girls I crushed on walked nearby, and proceeding act like a knew what I was talking about, using the kind of vocabulary and cadence with which I’d heard sports big wigs talk on TV.

But then there was fantasy basketball. In a period of my life when I watched NBA games compulsively, obsessed over my basketball card collection, played NBA Jam daily, and, whenever the weather permitted, shot hoops at the local playground, participating in a fantasy basketball league seemed like an obvious step.

But I didn’t know of any such league.

I should note that this all happened in the fledgling days of the Internet, when our family, like most, used dial up to get online and loading the most basic web pages took a matter of minutes. While my understanding is that online fantasy leagues had started to take shape, using them, like using most aspects of the Internet at the time, was at least as annoying as it was enjoyable.

Thus, I developed my own system for a fantasy basketball league. I concocted formulas that took into account points and assists per game, and shooting percentage statistics to give players overall offensive value numbers; I considered blocks and steals for defense. From there, I developed a system of random numbers to determine how players would fare against each other, using a literal roll of dice, to account for random happenstance of which players would beat out others, position-for-position, to determine who would win games. I’d even woven in a randomized system to put players out for injury at different intervals throughout the season.

I explained to my lunchtime crew the details of what I had worked out. Most of them were confused, but willing to go along with the experiment. One even nerdier friend pointed out the overwhelming similarities between my rudimentary system and the mechanics of how Dungeons and Dragons functioned.

Leading up to draft day, Ben told me that my set up sounded dumb, and that he could simulate the whole thing on NBA Live 1999 instead.

Putting my hurt pride aside, the time investment of executing my system over a projected 82-game season, versus letting his Play Station handle it all had its merits.

Thus, we proceeded with an in-person, on-paper draft to forge eight teams of twelve to play on Ben’s TV screen.

The first couple nights of the experiment went well. My team unbeaten. The beginnings of trash talk for fledgling rivalries and foreseen big games between championship contenders.

Then Ben got impatient and played out the next three seasons.

Gone were the nuances of trades, or the dramatic build of a playoff series. My team had gone to Finals all three of the seasons and won twice--the points Ben emphasized for me. And though I tried to argue the point that he had no right turn NBA Live into warp drive and peer into the future, no one else seemed to much care.

So I let it go.

I tried fantasy basketball again about six or seven years later, after college, when Internet speeds had improved and online fantasy technology had grown more advanced. But most well-developed systems required entry fees and whenever I dipped my toe in the water of ostensibly free ones, I quickly discovered layers of nuance I had never anticipated. Not just the prospect of assembling a roster, but considerations of salary caps and the variety of intangibles beyond superficial statistical information that these systems took into consideration.

Moreover, I felt an immediate pressure. These fantasy leagues tied in directly to real-life occurrences, such that real-world injuries could cripple rosters, and real-life trades could lead diminished playing time for one player, or touches ballooning for another.

It doesn’t help that my passion for watching basketball had waned in this period—in the aftermath of my beloved New York Knicks as championship contenders and the retirement of Michael Jordan, plus the arrival of a host of new rookies who I struggled to keep track of. I recognize that it isn’t really contemporary fantasy leagues that are to blame for my failure to engage with them; it was at least equally my own diminished interest and refusal to let fantasy basketball become a twenty-hour-a-week avocation.

I was invited into the fantasy world again about five years later, living in Baltimore where a hot period for The Ravens seemed to make everyone a die hard NFL fan. My colleagues staged fantasy drafts over lunch hours and were at least as invested as my high school buddies and I had been in how the season would proceed.

Time and again I got the call to join in. Time and again, I passed.

For in that time in Baltimore, I had rediscovered a truth that I suppose I'd known all along. That I couldn’t both participate and not care. My first year working in Baltimore, I participated in an ongoing American Idolprediction game, and not only watched, but compulsively studied the show in an effort to win. When I considered the time that would be necessary for me to not just participate, but be competitive in a fantasy football league, obsessing over a sport that I didn’t even like, I failed to see any meaningful rewards.

And thus, my fantasy career died.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Watch and Rewatch

I grew up not reconsuming media.

With the exception of one, particular favorite (Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons), I didn’t re-read books, perhaps because I only liked reading enough to justify one pass through a towering pile of two hundred-plus pages of text.

Moreover, as devout as my family was about watching the same television shows from week to week without skipping an episode (even taking advantage of VCR recording to keep track of shows we had to miss, or that conflicted with other programs that took precedence), when it came time for summer reruns, we tuned out, and favored catching up on video rentals from the preceding month. My father would copy some of these movies from one VHS tape to another, with what was a startlingly modern two-VCR set up for the time, and we would watch some of these films over, but typically at the behest of my parents, particularly if we edged toward the same movie more than once in the same month. Aren’t you sick of that? they would ask, in reference to The Great Muppet Caper, Follow That Bird, and oddly enough Beaches (the Bette Midler vehicle out of which I still feel a sort of absurd emotional attachment to “The Wind Beneath My Wings”).

This was before the days when people like Malcolm Gladwell had exposed to the masses that kids love routine and predictability and that rewatching television shows and films are a normal portion of development that, when used appropriately, can even be a learning tool to internalized the implicit or explicit lessons of a given product. I think my parents were more concerned with reinforcing expansiveness instead--being conscious that there’s a whole world of books, movies, television shows, songs, paintings, and places to consume and thus we should keep moving on.

I share all of this, in part, to contextualize the abrupt shift when I started hanging out with Mike (my best friend of twenty-five years, not a third-person reference to myself). I recall lazy summer days in the living room of his house, and a day when we watched Blank Check. The film is child’s fantasy in which a wealthy businessman accidentally wrecks a kid’s bike. In a hurry, the tycoon leaves the kid the eponymous blank check to pay for whatever the damages may be, and the kid ends up cashing it for a cool million dollars (note: I have not done my homework and am recounting this plot purely based on memories from over twenty years ago). Hijinks ensue, and along the way kid learns that money can’t buy happiness.

This is an un-nuanced, poorly acted movie with little to no redeeming value beyond the initial conceit that a kid gets to live out the fantasy of having boat loads of money to do with as he pleases. I found myself marginally drawn into it, but considered it an indulgence and an exploration--a rare stopover into something puerile that was enjoyable enough at the time but that would have little impact on my life. It was a sugary soda. A comic book. A crude crayon drawing. A fine enough way to pass ninety minutes before being done with it forever.

But then Mike wanted to watch it again.

“We just wateched it,” I said.

“So?” he asked.

And so would begin a summer chock full of watching rewatching bad movies, each a half dozen or more times. Yes, we would also play basketball outside, and we would talk, but with our only adult supervision his grandmother who lived in a downstairs apartment, we were largely left to our own devices, and largely wound up in front of the TV.

I didn’t own this part of my identity. I thought it was an aberration in my own behavior, for which I kind-of-sort-of looked down on Mike for not reading more or making art, oblivious to the fact that in following his lead for all of those afternoons, I was, at best, the same.

And then I discovered my own fascination with reconsuming media.

It started with My So-Called Life--the first television show that I truly fell in love with, feeling the sensation that these writers and actresses and actors got something fundamental about the human condition as I experienced it. The feelings only intensified when the ABC Network unceremoniously cancelled the show, leaving it at one perfect season that I would both treasure and have the fuel to feel righteously indignant about for years to follow. MTV acquired the rights to the show and would air weekend marathons of it, that I dutifully sat through as much of as I could. In the years to follow, selected episodes came out in VHS release. As soon as I had the requisite Christmas, birthday, or allowance money saved up, I bought them and rewatched them with a passion that re-stirred my mother’s questions from my much younger days about how I could tolerate watching the same forty-five minutes of programming over and over again.

I followed up that passion with an obsession over the world of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I got hooked based on a rerun of “Bothered, Bewitched, and Bewildered,” the summer between seasons two and three. Newly equipped with Internet access, I printed off full transcripts of the scripts of all the episodes I had missed and I started buying blank VHS tapes to record episodes as they aired so I might consume them all time and again.

I grew immersed in the world of BtVS--in its characters and its mythologies. I studied episodes and looked up the pop culture references I didn’t understand. I read spoilers in hopes of picking up on overarching trajectories where they began.

My BtVS obsession became something like scholarly study--unregimented and unpoliced, but just the same rigorous, and driven by predisposition. Thus, it planted the seeds of study to follow. For years of reading and rereading to figure out how things worked. Until they weren’t fun anymore and I fell out of love. Until I loved them all over again.

As a composition instructor, I subjected my students to a microcosm of this experience. Given the opportunity, I eschewed the traditional study of a literary text in favor of focusing on music videos. I challenged each student to select one and write a detailed analysis. Then to incorporate research about the video, the song, the artist, or most ideally some bigger issue that all of this introduced. Then they crafted term papers--six-to-eight pages of sustained argument.

When they picked their video to study, I cautioned them that they may not want to pick songs they loved. Because in order to do the video justice (and to succeed in the progression of the assignment) they would need to watch and listen over and over again. Until they, too, had grown tired of the original media, and with the full knowledge that many of them may not go far enough rediscover or reinforce that original love, but rather just grow bored and forever associate that music video with middling attempts at papers and middling grades from their first-year comp instructor.

Some of them didn’t like me or their video by the halfway point of the term.

Some of them did.

But whether they agreed with me or not, and whether or not they ended up embracing such iterative processes, I came to recognize the value of the process in my own life. For intellectual study, yes, but also for letting myself go. For re-listening to the same holiday jingle that strikes my fancy ad nauseum in December. For still cycling back to watch favorite episodes of My So-Called Life and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fifteen to twenty years after I sat in awe of them the first time.

I can mouth along the words to most of the dialogue. See, in my mind’s eye, still frames of the actions to come.

Sometimes I still discover something new.

And sometimes, I still sit in the comfort of the familiar. In a life full of change, I embrace these kernels of my teenage years and all the while add new media to my canon. The stuff that shapes an identity. Watched and rewatched.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

On Basketball Cards

I can still remember the joy of it.

Foil wrappers breaking open at the top seam after I lifted the lip on one side, pinched the other side between my thumb and forefinger and pulled. Do it enough times and you’ll never tear a wrapper again.

Sometimes I saved those wrappers but as days turned to weeks to months to years, I lost most sentimentality about such things, crumpling them in to a hidden pile, not to go out with the regular trash, so that my parents would never get a sense of just how much of my disposable income was disposed upon the world of basketball trading cards.

And I got to the cards. I rifled through these glossy pieces of 2.5 by 3.5 inch cardboard. Each with a full color photograph of a crossover, or a jump shot, or a slam dunk. I was looking for stars. From 1995 to 1999, my prime collecting years, Michael Jordan cards consistently drew the highest valuation of any active player; Shaquille O’neal, Anfernee Hardaway, and Grant Hill weren’t far behind. The cards of lesser stars—the guys who came off the bench for middling teams, were deemed “common cards” all valued at the same base level of approximately five cents (though, for a premium brand like Flair, commons could be marked as high as a quarter).

And then there were inserts—dubbed as such for their random insertion into different packs, at different rates. A 1:5 ratio (one card inserted for every five packs was good); 1:36 was premium—statistically, one card for every thirty-six-pack box. And then there were higher ratios than that. Inserts tended to feature more ornate designs, often themed around a specific style of player like young players on the rise or the NBA’s best dunkers. They had more exclusive rosters, often including only upper-tier players, and the relative scarcity of the cards gave them an immediately higher valuation—insert common cards often worth a dollar more, and inserts of star players typically reaching into the double if not triple digit values. In the latter days of my collecting habit, autographed cards, and cards that encased swaths of actual game-worn jerseys became all the rage and drew exorbitant dollar values, reaching into the thousands.

But my interest started with a single card. A 1990-91 card of Christian Welp, produced by Hoops—an economy brand of the larger Skybox card company (many companies featured different lines ranging from the economy ones that sold for a dollar a pack, to premium that went for five dollars and up). When my best friend started collecting, already a couple years ahead of me in his obsession with basketball, I looked at his cards and recalled this Christian Welp one that had come tucked in a cereal box. I couldn’t remember Welp’s name, though, and thought it might have been Christian Laettner or Chris Mullin—I was sure he was white and the name started with Chris. Enthusiastic at any prospect of a card worth anything, my friend urged me to find the card and bring it over. So I ran home and dug it out a stack of potentially important artifacts, placed in my nightstand drawer to separate them from the rest of the clutter of my room. I remember the sight of that card when I excavated from its miscellaneous pile, amidst copies of TV Guide with covers I liked, a VHS compilation of The Best of WrestleMania, a school paper that my Language Arts teacher had left especially nice comments on. The card was mercifully unbent and a little dusty. And it featured Christian Welp.

I brought the card to my friend's house, already guessing that I had overestimated its worth. But when he looked at it and asked, “Who’s Christian Welp?” I knew for sure that I had a dud—my first common card.

Still, I had discovered that initial rush. The prospect of holding something valuable in your hands that even discovering it was worthless couldn’t wholly diminish. A souvenir from the fundamentally attractive world of basketball, but also the prospect of a long-term investment. I heard stories of how previous generations fed trading cards through the spokes of their bicycles, ruining them worse with each spin of the tires. Mass production and a quorum of serious collectors, conscious of condition, meant that the scarcity of cards from decades past would never truly be reproduced; the market was already inflated, and I was unlikely to see that much return on my investment. I knew that intellectually. Just the same, for every idealistic, pseudo-pragmatic, and personal purpose, I was hooked on collecting and preserving.

That weekend, when my parents brought me to the mall, I spent twenty dollars stocking up on different packs of cards--mostly Upper Deck’s economy set, Collector’s Choice. I came home and found I’d scored a fairly rare insert of the fairly highly valued Hakeem Olajuwan, my first card valued as high as fifteen dollars. The habit was reinforced.

Before long, the random opening of packs had become just one dimension of the basketball card game. There were singles as well. Card shops opened their own packs or bought cards from collectors that were of a relatively high value and put them under glass showcases in their stores. They typically sold these cards for a bit less than book value to encourage sales. Thus there came a choice—buy packs for the inherent pleasure of gambling and chance at an unexpected score, or buy a single and know exactly what you were getting.

I, of course, engaged in both. I burned through any cash I could get my hands on in short order. Moreover, the trading aspect of trading cards drew into sharp focus. It started with my friend who got me hooked and I swapping cards, each having our favorites we protected fiercely, each having the cards we were willing to let go. Our natural predispositions toward quality (him) and quantity (me) came into sharper focus when we made our biggest trade, two cards with a combined value of about twelve dollars on my end, in exchange for all of his common cards—a boon of several hundred cards that was cumulatively easily several times more valuable, but no individual card of which was worth more than a dime.

As an aside, I should clarify that we drew our valuations from Beckett magazines—in particular, Beckett Basketball Monthly, a periodical that featured about fifty newsprint pages worth of pricing guides per issue, stretching back to the 1948 Bowman’s Best series (George Mikan’s rookie card from that series was, for the bulk of my collecting days, the crown jewel of the basketball card collecting world) up to the most recent releases. The other half of the magazine was devoted to glossy color pages with articles about basketball, decent journalism curated and edited with an eye toward rationalizing valuations and spotlighting contemporary money draws.

My trading circles spread to about five other boys on the school bus. Of all of them, I carried the most substantial collection to and from school each day, a white two-inch binder chock full of three-by-three protective plastic sheets in which I organized cards by player--first by their relative dollar values, then in alphabetical order. Others had smaller binders, some just a collection of hard plastic cases, others loose cards with bent edges, bound in rubber bands.

There were good trades and bad trades. On the school bus, we rarely pulled out price guides—at best a nerdy practice, at worst a suggestion that you didn’t trust what another collector was quoting you (albeit with good reason, since most of us inflated our prices to a reasonable degree—sometimes to deceive, sometimes to balance out the perceived mark up on the other end). As my trading circles spread into the school, it became an unexpected delight to trade with someone less concerned with price values, more concerned with collecting cards of their favorite players, or perhaps even purer, for which the pure aesthetics of the card gelled with their sensibilities.

In the latter days of my collecting, I eased from spending money on cards on a weekly basis and making trades daily, into buying a pack on a lark once every few months, and rarely breaking out my binder. But I did settle into that purer space, focusing on my collection of cards featuring my favorite player from my favorite team, Patrick Ewing. Unconcerned with dollar values, I focused on sheer quantity, accumulating two hundred-plus Ewing cards by the time I stopped actively pursuing my collection. A few years later, my best friend bookended the whole experience with a Christmas gift of a 1986-1987 Fleer Ewing card—officially recognized as his rookie card, bearing a book value of fifty dollars.

I still own the overwhelming majority of this card collection. A framed display of seven of my favorite and highest valued cards remains a memento from a different time. The remaining collection sits, split into two cardboard boxes I haven't meaningfully sorted through in over a decade. I realize that I probably should sell off the bulk of it—that I could feasibly score a couple hundred bucks if I struck the fancy of the right buyer on eBay.

Just the same, like anyone who once knew the magic of collecting cards, I crumble at the idea of letting go altogether. I'm holding onto nostalgia, sure, but just as sure continuing to take the sucker’s bet that one day these cards may swell in value, or that I might pass them on to a son or daughter who will care about them as much as I did.

So, I wait. All of those cards, like the joy that once surrounded them, collecting dust.

Friday, December 30, 2016

My 2016 Soundtrack

Since 2002, each December I have compiled a mix CD or playlist to document the past year--a soundtrack that charts memorable moments, trends, and events in my life over the preceding twelve months.

The rules are as follows:

-The collection must be short enough to fit on a standard 80-minute CD.
-The song choices are not bound by “favorites” so much as songs that are, in my mind, distinctively connected to the preceding year.

Without further ado, this year’s track list:

1. “Could Have Been Me” by The Struts I encountered this song in late 2015, and in early 2016 it became shower music and running to catch the bus music--in either case the kind of song that’s full of momentum and got me moving

2. “Formation” by Beyonce This was the it song of late winter. I was pretty enamored with the whole Lemonade project to follow, but this song in particular stands out for its bombast and non-traditional but nonetheless irresistible structure and instrumentation. I have a mixed audience that reads this blog, so I’m going to steer clear of the political implications and controversies because I’m not looking to incite new debate. Regardless, this song left an indelible mark on me early in the year.

3. “Stutter” by Marianas Trench I’d come across this song years earlier in a cappella circles, but in 2016, found that it surfaced on my iPhone on the walk from my hotel to the Los Angeles Convention Center, my first full day at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. I’d been to AWP once before, but this time, five-sixths of the way through my MFA program and actively submitting to journals and contests, I felt a different energy about the experience--at once educational, a reunion, and a celebration of this writer’s life that I’d chosen. A can of Red Bull in hand, this song blasting through my earbuds, I was ready for a day of panel discussions, readings, and mingling with editors. A lot more exciting than it probably sounds.

4. “My House” by Flo Rida I didn’t go to WrestleMania this year (it overlapped with AWP), and given other life commitments, didn’t get nearly as invested in celebrating it as a holiday this year as I have some others. Nonetheless, WWE programming remains an inveterate part of psyche, and so the theme song that played over shows leading up to ‘Mania, not to mention the event itself, finds its place in this soundtrack.

5. “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart On one road trip or another, this song came on as Heather and I were driving along a patch of highway surrounded by trees and Oregon greenery. I’ve known this song for years and always liked it, but when the lyrics hit--

A year from now we’ll all be gone
All our friends will move away

--I found myself profoundly affected. For a year and a half earlier, I’d left my friends in Baltimore, my friends and family on the east coast altogether, to pursue my writing career in earnest in Oregon. And there I was a year and half later, unsure of where my next steps would take me, but nonetheless cognizant that things would change again. For all of these friends I’d made in Oregon, all of these people I’d finally found my bearings with and grown comfortable around, we’d soon be going our separate ways again. There’s a bittersweet-ness to that sensation of growing close so quickly, then moving along to another life just as fast.

Been talking 'bout the way things change
And my family lives in a different state
And if you don't know what to make of this
Then we will not relate

6. “Levels” by Nick Jonas I’d heard this song in passing at the gym, where I absorbed most of my pop music through osmosis, but couldn’t dismiss it as background when I went to New York City once again for Varsity Vocals’ a cappella Finals weekend, and a number of groups gave this song a whirl (most memorably, my pick for the top college group, The Carnegie Mellon University Originals). It stuck with me through a good, if quieter take on this annual pilgrimage, the first time that our crew for this trip had whittled down to just two friends.

7. “Never Let You Go” by Third Eye Blind As graduation approached, I started reflecting on music from the era of my high school graduation, and got nostalgic (as I’m wont to do). Cheesy as it may be, this song stood out as not just one I remembered well, but one that felt like pure celebration, which felt appropriate to wrapping up all of that hard word and all of those good times from the preceding two years with a series of parties and more casual get-togethers, not to mention the graduation ceremony itself.

8. “Falling in Love” by Lisa Loeb and 9. “Truth and Bone” by Heather Nova There was a brief awkward period--only three-to-four days really, though it stands out in my brain for feeling longer--after Heather and I had moved the overwhelming majority of our belongings into storage, after Heather had left for her summer gig, when I was on my own in our cleared out apartment.

I was working on a new flash fiction project, featuring an idiosyncratic narrator and when I listened to this old Lisa Loeb song, it provided the skeleton of a story of this narrator meeting her new partner. I encountered the Heather Nova song for the first time during this same stretch. For a long time, I’ve found my enjoyment of her catalog uneven, with songs that I absolutely love, and songs that bore me to tears in more or less equal proportions. This was one of the ones that I really liked, and I remember listening to it on a long walk between the gym and the empty apartment under the early summer sun.

10. “Can’t Stop The Feeling” by Justin Timberlake and 11. “Love yourself” by Justin Bieber It was a long summer, but, overall, a good one for me. I had my first experience teaching a CTY summer course. While thirty hours a week of guiding a writing workshop for the same group of kids was draining, it was also one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career. I followed that up by working as a Dean of Residential Life for the first time in nine years. I was, admittedly reticent about stepping back into the job, but found rewards there, too, in working with the kids and working with a stand-out group of RAs.

Still, when early August hit, I was relieved about the chance for a break. As I was walking through dorms to gather items left behind, I treated myself to downloading these two pop songs that the RAs had played so often through evening social times and Friday night dances.

11. “Palisades Park” by Counting Crows At the end of summer, I traveled to Upstate New York for a bachelor party weekend with three of my closest friends. We kicked it off with tomato pie and a Counting Crows concert in Syracuse. Listening to this song, in particular at the start of the Crows show, felt like a book end. It was during my cross country drive to move to Oregon that Somewhere Under Wonderland, the Counting Crows album that opened with this song, first dropped, and here I was some of my oldest friends, at the front end of transitioning to whatever life would have in store next.

The concert was good, the company was better, and we moved along from there to a night at the Turning Stone Casino, and two days in Saratoga Springs.

12. “Glorious Domination” by CFO$ WWE capped its summer with SummerSlam weekend, including a great NXT: Back to Brooklyn special. During it, long-time indy star Bobby Roode made his debut, and did so with this song playing him to the ring, and a cast of fans singing along to it. Needless to say, I was hooked.

I downloaded the song and played it in the early mornings and on long stretches of open road until it became something of an unofficial anthem for the trek Heather and I made back to the east coast.

13. “I Choose You” (Live, Acoustic) by Sara Bareilles and 14. “Uptown Funk” by Marc Ronson ft. Bruno Mars Within a few months of dating in earnest, Heather and I selected “I Choose You,” and more particularly this acoustic version as our song, and so when we got engaged there was little doubt that it would be the song we played for our first dance.

Leading up to the wedding, we decided we might splice in another song, and could think of none better than “Uptown Funk”—a cliché, perhaps, but a song we had engaged in impromptu dance parties to in the car before, not to mention one that people would know. As we spent the month in the mountains of Boone, NC, and the wedding approached, I choreographed, Heather refined, and we practiced over a series of days before we were ready to perform.

Our wedding week turned out to be a stressful one--more so than most, I’d argue, for the specter of a hurricane that would pass nearby, a shuffling of plans last minute, and a number of people who were important to us not making the trip to steer clear of the storm. Just the same, the wedding itself--the ceremony and reception--went as well if not better than we could have expected. This dance marked a turning point for me in particular, the last piece I meaningfully had to remember or keep track of before relaxing for the rest of the event.

15. “Happy Birthday Guadalupe” by The Killers I came upon this Christmas song a year ago, so it wasn’t entirely new, but still relatively fresh to me in 2016, and the last track of the holiday playlist that I played and replayed throughout the month of December.