Sunday, January 25, 2015

Chasing the Sun (part 1)

This is a story about taking chances.

August 2013 I took what I knew would be my final extended California vacation to follow the end of my summer work.

From 2009 to 2014 I spent several weeks of my summer working out of UC Santa Cruz. From 2010 to 2013 I marked the end of each residency and the end of my busiest season of work by renting a car and driving around the west coast, including sight seeing in LA, visits to the Facebook and Google campuses in Palo Alto, a swing through Napa Valley, hiking in Yosemite National Park, concerts, wrestling shows, visiting with friends, and no shortage of time spent on the beach.

By 2013, I had done most everything I really intended to in California. So, I made plans to revisit some favorite spots, hit a few nooks and crannies I hadn’t made time for earlier, and see some friends I hadn’t connected with in too long. And I booked a reservation to go skydiving.

I’ve had a passing fascination with skydiving for as long as I can remember, and on a whim that preceding spring, Googled the best places to do so, with a vague notion I might give it a try to commemorate my upcoming 30th birthday.

I opened a countdown of the top locations to skydive in the US. The first place selection: Santa Cruz, California.

I booked my dive that very day.

And so, I looked forward to this trip--the time off from work, the relaxation, the bit of adventure. And, aside from a couple pre-planned social stops, I looked forward to the isolation. After seven weeks of intensive supervisory work (preceded by three months of long hours at the office) the California trip had become a traditional period for me to embrace my introversion, taking care of myself as I listened the music of my choice alone in a car, napped and read books on the beach, enjoyed quiet meals seated at the bar or in my hotel room.

Then I met a girl.

In reality I had met Heather three years earlier at a conference my employer puts on in Baltimore, and interacted with her at the same event for each of the years to follow. But summer 2013 marked the first time when we worked together at the program location in Santa Cruz. And it wasn’t until the last few days of working together that the two of us really got to talking.

The conversation moved from work to music to movies to food to relationships to travel to yoga. And by the time we closed up shop at UCSC I had come to the unmistakable conclusion that I had just encountered one of the most interesting people I’d ever met.

Heather and a mutual friend decided to crash in a hotel room in San Jose before they hit the road for the longer journeys home. They invited me to join them for dinner.

I had a choice to make between my much-desired time alone and exploring this new friendship further. I decided that the me-time could wait and made the plunge.

And had an amazing time.

In the 24 hours to follow, as I settled into my vacation groove and she took the long way home to San Diego, we had established the beginnings of a technological rapport, between text messages and posting obscure musical favorites on one another’s Facebook walls. As such, the conversation continued, interspersed amidst all of the bits and pieces I had had planned.

Then it came time for skydiving.

I signed a series of waivers, including one affirming that skydiving accidents had a relatively high potential to cause death. I watched an instructional video. I practiced curving my body like a banana--head back, legs kicked back at the knees--to make it easiest for Steve, the professional I was harnessed to, to safely steer us.

I’m not one to take high-risk activities lightly, but oddly enough, I didn’t feel particularly apprehensive about this adventure until I had boarded the small plane that would carry us in the air. The plane consisted of a cockpit and an empty space just large enough for two pairs of tandem skydivers--a tight fit at that given that the other customer and I were each relatively tall men.

I watched the earth recede as the plane grew higher. I’ve never been a particularly nervous flyer, but whether it was the close quarters, the immediate sound of the plane’s little engine, or the knowledge I’d drop 4,000 feet in the next ten minutes, reality started to set in.

Then the first pair went. Two grown men strapped together sitting behind us one second and, the next, free falling out into oblivion.

I was on deck.

For the customer, “skydiving” is a bit of a misnomer. Diving implies action. In reality, it’s more of a passenger experience. The extent of my action and responsibility limited to remembering to breathe and not doing anything to actively endanger myself.

Steve pushed off from the plane. For the seconds to follow, our bodies spun like a discus. I hadn’t anticipated that particular element of the experience, expecting more of a downward dive, and by the time we had steadied enough for me to register a thought, I was nauseous.

Still, the view of the ocean, the sand, the buildings, the grass, all from a few thousand feet, looked small and simple and beautiful.

I recalled some of the reading I’d done before skydiving. One of the suggestions was to scream through the free fall. That some people have trouble exhaling and screaming forces the air out. And that it’s fun.

So I screamed.

Steve released the parachute and we settled into a vertical formation. The harness dug into the space where my chest met my shoulders, leaving dark red bruises that would remain for a week. Steve let me steer for a while, then guided me through the final motions for a safe landing.

We touched ground in a field where, even after we had unhooked, I stayed seated for a moment to steady my head and stomach and absorb everything that had happened in the preceding minutes. I recalled something my old friend Gurkan had once told me about a mountain-climbing experience. How surreal and exhausting the journey had been, but how grateful he felt for the earth beneath him and for the experience. How he loved the dirt beneath his feet and gave thanks by willing his body to do one hundred pushups on the spot.

I didn’t do push ups, but felt some modicum of that sensation just the same.

I got CD full of the pictures from my dive. Got in the car and ate the sandwiches I had packed for lunch, then drove to West Cliff Beach to while away the afternoon.

And I thought about Heather.

Since we had parted ways after dinner that Monday night, I had thought about extending that August’s trip past Los Angeles for my first journey down to San Diego. We had already started to exchange texts for that day. Confirming that I had survived skydiving, sharing a brief account of what it was like. And so, as I stood at the top of a set of stairs that would lead me down from the parking lot to the beach--one more descent, if one that I could choose to take at a slower pace than the morning’s fall from the plane. I removed my phone from my pocket one more time and sent a text to invite myself to visit Heather that Saturday.

I didn’t close my eyes or hold my breath. But I did put my phone away, to take it on faith that the answer would come. That it would be waiting for me when I reached the sand.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

I Ruined Hotdogs

I’m not a particularly finicky eater, but like most people I do have a handful of foods I can’t stomach. Some of them have direct psychological ties to a particular trauma (mushrooms), others are more arbitrary.

I very much enjoy hotdogs. Fresh off the grill on a New York City street corner. Covered in French fries and every condiment available to forge a Chicago dog. Every now and again, even nuked in my microwave, served on curled piece of wheat bread.

I like hotdogs.

My sister doesn’t.

I rarely see my sister more than two or three times a year now. For reasons I don’t fully understand, a particular story comes up.

We’re elementary school-aged kids, and we get in the car after a hotdog lunch at home. I proceed to throw up in the backseat. The sight and smell of the ketchup and beef byproduct and bile mixture nearly makes my sister throw up as well. She holds down her lunch, but can never stomach eating a hotdog again.

In my sister’s telling of the tale, this all happened as the lead-in to one of our thrice annual pilgrimages to visit my grandparents in Queens. There are several pieces of this account that don’t ring true--first and foremost that we never left for such trips after lunch, always departing in the morning and having lunch on the road.

More to the point, as my mother and I recall it, it was just three of us in the car and we were on the way to a routine Saturday shopping trip (albeit made less routine by my projectile vomit and the stop to clean it all up before any semblance of routine might continue).

Not so long after she left for college my sister became a vegetarian, and though, in the years between now and then she’s reintroduced chicken to her diet. And while she opts out of eating most meats, it’s still the very idea of consuming a frankfurter that seems most repulsive to her palate.

In my life in Baltimore, I packed a lunch most every day--typically two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Now and again, I’d put the sandwiches on hold in favor of lunch out with some friends. Rarer still, but not unheard of, were those days on which I’d go out for lunch by myself. Such noon-hour sojourns would lead me from my office, down the hill, into Mount Washington Village, across the railroad tracks and under the bridge, and down Falls Road to a little stand on the side of the road known as The Haute Dog Carte. From this humble stand at the side of the road, I’ve devoured all manner of franks and sausages in different sauces, with different accoutrements, few of which I enjoyed more than The Signature Dog--a quarter pound all-beef hotdog dressed with dijon mustard, tomato and onion jam, and bacon and onion marmalade. It’s something simple, dressed up in business casual wears. A metaphor, perhaps for its consumer, and exactly the sort of eatery where I felt most at home, paying in cash, eating my meal seated outdoors on the porch of the cafe next door, or in the grass.

It was a treat--a taste of my youth, if still a reminder of something simple and good that I had ruined for my closest of kin.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

My 2014 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. I Lived by OneRepublic Hope when you take that jump, you don’t fear the fall.

This song choice is not particularly nuanced or creative. Regardless, this is a song I suspect I will always remind me of the early stages of 2014, when I completed the application paperwork for MFA programs in creative writing and, all the more so when I sat back and waited for the results to come in.

I had started tentatively making plans to apply in 2010, after an inspiring visit to a friend who was working on her MFA at that time. By the end of 2012 I had both completed my MA at Johns Hopkins and fallen in cahoots with a professor who was willing to mentor me through the application process. The initiative snowballed when he told me I had to apply to at least twenty programs, and when we started researching together and couldn’t justify crossing off any more schools after we had narrowed the list to thirty-four.

The process came to a head at the end of 2013, when the first deadlines came up, and was more fully realized in early 2014 in a flurry of requesting GRE scores and undergraduate transcripts and crafting different personal statements to suit the different programs to which I applied.

There was a lot tied into that application process. Yes, there were the sheer hours of work to compile and submit my materials, and the sheer dollar amounts for application fees, requesting all of those materials, and for shipping. But more than that, the MFA application process started to feel like it was about my very being. Was I an amateur or did I have the skills to justify full-funding at a good program? Would I remain an office worker who wrote on the side, or would I have the opportunity to pursue writing as a more-or-less full-time endeavor for two or three years?

I listened to this song for inspiration, courage, and faith.

2. Happy by Pharrell Williams I watched the NBA All-Star Game and felt tremendously out of touch when a performer I’d never heard of--Pharrell Williams--was the featured musical performer before the game. Little did I know that over the months to follow I’d be inundated by him and this song--in a cappella, in promotional campaigns, and in just about any other setting I could think of.

3. WrestleMania by Mike Stock and Pete Waterman Full disclosure: I tend to listen to this song every March and April, tantamount to a holiday anthem in the build to the biggest pro wrestling show of the year. The song, and WrestleMania event took on special meaning for me this year, though.

Since I graduated from college, I’ve watched every WrestleMania as it happened--on my own, with a living room full of friends, once in person. As the thirtieth annual super show approached I wanted to do something special to commemorate it, and thus decided to embark on the endeavor of ranking all 287 WrestleMania matches, including a narrative account and assessment of each one, for a final document that topped 65,000 words. I threw the post on Buzzfeed and hoped for it to reach a lot of my fellow fans.

I looked at it as a new opportunity to write something for a new audience. I looked at it as a welcome, low stakes distraction from the haze of MFA applications and waiting to hear back from them.

45,000 readers later, the countdown had consumed me. Mother Jones, Jim Ross, and Michael Phelps all Tweeted the article to their followers. Bill Apter, my childhood wrestling journalist idol, shared the article on his website. Two separate parties who I scarcely knew recognized me and stopped me at an a cappella show to comment on the project. And, the day before WrestleMania 30, John Bradshaw Layfield mentioned it live on the air to razz his broadcast partner Michael Cole for ranking last on my countdown.

It was a pretty cool period in this past year.

4. “Closer to Free” by The Bodeans I’ve always liked this song, most famous for its use as the theme music for Party of Five, and most particularly the animalistic celebratory hoot at the beginning it, that sounds to me like pure joy.

For reasons I can’t recall, I rediscovered it in March 2014 and put it on my phone. By that point, I’d received my first handful of acceptance phone calls and emails from different MFA programs, and knew for sure that I would be leaving Baltimore for someplace new at the end of the summer. But I hadn’t yet heard good news from any of the higher tier programs that I was most excited about matriculating to.

So, I decided that I would not listen to this song again until I either did get the news I was most hoping for or, at the less auspicious but nonetheless celebratory moment when I had decided on attending one of the other programs that had already offered me admission.

Fast forward to mid-April. I’m in Santa Cruz, California on business, with a few-day stop in San Diego to visit Heather waiting in the wings. I’d been waiting to hear back from Oregon State University--one of a very small number of those top programs I hadn’t yet been declined from, and the school Heather and I had agreed upon as our mutual top choice of destinations to move to together.

I was driving winding Highway 17 when I got the phone call--a number that my phone did not recognize, but that displayed Corvallis, Oregon as its point of origin.

I waited until I was off the highway, had dropped off my colleague at the airport for her earlier flight, and had stopped off to gas up our rental car to finally listen to the message--to hear Marjorie Sandor’s voice offering me a spot in the 2014 cohort.

In the hour to follow, I returned the rental car and checked in for my flight down the coast. I called back Marjorie and talked over details. I called Heather, and led off our phone call by asking how she felt about moving to Oregon.

And I listened to this song.

5. “Ain’t It Fun” by Paramore In 2012, I added regular coverage of the Mid-Atlantic region of International Championship of High School A Cappella to my a cappella coverage regimen. Each of those years, I had the pleasure of hearing The Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands Voices sing, and each of those years, they won their way to the tournament finals in New York City.

2014 is the year when I felt most connected to this group. I met parents of the group members at their regional semifinal and talked about their group and my blog. I learned that the group had taken a throwaway line from one my reviews as their unofficial motto for that year: “Champions care.”

And, sure enough, 2014 was the year when The Highlands Voices won the big one, arriving for the first time as national champions. Their cover of this Paramore song anchored their set.

6. “Skinny Love” cover by The University of Michigan G-Men The original version of “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver is a favorite that I rediscovered in the fall of 2013 when Heather talked about how much she loved it. The song was reinvented for me when I heard it again in late April 2014 as the opening song of the 2014 International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Finals, as sung by The G-Men. And though The G-Men went woefully under-recognized at that night’s show, in my book, their performance of this song remained the best of the entire evening.

7. “Higher and Higher” cover by Sara Bareilles I love the Jackie Wilson original of this song, and--let’s make no bones about it--I love Sara Bareilles. Thus, this was a cover-match made in heaven, recorded for Oprah.

8. “Green Garden” by Laura Mvula I first heard this song courtesy of the NYU N’harmonics a cappella group at their ICCA Mid-Atlantic Semifinal and Finals performances, and got around downloading it a month and a half later, shortly after I lost my car and started taking the train to and from work. Thus, I have a mental connection between the staccato rhythms of this song and walks from my place in Baltimore to the Light Rail Station.

9. “Heaven” by The Walkmen I first started watching How I Met Your Mother in late 2010, binge-watched to catch up on the first four and a half seasons, then faithfully watched from that point through spring 2014 when the show finally came to a close.

How I Met Your Mother was not a consistently great show, but it had enough great moments, particularly in the early seasons, to keep me hooked. It was a show about love and idealism, and the importance of maintaining a connection between the two. It was a show about friendship. And, ultimately, it was a show just as fittingly synched to my own life as Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been for me in high school, and, in a sense, The Office had been for my transition to my first two office jobs.

“Heaven” played over the closing moments of the series finale--a scene that harkened back to season one, followed by flashbacks to what all of the major players had looked like nine years earlier. And no, that finale wasn’t as good or satisfying as it could or should have been; but I’ll also maintain that it wasn’t as bad as some of the show’s critics would have you believe.

Regardless, How I Met Your Mother coming to a close just before I started my last summer as a CTY Program Manager, and as I readied myself for the next stage of my life felt like a moment of serendipitous synchronicity. We were ready to move on.

10. “Come to Me” by The Goo Goo Dolls

I heard this new track by The Goo Goo Dolls fresh off a plane in San Jose, driving to Santa Cruz to kick off my last full-time summer with CTY. The song had the odd effect of feeling nostalgic, since it had been years since I could last recall listening to Johnny Reznick’s voice, but at the same time fresh for being new music.

This is where we start again.

I thought of the new life ahead of me. Of Heather. Of Peek and Missy’s pending nuptials. Of everything.

11. “God of Ocean Tides” by Counting Crows

I spent a little over six and half years in Baltimore. About three months in, my favorite band, Counting Crows, released their fifth original studio album Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings. Lo and behold, six and a half years later, with several live albums and a cover album in between, they released their sixth original studio album, Somewhere Under Wonderland, more or less perfectly bookending that period in my life with new Crows music.

A series of pre-released tracks preceded the album’s full-on release. My favorite of those early songs was “God of Ocean Tides,” released just in time for my final tour of Santa Cruz to close out the summer. This song is deeply rooted in nostalgia, reflection, and travel, and felt like an anthem of sorts to listen to on that last plane ride west across the country and as I wandered campus as I breathed in those final views overlooking the Monterrey Bay.

Breathe the water.

I flew out of San Jose the night my work was done, bucking the four-year tradition I had built of closing the summer with a road trip down the California coast. I didn’t depart back east, though, but rather north to Portland to spend a few days with Heather, checking out the city and our new home in Corvallis. We went to a Counting Crows show while I was there and they played this song.

12. “Sweet Dream” by Greg Laswell I first heard this song on a tear-jerker episode of Angel years back, but never downloaded it until this year, when it felt like a near-perfect way to commemorate my time in Baltimore. Working for CTY full-time, not to mention earning my first grad degree in writing, were dreams came true--not to mention all of people who had such a profound influence on my life along the way.

13. “Iowa” by Dar Williams I charted a course across the country to move my relocate my life to Oregon. Along the way, I was sure to stop in Iowa City.

It’s no secret to many of you that, along my MFA aspirations, admission to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was my dream. It’s widely regarded as the top creative writing program in the world. A place where writers like John Irving, Denis Johnson, Yiyun Li, Elizabeth McCracken, and Flanney O’connor have written and have taught.

I didn’t get in.

I felt honored to be offered fully funded admission to Oregon State--by just about any measure an excellent program, with some great faculty and great fellow students. Nonetheless, I knew that to close that particular chapter of my life, I needed to at least see Iowa.

So, along the drive and on my birthday, I drove to Iowa City. I wandered past the workshop building, down the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk, through three bookstores, and throughout campus.

It was a cool place. A place that celebrates the craft of literature.

But it was also just a place.

I’ve had the good fortune to travel to a number of places that have interested me--to have seen breath-taking sights and to have had all manner of experiences. But it may be experiences like this that are most powerful of all. To vanquish mystique and wonder; to recognize a place for its everyday qualities and for what it is--a college town amidst corn fields that just happens to also host a preponderance of very good writers.

Had I been admitted to Iowa, I have little doubt I would have loved my experience. Just the same, it’s no longer quite the romantic location it once was to me. It’s just a place. And I’ve moved on to another.

14. “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift After I had moved into my place in Corvallis, and while I still had a solid two weeks before my first formal school commitments, I ventured to campus, found the gym, and re-launched my routine of going there on a regular basis—one of the first bits of normalcy I established in my new home.

For each trip to the gym, it seemed as though I heard this song at least once over the speakers.

15. “Joyride” by Built to Spill I engaged in a week-long boot camp to prepare me to teach English Composition at Oregon State. The professor who led the workshops played music at the start of each session and this was one of the songs (and bands) I discovered in the process. I moved on to play the song for my class to get some practice with analysis, in my section of the course themed around representations of love in pop music.

16. “Home” cover by The Vitamin String Quartet In our first few weeks living together, Heather and I watched a lot of Modern Family, which culminated in watching the most recent season finale, in which characters Cam and Mitch were wedded. A string quartet played them down the aisle with this song, a cover of the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros track.

More than commemorating an episode of a TV show, though, this song--and this version of it--became emblematic of the new life Heather and I were building together. Our new home.

17. "Clarice" by Adam Trabold My favorite new Christmas find, courtesy of my new friend Adam on his My Name is Rudolph EP. It's a folksy spin on a reindeer love story. --

That’s a wrap for this year’s soundtrack. Thanks for reading and my best wishes to you for the new year ahead!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

30 Memories: Christmas

This post is written in the format of sharing thirty memories/thoughts/stories, each in thirty words or fewer. The focus is on Christmas.

1. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) This is my favorite Christmas song. Equal parts nostalgia for a song I grew up with and the message of reflection on a year gone by, a prayer for peace.

2. Peek’s House The last few years, Christmas has ended at Peek and Missy’s, in the house they renovated, the progress of which reminds me how little time I’ve spent home between Christmases.

3. Home Alone I remember watching Home Alone for the first time in the theater with my grandmother and my sister and thinking it was the best film I had ever seen.

4. Snooping I remember snooping for gifts leading up to Christmas, looking in my grandma’s bedroom dresser drawer and seeing the logos for new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures.

5. Smoke I remember my Uncle John would stay at my grandmother’s house for Christmas and leave the guest bedroom cloudy and reeking of Marlboro smoke.

6. Pot Roast My father made pot roast, not exclusively for Christmas, but often on the holiday and in the winter. I slathered the tender beef and mashed potatoes in rich brown gravy.

7. Petit Fours Christmas dinners at Grandma’s ended with Swiss Colony petit fours—little frosted cakes, mystery fillings. I’ve learned to love Christmas cookies, but petit fours are the true taste of Christmas.

8. Train Set Grandma surprised me one year with a train set. Despite my father’s best efforts, we couldn’t get it working reliably for more than a few minutes. I fumed and cried.

9. Wish Lists I learned my parents and grandmother rationed about fifty dollars each for my and my sister’s gifts and became obsessed with dollar values, crafting wish lists to maximize my budget.

10. It’s a Wonderful Life In my mind, there’s a direct correlation between coming to appreciate this film and transitioning from focusing on presents to being thankful and appreciating the people I loved.

11. The Christmas Ball I had two dates to my senior year, high school winter semi-formal--freshman girls who were friends and each had crushes on me, each of whom I should’ve treated better.

12. Storm Delay Christmas my sophomore year of college, a blizzard hit shortly after I got home, before anyone else came to town. We celebrated Christmas a day late.

13. Toasting Mr. Scalise Christmases at the Scalises’, I’d lead off dinners by raising a glass to my best friend’s father. It was tongue in cheek, but he’s still the best man I know.

14. Rolling Dice After dinner we’d drink wine and roll dice, gambling over chips without currency behind them in a simple game of luck without strategy.

15. Love Actually I watched Love Actually in the theater with a girl I was falling in love with. We held hands for two hours straight.

16. “Wintersong” I fell in love with Sarah McLachlan’s “Wintersong,” a beautiful piece that precipitated what I’d feel when my ailing grandmother finally passed.

17. Goodbye The last time I saw Grandma, it was Christmas 2007. She didn’t know who I was or that we were in a nursing home common room. I kissed her forehead.

18. Fiber-optic Tree I remember watching a fiber-optic tree flash different colors while I sipped whiskey and thought about Christmases past, as joyous and melancholy as ever I’d been.

19. Christmas Parties I hosted Christmas parties every year I lived in Baltimore. Ugly sweater themed the first year. Tropical themed after I moved to an undersized overheated one bedroom.

20. Christmas Eve I spent Christmas Eve at a bar with my best friend--not a familiar haunt, just a place close to our street We lamented our lost youth.

21. Watching Entourage My friend and I passed a Christmas day watching the first season of Entourage. Spending the day that way seemed sad, but the show did become a favorite.

22. Scrooged There’s something about the closing scene of Scrooged that gets me every time. I choke up and want to call every damn person I’ve ever known.

23. Christmas Lights Peek built elaborate light displays, which drew local TV news coverage and a stream of traffic driving by his house. And I accidentally kicked out one of his floodlights.

24. Chinese and Christmas in a Car It became tradition to eat Christmas lunch at a Chinese restaurant with my father, sister, and brother-in-law, and exchange gifts in my father’s Buick in the parking lot.

25. The Work Party I attended a holiday party at work that was Hawaiian-themed and featured a limbo contest ill-advised for the women in dresses and the office setting.

26. Miracle on 34th Street I lived within walking distance of 34th Street in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore. Houses aglow, with artistic sensibilities--it fed my soul.

27. Black Friday I visited an upstate NY mall the evening of Black Friday for the first time in years, heard “What Christmas Means to Me,” and my heart swelled with nostalgia.

28. Gifts Heather and I exchanged gifts. She hand wrote a book about how we met. I gave her a book of comic strips I’d drawn about us and a talking cat.

29. Christmas Eve Away I woke on Christmas Eve for the first time outside of my childhood bedroom, because I’d stayed in Baltimore to write a live review of The Sing-Off for my blog.

30. Gianna, Lucia, Aria I’ve spent my most recent Christmases hugging, dancing, and playing with my nieces. And they’ve been the best Christmases of my life to date.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Man in Mirror

When I lived in Baltimore, I volunteered weekly with a tutoring program for neighborhood kids. Entering my fifth year with the program, I took on a management role in which I rarely worked one-on-one with the kids, mostly assigning tutors to them, seeing to administrative odds and ends, and putting out fires as they arose.

One week, all of those administrative details were wrapped up and the fires were few and minor in nature. I had the chance to visit the upstairs gymnasium during the play time at the end of the night and simply hang out.

And I saw Carrie, one of the nicest kids who came—studious, obedient, shy, sitting alone in the corner. I asked if she was all right and she nodded. I asked if she wanted to play and she shook her head.

I thought of leaving her to her own devices, remembering the many days of my youth when I’d just as soon have been left alone.

Then I recalled Carrie walking into the church that night with her headphones on, bobbing to music before we asked her, like the rest of the kids, to put their electronics away.

I asked her what she had been listening to.

She mumbled that it was Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson, who had died when she was all of three years old. Michael Jackson, who hadn’t cut a single in her lifetime. Not Drake or Miley Cyrus, or other popular choices among the kids I worked with, who presented proof of a generational gap.

I asked her what her favorite Michael Jackson song was.

She shrugged and looked straight ahead. “I like ‘Man in the Mirror.’”

And I sang. Not quite the comic falsetto I default to in karaoke settings, but still a little high and loudly. A lot of the kids looked, never having heard me sing a note.

Carrie smiled. She sang along.

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer

Carrie trailed off into “doo-doo-doos” while I carried on with the lyrics, “if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”

She laughed. “I don’t really know all the words.”

This song transitioned to talk of others. Another girl joined us to talk about movies. And for the first time since I assumed my coordinating role, I lost track of time and called for gym time to end a minute later than I meant to. I remembered why I had chosen a job that focused on work with children, and I why I was spending a portion of my would-be leisure time with another program spent corralling and coaching and, yes, at times hollering at kids. I remembered why it was important and why it was fun, and why, at the best of times, those reasons weren't so different.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanksgiving with Housekeepers

One of the great ironies of my life: the period when my job centered on building community and making people feel at home was also the time of my life that I felt least at home and most lonely.

I spent two and half years managing dorms at a university. The job provided for some excellent professional growth. I got to meet some fascinating personalities, and living where I worked saved a lot of money.

All of that said, I don’t feel my personality at the time meshed particularly well with my colleagues, and, freshly removed from my own college experience, where I’d cultivated a pretty substantial and diverse social network, my time at my first full-time job felt a lot more insular, and I never felt quite reached a comfort zone.

My second year on the job, I sat alone in my office on the ground floor of the dorm. Most days, there was plenty of foot traffic, plenty of pleasantries exchanged, meetings to attend, etc. But things were different on the day before Thanksgiving. Since I was only an hour from home, I opted not to burn any vacation days, and instead worked my usual schedule, only in a dorm that was all but abandoned, less than 10 percent of the residents in attendance.

The housekeeping staff was still on. By late morning, the scents of a turkey dinner wafted from their break room by the loading dock, down the narrow hallway, past the laundry room and vending machines to my office. Just a few minutes before noon, when I had planned to escape upstairs to my apartment for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or some Ramen, one of the housekeepers popped his head in my office. He was a skinny guy with a lazy eye, patches of stubble that never seemed to grow thicker and that he never seemed to shave away from day to day, compulsively clad in a plain red baseball cap. “You coming to lunch?”

Lunch, it turned out, was a potluck affair between the whole housekeeping crew. Though, I had nothing to contribute, they insisted I join them. I marveled at the spread--a twelve-pound turkey, homemade stuffing and mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows, pumpkin and pecan pies. Bill, the manager, sat at the head of the long table, a patriarch. Donna, a dead ringer for Melinda Doolittle from the season of American Idol that would follow a few months later, poured clear plastic Solo cups of grape juice and cranberry juice to pass around the table.

And I made small talk with James, a middle-aged housekeeper with an accent from Wales and an ornate tattoo of a cross on his forearm. We chatted about the college kids on the fifth floor who had routinely made messes that year, most recently leaving a Jackson Pollock-like display of vomit in the middle of the women’s bathroom floor.

I said I was sorry he had to deal with all of that.

“Don’t be sorry.” He took a bite from a drumstick, tearing a scrap of turkey skin free with his teeth. “If they didn’t make a mess, I wouldn’t have a job.”

I thought of this man, literally thousands of miles from home, making ends meet on a housekeeping gig in a college dorm. And I thought of myself, just at the start of my career, just an hour drive removed from most of my friends and family, and the places I knew best.

I looked around that table. At people who scrubbed toilets and mopped floors to earn their paychecks. At people who had invited me into their fold when I sat alone at my office computer, the day before Thanksgiving. These people who were thankful for their jobs, their lives, their community.

Trite as it may sound, in their midst, I felt pretty thankful, too.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Kentucky Fried Chicken

A year and a half ago, I went a week-long road trip. First and foremost, the objective was to attend an a cappella competition in St. Louis, but the outgoing journey from Baltimore included a stop to see friends in Indianapolis, and the drive back included a stop in Lexington, Kentucky, for the sheer principle that I’d never visited the state before.

I didn’t give much thought to what I would do in Kentucky, which was probably fine because I’d only stay there for 16 hours before I headed off toward home in Baltimore. Nonetheless, the one hard and fast item I did have on my agenda for that leg of the trip was to get some authentic Kentucky fried chicken.

A round of Googling revealed that the actual original KFC restaurant was both well off the beaten path and nothing to write home about, so I elected to focus on local fare. I check into my hotel around 7 o’ clock on Easter Sunday and asked the woman working the front counter where she would recommend that I find a good fried chicken dinner.

She looked at me, bland-faced and dull-eyed. “Wal-mart’s right across the street. They have really good fried chicken.”

I put on my most polite smile, the best I was liable to mange in a weary state after eight hours of driving. “Any restaurants you could suggest. Maybe someplace more locally based?”

She ran her tongue over her upper lip. “Cracker Barrel’s good, too.”

I gave up on the front desk. Moved into my room and settled in for a quick nap. Then I got up and set to Googling on my phone. I should have expected as much, but I couldn’t find a single local joint of repute open that late on a Sunday, and realized I had all the less chance of doing so on Easter night.

So, I singled out an establishment known as The Parkette or my Monday lunch on the way out of town, and settled for the Cracker Barrel two doors down for that night’s dinner.

I brought along a book--common enough practice for me when I’m traveling and dining alone. The hostess sat me at a table for one, and fifteen minutes later, my server was there--a young woman with long, straight brown hair, severely yellowed teeth, and a brass name tag with big black letters that read Anna-May. She sounded a little nervous, a little frazzled when she asked me if I’d decided what I would like to order.

I smiled my polite smile again. “I was thinking maybe I’d like to look at the menu first.”

“Of course, sir.”

She scurried away and a minute later, returned with my menu and asked if I knew what I wanted to drink.

“How about an iced tea?” I asked.

“Would you like that sweetened or unsweetened?”

“Sweetened, please.”

I scanned the menu. Anna-May returned with my iced tea (unsweetened, but I tended to that myself with the sugar packets at the table). I elected to hold off for the real thing on my fried chicken quest, and ordered a ham dinner instead.

I got lost in my book, and didn’t notice the passing time at first. But as the wait time drew to half an hour, I did become conscious of it. Finally, my dinner arrived along with an apology for the wait. It wasn’t very good, but it was a Cracker Barrel so I didn’t come in with the loftiest expectations. The waitress stopped back three times as I ate.

The first time, she asked if I wanted anything for dessert.

The second time, she asked how my dinner was.

The third time, she asked how my dinner was again, but lingered longer after I repeated that it was great and thanked her. “You’re so nice,” she said. “This is my first night on the job and everybody seems so angry. I wish all of the customers were like you.”

She left before I could respond.

And I thought about how nice I’d really been. Only looking up from my book long enough to answer her questions. Thinking to myself that she didn’t seem particularly competent. And I remembered my first few days on the job, working the counter at the Yorkville McDonald’s. Trying to learn their limited menu, the appropriate codes to put in the register, getting scolded by my manager for giving someone the wrong breakfast sandwich.

I put the book aside after I’d finished my dinner. And when Anna May returned with the bill for my nine-dollar dinner, I told her she was doing a great job and to have good night. She blushed, smiled, waved awkwardly and said “you too.”

Cracker Barrel has you pay your bill at the counter, which left me with a dilemma. I didn’t want poor Anna-May to think for a second that I was stiffing her on her tip but putting it on my card out of her sight, but I only had four dollars cash in my wallet. I did also, however, have an emergency twenty-dollar bill stashed in my cell phone case.

I thought about asking for change. I thought better.

People have to face all manner of hardship in their lives, not the least of which is the discouragement of other folks putting them down--not out of necessity or in an effort to help them improve at something, but just for being carelessly or consciously mean.

I came to Kentucky fully prepared to pay in excess of twenty dollars for a fried chicken dinner, and I’d stayed well under budget for the overall road trip up to that point. I had a good job and twenty dollars wasn’t going to put me out in any meaningful way.

I left my twenty-dollar bill under the empty glass of iced tea Anna May had never refilled, and went to the counter without another word to settle my bill and be on my way. I slept easy that night.

The next morning I woke in time to do a little writing, grab a shower and check out of the hotel just before 11 to make it to The Parkette for an early lunch. I planned to hit the highway straight from there, and not stop for anything but gas and the rest room until I hit Baltimore seven or eight hours later. Thus, I had few inhibitions about ordering a small feast: an eight-piece order of fried chicken, a side of fried chicken livers, French fries, and a small (24-ounce) sweet tea.

I left Kentucky with a full stomach, a couple new stories to tell, and a happy (if slightly less healthy) heart. Not a bad end to a week on the road.