Sunday, February 18, 2018

On Melt Day

They used to yell “Melt!”

Down the hallways of the high school. In the cafeteria. Now and again, even in a classroom. A ragtag group, mostly boys—or at least it was the boys whose voices carried most clearly. Not popular, but not particularly unpopular, either. A mix of nerds and musicians and misfits who didn’t fit the school’s football culture, but also couldn’t rightly be called losers by any meaningful measure. Truth be told, were I year or two older, or had the dice of my own social life rolled one extra time before settling on the chosen faces, it’s not unreasonable to think that I might have ended up among them.

Melt!

To my recollection, it was a nonsense syllable. Just a thing to say. I have a suspicions that I might be forgetting some inside joke to set it up as the word, but regardless, if it did have meaning, that meaning seemed to dissipate over time. These guys yelled melt. Sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it was annoying. As far as I could tell, it was always harmless.

And then we arrived at Melt Day.

March 2, 2000. More to the point, a date that read “3/2,” which was converted to 32—the tipping point degree at which water freezes. The point when ice may begin to melt (though some sticklers for science and semantics argued that March 3 would have been a more appropriate Melt Day).

Melt Day would be an informal holiday. A day when the Melt crew would scream Melt a little louder and more often, and maybe even welcome new members into its fold, if just for one day. One of the Melt guys told me about their plan to bring a large block of ice into the school and yell “Melt” at it throughout the day until it had fully given way to water.

The thing is, in March of 2000, our high school was less than a year removed from the news of Columbine. Rumors swelled--I don’t know the source--that Melt Day, executed by these not-quite-cool kids, would be a day of massacre.

They’re going to throw snowballs at people outside school and shoot at anyone they hit.
they built a bomb. They’re going to melt the school.
They’re going to kill everyone.

The rumors moved fast. A letter went home to parents to explain that the administration did not have reason to believe anyone was at risk, but that they understood some students and their families would not feel comfortable attending school that day, and so absences on March 2 would not count against any student’s attendance.

The story made the local paper and at least one local news channel’s TV coverage.

I went to school on Melt Day.

Most people didn’t.

Included among the absentee—every recognizable member of the Melt group, who I anecdotally heard were advised it was in their best interest not to come to school that day.

I don’t have any specific statistics to cite (indeed, in a quick Google search, I was interested to have not found any references to Melt Day), but from what I remember, about two-thirds of my classmates were missing that day. I never experienced another school day quite like it, and my best approximation would be teaching a morning class on the day before Thanksgiving when I was in grad school. The teachers couldn’t cover any meaningful content, and yet were still compelled to hold all of their classes. It was a strange, wasted, awkward day.

Action movie sequences did flash through my mind once or twice--what I might do if there were a shooter. But these thoughts were far more fanciful than practical. I knew some of the Melt guys reasonably well and didn’t perceive any likelihood of an attack. It felt entirely more likely that one of the bigger guys who picked on me on and off over the years might take a swing at me than that anyone from the Melt crew had a weapon, much less any thoughts of mass violence.

Most of my teachers didn’t address Melt Day. They put on a movie, or went through the motions of some sort of exercise in place of advancing their teachings. I do recall my math teacher delivering a soliloquy, though. One of the teachers I really liked that year—a man who not only taught his subject well, but had a rare combination of a sense of humor and the gravitas of a sage. He looked down and stood in front of the room with his hands in his pockets. “There are people who created this situation today,” he said. “And those people will have to meet the consequences of their actions.”

I had taken the day as a farce. A big misunderstanding that snowballed on account of students who wanted an extra day off and overprotective families still reeling from school shootings far away. But here this teacher was, assigning responsibility and casting blame.

It was one of my first encounters in which I both respected someone talking to me and fundamentally disagreed with what he had to say. A time when I understood the opposing position and couldn’t help but sympathize on account of the stakes and how Melt Day must have affected his teachings, while simultaneously finding it absurd that he’d isolate all of the weight of the disorder on a small group of students, one of whom I knew for a fact had been one of his prized pupils the year before.

Melt Day passed without incident. The next day, the hallways were full again. Our lives at school went on as normal. But those yells of “Melt!” which had grown scarcer and quieter as the Melt Day situation took on greater gravity that winter, disappeared altogether at that point. No longer harmless. No longer fun.

Over the intervening eighteen years--a literal lifespan of a new crop of graduating high school seniors, the US has seen an unfortunate number of mass shootings, some of them in school settings, some of them tragically recenly. I’m grateful that none have occurred at my alma mater. Grateful that all of this hubbub can go forgotten--scarcely spoken of among those friends I still have from high school, scarcely documented anywhere I can find. I doubt I’m alone in this gratitude. But here’s the twist. I regret that I haven’t heard anyone yell, “Melt!” since. That nonsense. That laughter. That sense of unity among a strange group. That bit of innocence that has vanished not after running its natural course, and not out of impropriety, but rather a collective circumstance.

That piece that melted away.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Fast-Paced Scrabble

I grew up playing Scrabble with my sister and my grandmother. We kept score and used a clearly defined set of house rules, cobbled from a combination of official rules and whatever clarifications of gray areas my sister and I could come to a consensus on (the latter, often as not, born out of some mid-game controversy). My grandmother, always a paragon of patience and accommodation for our nonsensical whims, was tested I’m sure, as we agonized over turns, attempting to figure out the best approach to hitting double-letter and double-word score boxes with our J, X, Q, or Z tiles to maximize the point output. Grandma didn’t worry so much about the score, often as not settling on three-letter words for three-point scores, unfazed as our scores doubled or tripled hers.

My sister left for college, but Grandma and I continued to play Scrabble on our weekly visits, and, if anything, with greater frequency, as so many of our old standby games demanded a minimum of three players, while Scrabble was mostly unchanged.

I got faster, rarely taking more than a minute between turns. I can attribute a lot of that to familiarity with the game—for having seen so many combinations of tiles, so many formations on the board, and so more quickly seeing my way to the highest point play, or the play that would open the board if we were clustered too tightly in a corner. Our roles reversed as Grandma, growing older and slower by each dimension needed to puzzle out any play at all, and while she took her turns I could plot two or more options for my next turn—playing immediately after she was done.

And I recall a day in high school, senior year, playing Scrabble with my friend Dylan in our Chemistry classroom. I’m not sure why we would have played there, but can only fathom that the AP Exam was over and we’d exhausted whatever lab Mrs. Lorenz had planned. So we played.

We fell into that familiar dynamic, in which I’d play a word quickly and strategize different follow up moves while my friend deliberated how best to respond just that one. He apologized for taking so long with each turn, and I told him not to worry about, all the while aiming to hide my smugness.

And Ben, looking on as Dylan rubbed his forehead in frustration, commented, “Chin’s not that much faster than you. He just uses your turn to figure out what he’s going to do next.” He may have been trying to be nice to Dylan. Otherwise, it might have been a simple expression of a need that I recognized in myself, too, that I expect is common in precocious boys without opportunities to effect much change in the world—that we feel a need to point out patterns when we spot them, to call attention to our own skills of observation.

I haven’t played Scrabble in years now—a fact that I’d find not just tough to swallow, but complete anathema when I fell between the ages of eight and eighteen. I’m not sure I could have conceptualized a life like that. And yet still, the game calls to me now and again. Seeing the word quizzical in a book for example, I mentally calculate the Scrabble-tile point total if that Q-fell on a double-letter space, and if the word overlapped a triple-word box. I recalibrate, knowing full well, of course, that there’s only one Z tile in play, and so one of those Zs would have to be a blank tile and thus worth no points; I recognize, too, that at nine-letters long, at least two letters would have to have already been on the board, and most likely it would have been Q-U-I-Z that already existed, thus immediately reducing the potential word score because, while I could still attain the triple-word score, no single double- or triple-letter value could be assigned to the tiles already in play (unless happenstance, for example, left two I tiles two spaces between one another, with plenty of room for play on either side).

I imagine I’ll play Scrabble again. With my own children, or if time and biology favor me, grandchildren. But I imagine a different style of play then. Less rapid-fire and perhaps I’ll suggest that we don’t keep score. For as good as those seventy, eighty-point turns felt, I recall a better, purer joy in weaving words between words, interconnecting spaces to create connections horizontally and vertically, sometimes three or four of them at a time. These were the turns that felt less like mastery than poetry, less about score than creating something new.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Why I Blog

For over five years now, I’ve written this blog.

I had other blogs before it. A LiveJournal and notes on Facebook. The A Cappella Blog that’s run since 2007. My weekly wrestling column at 411mania that I always looked at more as a wrestling-centric blog than anything else.

This blog, though--Three Words That Became Hard To Say--has been different from the beginning. I started it to have a place for miscellaneous writing about whatever I wanted to write about, not to mention a home base on the web where I could regularly self-publish, regardless of what happened in terms of other websites, or what literary journals saw fit to accept my work. It evolved into a place for short, relatively raw personal essays—often nostalgic, sometimes esoteric, and rarely given more than one pass at revision before I share it with the world.

No doubt, a part of why I’ve stuck to the project is to externalize ideas. As I came to accept from a pretty early age, I communicate better in writing than in speech—more clearly, more cleverly, more assertively. It’s what made writing workshops, let alone teaching writing such an interesting conundrum, simultaneously frustrating and fundamentally important for learning to articulate what I knew, via instinct and decades of practice to be true about the written word. When it comes to day-to-day life, though, as much as I enjoy catching up with an old friend every now and again, or talking to my wife, I still find there’s no substitute for me to putting the words down on paper or on my computer screen, for fully realizing an idea and for achieving intellectual discovery as one idea transforms or evolves into the next. So, the process of writing this blog has allowed me to not only conjure memories, but connect these seemingly disparate moments and ideas.

When I’ve taught writing, the subject of audience tends to come up. Who are you writing for?--the great rhetorical question that differentiates academic papers from op-eds from creative writing from personal blogs. But what of a blog with no central focus other than what’s on my mind when I sit down at the keyboard? Can such a project possibly interest anyone but me personally on any kind of a sustained basis? And if the blog were just for me, why not keep it as a private journal? Why put it out to the world?

One of the most surprising discoveries of these years of blogging has been just who is reading. There are the family members and close friends whom it’s sensible enough would be interested enough in whatever I’m writing, at least to the extent that they’d peruse my latest entry to see if it rests in our overlapping areas of interest or experience. But then there are those more casual friends—co-workers, classmates, the sort of people I know better on Facebook than I do in real life. Every now and again, these people will say something about the blog in real life, or leave a comment when I share the post on Facebook. Something surprising. Something that shows they engaged with the material far more than I would have expected for them to.

This might be the greatest pleasure in blogging for me—this essence of engaging in conversation with people, like me, who are more comfortable writing than speaking, more at ease reading than listening. People I might enjoy a cup of coffee with but for whom, all things being equal, might draw even greater enjoyment from knowing we’re sipping coffee at approximately the same time, reading the same words, mulling over the same ideas, from hundreds, if not thousands of miles apart.

There’s an undercurrent of fear around social media and the Internet at large. This culture of connecting without proximity or touch. Of hiding away in our various holes in the world without human contact and what that might do to a person’s sanity, to a person’s soul. I’m not here to argue that we should embrace any number of nightmare-scapes from Black Mirror or dystopian fictions; that we ought to let our bodies fester in favor of robots acting in our place (I’m thinking the 2009 film, Surrogates). But there’s also something to be said for what technological advances we’ve had and to this ability to maintain, or even create different kinds of relationships, in no small part through the written word.

I don’t know that this post has answered the question of why I blog. But maybe I’ve offered some new fodder for you to think about; maybe I’ve inspired you to write, or see if Surrogates is streaming somewhere. And that modicum of influence, from me to you across long distances, over the screen of your computer, phone, or tablet—-maybe that’s the point.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

My 2017 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. “Wake Up” by The Vamps
The last couple months of 2016 had been a little rough as unemployment settled in and we weren’t living anywhere stably. In early 2016, we moved into the last of a series of short-term rentals, and arrived at final terms to return to my old employer on a seven-month contract. Meanwhile, part-time employment offers from the fall started to bear some fruit. In short, I moved from unemployed to a full-time job and three remote part-time ones. All considered, I’d have liked to have been a little less busy but it was good to be active again. We spent the first month of the year at Myrtle Beach, before we settled into a lease on an apartment in Wilmington, NC, shored up our honeymoon plans in Orlando and, however briefly, life felt as if it came back into focus.

2. “Queens” by La Sera

In an effort to revitalize my stagnating music tastes, I subscribed to a song of the day podcast to expose me to more indie music and new (to me) artists. This was one of my early favorites that I associate with our time in Myrtle Beach and listening to in the car on drives between our place and the gym I frequented for the month.

3. “Billy Elliot” by Chris Cubeta and 4. “Show Me the Stars” by Temple One
“Billy Elliot” was the opening track from the Chris Cubeta CD I first heard when it was sent for review to my college newspaper, and had largely forgotten about until going through old CDs in an effort to pare down after we moved all of our belongings out of storage and into our place in Wilmington. “Show Me the Stars,” was, by contrast a new song I discovered via the aforementioned podcast. While the two had little in common, they became two of my favorites of the springtime this past year.

5. “Greenlight” by Pitbull, ft. Flo Rida and LunchMoney Lewis
I wish I had a better song to commemorate our honeymoon trip to Orlando. We drove down and spent two days at Universal Studios—mostly visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter—before going to WrestleMania. This was the official song of WrestleMania 33, and the artists performed it live to a less than engaged audience at the stadium.

It was a heck of a trip. Oh, and the morning of WrestleMania Sunday, we had our first pregnancy test to suggest we might be expecting.

6. “Mantra for a Struggling Artist” by Andrew Joslyn

This is a pretty strings-based song that I liked a great deal in the spring, and that felt particularly compelling if only for its title and the struggle to maintain time for my writing escalated through the spring, into a busy summer.

7. “The Night We Met” by Lord Huron and 8. “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” by Soft Cell
13 Reasons Why is a problematic show on a number of levels, particularly for the implications it might have for impressionable viewers. For better or worse, though, I found it entertaining, and was particularly captivated with its mood-setting soundtrack. “The Night We Met” captured a particularly memorable scene at a dance and was one of my favorite songs the show exposed me to.

On the note of songs offered up by Netflix shows, I’d known the David Gray cover of “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” for a decade or so, not realizing it was a cover until I heard the Soft Cell original on an episode of Master of None. While 13 Reasons became a bit of a guilty pleasure, I have not shame at all in proclaiming myself of a fan of this latter show, and absolutely fell in love with the second season.

9. “Take It From an Old Man” from Waitress
In late April, I made what may have been my last annual pilgrimage to Manhattan to meet up with my best friend and attend Varsity Vocals’ a cappella finals weekend. Over the course of eleven years we’ve gone with a rotating cast of other people and done all sorts of things, but this was the first time we made it to a Broadway show. Finals weekend happened to coincide with Sara Bareilles’s first stint starring in the show she’d written the music for, Waitress.

I had a great weekend and loved the show. In particular I appreciated this song. I’m a sucker for old timers imparting wisdom in dramatic settings and this was the kind of song to enjoy in the moment, and take heart in on repeated listenings over a tough summer to follow.

10. “Devil Knows You’re Dead” by Delta Spirit
It was a long summer. Summers with my old employer always were. This summer had an unusually clear finish line, though. I’d finish up in Philadelphia on a Sunday and fly to Atlanta, where Heather would pick me up and drive me into our new life in Georgia. I started orientation for my new teaching job the next day.

On that last flight, I re-watched the last episode of Friday Night Lights. It was, admittedly, a bit of a random choice, but (spoiler alert to anyone who hasn’t finished the show and intends to) the ending resonated with me in this moment of transition. Eric and Tami Taylor moved from Texas up north to start a new life; here I was flying south to do something much the same, new professional pursuits for the both of us, on the cusp of a new family life.

11. “Heroes” cover by Peter Gabriel

On a re-watch of season one of Stranger Things, in preparation for the new season to launch I found myself particularly captivated by the scene in which the supposed body of Will Byers is unearthed, and this eerie cover of the David Bowie classic that played over it.

12. “Ready for It” by Taylor Swift
As an adult man, I’m probably not supposed to care much for Taylor Swift. I found myself captivated by 1989, though, and all too eager to pre-order Reputation as a treat to myself coming out of a challenging summer. The album’s first pre-released single, “Look What You Made Me Do” was poorly received. I didn’t necessarily think it was as bad as the broader reception would suggest, but it also wasn’t great. The second single “Ready For It,” captured more of the spirit of what I saw Swift going for as a harder edge and more EDM style for this album, while also actually being a really catchy song. It was probably my most listened to track of the fall.

13. “Call It Dreaming” by Iron & Wine

I came upon this song via the aforementioned song of the day podcast, and connected with it on my first listen, driving to work in the early morning hours.

it’s here where our pieces fall in place

It’s odd how much can change over the course of a year. While there were many ways in which our life in Oregon was a happy one, I was also conscious that we lived in Corvallis for me. We’d moved there because that’s where I went to grad school, and our social lives mostly revolved around the friends I’d made through that program. The year to follow had involved moving around and, in a sense, waiting for our life together to take shape. As fall edged toward winter, we were both working fulfilling jobs, and mere weeks from parenthood.

For all the love you’ve left behind, you can have mine

Applying this recurrent lyric to my life, I imagined our son being born into the world—out of a warm place where he was constantly cared for, into life outside. That outside of Heather, I might offer my love to in some way compensate, so Riley might know there was not just one, but two people who meant to make him the center of their world. And then, as I listened more, I thought to of applying the lyric to myself. One of the harder parts of all of this moving has been leaving parts of my life behind. I only tend to see my family and my closest friends once or twice a year these days. I left the community I’d built in Baltimore behind, and just as I’d settled into a new one in Oregon, it was time to leave there, too. But for all of this love I’d left behind, here was my son on his way to change what family meant altogether.

A new life awaited.

14. "I Will" by The Beatles

"I Will" has been one of my favorite songs since I first came upon it in my teenage years. On an off night while Heather was pregnant, we took turns singing songs to Riley in the womb, and this one came to mind.

We sung to him again, on and off, trying to soothe him during his first full day of life at the hospital. When I sang "I Will" to him again, there in the bassinet, his head in my hand, it occurred to me that I'd sung these same words when he was more dream than reality for me, more idea than something I could hold. I started to choke up early in the song, and couldn't stop myself from breaking into tears in the latter stages, one of the happiest moments of my life.

And when at last I find you
Your song will fill the air
Sing it loud so I can hear you
Make it easy to be near you
For the things you do endear you to me
Oh, you know I will
I will.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Waiting for Santa

I wasn’t raised to believe in Santa Claus, but my wife was.

My Christmas eves and Christmas mornings growing up had a distinct lack of dressed up Christmas trees and stockings, much less half-eaten cookies and empty milk glasses, or complex mythologies about how Santa broke into the house despite our lack of a chimney. For a period of years, Heather’s were all about such wonder. Waiting to catch a glimpse of a silhouetted sleigh passing the moon. Listening to her father simulate the sound of reindeer hoofs outside.

My sister swears that, in a flight of fancy one year (a year I was too young to recall), the two of us tried to believe in Santa and reject our parents’ pragmatic insistence on all of the reasons why a man traveling the globe in one night, pulled by flying reindeer was impossible. One year (I like to imagine the same one) Heather and her siblings caught word there wasn’t a Santa and told all of the kids in the neighborhood. Their parents told them that if they didn’t believe in Santa and were going to ruin the idea for a dozen other kids, then Santa really wouldn’t bring them anything that year, and promptly returned or resold their presents.

In the aftermath of the Santa Claus years--after which point it was no longer a faux-paz to discuss Santa as fantasy among age peers, and there was no longer any fun in spoiling it for younger people, Saint Nick became a part of the background scenery. He had little more potency than a Frosty the Snowman or any other subject of decorations and Christmas carols. But as the years passed, I clung to certain Christmas traditions--the annual viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life and Scrooged, listening to “(Happy Xmas) War Is Over” and various renditions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I split time between family and friends and girlfriends’ families and took to hosting an annual Christmas party in my Baltimore apartment that was in no way sized appropriately for the number of people in attendance. Through it all, each Christmas day I awoke on the street I'd grown up on--Graham Ave, either in my childhood home, or my second home, on the opposite end of the street, where my best friend grew up. The holiday evolved and I spent a high proportion of it enjoying the company of my de facto nieces--playing tag, building Lego towers, and making stuffed animals talk with funny voices.

For all the Christmases that she, too, spent at home, Heather settled into the absence of tradition, foregoing expensive, crowded flights and bouncing between relatives’ couches in favor of staying on the west coast. She watched movies with friends. She attended a Jewish ball.

Our Christmas stories are different in many ways and didn’t converge for over thirty years. Nonetheless I’d suggest that if you could reduce our holiday stories--and those of plenty more people I’ve come across in my lifetime--to a common theme, it would be trying to recapture magic. The magic of a bearded old man in a red suit, or of an even more abstract concept of the magic of spending time with relatives who have gone separate ways or passed on since we were kids. The magic of waiting on what Christmas gifts await us, or even that simple magic of what it was like the first time we heard our favorite Christmas songs, saw our favorite Christmas movies, or had our first bites of our favorite Christmas cookies. We chase these sensations in trying on Santa’s clothes ourselves, in the gift giving, in being the ones to cook Christmas dinner.

This spirit of waiting and wishing threatens to overtake our lives. The drive to recreate based on nostalgia, balanced with pursuit of our own dreams, evolved and sharpened from childhood. That sense that each of us might still become the very best versions of ourselves, if just for one day of the year, when we attain some semblance of a Christmas miracle, or at least achieve our best approximation of a perfect holiday.

My friend Ben--older, wiser, and a father years before I was--once summarized the three stages of life as believing in Santa Claus, not believing in Santa Claus, and becoming Santa Claus. I suspect he was right. Just the same, I like to think that that first stage is one that goes on longer than many of us give it credit for. That at the age of 34, I may still be waiting for Santa Claus on some level, to bring me the things I can’t buy or will into being on my own—a lucrative publishing deal, or more time with my the family and friends I’ve moved far away from.

And as long as I have those hopes, those dreams, those ambitions, and--perhaps most importantly--faith, then I suppose I’ll always believe in a Santa Claus whom I never thought existed.

I’ll keep waiting.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

In Art Class

Art was messy. As a kid, I enjoyed drawing—in pencil, in markers, in crayon. But watercolors tended to end up dripping over my hands, over the table, and I was rarely happy with what I painted. Papier mache and pottery and any projects that involved lots of cutting and gluing were little better, and thus Art class remained an uneven proposition for me. Better than Gym class where I was bad at most sports, a welcome reprieve sometimes from the regular elementary school classroom where I struggled to pay attention after long periods of sitting, and on more or less equal footing to Music class which tended to strike the middle ground of not objectionable nor fun. Art could be great. Art could be awful.

I remember my first art teacher, a thin, very tan, very Italian woman with a fiery temper who scolded the kids who talked while she was giving instructions and who tsk tsk tsked when we failed to follow the instructions of a project correctly. I recall one such tsk when I heard the rattle of her metallic bracelets over her wrists and thought for sure she would slap me on the back of the head (she didn’t--I already knew, but hadn’t yet internalized that teachers couldn’t do that).

I remember my second art teacher. I remember thinking, even in the moment, that her projects were too ambitious for her student base. Regardless of how interesting its composition was, no one wanted to sit still to draw a still-life of an empty violin case and plant with long vines and an open book. I remember upon volunteering to hand out something or other one day, that she said, “thank you,” that I said, “sure thing,” and that it gave way to a lengthy monologue on why you’re welcome was the appropriate response, and how children didn’t learn to speak properly these days.

I encountered her again in high school--perhaps she had moved up the ranks, or the school system had simply recognized older students as a better fit for her. She gave us sketchbook assignments, one asking us to capture something from a dream. I drew my crush de jour (with an elongated nose, lest anyone recognize her), drew a dragon. The art teacher held it up as an exemplar of what we might accomplish in our exercises if we applied ourselves.

And another art teacher—the better art teacher who worked with juniors and seniors, and who had worked closely with my sister, peeked at my progress now and again. Lauded the texture of my shading, and chastised me when I rubbed it into even tones. I suspect he may have been waiting to work with me, and so it was with some regret that that I stopped taking art classes after sophomore year, in favor of focusing on AP coursework and editing the school newspaper; relishing in a daily study hall instead of the extra elective.

I figured drawing would always be a part of my life, anyway. It had been throughout childhood. Surely I wouldn’t let it go. As I started to identify more concretely as a writer, though, I made less use of the still half-empty sketchpad from my last art class.

At my liberal arts college, I fulfilled my art requirement first with an art history course freshman year, and then, in my senior year, a studio class focused on pencil sketching, where I found myself entirely average in skill and not all that inspired.

Now and again, I still think of drawing. I can still remember some of the fundamentals—that capturing what I saw rather than what I assumed or imagined tended to be truest route to an accurate sketch, and that the human head is shaped more like an egg than a sphere. And I think one day, work will slow down, and I’ll carve time from writing and reading and family life to make a go at visual art again.

But I don’t.

And so I look back to art class not as something that I objectively miss, but as a conduit to a way of being in the world that I rarely think of, much less pine for in my day-to-day as a thirty-something. The way my hand used to cramp after drawing for too long and the way the side of my hand turned gray from absentmindedly pressing against the page while I worked.

These are the pains, the messes, the side effects that I miss as much as the art itself I used to make.

These are the pieces that make me think one day I really might try again.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

On Everyday Conversation

I remember my final day of work in Baltimore. That I’d already experienced a really generous series of farewell lunches, happy hours, and farewell notes from my friends and colleagues. And that three o’clock on that final day, a dear friend from the preceding six and half years came to my office.

It was his last day, too. He suggested we grab a beer to celebrate.

I still had work to do. A lot of it, for 3 p.m. on a Friday, with very little to hold me accountable. Still, I recognized this as a final opportunity to have final drink with someone I’d talked to on a daily basis for a period of years, and thought I would be foolish and hard-hearted to decline.

So, we walked down the hill to the tavern some of us had frequented in years past, that I’d only made it to a half dozen or so times in the past year. We grabbed a table near the bar and sipped our pints. Talked about the adventures we were both moving on to, and his son, and TV. We finished our first drinks and, in good spirits, I said I could go for just one more if he liked.

My friend had a family to get home to, and politely passed.

On my way back to the office, I walked my friend to the car. I said to keep in touch. He said that our friendship had always been an easy one, and he was sure we would remain in contact.

And I remember talking with another, older friend about this exchange. “You really think you’ll keep in touch?” he asked.

I wasn’t certain, but in the direct aftermath of such good conversation, riding high on all of these fond farewells and the nostalgia they had conjured, I said, “I think so.”

We texted a handful times along my drive across the country and that fall. The following summer, when I returned to our old mutual employer for seasonal work, we caught up on the phone and ended up meeting for drinks at the same bar.

“Keeping in touch” is a relative and arbitrary term. I still have a small handful of friends my teenage sleep-away camp experience with whom I’m Facebook friends. We’ll “like” one another’s posts here and there, sometimes offer a comment. I expect if we ever found ourselves in the same city again, we’d say hello, maybe grab lunch, but it’s hard to earnestly say that we’re really in each other’s lives now.

That friend from work--I like him a lot and I wish him nothing but the best. Just the same, it’s hard to say that we’re really still in touch in any meaningful way.

I got to thinking about all of this upon listening to the “What’s Going On In There?” episode of This American Life. One of the segments profiles a young man who grew up in the States with his Chinese immigrant father who never learned English. The son reports that the family made a conscious decision to focus on the English language opportunities that would afford their son opportunities in the US, assuming he would pick up Chinese more casually at home.

Only, he didn’t.

So the boy grew into a man without ever having a conversation that extended past pleasantries with his father.

This relationship depicted on this show conjured thoughts of my own relationship with my Chinese grandparents--strikingly similar, if even more distant for only having seen them for three weekends a year growing up, plus strained weekend and Christmas morning phone calls in which we fumbled through polite how-are-yous before giving up on account of the language barrier.

All the more so, this episode got me thinking about my relationship with my own parents.

Growing up, I tended to see my father as a monster--a man with a temper who was quick yell at and demean me, my sister, and even my mother for any transgression. I remember him saying that all I did was make more work for other people when I spilled gravy at one family dinner, and years later asking how I’d ended up so stupid when I dropped a gallon of milk as I fetched it from the fridge.

My childhood memories of my mother tend to be faded, like out-of-focus photographs, in the shadow of my father. I remember hugs good night and singing along to Beatles songs, but these memories are fewer and factor less prominently in my childhood psyche.

As an adult, I don’t harbor ill will told either of my parents. I believe that they were each mostly doing the best they knew how in the mind-bogglingly complicated domain of trying to raise other human beings. And I like seeing them now, though it typically doesn’t happen more than two or three times a year, and typically not for visits that last more than two or three nights.

I’ve thought from time to time that one of those visits might be the one in which we break new ground. When I tell them something profound about my life and uncover pieces of their past that I’ve never heard--origin stories or secrets or even forgotten memories from times I would have been too young to fully recall.

But we rarely move much past basics. My mother and I share a limited capacity for small talk and once we’re through with the essentials some chatter on the TV shows we watch, our conversation tends to run dry. Conversations with my father usually gravitate around his obsessions—ballroom dancing, Texas Hold ‘Em, the stock market. We get stuck when we talk about my life--when he doesn’t know what to ask about my writing or teaching, and when my childhood instincts for assuming that what I have to say isn’t important resurface.

Still, when I listened to “What’s Going On In There?” I sensed a common drive to know more, to have a connection.

I listened on. And it became clear that a meaningful connection there, too—even with the help of translators and the written word--didn’t come to fruition through any grand revelation or moment of truth.

But this segment of the podcast spun off. Away from big changes, into the everyday.

The father and son began emailing. Texting. Nothing profound. Just how-are-you-doing questions, the father’s reminders to make sure his son was eating enough. These exchanges began to happen more regularly. Until the father and son were, for the first time, part of one another’s lives.

And I thought about making more of an effort to do this with my parents. With my sister. With all of the friends I mean to keep in better touch with, but rarely make the time for.

I got overwhelmed, just imagining it. You can’t maintain a consistent connection with everyone.

And then I think that perhaps I don’t have to. That these everyday conversations with people in my everyday life, for as trivial as they may be, are not unimportant. They’re the foundation for shared experience, for a shared life. And when our time together passes, it doesn’t mean that that connection goes away or didn’t matter, but rather that it’s served it’s purpose, and might be there waiting for us down the road or on the other side (however abstractly, profoundly, or literally you want to take that).

I know most of my readers are friends or family--some from today, probably all the more so from some time in our shared past, drawn together now only through Facebook or Twitter. And to you, I say, “Hello,” “how are you,” and “don’t be a stranger.”