Sunday, October 15, 2017

My Grandmother’s House

My grandmother lived in a little, one-story ranch-style house, with seven rooms.

The Front Room
There was what we referred as the front room—a substantial foyer that easily could have been a living room, but where we hardly spent any time, and that I get the impression Grandma didn’t put to much use. The carpeting was all forest green circles with orange leaves interspersed. There was a bar on the far end that I imagine previous owners might have used for entertaining, and that my sister and I occasionally used for play, creating imaginary scenes that riffed off of Cheers. I think of this space largely as excess, though—for my grandmother who had spent her first sixty-something years in New York City apartments, a luxury that she rarely put to the use.

Most of my memories set in the front room happened on Christmas. The space was larger than the proper living room, affording space for a Christmas tree, presents, and comfortable seating for not only our normal Sunday visit crew of Grandma, my mother, my father, my sister and me, but also my Uncle John who visited just once a year and came to stay with Grandma. Once we were through with presents, we typically migrated to the kitchen or the living room, but for the overwhelming majority of my Christmas presents, it’s that front room where the holiday happened.

Secondarily, I remember New Year’s Eves, and that five or six year period when my sister and I made a tradition out of spending the night at Grandma’s. Fetching the crystal punch bowl from the crawl space above the bar. Sleeping on the fold-out couch in the front room.

The Guest Room
Those New Year’s Eve nights my sister would sleep in the guest room. All considered, this room, with its red-white-and-blue shag carpeting, an old armoire, a little television, was probably the room I spent the least amount of time in, though I do recall certain Sundays in the early 1990s stowing away in there for an hour to watch episodes of Global Wrestling Federation show on ESPN.

What I remember best about this room, though, was that each Christmas, when Uncle John came to stay, my grandmother retreated to the guest room, giving her son the bigger space, the bigger bed.

The Master Bedroom
I remember the master bedroom clouded in smoke, not from my grandmother, who didn’t smoke (at least in my lifetime) but from my uncle’s stays, and that each time he left and we visited the room, I imagined it wouldn’t be the same again, but somehow it always was within a week’s time.

I remember the dresser where, somehow or other--probably from my sister’s keener observational skills--we deduced that Grandma hid our Christmas presents, and sneaking peeks at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures.

The Bathroom
Grandma’s bathroom always smelled better than the bathroom at home, for just a single regular user who was more attentive cleaning than anyone in my immediate family. Everything in that room was blue--my grandmother’s favorite--from the tile floor to the tub. I remember that she had a shower head that detached and could be used like a hose and that seemed novel and tremendously fun to experiment with on those occasions when I showered at Grandma’s.

I remember taking the latest issue of TV Guide into the bathroom with me and reading the better part of an issue over the course of a half hour on the toilet.

The Kitchen

No one would mistaken me for an expert chef, but what kitchen knowledge I have has its roots in my grandmother’s kitchen. In my own house, my father maintained tight control over the kitchen, protective against making messes or anyone hurting themselves to the point that I don’t believe I ever cracked an egg in my childhood home or preheated the oven.

At Grandma’s house, I recall collaborative efforts to make Hungarian Goulash and Cornish game hens; routinely cutting the lettuce for salad into impossibly small pieces after Grandma complimented me the first time I did it, saying that’s how professionals prepared salads in fancy restaurants (it would be years before I recognized it as a way of keeping me occupied while she and my sister tended to more pressing tasks).

And I remember concoctions. More often than not, mixtures of sodas, and a New Year’s punch that included juices and, one ill-advised year, milk. The freedom to decide what went in.

I don’t drink soda all that often nowadays, but a couple times a year, the mixture of Mountain Dew and Diet Coke, patented in that kitchen, will still hit the spot.

The Living Room
The living room sticks with me, in part because it’s the spot from which the most furniture was salvaged. End tables that made it to my house, a sofa and TV that made it to my childhood home.

The room had a fiery orange carpet and a great big front window that looked out on the driveway. We rarely used the front door there, in favor of the side door and mudroom that afforded room to take off shoes and coats before heading into the house, but there was a door to the living room, too, that I remember my father sprinting out of when neighbors from across the street backed into the door of his Oldsmobile, leaving a crater of a dent in the front driver’s side door. They settled without using insurance, but my father never actually had the door repaired, instead pocketing the cash and still parking the car in full-view of the neighbors on a weekly basis.

The living room was littered with ceramic cats. My grandmother had kept cats for years, only to have to give it up when she discovered my mother was allergic. She had a modest sampling of cat figurines to decorate her living room. My sister and I latched on to this interest, and more cat-centered things became the focal point of every gift giving occasion. Cat calendars. Books with pictures of cats. A truly ridiculous number of ceramic or stone cats in a collection overwhelming enough that she eventually had to ask us to stop giving her that gift. (In an instance of what may be karmic payback, my sister’s love for stuffed frogs yielded an unwieldy collection after a series of Christmases and birthdays in her own adult years, until she, too, had to ask family and friends to stop. Somehow, I’ve gone unsaddled with such a collection—thus far.)

The Construction Room Of all of the spaces in my grandmother’s house, the one I remember best is the Construction Room.

It might have been an office, a spare bedroom, or storage space. But Grandma was dedicated enough to my sister and I, her only grandchildren, that it instead became a space dedicated to us, called the Construction Room for our drawing and painting and Lego projects.

The room contained an old wooden table with leaves that folded up or down to double or triple its surface area. As we grew up, we made a little less at Grandma’s house and focused more on games. Pinochle, Scrabble, Canasta, and Double or Triple Solitaire were our steady favorites, but Uno, Skip-Bo, Pitch, Poker, and Clue each had their days as well. I developed some of the best and worst parts of myself in those games. A sense of play and curiosity that I fear I too often forget in my adult life; early semblances of strategizing as I schemed triple-word-scores and how enough well-planned freezes and natural canastas might allow me to win a game in a single hand. Just the same, I also learned a competitiveness that wasn’t entirely healthy, and an excessive commitment to plans that left me disproportionately disappointed when games didn’t proceed as I had anticipated. I remember not wanting to clear the Scrabble board after one game, when I had achieved a particularly high scoring word, because I wanted to show it to my parents when they came to pick me up, as invested in impressing them as I could be as a kid.

And Construction Room had our mailbox—a department store box relabeled with my name and my sister’s where my grandmother left chocolatey treats, or the issues of the wrestling magazines she subscribed to for me as gifts. Where we left hand-drawn magazines we wrote and drew on lined paper for her. Where, in time, I left my grandmother stories, and eventually manuscripts of full novels, and where she left me notes “From the Editor’s Desk” praising what I had done, telling me to keep going.

Leaving The House
Early in my high school years, my grandmother moved out of the house, into an senior citizen’s apartment building. A smaller, more manageable space for her to maintain, with access to emergency help at the pull of a string if she fell or hurt herself.

I still saw her there for a period of years. Through the end of high school. Through visits back home most of my college years.

Then she fell.

I forget the exact sequence of events, but Grandma started using a green metallic walker she named Esmerelda. She grew tired, falling asleep in the middle of conversations, between turns at board games, watching television shows. She had a stroke.

Toward the end of my college career--probably junior or senior year--she decided to move into a nursing home.

Days later, she told my father, her last steady connection in town, that she had made a horrible mistake. That they were going to steal her money and she wanted to go back home.

Her house had long been sold. She’d made a financial commitment to the nursing home, too, and it wouldn’t be feasible to go back to the apartment building. The only option would have been for her to move into the downstairs space of the house that my mother and father had originally intended for her to live in when they put in the electricity and plumbing, back when she'd preferred her independence. My father made mention of that as a possibility, I think to show her that the nursing home was still the better option. By then, she said yes, she would move in. It never happened.

He was on the front line to recognize her changes. That she was deteriorating and that the process accelerated after she moved into the nursing home--a combination of age, a brain rattled by a stark change in environment, and, we suspected, medications that the staff might pump into their charges to keep things calm and quiet.

Though I caught glimmers of my grandmother as she once was, in a hug, in a clever play on words, after she moved into the nursing home, I never saw her in her right mind again.

Three years out of college--the same year I had moved out of state and stopped coming home to visit more than a couple times a year--Grandma passed away.

I sent a thank you card to the nursing home staff, in appreciation for taking care of my grandmother in her final days. A feeble gesture. In visits home to follow, here and there, I swung by her apartment building. Just above every visit, I made a slow, late night drive past the old house.

The house--once white--is now painted tan, the black shutters replaced with blue. The pavement space where my sister and I drew in chalk, and where I played spin the bottle with school friends for my fifteenth birthday party, is now host to a basketball hoop. A minivan parks out front. I assume there are children. A family.

Sometimes, the living room lights were on. I wondered if, inside, the carpet were still orange. If anyone scotch taped drawings to forest green wood-paneled walls of the kitchen anymore. If kids run to that side door with a sense of wonder at the world waiting inside.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

We Were Warriors

I was in the second the grade. Back when gym class still mixed boys and girls and an absence of athleticism could go unnoticed because, well, what seven year old is especially coordinated? This was two grades before the school assigned us gym lockers and required that we changed into a school t-shirt and shorts, I suppose under the rationale that the littler kids were running around constantly anyway so it didn’t matter if they sweated into their normal day-to-day clothes and they wouldn’t find their normal day-to-day clothes too restrictive because that’s what we would wear for all manner of chasing and throwing and climbing anyway.

It was at this blissfully innocent and ignorant age, lined up against a padded wall, waiting for my turn “at bat” in kickball that I first heard the chant. Two slaps of the wall pad, followed by a clap, in the approximate rhythm of “We Will Rock You.” Then the words:

We are the Warriors!
Couldn’t be prouder!
If you can’t hear us,
we’ll shout a little louder!

A series of na-na-na-na-nas followed at a steady crescendo.

I was confused. I hadn’t heard this chant before, but it was infectious and before long I had joined in. Nick Samson had been among the first to start the chant. Nick, who I had bonded with kindergarten when we discovered our mutual love for the World Wrestling Federation. The annual Thanksgiving-time Survivor Series pay-per-view event was around the corner, scheduled to feature the four-man team The Warriors—The Ultimate Warrrior, “The Modern Day Warrior” Kerry Von Erich, and The Legion of Doom (formerly known as “The Road Warriors”)—facing off against a crew of bad guys.

It didn’t surprise me that Nick would invent such a chant, or that his boisterous personality would prompt him to break into it in public. It did surprise me the volume of boys and girls who partook, even my budding first crush Pattie, who I couldn’t imagine cheering The Ultimate Warrior as he press slammed a hapless foe.

And yet there she was, red-brown hair and pig tails, four feet tall, screaming along, even giving me a little smile when I caught her eye, in a look I could interpret to be a subtle acknowledgement of the absurdity at the both of us quieter, bookish kids joining the chant.

I’m not sure when the realization hit that the second grade class of Westmoreland Road Elementary was not, in fact, chanting about professional wrestling, but rather in tribute to our schools sports team and broader sports culture. That we were, quite literally, The Warriors—a part of the Whitesboro Central School District, in one of four elementary schools that would feed into a unified junior high four years later, and then into a bigger high school.

I suspect that my classmates, bound to older brothers and sisters, or parents with lingering school pride from their youths, had gone to a football game the preceding Friday night, and come away with this chant in tow. I wouldn’t attend one of these Friday night rituals for another seven years, a high schooler myself, when the games became a backdrop against which to socialize, flirt with girls, and eat soft pretzels.

I came to accept school pride. While I didn’t have any real investment in the school’s sports teams, and wouldn’t call many of the student athletes friends, it still felt abstractly important, when they advanced to a state championship game, that I root for them to win. Moreover, I came to accept the Warrior identity. The school’s logo portrayed a Native American in a headdress—noble and strong. I recognized the na-na-na-nas as an imitation of an Indian war chant. For a mascot, a boy would dress in brown faux-leather regalia with fringe, war paint, and a headdress.

None of this registered as meaningfully problematic to me. There would be the occasional rumbling in the local paper about the mascot and team name appropriating, exploiting, or poking fun at Indian culture. Such concerns were promptly shouted down with cries of it’s a tribute, it’s a tradition, and don’t be so sensitive, ya goddamn pussy!

And though I wouldn’t recognize it until years later, I was indoctrinated in all of this—from the second grade on, even when I associated “The Warriors” not with our football team in white and blue, but rather bare-chested men who wore face paint and spandex. I was surrounded by Warrior culture, and though I was never the most vocal or devout supporter of our school’s athletics, neither did I see a meaningful problem. I joined the chorus of dismissing the overly sensitive, overly PC naysayers who wanted to stir up trouble over the most benign borrowing from Indian culture.

I look back at all of this in my thirties. And, man, that was messed up.

To crystallize the issue, consider the very seal of Whitesboro—the village that lends the school district its name (though the middle school and the administration building—not the high school or any of the elementary schools actually fall within Whitesboro proper). It portrays a white man strangling an Indian. Conquering the primitive savage. Establishing the reign of white people.

I have heard attempts at retconning this image. Claiming it portrays a white man and an Indian in good-spirited competition. That it all comes back to wrestling. But when we look at something so basic as the nomenclature of Whitesboro, I don’t buy it. Boro—a shortening of borough, an area, region, or township. Whites—there’s not an apostrophe, though I think you could argue it’s implied, and thus the borough belongs to white people; alternatively, it establishes the plurality of white people in this village, and the implicit exclusion of people of any other color.

To put a finer point on it, I remember a downtown, outdoor concert that I attended with my father, the summer between sixth and seventh grades. The Orleans—most famous for “Still The One” played on stage. As I transitioned into full-fledged adolescence, I imagined that one of my crushes from school might come to the concert, too, and hold my hand or rest a head on my shoulder.

I remember the tinny sound of the band over an aged speaker system. I remember the smell of beer—it seemed like every adult except for my father had a clear plastic cup of it, drinking sloshing foam over the brim as they danced, offering friends and wives dollar bills for them to buy another cup so they wouldn’t lose their spots in the crowd.

My father, a full-blooded Chinese man, stood out amidst a crowd of white faces. A pot-bellied, red-bearded man in a plain white t-shirt, stained in smudges of tan and brown, dirt and beer, made his way toward him and asked my father, “Are you one of those Indians?”

My father responded that he was Chinese.

The man looked back to his buddies, five or six of them in a row behind us, and made the A-OK sign with his fingers. “He’s a Chinaman.” He turned back to my father. “I was going to ask you how you felt about all this shit at the reservation.”

This shit at the reservation referred to the still-new Turning Stone Casino that a Native American tribe had opened on a reservation in Verona, a half hour drive away. A point of controversy for the gambling culture that it fostered in the area, not to mention that they didn’t charge the state sales tax, which gave them an advantage over local gas stations, restaurants, and retailers—a hot topic of debate in the local media.

I don’t remember what my father said in response—only that he smiled and laughed and kept his answers short. I don’t suspect he shared that he was, himself, a gambler who had taken to visiting the casino on a weekly basis. I suspect he kept things more neutral and to the point. Before long, the bearded man walked away.

I don’t know what would have happened had my father identified himself as Indian, or had he declined to disclose his background. As an eleven-year-old who was prone to both worry and to concocting dramatic stories in my mind, I foresaw the worst. A vocal argument at the least. The potential for fight, or, given the man-advantage, a beating.

I don’t hate my hometown. Despite having little interest in returning to live in Utica, New York, I enjoy my stops back to see family and friends, to eat the local delicacies, to wander through my old stomping grounds. I don’t even look back on my high school years with the sort of distaste that a lot of people as nerdy as myself might—there was a lot that I enjoyed about my school life by the time I reached my last couple years there.

But I also remember those smaller moments and bigger messages, embedded in the place where I was born and raised. The more I reflect, the more I realize, and the more I accept that I can never truly go home.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Meditation on Tattoos

I spent years on Meddletown.

I wrote a four-hundred-page manuscript my senior year of high school. A story of androids and love and betrayals. The promises of dystopia and maybe an apocalypse.

In a moment of striking maturity, I realized I wasn’t ready to do this novel justice and elected to table it over my college years. After college, I returned to it, faithfully. I recognized half of the manuscript was crap, and slashed and rewrote. I showed it to a professor I had bonded with at the university where I worked next, and he made vague and sweeping recommendations that led to the next major overhaul after I had moved to Baltimore.

I rewrote it. And I rewrote it. And I rewrote it.

The concept of the decagon became central--a ten-sided figure with hugely complicated ramifications that are too specific to justify a full explanation here. Rest assured, it was an integral part of the android technology that I wrote about, and doubled as a symbol for resistance to what amounted to a campaign for robots to replace humans, to the point that members of the secret resistance corps marked their skin with decagon tattoos.

Around this same time, I reached the point in life when people start asking one another about tattoos. There’s a period in my late twenties when it became less in vogue to actively show ink, as opposed to allusions that you had it, but it was covered on the back of a shoulder on a hip or a thigh. Sometimes it was a hint to more going on in someone’s life than meets the surface, sometimes a tease in a flirtatious exchange about such a tattoo not being visible now, with the implication it might be visible to you at another time.

Thus it came into fashion to ask if someone had any tattoos.

When I answered no, the follow-up questions tended to fall somewhere along the spectrum of why not? and well, if you did have one, what would you get?

My default (and true) answer was that I didn’t have an aversion to tattoos, but I also didn’t feel confident enough in my love of anything that I would have feel comfortable branding my skin with it. I can only imagine the Creed lyrics or pro wrestling slogans or symbols I might bear had I been pressed to choose the subject of a tattoo at any given point in my past. I’ve cited the example of a friend, who at one point badly wanted a tattoo of a bowling pin to symbolize his love of that sport.

A veritable sea of hypothetical regret.

In regards to what tattoo I would have gotten, I came to respond with the decagon. A manifestation of my commitment to the Meddletown project over the course of a decade, not to mention a symbolic reference to my own work, replicating a symbol from it in the real world. I even thought to myself that, if the novel were to see the light of day and achieve any noteworthy success, that might be the occasion to actually get the tattoo.

Of course, in reality, the novel still wasn’t working. I tabled the project again—this time, perhaps, for good, given my level of pleasant surprise at how many other, objectively better, creative projects opened up for me after I put that one on the shelf.

Still, I think of the tattoo every now and again. I consider former pro wrestler CM Punk, one of my favorites, who went on record to say that he pitied anyone without tattoos because it means they don’t believe in anything as deeply as he does. Amidst a field of ink that litters his hands and arms and chest and back, one of the most prominent a completely un-ironic Pepsi logo over his left shoulder that represents not only his enjoyment of the soft drink but his straight edge lifestyle.

I think of my fiancee’s tattoo of the word “breathe” as a reminder to take a deep breath when life gets to be too much, that she translated into a very visual reminder for kids who had trouble resisting the urge to express themselves with their fists at camp. I think of my friend with a tattoo that looks like a stamp from the post office, denoting her hometown, love of writing, and sense of nostalgia for an era of sending letters in one compact space above her heart. I think of any number of esoteric symbols on other friends, to denote inside jokes, pop culture references, and important moments in their lives. Names. Dates. Faces.

And then I land back on the Jordin Sparks song, “Tattoo.” Saccharine, cliché pop music, exactly the likes of which one might expect from an American Idol winner, that repeats, “just like a tattoo, I’ll always love you.” The appropriation of something cool and personal to translate into some both popular and fundamentally uncool. How quickly the meaning of the word tattoo might change, let alone any given tattoo itself.

And so, my skin remains unmarked for now, save for birthmarks and a handful of scars, most of them too small or to faded to spot without close inspection. I may tattoo my body one day, but still await that word, symbol, or moment that I not only believe in or find worthy, but that feels befitting a permanent mark all its own.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Under Golden Arches

I have a lot of good memories of my maternal grandmother. Memories of playing out the elaborate fantasies my sister and I had constructed, centered on epic sword fights and saving damsels in distress. Memories of Pinochle and Scrabble and Canasta. Memories of her reading my first attempts at creative writing while I looked on, eager for praise.

Memories of Happy Meals, Quarter Pounders with Cheese, and hot fudge sundaes.

In the house where Grandma lived in my earliest memories, she was a quarter mile from the nearest McDonald’s. Some of my earliest memories, thus, were of my sister her, and I making the journey there for an afternoon snack. My grandmother, who must not have eaten lunch those days, always ordered the Quarter Pounder. My sister and I stuck to ice cream, and occasionally French fries. One fateful day I decided that I wanted a cheeseburger—typically an entrée, absurd to think of as a snack. And to our collective shock and awe, Grandma thought that was fine.

I remember running ahead of my grandmother on the walk home, despite her calling after me that I shouldn’t and complaints afterward that I could have been hit by a car. She didn’t stay angry for long, if she had gotten angry at all, though. That’s the thing about Grandma, and about that period in my life, and these first trips to McDonald’s. There’s nothing to taint them. As much as I was a moody and sensitive little boy—prone to tears and tantrums—I recall all of this as feeling like treats, unmitigated by any perceived slights or outbursts. I remember not aspiring to anything greater than those walks, than those fatty, fried indulgences.

*

The summer before I left for college, I needed a job. My previous gig, folding sweaters and working the cash register at a discount clothing store had fallen through when I would only agree to work weekend hours during the school year and so the manager stopped giving me hours at all. I filed applications at other mall shops and at local grocery stores, but nothing panned out—fair enough given I was really only looking for about two months of work.

Finally, I applied at McDonald’s.

I went for an interview, clad in a button up shirt and khakis. I even brought a resume which, at my father’s insistence, included my SAT scores, which I recall Debbie the manager raising her eyebrows at, maybe because they were relatively impressive, but just as likely because literally no one had ever shared their standardized test performance at a McDonald’s job interview before.

I got the job and started on a Monday morning at 8 a.m.

I’ve never been a morning person and had yet to discover the virtues of coffee at that point, so I recall starting work pretty bleary eyed. What followed over that morning and for a week or two of mornings thereafter were some of the most miserable times of my life. It was hot and everything smelled of grease or the bleach-based disinfectant we sprayed over counters and trays under the mantra, “If there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean.” I grew particularly discouraged after a morning of so often being told that the wrapper on particular breakfast sandwiches was wrong and it was really this one, that I started grabbing sandwiches at random to give out to customers, only for them to one-by-one come back and complain, only for the manager on duty to give me an earful about giving out the wrong food to the wrong people.

But things settle. I got to know the menu, the register, and the functions of the job. I acclimated myself, alternately, to early mornings and late nights. I got to the know the regulars—the old man who always brought home coffee for himself and his ailing wife; another old man who made a habit of making a mess by pouring of half his coffee into a the lobby trash receptacle; my old pediatrician who didn’t offer any suggestion he remembered who I was; a firefighter and his wife who not-so-good-spiritedly joked that if we didn’t get their order together fast enough, they might not be able to put out the next fire they were on their way to and what if that next house is yours?

I found a certain kind of peace there, not just that summer but coming back to work over winter break and spring break, then for the few weeks before I started my summer camp job year after year after year. There was something to be said the physical tiring of being on your feet for an eight hour shift, the satisfaction of having cleaned out Playland, the occasional nicety from a customer who was willing to break the script of exchanging pleasantries and making their order in favor of asking where I went to school and what I was studying and what I intended to do with my life.

And over breaks, I indulged in Big Macs.

*

In Baltimore, I lived less than a half-mile from a McDonald’s for a period of years, and found myself placing an order at their front counter about once a month. An impatient traveling salesman once told me, as we waited, that he had been to McDonald’s locations all along the east coast and this was the worst of them.

I wanted to tell him that they were probably trying their hardest.

My next stop, in Oregon, the nearest McDonald’s was a mile or more away from any of my day-to-day business and my apartment, and I only made it over once, for an afternoon of eating Big Macs and grading student papers.

As I left, I thought to myself that that was what McDonald’s ought to have been.

Let’s be clear—I hold no illusions about McDonald’s being a good company. They sell objectively unhealthy food at prices cheap enough to seem like bargains to consumers but high enough to still achieve a staggering profit. They underpay workers. They hurt local businesses by using the scale of their operation to out-market and under-price goods relative to the competition.

And yet, when taken in extreme moderation, Big Macs, French fries, two-for-a-dollar apple pies, and Shamrock Shakes are good for the soul—my soul, at least. They take me back to summer afternoon with grandmother. They take me back to my first honest days of work and the first paychecks I earned. And, oh hell, I’ll confess that I’m sucker for every excess grain of salt and speck of grease and that confounded secret sauce.

It’s all horrible for me—not least of all that I can genuinely, and without irony link such nostalgia to this most consumerist of junk food, oft-marketed based on this very principle of manufactured memory.

But still…

If I’m going to be honest, I can’t resist the trap.

I’m lovin’ it.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Breakfast with Beatles

Back in my hometown there was a radio station that dedicated itself to Beatles music on Sunday mornings. Maybe it was just an hour long show—maybe two—but through a child’s lenses, it felt as though it lasted an eternity, or at least the length of a full morning.

Growing up, Sundays were for visiting Grandma. We went to her house post-lunch for an afternoon of playing cards and drinking sodas, followed by a family dinner. More often than not, it was my favorite day of the week.

For some period of years that didn’t start until late elementary school or middle school, and that ended without my noticing (probably after I started sleeping in on Sundays until eleven or noon), we listened to The Beatles.

I remember the smell of pancake batter cooking over a skillet. My father stood poised over them. We never really ate pancakes all together, but rather in an imperfect rotation. Hot off the stove, onto plates, doused in syrup--my mother drizzled hers, my father soaked his. Two pancakes for my sister, then two for me, then two for Mom, sometimes a second round for each of us if there was enough to go around. All of this against a backdrop of Beatles. I remember “Obla Di Obla Da,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” and “Yellow Submarine.” The silly Beatles songs. But there must have been some ballads, too.

Sometime in my mid-twenties, in-between relationships, a little nostalgic for these years gone by, and settling into waking up earlier not out of obligation, but out of habit, I would listen to these songs again while I made my own pancakes. “In My Life”--a song my grandmother called her favorite, that still always reminds me of her. “I Am The Walrus,” which I still remember my mother introducing to me later in my childhood musical education as a selection from the weird Beatles catalog. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” and “ “With A Little Help From My Friends” the opening tracks of the Sgt. Pepper album, the first Beatles album that I experienced in its entirety; the audio cassette I ferreted from the living room collection into my private stash of music so that it would always be accessible to me, so that I could claim some ownership over it because, at the time, it felt as though that mattered. “I Will” and “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”--these were the Beatles songs that grew into my favorites as the band’s sound came to represent to me much more than the silly fun of a Sunday morning, but rather an amalgamation of beauty and love and loss and nostalgia and recognizing that all of these sensations bound together represent something fundamentally good.

I recall a weekend my mother came to visit me in Baltimore. I meant to take her to one of my favorite restaurants in my neighborhood—The Golden West Café—for Sunday morning breakfast, but on scanning the menu online, we discovered that every option that might appeal to her was also soaked in egg. She had, at middle age, developed an egg allergy. So we stayed put. I ran out to the store to buy a box of pancake mix and made breakfast for the both of us.

I don’t know if she caught it when I hummed “Yesterday” as I turned over one pancake and the let raw side begin to sizzle. It was good a Sunday morning.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sara Bareilles Stories

I love Sara Bareilles.

An overstatement, perhaps, for a woman I don’t really know and don’t ever really expect to. She has emerged as my favorite contemporary solo artist of the past five years. I love her music. I love the persona that she puts out in the world.

But I came to her slowly.

The first time I heard Sara Bareilles play, she was opening for Counting Crows at an end-of-summer show in an outdoor amphitheater in Northern Virginia. I had heard “Love Song” on the radio and had a passing familiarity with some of the other songs because my girlfriend at the time, who was always a little ahead of the curve on budding pop stars had played her music in our apartment a bit in the five month interlude between its release and the point when I moved away.

I liked Sara at that show. I remember thinking that “Many The Miles” was a good journey song, and finding the rest of her set inoffensive if not exactly awe inspiring as I waited for my favorite band to take the stage.

Ironically, it was Counting Crows that brought me back to Sara two years later, after that relationship had come to an end, and as I broached an emotional nadir in the aftermath of the relationship to follow that. I remember house and cat sitting for two friends while they were on vacation. I remember driving along the sludgy streets of Hampden and listening to a bootleg version of the Crows playing “A Long December.” And I remember when Adam Duritz slipped out of the “na-na-na-na”s that end his song, into a series of “love, love, loves” as he began to sample Sara’s “Bottle It Up.”

I didn’t know that the song was “Bottle It Up” that time, but I remember staying in the car and driving around the block an extra time to just re-experience that transition into that song, knowing I’d heard the song, abstractly aware that it might be a Sara Bareilles song, though I could have easily been swayed if someone trustworthy had insisted it were Vanessa Carlton or Ingrid Michaelson. When I did go inside, I Googled furiously to determine what the second song was. Try Googling “love love love” or “I do it for love”—it takes a while to zero in on this particular song based on those clues.

So I found more of Sara’s music. I learned that she had sung with her college a cappella group and grew more fascinated, in particular with “Gravity,” which she wrote in college and had won awards singing the solo on with her group at UCLA. Not long after, she joined the judging panel on The Sing-Off and became the near-perfect quirky, infinitely likable complement to my pre-existing favorite solo artist, Ben Folds.

On one of her final episodes on the show, Sara joined one of the groups to perform her new single “Gonna Get Over You.” I was hooked. Just to shore up my fanhood once and for all, Sara Tweeted to all of her followers a funky little video I had recorded for The A Cappella Blog about why NBC should renew The Sing-Off.

I started downloading every Sara Bareilles song I could find. First every studio recording. Then miscellaneous YouTube bootleg stuff.

By the time, The Blessed Unrest came out, I needed no convincing to make the purchase on iTunes. I devoured the album. Fell in deep and profound love with “Manhattan,” yes, but also espoused “Chasing The Sun” as a de facto anthem for my summer, and particularly an end of summer trip down the California coastline, during which I both jumped out of a plane and made an impromptu drive down to San Diego to go on a first date with my eventual wife, Heather.

Then I fell for “I Choose You.” In one of our many Skype conversations in the months to follow, Heather and I talked a lot about the many ways in which things probably shouldn’t be working for us--her in southern California, me working in Baltimore. We talked about how everything from our first choice to go on dinner dates over a video feed, to taking cross country flights to visit with one another for a week at a time were all about choices. And I sent her a link to a live, acoustic version of Sara performing this song.

Heather loved it, too. We established our song, and said that if we ever got married, that would be the one we would have our first dance to.

We made good on that.

But while we were engaged and before we got married, I had the opportunity to meet Sara. She published a book of personal essays and went on a tour of major bookstores for signings. While Heather was away visiting friends, I made the drive from Corvallis to Portland to see her at Powell’s.

I arrive at around 2:30 for the 4 p.m. signing, only to see signs posted that the line would start forming at 12. I suspected I might be screwed, but, to my good fortune, there weren’t more than a hundred people ahead of me. So, like so many others, I took a seat on the floor for the wait. Unlike many others, I took out the the students' assignments I'd brought with me and set to grading.

At 3:30, I heard cheering. Sara had gotten set up early, and just out of sight from where I waited around a corner and behind two rows of bookcases.

But the line moved quickly--largely a credit to the hyper-organized Powell’s staff that had everyone fill out Post-It notes with their names and leave them hanging out to mark the title page of the book to make it all the easier for Sara to sign quickly. There were no posed photographs allowed, but there were personnel in place to take phones and take candid shots of each fan talking with Sara for a few seconds while she signed.

It came to my turn in line. We shook hands. I told her my name was Mike.

She smiled. “I’m Sara.”

Ordinarily, when I write about celebrities, my history in journalism and critical writing compels me to address them by last name. But in that moment--that objectively absurd moment when Sara so humanly felt compelled to introduce herself, even though I not only knew her name, but had waited for nearly two hours to have the chance to say hi to her--she gave me her first name, as if we were to be friends. Thus, I’ve felt compelled to use it.

I’ve met a handful of celebrities in situations like this--formal events in which you’ve got at most a minute to talk, to take them in, to make any sort of impression. I’ve learned not to put too much stock in such encounters. The wait in line is inevitably longer than the interaction itself, and there’s very little possibility of leaving an impression on someone who’s shaking hands with a few hundred strangers that day.

Years earlier, I had read in a review of The Blessed Unrest that “I Choose You” was destined to become a wedding song for the masses. Case in point, unbeknownst to me, my own best friend and his wife played it for their wedding a year before my own. It wasn’t a nuanced or terribly original choice. Still, I had the inkling it could mean something to Sara that day, in that bookstore.

“I’m sure you hear this a lot,” I said as she focused on the page, copying “Heather and Mike” from my Post-It. “But my fiancée are going to have our first dance to ‘I Choose You’ at our wedding. And I just thought you should know how much your music means to both of us.”

She looked up at me again. “When are you getting married.”

I told her it was a year out. She stuck her tongue out a little and smiled as she turned back to the page, signing her name, a peace sign, and a heart. “Well, I’m going write a note to congratulate to the two of you.”

It wasn’t much. A literal “Congrats!!” in the space between names. Still, it felt like a little something extra--like maybe in the sea of faces and names from that afternoon and the rest of her tour, Sara probably wouldn’t be able to pick me from a line up, but she might remember and feel heartened by the mention of one more pair of fans who not only celebrated her music, but made it a part of one of the most important days of their lives. Who got the impact of choice in love.

I devoured Sara’s book, Sounds Like Me in the week to follow. It‘s a surprisingly sad meditation on issues of self-esteem, body issues, and finding oneself as an artist. It’s arguably all the more effective for all of that melancholy and insecurity getting couched within what is, at heart, a success story. Sara's not only a survivor, but a thriver. An artist who found her voice and ended up reaching millions.

We can’t all be Saras in the literal sense of Grammy nominations, top ten hits on the Billboard charts, and crossover success as songwriters and essayists and part-time Broadway stars. But we can make art and find beauty out of experiences that might have felt like failures at the time. We can make choices. We can do it for love. We can be brave.

I could go on. But just as the forgettable opening act for a band I liked more became one of my favorites in her own right, and the type of star I would drive out of town and wait for the opportunity to meet, whose music I would obsess over, whose book I would push to the front of reading queue to indulge in--well, who knows what any of us might one day become?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Keep On Dancing

I like dancing.

But I didn’t always.

Like the majority of adolescent boys, I didn’t come to dancing with any recognizable skill out of the chute. I was self-conscious about my skinny body and my less than perfect rhythm. Moreover, there’s the sheer action associated with dancing. Speaking up in class is a courageous act: putting your ideas and your voice up for the public scrutiny of a classroom of peers--friends, enemies, and crushes alike--besides the judgment of the teacher as to whether your ideas have any merit. But dancing is so much more. Putting your body, flailing limbs and all, on display in an effort to move with feigned confidence and demonstrate your athleticism, your cool, perhaps even your sex appeal.

That’s a lot to consider putting out into the world in the seventh grade.

So, the first dances I went to in middle school, I did not dance. I did, through an elaborate network of friends asking for me, ask several girls to dance (no dice) but rarely ventured onto the dancefloor myself, or when I did it was more often than not to comedic effect--imitating the head-banging motions of Beavis and Butthead or doing the sprinkler. Safe moves, because I was in on the joke, and I wasn’t supposed to look good so much as I conjured images of other people being funny.

Then I went away to camp.

When I discuss the social benefits of my summers with the Center for Talented Youth, it’s become a go-to anecdote to recall the first time I slow danced girl, and more particularly to recall that awkward transition in “Stairway To Heaven” from soft meditation to electric rock and roll song. (For fans of Freaks and Geeks, you might recognize my plight in Sam’s first dance with Cindy Saunders, to “Come Sail Away.”)

Dancing with a girl felt momentous at the time, and it’s a good hook for a quick anecdote. But in retrospect, those Friday and Saturday nights at CTY were about more than a coming of age moment when it came to sexuality or romance. What stands out even more is the recollection of bobbing up and down and from side to side in a circle of friends, in which not one of us could really, objectively dance that well, and not one of us really, objectively cared. I remember that last dance of my first summer there and a sense of pride at having danced to every single song that night.

And the enthusiasm did transfer to my year-round life, where I started to dance more. I was rarely the one to start a circle at a middle school or high school dance, but there was more than one time when I was the second or third party in, or the first boy to do so--a fact that never ceased to surprise my friends who knew me to be quieter and more serious than all of that.

The dam truly broke for me when, in my junior year, one of the dances hosted a lip synch contest. I developed a full-on routine and choreography to Stroke 9’s “Little Black Backpack,” practiced on a daily basis, and signed up to compete. The night of the show, I recall friends expressing their doubts, certain I was about to embarrass myself and, in the same breath saying they would perform with me but they didn’t know the song at all--code for, if I wasn’t going to bail, they sure as hell weren’t going down with the sinking ship.

In my mind, the lip synch performance was great. Epic. All the swagger of a rock n roll star, amplified by the fact that no one knew I had that performance in me.

To my knowledge, no video of this performance exists, so I can’t watch it with a more objective eye. That said, when I think back on it, I really can’t imagine that it was objectively great. I can remember that moment when a hundred other kids started clapping along, though. That there were screams and hollers of support in all of the key moments I had planned as high spots in the performance. That a rush of people--some of whom I had considered friends, and some of whom I had not--came at me as I posed at the song’s finish, with hugs and high fives—about the closest I ever got to a high school movie moment of triumph. I had won the big game, danced with the prom queen, punched out the bully. All of that sentiment wrapped up into four minutes of dancing and the immediate aftermath.

That moment had a lot less to do with dancing well than what I like to think was a manifestation of everyone’s inner geek and everyone’s inner exhibitionist. That moment of letting go of the fear of looking foolish in favor of doing something bold, incredibly un-cool (when you consider the cumulative hours of preparatory work for a performance at a high school dance) and, perhaps most importantly, fun.

This is the lesson, so obvious, and yet so hard to believe in at the moment of action. The overwhelming number of settings in which dance would naturally play a part, no one cares how anyone else looks dancing--if anything, they’re worried about themselves. After the moment has passed, when a person gets in the groove, dancing is irresistibly fun. But prior to that moment, in making a conscious decision about whether or not to get on the dance floor at that bar or that wedding or that party, it can feel like the world.

I’ve never seen the movie, We Bought A Zoo, but there’s a particular line from the trailer that I’ve loved since the first time I heard it, in the dark of a theater, waiting watch another film:

“all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

Strip away Matt Damon talking to his movie-son. The logic applies to any range of situations from the decision to buy a zoo to asking someone out to dinner. To the choice to dance.

Dancing isn’t for everybody or every situation. But I dare say that it’s for a lot more people and a lot more situations than people care to admit on a day-to-day basis. It can mean the difference between blending in and standing out. Between a moment you look back on with regret and a moment of triumph. Between being too cool, or too old, or too professional, and having the time of your life.

It starts with that moment of courage. It can lead to a whole lot more.