Sunday, January 26, 2020

Moving the Chains

There’s an expression in football about “moving the chains.” The idea is that the distance a team needs for a down is measured by two posts with a ten-yard chain stretched between them. To move the chains is to maintain possession by advancing up the field toward the end zone.

This terminology isn’t new or groundbreaking. In fact, I expect that more than half the people reading that first paragraph have responded with a great big “duh” regarding the statement of the obvious. Unlike those of you who grew up football fans, or even players, I learned about moving the chains in my mid-twenties. I’d both never been interested in football, and been more stubbornly opposed to the sport in my younger days for viewing it as a part of a larger jock culture I never fit into. I spent most of my twenties working in an office and hanging out in social circles that did watch the sport, however, and paid particularly close attention to the NFL. Indeed, living in Baltimore, I’d even go so far as to say that I got in on the excitement to a degree those seasons when the hometown team thrived.

So it was that bought a copy of Football for Dummies on the hope that I might educate myself enough to not just passively watch along those times when a social gathering was centered on a game, but remedially learn what was actually going on on the field.

I read the book, but not all that much stuck. I went to get-togethers to watch games, but never enjoyed the football nearly as much as the company or food, and in time started passing on invitations, reckoning I could re-purpose that time to work on projects or, you know, watch something I actually liked.

Moving the chains stuck with me.

Moving the chains became a metaphor for writing five hundred words a day to eventually arrive at a novel, and a metaphor I’ve used in my teaching to suggest how the reticent reader might get through a book, or the nascent writer might compile a five-page essay. It’s sort of beautiful in its simplicity and effective in its accessibility, particularly to people who don’t otherwise connect with my experience or the way my mind works.

It’s concepts like moving the chains that I think make me want to like football--the hard work embodied to learn the intricacies of the game, and the inspiration of someone breaking tackles and streaking down a field to score.

I suspect it’s for all of these reasons that I like football movies a lot more than I like watching actual football games.

Rudy. Remember the Titans. Varsity Blues. The Longest Yard. Jerry Maguire. When Heather and I moved in together, she laughed at me for my tradition of watching football movies on Super Bowl Sunday, and I’ll be the first to admit that it is a silly habit. Sure, someone can like these movies without much liking football, but going so far as to watch them so consciously in place of the biggest football game of the year? It reads as contrarian and silly--not unlike Dawson Leary proposing a screening of Pretty in Pink on the night of the school dance to escape real life experience via the comfort of his bedroom TV.

But I rarely play a football movie just the for the sake of watching it. My DVD collection is too large to naturally gravitate toward them, and that’s when I go so far as to pull out a DVD, rather than settling for the marginally even-more-convenient choice of streaming something on Netflix or Hulu. So, Super Bowl Sunday invites a return to these forgotten favorites and all that they carry with them.

I’ll be darned if I don’t tear up when Rudy finally gets to run out onto the field for a late-in-the-game play, the last opportunity he’ll have his senior year at Notre Dame.

When James Van Der Beek, recast as an underdog quarterback (a poor man’s Friday Night Lights riff), challenges his teammates to play the second half of the big game on behalf of the rest of their lives to come, it pumps up not only the young men on screen, but me at home, too.

When Cuba Gooding Jr. finds the good in himself in his love for not only the coin, but the quan after surviving a career-threatening collision unscathed--well, I feel a little bit like dancing and calling out everyone I’ve ever known, too.

So enjoy your big game next Sunday if you’re so inclined. The older I've grown, the more I’ve realized the futility, if not backwardness of trying to deprive anyone else of what brings them joy. But as for me, as time allows, I’ll pick away at an old favorite movie, knowing just how the chains will move before I press play.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Skywalkers And Me

Spoiler Alert: If you’re among that small body of people who have both not seen Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker (or other films from the trilogy for that matter) and would care about spoilers, fair warning that there are some in this post and you may not want to read on until you’ve caught up.

I’m not a hardcore fan of very many things. Though I’ve read the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings books and seen the movies, I couldn’t tell you with much confidence the names of specific background characters or battles. Even for those things that I would edge more toward declaring myself a hardcore fan of, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’m more an expert on specific, favorite episodes than the series on the whole--there are dozens of episodes I probably haven’t seen more than two or three times, or in the last decade. Sure, you can say I’m hardcore about professional wrestling, and that’s probably pretty fair for WWE, but though I know more about WCW, ECW, AWA, AEW, TNA, ROH, NJPW, and a handful other promotions with their own acronyms than most people reading this blog, there are no doubt a lot of people I’d readily admit have watched a lot more and know a lot more about these other promotions and wrestling on the whole than yours truly.

So, let’s talk about Star Wars. Like a lot of kids from my and adjacent generations, I grew up with the original trilogy. I was born a few months after Return of the Jedi first hit theaters and in a time when VCRs became commonplace in American homes, I was well-positioned to watch the movies young and then re-watch them until they became a part of the canon of my childhood. I’ll maintain that it’s a consequence of my youth that RotJ was my favorite of the series, and remains my sentimental favorite to this day, even if I’ll acknowledge that The Empire Strikes Back is objectively a stronger film.

The second trilogy rolled out when I was in high school. I didn’t see it in theaters and in that era when the Internet was a thing but not yet an omnipresent force, I mostly avoided spoilers of any consequence before seeing The Phantom Menace via video rental.

I didn’t like it.

I’d loathe Attack of the Clones even more, to the extent that I didn’t bother seeing it until a solid three or four years after it came out, when I rented the DVD via Netflix, and only after a friend had told me it was good enough to redeem the prequel trilogy.

It wasn’t. Though it wasn’t as awful as Attack of the Clones and I suppose it was marginally better than Phantom Menace I still found it pretty bad, and had no desire to watch it a second time.

These pauses and the fact that I hadn’t seen a single Star Wars film in a theater until 2014 probably affirms to those who actually are hardcore fans where I fall in the hardcore pecking order for this series. (And, no, I never read Expanded Universe books or watched The Clone Wars).

I did watch The Force Awakens in the theater, though, and probably would have gone to have seen The Last Jedi, too, had its release not so closely coincided with the birth of my son and onset parental responsibility, exhaustion, etc.

I made a by-now rare trip to the movies see The Rise of Skywalker, in no small part because it’s the kind of film big and ubiquitous enough that dodging spoilers was a minefield--not to mention that it was a movie bound to have its big space shoot-outs and as such, one that was best taken in on a big screen. I walked in with limited expectations, owing to a chorus of voices on social media that had mostly panned the film.

But I liked it.

One of the reasons I hesitate to call myself even a hardcore wrestling fan--despite the volume of hours spread across decades that I’ve spent watching the product, in addition to reading and writing about it, is that I still want to enjoy the show more than I want to critique it. So it is that I’ll forgive flaws in a match like Seth Rollins vs. Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam 2019 in favor of loving the overarching story of the undersized hero vanquishing the champion who seems to have him beat from every angle. So it is that I was so disappointed in Rollins subsequently losing his world title to Bray Wyatt in a sad slog of a directionless brawl, made literally difficult to watch by red house lights designed to make Wyatt look scary.

To get back to Star Wars, the prequel trilogy was void of fun or inspiration--it was a melodramatic slog toward a conclusion that the original trilogy had already made it quite clear was coming. I get the criticisms of the 2014-2019 trilogy--that it did not so much take chances as fall back on what had worked for Star Wars in the past, with an eye toward celebrating diversity to an extent in a female lead and people of color in other prominent roles.

But as a fan of those original films--as a kid who believed in the Force and imagined light saber duels and space ships firing lasers at one another--I liked these new films a lot.

And maybe that’s what’s best about being a fan first and critic second, or about being one of the mass of semi-serious fans rather than hardcore ones when it comes to seeing a movie like this. Because my heart did race, and my eyes did water when the cavalry arrives to back The Resistance in Exegol. Because I did breathe a sigh of relief when Rei wasn’t dead after beating back The Emperor, let loose a tremor of nostalgic laughter when Ewoks celebrate from Endor, and felt all was right when Rei took on her surname in the closing moments of the film. Yes, I could see most of these moments coming once the machinations of the screenplay were in motion and knowing the logic of Star Wars films. But for my viewing, there was something that felt less like a problematically predictable film in these instances than a sense of familiarity that comes when interacting with an old friend--a family member, even--doing things the way they’ve always done them.

So it was I left The Rise of Skywalker satisfied. Maybe, even, with a sense of renewed faith.

To close this post, because so many are doing it, and because of course I have an opinion, my ranking of Star Wars films, looking at the trilogies only (full disclosure, I still haven’t seen Solo and though I liked Rogue One a great deal, I only saw it one time, don't remember as well as I'd like, and don’t feel I could fairly rank it at this time).

9. The Attack of the Clones
8. The Phantom Menace
7. The Revenge of the Sith
6. A New Hope
5. The Last Jedi
4. The Rise of Skywalker
3. The Force Awakens
2. The Empire Strikes Back
1. Return of the Jedi

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Seven New Years

Saratoga Springs, NY 2008/2009
It was New Year’s Eve and for the first time in five years, I was truly single--not the promise of a relationship taking shape, not entrenched in a four-year relationship with the woman I used to think I was going to marry. I left her in no small part because I met someone else, and even though that someone else didn’t work out, the experience crystallized that the relationship probably wasn’t right for me in the first place.

It was the second consecutive year I spent New Year’s in Saratoga Springs, where I used to work summers. Removed from the summer sun, it’s an Upstate New York city, complete with blustery cold and enough snow that we almost canceled the trip.

It was me and Scalise. Both single, both with vague ambitions of finding girls to flirt with, and both too conservative and rationally minded to expect anything to come out of it.

In the most memorable moment I made eye contact with an annoying bouncer, who'd been giving us a hard time since we set foot in the dive bar, first for setting our drinks on the edge of the pool table, then for holding our drinks and letting the condensation drip over the felt. We were close to the door and had decided to leave. There were plenty of bodies between us and this bouncer and so it’s not quite so much of a bad-ass gesture as a juvenile prank I knew I wouldn’t face any consequences for when I raised my eyebrows at him and turned what’s left of my bottle of beer upside down into a corner pocket of that precious billiards table, and we headed out to the street.

Out on the street, my breath took shape in clouds and I thought that New Year’s ought to be more than this. That how you spend that last night and first morning of a year ought to be more electric and more fun, not to mention that it ought to say more about who I was. These are all theoretical suppositions--the most fun I’d had at New Year’s at that point are spending the night with my sister and grandmother playing board games when I was much younger, or the years when Scalise and I pigged out on junk food and watched movies in his room.

There had to be more.

Las Vegas, NV 2010/2011
We actualized our New Year’s ambitions. For the first time, I was not in Upstate New York on New Year’s Eve, but out on the glowing neon strip in Las Vegas.

I was miserable.

The idea of Vegas vacation for New Year’s seemed to represent limitless potential. Adventure. Escapades. Drinking and dancing in the street, because it’s all not only legal, but to be expected in this city.

But this trip became a cautionary tale. The northeast winter got my first flight canceled, and forced the choice between re-booking at an exorbitant rate or letting the vacation go. Had I known that I would fall ill the next morning, I probably would have let the trip go.

Plans made, money invested, I flew across the country far sicker than I should have. Out on the Strip, I waited for midnight to hit not to celebrate, but because then we could justify going back to our hotel, where I could sleep.

Las Vegas, NV 2011/2012
This was a do-over. A chance to get Vegas at New Year’s right, and a different trip altogether because we’re joined by our girlfriends. Our relationships were both still new a year earlier. They were more solid now in a sense--Scalise, with the woman he would end up marrying. My girlfriend at the time--I had my doubts.

But we went out for dinners and drinks. We road tripped to and from the Grand Canyon in a day. And when the clock struck twelve to give way to a new year, we were out on the Strip.

I wasn’t sick this time, but still subject to the sensation that there ought to be more than this.

Baltimore, MD 2012/2013
When the year turned over from 1998 to 1999, I hung out alone at home, watching my favorite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on VHS tapes I’d recorded from TV. It was a time when watching boundless television felt like a special treat, and I had a good enough time of it, but left that night thinking I probably ought to spend the holiday with other people from then on.

I finished 2012 single. I’d broken up with the girlfriend of two years back at the end of summer, and had gone on to a high-school-style crush on a woman who wasn’t interested, whom I’d go on to pine after for the months to follow.

I took in this new year alone. For the first time since I had moved to Baltimore at the very end of 2007, I didn’t travel out of state or make any big plans. I watched the night’s episode of Monday Night Raw while building a new Target bookcase for my living room. Around eleven, I poured whiskey into a travel mug and headed outside.

Hampden, my neighborhood, had its own simple celebration of the holiday on 34th Street, still full of houses lit for the holidays (the residents of 34th Street take their residence as a mandate for Christmas cheer and assemble an impressive display). There were crowds and there was a ball dropped. I took all of this in, and remember thinking 2013 would have to be better than 2012.

New Orleans, LA 2013/2014
I tentatively made the decision to leave my job in Baltimore and pursue a Master of the Fine Arts in creative writing after an inspiring trip to visit a friend doing her MFA in 2010. In 2013, things crystallized as I lined up a mentor to guide me through the process, took the GRE, and established the foundation to actually apply.

Things shifted when I got together with Heather, at the end of summer 2013. My vision shifted from leaving everything and everyone behind to start a new life on my own to building a life with Heather--a still new relationship, transported to a new locale.

Nothing was for certain yet, as I’d only started to send in applications at the end of 2013. But things with Heather grew more sure-footed. We were long distance, but had made a habit of Skype dates, and had good visits in Baltimore and San Diego.

That brings us to New Orleans.

In a throwaway Skype conversation, Heather floated the idea of going down to the Big Easy, where I’d never been, and she’d most recently gone with an ex in a trip that took a turn for the worse. What started as a hypothetical quickly transformed into a concrete plan. The both of us would later claim we were, at best, half serious, before the other did some egging on, research, and booking.

In New Orleans, I feasted on local delicacies--gumbo, jambalaya, Beignets. We drank hurricanes. We took in the new year outdoors on Bourbon Street, before finishing the night with a stop at a dive with a sign claiming to have the best hamburgers in the world--a claim I was too willing to believe, drunk at two in the morning.

The burger wass OK.

I was happy.

San Diego, CA 2014/2015
Heather and I lived in Oregon, and the end of the year was a whirlwind. At the semester break, we flew across the country to tour Upstate New York, where she met my mom, my dad, my sister and brother in law, and series of my closest friends, some of whom I hadn’t even been able to meet up with myself in close to a decade.

Then we flew to San Diego for New Year’s.

Across this trip, I’d had the ring in my bag. The New York leg of the trip felt like preparation, sort of a greatest hits tour of showing her the people and places I’m from. When we got back to California, there was some sense of symmetry. For San Diego is where we had our first date, and the west coast at large is where we started our life together in earnest.

At the approximate spot where we had our first kiss, I got down on one knee to propose.

The rest of the trip had its ups and downs in an unexpectedly long trip to Tijuana, in a night out for New Year’s Eve itself spent with friends of friends, and a shared impulse that we might have been just as well staying in the hotel and watching Ghost on cable.

Still, this New Year’s carried with it a sense of more momentous change than most, as if a new year may actually promise a new life.

Covington, GA 2017/2018

We were parents.

After a period of trying to become pregnant, after unemployment, after an uncertain year of moving a lot, and after a worry-riddled pregnancy, our son arrived.

Two weeks in and we were exhausted.

It turns out those early days of having a child are full as exactly the worries, stress, and long hours everyone talks about. We were both run ragged for two weeks of not sleeping more than three hours at a stretch.

We spent New Year’s Eve with neighbors Heather knew from work. Our hosts had a son, too, the smiliest five year old I’ve ever met, whom they claimed was an ill-tempered terror his first six months. It’s some reassurance of a happier future. They fed us from a casserole, and offer us another to take home.

That preceding November, Taylor Swift’s new album, Reputation dropped, and while it wasn’t her most popular or critically acclaimed work, I liked it, and particularly liked the last track, “New Year’s Day,” with its “Auld Lang Syne” vibes and refrain of, “I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day.” The lyrics are about a faithful friend and maybe romantic partner--the one who will reliably be there for not just the party, but clean up on the day after.

There was little overlap between Swift’s ethos and our lives as new parents, but that line about bottles rang true as life as a three-person unit took hold, and those waking moments alone consisted of practical matters like loading the washing machine, picking up groceries, or--yes--cleaning up our son’s bottles.

And this was life. Not aspiring to some grand social experience I’d never realize, no one night stand, no flight to Las Vegas (besides when we moved there a year and a half later). It was the start of something not only new, but permanent.

And happy.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

My 2019 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.

1. "Forever on Your Side" by NEEDTOBREATHE
I'll cop to first hearing this song in a WWE-produced tribute video to the late "Mean" Gene Okerlund. Those odd origins aside, I liked the folksy sound of it and remember listening to this song a good bit as life seemed to take a turn for the better. We were settled in our life in Georgia, and late 2018 had seen not one, but two book deals come through. I'd played with scheduling to get back in the habit of a regular gym regimen, and even landed a phone interview for a job I'd applied to on a lark over the winter break.

2. "Shallow" by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
In March, I took my first overnight trip away from my son, to fly across the country from Atlanta to Portland, OR for a whirlwind AWP Conference. It was heartbreaking to be away from Riley for the first time, but I also can't deny a tingle of freedom and ease when the plane reached cruising altitude and I turned to the in-flight entertainment. I chose A Star Is Born, and proceeded to have this song stuck in my head ad nauseam.

3. "One Hand in My Pocket" by Alanis Morissette
This pick is nothing if not anachronistic, but after not listening to this song much for well over a decade, it popped into my head and wound up on a playlist I made just before leaving for Portland. And while Morissette's vocals had the capacity to transport me back much further than when I'd lived in Oregon, listening to this song in my earbuds on the walk from my hotel to the conference center nonetheless became an indelible part of a weekend of reuniting with old friends and talking about writing in Portland.

4. "Eyes on You" by Sara Bareilles
Sara Bareilles grew into becoming my favorite solo artist around 2013 to 2014 with her Blessed Unrest album that I held so dear, and building a greater familiarity with the rest of her catalog in that era. As such, I was pretty excited for the release of a new full-length album Amidst the Chaos, despite feeling awfully underwhelmed with the early-release tracks from it.

I didn't love the album, but "Eyes on You" was a bright spot, and one of the few tracks I found much re-listen value in for its offbeat story and way in which the music progresses.

5. "Shape of Your Hands" by illumaniti hotties
I first heard of illumani hotties via KEXP's song of the day podcast, and though this wasn't the song featured, it quickly became my favorite from the full album for its fresh sound and bittersweet breakup song lyrics. Behind the scenes, the song actually led me to a correspondence with Sarah Tudzin (the lone band member) about potentially using the song for a book trailer. I didn't have the money available to make her people happy, so a deal never materialized. Nonetheless, I love the song and think fondly of spring 2019 on hearing it.

6. "Bad Guy" by Billie Eilish
My students in Georgia--many of them Billie Eilish-crazed--introduced me to this song and its offbeat video. I couldn't deny that it was catchy, and it became one of my favorites of the spring, only to return in the fall a fellow playground visitor played it from his speakers and Riley, too, demonstrated an affinity for it, pausing to bend his knees and dance to the beat.

7. "Stolen" by Dashboard Confessional
I've been known to listen to music to psych myself up before all manner of performance, not least of all including a job interview. Leading up to my campus interview at UNLV, this song came to mind--a totally mellow, saccharine love song that is sort of the antithesis of the harder, louder sound I'd usually take on for that kind of endeavor. However, in listening to it as I walked outside at my old campus in Georgia, the day before flying out to the interview, I discovered not an adrenaline rush, but an overwhelming sense of calm that I carried with me into the interview.

I guess the song worked. I got the job.

8. "All Too Well" by Taylor Swift
I downloaded some new-to-me music in preparation for a cross-country road trip from Georgia to my summer gig in Santa Cruz, California, before we'd move to Las Vegas. Included in this music was Taylor Swift's Red album, which I hadn't had much interest in when it was popular, but since I had become a Swift fan in the years to follow I figured it was worth revisiting.

I liked Red on the whole, but this was by far my favorite track for its conflicted feelings and nostalgia vibes. More than any other song, I link this one to those four days and 2,400 miles alone on the road.

9. "When She Loved Me" by Sarah McLachlan
I accepted a last-minute offer to work CTY summer #20, and with that came the aforementioned solo road trip to get myself and our car across the country, where I'd pick up Heather and Riley from the San Jose airport.

I expected Riley might be a little upset with me after disappearing from his life for five days, after previously only have once been away for three nights, and besides that only going missing overnight once. I wasn't prepared for him to reject me.

He wasn't happy when I greeted them at the airport, a hand-written chauffeur sign for "Mr. Riley" held aloft. He shied away when I tried to touch him, screamed the first time I picked him up, and ran for Heather the first time she went to the bathroom and left him alone with me.

I was heartbroken.

I was heartbroken, not least of all because the job was demanding and in working, conservatively, fifteen-hour days, I didn't have a chance to rebuild our connection much, and began to wonder if things would ever be the same between us. So it was that in a sleep-deprived, professionally exhausted state, I came into the main office where the team worked against a backdrop of a Pandora station of songs from Disney movies, and "When She Loved Me" from Toy Story 2 came on. The words about a beleaguered toy, once the favorite, now ignored by a child who'd outgrown him hit hard--probably harder than they should. When I stopped back at the apartment, I couldn't help myself from crying for a relationship with my son I might've ruined, and the profound guilt than when I'd left him he may have thought I was gone forever.

We got closer again by degrees. Settled in Santa Cruz, he was comfortable going for walks around campus with me when I could steal away from the office for an hour, and back to a more normal pattern in Vegas, we're back to father and son.

I haven't taken that for granted since.

10. "Paper Rings" by Taylor Swift
In Las Vegas, things clicked into place. I was a professor with a good bit of autonomy for the classes I'd teach. Our new home was beautiful. My first book was mere weeks from its release.

And Taylor Swift had a new album.

In the days leading up to my birthday, I listened to Lover a good bit, and particularly "Paper Rings," my favorite track from it, and a fitting anthem for celebrating a new life.

11. "You Don’t Mess Around with Jim" by Jim Croce
After a busy summer didn't afford much time to watch TV, in October I made a point of re-watching the first two seasons of Stranger Things, en route to finally catching up on season three. While I found the third season uneven--and the first few episodes, frankly, weak, I was satisfied on the whole. This song, which plays early in season two and again in season three, caught my ear on this viewing, in part for the ways in which the lyrics arguably reveal about about Jim Hopper and foretell some of the character's trajectory. Without spoiling anything more than that for any reader who might still mean to catch up, this song takes me back to my October immersion in this show.

12. "The Whole of the Moon" by The Waterboys"
I notoriously go all in on Christmas--particularly Christmas movies and music--after Thanksgiving each year. Netflix's Let It Snow caught my attention for not only being branded as a holiday movie but appealing to my teen comedy fandom. The movie didn't disappoint--at least for its quality, though the Christmas-ness felt a little tacked on--and after hearing this song as it was performed in the film, I tracked down the original and came to like it a good bit.

13. "Our Christmas Monkey" from Curious George - A Very Monkey Christmas
There's little in my life that my son doesn't touch these days, and though I have yet to have seen Curious George - A Very Monkey Christmas all the way through, despite multiple attempts, I have heard this song a lot for it being his new favorite, and accessible to play as an isolated clip on the PBS Kids app. With lyrics that include describing elephants as "trunky" and doughnuts as "dunky" to set up a rhyme with monkey, though, who can claim this song is anything less than a holiday masterpiece?

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Missing Ring

It wasn’t your first Christmas Eve.

You were born two weeks before Christmas, and so spent that those first weeks of your life bombarded by the sounds of holiday songs, the flickering light of bad Hallmark movies streaming on the television, and the smell of sweets I entertain each December. In the haze of your new life, I can’t imagine you registered much at all, besides that you were hungry, and besides that this world outside your mother’s belly was colder and brighter and in so many ways harder than the little world in which all you had to do was exist to survive.

Your mother and I? Despite the exhilaration at your safe arrival, and despite our efforts to celebrate the holiday, were also sleep-deprived and consumed with worries. We thought we had prepared for you only to find out that the most ubiquitous advice of all—that no one is really prepared to parent—was the most true.

Your first Christmas came and went with little fanfare, the night topped with a drive to the CVS that was open on the holiday to buy gripe water we weren’t sure would help you, but we thought might assuage your crying after we’d exhausted what other options we could think of.

Fast forward a year.

You had grown. You were larger by every dimension, crawling and curious, and though you still cried at times each day, you also laughed every day at tickles and songs and sounds we couldn’t decipher the humor from, but kept making because they seemed to please you. You could feed yourself, not with a spoon, but by hand or, equally, but putting your face down to pick up what you wanted with your mouth.

We made plans to go out to dinner Christmas Eve at a Chili’s. A silly thing, but your mother’s family had a history of going out there, and it was my favorite chain restaurant of its ilk, and I loved their ribs. You were in a sweet spot, content to sit in a high chair for the length of at least a short meal.

On the drive to Chili’s, I realized my wedding ring was gone.

I’ve always had skinny fingers, and had never worn any ring with any regularity until your mother and I married. The morning after we got hitched, I wore the ring until I didn’t—realizing that sometime amidst packing wedding gifts in boxes, washing dishes, and tending to any other number of banal chores in our Air BnB, the ring had slipped from my ring finger. I found it in one of the gift boxes after a half hour of searching, and it would become the first of many times that the ring fell loose or was misplaced. I took to only wearing the ring out, not around the house, and scarcely when engaged in any physical labor like packing boxes to move.

The ring slipping culminated the better part of a year into our marriage, when it fell from my hand and hit the floor just right to break. I replaced with a ring a half-size smaller that fit snugger, though still not perfectly.

That the ring would go missing that Christmas Eve, on the way to Chili’s was not, in and of itself, cause for panic. It always turned up.

But you’d started feeding yourself just weeks before. Crunchy snacks made for babies your size, and pieces of teething wafers that we broke loose for you. But also scraps of facial tissue or toilet paper that you gleefully ripped loose, and stray Cheerios that you found on the floor after one of us had spilled them who-knows-how-many days before.

By the time we parked at Chili’s I’d figured two likely places where the ring would be found. One, the most likely, was in your play yard—a large, plastic, hexagonal structure we used to contain you in those moments when needed to step out of the room and keep you safe. When I had put you down in there for a moment before heading out for dinner, I had heard something drop but couldn’t tell what, and in retrospect figured it was likely the ring. The other likely location was in the car itself, likely as not in that gap between the driver’s seat and car door where the ring had fallen before when I was adjusting the seat, fastening my seat belt, or otherwise getting situated to drive.

A third possibility dawned on me, though. That I had heard something drop in your play yard. That you were feeding yourself. That your mother, more than once, had caught you feeding yourself not only food or things as innocuous (if non-ideal) as tissue, but mystery objects that you put in your mouth and crawled away so we couldn’t be sure what it was and were only grateful that it didn’t seem to be anything dangerous, though we became more and more conscious of keeping anything dangerous from your reach.

To cut the chase, I thought you might have swallowed my wedding ring.

It didn’t seem likely. The ring was bigger and more solid than anything you were accustomed to swallowing, and you were never shy about expressing your displeasure if you were hurt. Surely if you had swallowed the ring, you’d be more upset. You were breathing normally, and there was no visible sign that the ring was lodged in your throat.

Of course you hadn’t swallowed the ring.

And yet, I Googled. I wasn’t the first person to Google this question or similar. It turned out kids your age swallowed all kinds of things from jewelry to nuts and bolts to puzzle pieces. As I’d grown accustomed to a year before, all of the advice came at cross-purposes. The insistence that if it weren’t obstructing airways, there was nothing to do but wait for the object to pass through a child’s system. The warning that children in such a scenario should always go to the hospital.

Your mother and I are good partners. We love each other and we love you. We are hard workers. We are reasonably smart.

We are not good at calming each other’s anxieties when we’re both worked up.

My initial pass through the car hadn’t revealed the ring, and so as we awaited our appetizer chips and salsa and I began feeding you a Corn, Kale, and Quinoa puree, your mother returned to search the car again.

Ruling out the car, we determined the ring was either in your play yard or inside of you.

We spent the meal worried, alternately searching the Internet for advice and admonishing the other to stop, because the ring was probably safe at home, so we shouldn’t ruin Christmas Eve dinner worrying.

We got through dinner, not so much savoring as wolfing down food. To your credit, you seemed oblivious to the panic, enjoying the food we’d brought for you and sampling from the chicken strips and side of mashed potatoes we ordered you at the restaurant.

I readied myself for Christmas Eve at the emergency room. If we couldn’t find the ring, we’d want to know for sure, and if the ring did end up obstructing something in your innards or poisoning you—well, those weren’t risks that your mother or I were going to take.

We didn’t talk on the car ride home. I don’t remember specifically, but I have to assume that my playlist of Christmas cheer played from the speakers, ineffectual to the mood of the car. I watched you in the mirror attached to backseat, passenger side headrest so I could see you while I drove. I watched for anything different.

At home, I rushed ahead, while your mother loosened the straps from your car seat and gathered your diaper bag.

And there, in your play yard, in plain sight was the ring.

I thought a silent prayer of thanks over our own modest Christmas Eve miracle, not the stuff of Hallmark movies or Scrooge or George Bailey realizing he’s had a wonderful life.

But safe.

You were one year old.

As you know full well, our adventures were still only beginning.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Burns His CDs

Around the turn of each year, there’s a short playlist I like to revisit of songs explicitly about New Year’s or that I, for whatever combination of factors associate with that time. The first track is Tori Amos’s “Pretty Good Year.”

It’s a melancholy, reflective song which all signs indicate is more about a birthday than a new calendar year. Just the same, the mixture of nostalgia and inveterate sadness always draws me in, and there’s one line in particular that I’ve grown enamored with over time:

And Greg he writes letters
and burns his CDs

I don’t know for sure when I first encountered “Pretty Good Year” but I best remember listening to it during that decade-or-so period when burning music to CDs was king—before portable, digital music became prevalent, or at least before it reached my world. Thus, the line about Greg burning CDs, particularly in juxtaposition to writing letters, read as a creative act to me, and one I identified with as someone who was so regularly--borderline compulsively--both writing and making mix CDs.

The trouble with this reading is that “Pretty Good Year” came out on the Under The Pink album, released in 1994, and so was recorded (and of course written) well before that. While there may have been some early adopters and innovators already burning CDs via cutting edge technology, it was far from common practice or colloquialism at that point. So, we’re left to understand that Greg was actually throwing his CDs into a fire. Oddly, both acts, particularly set against Amos’s melody of choice and larger lyrical narrative, could be read as comparable expressions of sadness--my original reading more of a catharsis, the literal meaning more destructive--but I always found it a captivating little oddity that a lyric’s meaning could change like that based on the evolution of language and technological process.

Listening to this song again in 2016, I was struck by the lyric again, because of a different epiphany. For just as the idea of burning a blank CD had become more accessible than the idea of throwing a CD into a fire years after Amos recorded the song, in the years to follow, burning CDs had become an antiquated process, not altogether unlike recording from the radio to an audio cassette like I had as a child, when I first started to love music and first felt a drive to own it in some material way so I could listen to it at will rather than waiting for it to come on the radio again.

No, by 2016, the idea of throwing a CD in--a relic of a time past, perhaps only valuable for nostalgia, not function--into a fire, seemed more accessible than loading a blank CD-R into the drive and going through the motions of applying music to it.

And so, this song, this lyric, circles upon itself and continues to demark the ruthless passage of time for those of us old enough to have bought CDs that we might burn, and to have burned CDs in our computer, and have lived to see an era when people don’t use hard copy CDs all that much anymore (note, for those readers older than me, I of course recognize that I’m not all that ancient, but as you might recall, by the time you get into your mid-thirties, you start to feel old relative to so many pieces of the world around you).

Better yet for the song--and why I continue to listen to it year after year--it’s an expression of a specific kind of sorrow that some of us feel on birthdays, at holidays, at the turn of the year. That sense of forcing ourselves to smile, forcing ourselves to say it’s been a good year and clinging to those moments when life really was good, in the face of a bleak winter, with knowledge--that comes with passing years-- that some things will never be the same.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Home For Holidays

I have a soft spot for Thanksgiving.

To be fair, I have a soft spot for a lot of holidays, which is why faithful readers may recognize that pretty much every year, I have not only a Thanksgiving-related post in November, but a Christmas one in December, a Halloween one in October, and commemorate others on a more sporadic basis.

Out of a not altogether happy childhood, I have positive memories of Thanksgiving as a day spent with my beloved sister and grandmother while my mother and father prepared dinner, to be followed by the only non-Chinese dinners we ate family style with most of the traditional fixings. Add in a couple days off from school, the onset of Christmas season, WWF Survivor Series, and what more could you ask for?

I always associated this holiday with my childhood home, even after the holiday lost some of its luster—after my grandmother wasn’t well enough to travel over to the house and climb the stairs necessary to get to our kitchen anymore; after my sister stopped coming home for it after her first year of college; after my parents split up; after the recognition of the holiday--at least as far as my biological family went--narrowed to just my father and I eating turkey, stuffing, and yams. But as much as the familial elements of Turkey Day dwindled, I liked coming home from college to see old friends. There came a time when I started splitting the holiday as many as three ways, having dinner with my girlfriend’s family, then my best friend’s, then winding up back at my old man’s kitchen table.

But there came a shift. A bad night-before-Thanksgiving out with old friends, which included my car breaking down, to cap a lousy fall, and after that a so-so Thanksgiving questioning if or how soon my car would get me back out of town. Rather than returning to what I still thought of as home the next year, I sought out something different. I took a longer drive and spent the holiday at my sister’s house with her in-laws. And there was a shift. I liked Thanksgiving again.

I liked Thanksgiving again enough to spend the holiday at my sister’s house for five years, right up until I moved across the country for grad school and it became wildly impractical to make such a long trip for just a couple days, and especially so when there was just one week of the semester left after that. So it was that Heather and I made our first Thanksgiving dinner of our own (or, to assess the situation more fairly, Heather made our first Thanksgiving dinner; I reached what cooking implements she needed from high-up shelves, and I ate).

We had invitations, out in Oregon, to spend the holiday with friends from and connected to my graduate program. There was an awkward line between friends and the kind of friends I’d spend a holiday with--totally self-imposed and arbitrary. Heather and I watching Muppet movies and eating too much--for as small and understated as our celebration might be--was my best approximation of a sense of home.

Heather and me. That would become the new norm.

For though we’d spend a Thanksgiving with her folks and a Christmas with mine, more and more it became the two of us.

And then Riley.

Thanksgiving 2017, we stayed home at the little house we rented in Georgia, less to be insular than for Riley’s due date creeping up, less than three weeks away. We wanted to be near our hospital of choice, go-bag ready in the trunk even as we failed in our attempt to prepare “a small meal” and still had food enough for the two of us to eat too much for at least three days.

But by the time Christmas rolled around, Riley was two weeks old, the both of us about as tired as we’d ever been, the thought of traveling out of state to be with family unfathomable.

And it occurred to me, this was home.

For though I wasn’t back in the green raised ranch where I spent the first eighteen years of my life, and not in the white-walled room with the yellow carpeting overlooking the backyard, where I’d woken up my first twenty-five Thanksgivings, and not with my father or mother or sister or friends I’d known since I was a teenager, I was with my wife. And I was with my son. And they, more than any particular house, neighborhood, city, or state define home for me: where I love easiest and am loved. Where I am happy. Where I want to be.

And so, to you readers, I wish you a home on your own terms and by your own definition. I wish you a holiday full of the foods you want to eat, the people you want to see, or heck, whatever you want for a holiday to mean to you.

(With full acknowledgment that this post goes live a week and a half in advance of it) Happy Thanksgiving.