Sunday, January 13, 2019

In a Lifetime

In the Talking Heads song, “Once in a Lifetime,” David Byrne as lead vocalist addresses everyday life. The first verse leans in to a repetition of the words, “you may find yourself,” with an emphasis on the passive act of finding oneself in a set of circumstances, not necessarily out of any active choice but rather the conglomeration of a million little choices and sets of circumstances that resulted in a life that is not necessarily undesirable, but was unforeseen.

One of my best friends quoted this song when he read his wedding vows, with an emphasis on having found himself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife. It’s a nice sentiment and a well-chosen quote for the circumstance and the overarching sense of having seen your dreams come true to culminate in that day of happiness that he and his wife had stumbled in roundabout ways to arrive at.

And there’s a sense of disorientation that goes with the song that I know well. I’ve traveled and relocated throughout my twenties and thirties--more than some, not as much as others--moving from upstate New York, to Maryland, to Oregon, to North Carolina, to Georgia with stopovers and visits in forty-two other states, four other countries. And there have been these moments when reality settles. These moments of waking.

I remember walking away from the parking lot after seeing off my parents on move-in day at college. I headed back to my freshman year dorm, kicking a little round chunk of broken-off pavement, thinking I was on the cusp of a new life.

I remember driving my first car out of a garage in Syracuse, while it herked and jerked along. Not really drivable, but the entrance to the garage was too low to the ground for the tow truck to get in. I’d just started my first full-time job and would buy my second car days later.

I remember talking to a police officer in Baltimore, outside my apartment building. He’d come to the scene after I reported my back license plate stolen from my car and gently admonished me for not at least having a club on my car, proclaiming me lucky to have only had that plate stolen.

I remember absently watching a police officer on bike patrol wheel past, before I turned back to the water, overlooking a row of surfers from a dock at Pacific Beach in San Diego, the day of my first date with Heather, when neither of us were sure if it were date until I asked her if it was all right if I held her hand.

I remember sitting on the edge of a bed with two new friends, in our fourth friend’s studio in Oregon. Days into my MFA program, past two in the morning. I was relying on a ride back to my apartment, but contemplating making the three-mile journey on foot. Because the friend who was hosting us--smart, passionate, invested--insisted we had to listen to one more experimental jazz-rock track, and each last one gave way to one more, and each one lasted in excess of ten minutes. The warning that my phone’s battery power had dropped below ten percent came and went. And I waited. When we finally got to the car, and all agreed we’d wanted to head out hours before the lone friend who’d, more than once, been vocal about wanting to go glared at each of us. “Why didn’t you say something, fuckers?” She crossed her arms and stared straight ahead through the windshield.

I remember setting foot outside a hotel in Wilmington after dinner, and stepping into a wind tunnel. That my friends and I weren’t hotel guests but the shuttle driver outside nonetheless offered up his services because no one should walk in the weather--the outer edge of a hurricane, the night before my wedding. The hurricane that sent all the best laid plans askew in the week leading up to our big day.

These are fragments--not all of them momentous occasions, but each sharing a sense of dislocation. For taken out of context, looked at in sequential order, there’s an undeniable randomness to the progression of a life. I’m prone to nostalgic thinking, and look at each of these moments with a touch romanticism, a touch of wistfulness. For the journey through college in which I didn’t know I’d wind up laying roots in the newspaper office, or at friends I hadn’t met yet would travel to my wedding fifteen years later in North Carolina. For not knowing the next car I had would be a lemon, but a lemon that I loved for the long drives I’d take to see friends, to start reviewing a cappella competitions. For moving past the general malaise of homesickness I felt in that first Baltimore apartment to feeling as at home in that city as I have anywhere. For how much better I’d get to know those friends in Oregon, and not just them, but their writing--that common purpose we shared. For those first steps into a marriage with someone I knew I loved, but know so much more, so much better over the years to follow.

I think of it as a lifetime, and in the same breath remind myself I’m not so old. I remind myself that for all of these turns, all of these moments of finding myself in a new place, in a new set of circumstances, if there’s been one consistent lesson to be learned, it’s that I never know what might be next.

And that’s a good thing.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

My 2018 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.

I’ll be honest that 2018 was a busy year that didn’t necessarily see me indulge very ambitiously in new music, or think of how to link it to my life as purposefully as I have in some years past. Additionally, it’s a year when I spent a lot of what listening time I did have engaging with podcasts over music. So, it’s a relatively short playlist this time around, but here goes.

1. New Year’s Day by Taylor Swift
From my very first listen to this cheesy, sentimental soft closer to the Reputation album, I felt a soft spot for this song. The refrain that, “I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day”—which is probably intended to capture a sense of friendship or romantic partnership that bleeds into the day after the party--took on new meaning to me on my own New Year’s Day. 2017 ended in a whirl of pregnancy into the birth of our son. As 2018 started, attending a New Year’s Eve party the way we might have in years past was the farthest thing from our mind—a couple hours socializing with neighbors was the most social interaction Heather and I had collectively had in a month.

And the next day? We were back to cleaning Riley’s bottles, because as I imagine most people who’ve had children know, holidays with a newborn are more like any other day than a celebration; we were just keeping our heads above water keeping up with the day to day, cleaning up bottles together on New Year’s Day.

2. “About You” by G Flip
I came upon about via a song of the day podcast that I subscribe to and tend to catch up with in clusters. It was an instant favorite for its oddball mixture of styles and textures and became the first new song I discovered in 2018 that I truly loved. Moreover, it became sort of an unofficial anthem for the spurious connections I drew between it and the novel I drafted over the course of the spring semester.

3. The Daniel Tiger theme song
Before he was necessarily ready for TV, or could appreciate it, we began showing Riley Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. It’s a fun enough, sweet show, if a bit grating if watched in a high enough concentration without adult entertainment in between.

The theme song makes the list not only for watching the show with our kid, but because Riley did at least come to find comfort in the song itself. Particularly for long car rides, playing it on repeat was one of the few surefire ways to quiet his crying for at least a short stretch.

4. “Rebel Heart” by CFO$
As a wrestling fan, I treat WrestleMania weekend like a holiday. The NXT TakeOver: New Orleans show was pretty exceptional—far better than ‘Mania itself—highlighted by Johnny Gargano squaring off against arch-rival Tommaso Ciampa. “Rebel Heart” is Gargano’s entrance song and after months of not really following NXT, the image of him intensely coming to the ring for what would be a sensational match has stuck with me.

4. “Moptops (Twist While the World Stops)” by EMA
This was another instant favorite from a song of the day podcast, and one that instantly takes me back to early morning drives to teach my 8 a.m. section of composition, after earlier wake-ups with Riley.

5. “Desire” by Ryan Adams
In the interest of re-purposing the hours a day spent feeding Riley from a bottle, I started very purposefully trying to watch my way through whole TV series that I’d always meant to if time ever presented itself. The best of them was The West Wing, which I had watched the first two seasons of in real time and let go when I first left home for college.

The show isn’t as objectively, consistently strong after Aaron Sorkin left at the end of season four, but one of my favorite few-minute sequences of it came in the season six episode “King Corn.” Bereft of the show’s signature fast-moving dialogue, the music carries the closing moments of the show portraying different characters on the campaign trail, and hinting at what might be ahead for the biggest will-they-won’t-they relationship of the show.

6. “Song for the Road” by David Ford
Heather, Riley, and I traveled to Asheville for a wedding in the late spring. For the first time, we handed off Riley to someone else’s care for a period of hours as Heather’s mom took point with him at our rental cottage a few minutes’ walk from the venue.

It was a beautiful ceremony and reception, highlighted by the groom serenading the bride with this sweet song that I hadn’t heard up to that point.

7. “All You Got Is Gold” by The Great Escape
This song opens the “Bent-Neck Lady” episode of The Haunting of Hill House, my main Halloween season indulgence this year. While I thought the show on the whole was good, but not great, this episode in and of itself was very strong, and this is the sweet song from an early sequence of it.

7. “The Harvest” and 8. ”Prophecy Girl” by Jenny Owens Young
This fall, I discovered and quickly became enamored with Buffering the Vampire Slayer, a podcast dedicated to episode-by-episode dissection of my favorite TV series. One of the quirky elements of the show is co-host and singer-songwriter Jenny Owens Young performing a song to summarize each episode. “The Harvest” was probably my favorite iteration, though the song dedicated to season one finale “Prophecy Girl” was a close second. The refrain of “Just keep fighting” felt like an inspirational nudge at a point in the fall semester when I felt worn down with childcare, grading, and freelance work, and didn’t have time to write, go to the gym, or otherwise much take care of myself.

9. “Sing to Me” by Cumulus
This was my favorite song of the day podcast find of the fall, and regularly accompanied on my way to teach early morning classes.

10. “Happy, Happy Christmas” by Ingrid Michaelson
Come December, I’m a sucker for all things Christmas related—foremost among them, holiday movies and music. This Michaelson original from her 2016 Songs for the Season album was my favorite new find for the season. It sounds like Michaelson at her most experimental and combines sentimentality with sorrow and an alternative bent in delightful ways. I listened to this whole album a lot this month, but this song stood out.

11. "Please Come Home for Christmas" from The Mistle-Tones
The Mistle-Tones is an objectively terrible wad of holiday schmaltz courtesy of ABC Family. And I love it.

This song is performed as the big feel-good finale to film, and I linked its unabashedly celebratory feel to the news the book deal news that rolled in for me this December.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Who Has Friends

It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite Christmas movie. But it wasn’t always.

I grew up in a household that wasn’t overly sentimental about Christmas. In my childhood, the holiday was mostly about the presents, and I wouldn’t come to appreciate that time with my grandmother, parents, sister, and an uncle who trained into the town each December until around my teenage year--—a sense of gratitude that overlapped with the realization those days were numbered, as my sister started hanging out with friends more and me less, after we sold my grandmother’s house and she moved into an senior citizens’ apartment building, then after I went away to college and my parents split up and my uncle stopped coming every year, and then my sister did the same—

Sometime in those teenage years, before I left the house, but after it had become apparent to me that Christmases, like all other aspects of my life, would change, I fell in love with It’s a Wonderful Life.

My sister liked it before I did. I can only assume that she was exposed to it through someone else’s family, because though my mother had seen it and liked it well enough, she rolled her eyes at the idea of watching the same movie over and over, year after year. But at some point in our teenage years, it became a family tradition, and we watched it Christmas Eve or Christmas night, whenever NBC showed it that year.

It can be difficult to quantify why this movie remains my favorite now. I’m not a student of film, and I tend to balk at older pictures for their production value and, for this era, the annoyances of the Transatlantic accent that keeps me from getting lost in the world of a film. For better or for worse, It’s A Wonderful Life is the only black and white picture I own, much less the only one I’m inclined to watch time and again. On top of that, there’s a lot of contrivance to the film, which takes bold jumps through time in service to its plot, in service to its payoff, often as not in un-artful ways. Objectively, I can more readily appreciate Elf or The Family Stone, and even Home Alone has a longer track record of nostalgic value for me, for having loved it from elementary school on.

And yet.

The closing minutes of It’s a Wonderful Life are no less of an emotional wrecking ball for me now than they were when I first encountered this film twenty or so years ago. When George Bailey runs down the snowy street, cheering like a maniac at every familiar landmark, I put aside that his reaction is derivative of Scrooge after he was visited by three spirits, and instead bask in the wonder of a life well-lived. That this character is home and, more than he ever has in his life, appreciates that home and all of the people and places in it. When he gets home, he kisses the broken piece of his banister, for the sheer fact that that daily annoyance is a part of the life he’s lived and loved. He scoops up his eager children in his arms, kisses his wife, and only stops long enough to receive his bounty--a small fortune that his friends have amassed for him because his building and loan office was in trouble.

And then there’s that final moment. A bell rings and George finds a gift left behind by his guardian angel, Clarence--a copy of Tom Sawyer with the inscription, Remember no man is a failure who has friends. A more jaded viewer might dismiss the message as propaganda: a suggestion to the working class that we shouldn’t want for more, for what really matters are not material things, but human connections and we ought to be happy just the way we are. It’s a pain getting older, as such readings seep into my consciousness. They can almost spoil the moment.

But then I make the choice for myself, at Christmastime, to be a less discerning viewer. I remember Christmases long ago, in my grandmother’s old parlor with the artificial tree and all of the fragile shining ornaments, strands of tinsel, and strings of light. The joy of presents, yes, but also the joy of family at a time like that, too. And not only family. I remember Christmases spent at my best friend’s house with his family and rolling dice and listening to stories about the fights his father got into when he was a teenager, and the parties I hosted each December in Baltimore with White Elephant gift exchanges and far too many people for my little, overheated apartment. I think not only of Christmas, either, but a thousand moments in a thousand places--my friends from the college newspaper and the guys I played basketball with in high school, a cappella shows, and long road trips and the kinds of friends I can go years without seeing only to come together again without skipping a beat.

Remember no man is failure who has friends.

When I put aside cynicism and give myself over to the holiday sentimentality, I can believe in Clarence’s inscription. By extension, I can feel good about myself for the life I’ve lived, less on account of accomplishments or potential for the future, than for the simple fact of the people I’ve known and loved.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

You Were Born

Your mother says she felt you coming just after midnight, and says she didn’t come to bed because she didn’t want to wake me. I hadn’t thought anything of it, because she slept on the couch as often as the bed those days, rarely comfortable, not least of all for the way you’d slump your body to one side in inside her belly, so you, too, could lay on the mattress.

Your mother went to work the next morning, though I'd asked if she really should. It would have been foolish to start her limited time away any sooner than she had to, though, and besides, in this time when the final exam period merged into the holidays, it was all parties and luncheons and half-day early releases. Who wants to use time off against days like that?

The woman at the dining hall said she looked like she should go the hospital.

Standing in the door frame, making conversation, seizing up with contractions, her co-workers told her the same.

So, your mother came back to me.

I drove.

I drove to downtown Atlanta, passing cars. I’d been a slow, careful driver that stretch of highway between our house and the doctor’s office all the while your mother was pregnant, but the game had changed. I was only going five-to-ten miles over the limit, but your mother still warned me against driving crazy for the contrast. But I knew the stakes of this drive. Take too long, get stuck in traffic, and I may well wind up the one delivering you in the backseat, craning over my phone to get direction from whatever nurse or EMT we could get on the speaker.

You know I’m no good with my hands.

I didn’t trust myself.

But we got to the hospital OK and got checked in and your mother got checked out. We went to a triage room where neither of us knew we’d spend the next ten hours while our go-bag waited in the trunk. We assumed we’d get proper warning about when to get it.

Ten hours and your mother ached with back labor, dilated to two centimeters. The doctor said you weren’t coming that day. The mid-wife and the nurse each said you might. They said your mother was too far along and the way your heart slowed during contractions gave her pause.

So we waited.

Time disappeared.

My phone was at ten percent when I warned your mother I wouldn’t be able to use it much anymore, when she told me she’d had a charger in her purse all the while.

We waited.

We hardly ate. Your mother knew she wasn’t supposed to eat past a certain point, particularly with the possibility of taking the drugs, which hadn’t been the plan, but felt as though it might become necessary.

Besides which, our carefully selected snacks were all in the trunk of our car.

I didn't dare leave your mother's side.

We waited.

Ten hours, and your mother dilated to four centimeters.

We were moved from triage down the hall to a delivery room.

Ten hours in triage, and it wasn’t ten minutes--just gathering our things and making our way down the hall, before your mother dilated to ten centimeters.

It was time.

Oxygen mask. Alternating positions. Finally, I held one of your mother’s legs in the air while a nurse held the other, the midwife poised down between us.

I could see the crescent of the top of your head. The first I’d ever seen of you. I wondered how you’d ever come through, when I could still see so little of you.

The midwife and the nurses--there was a whole team of them now--encouraged your mother. So I shouted along, the affirmations, the encouragements that you’re doing great and keep going.

The doctor was back, in a tracksuit, off the clock. We were told he’d only be there if there were a problem.

The doctor put a hand on your mother’s shoulder and counted down how long she needed to push to get the most from every window, to not waste effort in between.

Still that crescent--that fraction of the top of your head, covered in hair.

They call it the ring of fire--that moment when your mother's tissues stretched to their limit.

And your head popped out.

I teared up. Your mother remembers this.

I was embarrassed to think it, even in the moment aware that I was probably being absurd. But still, I wondered, Did his head just fall off?

Surely, there would have been more dismay from the medical staff if it had, but maybe they knew this possibility. Maybe I should have known that possibility. I’d read What to Expect When You’re Expecting and a book by Hypnobabies and thought I knew enough. I knew nothing. Were the nurses calm so as not to make us frantic and bereft sooner than we should have been? Maybe they thought I could see what had happened, too, and thought me a co-conspirator, or waited to follow my lead because I knew your mother better than they did.

I knew nothing.

We waited.

Your mother hadn’t realized your head was out yet.

I waited.

Your mother pushed.

And you were there.

I cut the cord, according to plan. Your mother held you skin to skin. We were back on a plan for the first time all day, for the last time I can remember.

The first time I held you, I got a palm full of meconium. I hadn’t read about that, and wondered if this was how your poop would look all the time—if this was what awaited me these days, these weeks, these months, these years to follow.

But your head was attached to your body.

I told your mother I loved her.

I told you I loved you more.

I left to, at last, fetch our go-bag, and to retrieve the cooler to collect the placenta we’d been informed we couldn’t transfer between the delivery and recovery floors.

I came back in time to hear your first screams after your first shots.

I had thought you might be quiet until then.

And then we were in our hospital room. After the nurses brought us food. After they’d swaddled you and left you in the bassinet. I didn’t sleep much. I knew you were supposed to sleep on your back, but your head was heavy. You turned yourself on your side time and again, and I didn’t know how close that might bring you to face down on your mattress.

We couldn’t lose you.

I righted your body, and when you turned again, tried to hold you in place, then settled for watching you from one eye to see how long you’d stay on your side, to see how long I could stay awake.

I didn’t trust myself.

I waited.

But then, the wait was over.

Your head was attached to your body. And in that room there was your mother, there was me, and there was you. Our family.

You were born.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Keeping the Faith

It’ll come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog with any regularity that I love my nostalgia. I find pleasure in the act of rediscovery and reexperiencing, be it through talking about the past, looking at old photos, rereading a book, watching a forgotten episode of a TV show from my childhood, or listening to a song from earlier in my life.

It’s thus with a double shot of nostalgia that I recall “Keeping The Faith,” a Billy Joel song from 1983 that I listened to more about a decade later, when I was merging into my teenage years and beginning my life-long love affair with music, and more particularly first experiencing that pleasure of listening and re-listening that comes along with owning music. By the time I was listening to music of my own choosing, Billy Joel wasn’t really cool anymore--he was a soft rocking adult contemporary artist less favored by kids than the parents of kids my age, and hadn’t yet achieved the status of musical legend and icon (not for lack of accomplishment, more because I think the world just needed another five years-to-a-decade to let his best work marinate and agree that, OK, this guy was worthy of that kind of objective reverence). In any event, when I look back on my initial appreciation of Joel, and particularly “Keeping The Faith,” there’s an irony to feeling nostalgic about one of my first encounters with nostalgia.

I remember listening to this song in middle school, and hearing wisdom about how Joel lost a lot of fights but it taught me how to lose OK and immediately applying the lyrics to my own experiences backing down from bullies or, more metaphorically, getting shot down when I asked a girl to slow dance. I appropriated the lyric, I’m not ashamed to say the wild boys were my friends to apply to a pair of unruly boys I’d hung out with a lot in elementary school, one of whom my father had had reservations about inviting back to the house after he made a lot of noise and a mess of my toys when he came by. I hung out with these guys a lot less by middle school, and was ready to look back, unashamed at these beginnings because they’d made me to the person I’d become—at thirteen years old.

I make light of this reflection, because looking back, it silly to have the warm fuzzies about your past when you’re barely a teenager. But then, a few years ago, I was at a bar in Oregon and overheard one of my friends in his mid-twenties talking about how a band from his high school years—a band popular after I was already out of college—had just celebrated the ten-year anniversary of their first album. I nodded along, on the fringes of this conversation, as he said, we’re getting so old! I wanted to say something along the lines of just wait until you’re over thirty, but cut myself off, remembering my own, younger waves of nostalgia and how it felt to be dismissed by my parents or older co-workers. I could recognize that they were objectively right that I was not actually old--at least not nearly as old as them--but that didn’t lessen my own sense of time passing, or even, when I thought about it long enough, of mortality.

No, when I looked around that bar, I observed there were more people closer to his age, and so I would be the old man who was out of touch if I said anything at all, not to mention that, in that moment, I was suddenly aware of my own relative youth in the grand scheme of things. Though approaching my mid-thirties felt ancient in that conversation, I had still not yet broached the barrier of what most folks in contemporary US society would refer to as middle-aged. How many people in my life would hear me lecture these people, just five-to-ten years my junior that they weren’t that old, only to roll their eyes at the implication that I was.

I had a mentor during that time in Oregon who was cagey about his own age, but once addressed it head-on, telling a group of us, I stopped trying to guess people’s age. There’s no point. Because there are always some people who are going to surprise you because they’re much younger than the way they conduct themselves, and people who look a lot younger than they are; I decided, what’s the point?

It’s the kind of perspective that, after a certain point in life, I think we all know to be intrinsically true, but that still feels profound when you hear it stated so directly, so incisively.

Taking his meaning out of context, however, and applying it to my own purposes here, who’s to say that thirteen-year-old’s sense of nostalgia is any less real or valuable than a twenty-five-year-old’s, than a thirty-five-year-old’s, than a sixty-year-old’s? Sure, the older we get, the more time has passed in our lifetimes and the more we have to get nostalgic about, but when we’re younger, aren’t the changes, too, more intense? In a lot of ways, my world changed much more between the years I was six and thirteen than it did between the ages of twenty-four and thirty, not to mention that I had no prior experience of change to compare these shifts to.

So, I say to my fellow nostalgia-philes, not to be embarrassed for looking back fondly at however long or short a time ago, and to my fellow increasingly old curmudgeons who think those people younger than them are not so old to chill out, too, because we’re all dealing with our own perceptions of the passage of time in our own ways.

As for me?

I’m going to listen to my 45s
Ain’t it wonderful to be alive
When the rock n roll plays
When the memory stays
I’m keeping the faith.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Survivor Series Memories

My pro wrestling fanhood began when I was a kid. Before there was a WWE Network or any other streaming service, and back when pay-per-view super shows were a four-times-a-year event. My family never paid for pay-per-view, but in those days you could turn to the pay-per-view station and get a scrambled signal and audio from the broadcast.

So, four times a year, there I’d be, hunkered close to the television, often as not playing with my wrestling action figures while I listened to the show. My mom took to draping a blanket over the TV while I did this, certain the scrambled signal I’d invariably try to watch through would hurt my eyes. I did this for WrestleManias and for The Royal Rumble. I did this each August for SummerSlam.

And each November, I did this for Survivor Series.

Despite being the second oldest traditional super show for WWE, Survivor Series was, in many ways, the most minor of the big four original PPVs. WrestleMania was the biggest show of the year, and SummerSlam capped a big summer of angles and thus served as sort of a secondary ‘Mania. The Rumble had the infectious gimmick of its signature match with thirty men entering one big brawl at two-minute intervals. But Survivor Series? The cornerstone of the show was teams of four or five guys going head to head in elimination tag team matches—matches in which not just one pin or submission ended the contest, but rather each individual member of a team needed to be defeated until one full team was out. It’s a fun enough gimmick, particularly for the hardcore fan who recognizes how distinctive the circumstances are relative to a traditional wrestling match, but not as distinctive or epic as the circumstances surrounding the other PPVs. In particular, in contrast to the other big shows, Survivor Series traditionally didn’t include title matches or one-on-one matches to resolve rivalries, and thus could easily feel like a placeholder on the way to bigger and better things.

And yet for all of its limitations, when I look back on my childhood as a wrestling fan, Survivor Series stands out as one of my favorites annual occurrences. Purportedly, the event was originally launched for two main purposes:

1) To milk the most profit possible from the huge Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant rivalry before Andre’s health fell off completely (in this case, having them captain opposing teams staved off boredom with their matches which weren’t actually that good, and protected Andre, because with three teammates, he only needed to work a few minutes of the match).
2) For the purpose of going head-to-head with the National Wrestling Alliance’s big Starrcade show--in a particularly competitive move, forcing cable providers to choose which PPV to carry, with the qualifier that anyone who picked against the WWF would lose the opportunity to air WrestleMania and cash-in on that big payday in the spring.

It’s particularly ironic, then, that an event so purely driven by greed and a sense of cut-throat business is one that I associate with family and togetherness. For in my childhood, Survivor Series started out airing on Thanksgiving night, then on Thanksgiving eve, to the extent that my memories of the show are inextricable from memories of the Thanksgiving holiday itself. I remember spending the afternoon playing at my grandmother’s, and I remember coming home for the one time a year our grandmother visited our house--braving the big set of stairs necessary to get to our kitchen. I remember sharing turkey liver with my father, and remember the spread of food on our table--not so awe-inspiring now that I’ve seen much bigger Thanksgiving feasts, but nonetheless plenty of food and one of the few times in a given year we’d eat family style and be welcome to second helpings. And after dinner was done, as my mother or father drove my grandmother home, I remember Survivor Series, huddled under a blanket, listening as the voices of Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura transported me to an arena that had might as well have been on another planet. I remember all of this and a sense of these wrestlers coming together in unlikely combinations--forming their teams as if they were coming together as a family, with all of its trepidations and baggage--to be together for one night.

I guess it’s these memories that still get me excited for Survivor Series each year. Nowadays, WWE leans far less upon on the elimination tag team structure—usually throwing in one or two of those matches for tradition’s sake, but otherwise structuring the show more like any old PPV with regular one-on-one and tag team matches, too. These shows aren’t always great, and often as not in my adult life haven’t objectively offered much to be excited about in the build up to the shows. Still, I think back to those younger days and remember the wonder, and take a moment to be thankful for adulthood and the modern conveniences of being able to pay for a relatively cheap streaming service and watching the show live--even re-watching the parts that I want to on a whim, whenever I have wireless.

Survivor Series isn’t booked mid-week any more but rather, most years, the Sunday before Thanksgiving. There’s a way in which that timing feeds my nostalgia, though, for I can enjoy the show in the comfort of my own home and, in its aftermath, be ready to travel near or far to celebrate a holiday. For in November, there are these certain, universal pieces of my life that beckon to me across time and space--family, friends, turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie--

and Survivor Series.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Watching Scary Movies

Note: This post includes light spoilers for Scream, The Ring, and Paranormal Activity. Consider yourself forewarned.

I’ve never been much of a thrill-seeker in real life. Excluding a few stand-alone instances like the time I went skydiving, I typically approach my life with an eye toward moderating risk and not making the kind of mistakes that I’ll meaningfully regret if I have the opportunity to avoid them.

I suspect that my risk is aversion is directly connected to my fascination with horror movies.

When I was a teenager, I watched Scream shortly after it came out on VHS. While I’d watched some TV and movies that could be classified as scary before, that’s the first time I recall watching a full, genuine horror movie, and particularly a slasher. In that iconic opening scene, I remember thinking to myself that of course the villain wasn’t going to murder Drew Barrymore, because she was a star and it was too soon, and surely she’d survive until at least midway through the picture. Thus, it was not only visual gore, but the plot twist that caught me by surprise when she was so thoroughly stabbed, slashed, and left hanging from a tree, removing even my suspicion that she’d be hurt, maybe put into a coma, but not killed.

She was dead.

And so a fascination was born. (My budding celebrity crush on Neve Campbell didn’t hurt matters, either.)

Scream was my gateway horror flic, and a good one because so few of the horror movies I consumed in the months to follow really compared--I Know What You Did Last Summer felt like a humorless, less clever sibling picture, and entries from the Friday the 13th series that I caught on cable never really captured my imagination.

As I got more solidly footed in my teenage years, and all the more so when I went to college, I experienced more horror movies, some good, some bad. The next to really grab me was The Ring. Truth be told, I didn’t know what kind of movie I was going to when I set foot in the theater, but rather went because a girl I was on the cusp of dating invited me to go along, and I don’t know that there’s any movie I wouldn’t have gone to see in that context.

Purists will tell you this film pales in comparison to the Japanese film that inspired it and, truth be told, and I’ve talked with plenty of people over the years to follow who acknowledge it was a good enough movie, but don’t hold it in near the regard that I do. Just the same, for whatever combination of factors like personal mood, and the heightened sense of being on what might have been the precursor to a date, watching The Ring felt both immersive and terrifying on a level I had never experienced before and don’t know that I’ve experienced since at the movies. In particular, the image of Samara climbing not only up her well, but through a television screen at the climax of the movie stuck with me as one of the most captivating and horrific visuals I’d ever encountered--the kind of visual that stuck with me and continued to scare me for years to follow when I was a little tired or creeped out or otherwise susceptible to eyeing my own TV suspiciously, for fear someone or something might crawl out of it.

My interest in horror—particularly new horror—waned in the years to follow, not so much out of fear as aesthetic. At this juncture, the Saw and Hostel franchises took center stage in popular horror, and I just wasn’t into them, finding their proclivity for torture and grotesque violence less interesting, or even scary, than off-putting. It’s well and good to experience the escapism of a vicarious scare, but the physical and psychological torture engendered in the films didn’t offer me anything of interest.

So, I thought I was more or less done with horror, until I watched Paranormal Activity. I watched it via bootleg on a friend’s big screen, the night after I’d moved into a new apartment. As if it were a reactionary response to Saw and films of its ilk, Paranormal Activity reveled in the slow escalation of suspense and in simplicity. Sure, it was filmed on a shoestring budget, to more readily explain why it had to scare in that style. Just the same, it was an old-fashioned style of horror storytelling that drew me in with a payoff that satisfied me in its own internal logic.

And, like Scream had me closing the blinds and reticent to answer the phone when I was home alone, and like The Ring had me cast a wary eye at my TV screen, Paranormal Activity seeped into my psyche long after I’d finished the movie. Particularly in my new living space, in which I wasn’t yet sure which creaking floorboards or refrigerator motor sounds or shadows against the wall to ignore as routine and easily explained away, Paranormal Activity’s scares—in moving shadows and slamming doors resonated.

In my fully conscious, rational mind, I didn’t take these scares too seriously. But in my heart of hearts, when I was alone long after dark, I could start to believe again.

When I was studying at Oregon State, one of my mentors, Nick Dybek talked to us about one of the pleasures of reading, and by extension consuming virtually any media, was the opportunity to gain vicarious experience without any real danger. The message stuck with me, and I feel it applies directly to my interest in horror, and why I still make a point of it each October to seek out at least one horror film I haven’t yet experienced. Sometimes the scares are silly, and it’s a catch twenty-two that if a good horror film is doing it’s job—if the scares capture my imagination and stick with me—then I might live in fear for the days to follow the film. Just the same, it’s an appealing kind of fear. An intellectually safe fear, a chosen fear, and a fear that means I’ve consumed a good story.