Saturday, July 4, 2020

Goldblum, Pullman, Smith

I romanticized the Fourth Of July for all of its firework fun and barbecues in no small part because it was holiday I always felt I’d missed out on.

I remember going to some firework displays as a kid, but my parents weren’t particularly social creatures, so there weren’t parties to go to, and I recall watching fireworks televised from New York City as much as seeing them in real life. A lot of bits and pieces from childhood were like that, growing up with parents from the city who were raising in a much smaller city—an out-and-out small town from their perspective. I had my friends as a teenager and I think I must have seen fireworks with them at some point, but don’t remember much of that, either.

Then there were my adult years. Summers from the ages of 18 to 33 belonged to my camp job, which prided itself on remaining operational though Independence Day. Those years I spent on site, I was typically campus bound, or at least couldn’t wander far. And those years when I was working full time and mostly remotely, I was always haunted by my on-call phone, and the knowledge that any background noise of revelry would only make it harder to hear when Murphy’s Law came calling.

Through these years, there was one constant. Independence Day—the movie.

I didn’t see Independence Day in the theater, and though the film is inextricably linked to summer in my mind, I’m not actually sure that I saw it on VHS the following summer, let alone on the Fourth of July itself. Still, it was a film that we screened at camp more than once on the holiday, and I recall a search of local video stores in 2008 to buy my very own (DVD) copy.

I’ve watched it every Independence Day since.

The film hasn’t aged all that well. The once stunning special effects are largely quaint by contemporary standards, each of Jeff Goldblum’s didactic demonstrations on chessboards and in airplane hangars feel terribly contrived, and Bill Pullman’s dialogue—even the iconic speech to the international resistance corps—feels awfully stilted. Will Smith gives the best performance, but even his enthusiastic trash talking of alien foes feels a lot like of a caricature watching it today.

And yet.

Independence Day remains one of those films from youth that, like so many Christmas movies and fantasies and favorites from up to a certain point in my life, can cause me to suspend disbelief and judgment, if just for two hours. In Goldblum, Pullman, and Smith I find a comfort food no less quenching than fresh-cut watermelon, no less Americana than hot dogs and cold beer.

And now we have Riley.

I had romantic visions of my first summer away from camp and kicking back to watch fireworks and partake in all of the holiday grandeur. But it turns out babies ought to be asleep before it’s fully dark out at that time of year, not to mention that fireworks can make it difficult for them to sleep, and in greater need of a good cuddle to remain calm from all of the fireworks' booming noise.

So, that first Independence Day back in the world, we went to an afternoon potluck, but after nightfall I held my son close to my chest. While the sky exploded outside, and while he slept, I watched aliens destroy major cities, Will Smith punch one in the head and say, “Welcome to earth,” and the world come together against a common foe. Just the way my teenage self had imagined it. Just the way the world once was.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

On Father’s Day

My relationship with my father is complicated.

He was the one who taught me to read. He took me to my first live professional wrestling shows. He taught me to drive and how to play Texas Hold ‘Em. He started a college savings plan for me that kicked off my life from a better financial position than a lot of people I know. He drove through flooded roads and totaled his car to be at my wedding the weekend of a hurricane. In an appeal to rejecting outdated gender roles and shaping my feminist sensibilities, he was the stay-at-home parent who cooked dinner most nights.

He was also the first person to hit me when I struggled to learn to read, and when I missed the bus to school. He nicknamed me Wimpy because I was quick to cry when I was little (and it rhymed with his nickname for my sister, Blimpy, for the brief, overlapping period when she was overweight). He was the one to hold my head under water at the municipal pool when I was nine years old and the worst kid in my swimming class. When, as a kid, I spilled my iced tea before sitting down to Sunday dinner at Grandma’s, he was the one to tell me, All you do is make more work for other people.

I haven’t had much of a relationship with my father in my adult life. I’ve seen him and for years stayed at the old house over holidays. There was the aforementioned wedding where his ballroom dancing skills made him the hit of the reception. He’s opened his door for me to have a place to stay whenever I passed through my hometown. And yet when push comes to shove, he’s not a confidante, a trusted mentor, or someone I go out of my way to visit.

There are times when I feel bad for that.

And then there are times when I remember my elementary school fantasy that one day I would be big enough to beat him up.

I’m big enough now, but I don’t want to fight.

Becoming a father myself cast a different lens on all of this. For my son’s first year and half, I only worked part-time teaching college writing, and dedicated the remainder to stay-at-home parenting, only writing, reading, or keeping up on TV in the cracks in between family life and duties. There are ways in which that made me appreciate my father more for the sacrifices of time and energy and sleep, with so little thanks in return.

But even at my most tired--even at that point that might be called bitter--I struggle to imagine raising a hand to this boy, or telling him, all you do…

And I know my father had it rougher. I came upon an email he’d sent my mother long ago, after they first split up, in which he explained about his own father taking a belt to him, and using this anecdote to mitigate how he’d treated my sister and I. Truth be told, in adult life, I’ve had my moments of wondering if I didn’t play the victim, inflating things in my head, particularly when I hear from friends who survived far worse abuses and injustices, who got by on a lot less.

I wish Father’s Day were a simpler holiday for me, or that when I protest against my little family now making a big deal out of it, it had more to do with modesty than the fact I have no template to base a celebration on. But my father rejected us doing anything special or buying any gifts, with an eye toward saving our money. And my sister and I? We never much wanted to celebrate him. So it is that I don’t know what to do with a happy Father’s Day greeting, and so it is that I scroll through my Facebook feed, touched by loving portraits of friends’ fathers, and simultaneously a little jealous, a little resentful.

I want for my son to have an easier time with this day, and not necessarily to go over the top or to aggrandize me. I just hope that I might do him proud. I just hope that when this day comes around in years future, he won’t second guess coming to my door these Sunday mornings, or pick up the phone with hesitation.

I want for this day to be better for him than I expect it ever will be for me.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Road Unseen

I’m a planner. I have been for most of my life, citing examples like when I procrastinated and failed on my final project for seventh grade science as lessons in what happens when one doesn’t plan. My sister insists my compulsion to plan started well before that, though, when I insisted on having an itinerary in place for otherwise informal visits with my grandmother on Sunday afternoons.

The planning goes for macro- and micro-scales, from living most days by a to-do list whether I’m officially working or not, to envisioning longer scheme plans like when I decided about three and a half years out that I would, in three and a half years, leave my office job in Baltimore to pursue my MFA in creative writing at the best program that would have me. To having at times, written most of this blog nearly two full years out with posts scheduled, leaving blanks for specific holiday-themed posts I expect I’ll feel more in the spirit to write when those days are looming closer.

I know that planning to such degrees can drive some people crazy, and I’ve learned to temper my planning so that it more often than not only affects me—a personal challenge, and one that has involved more than just stepping outside my comfort zone, but more meaningfully changing how I live my life because it’s a life so intertwined now with not only friends, co-workers, and family I see a couple times a year, but a wife and son a I now share pretty much every day with.

There’s a certain kind of beauty wrapped up in not knowing what’s next or how things will turn out, though. Because even though I knew I wanted to be in a loving relationship, and ideally one day marry, I didn’t see Heather coming. Truth be told, one of the first nights we hung out socially (as it would turn out, very much establishing the groundwork for our first date) I had had intentions of spending the night alone, eating pizza in a hotel room, watching Monday Night Raw, and turning in early. I didn’t see Heather coming as a person, at that time, in the state of California, in the context of someone I had officially supervised until days before.

I wanted to have at least one child, but truth be told had imagined having a girl more than a boy, maybe because of some gender normative ideas about whom I’d take care of and how, and I know in part for fear that my limited knowledge of sports or tools might hamper my ability to raise a boy. I never foresaw the kind of unconditional, unsurpassable love I’d feel for someone I see so much of myself in, to the point it’s hard to imagine any child but Riley under my care.

I always intended to publish books, but thought that Meddletown, the novel I’d first drafted my senior year of high school and revised on and off for a decade to follow would be the one to elevate my career. I didn't foresee myself abandoning the project, deeming it irredeemable after all that time.

Our culture often cites Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken,” and though we tend to quite arguably misinterpret the crux of the poem—not that he chose an offbeat road that set him apart, but his choice was arbitrary, and he’d romanticize the choice later in life—the idea remains that we might peer down two metaphorical roads and make a one choice that leads to others, which leads to others on top of that.

I suppose my point is that it’s those other roads unseen that forked off the first that may be the most beautiful, if not the most important of all because we didn’t plan for them or choose them three moves ahead, but rather had to wait and see where life might take us. There’s always some level of agency in a person’s life choices and those times when we can make plans. Just the same, the road unseen awaits us down the line, no matter how many times we’ve changed it, no matter where we thought we were headed.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Where I Live

As a kid, I had a hard time imagining life much beyond my surroundings. I took everything in my hometown for default, and though I’d muse about life as I’d seen it on TV or glimpsed it in thrice-a-year trips to New York City or far-more-occasional vacations to more far-flung places, at heart, I understood the world through the lens of a quiet neighborhood in a suburb of a small Upstate New York city.

I ventured a two-to-three-hour drive away for college, to an even smaller town, closer to a marginally bigger city. There, I caught a broader glimpse at what another life might look like, my life transported to a new setting, not least of all removed from the people who’d most shaped my sense of place those first eighteen years of my life. After college, my first move was to a city smack-dab in between the place I’d called home and the place where I went to college, a move equal parts because it’s where I first landed a job and because that job deposited me down the street from my girlfriend.

These shifts felt seismic, each opening a door to a new life in a way I suppose is only possible in a life as stable as mine was, living in the same house for all of those formative years, then coming back to it for holidays and spaces in between.

Then the bigger moves.

Seven years in Baltimore.

Two years in Oregon.

A year or so bopping around the Carolinas en route to two years in Georgia.

To Las Vegas.

The move to Las Vegas represented something aspirational on a few levels. Since my first adult trip there, over a decade before the move, I’d called it a favorite vacation spot and a place where I could imagine living, less for the neon lights of the strip than the access to them and in a climate where it didn’t snow. Combine that with the full-time college teaching job I’d longed for the preceding three years.

I had a daily commute again--a half hour or so drive when I listened to podcasts or music and daydreamed while I ate breakfast or an afternoon snack. Nothing objectively glamorous about it, except for the scenery.

The Las Vegas Strip, looming every time I near campus. The mountains and expanse of desert sand when I near my still-new home.

It’s easy for years to slip on by—a handful of milestones aside, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what was different between an average January day in my 2010 or my 2013, those years I lived in the same apartment, commuted the same roads in the same car to the same office job. It’s only the small handful of times I’ve revisited those spaces that I’ve taken it all in--the ugly super market parking lot that offered a surprisingly stunning view of sunsets over the city. The peaceful calm of the long corridor between the parking garage and the offices. The big conference room where I sat through long, hard meetings, but often as not among people who were some of my closest friends in that period of my life. Not to be confused with the smaller conference with the glass top where everyone always left fingerprints of moisture behind, and everyone agreed it was gross.

There was the Chinese restaurant where I watched a boy grow from elementary school age to early high school, all the while compelled to work the cash register between working through math textbooks.

The last time I visited, that restaurant had shut down.

It’s easy to take these things for granted when life is busy, and the longer you’re in a place.

While I don't have any plans for leaving, I also don’t know how long I’ll live in Las Vegas--there are too many factors to say anything with certainty and I’ve learned a dozen times over now not to assume that a likely path is a sure one--that a universe of possibilities will often as not overwhelm what someone as simple-minded as me could guess will be in a year or five or ten.

So I’ve taken to reminding myself of the good, not only in life with my wife and son, not only in a job enjoy with some of the best students I’ve had, not only in degrees of success in my writing that I once dreamed of.

In this place.

On drives home, there’s a sleepy stretch from the major road into our neighborhood. Mountains ahead. The Las Vegas Strip tiny, by way of perspective, out the driver’s side window.

I inhale.

I exhale.

I take a moment to experience and to remember that this where I am.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Car Crash Dreams

When I was fifteen, my father began the mutually unenviable task of teaching me to drive. Since that time, I have periodically experienced dreams of cars that almost always end in calamity.

In the first that I remember, I wasn’t driving, but rather playing basketball. Just the same, the dream occurred shortly after I started learning, when I was hyper-paranoid about causing an accident, at a time when I was playing a lot of basketball, too, and these pieces of my life intertwined in my subconscious. In the dream, I shot recklessly in some driveway that looked like it could easily be in my neighborhood, but that did not explicitly match any I knew in real life. The ball caromed off the backboard with enough force to smash against the hood of a parked car. The owner came out of his house and didn’t look happy. I assured him I would pay for it. My next shot ricocheted and fired over a fence. As if I now existed in a cartoon or Muppet movie, the same car emerged, having been hit again as a result of my errant basketball skills, this time hit so hard it was flipped upside down, and yet still somehow rolled into view, this time with the owner in the driver’s seat glaring at me as I mumbled that I would pay for that, too, suddenly conscious that I in no way had the money to cover a repair of this stature.

These dreams have come and gone, but three hit in close succession capping a cross-country road trip as summer turned to fall 2016, after my fiancee and I had driven the final stretch of days from Arkansas to Tennessee into various North Carolina. In the first, a bright blue car fishtailed in front of me and I was too close to do anything but crash, and woke upon the moment of impact. In the next, I was asleep not only in real life but in dream, and trying to will myself awake as my eyelids drooped, as one stayed shut, as I pressed the brake, certain of an impending accident, willing myself that I needed to wake up, vaguely conscious of Heather sitting shotgun, sympathizing with how tired I looked, only to, at last, succeed in waking, and find myself in bed.

Then the third, the longest.

I was driving down a stretch of highway, Heather by my side again, when we spied two small airplanes ahead, flying at strange, sweeping angles, within inches of the road and then looping upward again. Then the cars ahead of us lifting from the ground and coming back down, hard, though they drove on. This didn’t register as impossible--because in dream, what you see is your reality--but rather a grave injustice. That it was the pilots of those planes causing a disruption in gravity and wantonly wreaking havoc on the road below, and I was grateful that we were far enough back to go unaffected.

Until we were.

For our car took flight. First a couple feet, then soaring higher, until I opined that this was definitely not a safe lift off for a car, as if there were a standard, safe distance off the ground for a car in a situation like this, and I waited for us to crash, expecting for us to smash back onto earth, tires exploding off, irreparable damage to the undercarriage, not to mention our spines condensing in our seats.

And I woke.

I did some cursory research on the meaning of car accident dreams as I wrote this post. I read that such dreams might represent going too fast in life, pushing oneself too hard and needing to hit the brakes. I read that it might suggest an avoidance of conflict in real life, such that your subconscious is forcing the issue, causing a collision.

I’m not sure what of that is true, or what applies to my situation, or if it’s all more simply categorized under those periods when I was driving more than usual and my mind made a link. In dreams, I’ve always struggled with reading, I suspect because my mind can’t synthesize text as fast as I would read it, and maybe something similar is true of driving--of imagining the road ahead relative to experiencing it behind the driver’s seat. Or maybe there’s a broader lesson about those things which are beyond my control--beyond, even, the control of my sleeping mind.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

On Graduation Day

I recall my surprise when my mother told me she hadn’t attended her graduation from college, or after her graduate school experience. After a childhood of watching movies and TV shows in which graduation seemed like such a vital rite of passage, it seemed absurd for someone to skip it as if it were an inconvenience. I knew my parents to be practical people who didn’t do much for the sake of tradition or sentimental value; I knew them to have been married at a courthouse, attended only by immediate family. But to miss graduation?

I went to my high school graduation, and my college one, too. But when it came time for the next graduation ceremony I was eligible for, after completing my first master’s degree at Hopkins seven and a half years later, there came a question as to whether I would invest time in the ceremony, let alone the money for all of the graduation regalia.

I was at a different point in my life. High school and college had been immersive and all-encompassing. These school experiences included my academic life, my social life, and the overwhelming majority of my ambitions whether it was pursuing a leadership role at the newspaper or winning awards specific to that school environment.

But I did that first grad program part time, going to night classes once a week while I worked full time over the course of a four-and-a-half-year period. I’d learned a good bit and made some friends, but this all made up a smaller portion of my world view at that time relative to my professional obligations and even my social circles at work--not to mention a remote life back up in New York with my family and the people I still considered my closest friends.

So, I skipped that graduation, and I’ve never had any meaningful regrets about it, even when I did elect to attend my next graduation ceremony, to commemorate the completion of my MFA at Oregon State. That last degree represented something I’d wanted for a lot longer, from aspiring to an MFA as I finished my undergrad, to planning and saving money before my MA was done, to applications, to moving across the country to enter a new life.

I can’t claim that graduation experience in Oregon was life changing, but the importance of it occurred to me during the day, as I was seated near friends from the past two years out of happenstance--because of where our names fell alphabetically.

A sense of falseness can come from those graduations that don’t mark true endings--a feeling that they have more to do with ceremony than actual endings because the same people might stay in your life, and the same places. But when I look back on my high school graduation, and perhaps the series of graduation parties to follow that weekend; when I reflect on college graduation and that last night at the bar afterward; when I reflect on those final days in Oregon, I feel a different sensation--not of routine, but meaningful change. I had my friends in each of these settings. But all the more so, I had my friendly acquaintances. These are the people I’m still Facebook friends with, and whom I may well say hello to if I passed them on the street. People I saw more or less every day for a period of years, whom its odd to admit I haven’t seen since.

In our culture, graduations are viewed as celebrations, but there is, then, something far sadder in the recognition that graduation can mean more than the end of a school experience, but also the end of a chapter of life. When I look back on these graduation days, years removed, I think of them as though they really were the last time I saw dozens, maybe hundreds of people who used to be a part of my life.

There’s a surprising moment in many people’s lives when they realize graduation ceremonies are most often, most officially referred to as Commencement, and that commencement means the start of something. At their most poetic, these events represent the new beginnings one might pursue with the benefit of their school experience behind them. In a sense, this outlooks shuns the sorrow of farewell and endings, in favor of a look to what might be a brighter future, a bunch of baby birds grown and ready for flight.

And I think of my mother. That she wouldn’t attend her own ceremonies; was that an indication that she was already prepared for flight, no further ceremony necessary?

In the weeks ahead, the National Center for Education Statistics suggests somewhere in the vicinity of three-to-four million Americans will receive with some sort of degree from a domestic college or university. Reaching their own endings. Their own new beginnings. Whether they realize it or not in the moment, their lives may never be quite the same again. Is it more noteworthy that, in the age of COVID-19, most of these millions will, at least for the time being, move forward without a formal graduation ceremony in which they join their peers and in which disparate families come together, maybe for the first, maybe for the only time?

At the university where I teach now, there are intentions of still having a ceremony, date to be announced, perhaps combined with the next winter commencement. A graduation tinged with a homecoming vibe, or a feel like those first Thanksgivings back from college, when everyone is back. A little awkward. Maybe a little forced, with an inevitable drop off in attendance, because not everyone will still be around town or travel back.

But I hope some will. Those who it means something to. Because isn't that what ceremony is ultimately about on a larger scale? It's what people make of it. And for as trite as the wish may be, I hope the Class of 2020 makes the most of it.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Daniel Tiger’s Ballad

The first television show my son Riley came to love was Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

We put on the television when he was little. A curiosity. An attempt at indulging him that at once felt misguided for all of the warnings we’d heard about screen time and like a step toward a kind of independence in taking joy in something that was his alone. Despite his initial indifference, he came to love the show, offering it his full attention, delighting at particular favorite songs, and in time singing along.

Early in his life, we made mention of him watching the show to neighbors, whose own five year old son had watched the show before.

When Heather brought up Daniel Tiger to the boy, he promptly dismissed it. That’s a show that really little kids watch.

Our neighbor was a bigger kid—older, in school and an organized soccer league already. Though very kind and bright, I also recognized in him the vocabulary of a child who’d learned to exist outside the house in a way that was difficult to imagine for our son at that point. The language of shame around something you know you aren’t supposed to let other people know you like, or perhaps more precisely, the language used to distance oneself, lest there be any doubt that you might have ever liked something so profoundly uncool.

Maybe I was sensitive to the point because I’d come to love Daniel Tiger at least as much as Riley, not for plots that could engage my adult mind, but for the fundamentally good messages at the heart of each episode, championing emotional intelligence, generosity, and community. All that, connected to the nostalgia of Mr. Rogers teaching similar lessons to my generation, and the idea that characters indirectly spun off from his show might touch my son.

And yet, as weeks turned to months and months turned to a year-plus, I got a little sick of Daniel Tiger.

I treasured when Riley grew capable of reciting parts of the show--in particular, segments from Daniel’s own monologue during a “Snowflake Day” play. And yet, after watching the same episodes time and again, hearing the same songs that were mostly limited to one or two lines, I soured on it all, leaning into thinking silent, sarcastic jabs at plot holes and unintended double entendres from the adult characters.

Another shift came, though, as Riley’s interest in Curious George and then Frozen superseded his preference for Daniel and friends. With these shows and movies came the promise of more of them to follow and a foreseeable future when Riley might join our old neighbor in suggesting he’d outgrown things so childish as the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

It’s a cruel fate for Daniel Tiger, I realized, to be so loved by those so young, and thus destined to be dispatched of not only through the passage of time, but in a span of time children would only faintly remember. Indeed, while I don’t suspect I’ll ever forget a number of the jingles from the show, I don’t know that Riley will remember a single one of them, at least organically, by the time he’s six or seven years old. So it is that the show arrives at an even harsher reality--that the people who do remember it will by and large be the ones who resent it--parents who gave in to watching episodes far more than they wanted to for the sake of their children, and older siblings stuck with it long after they’ve lost interest.

But then, maybe that’s a testament to some of the good of a show like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Like a geriatric relative or like a well-loved toy, it may be there for a formative time, and yet not around to see the promised land of a more fully formed child, adolescent, teenager, or adult. We take these people and things for granted while they're here, and may lose a conscious memory of the moments that made us hold them dear.

Still, a piece of them clings to us. In having learned to be nice to others. In having learned to love. In having fun.