Saturday, December 29, 2012

Soundtrack and Slideshow

2012. If I’m going to be completely honest, it was a cruddy year. Despite a few bright spots, and despite being grateful for the “total package” of my life—I know I’m much more fortunate than many—it was still a year marred with more than a few disappointments and missteps.

I love Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture.” It’s brilliant, inspirational, and I’ve re-listened to it a few times each year since I discovered it in the late spring of 2008. Among the many bits of wisdom I most appreciate from the lecture there’s this one: “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

2012--it gave me plenty of experience.

Moving along…

As those of you have been around for a while may already know, since 2002, each December I have compiled a mix CD to document the past year--a soundtrack, if you will.

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 key moments and developmentss from the preceding year.

Without further ado, this year's track list:

1. “Traveling Alone” by Tift Merritt In a year when I visited Boston, Nashville, Cleveland, Easton, Chicago, and many points in California on my own, this song reads like an anthem of sorts for a way of life--lonelier, perhaps, than I'd prefer at times, but also a state affairs I’ve come to appreciate for its own merits.

2. “I Made a Resolution” by Sea Wolf I heard this one on Friday Night Lights amidst a marathon viewing after I had my wisdom teeth out. As fitting a song as any for the start of a new year.

3. “Boston” by Augustana The first big trip of the year took me to Boston for the first time in five or six years. I traveled for the a cappella competition, but also enjoyed a walk around the Harvard campus and a hearty serving of bacon and eggs at The Breakfast Club.

4. “Skyscraper” by Demi Lovato A very pretty song, executed quite nicely by a number of a cappella groups this spring.

5. “Shake It Out” by Florence and the Machine Another song I was first exposed to via a cappella, and that had the unique distinction of getting better with each a cappella iteration I heard throughout the spring. Besides that, bar none, my favorite song this year.

6. “Fishin’ in the Dark” by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band I heard this one in a bar my first night in Nashville, after a visit to the Jack Daniels Distillery and a night before one of the greatest ICCA semifinals I’ve ever seen. Without question, one of my favorite trips this year.

7. “Prophets” by AC Newman I spent much of the first half of this year catching up on How I Met Your Mother. This song bookends the season four finale which I had seen before, but resonated anew with me this year, leading to repeated viewings and a surprisingly earnest sense of inspiration each time I’ve heard this song since.

8. “Like Teenage Gravity” cover by Counting Crows My car broke down and I spent a week walking six miles round trip to and from work. The Crows had just released their Underwater Sunshine cover album, and so I naturally spent most of these walks listening to the album on repeat. This was my favorite track.

9. “Bluebird” by Sara Bareilles I first heard this song at the high school a cappella finals, sung in lovely fashion by a group from Port Washington High. It’s a lovely song of loss and acceptance. Melancholy. Haunting. Unforgettable.

10. “Home” by Phillip Phillips Like so many Americans, I first heard this one during the Olympic coverage, and it was the lead-off track for the mix I listened to over and over again on my annual California road trip at the end of the summer, traveling through Napa, Yosemite, and LA.

11. “Don’t Wake Me Up” by Chris Brown We listened to this one in the car on a trip to Rochester Labor Day weekend.

12. “I Want You” by Bob Dylan I decided I wanted to be single and ended a two-year relationship. Defying my own logic, and perhaps not so surprisingly for those who know me well, I promptly fell for someone new. No, it didn't work out. I remember listening to this song in the car and daydreaming about what might be.

13. “Some Nights” by Fun. In addition to its general ubiquity, this song became an anthem for the final months of the year--for emceeing the professional showcase at ACappellaFest, for any number of workouts, for my thesis reading. It seemed whenever I needed an extra bit of courage, this was the song to help kick me into gear.

14. “The Cowboy’s Christmas Ball” by The Killers Far and away my favorite new holiday find this season.

15. “A Long December” by Counting Crows There’s reason to believe…

16. "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" by REM I kicked off my Christmas vacation by attending shows put on by Some Ska Band and Soundbarrier, each of which covered this song, pre- and post-the anticipated 12/21 apocalypse.

17. “Pomegranate Sky” by Taylor Berrett My friend Anthony has the excellent habit of sharing really good music via Facebook posts. This is a beautiful song of hope and reflection.

And now, to renew a not-as-time-honored tradition (this is only the fourth iteration) I present a slideshow for 2012.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

One Day More

Do you hear the people sing
Singing a song of angry men

Indeed, for a period of years I heard the people sing. I listened to the music of the night. I forgot regret, lest life be mine to miss.

I belong to a generation of musical fans that learned the lyrics before they learned the story, a phenomenon I’ve found to be pretty common among people of my age demographic who had ample access to CDs and, in our later teenage years, the Internet, but not much opportunity to get out see a stage show, save for the productions at our high schools.

Granted, most of the folks I know who got hung up on musicals were women and most of the men who did were, themselves, thespians and/or singers. I fall in neither category, but much like my love of The Indigo Girls and Dar Williams, I can identify the source to my enjoyment of musical theater—and particularly the songs there from--as my sister’s teenage fanship.

I first heard the soundtracks to Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables in late elementary school or early middle school. Armed with a rudimentary understanding of each of the stories, and hours upon hours of listening to the songs, I constructed my own understandings of the plots and characters. More than that, I felt every line and every bar of the emotionally unhinged musical stylings. I was the misunderstood and underappreciated Phantom of “Music of the Night” just as much as I was the subject of profound love in “All I Ask of You.” Gender lines be damned, I was the broken soul of Eponine in “A Little Fall of Rain.” And gosh darn it, to this day when I plug in the earbuds to go for a run, “One Day More” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” remain some of the most inspiring jams to kick me into gear.

I connected with these pieces out of a sense of angst identification. The lyrics are overwrought. The instrumentation monstrous. Everything is a big deal in the world of these musicals--joy enough to burst into song; love rich enough to provoke a serenade or duet; sorrow profound enough to the words to necessitate the swell of melancholy chords to convey the depths of the human experience at hand.

I’ve never seen a stage production of Les Mis, nor have I gotten around to Hugo’s original novel, or any of the existing film versions. And so, when I join the masses at the theater in the weeks ahead to see the new movie it will be my first exposure to the full story (such as it is adapted in this interpretation). I have little doubt I’ll love it, and suspect that I may even recover a bit of my younger self--better in touch with my emotional core, if a bit less articulate about expressing such things. I’m prepared to laugh and perhaps even shed a tear, as I hold back the urge to sing along in the dark of the theater.

Bonus Musical Inanity

I present to you, my top ten favorite songs from musicals.

-These are personal choices, so there’s really no room for debate unless you know me really well and know that I missed a song I would have wanted to have ranked. Feel free to weigh in with your own favorites in the comments.
-I arbitrarily elected not to include Muppet films. Otherwise, they would certainly have had a presence on the list. I did, however, factor in Joss Whedon musicals Once More With Feeling and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Several pieces from Sunnydale just missed the cut, and as you’ll see, only one from NPH and co. made it on.

10. “There Once Was A Man” from The Pajama Game
9."River of Dreams/Keeping the Faith/Only the Good Die Young" from Movin' Out
8. “All I Ask of You” from Phantom of the Opera
7. “A Little Fall of Rain” from Les Miserables
6. “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” from Rent
5. “Defying Gravity” from Wicked
4. “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You” from The Last Five Years
3. “My Eyes” from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
2. “One Day More” from Les Miserables
1. “Finale B” from Rent

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Minor Key Christmas

“Wintersong.” It’s a terribly depressing piece about living with loss, wishing a merry Christmas to someone who will never hear you say it.

It makes me think about my grandmother.

Grandma Jean was the shining light of my youth who humored me when I imagined any number of fantastical worlds, read every story I wrote, and provided a bastion of normalcy in a messed up childhood. On top all of that, my grandmother was Christmas. The one who hosted the family gatherings. The one who let us decorate her house each winter. The one who gave us the best gifts.

Let’s start at the ending.

Grandma’s memory faded. She fell asleep at the Scrabble board in between turns each time we would play. She had a stroke. It was time.

I don’t recall the exact timeline, but she moved into a nursing home around the same time I finished college. I visited her every time I came home, which wasn’t particularly often when I lived in Syracuse. As she succumbed to dementia, it grew harder to see her, harder to interact. But I remembered what Elizabeth, an ex-girlfriend, had told me years earlier. Elizabeth had worked in a nursing home, and she said that, as people got older and as they lost their minds, as they lost themselves, they were still happier when they had company.

“Even if she doesn’t remember who you are, or where she is,” Elizabeth said, “she’ll be happier because she isn’t alone. Because she knows someone cares.”

So, I kept visiting. Not as often as I should have. But I tried.

Christmas day, we made a family visit. Grandma slumped in her chair, oblivious to the conversation, uninterested in Christmas cookies, barely awake. We tried to engage her. We failed.

We put on our scarves, dragged coat sleeves over our arms, pulled on hats, and packed up the cookies. I leaned in close and spoke directly in Grandma’s ear. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” she said.

In the minutes that followed, we all stood still. Be it the timbre of my voice, the proximity of my mouth, or sheer timing, she could hear me. I told her who I was. I told her my mother and my uncle were there. I told her that my sister and her husband were there.

“That seems to be pattern of late,” she said.

We continued. I told her how it was cold and snowy outside. I told her how the common room where we had gathered was decorated with tinsel and wreaths, just the way we used to dress up her living room. She replied in starts and stops, some responses more coherent than others. But she was talking again.

It felt like a minor miracle.

As we left the nursing home, I thought of Elizabeth and fired off a text message to wish her a merry Christmas. Our first contact in well over a year.

She texted back, “Who is this?”

I would have liked to have talked to her. Not to have rekindled the relationship--I was with someone new by that point--but to have gotten reacquainted. But she had already deleted my number. I let it go.

Grandma Jean passed away that February. Had I known that that Christmas day would be the last time I’d ever speak with her, I might have prolonged the visit. But then, she needed her rest and we had probably all said our share for one afternoon.

It’s easy to remember simplified versions of our pasts. To think high school was all bad, or college was all good, or to define a relationship by its ending.

Childhood Christmases seem perfect on a large scale. Like the best times of my life. But when I think more carefully, I remember a different Christmas. Grandma bought me an old-fashioned train set. My father and I spent hours assembling it. I pouted and fumed and cried when we couldn’t get it to work correctly.

If I could go back, I’d forego the train set and stay longer at the kitchen table eating petit fours, sipping hot cocoa, and telling stories. But those times are dear to me now because they were fleeting. Because I didn’t realize how special they were as they happened.

When I was a kid, I assumed nothing would change. Twenty, twenty-five years later, very little is quite the same.

Dear reader, the references to Elizabeth may have seemed out of place in this reflection, but I mentioned her for a reason. A few years later, through the wonders of Facebook, we got back in touch. We found ourselves in roughly the same place for Thanksgiving, and on Black Friday we got together for dinner and drinks. We talked for seven hours straight, as if we needed to make up for every bit of lost time in one sitting.

I reminded her of the text message I had sent that Christmas and the text message she had sent back.

She apologized.

I forgave her.

Few of us will ever have holiday revelations like Ebenezer Scrooge or George Bailey. Just the same, there’s no point in spending a holiday listening exclusively to sad songs. If Band Aid isn’t doing it for you, you can compromise on happier lyrics, set to minor keys.

Whether you spend your holidays with family, with friends, or all on your own, I urge you to join me in eating, drinking, and doing your best to be merry. In taking moments for reflection. In taking moments to appreciate what you have in the here and now. And, perhaps, even in sending a text message to someone you haven’t heard from in a while.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On the Mic

Mike Peek is one of the coolest people I know.

He’s sure to quote me on that. And I’ll probably never admit to his face that I wrote it.

The fact remains that, in addition to being an excellent, loyal friend, he’s also a hell of a musician. Over the years, I've spent many an evening with Xs drawn my hand, and then many more without the Xs, crowding the stage at Utica bars to hear him sing and play lead guitar for any given number of bands, including Feedback, April Shroud, and Through The Looking Glass. I’ve felt proud of him, often singing his own original songs, assuming all the stage presence of a rock star.

But we’ll come back to Peek.

Each spring, my high school hosted the “Pops Concert.” Unlike most of the school concerts in which the orchestra or band or choirs would perform, this one was about less structure, less regiment, and more creativity. It’s where garage bands took the stage, and musical theater kids staged single songs from their favorite Broadway shows. I went to my first one in middle school to hear my sister and her boyfriend of the time perform their cover of “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” in the style of Nirvana on their Unplugged album, the boyfriend on vocals and guitar, my sister playing the viola to simulate the accordion part. At the age of 13, I thought it was about the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

And I knew I wanted to do something like it.

I didn’t perform at the Pops Concert my first three years of high school. I’m not sure how the idea came about, but senior year I ended up getting together with a couple friends of mine, both of whom were far more musically adept than me, and we arranged an act, each of them on guitar, me singing. In retrospect, I can only assume these guys thought the world of me as a friend, because they sure didn’t include me in hopes of bolstering their musical credibility.

For weeks, we practiced Matchbox 20’s “Hang,” and I daresay that their came a point at which I was dangerously close to getting in tune and remembering all of the lyrics. Just the same, we collectively grew concerned about performing such a downer, and through a combination of nerves and knowing my vocals weren’t going to get us a standing ovation, one of the guys dropped out of the act.

So then there were two.

We switched songs, opting for a better-known and more upbeat option from the Matchbox 20 catalog, “3 a.m.”

The night of the show, we got in place to perform in the dark. The way the show was set up, there were about four or five different staging areas in the auditorium. A spotlight would shine on one act. They would perform. That spotlight would turn off and another would shine on the next act, while yet another act took the preceding one’s place.

The spotlight came on. My friend played the opening chords.

I sang.

She says it’s cold outside and she hands me my raincoat
She’s always worried about things like that

I’m not entirely sure why I adopted a southern twang for that performance. The makeshift accent had come and gone in our rehearsals, I guess because the song itself has a country tinge to its pop sound. When I sang the opening lyrics, it didn’t sound to bad to me.

The audience laughed.

Maybe it was the twang. Maybe it was my juxtaposition to so many legitimately talented singers. But all at once, what little trepidation I had coming into performance--say, 20% of my psyche--multiplied to 90% of my thought process. We’d drilled the song enough that I could sing it on autopilot, all the while thinking that every girl I liked, every douchebag who made fun of me in gym class, and for Chrissake my parents were there to hear me get laughed out of the auditorium.

The laughter died down, I like to think it was because I found the key, though it probably had more to do with them realizing I didn’t mean the performance as a joke and having the decency not to laugh in my face. The performance evened out from garbage to unremarkable.

Then came my moment.

All the while we had rehearsed, I toyed with the idea of not just singing, but screaming my way out of the bridge into the final chorus. I hadn’t discussed it with anyone--even my accompanist--and even as the moment approached, I didn’t know if I’d cut my losses and stay even keel or let a rip.

So, yeah, I let a rip.

(For reference, “the moment” arrives at about the 3-minute mark in the original.)

My friend kept strumming his guitar, but the moment even got him laughing, as the audience screamed. It was a seminal moment in the performance--the point at which I let the audience know that even I knew I wasn’t very good, and that I didn’t much care. It was the moment when the audience recognized me as a middling singer with balls of steel.

At the end of the song, the audience applauded. I had survived, and perhaps for that final third of the song, even thrived. Nonetheless, I hung up my proverbial microphone, satisfied and ready to more or less retire from singing.

Don’t get me wrong, because in the years that followed, I sang at summer camp talent shows, karaoke bars, and even a couple open mic nights. But never with a serious musician backing me up; never in a context that mattered.

Then, four years ago, Peek called me on stage.

Peek has written a number of good songs over the years, but in my estimation, none before and none since have touched “Breathe.” It’s an honest piece about an unshakeable, almost inevitable love that just hasn’t quite come together; it’s a piece in which everything right about Peek melodies and Peek lyrics comes together for a song that I daresay wouldn’t sound out of place on mainstream radio anywhere.

I came home for Thanksgiving, and that Black Friday Peek played an acoustic set by himself at a bar in Utica. I came to the show, and before he went on, we half-joked about me joining him to take the lead vocals on my favorite original.

An hour (and three or four beers) later, there I was in front of the crowd, taking a stool next to Peek. I leaned into my mic. “Two things you should all know," I said. "One, I don’t sing. Two, I love this song.”

Peek played guitar, and we sang the lyrics as a duet, harmonizing better than we had any right to for never having sung together before.

Maybe it was the song. Maybe it was the feeling of sharing not just the song, but a story and a feeling and a message with a live audience, and getting to do so with one of my best friends. For whatever combination of factors, those five minutes were sublime--probably the truest and the best five minutes of that whole year.

The audience didn't laugh or boo. They cheered and a handful of individuals even congratulated me on my singing afterward.

But Peek deserved all the credit. He manufactured that moment. And for that, if for no other reason, I'll always remain convinced that he's a pretty cool dude.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Change a Story

I met Derrick Moore in middle school. We were mathletes, amateur basketball players, and between the years of 1994 and 2001 sat across the lunch table from one another more times than I care to count.

He’s a good guy and a good friend.

December 1996, Derrick’s father, Ted Moore, went out for a morning run and he was killed by a drunk driver.

On the anniversary of his father’s passing, Derrick made a post on Facebook reminding everyone not to drink and drive. A couple days later he sent me a message, asking if I might blog a similar message.

On one hand, I wasn’t sure what to do. I’m not in the business of blogging PSAs, and if I’m going to be completely honest, I didn’t know Derrick’s father all that well.

On the other hand, screw it, I knew exactly what to do.

No, I didn’t know Ted Moore very well. But from what I had observed, he was a good father and from what I’ve heard and read since his passing, he was a great teacher (a math professor) and a better man. People like that don’t deserve to have their stories ended early. And they don’t deserve to be forgotten.

So I make this post in tribute to him.

And in the midst of that tribute, let’s not make any mistakes about Derrick. He went on to be a high honors student and a varsity athlete in high school. Years later, he graduated from Cornell Law. He’s not only a survivor. He’s a success story. From what I can tell his mother and younger sister have done quite well for themselves as well.

With this post I look up to my old friend and his family, and I am proud to share their message. A message I wish I didn’t have to share, but if I affect one reader’s thought process, then perhaps I’ll have contributed to a legacy befitting a 13-year-old boy’s father, stolen from his family too soon.

Drink responsibly.

Drive responsibly.

Don’t be afraid to call a cab. Your car will still be there in the morning.

Do the right thing. You might save a life. You might change a whole story.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Long, Quiet Drives

One of the oft-unspoken pressures of a long distance relationship is the compulsion to make every minute you have with your partner count.

In my undergraduate years I was involved with a woman who lived about an hour and a half away. We spoke on the phone quite a bit, emailed almost daily, and saw each other on a fairly regular schedule of alternating weekends.

One of those weekends we drove up to Boston to visit a friend of hers and catch a concert. It was a long show to cap a long weekend, followed by an even longer drive back to New York.

We sat side by side in the car that Sunday afternoon. It was autumn, but too late to see the foliage change, too soon for snow. Bare trees lined the sides of the road, swaying with the wind, just waiting for something to happen.

My partner and I were starting to get serious. We punctuated all of those phone calls and emails with “I miss you”s and “I can’t wait to see you”s and countdowns until our next time together. I spent hours perfecting mix CDs for her and, for her part, she seemed to spend hours listening to them on repeat.

But on that southbound highway, we didn’t talk. There’s the simple reality that two people--particularly two people not so adept at small talk--only have but a finite number of things to say to one another, especially after they made another six-hour drive north two days earlier; even more so when they’d spent a cumulative couple hours on the phone in the week leading up to these drives.

I cursed myself. For how badly I’d missed her leading up to that trip, and for how badly I knew I’d miss her again in 24 hours--to be fully cognizant of the before and after, and yet unable to think of a single thing worth saying in the here and now.

I held her hand. She rubbed her thumb over the hair on my index finger. She let me go to turn the page of the Rolling Stone splayed across her lap, then laced her fingers between mine again.

I drove on, racing nightfall, riding out the hills and navigating the gentle twists and turns of the road home.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Rejection After Rejection

When I was at Syracuse, I had the pleasure of studying under Phil LaMarche.

While, in retrospect, it’s a little absurd, I think one of the reasons I enjoyed studying with Phil so much at the time was because I thought I could see myself in him. Five-to-ten years older than me and a long-time resident of Central New York, Phil seemed to share with me a similar aesthetic when it came to the written word. Better yet, he represented so much of where I wanted to be, teaching creative writing at a major university, an alum of one of the best MFA programs in the country, and, of course, awaiting the publication of his first novel by Random House at the end of the semester.

It didn’t seem like a long road for me to travel to get to where Phil stood, a living breathing example that my dreams were possible.

It turns out that road is pretty long. Five years later and the destination isn’t yet in sight.

Phil turned me on to Cormac McCarthy. He gave a draft of my novel an earnest read, and gave me the feedback I needed to hear at the time. But more than anything else, I expect I’ll always remember one key piece of advice about writing, and, indeed, about life, that Phil delivered to me via anecdote.

One time, I had a student ask me, “Do you think I have what it takes to make it as a writer?”

I asked him, “Are you going to keep writing and keep working hard, despite rejection after rejection after rejection? Despite disappointment? Despite the fact that no one wants to give you a chance?”

The student said, “Maybe.”

I said, “Then maybe you have what it takes.”

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Back to Life

When we look back at the people in our lives, we tend to categorize. Because this is going to be one of those posts, let me boil that down a little further. I’ve had different types of girlfriends, or, more precisely, types of relationships with women.

The ones I thought I might spend the rest of my life with.
The ones with whom I knew I’d never have a meaningful connection.
The ones with whom I was, legitimately, better off as friends.

This is the story of one who brought me back to life.

I went through a really difficult breakup. Top five hardest breakups ever, right there with the first time I ever got dumped. That feeling that this. Could. Not. Have. Happened.

But it did.

I was hearbroken and I buried myself in my work. My writing. My blog. I started volunteering more. I worked out like a mad man. I filled the time.

To borrow a phrase from the film adaptation of About A Boy, “I had a very full life. It’s just that it didn’t mean anything.”

I went to a conference out of town, where I met up with a few old friends and acquaintances. We went out to dinner that first night and one of them introduced me to Anne.

She was slim, hair tied back, chic blouse and pencil skirt. Physically, Anne was a beautiful woman, and there’s no denying that was the first thing I noticed about her. The next things I noticed: she talked down to the waiter; she cursed a lot; while it seemed affectionate at first, I became increasingly certain that her “ball busting” of the friend who introduced me to her was more mean-spirited than jovial.

I volleyed with her. Given the right setting, the right people, I can be a bit of a ball buster myself, and so I engaged, almost equal parts joking and coming to my friend’s defense.

After dinner, a smaller group of us lingered and moved over to the bar. While I waited for the bartender, a weight came to rest on my shoulder. Anne. In heels, she was almost as tall as me. Tall enough to put her chin right there.

“Am I distracting you?” she asked.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

Our little party thinned until Anne and I sat alone. She sipped a martini. I drank my Jack straight. When we weren’t talking about something we got along much better, sharing the briefest anecdotes and factoids from our lives, then teasing one another about each one.

“It’s a shame we’re only here a few days,” Anne said.

“Why’s that?”

“Otherwise, I might ask you out to dinner.”

I walked her up to her hotel room. She put her card in the slot on the door. The light flashed green and she turned the handle.

It was the first time I saw her awkward, unsure of herself.

She took about three steps inside and turned around to face me. I kept the door propped with my foot.

“I had a good time tonight,” she said.

I kissed her.

A couple minutes later, we said good night.

I went about my business the next day. I bought a two-dollar banana and a cup of stale coffee from a vendor on the expo floor. I sat in a series of sessions and asked questions, struck up conversations after workshops, and gave business cards to a dozen folks I’d never hear from again. It was a completely ordinary conference experience, notable only for the nervous energy manifesting itself in a near-literal bounce in my step as the hours wound down to seeing Anne again.

I told our mutual friends I had a headache. I’m not sure what excuse Anne used, but I don’t think anyone scrutinized us too closely. The second night of a reunion never feels as vital as the first.

Anne used to live not so far from the conference locale. We hopped in her rental car and drove for half an hour to a much smaller town. We shared a plate of fried calamari over drinks at an Italian restaurant and quickly found that we had all but exhausted topics for conversation. Then I spilled a drop of red wine on the crotch of khakis. She said I looked like I had had my period. We were off and running again.

After dinner, we walked the stretch of storefronts, hand in hand. The town had strung white Christmas lights along all of the tree branches, oddly out of season.

We got back in the car. An old Richard Marx song played on the radio. She called it gay and changed the station. I spared her the lecture on homophobic language. Along the drive, I watched the patterns that took shape on her face in the glow of the dashboard, under streetlights, and beneath the shadows of the tree branches and telephone lines at the side the road.

We made it back to her room.

Under the covers I ran a hand over her bare arm. “It’s a shame we’ve only got one more night.”

She might have nodded. Might have rolled your eyes. You never know what you’re missing in the dark.

I mentioned that we didn’t live that far apart. Absurd, since you’d have to drive almost a full day to get from my door to hers. She called me on it. I reminded her of the existence of air travel. She asked if I knew how expensive that flight was. I admitted I didn’t.

I knew by then that Anne wasn’t the woman I’d spend my life with, and removing physical contact from the equation, I couldn’t imagine we’d make great friends. Nonetheless, as our big toes crossed, I realized I hadn’t thought of my previous relationship or the break up in over 24 hours.

That felt pretty good.

“What are we doing?” Anne asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m just saying that maybe I could come see you in a few weeks. And if we both have a good time, maybe we’ll see each other again a few weeks after that.”

“For Chrissake, we’ve only known each other two days.”

I didn’t spend the night.

Despite the rocky ending, I still couldn’t wait to see Anne again for our last night in the same zip code. I sat in the same session as one of our friends that morning, the one who had introduced us. He wore a black tie patterned with yellow and blue and pink balloons. “It’s my birthday,” he said. “So no headaches tonight. We’re getting the whole crew together.”

Anne didn’t answer my text messages that afternoon, so, indeed, I joined the whole crew, Anne included, in the hotel lobby that night. We walked to a karaoke bar four of five blocks from the hotel.

The birthday boy and Anne sang a duet, he as Andrea Bocelli, her in the role of Sarah Brightman on “Time to Say Goodbye.” It seemed emblematic of something or other. The abrupt end to my brief time with Anne. The ending of a belabored, too-long epilogue to my previous relationship.

The two of them made googly eyes as one another on stage. Just for show, I figured. I ate chicken wings and pretended not to notice, all the while wondering what kind of bar had that song in the rotation. When my turn at the mic came up, I sang “I Believe In a Thing Called Love” by The Darkness. My ability slip into a falsetto is the only remotely impressive weapon in my karaoke arsenal. The crowd cheered when I approximated the high notes. Anne talked through most of my performance, her eyes fixed eight inches above the knot in my friend’s balloon tie.

Ten minutes later, I finished my beer, waved a hearty salute to the table, and got up to leave. I made it all the way to the sidewalk when Anne caught up with me.

“You’re going to leave like that?”

She put her arms over my shoulders, locked her fingers behind my neck. A few doors down a group of really little kids--first- or second-graders by my best guess--were gabbing away with each other. I wondered where the parents were and why on earth these kids were out so late at night. Anne and I both watched them for a few seconds.

“We’ll have to keep this G-rated.” She kissed my cheek and hugged me.

I hugged her back, holding her long and hard, knowing it would probably be the last time I would do so.

We traded a handful of emails after we had both gotten home, but promptly fell out of touch the way people with little in common and little time together tend to do. In the months that followed, via Facebook, I saw that she and the birthday boy had forged their own relationship. I was confused. Then upset. Then OK with it. All in a span of a couple days.

I ran into him at another conference almost a year later. We talked for about ten minutes on the street. Anne’s name never came up. We made sure we had each other’s numbers and agreed to meet up for drinks that night.

We never did.

Post-Anne, I never looked at the woman I was seeing before her in quite the same way. And for that matter, I wrote a little less. And I didn’t feel so bad about skipping a trip to the gym.

To return to that line from About A Boy, I suppose you could say my life was a little less full. And perhaps it’s because I carried far less baggage that I was finally ready to move on.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Long Run

I was five years old the first time I won anything.

The best I can recall, we spent the entire last day of kindergarten on footraces. The day started with a free for all. We lined up in the grass, eighty or so kids from the four kindergarten classes at Westmoreland Road Elementary. At a teacher’s ready-set-go, we set off running the length of a football field. I remembered my father’s advice about the difference between long runs and sprints. I paced myself, stayed with the pack until the final 30 yards or so when I sprung out ahead and won the race.

I told my father when I got home. My father, who I had devastated when I turned out I couldn’t hit a baseball to save my life. My success at running marked the second chance at an athletic career. In the weeks that followed, whenever the two of us were idly waiting for something, he called on me to run to some point in the distance and back--to the street corner, to the telephone pole, to the tree.

I was fast, but not in a record-breaking sort of way. In lieu of any obvious way to application for talents, we moved on. By mid-summer, my old man switched his focus to teaching me to read, using an elaborate system of homemade flashcards and the ever-imminent threat of hitting me in the back of the head with one of his beat-up old blue slippers if I got a word wrong.

You can’t make this stuff up.

But back to running, it was around that time that I joined my sister and the neighborhood kids in lining the side of the road to hand out water to runners of The Boilermaker Road Race. For those unfamiliar with The Boilermaker, it’s a 15K (approximately 9.3 mile) race, that today fields up to 13,000 participants. Each year, a number of world-class runners from afar join the race.

We handed out water and watched the people run by--professional runners, intense amateurs, and finally the everyday people who weren’t exactly running by the seven-and-a-half-mile point, mere footsteps from my front door, but who nonetheless had the wherewithal to still be in motion, still trying.

I told my mother that one day I would win The Boilermaker.

By the age of 17, I had no illusions of ever finishing in the top 1,000 runners for that particular race. But I did decide it was time to give The Boilermaker a try.

I trained.

We had a week off from school each April, so starting then, I hit the pavement. The first day, running for 12 minutes straight was nearly unbearable, and I relegated myself to laps around the block so I wouldn’t strand myself too far from home.

By the end of the week I could sustain a run for about 20 minutes.

By graduation, I could keep running for an hour or so each time out. This was before the days when every runner had a pedometer. Using markers from the local terrain, I estimated I was moving between an eight- and nine-minute mile clip.

Come July—the month of the race—I was holding pace for an hour and a half or more. In short, I was ready.

Four days before the race, I ate some bad pizza.

I was friends with a pair of brothers who hosted a get-together each summer. Ten or so of us would play basketball most of the afternoon, eat excessive quantities of food, and then end up in their in-ground pool as the evening set in. In the gluttony portion of this particular gathering, I ventured out of my normal comfort zone and ate a slice of mushroom pizza.

I’ve never liked mushrooms. I don’t like the texture, and the flavor has never been enough to compensate for that.

This--the time I willfully ate mushrooms--led to the single worst stomach virus of my life. (As a reasonably rational adult, I recognize that eating all that pizza without washing my hands after I played basketball probably had more to do with my illness than the mushrooms themselves. Psychological scars don’t always abide rationalism, though. I haven’t intentionally eaten a mushroom since.)

It started the next day at my summer job, working behind the counter at McDonald’s. I had trouble standing. I figured all that running, plus the day of basketball, plus an eight-hour shift on my feet were just taking their toll, and I’d get some rest when I got home.

When I got home, I puked my guts out.

For the two days that followed, I lay in bed, only getting up long enough to cross the hallway to the bathroom and ralph up whatever was left in my system. I’m sure I must have drank something and ate something over the course of those two days, but only certain of it because I must have had something more in my stomach to manufacture more vomit.

Then came race day. I couldn’t keep food down, but I was able to jog in place, barefoot on the yellow carpet in my room for a minute without feeling sick. And so I decided to run.

Jog may be the more appropriate term. While ten-to-eleven minute miles are OK to me in my advanced age, they felt like moving in slow motion at the age of 17. I stopped for a cup at the first water station. One sip of water and I was nauseous again. I chucked the rest of the cup and kept moving.

There are medics everywhere at The Boilermaker, ready to tend to folks who bit off more than they could chew running a 15K. I never expected to be one of the people who needed them. And, perhaps against all odds, on rubber legs, no food, and no water, I stayed upright. After about an hour and forty minutes I crossed the finish line.

Looking back, my mother tells me I looked like death.

I always intended to run The Boilermaker again someday, but I got a job with a summer program out of town the next year and ended up working with that same summer program every summer since (11 years and counting).

I went to college and kept running. A practical choice. I intended run The Boilermaker again. I was drafting a novel about a runner. Plus, there was the sheer principle that I’d gone from getting gassed after running a mile and a half, to running close to ten miles; I didn’t want to give up the conditioning. So I ran a couple times a week, three-to-five miles in an outing, and more or less maintained the regimen for four years.

I didn’t run in the years immediately following college. I worked my 9-5, I wrote, I took classes, I lived with my girlfriend. I had a full life.

I moved to Baltimore. After a longer winter than I expected after migrating south, there came an April day that was pure spring time. Sunny, low 70s.

I ran.

I explored my suburb for the first time on foot and developed a somewhat routine route, about four miles long. Some neighborhood kids took to racing me along the stretches of sidewalk outside their houses. I had fun.

For the first time since The Boilermaker, I registered for a road race, a mere 5K in the Baltimore Running Festival that autumn.

The day of race arrived about a month and a half removed from a four year relationship and about a week and a half after things ended with the next girl. I mention all of this because of the idea that dominated my thoughts as I approached the finish line:

This is what it means to be single. You run a race and find no one waiting for you at the finish line.

I’m not sure if it was that melancholy thought, or that I was starting to get more into weight training, or that the weather started to cool (in reality, it was probably the confluence of all those factors), but I stopped running after that race, not to pick it up again for well over a year and a half.

Then came the Army Ten-Miler.

How does one go from a 5K to not running at all to a ten-miler? Truth be told, I don’t remember the specifics; just that my friends talked about doing it and I got caught up in the romanticism of running again. April 1, 2010, I registered. Days later the training began.

The first time I ran with any serious intentions I was 17. A decade later, the results weren’t as pretty. My knees ached. My back hurt.

But I did it.

A week before race day I ran 10 miles and change. After a week of rest, I drove down to Greenbelt, caught the Metro into the heart of DC, and took my place at the starting line.

I took it all in and tried to enjoy that sheer experience of running. The good feeling of a sweat you’ve worked up and earned, rather than the sweat heat and humidity impose upon you. The way a breeze to your front can cool you off at just the right moment. The way a breeze to your back can feel as though it’s pushing you forward. The capacity to engage with your thoughts or to think nothing at all and simply do.

I took it all in for no other reason than because I had decided this would be my last long run. While I haven’t ruled out a return to The Boilermaker if I ever have a summer free again, I’ve decided that I’m otherwise done. The joint pain, the time investment--all of its made for younger people, or people who find greater joy in this sport.

I didn’t run again for nearly two years. This time, I had no qualms about losing my conditioning. I was at peace with it. I like to think that’s the nature of a good retirement.

Then, on a pensive birthday I had split between writing, Chinese food, and Batman movies, apropos nothing, I laced up my sneakers and started running.

I felt some of the joy again. The burn in my lungs was something like an old friend, not altogether unpleasant. I thought about my life and what I wanted. I plotted. I made choices.

I was only on the road for a half hour or so. I’ve run a dozen or so times since then. Unplanned. Unstructured. Exploring.

I suppose that idea of running never really leaves you once you’ve realized it. A sheer physical task that, in its purest form, has nothing to do with competition or chasing after a ball, but that is, on the contrary, its own sport, its own art, its own endeavor. It’s an escape from the rest of life when unread emails and voice messages fall by the wayside in favor of conversations with oneself.

At least that’s the way it is for me.

I run now for myself, without pressure, expectations, or goals. Not to or from anything, but, perhaps, for something that is all the more important for lack of definition.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Meeting Chris Jericho

In the February 2011, Chris Jericho stopped at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore on the book tour for his second memoir Undisputed.

For those unfamiliar with Jericho, his biggest claim to fame is as a professional wrestler—one of the last great stars from the territory system (he traveled internationally to cultivate experience in and the style of many different regions) and the World Wrestling Entertainment’s first undisputed world heavyweight champion (unifying the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling titles). Aside from his accolades in wrestling, he’s the lead singer of a truly awful band called Fozzy, has appeared on reality shows like Dancing with the Stars and Celebrity Duets, and has served as a talking head for several VH1 pop culture programs.

But, yeah, he’s significant to me as a wrestler. Both for his athletic abilities and his skill as a talker, he has to make any serious fan’s shortlist for top stars of the past twenty years.

I’ve seen Jericho perform live a half dozen or so times, but none of his performances stood out to me more than a 3-on-1 handicap match in which he defeated “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka at Wrestlemania 25.

You see, for wrestling fans, everything that happens at a Wrestlemania is a little more significant. The show gets almost a million live pay per view buys each year and draws a live crowd of 60,000-plus. When the lights are on brightest and the most eyes gravitate to the product, WWE delivers its most iconic moments.

When Jericho came to Baltimore, he delivered a brief speech and held a Q&A, then set up shop for a meet and greet and to sign copies of his new book. As I stood in line, I mentally prepared what I would say to him. A half hour later, I had reached the front of the line. I shook his hand. I posed for a photo. I handed over my copy of not only Undisputed, but his original memoir A Lion’s Tale for his autograph.

And I spoke.

“Mr. Jericho, I was there in Houston for Wrestlemania 25. You made three legends look they were in their twenties again. It was an honor to watch you at work.”

Jericho finished his signature and looked up at me through the lenses of this totally-unnecessary-indoors sunglasses. “Wrestlemania 25. Which one was that?”

“Uh… it was you and Ricky Steamboat… and Piper… and Snuka.”

“Oh yeah, that was a lot of fun.”

And that was it. We shook hands once more and I walked away while the next fan stepped up to the table.

A wrestler like Chris Jericho has probably worked well over 5,000 matches in his career, and I’d never expect him to recall every one of them. But Wrestlemania? Against three hall of famers? Who had Ric Flair in their corner? After which Mickey Rourke, fresh off his star turn in The Wrestler, came in the ring and punched him out?

That moment in the Baltimore library has stuck with me as one of my most awkward, and yet most thought-provoking celebrity encounters. As fans of any given form, we have these transcendent moments—a wrestler’s great match, a musician’s great concert, a politician’s great speech, a writer’s great passage. We have these moments that resonate with us, and we think that if they were so important to us, they must have been positively monumental for the man, woman or child who actually did it.

But no one remembers everything.

And perhaps that’s the greatest gift of the greatest artists: to deliver a thousand moments, each of which a different fan clings to for his own reasons and in his own way. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter that Jericho hardly remembered my greatest memory of him—it matters that he gave me the moment at all.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Archie and Me

I never thought I’d be that guy.

The guy who posted pictures of his pet on Facebook.

The guy who got the appeal of cat memes.

The guy who considered the potential for a cat’s loneliness in planning his social calendar.

Then I met Archie.

To put a finer point on it, I lived with Archie.

Aside from four fish I shared with my sister (one of whom cannibalized two of the others), I never had a pet growing up. My mom is allergic to most anything that moves (cats, dogs) and many things that don’t (chocolate, eggs, raspberries). And my father; well, let’s just say the erratic behavior, shedding of fur, and general maintenance of an animal would never really become his lifestyle. And so I grew up with the perspective of animals as alien species. I liked the idea of cats and dogs, but aside from petting one for a few seconds and maybe scratching behind his ears, I never really knew what to do with one.

In the fall of 2010, I took over my friend’s lease on an apartment so I could move to a more happening area of Baltimore and she could spend the better part of a year house sitting for a professor. My friend had two cats—one of whom she sent off to live with her mother and Archie, who went to live with her friend in DC. The trouble was her friend had two kittens who Archie didn’t look at as “friends” so much as “prey.” Archie needed new living accommodations and, against my better judgment, I said, “Sure, send the furball over.”

Our first night together, Archie and I got along just fine. He explored the apartment, climbing on the kitchen cupboards (the tops of which I have never cleaned) and leaving a trail of dusty paw prints around the apartment when he was done. I poured out some food for him. By the end of the night, although he wouldn't make direct eye contact, he lay beside me on the couch, looking at me expectantly as I watched TV. I pet him. He purred.

5 a.m. the next morning. Archie hopped onto my nightstand. He batted at the pen I keep by my bed for late night ideas, until it hit the floor. He knocked my phone to the floor. He climbed over me and hopped on the dresser on the opposite side of the bed. I watched groggily as he knocked my glass of water into the underwear drawer I had left open the day before.

He wanted to me to get up and feed him.

This marked the start of routine, which more or less exactly replayed itself every day for the next nine months.

(Note: I did start closing my underwear drawer and drinking from a water bottle.)

I started sneezing. I came to suspect that the cat was not only disrupting my sleep, but that he had unveiled an allergy I had inherited and never spent enough time around cats to notice. I told my friend I might need to give him up, but that I’d give it a little more time.

I lay on my couch that night reading Flaubert. Archie hopped up to join me and lay down on my stomach looking up at me. I’m not sure why, but I started reading aloud to him. He watched me, and dare say listened, stock still and attentive. While I didn’t often read aloud to him again, I came to enjoy those moments, rubbing his furry tummy, listening to him purr while I read War and Peace and The Passage and Play Their Hearts Out.

We established other routines. Each evening when I came home he waited by the door, meowing plaintively as soon as he heard footsteps climbing the stairs. I got in the habit of scooping him up on my way in the door. He’d purr and nuzzle the top of his head into the side of my neck as I set down my bag, and made my way to the kitchen to prepare dinner for myself and pour a fresh bowl of chow for him.

We had other adventures and other rituals. He took to batting strands of spaghetti, stealing romaine from my salad, lapping at raw chicken before I had the chance to put it in the oven. He tried to take my pen from me most times I wrote freehand. He stalked and killed a number of cockroaches, eating their lower halves and leaving the heads behind--perhaps as trophies or warnings, or maybe that part just didn’t taste as good.

I think of this creature, whose poop I carried to the dumpster multiple times each week, who woke me at odd hours, who nearly tripped me any number of times in his efforts to keep up as I walked across the apartment--that desperate for companionship, for attention, for a friendly stroke.

My last night with Archie, I picked him up, looked him in the eye, and told him I loved him. He looked away. He still didn't like to make eye contact.

And I suppose that’s what it is to have a cat. To have his unconditional love one moment, only for him to want nothing to do with you the next. Only for you to love him just the same.

My friend took Archie back once her house sitting gig was up. I’m happy to sleep through the night now and not to make plans for his care when I spend a weekend or more out of town. It’s nice not to come home to books knocked over, not to find bread ties scattered around the apartment like part of some mad man’s scavenger hunt. I never had to deal with caring for him when he was sick or with veterinary bills or so many of the practical and unpleasant elements of pet ownership. All in all, objectively speaking, I think it’s fair to say I’m just as happy without Archie in my life.

But I’ll be damned if I don’t miss the little bugger from time to time.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Feel Like Home

One autumn, some friends of mine went on vacation and eloped. They came home, rented out a hall downtown, and threw a party for everyone they would have invited to a wedding.

After several glasses of wine, a few of us noticed that no one had made any speeches. After one more glass I decided, “Aww hell, I’d might as well say something.”

Delia clutched at my arm. Delia, who had seen me make an ass of myself more times than I cared to admit (usually under the influence of whiskey or wine). Delia, with whom I’d been enamored since the day I met her. Delia, whom I had dated for a period of weeks and whom I had thought might be “the one” before she ended things. Delia, who looked stunning in her crimson cocktail dress.

“Don’t,” Delia said. Don’t make a fool of yourself. Don’t disrupt the proceedings. Don’t say another word. I can only assume she meant all of those don’ts, tightly packaged in a single word (albeit a contraction).

I paid her no mind.

I got the microphone from the DJ and I raised my glass. The would-be maid of honor clapped for me and the hall fell silent. I started talking about what a lovely evening it was and how the bride and groom were such good friends to me.

I didn’t know what I was saying.

And I looked to Delia. Wide-eyed and waiting for me to fail, calculating whether this would be one of the times she laughed along with me, told me off, or didn’t speak to me for a period of days. We had cycled through each option time and again.

And in that moment—that moment when, admittedly, I still thought she smelled sweeter than chocolate-dipped daisies—I didn’t know what she was to me. But I did know, with striking clarity, what she was not.

“There are certain people who feel like home,” I said.

The bride’s mother nodded. Beamed. Wiped a tear from her eye.

“My friends here—the two of them found a home in one another. And I couldn’t be happier for them.”

People clapped and cheered and whistled. The bride and groom kissed. I walked off stage.

We were supposed to stay together that night--me, Delia, a couple other friends--in an extravagant hotel room one of them booked down the road, certain we’d all be too drunk to drive. I started the night with intentions of sharing a bed with Delia. Maybe spooning her as she dozed off. In the romantic afterglow of the evening, her head heavy with wine, she might even welcome it.

But I walked off stage and kept walking. Got to the street, pulled out my cell phone and called a cab. By the time anyone realized I was gone, I had already made it halfway home.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Starks, Not ‘Melo

March 2011, The New York Knicks acquired Carmelo Anthony.

On the surface, this was great news. For the first time since Patrick Ewing roamed the paint, it The Knicks had a legit franchise player; a 25-points-a-night scorer; a guy who had led his team to an NCAA Championship; in short, a star.

In a fortuitous turn of events, I happened to be in New York on business the day of ‘Melo’s first game as a Knick; my hotel a stone’s throw from Madison Square Garden. I had to visit an ATM to get the kind of cash the scalpers were looking for (I never carry that kind of cash) and soon enough I was seated in the upper rows of Garden for a historic game.

As much buzz as there was around Anthony’s arrival in New York, let’s be clear that there was also a fair amount of skepticism. A collection of lesser known players, many of them from abroad, collectively nicknamed “The European Union” had played team ball and brought the Knicks back to playoff contention over the last two years. A goodly portion of these players got shipped elsewhere to bring Anthony into town.

The new-look Knicks struggled that first night, and while they did ultimately pull off the win, it was far from decisive—just edging out the lowly Milwaukee Bucks in the final seconds of regulation.

That very same night at the Garden, a ceremony took place at half time to honor great Knicks of the past. Among those honored was John Starks.

John Starks. A hothead. A streaky shooter. The kind of player who probably had more fire than talent, but who had enough fire that when he got going and channeled all that piss and vinegar, he was among the very best in the basketball world.

The crowd at the Garden gave Starks a standing ovation that night, and there’s little wonder why. Although he had his moments when he had let The Big Apple down (e.g., an utter collapse in the final game of the 1994 Finals), he was the sort of player that the just same electrified a fan base, carrying the team on his shoulders for a full rollercoaster ride of ups, downs, and out-of-control moments. He was exactly the sort of player who could rally a crowd behind the Knicks for storied, oddly personal rivalries with The Indiana Pacers and later The Miami Heat.

In a nutshell, he was New York.

On paper, a player like Anthony is a safer better than a player like Starks. He’s a better scorer. He’s more consistent.

But he doesn’t really capture anyone’s imagination.

We live in an NBA era in which profound scorers like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Kobe Bryant have embraced superstar pacts; sacrificing individual statistics to ally themselves with other great players in pursuit of championships. Anthony is an outlier as a player who seems content to score, score, score and bend a team to his will (see the departure of coach Mike D’Antoni) with little regard for whether his squad ever makes it past the first round of the playoffs.

Anthony’s shortcomings went on display when the last year’s greatest NBA phenomenon took hold: Linsanity.

On a Knicks team plagued with injuries (benching many, including Anthony) unlikely hero Jeremy Lin got some minutes. The Harvard grad averaged 22.5 points in 12 starts, leading New York to a 9-3 record (a far better clip than their sub-.500 record up to that point). He enjoyed the kind of transcendent sports story that reaches well beyond Knicks fans, or NBA fans, or even sports fans in general, to the general populace. For about a month, he was the biggest story in basketball.

That’s how you capture the imagination. That’s how you make people believe.

Behind the scenes, there was more to the situation than Lin’s excellent play. It was the synergy between his game and the type of ball Coach D’Antoni had previously built his name off—high-octane, run-and-gun basketball. Lin ran. Lin passed. Lin scored. The Knicks won.

Then Anthony came back. He insisted on running the slower, half-court offense, centered around him touching the ball on every play. Management took his side.

D’Antoni left.

Lin lost his luster, before getting injured and sitting out the last leg of the season.

The Knicks limped into the playoffs and got swept in the first round.

This year, Lin will have a chance to prove that his abbreviated star turn in New York was no fluke when he laces up his sneakers for the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference. That’s right, the Knicks’ greatest “home-grown” star of the last decade or more has left town.

And The Knicks? They’ll carry on. Anthony at the helm, Amar’e Stoudamire and Tyson Chandler backing him up, and a cast of 1990s and early 2000s NBA all-stars behind them (Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace; former-Knick-favorites-come-home Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m hardly an expert on today’s NBA, much less on what makes Anthony tick, or what might lie beneath the surface of this New York bench. I hope I’m wrong when I predict little better than .500 record and another first-round exit from the playoffs for The Knicks this season.

I hope, but I don’t believe.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Two Chicago Stories

I’ve been to Chicago twice.

The first visited in 2006. Sometimes you know something important is happening in the moment. Sometimes times you have to wait. As I prepared to return to the six years after my first time through, that initial trip first time seemed rife with watershed moments.

The first trip was about family.

Growing up, my sister was my near-constant companion. Together, we assigned not only names, but well-defined personalities to our collection of stuffed animals and acted out any number of scenes with characters like Mud Puddle (a brown Pound Puppy) and Honk Creative (a My Pet Monster) at the fore. Over a period of years, we created a hand-written magazine for a readership of one (my wonderfully patient grandmother). My sister was my earliest musical influence, turning me on to artists like REM and Tori Amos, and taking me along to my first concert (I may have been the only 13-year-old boy at The Indigo Girls show). We grew apart a little when she got to high school, and more or less fell out of contact when she left for college; a shared ineptitude at keeping in touch left us estranged, if no less friendly.

My sister moved to Chicago with her fiancée right after undergrad. In 2006, the better part of a year removed from college myself, I decided to make a concerted effort to rekindle familial bonds. I made the trip west.

I thought the trip would be about introducing my then-girlfriend to my family.

She said she didn’t want to go.

When I broke up with her two years later, I cited her unwillingness to engage with my family as a part of the reason. She said if I had asked her to come to Chicago again instead of moving along to invite a buddy in her place, she would have said yes. We weren’t the best at communicating. But then, I don’t think it hit me how much I cared about her not coming on that trip until well after I got back from Chicago.

The trip started something new.

About a month before we embarked for midwest, my friend and I had taken a road trip to Rhode Island to see then-girlfriend’s a cappella group sing in a competition (something we did a number of times in those days). Along the drive I pitched the idea of a new website called Average Joe’s A Cappella Blog—a collection of opinion pieces about a cappella, from the perspective of fans of the genre who were in no way experts. On the train to Chicago, we sketched and wrote and crossed out and circled and numbered and all but filled a pair of legal pads, brainstorming everything from site content to layout to philosophies. By the time the train reached Chicago, we had dropped the “Average Joe’s.” The A Cappella Blog would launch eight months later.

Little did I know, six years later, it would be The A Cappella Blog that brought me back to Chicago.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We visited The Field Museum. We saw Second City. We had a pizza at Gino’s and watched The Bulls drop a game to the visiting Miami Heat. We walked up and down Michigan Avenue in the March chill. It was every Chicago clichĂ©, plus the nuance of recounting the eccentricities of childhood with my sister. (Our old man gave us enough fodder that I doubt we’ll ever stop marveling at how we lived like that, and how we ever came out the other side as relatively normal, high-functioning adults… but that’s another topic for another time.)

Long story short, that first trip, buffered with all manner of watershed moments, was itself a pretty fantastic little vacation.

Fast forward six years. In a week with no new material posted, The A Cappella Blog is getting around a thousand unique visitors a week; in weeks when we are active that number gets multiplied several times over. I’m not saying this to boast (and I suspect some folks who may read this have a larger audience at their own sites), but rather for perspective. Against most odds and some logic, we have a readership.

Then I made a list.

After seeing a reference to the Maxim Hot 100 this past summer, I thought about creating my own list; one that objectified people less and celebrated them more. For The A Cappella Blog I write about groups all the time, but rarely about individuals. And so, I carved out an hour or so most summer nights after work to compile a ranking, do Internet research, and write bios of 100 of the coolest people in a cappella. The ranking ran as a ten-part feature, Monday through Friday of the first two weeks of September. “The List,” as it became known in a cappella circles, drew a lot of traffic to the site, and produced a lot of *ahem* discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Non-a cappella fans, bear with me, I promise this is all going somewhere.

While plenty of folks liked the list, plenty hated it. I got lampooned for snubbing most of the big names in a cappella recording; because of a heavy bias toward Americans (fewer than ten non-US citizens made my ranking); for the use of the word "cool" making it feel like a shallow popularity contest; and for the sheer principle of ranking human beings. Some of the criticism was quite valid and I’ve learned from it. Some of it was less constructive.

Midway through this series of posts, and before things got very heated at all, I got an email from a friend in the a cappella community, inviting me to emcee the professional showcase at ACappellaFest in Chicago that October. The role would entail introducing The Edge Effect and Sonos (truly one of my favorite groups) to hundreds of fans. I wasn’t just flattered. I was stunned. And all too eager to accept.

After the fall out of “The List,” I won’t deny I was a little less excited for my return to Chicago. Sure, there’d still be Sonos, and plenty more music, and plenty more friends. But after the vitriolic reaction so many folks had to The Cool 100 I had visions of getting booed off stage; of groups refusing to associate with me. I actually went so far as to compose an alternative emcee script in my mind—for emergency purposes only—if the boos did outweigh the cheers when I got in front of the audience.

And so I returned to Chicago, this time without a traveling companion and without a host (my sister and brother-in-law have moved twice since 2006). I got up at 4 in the morning to catch my flight, then drove through and walked around Chicago until it was time to check in at my hotel. I ate chicken-and-waffle pizza at Dimo’s; saw American Gothic and windows by Chagall at the Art Institute of Chicago. I paced the length of Millenium Park.

I felt calm going into the a cappella festivities that started Friday night; I enjoyed a good show and spoke with friends—many of whom I had only known via email Facebook up to that point. Afterwards, I got more pizza (Giordano’s this time) and called it an early night.

Saturday went well, too—the series of workshops and classes I visited throughout the day, and, yes, the emcee gig that night. “The List” was a topic of conversation; a majority of the folks I spoke with brought it up in one form another. But I was pleasantly surprised when most of those exchanges were more curious than argumentative; some of them even supportive. I didn’t get booed off stage; by the time I was up there, I even had the gumption to make a joke about the list, and while I couldn’t see most of the audience (the houselights were turned down) I heard laughter in response. Not one rotten tomato hurled my way.

And Sonos was amazing. The Edge Effect, too. But, come on, it’s Sonos.

When I got back to Baltimore Sunday evening, I looked through my photos from the weekend. I looked at the ones from the festival, of course, with an eye toward which ones I’d upload to share with the a cappella people. But then I looked at the ones from my walk through Chicago. I took this one, a self-portrait of sorts at Cloud Gate.

For the unfamiliar, Cloud Gate, or “The Bean” is a large public sculpture by Anish Kapoor that resides in Millenium Park. It’s said to have been inspired by liquid mercury, and has unusual reflective properties, distorting views of the skyline and of visitors. In this reflection, I stand, ostensibly amidst a crowd of people, and yet, also, ostensibly alone; in either case, distorted by another artist’s vision.

It may be true that these two trips to Chicago were two entirely separate experiences; separate stories, bound by nothing more than a common setting. But then, I’m the same person, am I not? Still looking for family, in a sense? Still spending too much time thinking about other people’s art—musical, bean-shaped, or otherwise?

Or am I (still) grasping at threads?

I made a lot of mistakes
All things go, all things go

Friday, October 26, 2012

American Horror Story

American Horror Story is the most compelling show on TV today.

Three reasons why:

1) Pacing. Most TV shows for which each episode is part of an extended story arc pace themselves out. You see the egg in the first episode. The skillet in the second. The burner comes on in episode three. By episode six or seven, someone is eating scrambled eggs. In AHS someone mentions eggs, and seconds later someone is cracking one open against his forehead and swallowing the raw yolk whole (not an actual scene from the show; a metaphor).

The show operates in 12-episode chapters; season one told a story; season two features many of the same actors but in entirely different roles and settings. When, no matter how well the audience receives your story, you only have 12 episodes to work with, it means you have nothing to lose. AHS comes at us with the urgency of a short story, not a novel, with absolutely no fear of about emotionally or physically eviscerating major characters (worst case scenario, they can always come back as ghosts). It’s television without fear, about fear.

2) Human Horror > Monster Horror. To date, AHS has included in its cast of characters ghosts, monsters and aliens. While the supernatural creatures allow for atmospherics, plot twists, and wonderful subversions of the viewer’s expectations, they ultimately amount to sizzle; human nature is the steak. The first season’s haunted house story was themed around infidelity; most prominently the aftermath of an extramarital affair, but more broadly betrayal of family, values, and even oneself. Season two, set in an asylum, seems concerned with different forms of perfidiousness: hypocrisy; selling out the ones we love or our ideals for the sake of our own self-preservation.

Note the choice of words: our, not their; self-preservation, not self-betterment. The characters are all too real, and the best of them rarely make choices any rational person, in the same distorted situation, wouldn’t agree to (or at least strongly consider). These characters are out of luck, conflicted, and make choices that don’t just make the plot move, but seem necessary for their very survival. We relate to them because, at our worst, we are them. That’s horrible, terrifying, and beautiful.

3) Indulging our worst instincts. This has to do with both pacing and human horror. AHS sets us up to have preconceptions, and has a tendency to do one of two things from there: undermine the expectations gradually, or deliver on them with shocking rapidity.


We see a corrupt woman running a corrupt asylum. We see a reporter out to reveal her to the world. We see a man who ostensibly does not belong in the asylum getting all-but-tortured. We see the reporter wander the darkened halls of the asylum when she’s not supposed to be there. We realize that, if the reporter isn’t careful, she could find herself wrongly imprisoned and subject to the same horrors. We pat ourselves on our backs, because we think we might have foreseen a major story development that could come up later in the show and grow drunk on the potential.

Then the reporter gets caught. The next time we see her, she wears institutional garb and is strapped down to an examination table. Our worst fears and greatest hopes for the season have been realized in a matter of minutes. And the season premiere still hasn’t even finished yet.


AHS can be gratuitously gory and sexual, particularly for a free TV show. It’s not for everyone. But if you have the stomach to get past all of that (or if all of that is your cup of tea) there’s no richer hour of television going today.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Live Your Life

I messed up.

I drank too much at the downtown bar. The things I said; they weren’t coming from my better self, but rather the bastard who surfaces when a broken heart and an excess of whiskey take hold of one another beneath my skin. I hurt a girl I thought I loved. I was an embarrassment to the friends who stuck with me.

The next day I sent text messages. Apologies. Weak jokes. Drivel.

The messages went unanswered.

I asked a good friend what I could do to make amends.

"It's not about what you say or do now," he said. "Or tomorrow. Or the next day. It's about waking up every morning and showing the world you're not that bastard. It's not about one night. It's about how you live your life."

Many years have passed since that night. I've made amends and torn new wounds, built some things and broken others. But those words about the way you live your life have stuck with me, much the same as the old writer's adage about how you have to show your readers something instead of telling them about it.

I can't tell you exactly what this blog will be. You'll just have to stick around and let me show you.