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.”