Monday, December 30, 2013

New Year’s Eve

I’ve heard it said that New Year’s Eve is one of the most disappointing holidays of the year. It makes sense, for a night built not so much on tradition or family or ritual as unadulterated revelry. The impulse that you must party; that you might forget your past and get a fresh start, in tandem with the celebration of a year gone by, complemented by a TV and the Internet bombardment of retrospectives, top ten lists, and predictions. All of these inclinations and influences for a night that is, itself, no more inherently remarkable than any other.

I’ve spent New Year’s in Vegas. Gone to parties large and small. I've watched the makeshift ball drop in 34th Street in Baltimore. I’ve had some good times, some not so good. But for me, I don’t suspect any New Year’s celebration will surpass those first few I can recall at my grandmother’s house.

From 1991-1997, I rung in the new year at Grandma Jean’s. My sister and I would cram much of our stuffed animal collection into our overnight bags. We’d fetch the crystal punch bowl from the storage space above my grandmother’s foyer and meticulously assemble it, hanging the little mugs from the hooks at the side of the bowl before making our punch--a concoction of sodas, juices, (one ill-conceived year) milk, and whatever else my grandmother might have in her fridge. We staged lip synch performances, played cards, and sung songs. By the end of the night, we watched the ball descend on Times Square on TV, and banged together pots and pans to ring in the new year.

The last year I spent New Year’s with my grandmother, my sister had stopped coming. She had withdrawn from the proceedings by degrees--one year spending an hour of the party on the phone with her boyfriend; another, spending the first leg of the night with friends before she was dropped off at Grandma’s, and finally not coming at all. As a thirteen-year-old boy, I don’t think anyone much expected that I’d want to keep up the New Year’s tradition of staying with Grandma all on my own.

But I did.

There were many parts of my childhood and early teenage years that I didn’t care for. My father’s refusal to heat the house in the winter. Having my lack of coordination publicly exposed time and again in gym class. My proclivity for profoundly felt crushes that never went anywhere.

All of these parts were made right at Grandma Jean’s house. Maybe Grandma only did what normal grandparents did when she listened to me talk, read my fledgling attempts at writing, bought the sodas I liked, and did her best to buy every item I asked for on my Christmas lists. Maybe. But in her little house, I felt a brand of unconditional live and warmth and good spirits the likes of which I’ve ever encountered anywhere else.

For all of these reasons, New Year’s Eve felt sacred and I struggled to fathom spending the holiday with anyone but my grandmother.

But though we’d had plenty of sessions of playing board games or watching TV on our own, and would continue to do so for years to come, that night felt different. Less natural, more forced. I hid my disappointment when Grandma said it wasn’t worth the trouble to fetch the punch bowl out of storage. I think that she grew very conscious that I might feel bored with her company, and around ten o’ clock removed a bottle of Peach Schnapps from the pantry and poured me a shot. I took a sip and didn’t like it. She poured the remainder down the drain.

And so, we were both completely sober as we watched the ball drop. We tidied the kitchen afterward and extracted the mattress from the pull-out couch for me to sleep on. “You’re a good kid,” she said. We hugged and said good night.

One of the hardest pieces of traditions is recognizing when it’s time to let one go--when the repetition and comfortableness have surpassed meaning, enrichment, or even enjoyment. When it came to spending New Year’s with my grandmother, I feel fortunate that there was a neat departure point, and that when the time came for us to stop sharing that night together, I don’t suspect she felt abandoned, nor did I feel rejected. That just as I had stopped bringing stuffed animals with which to spend the night at Grandma’s, so too had spending the night at Grandma’s altogether become something we mutually outgrew.

There are times in my adult life when I reflect on my grandmother as my favorite figure from my childhood; I recall and contextualize the ways in which she influenced and inspired me. And in these moments, I wish I could sit across the card table from her one more time, for one more round of Canasta over Diet Coke and potato chips, and, yes, that I could once again join her for a glass of New Year’s punch, countdown to midnight, and sing “Auld Lang Syne.”

These are vibrant memories. Ones of the truest love I’ve known and some of the best times of my life. As such, though I might type these words a bit wistfully, and though I wish I’d spent a little more time with Grandma Jean in her final years, the gestalt of the reflections brings me joy, not sadness. For what was, and for what may still be. For the hopes of not just new years past, or this particular new year, but the many, many years that might lie ahead, and the many forms of love and happiness those years might entail.

Happy New Year. And to Grandma Jean--wherever, whenever, whatever you may be--I love you always.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Soundtrack and Slideshow

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 the preceding year.

Without further ado, this year's track list:

1. “My Dear Acquaintance” by Regina Spektor A quiet, hopeful song, for a quiet New Year’s alone, spent assembling a bookcase, then wandering 34th Street flask in hand to watch the the makeshift ball drop.

2. “Stubborn Love” by The Lumineers This was the bittersweet song of recovery after a rough close to 2012, and an unofficial theme for the spring writing project that helped me to the other side of the tunnel.

3. “Madness” by Muse and 4. “Give Me Love” by Ed Sheeran Two beautifully conflicted favorites from the a cappella season.

5. “Get in the Game” by Cody Martins and Sparky Buddha A late winter favorite, and a core track to the playlist I listened along the walk to work when my car was in the shop.

6. “Show You How To Love” by Pentatonix This Pentatonix original takes me back to a February trip to Rochester, meeting new friends, and the ICCAs at Nazareth College, my second time hosting an event with Mike under the A Cappella Blog banner.

7. “Sons and Daughters” by The Decemberists In March, I took a road trip to St. Louis on a cappella business. Along the way, I stopped off in Indiana to hang out with friends from college, and the way back included my first swing through Kentucky. This song anchored my road mix for the journey.

8. “The Flood” by Katie Melua A favorite from the a cappella show in St. Louis.

9. “Ride On, Right On” by Phosphorescent On an otherwise unremarkable morning drive to work, NPR ran a music segment that highlighted this song. Phosphorescent went on to become one of my favorite bands of 2013. This song started it all.

10. “The Laundry Room” by The Avett Brothers I made my annual-ish Memorial Day pilgrimage to Rochester. I had just discovered this song and couldn’t get enough of it at the time.

11. “Balloons” by Julia Nunes I discovered Julia Nunes in a bout of binge-YouTubing in the spring. This original resonated with me above all the rest of her material, and I played it on repeat through much of what little down time I had in Santa Cruz at the start of the summer.

12. "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke It got pretty hard to avoid this one over the summer...and what the heck, ugly social narrative aside, it was a fun enough pop song.

13. “Chasing the Sun” by Sara Bareilles You said remember that life is not meant to be wasted … so fill up your lungs and just run, but always be chasing the sun. In mid-August, I embarked on my fourth road trip exploring California. I had plenty of stops planned, from the DeLaveaga Disc Golf course, to a visit to Bill Hare’s studio, to the International Sports Bar in San Fran, to a Sing Off taping, to multiple WWE shows, to an adventure in skydiving. I expected some relaxation. Some adventure. I don’t know that I could have anticipated a trip that would affect me so deeply, though, reaching its pinnacle with an unplanned stop in San Diego and the start of a new relationship. “Chasing the Sun,” a new track from Sara, is clearly about New York City, but that didn’t keep it from becoming the anthem of my journey south down the west coast.

14. "Shadow Love Song" by Heather Jones An original song resulting from creative challenge between the songstress and I.

15. “Timshel” cover by GQ My copy of star aca-quartet GQ’s debut album arrived the say day I embarked on a trip to see my mom, witness the wedding of two my dearest friends, and reunite with other close buddies from college. I played the album, and most particularly this track on repeat for much of the long drives that bookended the weekend.

16. "Don't Lose Your Dinosaur" by Upset A fun anthem to individuality, creativity, and staying true to oneself I stumbled upon this fall.

17. "If It's the Beaches" by The Avett Brothers A song to remember a November trip back to San Diego.

18. "Let It Go" by Idina Menzel A post-Thanksgiving viewing of Frozen saw me listening to this track a lot in the weeks to follow, a reminder of the good times ahead amidst an early winter chock full of paperwork.

19. "Christmas in LA" by The Killers My favorite, albeit down-trodden, new holiday find of 2013.

And without further ado, I present my 2013 slideshow.

Happy holidays, all, and my best for the new year ahead.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Conversations About Angels

This past fall, I got to talking with a dear friend about angels.

She told me some pretty amazing stories about interventions in her life--no-win situations that had every potential to leave her emotionally eviscerated, physically hurt, or even dead when someone had come to her rescue. Police officers. People on the street. Faces she’d never seen before and never saw again that did and said something fundamentally important at a fundamentally important time.

She called these people angels.

The skeptic in me balked at the terminology. Selfless, good people, I’ll grant you. Fortuitous timing, absolutely. I’ll even grant the label of hero. But angels?

Like a good friend will, she pushed me on this point. She asserted that I, too, must have been helped by angels, only I didn’t notice them or recognize them as such. She went on to say that I’d probably served as an angel for others.

I reflected on these points for a period of days. Took a step back from my skepticism about all things magical or supernatural to wrap my head around what she was really saying. How little it had to do with religious iconography or mystical beings, as opposed to the brand of spiritualism I’m more comfortable with: that people are interconnected and that a larger force (be it karma, God, or the gestalt of the human experience) is steering us toward something good, or just, or balanced.

As such meditations tend to go for me, the point led to a lot of personal reflection.

I thought about how rarely I ask for help.

A detour: In my youth, my father illustrated one of the differences between my older sister and I. That when she learned to speak, her first catchphrase was, “Do self,” meaning that she didn’t want my parents’ help--she wanted to do things on her own, whether it was walking from place to place, turning on the faucet on the kitchen sink or feeding herself. By contrast, my father said I wanted things done for me.

There’s a lot packed into that designation. I remember one of the times my father made this point--certainly not the first. I had what was probably my first experience of turning something that made me uncomfortable into a joke (one of my signature social tics). I feigned laziness and said, “Sure, why wouldn’t you want someone to do things for you?”

But putting aside that verbal reaction, I also think that this was a key moment in teaching me independence. Good, to a point, because solving my own problems paved the way to a number of leadership roles and living as a pretty self-reliant adult.

But one can be independent to a fault. I recall the time I was in the seventh grade Shop class and struggled mightily for my utter lack of intuition about mechanics and using tools, and how I hid my lack of progress building a clock rather than asking the teacher or friends for help. I recall however many dozens, if not hundreds of times I got lost in the period between getting my driver’s license and getting my first GPS, and how many accumulated hours I might have lost for my resistance to stopping to ask for directions.

What’s all that have to do with angels?

Angels, in the spirit my friend suggested, are people who help in times of need. There’s an implication of divine intervention, but a more concrete sense that help can come to those who need it.

I’ve made a life of not needing help. Guarding myself, planning meticulously, finding my own way through jams that others probably could have helped me through. And so arose a pretty clear explanation for why I wouldn’t have seen angels.

My friend suggested that if I reflected enough upon it, I would recognize those times when angels helped me. Or that one might reveal itself now that I was looking.

I thought more.

And I remembered.

I remembered a late spring afternoon in middle school when a friend and I walked around our neighborhood, only to get jumped by a group of older bullies in Halloween masks. They didn’t do much more than push us around before we ran away, but we ran in the opposite direction of home, and were fully conscious of the likelihood that our tormenters were waiting for us to double back.

So we rang a doorbell. An old woman let us inside. She cast a wary eye outdoors and observed that the older boys were, indeed, waiting for us around the corner.

I’d never met this woman before. To my knowledge, I never saw her again. But she let us out her backdoor to cut across her backyard, shaving invaluable yardage and time off our journey home. To this day I’ve never been a true physical fight. In retrospect there’s every possibility that woman saved me from a beating.

I remembered another time, further back. In one of the traumas of my childhood, from June to August of my elementary school years, I took early morning swimming lessons at the local public pool. Each summer ended with a pizza party. On one such occasion, I got in line with the rest of the kids, got myself a couple slices of pie and met up with my father. He was infuriated that I hadn’t picked up any pizza for him. He yelled at me and cursed, then stormed off to enter the pizza line on his own.

And I stood there alone, having lost any semblance of appetite. I threw away what was left of my pizza and stood apart from the rest of the kids, staring at the ground, doing all I could to keep from crying.

One of the lifeguards came up to me. A large black man I’d seen around the pool all summer but never interacted with. He asked if I was OK. I nodded. He asked if I had gotten any pizza. I nodded again.

He stood by me. I don’t think he said a word, and he didn’t hug me or anything so sentimental as that. But he stayed long enough for me to choke back all those beginnings of tears and see clearly again.

A child’s perspective is screwy. Months blur together. Mere minutes seem like they dragged on forever. I have no idea how long that lifeguard stood by me, but I remember that I wasn’t so upset when father came back with his plate of food, and that he’d cooled off, too. I remember the rest of that end of summer party by the pool proceeding without event.

An old woman lets a couple nerds escape bullies by darting through her yard. A lifeguard asks a visibly distraught kid if he’s OK. If you don’t believe I was visited by angels, I don’t blame you. The truth is, I’m not so sure myself.

But I do know that in those moments when I needed help, I found it. That I didn’t know so much as the name of the people who saved me, and don’t think I could pick either of them out of a crowd today. But that they nonetheless existed. And that I’m thankful for them.

I first drafted this post on the heels of my conversations about angels. In deciding when to post it, the holiday season seemed both poignant and a bit contrived. But as I considered the scheduling further, I thought of the angels we see atop Christmas trees. Angels lining front yards. Angels hovering outside windows in made for TV movies.

I thought of all these consumer-brand angels. And I thought of the angels my friend insisted upon. The ones I’m starting to believe in.

I thought about angels and thought it might be worth reminding you, dear reader, that angels just might be more than branded goods and figments of the imagination. And if they are there, I’m pretty sure their existence transcends the month of December.

Be at peace, friends. Happy holidays.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

For My Mother

In my adult life, I’ve struggled with my relationship with my mother.

I’m not great at small talk. If someone meets me halfway, I can make ends meet, but without the benefit of common interests, a common workplace, or at least common geography, I cede my limitations as a conversationalist.

And then there’s Mom. She doesn’t do small talk. Her brain isn’t any more wired for it than mine. Moreover, I get the impression she actively detests the notion of idle chatter.

Thus, when we get on the phone once every month or two, the conversation has a tendency to stall before the ten-minute mark, and when we partake in one-to-one visits at her home or mine, I tend walk in with a degree of trepidation, only trumped by my actual discomfort when we inevitably run out of things to say.

So I got to thinking about the nature of my relationship with my mother. What we’ve done for another. What it has meant. What I’ve taken away.

And I remembered all of the times she has shown up.

I remembered the ritual that played itself out over a period of years in my childhood. I waited, back to my headboard, sitting up in bed, writing, reading, or just thinking. Mom knocked on the door and came inside. We hugged and said good night. She turned out the light.

The practice repeated itself until one night--probably in middle school--I was frustrated with something or other and not ready to go to sleep and told her she didn’t need come in my room every night.

I felt like an ass afterward. Not only for hurting my mother’s feelings, but for the purely selfish reason that it made me sad to think I wouldn’t ever end another night hugging her.

So, the next evening, I told her it was still OK for her to come in and hug me good night sometimes.

Sure enough, that night she showed up. Told me my offer was too good not take advantage of.

But at some point, not so long after, we did stop hugging good night.

I remembered the speech contests. Each year the local chapter of Optimist International put on a three-round speech tournament, the winner of which received a $1,500 scholarship. My sister won the contest and, as was so often the case for the first seventeen years of my life, I followed the trail she had blazed, entering the contest in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades. And, though my father may have been the one most invested in my participation and in my winning, he ultimately withdrew himself from attendance, knowing his presence had a tendency to make me nervous.

But Mom was there. To see my first attempt at public speaking. To see me bottom out in my second attempt, when my cue cards were out of order, I grew flustered, and suffered one of the most profound embarrassments of my life. And she was there the last time I competed—the year I left most of my profound quotes and grand proclamations aside in favor of talking about basketball for five minutes--drawing connections between the experiences of my NBA idols and the pickup games at my local playground as an extended metaphor for my vision of the future of America. Mom was there to watch me win in the first round, and finish in second place at the next level. There to watch me come to peace with the whole experience.

Seven years later, Mom came to Geneseo, where I delivered the student commencement speech, one of the proudest moments of my life. And amongst an audience of 5,000 she was the only one to recognize from first-hand experience that I was, after all those years, still capping speeches with the same parable about carrying a bird in one’s hands that I had test-driven in front of the Optimists long before.

In the years to follow, Mom was the most faithful reader of the Preston Burns project, more than once sending me emails to speculate on what would happen next. And more than just about anyone else, she’s the one I can count on to read this very blog, and this very post today.

Time and again in my life, my mother has shown up to demonstrate her quiet support and interest--no small feat over a span of thirty years. And so, for all of that and much more than I could express in the humble blog format, I offer this:

I love you, Mom. Happy birthday.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thanksgiving at Cavallo's

The same place can be completely different, depending on when you visit.

Take Cavallo’s.

It’s bar and restaurant in Utica. I frequented the place late in my high school career and whenever I was home from college, more often than not for Tuesday wing nights. I remember sitting around the table with three or four good friends, shooting the shit over piles of spicy buffalo wings. The place would be busy, but we rarely had to wait for a table or wait long for food. And for all the people, it remained the kind of place where you could hear one another speak.

That’s how I remembered Cavallo’s.

In 2008, I made the drive up to New York from Baltimore. I was excited for the trip. A rare visit home, not to mention time with my closest friends toward the close of my first year living in Maryland, where I’d started to build a social life, but where I wasn’t really at home, besides the fact that I’d just been dumped by one of my first Baltimore girlfriends. And the wings. I could practically smell them as I crossed the border from Pennsylvania to New York on I-81. Save for some peanut M&Ms and a 20 oz. bottle of Mountain Dew, I’d held off on dinner in anticipation of sitting down with my buddies and ordering a plate of 20 wings upon my arrival at Cavallo’s.

By the time I arrived, it was almost 11. I should have known something was off from the parking lot. Not a spot to be found. So I parked at the bank next door, climbed out of my car, and promptly plunged myself ankle deep into a pile of slush.

I crossed the parking lot and made my way inside, where the first person I ran into was Marianne Philips. Marianne Philips, the senior homecoming queen to my nerdiest freshman self, who I had crushed on pretty hard a decade earlier. There with a cast of other beautiful people just inside the door. And there I was, alone, by any definition, foot soaked, and starving. I remembered having visions of wowing her one day. Rolling back into Utica in a sports car, sunglasses on, a beautiful woman on my arm, reputation as a famous author preceding me.

This would not be my night.

I soldiered on. The place was almost unrecognizable. The Thanksgiving eve bar scene had taken over the premises so it was standing room only in the dining room, in the cigar bar, in the ordinarily private party rooms. I exchanged a series of texts before finding my friends, dancing adjacent to the DJ’s booth on the patio area.

I hadn’t come dressed to dance, but I made do. Clasped hands with Billy and Ray and met the cast of new friends that had gathered around them. Was introduced, if not by name, to Stephanie when she bent over in front of Billy and shook her rear end right against his crotch--all but twerking years before it had fully come into style.

An hour passed. On an empty stomach, three beers was enough to loosen me up and tire me out. Stephanie had to use the bathroom, so we used that as an opportunity to collectively migrate closer to the bar, farther from the DJ. To buy the next round. To talk a little.

“You seeing that girl?” I asked Billy.

“Who?”

“The one who’s dry humping your leg out there?”

“She works with me.” He finished his drink and set it on the bar. Gave one of the bartenders the eye. “You think she likes me?”

“I think so.”

When Stephanie came back to us we migrated to the dining room, thinking it might be a little less crowded, but somehow the crowd had thickened further. Billy parted ways to head to the bathroom, leaving me, Ray, and the girl we had each met that night to make small talk. It went something like this.

“So what do you do?” I asked.

“What?” Stephanie said.

“I asked what you do.”

“I work in accounting.”

“That’s cool.”

“What?”

“I said that’s cool.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

Stephanie got preoccupied with her phone and Ray I got to talking a little, all but yelling over the din. I told him about the new Ben Folds album. Told him I had a copy of it in the car and we could listen to it when I gave the guys a ride home at the end of the night.

The better part of an hour passed before my phone vibrated. A text from Billy.

Just made out with a girl in front of Marianne Philips.

I showed it to Ray, thinking he might have some sense of who our friend--by all accounts single--was making out with someplace else in the bar.

No clue.

Who?, I texted back.

Marianne, he replied.

No, who are you making out with.

You don’t know her.

I waited a couple minutes. Where are you?

A couple more minutes passed. Busy. TTYL.

Stephanie finished her drink and walked away from us, not to return the rest of the night.

A half hour passed. My head ached and my stomach growled. All that beer. None of the wings I had anticipated.

For one of those moments that only makes sense in the instant you’re thinking about it, I considered texting my ex back in Baltimore. Telling her we should give things another shot.

That’s when Billy reappeared, hands up, awaiting a high five, which I reluctantly granted him.

“Her name is Lauren,” he said. He went on to explain that the two of them made eye contact when they were waiting in their respective lines outside the rest rooms. He was getting a drink at the bar when she sidled up next to him and massaged his bicep. A minute later he was buying her a drink. A couple minutes after that, they were making out. “And I saw Marianne Philips right behind her, so I kept going. That was for you, man.”

I started to ask him how that was for me.

I let it go.

After another hour, I had sobered up completely. Billy and Ray piled into my Honda Accord. The Accord I had put well over two thousand dollars of repairs into that fall. The Accord that shrieked and then whistled from under the hood after I turned the ignition.

Virtually everything I know about cars I’ve learned from when it’s gone wrong on one of mine.

Take the timing belt.

It’s an essential part of the engine that times the opening and closing of valves.

When it’s about to break, it whistles.

“What the hell is that?” I asked.

“Who knows?” Billy said. “Hey man, Lauren just texted me. She asked what I’m doing after I have dinner tomorrow? What should I say?”

Ray chimed in. “Why don’t you put in that Ben Folds CD?”

I like to consider myself a mostly calm and composed person. Just the same, there’s a breaking point. “Will you guys shut the fuck up?” I said. “What the hell is that whistling?”

“I shouldn’t answer directly right?” Billy said. “I’ll ask her what she’s doing.”

The ride went on like that. Add in my piss-poor sense of direction and Ray trying to direct me to his girlfriend’s house, where, for whatever reason, he had left his car. Eventually, I gave in and gave Billy advice on what to text, and the long-awaited conversation between friends became a conversation between me and a girl I’d never met, over text, Billy as amanuensis.

The fifteen-minute car ride back to our neighborhood neared its end. I pulled up to the stop sign three doors from Billy’s house.

“Fuck, man," Billy said. "I forgot to close my tab."

I laughed. Sure, I cursed, too. But there’s a point at which a night is going to, in aggregate, be just plain shitty. I figured there was only so much bad fortune to go around, so the universe had might as well get it all out of its system right then and there.

So I drove us back to Cavallo’s where Billy banged on the door until one of the waiters came to meet him and tell him he couldn’t come inside. But Billy argued, and remarkably enough, he did eventually get in and got his card back. Did shots with the wait staff, too, the way he tells it.

By the time I had rolled up to the stop sign on our street again, and pulled up to the end of Billy’s driveway it was after 3:00 a.m. Somehow, my foot was still wet. My hunger had subsided, though. I suppose the body has ways of acclimating itself. Of coming to terms with the fact that it won’t get any real sustenance that night.

“It’s after midnight,” Billy said.

“That it is.”

“Well happy Thanksgiving, then.”

I ran a hand through my hair and set it back on the steering wheel a little harder than I meant to, making incidental contact with the horn so staccato beep harmonized with the whistling beneath the hood. “Happy thanksgiving."

Billy got out of the car, puked his guts out, and went inside.

I haven’t been back to Utica for Thanksgiving since.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Boston Pancake Sandwich

As I’ve grown older I’ve felt an ever-increasing weight of responsibility around my diet. Around the age of 25 I started a conscious effort to have at least two or three servings of fruit and two or three servings of vegetables each day. In the years to follow, I grew more conscious about limiting my fats and carbs, sodium and sugar. An avid soda consumer, I switched to only drinking soda once each week.

I tend to give myself more leeway on the road--when I travel for work or a cappella event coverage or vacation. I’ll pop a multi-vitamin in the morning and not worry so much about hitting all the fruits and veggies I should. If there’s a local delicacy that’s come highly recommended, I’ll indulge in some exceptions and order dishes the likes of which I wouldn’t have at home. Still, I try not to overdo it.

January 2012, I found myself seated in The Breakfast Club, a renowned diner in Boston. It was the morning after an a cappella competition, but also the morning of The Super Bowl, in a year when The Patriots had made it to the big dance.

I rolled in around 10 a.m. and the place was packed. One of the luxuries of traveling alone—I was able to find an open stool at the front counter, order myself up a cup of coffee and scan the menu.

I had settled on something in the neighborhood of a breakfast burrito. Not exactly health food, but about as low cholesterol as I expected to get away with from a greasy spoon. I propped up my copy of Best American Short Stories and set to reading, sipping coffee while I waited for one of the overworked waitresses to make her way back to me.

Across the way, I heard laughter. Loud enough to draw me from my book. On the opposite end of the counter, a middle-aged man pointed at something or other on a television screen over head while two blond-haired boys, presumably his sons, followed the trajectory of his finger, wide-eyed and smiling. They were talking football of course, all three of them clad in blue Patriots jerseys, the boys’ bright and new, the father’s, thread-worn in spots.

And when whatever was happening on TV finished, or the boys lost interest, the bigger of the boys returned to his plate. He folded his pancake in his hands, dripping with thick, brown syrup and bit into it like a sandwich, hard enough so a bit of butter squeezed loose from the opposite side and dropped to the plate.

I remembered being around that boy’s age. Just about the only times in my life I cared about football were the points in the 1990s when The Buffalo Bills made it to the Super Bowl, only to fall short each time, contributing to my life-long love for underdogs and also-rans. We never made a big deal out of the game in my family. No jerseys. No special order of pizza and wings. Just another Sunday evening, only differentiated for the fact that we had football on the TV screen.

We didn’t have hot breakfasts more than once a week growing up. Sitting on that stool, letting the book rest on my lap, cradling my cup of coffee, I remembered how it wasn’t so irregular for my father to make pancakes on a Sunday morning. How there was every possibility that some of those pancake Sundays coincided with Super Bowls. I remembered the sticky sweet taste of it. My father wasn’t a very creative cook, but his anal focus and attention to detail paid off in those instances, when the pancakes were never burnt or blackened. Always the perfect brown.

A waitress came from behind me. “Let me warm that up for you.” She hardly waited for me to put the coffee down before she sloshed my refill. “Have you decided what you want yet, sweetheart?”

I handed her the menu. “Tall stack of pancakes,” I said. “With blueberries.”

Though I was tempted, I did not eat my pancakes by hand like the boy across the way. I sliced them to pieces, soaked them in syrup, propped by book open behind the plate and shoveled forkful after forkful of that goodness between lips.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Telling Her Story

The second time I met Elizabeth, her name was Mary.

She wasn’t actually Elizabeth--I knew that from the start. Mary hadn’t gone to college with me, and everything she told me about her personal history, from growing up in the Midwest, her pet rabbit, her recent divorce--it was all new to me. She had longer, straighter hair than Elizabeth. I recognized these differences when I met Mary at a party. And yet, with each passing glass of wine, the differences blurred to shades of gray and sameness. I recognized the same high pitch and timbre of her voice. That she was every bit as short as Elizabeth, peering up at me with the same wide, green eyes as we made conversation. That she had the same proclivity to stop me when I exaggerated the facts of an anecdote--weighing in with legitimate statistical information and citations. That much like Elizabeth, she preferred the phrase “back assward” over “ass backwards.”

*

One of the greatest compliments I ever received, paired with one of my saddest revelations:

I lay in bed with Elizabeth, forehead to forehead, right palm splayed on her left thigh, the knuckles of my left pressed air tight to the knuckles of her right, the backs of our fingers interlaced, sides of our hands resting against the mattress in the space between our barechests. We had kicked off the comforter and the blanket in the heat of the night. We stretched her paisley bedsheet over our heads. Shelter, but thin enough so the morning sun shone right through.

“I stopped writing after I met you,” she said.

“Why?”

“I always thought I’d be a writer. But when I met you, I saw how much more dedicated you were. How much better you were. And I realized I’d never be like that.”

“You’re a good writer.” All I had to base that on was proofreading a couple essays for her, but it wasn't untrue.

“I’m good at writing,” she said. “But I’m not a writer. Not like you are.”

No one had cited me--much less what talent I may have had--as a source of discouragement before. The thought that they couldn’t live up to my standard. Elizabeth was far better-read than I was. An incisive reader who could recall passages from Cather to Dostoevsky with remarkable accuracy and insight. And yet this woman would say that my abilities were prodigious enough for her to retreat from her own creative attempts?

I told her I loved her.

She kissed me, but she wouldn’t have to say it back. She drew me closer to her. All that skin on all that skin. She slid beneath me and breathed in time to the squeak of the bedsprings beneath us.

*

A year later, after I had graduated from the Master of the Arts program in writing at Hopkins, I returned to hear the next class read from their final theses.

Mary read.

She read about sailing. About her frustration the first time on the boat and how her then-husband and in-laws chided her for confusing starboard with port.

The essay wasn’t perfect. I heard the excess language, the moments she told when she should have shown.

But it was good.

And as Mary read from her manuscript, standing tall at the podium in two-inch heels, I saw Elizabeth. The Elizabeth who kept writing and who, in time, was unafraid of sharing her work with an audience. An Elizabeth who was older. Still every bit as beautiful, but no longer for the effort of eye shadow and carefully chosen sundresses, but rather for how sure she was of herself.

Hours later, I joined the graduates, my fellow alumni, and those who still toiled in the midst of the program at a dive bar within walking distance of my apartment. Halfway through my third double shot of Jack Daniels, I made my way to Mary or Elizabeth--whatever amalgamation of the two I saw through the lens of too much whiskey. We hugged. She laughed when I picked her up in my arms, squeezing her close to me. As I set her back down, I told her that she was amazing.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Walk of Shame

See me as I was in college. But dressed like a priest. Walking down the street on a Sunday morning.

Let’s back up.

Inspired by Bridget Jones’s Diary my friends thought it would be a fantastic idea to throw a “Tarts and Vicars”-themed party. And the guests ran the gamut,from the women dressed as prostitutes, to the men dressed like clergy, to Craig, the lone man to all too predictably rouge his cheeks and dress in drag for the evening.

And I donned the black shirt my mother bought me when I played in the pit orchestra for my high school’s production of Brigadoon. The black slacks I bought at the thrift store with the left leg a little longer than the right. A cardboard white collar to complete the ensemble.

I had spent the better part of the last six months infatuated with Elizabeth at that point. We hung out more nights than not, and spent most of those nights apart trading messages on AOL Instant Messenger until one or two in the morning. We studied together and watched movies and went on afternoon road trips to explore the surrounding area. For all of that time together, she wasn’t prepared to split apart from the boyfriend awaiting her back home.

Most nights, I made my peace with that. That we wouldn’t do more than sit with our arms touching or our feet pressed against each other while we sat on opposite ends of her bed. That we were really, really good friends.

Even if it pissed me off.

Then I met Valerie.

Valerie was everything Elizabeth was not. Louder. Taller. She didn’t hesitate to tell people that the doctors who diagnosed her as bipolar were full of shit. The night of the Tarts and Vicars Party, she sported a brand new stud to fill her brand new nose piercing.

I met Valerie when she poured coffee at the café I frequented over long nights working at the newspaper office. In the weeks leading up to the party, she had made a habit of visiting the office after she got off work and hanging around while I copy edited or manipulated columns of text in Pagemaker.

As a general rule, I’m not a great judge of when women are romantically or sexually interested in me. Molded by my celibate teenage years, they have to be pretty overt to assure me I’m not imagining things.

With Valerie, nothing was ever all that subtle.

I think we both knew the score when she made a show of whispering something in my ear every couple minutes as we stood in the kitchen, at the heart of the party. She may not have said anything more seductive than a request for me to pass the chips or a comment about someone else’s hooker outfit. It wasn’t the content that mattered, but the form--the whispers themselves. The whispers that grew hotter as she blew in my ear. Wetter as she licked it.

As she did so, I made direct eye contact Elizabeth.

Elizabeth finished her beer and went home.

A half hour later Valerie and I stood in the basement with a crew of other party goers. I had only been downstairs once before, a more casual visit a few weeks before, when the party hosts had smoked weed in a section of the basement partitioned off with paisley bed sheets hung from clotheslines, and listened to Melanie’s “Brand New Key” on repeat. I had decided not to visit the house again without a clearer itinerary of what the night had in store.

I don’t remember the precise sequence of events. Just that with little effort or contrivance the crowd thinned and thinned until Valerie and I were the only two left in that basement. I sat on a recliner. She sat on the arm of it.

We talked and talked and when it occurred to me that we were alone. I coiled an arm around her waist and pulled her down, not so gracefully, on top of me. She plunged her tongue about as far down my throat I imagine she could without triggering my gag reflex.

The recliner gave way beneath us--not just the footrest kicking out, but the whole chair falling back in a violent motion. She hit her head on the floor and cursed.

I asked if she was all right.

She kissed me harder.

I can’t be certain how long we spent there, half on the chair, half on the floor. I thought I heard the basement door open, but when I paused Valerie bit my lip. I never heard footsteps come down the stairs toward us.

And then we were done.

I zipped my fly and searched for a reflective surface in which to straighten my hair. Valerie scoured the floor on her hands and knees.

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“My nose ring,” she said. “I just got my nose pierced and it’s going to fill right in if I don’t have something to fill the hole.”

I helped her looked. Righted the recliner, then hoisted it in the air so she could search underneath. We walked the perimeter of the room, farther than I imagined the stud could have rolled. It was nowhere to be found.

She settled on an answer.

Valerie removed one of her big hoop earrings and threaded the end through the hole at her nostril. An inelegant solution, perhaps, but it seemed to accomplish what she needed.

We went back upstairs to rejoin the party. The crowd had thinned there, too. Valerie grew bored and suggested we find some privacy again.

And I eyed the door to Tori’s bedroom. I was pretty close to two of the house’s residents. More acquaintances with Tori and one of the other women who lived there. I hadn’t seen Tori all night. It wasn’t like her to miss a party, so I assumed she must have been out of town or at some other get together that night. I pushed the door open slowly and led Valerie into the darkness.

Before we could kiss--before we could so much as touch in any meaningful way--the door flew open.

Tori wasn’t missing anymore.

Without ever physically coming to blows, what followed was one of the most heated, violent fights I’ve ever been witness to, laced with pointed fingers and pejorative terms I prefer not to reproduce. Tori insisted there was no way Valerie would fornicate in her bedroom. Valerie warned her not to speak of that which she did not know. Somehow, I slipped under the radar. The altercation culminated in Tori, in reference to the hoop nose ring, calling Valerie, “Shovel Face.”

When my friends recounted the evening for the months that would follow, it was that unfortunate nickname that would remain the most consistent piece of each iteration. The longest surviving piece of my, from there, short-lived romance with Valerie.

I walked Valerie home. We sat on her couch, sipped water, and turned on MTV. She passed out inside the first five minutes, her body across mine, head half on my shoulder, half against my chest.

I tried to sleep, but got little rest between the TV and the sound of my partner's snoring. I wasn’t situated to watch the sunrise, but recall the point when I noticed yellow light cast on the wall, snaking its way through the slats in the Venetian blinds behind us.

Valerie woke. She said her mom was visiting and that I’d have to go. But that she had a really good time.

So I walked back to my dorm. I was halfway home before I even remembered the white strip of cardboard at my neck, still present through all of the night’s proceedings. I pulled it off and tossed it in a trash can on Main Street.

And just as I did, I saw Elizabeth.

She wore a white t-shirt and navy blue shorts. Light gear for the autumn weather, but she was running. There’s no mistaking the fact that we saw one another, a half block of sidewalk between us, nary another human being around. I started to say something or other. But what can you say to the woman you’re pretty sure you love, and you think might love you back, when you’re still dressed up like a priest from the night before, and all her makeup has been washed clean for hours?

She rounded the corner before we crossed paths. Ran faster then. Closer to disappearing with every stride.

I plugged my hands in my pockets, cast my eyes to the ground, and resumed my walk of shame.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Kevin and Emily

The world has connectors. People who introduce people to other people, who build ever-expanding social networks. People who play matchmaker.

I’m usually not one of those people.

I appreciate my social pockets--different people for different settings and occasions, and none of the messiness of having to play the middleman and explain inside jokes and make sure everyone’s having a good time.

But sometimes, even for humble, insular souls like myself, the universe has other plans.

It was sophomore year at Geneseo, and I sat in Steuben Hall, across a walkway from my own dorm in Livingston. As Saturday nights went, this was a pretty tame one. I spent the October evening chatting, sipping from a 20 oz. bottle of Mountain Dew in the room of two friends from freshman year, Cathy and Emily. We had the door propped open and, if memory serves, we watched Saturday Night Live.

Then I heard voices in the hallway. DJ and Kevin.

I had my dorm friends. I had my newspaper friends. The two most substantial and well-defined cohorts of my college life. The extent of the overlap between them was that sometimes my dorm friends would read the newspaper.

But that all changed.

I called out to DJ and Kevin and they found their way into Emily and Cathy’s room. Rather than saying hello and moving along they lingered through the end of SNL and later still. I recall marveling at the sight of DJ and Cathy interacting--DJ with his larger than life personality, all but incapable of holding a conversation that didn’t include talk of sex, drugs, or both. Cathy, one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, but reserved, bookish, introverted. Yet the two of them chatted easily, like old friends.

The five of us ended up upstairs in Kevin’s single, with a rotating cast of his neighbors visiting briefly in the hours to follow. Before too long, Cathy returned downstairs to turn in for the night. Then DJ was on his way. Finally, I sat alone on Kevin’s old-fashioned leather love seat while Kevin and Emily sat across the way, side by side on his bed, an over-sized hardcover book splayed between them, the front cover on his right thigh, the back cover on her left. And for all of my reservations about being a connector, about having to bridge the gap between new acquaintances--I all at once realized that I was the third wheel.

And I left.

I’m not sure how you can determine when such things officially begin, but within days, Kevin and Emily were a couple, and it became altogether routine for some permutation of the five of us who hung out that night to grab dinner or coffee together, joined by other newspaper and dorm folk, further blurring the lines between my social circles. In the weeks to follow, Emily and Cathy joined the newspaper staff. I particularly recall Springfest--the annual end-of-spring-semester outdoors festival. A group of us visited booths, listened to music, played games, and had a picture taken of the five of us at a western-themed photo booth. I’m still not sure why I gravitated to that dress when it came time to make wardrobe selections. Putting that aside, the photo remains a marker of one of the best days at one of the best times of my life.

Kevin graduated that spring and in the coming fall Emily studied abroad in Spain. The dynamics of my social life were pretty different with two of my best friends absent, and given their own distance from one another, there was every reason to think the relationship might not last.

But it did.

One of the things that has most impressed me about Kevin and Emily’s story is how little drama it has entailed. Maybe they’re just good at keeping drama from the public eye, or I’m not as observant as I should be, but they handled international long distance with aplomb and when Emily came back to Geneseo that spring, Kevin returned, too, as a fairly regular weekend fixture. Senior year, Emily and I shared a two-bedroom apartment, and one of the happiest returns was the fact that I could count on seeing Kevin, too, at least a couple times each month for overnight visits. When I look back at photos from my college years, I’m always a tad wistful, a tad amused to look at all of the couples that have come and gone (not the least of which include my series girlfriends that never quite worked out). It’s comforting to know that, all these years later, Kevin and Emily have remained a matched pair.

In the years after college, I didn’t see a lot of Kevin or Emily. Particularly after I had moved to Maryland, and after Kevin and Emily had moved to Indiana, contact became all the less regular.

Then, last spring, I decided I was due for a long road trip. I charted a course from Baltimore to St. Louis for a major a cappella competition, and reasoned that I had no alternative but to stop in Indianapolis along the way.

I’d be lying if I claimed that, alongside my excitement for the reunion, I didn’t feel a twinge of the trepidation that comes with seeing folks you haven’t associated with for a period of years. Would they have changed? Would I have changed? How transferrable would our college friendship be to life seven years later?

I’m pleased to say it was one of the most effortless reunions and visits I can recall having. Good friends can work their way into conversation after they haven’t been in contact for a long time. For great friendships, the end results are the same, but none of the work is necessary. We hugged. We drank craft beer and plum wine. We referenced old inside jokes and built new ones as we wandered downtown Indianapolis and played video games on Kevin’s new 8-bit Nintendo emulator. By the end of the visit, my only regret was not planning to stay longer.

Which brings us to now--or next weekend, to be more specific. Eleven years after my worlds collided when my dorm friends met the newspaper crew, Kevin and Emily are getting married. I’m not sure which among our old friends made the guest list or were able to work the date into their calendars, but I do know that I feel positively honored to be an usher for the event.

When I look ahead to next weekend, I selfishly can’t escape the sensation that this wedding is a celebration of a beautiful life I used to know. More importantly, it’s a celebration of a love that survived it, and kept at least a piece of that life alive and thriving.

I can’t wait.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Spread My Wings

I first heard Kelly Clarkson’s ”Breakaway” at an interesting time in my life.

I won’t deny it: I have a soft spot for teeny bopper ballads and songs about big dreams. “Breakway” started getting radio play during my senior year of college, when I’d wouldn't have been so bold as to admitted I liked a song as cheesy, soft and cliché as this one. Just the same, I was in the early stages of what would become a multi-year relationship with an unabashed Kelly Clarkson fan, who was all too ready to connect with this song, herself a girl who had grown up in a small town and dreamed of breaking away. So, listening to the song as a way of connecting with her seemed reasonable enough.

To underscore how cheesetastic this song is, a bit of background about the song itself: It was written by Avril Lavigne, whose people wouldn’t let her record it because it was deemed too soft and girly for her image.

I grew to like the song. It’s optimism. It’s call back to a simpler, softer pop music that predated my musical coming of age around middle school, taking me back to the sort of earlier pop selections that permeated supermarkets, mall shops, and top 40 radio as a kid.

My shining moment came when that girlfriend of the time and I barreled down back roads between Ithaca and Syracuse with a car full of friends. I sat behind the wheel. And as this song played out, the girl and I belted it back to the speakers. By the last chorus, I think everyone in the car was singing along.

If I were to liken a song like this to a particular food on the culinary spectrum, I’d call it dessert. Saccharine. Disposable. Not particularly good for you, but it tastes so good in the moment.

And like so many sundaes and pies, you tend not to remember songs like this after their fifteen minutes in the mainstream. I don’t think I had heard the song since 2005 when it came over speakers at an Applebee’s in Wooster, Ohio.

I had traveled to Wooster alone to judge an a cappella competition in a cattle barn as part of an offbeat music festival. The day started at five in the morning to get to the airport in time for the cheapest flight possible. When I was off the plane and in my rental car I headed straight to the Wayne County Fairgrounds where I partook in the festivities for the six hours to follow. Afterward, I checked into my hotel and crashed. I probably could have slept the night through, but I’d brought work to do, and I was trying to avoid letting my sleeping and eating schedules grow too wonky. So, after a 45-minute nap I got up and decided to take advantage of the Applebee’s gift card that had gone unused in my wallet for well over a year.

I sat alone at the bar, reading a book by John Updike, exchanging scraps of conversation with the bartender/waitress as my meal progressed. Between my salad and my burger, “Breakaway” cued up. And the bartender, a woman with a sleeve of tattoos, ironic pigtails, and dark eye shadow began to sing along with the first verse.

And it occurred to me that there’s a little “Breakaway” in all of us. At least all of us who grew up in small communities, all of us who aspired to bigger things, all of us who have lost ourselves at one time or another to the romance of the American Dream or the sureness of our own specialness. Perhaps even more simply, the lure of catchy, sugary bubblegum pop.

I’ll spread my wings and I’ll learn how to fly
I’ll do what it takes, ‘til I touch the sky
Gotta make a wish, take a chance, make a change
And breakaway

With five bucks left on my gift card after dinner, I ordered a chocolate chip sundae-the biggest, sweetest, least necessary dietary indulgence I’d allowed myself in quite some time. I ate every bite. And I remembered.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Shadow Love Story

A few days ago, a buddy and I made a creative pact to each craft art about a character who embodies our most shadowy, ugly side and a second character who loves the first all the same.

Game on.

After they scattered his mother’s ashes at the top of the tallest hill in town, he walked through a cemetery and saw that people left flowers at graves.

Deeply entrenched in a series of one-sided conversations with God, in which he made every attempt to plead, barter, and bargain his mother back to life, he reasoned flowers must have been the answer. Not these single roses, though, nor these bouquets.

By moonlight, he plundered the gardens of neighbors, the parks. Unsatisfied with his yield, he shattered the front window of the florist’s shop and left with shard-freckled roses and daisies.

He loaded all of these flowers in the red wagon his mother bought him that past Christmas and wheeled them up the hill behind him. He tipped over the wagon at the peak, littering a mosaic of flowers to intermix with the dirt and the grass and his mother’s remains. Satisfied with his handiwork, he descended the hill to await his mother’s return.

She never came.

He played hopscotch with the boys on the street and remembered it was his mother who taught him the game. One of the boys tossed the stone and all at once he realized that the flowers were all wrong. He needed something more specific to his mother if he hoped to bring her back to him.

He loaded the wagon with stones. Too many it turned out, so that as he climbed the hill, he could no longer pull the wagon with him. He unloaded half and made the climb. Doubled back, reloaded, and did it again.

But his mother never came.

He tried again with sand from the beach where they had collected seashells, with leaves from the trees they walked under in autumns past, with wrappers from the sorts of chocolate bars she would have bought him at the corner store.

So dedicated was he that he stopped playing with the other boys. He stopped going to school. Didn’t make it home half the nights, sleeping instead on park benches, in tall grass, on tree branches midway through his searches for whatever he thought might return his mother fastest.

And so the girl found him one winter morning, shivering malformed snow angels in his sleep. She nudged him awake.

He thanked her for rousing him, coughed in his mitten, and said he had work to do. A wagon full of snow and ice to bring his mother.

She accompanied him up the hill. Pushed the wagon while he pulled it. Helped scoop clumps of snow over the peak until the wagon was empty. Then she asked what he was doing.

And he was too embarrassed to explain the rationale he’d long since stopped believing himself--that he’d ever thought he could bring his mother back. He was too shy, even, to explain that he was embarrassed.

It took him a matter of minutes to realize that she held his hand--before the numbness in his digits thawed and he could feel her against him.

They held hands walking down the hill and she kissed him on the cheek when they went their separate ways.

What a peculiar girl, he thought, and assumed he’d never see her again.

But the next day, she found him collecting purple twelve-ounce cans of the grape soda his mother loved and she joined him. And the day after that when he gathered newspapers. The day after that when stockpiled wheat pennies.

He always thought it strange that he couldn’t recall when he stopped collecting. When he stopped dragging his wagon behind him. When he stopped climbing that hill.

He and the girl held hands many more times. Sat together to watch the northern lights from the roof of the abandoned cannery at the edge of town, his arm over her shoulders, her legs stretched long across his lap. They kissed. Made love. Raised children. Grew old.

And after the children had moved out, and their dog had died, and he’d started paying neighborhood kids to mow the lawn not out of laziness or generosity, but because his back couldn’t abide walking back and forth along such long rows of grass--after all of that, the girl, now an old woman, was wheelchair bound and ill and ready to die.

She asked him to take her to the top of the hill.

He pushed her wheelchair up the incline, hitting all the same divots and crannies where the wheels of his wagon used to catch. The top of the hill, when they reached it, was littered with debris--vegetation and stones torn wrappers and the remains of soda cans and copper coins.

“All those days you came here, you buried your mother’s ashes deeper,” the old woman said, “You made the hill taller.”

He fell to his knees. Exhausted, yes, but all too keenly reminded of when he last frequented the hill and how he would soon have to say goodbye again. He buried his face in his hands and sobbed.

“You can always make the hill higher, even now,” she said. “You can always carry and drag and displace more things.”

A cold wind blew. The old woman’s white hair swirled around her and her chair rocked, threatening to tip or to roll.

He stared eastward. He and the old woman cast shadows that stretched over the remains of his youth, curving down the far side of the hill. Charcoal clouds approached and obscured what stars might have shined in the blackening sky. “It’s getting dark,” he said.

“Let’s turn around,” the old woman said.

He thought she meant for them to go. But when he spun her chair and looked ahead again, he saw a lighter sky. All magenta and periwinkle, the sun itself the littlest yellow oval on the horizon, ready to burn out to ash at any second.

He looked on in wonder.

“This happens every day,” the old woman said. “Whatever you might choose to do with your day, you can’t stop it.”

“I never would.”

They held brittle, veiny, shaking hands.

He watched the sunset and he loved the rest of his life.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Legend of Zelda

A couple years ago, I read a nostalgia-based article, written by someone about ten years my junior, recounting the halcyon days of his youth playing Nintendo 64.

Prior to reading this article, I’d only ever owned two gaming systems--the Nintendo and the Super Nintendo. I had a brief love affair with video games--a period when I drew paper-and-pencil sketches of my own top-down point-of-view games; a period when I wrote my first short stories with folks like Link and Simon Belmont as protagonists; a period when I subscribed to Nintendo Power magazine; and a period, when, yes, I more often than not spent multiple hours a day actually playing video games.

Those days faded by degrees as I got older, and stopped altogether around the time I entered high school. The combination of homework, extracurriculars, writing, and some semblance of a social life left time for nothing more than the occasional game of Tetris. Thus, I missed the craze of Nintendo 64 (initially released in 1996), all of its contemporaries, and all of the systems and games to follow.

But then I read this article. The piece culminated in a list of the top ten greatest games for Nintendo 64 and the columnist awarded his highest marks to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and WWF No Mercy.

It’s been established: I’m a wrestling fan.

Moreover, the original Legend of Zelda was my bread and butter as an up and coming video game enthusiast—a puzzle-infused role-playing game that I’ve probably played start to finish more than any other title. I recall dusting off the game and playing it with a girlfriend over a winter break during college. She marveled at the fact that her directionally challenged boyfriend who struggled to navigate his own hometown could effortlessly recall the exact locations of the Master Sword, Death Mountain, and more in the 8-bit land of Hyrule.

I read this column. I read this list. And I went on eBay.

Two weeks and seventy-five dollars later, I had my very own Nintendo 64 and a dozen or so games that had come bundled together, including Zelda and No Mercy. A month or so later, I had a free Saturday afternoon and I set to playing.

I didn’t get it.

Within my first minute with Ocarina of Time I was having flashes from late in my high school career, when my friends tried to introduce me to Duke Nukem. The sex and gun violence were a turn off, but more so, the first-person-shooter style of play was so disorienting that I simply could not master the game. Each attempt to do so ended with a mild case of motion sickness from trying to follow the herky-jerky motion of the graphics.

While my experience with Nintendo 64 didn’t give me motion sickness, the extra buttons and joystick proved too much for me to manipulate. Thinking further back than Duke Nukem, I recalled trying to teach my grandmother how to play Super Mario Bros. when I was six years old and how the entire experience was so alien that she simply couldn’t comprehend it.

Had I grown so out of touch? So ancient?

I told myself that one day I’d play Nintendo 64 again. That my schedule would settle and I would dedicate the time to acclimating myself to these new controls.

I told myself these things, but I didn’t believe them.

Six months after I procured my Nintendo 64, I had my wisdom teeth out. What better time for some video game indulgence?

But I did not play Nintendo 64.

Rather, in addition to reading Philip Roth and watching a ridiculous amount of Friday Night Lights I ultimately broke out the original Nintendo and revisited games like Trog, The Guardian Legend, and, of course, the good old original Zelda. Games that still played the way they were supposed to. Not as burdens. As fun.

I stabbed Ganon--the final, ultimate villain of Zelda--for what might have been thousandth time. I watched him turn from green to red. I fired a silver arrow into the heart of the beast and watched him shatter.

As I did so, I recalled my very first run through with this game.

I recalled that my father killed Ganon first. That I cried because I didn’t think I’d ever beat the game.

In a rare moment of compassion, rather than yelling at me to stop crying, my old man sat me down and said I could and should beat the game right then.

I wiped my eyes clean and I played.

Though it was hard, though my adrenaline raced, and though, until the last, I wasn’t sure I could do it, I played. And in that very first battle with Ganon, I slew the beast. I rescued the princess and the screen brightened in a polychromic explosion--just the same as it had when my dad beat the game a half hour earlier, and yet fundamentally different.

This time, the screen shone for me.

I recalled the first time I beat The Legend of Zelda. I felt like I could do anything.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Series of Dreams

Preface: I wrote this post as a stream-of-consciousness exercise, hopping between brief memories and dreams from childhood through the recent past. For lack of a more elegant approach, the italics offset changes in scene, memory, or dream.

I say, “Good morning,” to the woman I see every day in the office. I’ve never known her name, or what exactly it is she does here.

She says, “Good, how are you?”

I don’t know how to respond. She’s embarrassed. Our pre-coffee auto-pilot conversation has crashed and burned. A nightmare.

The first dream I remember having: I went into the back storage room of the basement of my childhood home and found columns of shelving units filled with big glass jars. A piss-yellow mist swirled in each of the jars, then migrated through the glass, conglomerating in a monstrous whole, not unlike the form the librarian in Ghostbusters takes to ward off her assailants after Dan Akroyd says they should "get her." I was terrified.

I like horror movies. I like the contained fear that you know won’t transcend the screen. I saw The Ring on something like a first date--me and a girl I liked and her roommate.

Afterward, we went back to our respective dorm rooms. The first thing I did was to call her. When she answered, I whispered, “Seven days.”

She hung up on me.

A confession: I’ve never liked talking on the phone with my Chinese grandmother. She speaks very little English, I speak next to no Chinese and each conversation we have is split evenly into three parts: generic pleasantries, awkward silences, and repeating ourselves in broken English, hoping the other will either understand or give up first and move on.

She is my last living grandparent. Each time I think of this, I feel profound guilt that I don’t call or visit more often. But I usually think of it after 8 p.m. Long after she has gone to sleep.

Last fall I found myself in Easton, Pennsylvania, for a long-planned visit to a festival. I got sick but made the trip anyway. When I had some down time between events I Googled the nearest park. The entrance happened lie on a Fairview Avenue, the same as the street name where my grandmother on my mother’s side lived when I was growing up. It was what would have been her birthday weekend. I took the confluence of factors as a good omen and spent that morning strolling the length of a walking trail, having a conversation in my head with a woman who passed away four and a half years earlier.

In my early-to-mid-teens, I remember thinking about what I’d say at my grandmother’s funeral. I watched a lot of David E. Kelly shows, which lent me a sense of romanticism about grandiloquent speeches. When the time actually came that grandma passed, she had outlived or fallen out of touch with her friends. At her request, there was no formal service, just a viewing, at which my mother, father, uncle, and I puttered around an oversized room meant for larger crowds and more talkative people. The people at the funeral home had filled in the hollows at my grandmother's cheeks. She looked younger, in a sense healthier than she had in years.

I bent over, kissed one of those cheeks, and whispered goodbye.

After two years, I broke up with a woman I’d fallen out of love with. We sat at a wire table outside of a Panera and I felt poorly for making her cry in public. Inside a thirty second period, she told me she loved me and told me she hated me. Then she said she didn’t want to go, because she knew when we went our separate ways, we wouldn’t see each other again. And though I knew the decision I had made was the right one, though I’d thought it over thoroughly and was sure of what I wanted to do, I couldn’t deny that the moment was sad. The prospect of never seeing another person again is rarely a happy one.

I said goodbye on my own terms at college. I wrote a speech and got to deliver it for a thousand fellow graduates. Friends. Families. To say it prosaically as possible, it was a dream come true.

And one of the first times I realized that realizing a dream doesn’t necessarily change your life.

After the ceremony, after my parents left, my best friend from childhood lingered in town and we went for a long walk. He congratulated me over and over again. Along the walk, we passed other friends. Other acquaintances. They congratulated me, too.

And though those five minutes at that podium may have been the proudest of my life, I nonetheless realized that they were over. And I said, “It doesn’t matter.”

I elaborated. I was 21 years old with a BA in English. I had a summer job lined up and an open door to get my MA at the safety school I had tacitly committed to after the places I wanted to attend shot me down.

I said, “This is real life.”

I woke up in a car.

That same best friend behind the wheel. I rode shotgun. My next two closest friends in the backseat taking turns flicking my ears until I woke after passing out from too much wine in too little time. I said, “I hate you guys.”

But it wasn't true. I loved them. And this--this fleeting time before my work year went from busy to insane, when I was three hundred miles northwest of my office, barreling between Finger Lakes wineries with my three closest friends in celebration of one of their engagements—-this was one of the best moments of my life.

And soon we’re back to laughing. Telling stories about the friends who aren’t there. The one who brought a prostitute back to the hotel room six of us once shared in Montreal. The one who used to play agonizingly long guitar solos every time he got on stage. The one who just plain fell out of touch.

We four are survivors. The remaining few who remember the old places, the old jokes, who can speak in movie quotes and who sing along in butchered harmonies when the right songs surface on the radio.

This, this could be a dream. And it will end. But not with any alarm or jolt or phone call or knocking at the door. Rather when we part ways at the end of this trip. We don’t live near one another anymore. Now, all we have are these moments.

I have a dream. The woman I've been crushing on lately is in my bed. Top of her head nestled beneath my chin, back to my chest. Spooning comfortably, the way I so rarely get right in real life. The way it was the night she let me stay.

Her bare arm rests above the covers. She says, “Cold.”

I know this language. This-one-word-communicates-a-story language in which lovers converse.

I lost my virginity on an extra-long dorm room bed with a girl I thought I’d marry. Hell, for years after we fell out of touch, half-asleep or after drinking enough whiskey, I've still thought I might marry her. She taught me that one-word language over a period of months. Her version anyway.

I’d extract myself from her, put on my terrycloth robe and go across the hall to use the bathroom. One time I ran into a friend of mine, a blond-haired girl who was sleeping with the hockey player across the hall. We stood there. Absurd. Me in my robe. Her in one of the hockey player's t-shirts, a full dress over her slender shoulders.

And we talked. Not two ships that passed. Two ships that dropped anchor in the same port. And I wondered what it would be like--not so much to sleep with her, but to love her. To spend the morning after with her. To share toast and scrambled eggs and orange juice.

We hauled up our anchors and headed to our respective bathrooms. I peed and peed and peed. Then crossed the hall. Back home to my lover.

Back in bed, back in that dream I was telling you about. I rub my hand up and down this woman’s arm. We are much older than college lovers. More experienced. Presumably, wiser. We have graduate degrees. We have had jobs with health benefits. She’s cold to the touch. Though her back's to me I can still somehow see her face, inexplicably wearing her glasses in bed. She smiles. She says, “Good.”

I wake. Alone. Disoriented. I can’t decipher where here is. But I think I’m at home. I think my parents are asleep in the room next door. That I need to put a shirt on before I step out of the room to go to the bathroom, to make myself decent in case they’re up and about.

It’s a minute or so before I realize I’m in Baltimore, alone in my one-bedroom apartment. This isn’t the first time it’s happened. It comes up more often when I’ve been traveling or when I’m especially tired.

These moments of uncertainty. They may be the recollections of a man still young enough to have his childhood home engrained in his psyche. Other times, I think they’re the first delusions of an aging man, a glimpse into the dementia my grandmother lived in for her dying days.

And I am dying. Like the Cake lyric from their song, “Sheep Go To Heaven,” that they probably derived from someone wiser: “as soon as you’re born, you start dying.” Amidst all of these memories, these dreams, what I’ve known of a lifetime--the lyrics resonate today.

As do the lyrics that follow: “So you might as well have a good time.”

Today, I am thirty.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Roots of Rhythm

In college, I was part of a performance poetry troupe.

I’ve shared this bit of information any number of times when I needed a quirky fact for a get-to-know-you game, or I wanted to surprise someone whom I knows me as straight-laced, in the button-down shirt, tie, and slacks I wear to work each day.

Some folks have no idea what the compound term “performance poetry” might mean. Others immediately picture me, bearded, sitting full lotus in a field, alternating between meditation, humming, and writing in free verse.

While this image isn’t spot-on, neither is it entirely off point.

I’ve wanted to be a writer from childhood on, but it wasn’t until college that my writing took on a sense of currency, and that I started to enjoy near-immediate gratification. I started reading my work--mostly poetry, some short prose--at open mic nights at the café in the College Union. Later, I frequented the Saturday night open mics at The Bank Street Café. I found I could read work and get instant feedback. Better yet for my fledgling ego, I could get people to clap, chant or sing along. I could get people to cite specific lines that they liked after the show. I could feel cool. Respected. Even get the occasional attention of a young woman in the audience.

Inner Rhythms organized most of these open mics. The group was an unofficial entity at the college--unfunded and unrecognized by student government, most often meeting at locations off campus. They put on shows once a semester, featuring poetry, but more often than not poetry staged in unconventional ways--via multiple speakers, with the poet in the crowd, with extensive use of props, occasionally with singing and dancing.

It was Bohemian. A little out there.

I was hooked.

I joined Inner Rhythms the spring of my sophomore year. In many ways, I grew up as a writer with the group. I stopped writing love poems in favor of poetry that might evoke or be informed by love, but that harkened to the roots of my emotional being, or explored the intersection of my mixed race background and the way I interact with people, lovers or otherwise.

We had lock-ins. Weekend long events in which we wrote and made music and talked and wrote some more, in each other’s presence and awake for the better part of 48 hours.

And we had potluck dinners. At a time when I was even less adept at cooking than I am today and had access to little more than the dorm microwave with which to prepare food, I was certainly more of a taker than a giver in those situations.

The food was always secondary, though. We got together Sunday nights, talked, ate, and workshopped new writings. I never felt that I quite fit in with the culture of the group--not free-spirited enough, not a chef, nor a practitioner of yoga. At my best moments with the group, however, I felt a sense of family and community, inescapable when you fall into rituals and routines with a group of people. And for the ten or so of us who assembled on a weekly basis, I can’t help thinking that that, more than being artsy and more so than even the writing itself, drew us together and kept us a unit for what time we had together.

After one of these dinners, one of the guys strummed his guitar while another played his violin. Others sang in imperfect harmonies. I sat on the floor, back to the sofa, empty plate of food before me. Caught in the music, I beat my open palm against the coffee table. Once. Twice. I found a rhythm. And before long, there we all were, making music together. Something more than what was inside me. The gestalt of what came from within us. Inner rhythms, in their purest form.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Fight, Blood, Love

My first multi-year relationship didn’t always go so well.

That’s not to say it was all bad. We had our good times, spooning until noon on weekend mornings, eating pancakes, watching reruns of Hogan Knows Best, road tripping to a cappella concerts.

And then there were the fights.

I’m not particularly prone to arguments, and perhaps it was emblematic of our level of intimacy that I got into some of the worst yelling-cursing-throwing-things wars of words that I’ve ever had with this woman. One of the worst of all came in the early summer, shortly after I had wrapped up my res life job for the year.

I don’t remember what the fight was about.

But I do remember the blood.

We had plans to give blood the morning after the fight. We next saw each other at the blood drive, where she looked surprised to run into me. We had a couple mutual friends there. Buffers, because we didn’t want to fight in front of them, so we played nice. And afterward, she let me take her to lunch.

And she passed out.

She had given blood a dozen or more times--certainly more times than I had at that point--and never had a problem. But something went wrong. We got subs at a food court. I left her to get drinks, and came back to find her slumped over.

I woke her. She lay down. I pulled the car around and got her back to my place.

For the afternoon to follow, it wasn’t just as though we hadn’t been fighting. It was though we were the best version of us. She lay on the couch while I waited on her. And it wasn’t as though I minded--I think I loved her more for it.

So what can one derive from all of this?

That it was an unhealthy relationship?

Maybe.

That each of us enjoyed it when the other person was hurting?

No.

I think that relationships show their truest colors in less than ideal situations. In fights, yes. But also when people have to go to the emergency room. When people are in the process of moving. When people needs sleeves on which to wipe their noses, ears to vent to, even punching bags to verbally maul for a bit.

A little over two years after that day, on the far side of another summer, I ended the relationship. If I’m going to be completely honest, I haven’t really looked back. That said, at least from where I sit, the passage of time and changes in our life don’t make the love we once had any less real, or the memory of those moments any less poignant.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Grandpa and Ginger

At first blush, I tend to remember childhood in blacks and whites.

Take my Chinese grandparents’ dogs.

There was Ling-Ling. Friendly. Liked to be petted. Might bark when there was some sort of commotion, but never in a mean-spirited way. I spent my youth devoid of pets. Spending time with my grandparents’ dogs three times a year, for long weekend trips, Ling-Ling more or less shaped my perception of what a dog was supposed to be.

And then there was Ginger.

Ginger was a Doberman Pinscher, a breed traditionally used for guard dogs and police dogs. My uncle bought her, but my grandparents ended up taking care of her while my uncle worked long hours at his pharmacy, and my grandfather eventually became her de facto master; most certainly her best friend.

I think my grandfather was the only one who ever liked Ginger.

Whereas Ling-Ling was gentle and affable, Ginger barked at everyone and everything. Deep-throated growls that promised she would rip your throat out if given the chance. For my lifetime, my grandparents slept in separate bedrooms. Ginger stayed with Grandpa, and when we came to visit was, for the most part, restrained behind a plastic barrier that hardly seemed like a restraint enough to keep her from hurdling it and devouring everyone.

Years passed. Ling-Ling passed away. Ginger mellowed. While I never quite trusted the dog, she barked and growled far less, and even wandered the house without any clear signs of malice.

Most of all, I remember that, from her meaner youth, to her more subdued old age, Ginger shared a bed with my grandfather. I’ve long theorized that once Grandpa had brought Grandma to the US, and once they’d had their children, the two of them were much more companions than spouses. More friends than lovers.

I don’t mean to imply anything inappropriate when I say that Grandpa was probably more intimate with his dog than his wife in his final years. More so, I’d suggest that this speaks to who my grandfather was. He immigrated from China to a country where he never really spoke the language. He wasn’t a scholar or an artist. He earned an honest living doing laundry, and in doing so, supported a family, ultimately raising three boys who went on to finish college and do a little better for themselves.

And he loved that dog.

You take the meanest, vilest animal on the planet and put it under the care of a man like that. The beast mellows. If you want to get romantic about it, maybe she even learns to love.

My grandmother reported that Grandpa cried when they put Ginger to sleep. I don’t doubt that a part of him died with that dog. The last creature he fed, that he tamed, that he took care of.

A few years later, my grandfather passed away, too. I like to think that caring for Ginger was the last of his many steps in making the world a little kinder place.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

I Feel Home

Though I spent most of my childhood in Utica, New York, there’s a part of me that will always feel I grew up in Saratoga Springs--more specifically, at Skidmore College.

When I was twelve, thirteen, and fourteen years old, I stayed overnight at Skidmore for three week periods in the summer to study at the Center for Talented Youth (CTY) (for the uninitiated, a sleepaway camp for smart kids). While there, I made some tremendously impactful friendships, studied writing and philosophy, and, I like to think, began to find myself as a person.

Even at the age of 14, I had ambitions of returning to Skidmore years later to work as an RA. But I couldn’t have imagined the degree to which I would continue to grow in that same location, through my college years and beyond.

Nor could I imagine how much the place, or my use of it, would change.

As a kid I remember seeing Scribner Village, a collection of student apartments, set apart from campus amidst a small forest of trees. We drove through the development when I was 12 and made a wrong turn on move-in day, en route to the dorms, and I remember thinking how different the space was from what I expected at a college campus, and imagined living within all that greenery, a more rustic experience than I had anticipated.

As a college kid, Scribner became a hang out spot after hours, where we would play cards and listen to music. Moreover, the space outside one of those apartment buildings was spot where I had a first kiss that would springboard the four-year relationship to follow.

And then there was the quad. The space where we had played long distance games of catch with Frisbees. We called the set up “suicide” because we would have as many as five or six discs going at once, and it was only a matter of time before someone or other got clocked in the head with one of them. We played across the space from the dining hall to the walkway leading to the academic buildings.

By the time I returned to work at CTY as a college kid, the quad had been redefined, most prominently by a brick stage outside the dining hall. As a staff member, I was responsible for keeping the Frisbee game contained--far enough from the stage so no one hurt themselves running into it, and away from “no fly zones” for students who preferred to sit and talk or read or play guitar without the imminent threat of getting hit with a flying disc. Moreover, though, I remember sitting up on that stage on a sunny Saturday afternoon, playing DJ for a makeshift carnival event as I looked out on all these children, all of these staff members I considered some of my best friends. I played a song called “I Feel Home” by OAR, and thought that that place at that moment may have been the truest home I’d ever known.

And then, perhaps best of all, I remember the duckpond. I couldn’t have visited the space more than a dozen times as a kid--a handful of afternoon activities, a class session where we discussed Hamlet and I struggled to make myself heard over running water. Just the same, the place seemed almost heavenly. And as a staff member, I remember late nights when I felt tired and overworked, and started to question if the administrative jobs I had taken on were worth all of this summer stress. I walked by the duckpond and watched the dark water ripple beneath the fountains. Heard that constant trickling sound, and remembered why it was all worthwhile.

I spent three summers at Skidmore as a student and five summers there as a staff member, then five summers away, ironically, to work for CTY in other locations, first as a summer dean, then as a full-time staff member. Last year, I returned as the program manager--the full-timer responsible for ensuring all of the proper practices and procedures were in place.

And the space had changed again.

Scribner Village was in a stage of renovation that looked more like demolition. Roofs torn asunder, walkways closed to all but construction vehicles.

The stage was gone, deconstructed during the development of the new dining hall.

And the duckpond--though little changed in any clearly defined, practical, tangible way--was nonetheless different. I didn’t linger there. On the contrary, I scurried past it with an old friend, walking back from getting Italian sodas in town, on the brink of a thunderstorm, rushing because the wind was blowing hard enough the spew the filthy pond water from the surface onto us as we moved past.

Everything, it seemed, had changed again.

And yet, when the time for morning hand off came--when the kids evacuated the dining hall and dorms to head to class, I saw these teenagers tossing Frisbees, talking as easily about principles of game theory, logical fallacies, and the objective correlative as about chasing girls and anime. And I saw a handful of familiar faces, still teaching these children, by then, for over a decade.

And I thought that for all of these changes, home is still home. I felt blessed to see a new generation find theirs in what was left of mine.

Monday, June 24, 2013

As Always, Always

I was 19 years old. It was early summer and I was in my usual spot for such a time, seated on the couch at my buddy Peek’s house.

The first portion of such summer evenings would vary, but by the time 10 o’clock or so rolled around four or five of us would be at Peek’s, equipped with fast food and soda or beer as we watched episodes of Family Guy, played pool, and shot the shit into the wee hours of the morning.

On this particular night, the group make up was a little different. We had a regular crowd, with a few different faces rotating in and out. But this night was a little less casual and a little more crowded. More friends. Neighbors.

Girlfriends.

More specifically, my friend Will’s girlfriend-of-the-time was there, and after a few drinks, and a brief tangent about Disney cartoons, I came up with a startlingly witty (read: obvious, crass, and stupid) riff on Lady and Tramp. I don’t remember my exact verbiage, but the so-blunt-it-couldn’t-really-be-called-an-innuendo innuendo I made was that that particularly lady friend of Will's was a Tramp.

Will came after me. Like so many times when I had run my mouth throughout high school and early college, I readied myself for a charlie horse or brief good-natured chase. As such I got up and jokingly fled. And Will let it go.

I thought that was the end of it. It wasn’t until days later that I caught word of how close Will had come to decking me. That my friend had not taken the moment as a joke, but rather an affront. That he had been ready pummel me, and it had taken all of his restraint not to do it.

We had it out. A little bit over AOL Instant Messenger. A little bit in person. A little bit relaying messages through third parties. It wasn’t just about one comment. It was about my propensity for ball busting. About my lack of respect.

When I caught wind of all of this, I was hurt. Defensive. If it was such a big deal, I wondered why I hadn’t heard of the issue until it had just about boiled over, and I questioned whether he was a friend at all.

There are facts of life that are hard to see in the moment. Hardest of all to understand when you’re 19 and on the cusp of taking the reigns of the college newspaper, halfway through a degree in English literature, and your creative pursuits are starting to get some traction.

There are facts of life you can see much more clearly ten years removed. A few gray hairs. Wise enough to know that you’re not a wise man now and that you were a dumbass in college.

The most important friends you’ll have in life aren’t necessarily the closest ones, but the ones who will challenge and inspire you. It’s great to remember drunken escapades, chasing girls, and tales of basketball glory. But the friends who not only support you when you’re right, but put you in your place when you’re wrong--they’re the ones who stand to make you a better man. And if you can count such a friend as one of the closest people in your life, you have every reason to feel lucky.

Things weren’t the same between me and Will for a matter of weeks, maybe months--going to separate colleges didn’t exactly foster a close bond. But over the course of the years to follow, we traveled together. We talked more. I dropped a little of my sarcasm in favor of some sincerity; and to his credit, Will gave me another chance.

When it came time for Will’s wedding, I took a day off during my busiest time of the year for the honor of standing by his side, a groomsman as he took his vows.

When it came time to redesign The A Cappella Blog, Will worked for untold hours to perfect every detail about the design and functionality of the site.

When it comes to favors done, honors shared, and long travels, I’ve, frankly, had few people in my life more important to me than Will.

And so, it was little surprise, years later, when we sat together on the patio at a Rochester bar at the end of summer. The mutual friend we had come out with was wrapped up in a series of conversations with friends Will and I didn’t know particularly well. So we took the opportunity to catch up for longer than we had in quite some time.

And he spoke of his travels to his wife’s native country, Malaysia; about the process of learning Chinese; about his family.

And I talked about a girl.

All those years removed from college, talking to my married friend, I could have sounded absurd, prattling on about a new crush on a woman who seemed just right. But he didn’t brush off the conversation. Didn’t laugh or wait for the topic to pass.

He listened. Asked questions. Likened it to his own recollections of what had and hadn’t worked when he was still single.

And that’s what real friends do.

Will and I have shared a tradition for the better part of a decade now that when we first see one another or when we’re parting ways, we’ll shake hands and say, “As always.” I’m not sure of when, why, or how it got started--perhaps a reference to a forgotten scene in one of the movies we watched in Peek’s basement; perhaps a more random, silly gesture--the formality a satire of the sort of things older men say to one another after longer periods of time apart.

We are older now. And we’re still saying it.

And now, that handshake and that expression carry more than silliness. They carry tradition. An inside joke between the two of us, and one founded in mutual respect.

When we most recently saw one another, we shook hands. As always, we said, “As always.”

And I hope we always will.