Sunday, April 28, 2013

Work with Friends

This past fall, I spoke with a long-time acquaintance and the topic turned to his new a cappella group. The members lived in different parts of the country. The group rehearsed irregularly. He didn’t have any grand expectations when it came to touring or recording.

Bear in mind that this guy is a pretty prominent figure in the a cappella world. So why the modest new group?

“I wanted to spend time with my friends.”

Indeed, as the conversation rolled along, he explained how his career was all good, but it was important to him to keep in contact and collaborate with people he liked and with whom he shared roots.

In a way, I suppose I’ve been doing the same in my own corner of the a cappella world. No one asked me to start a blog about a cappella. And if I were to have asked, no one would have said I should start it with two of my best friends, each of whom have no more background in the field than I do. But we gave it a shot. My best friend and I co-founded the site. We only get to hang out a handful of times a year now, and inevitably, some of that time is spent with laptops open and Mountain Dew cans strewn in the space between us as we alternate between writing, talking shop, coding, and otherwise making this project happen. A couple years ago, another of our closest friends came on board to help us redesign the site and enhance any other number of visual aspects of what we’re putting out.

Sometimes I wonder if it would be more fun not to have business to discuss; to sit back and reminisce or talk about sports, or travel, or to quote the movies of our teenage years. (We do all that, just not as much as we might otherwise.) But I earnestly believe that one of the keys to the best friendships is finding people who want to talk about the same things you want to talk about, even if other people might find those topics off-putting. That’s not to devalue the people in my life with divergent interests (if one hadn’t dragged me along to her a cappella shows in the first place, I’d never have found that passion). But rather, if you can find a way to work with your friends that doesn’t feel like work because you all care--well, that’s a pretty cool position to be in.

Another example: the college newspaper.

At 17, I was the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper and wrote a recurring column for the local town paper. When I went off to college, I intended to leave my fledgling career in journalism behind. I figured I’d narrow my field of extracurriculars, and dedicate my writing time to more creative pursuits.

The problem is that I didn’t make many friends.

My freshman year roommate and I got along fine, but it was clear from the beginning that we were not destined to be great friends. I fell in with a group of girls who lived downstairs from my room, a relatively small percentage of whom I really liked and, to be fair, a small percentage of whom cared much for me.

My closest thing to a college best friend and I were having lunch in the Student Union one day and saw a copy of the weekly college newspaper sitting on the next table. She was an aspiring writer, too, and said we should go to a meeting.

That first meeting, the newspaper staff held a series of elections for vacant editor positions, complete with the candidates making speeches, the rest of the staff slinging questions at them, and then a deliberation period in which the candidates left the room and everyone talked behind their backs and came to a decision about who should get the position. An hour passed. Three election cycles transpired. Then a fourth keyed up.

“I don’t think that this is for us,” my friend said.

We both got up to leave. The news editor, a mountain of a man six inches taller than me and about twice my weight cut me off at the door. I didn’t know it then, but he was desperate for reporters--desperate enough to take a freshman aside and all but beg for help.

So, I picked up my first assignment.

My friend never came to another newspaper meeting, but I attended just about every one for the rest of the semester. At the end of the fall, the news editor graduated and one of his assistants took up his post. I stood up for my own election, for the vacated assistant news editor position and landed the job. That spring, my new editor said I should run for her spot for the next year while she moved up to editor in chief.

Sure enough, I ran and won another election. The last couple news cycles that spring, I hung around the newspaper office into the nitty gritty hours as Wednesday nights faded into Thursday mornings, heading home just before sunrise for a few hours of sleep before class.

Those late nights, I was ostensibly learning Adobe Pagemaker, copy editing conventions, and an archaic system of literally cutting and pasting text down on layout pages. But I also cultivated a feeling I hadn’t really had since I first moved to Geneseo.

Home.

In the three years that followed, I spent more waking hours in the newspaper office than any other single location, eventually moving into the role of editor in chief. The tradition of late Wednesday nights became engrained as part of my weekly schedule. Thursday night dinners after full staff meetings became one of my most cherished traditions. And then there were all the moments in between, talking with whoever was in the office about current events, music, philosophy, sex, food, drugs--all the discussions most of us don’t get to have (at least civilly) in adult life, conducted over copy edits and chicken strip subs. I found my truest college friends in that windowless ofice on the top floor of the Student Union. The monthly stipend the student government paid me for my work as editor was enough to pay for groceries and movie tickets, but the money was cursory. Like all of the best projects, done with the best of friends, working at that paper never felt like a job.

The summer after I graduated, the newspaper office was relocated to the basement of the Student Union. After my last issue went to press, I split my last days at Geneseo between packing my apartment and packing the old office--spaces and experiences that felt entirely intertwined. In so many literal and figurative ways, I was moving on and so was the paper.

But that spirit survives. It lives on when I scan my Facebook newsfeed and see our old arts & entertainment editor publishing incisive newspaper articles on music, video games, movies and live productions for a larger readership than our college paper ever afforded him; when I hear from our old copy editor, who parlayed a Blogspot fan journal into an editor job at Tennis.com, and who has since published articles on ESPN.com and in Beckett magazines. I dare I say that spirit lives on in the debates that rage in my inbox on a nearly daily basis, with each new post I make to The A Cappella Blog. My friends and I may not all work for a common publication anymore, sit around the same grimy office table, or go out drinking together on the weekends. But we’re still doing what we love, and I like to think that deeply embedded in all our prose are the common roots between us.

And so, dear reader, I impart these final words of wisdom. Do what you love; love what you do; and, in some small way, keep the people dearest to you involved in your life’s work.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Here in Cologne

Delia started working in my office a few months after I did. I got on the phone with my best friend at the end of her first week and told him I’d met the prettiest girl I’d ever seen.

I learned more about her in the weeks to follow. She had roots in Upstate New York. She had sung in an a cappella group. She had come of age watching The X-Files. She loved Ben Folds.

In short, she quickly shaped up to be everything I’d ever thought I wanted in a woman.

The Ben Folds part is important.

I was at the unhappy tail end of long-term relationship when Delia and I bought tickets to see Ben Folds live in DC.

A couple weeks before the show, I broke off my relationship.

Delia and I left work early the day of the concert. I drove us down I-95, headed for the Greenbelt Metro Station, listening to a mix CD I’d put together for the occasion. A car to my left swerved and edged toward my lane. I watched that car and accelerated, aiming to clear it.

“Mike!”

Delia called out my name, but I was too slow to respond. Too slow to look straight ahead of me where, for no clear reason, a black SUV had stopped dead in the middle of the road. I slammed the brakes a second too late.

We pulled to the side of the road. I stepped outside to exchange information with the other driver. Delia came out, too. She touched my arm.

A police officer joined us and took a report. As we wrapped up, he looked at Delia, looked at me, and looked back to her. “Try not to distract this guy anymore.”

I suppose I was a little obvious.

We got to the DAR Constitution Hall just in time to hear the end of Missy Higgins’s opening set. Then Ben Folds took the stage.

I intended to hold Delia’s hand. Ideally during a song like “The Luckiest,” but anything slow and familiar would do. Little did I know Ben would, instead, spend the better part of two hours playing nothing but songs from his new album, dropping that week, plus alternate takes on the tracks that he had leaked to the Internet as a rib on fans who tried to stay ahead of the curve.

I hadn’t heard any of these songs.

More relevant, forty minutes into his set, he hadn’t yet played a song in anything approaching a minor key. Finally, I decided that the next song he played, I was going to make my move.

The song was “Free Coffee,” a fast-paced, upbeat meditation on the impact of fame on how people treat you, with an intro that sounds like something out of a 1980s video game.

The stuff of romance, it was not.

I took her hand.

She held my hand in return. Moved it to her lap, cupped the back of my hand in her other palm, and rubbed it slowly. When the song finished, I held up my free hand. We high fived in rapid succession to applaud, all the while keeping our other hands interlocked. Laughing.

Then Ben played “Cologne,” one of only two ballads on the Way to Normal album.

Four, three, two, one
I’m letting you go

I remember thinking the opposite. Dreading letting go. Vaguely offended Ben would raise the idea.

I, nonetheless, fell in love with the beauty of the song, just as I was falling deeper and deeper for the girl beside me.

We held hands all the way out of the theater, into the lobby, onto the street. She only let go long enough to pluck a free copy of The Onion from a newspaper rack.

Like I said, she seemed pretty perfect.

We held hands again, walking down a crowded DC sidewalk beneath rows of marquee lights. And I thought of my younger self, the skinny kid who couldn’t get a date to save his life, who used to walk alone along the dark, quiet roads of Utica, of Geneseo.

It felt like I had arrived.

We rode the train north, then got back in my car. I drove Delia home and walked her to the front stoop outside her apartment building, where I took both of her hands in mine and we had our first kiss.

And that’s where this story ends.

It’s easy to define a relationship based on the way it ended, and that’s unfortunate. On a long enough timeline, almost no relationships ends happily. There’s loss of interest. Growing apart. Infidelity. There are breakups and divorces, and death does us part.

Delia and I had stopped seeing each other within a month of that Ben Folds concert. In the aftermath, I took a disproportionately long period of time to get over it and to learn to appreciate our friendship.

I’m happy to say that the friendship has survived for years since, and serves as a profound refutation of the "nice guys" myth that "the friend zone" is a lousy consolation prize for a woman's romantic or sexual interest. Delia and I are better friends than we ever were (or probably ever would have been) romantic partners. And though it's strange to say, when I see her now, it's difficult to recognize her as anything but a friend--all of the feelings that once were so vital and heated have receded. Ancient, alien.

You can stay disappointed when a relationship doesn't work out. Suppress your best memories because it’s easier to move on when you demonize someone you used to care for.

But if you can remember your best moments and remember them for every bit of how good they felt at the time, I dare say you’ll live a richer life.

Every now and again, “Cologne” will surface on my iPhone and I’ll listen to it as I drive home. I’ll remember the hundreds of times I listened to the song that autumn years ago, feeling sorry for myself.

Then I’ll remember the very first time I heard it.

I’ll remember exactly how sweet life can be.

Friday, April 5, 2013

On This Sunday

This is not, strictly speaking, a post about pro wrestling. More so, it’s about my relationship with wrestling’s biggest day--the annual spectacle that is Wrestlemania.

I am a pro wrestling fan.

Yes, I know it’s rigged. No, I don’t care. For those interested in an in-depth explanation my fanhood, I’ll refer you to my very last post as a pro wrestling columnist, from 2009 where I explored the topic in some depth, here.

For those who want a shorter explanation on the appeal of pro wrestling, I’ll quote wrestling veteran Jeff Jarrett: “For a fan, no explanation is needed. For a critic, no explanation will do.”

I grew up in the era of Wrestlemania. The first one had happened when I was one year old. One of my earliest memories is of watching Wrestlemania III via a VHS rental a few months after the event.

When you’re three or four years old and you watch all-American hero Hulk Hogan bodyslam 500-pound Andre the Giant in front of a live crowd of over 80,000 people, that’s the sort of image that sticks with you. It stuck with me so much that to this day, I have a black and white 8x10 photograph of the stare down that started that match on my bedroom wall.

It’s a reminder of a simpler time and a simple allegory. The story that a hero doesn’t turn away from a challenge, no matter how insurmountable the odds. A reminder that stories as simple as David v.s Goliath, and Jack v.s the giant at the top of the beanstalk can resonate through the ages because they teach of the value of heart and of cunning--and, in this 1980s iteration, of 24-inch biceps—in allowing us to stand up to the largest obstacles.

In the early years of pay-per-view cable, I would listen and watch bits of the Wrestlemanias the way normal teenage boys watched garbled image of porn on “illegal channels.” I’d write down my predictions before the shows and mark off right and wrong selections with check marks and Xs.

It wasn’t until 1993 that I first saw a Wrestlemania as it happened, when my father won a radio call-in contest for us to the get the live broadcast for free. I had friends from school over and we watched the show, a transformative experience as I started to accept Bret Hart as my new favorite wrestler and worthy successor to Hulk Hogan as wrestling’s number one guy--only for him to lose his first world championship. So began my life-long adoration of also-rans and underdogs.

Wrestling aficionados widely regard that edition of Wrestlemania to be the single worst one in the show’s storied history. And yet, for that time in my life and that experience of watching it, I suspect it will always be among my favorites.

There were more Wrestlemania parties to follow. Then a four-year hiatus when I went to college and, for the most part played my fanhood close to the vest, and only read the online re-caps of the shows. After undergrad, it was back to watching Wrestlemanias in friends’ living rooms, one year at a Hooters.

And I watched Wrestlemania 24 alone. Just a few months into my Baltimore residence, I hadn’t come out of the wrestling closet to my co-workers yet. And so I ordered Chinese food and sat on my futon by myself, watching the event go down. And sitting right there, I decided that in the following year, whatever the cost, whatever the time and travel involved, I was going to go to Wrestlemania 25.

Sure enough, one year later I found myself in Houston, one of 72,000 fans at Reliant Stadium, side by side with my best friend of sixteen years. I got to meet Roddy Piper (who asked if I was a wrestler (and seemed to be serious)), Nick Bockwinkel, Harley Race, and more. I gave Stone Cold Steve Austin a standing ovation when he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, and, yes, of course, I watched the show itself, highlighted by a particularly epic match between The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels.

The trip was expensive enough that I didn’t expect to repeat it--not for a few years, at least. I didn’t expect that any subsequent ‘Mania experience would really touch that one.

But they have.

On a lark, the following March I invited a handful of Baltimore friends to join me in my apartment for Wrestlemania 26--one or two casual wrestling fans, the rest of them completely new to the form. Much to my surprise, be it loyalty of friendship, curiosity, or even a smidge of legitimate interest, they came. Then more came for Wrestlemania 27. Still more for 28. This coming Sunday, I expect my one bedroom apartment to be filled to capacity with audience of about fifteen people.

Each of the gatherings have played out much the same--a buffet of pizza, wings, and beer. A prediction game to give the attendees a stake in the matches. A drinking game (drink when someone successfully hits a move from the top rope) to keep folks engaged. A several-hour series of questions aimed at me to make sense of the rules and storylines of what we’re watching: why smashing someone’s face with a ladder is legal in one match, but hitting a man with a lead pipe warrants a disqualification in another.

And for those hours, I don’t know that I ever stop smiling. Surrounded by people I care for, sharing a small piece of a sub-culture I love. Not so different from Thanksgiving or Christmas, Wrestlemania Sunday has evolved into one of my most cherished holidays. A day of tradition. A day of food and drink. A day of togetherness.

And, yes, even a day with its own traditional music.

Happy Wrestlemania weekend, everyone!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Siskel and Ebert

My earliest memories of Roger Ebert: childhood, watching a portly, gray-haired man argue with bald-headed Gene Siskel about film on their syndicated television show.

In retrospect, it was a strange, but important show for me to have watched.

Strange because Siskel & Ebert clearly wasn’t designed for children. Stranger still because I only went to the movies about once or twice a year growing up, and when I did go it was rarely based on the critical recommendations, more often on what was cool at the time or what my sister and grandmother wanted to see (e.g., Home Alone, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain).

Important because Siskel & Ebert offered me my first taste of what meaningful criticism could sound like. My fellow children divvied cinema into one of two categories: the movies that were “awesome” and movies that “sucked”--with the occasional added nuance that an awesome movie was funny, or a sucky movie was boring. When you get down to it, most adults aren’t that much more scientific, offering thinly veiled, oddly equivalent assessments about all kinds of art that they simply do or do not like.

Siskel and Ebert were different. They analyzed. They dissected. They explained. And while they were both bright, articulate men, they rarely wallowed in jargon and the technical aspects of film, instead laying down critiques built to be accessible to the common man, before they distilled all of their careful thought and rationalization back down to the simplest evaluation possible: a vote of thumbs up or thumbs down for each movie.

Siskel and Ebert argued. Much of the show’s audience probably remember it best for those moments when one or both of the Chicagoans lost his cool--equal parts passionate about film and caught up in the spirit of argument. And yes, these confrontations were entertaining. But far more important, at least for my own development, these arguments demonstrated that two smart people could hold wildly divergent, no less valid points of view.

Since the age of eighteen, I have as often as not been involved in some form of writer’s workshop, be it as a formal class or an informal gathering of friends, electronically or in person. I like to think that some of my critical eye, as well as my ability to accept criticism as valuable and important (even when I don’t agree with it) stems from early exposure to two of the finest critics of my lifetime.

And there’s my role in the world of a cappella music. Most people who know me from this segment of my life are surprised to hear that the guy who posts upwards of one hundred columns about a cappella each year, and who writes 5,000-word reviews about ten or so major shows a year never actually sang with an a cappella group. And, inevitably (and as recently as this past weekend) I find myself comparing my work to that of America’s best-known critic, Roger Ebert. Ebert was never a filmmaker and Ebert didn’t concern himself with highfalutin language or technical snobbery. He made smart arguments in an accessible way, and in doing so, educated and influenced a generation of movie-goers. I do not put myself on Ebert’s level (or even particularly close to it) as a critic. Nonetheless, his work is what I aspire to in the a cappella realm.

Gene Siskel passed away in 1999, an absurdly long time ago, it seems, as I reflect on him this evening.

Rober Ebert died today after a long battle with cancer. He hasn’t been physically capable of speech for years, but still regularly published film reviews for the The Chicago Sun-Times and posted some truly profound thoughts on his underappreciated personal blog.

In a sense, Ebert’s passing could mark the end of an era. It could mean that great criticism has died with its vanguard.

I prefer to think that Siskel and Ebert left the world a better place. While no critic may yet have risen to match their clout or notoriety, they gave birth to a wide cross-section of magazine columnists, magazine reviewers, and bloggers. Smart people who are putting real thought into their criticism, and in so doing pushing artists further and making audiences think a little harder.

For that, the world is a better place.

Rest in peace, Siskel and Ebert. The balcony is closed.