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?


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


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.