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 She had withdrawn from the proceedings by degrees--one year spending an hour of the party on the phone with her boyfriend; another, spending the first leg of the night with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.