Sunday, December 28, 2014

My 2014 Soundtrack

Since 2002, each December I have compiled a mix CD or playlist to document the past year--a soundtrack that charts memorable moments, trends, and events in my life over the preceding twelve months.

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. I Lived by OneRepublic Hope when you take that jump, you don’t fear the fall.

This song choice is not particularly nuanced or creative. Regardless, this is a song I suspect I will always remind me of the early stages of 2014, when I completed the application paperwork for MFA programs in creative writing and, all the more so when I sat back and waited for the results to come in.

I had started tentatively making plans to apply in 2010, after an inspiring visit to a friend who was working on her MFA at that time. By the end of 2012 I had both completed my MA at Johns Hopkins and fallen in cahoots with a professor who was willing to mentor me through the application process. The initiative snowballed when he told me I had to apply to at least twenty programs, and when we started researching together and couldn’t justify crossing off any more schools after we had narrowed the list to thirty-four.

The process came to a head at the end of 2013, when the first deadlines came up, and was more fully realized in early 2014 in a flurry of requesting GRE scores and undergraduate transcripts and crafting different personal statements to suit the different programs to which I applied.

There was a lot tied into that application process. Yes, there were the sheer hours of work to compile and submit my materials, and the sheer dollar amounts for application fees, requesting all of those materials, and for shipping. But more than that, the MFA application process started to feel like it was about my very being. Was I an amateur or did I have the skills to justify full-funding at a good program? Would I remain an office worker who wrote on the side, or would I have the opportunity to pursue writing as a more-or-less full-time endeavor for two or three years?

I listened to this song for inspiration, courage, and faith.

2. Happy by Pharrell Williams I watched the NBA All-Star Game and felt tremendously out of touch when a performer I’d never heard of--Pharrell Williams--was the featured musical performer before the game. Little did I know that over the months to follow I’d be inundated by him and this song--in a cappella, in promotional campaigns, and in just about any other setting I could think of.

3. WrestleMania by Mike Stock and Pete Waterman Full disclosure: I tend to listen to this song every March and April, tantamount to a holiday anthem in the build to the biggest pro wrestling show of the year. The song, and WrestleMania event took on special meaning for me this year, though.

Since I graduated from college, I’ve watched every WrestleMania as it happened--on my own, with a living room full of friends, once in person. As the thirtieth annual super show approached I wanted to do something special to commemorate it, and thus decided to embark on the endeavor of ranking all 287 WrestleMania matches, including a narrative account and assessment of each one, for a final document that topped 65,000 words. I threw the post on Buzzfeed and hoped for it to reach a lot of my fellow fans.

I looked at it as a new opportunity to write something for a new audience. I looked at it as a welcome, low stakes distraction from the haze of MFA applications and waiting to hear back from them.

45,000 readers later, the countdown had consumed me. Mother Jones, Jim Ross, and Michael Phelps all Tweeted the article to their followers. Bill Apter, my childhood wrestling journalist idol, shared the article on his website. Two separate parties who I scarcely knew recognized me and stopped me at an a cappella show to comment on the project. And, the day before WrestleMania 30, John Bradshaw Layfield mentioned it live on the air to razz his broadcast partner Michael Cole for ranking last on my countdown.

It was a pretty cool period in this past year.

4. “Closer to Free” by The Bodeans I’ve always liked this song, most famous for its use as the theme music for Party of Five, and most particularly the animalistic celebratory hoot at the beginning it, that sounds to me like pure joy.

For reasons I can’t recall, I rediscovered it in March 2014 and put it on my phone. By that point, I’d received my first handful of acceptance phone calls and emails from different MFA programs, and knew for sure that I would be leaving Baltimore for someplace new at the end of the summer. But I hadn’t yet heard good news from any of the higher tier programs that I was most excited about matriculating to.

So, I decided that I would not listen to this song again until I either did get the news I was most hoping for or, at the less auspicious but nonetheless celebratory moment when I had decided on attending one of the other programs that had already offered me admission.

Fast forward to mid-April. I’m in Santa Cruz, California on business, with a few-day stop in San Diego to visit Heather waiting in the wings. I’d been waiting to hear back from Oregon State University--one of a very small number of those top programs I hadn’t yet been declined from, and the school Heather and I had agreed upon as our mutual top choice of destinations to move to together.

I was driving winding Highway 17 when I got the phone call--a number that my phone did not recognize, but that displayed Corvallis, Oregon as its point of origin.

I waited until I was off the highway, had dropped off my colleague at the airport for her earlier flight, and had stopped off to gas up our rental car to finally listen to the message--to hear Marjorie Sandor’s voice offering me a spot in the 2014 cohort.

In the hour to follow, I returned the rental car and checked in for my flight down the coast. I called back Marjorie and talked over details. I called Heather, and led off our phone call by asking how she felt about moving to Oregon.

And I listened to this song.

5. “Ain’t It Fun” by Paramore In 2012, I added regular coverage of the Mid-Atlantic region of International Championship of High School A Cappella to my a cappella coverage regimen. Each of those years, I had the pleasure of hearing The Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands Voices sing, and each of those years, they won their way to the tournament finals in New York City.

2014 is the year when I felt most connected to this group. I met parents of the group members at their regional semifinal and talked about their group and my blog. I learned that the group had taken a throwaway line from one my reviews as their unofficial motto for that year: “Champions care.”

And, sure enough, 2014 was the year when The Highlands Voices won the big one, arriving for the first time as national champions. Their cover of this Paramore song anchored their set.

6. “Skinny Love” cover by The University of Michigan G-Men The original version of “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver is a favorite that I rediscovered in the fall of 2013 when Heather talked about how much she loved it. The song was reinvented for me when I heard it again in late April 2014 as the opening song of the 2014 International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Finals, as sung by The G-Men. And though The G-Men went woefully under-recognized at that night’s show, in my book, their performance of this song remained the best of the entire evening.

7. “Higher and Higher” cover by Sara Bareilles I love the Jackie Wilson original of this song, and--let’s make no bones about it--I love Sara Bareilles. Thus, this was a cover-match made in heaven, recorded for Oprah.

8. “Green Garden” by Laura Mvula I first heard this song courtesy of the NYU N’harmonics a cappella group at their ICCA Mid-Atlantic Semifinal and Finals performances, and got around downloading it a month and a half later, shortly after I lost my car and started taking the train to and from work. Thus, I have a mental connection between the staccato rhythms of this song and walks from my place in Baltimore to the Light Rail Station.

9. “Heaven” by The Walkmen I first started watching How I Met Your Mother in late 2010, binge-watched to catch up on the first four and a half seasons, then faithfully watched from that point through spring 2014 when the show finally came to a close.

How I Met Your Mother was not a consistently great show, but it had enough great moments, particularly in the early seasons, to keep me hooked. It was a show about love and idealism, and the importance of maintaining a connection between the two. It was a show about friendship. And, ultimately, it was a show just as fittingly synched to my own life as Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been for me in high school, and, in a sense, The Office had been for my transition to my first two office jobs.

“Heaven” played over the closing moments of the series finale--a scene that harkened back to season one, followed by flashbacks to what all of the major players had looked like nine years earlier. And no, that finale wasn’t as good or satisfying as it could or should have been; but I’ll also maintain that it wasn’t as bad as some of the show’s critics would have you believe.

Regardless, How I Met Your Mother coming to a close just before I started my last summer as a CTY Program Manager, and as I readied myself for the next stage of my life felt like a moment of serendipitous synchronicity. We were ready to move on.

10. “Come to Me” by The Goo Goo Dolls

I heard this new track by The Goo Goo Dolls fresh off a plane in San Jose, driving to Santa Cruz to kick off my last full-time summer with CTY. The song had the odd effect of feeling nostalgic, since it had been years since I could last recall listening to Johnny Reznick’s voice, but at the same time fresh for being new music.

This is where we start again.

I thought of the new life ahead of me. Of Heather. Of Peek and Missy’s pending nuptials. Of everything.

11. “God of Ocean Tides” by Counting Crows

I spent a little over six and half years in Baltimore. About three months in, my favorite band, Counting Crows, released their fifth original studio album Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings. Lo and behold, six and a half years later, with several live albums and a cover album in between, they released their sixth original studio album, Somewhere Under Wonderland, more or less perfectly bookending that period in my life with new Crows music.

A series of pre-released tracks preceded the album’s full-on release. My favorite of those early songs was “God of Ocean Tides,” released just in time for my final tour of Santa Cruz to close out the summer. This song is deeply rooted in nostalgia, reflection, and travel, and felt like an anthem of sorts to listen to on that last plane ride west across the country and as I wandered campus as I breathed in those final views overlooking the Monterrey Bay.

Breathe the water.

I flew out of San Jose the night my work was done, bucking the four-year tradition I had built of closing the summer with a road trip down the California coast. I didn’t depart back east, though, but rather north to Portland to spend a few days with Heather, checking out the city and our new home in Corvallis. We went to a Counting Crows show while I was there and they played this song.

12. “Sweet Dream” by Greg Laswell I first heard this song on a tear-jerker episode of Angel years back, but never downloaded it until this year, when it felt like a near-perfect way to commemorate my time in Baltimore. Working for CTY full-time, not to mention earning my first grad degree in writing, were dreams came true--not to mention all of people who had such a profound influence on my life along the way.

13. “Iowa” by Dar Williams I charted a course across the country to move my relocate my life to Oregon. Along the way, I was sure to stop in Iowa City.

It’s no secret to many of you that, along my MFA aspirations, admission to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was my dream. It’s widely regarded as the top creative writing program in the world. A place where writers like John Irving, Denis Johnson, Yiyun Li, Elizabeth McCracken, and Flanney O’connor have written and have taught.

I didn’t get in.

I felt honored to be offered fully funded admission to Oregon State--by just about any measure an excellent program, with some great faculty and great fellow students. Nonetheless, I knew that to close that particular chapter of my life, I needed to at least see Iowa.

So, along the drive and on my birthday, I drove to Iowa City. I wandered past the workshop building, down the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk, through three bookstores, and throughout campus.

It was a cool place. A place that celebrates the craft of literature.

But it was also just a place.

I’ve had the good fortune to travel to a number of places that have interested me--to have seen breath-taking sights and to have had all manner of experiences. But it may be experiences like this that are most powerful of all. To vanquish mystique and wonder; to recognize a place for its everyday qualities and for what it is--a college town amidst corn fields that just happens to also host a preponderance of very good writers.

Had I been admitted to Iowa, I have little doubt I would have loved my experience. Just the same, it’s no longer quite the romantic location it once was to me. It’s just a place. And I’ve moved on to another.

14. “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift After I had moved into my place in Corvallis, and while I still had a solid two weeks before my first formal school commitments, I ventured to campus, found the gym, and re-launched my routine of going there on a regular basis—one of the first bits of normalcy I established in my new home.

For each trip to the gym, it seemed as though I heard this song at least once over the speakers.

15. “Joyride” by Built to Spill I engaged in a week-long boot camp to prepare me to teach English Composition at Oregon State. The professor who led the workshops played music at the start of each session and this was one of the songs (and bands) I discovered in the process. I moved on to play the song for my class to get some practice with analysis, in my section of the course themed around representations of love in pop music.

16. “Home” cover by The Vitamin String Quartet In our first few weeks living together, Heather and I watched a lot of Modern Family, which culminated in watching the most recent season finale, in which characters Cam and Mitch were wedded. A string quartet played them down the aisle with this song, a cover of the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros track.

More than commemorating an episode of a TV show, though, this song--and this version of it--became emblematic of the new life Heather and I were building together. Our new home.

17. "Clarice" by Adam Trabold My favorite new Christmas find, courtesy of my new friend Adam on his My Name is Rudolph EP. It's a folksy spin on a reindeer love story. --

That’s a wrap for this year’s soundtrack. Thanks for reading and my best wishes to you for the new year ahead!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

30 Memories: Christmas

This post is written in the format of sharing thirty memories/thoughts/stories, each in thirty words or fewer. The focus is on Christmas.

1. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) This is my favorite Christmas song. Equal parts nostalgia for a song I grew up with and the message of reflection on a year gone by, a prayer for peace.

2. Peek’s House The last few years, Christmas has ended at Peek and Missy’s, in the house they renovated, the progress of which reminds me how little time I’ve spent home between Christmases.

3. Home Alone I remember watching Home Alone for the first time in the theater with my grandmother and my sister and thinking it was the best film I had ever seen.

4. Snooping I remember snooping for gifts leading up to Christmas, looking in my grandma’s bedroom dresser drawer and seeing the logos for new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures.

5. Smoke I remember my Uncle John would stay at my grandmother’s house for Christmas and leave the guest bedroom cloudy and reeking of Marlboro smoke.

6. Pot Roast My father made pot roast, not exclusively for Christmas, but often on the holiday and in the winter. I slathered the tender beef and mashed potatoes in rich brown gravy.

7. Petit Fours Christmas dinners at Grandma’s ended with Swiss Colony petit fours—little frosted cakes, mystery fillings. I’ve learned to love Christmas cookies, but petit fours are the true taste of Christmas.

8. Train Set Grandma surprised me one year with a train set. Despite my father’s best efforts, we couldn’t get it working reliably for more than a few minutes. I fumed and cried.

9. Wish Lists I learned my parents and grandmother rationed about fifty dollars each for my and my sister’s gifts and became obsessed with dollar values, crafting wish lists to maximize my budget.

10. It’s a Wonderful Life In my mind, there’s a direct correlation between coming to appreciate this film and transitioning from focusing on presents to being thankful and appreciating the people I loved.

11. The Christmas Ball I had two dates to my senior year, high school winter semi-formal--freshman girls who were friends and each had crushes on me, each of whom I should’ve treated better.

12. Storm Delay Christmas my sophomore year of college, a blizzard hit shortly after I got home, before anyone else came to town. We celebrated Christmas a day late.

13. Toasting Mr. Scalise Christmases at the Scalises’, I’d lead off dinners by raising a glass to my best friend’s father. It was tongue in cheek, but he’s still the best man I know.

14. Rolling Dice After dinner we’d drink wine and roll dice, gambling over chips without currency behind them in a simple game of luck without strategy.

15. Love Actually I watched Love Actually in the theater with a girl I was falling in love with. We held hands for two hours straight.

16. “Wintersong” I fell in love with Sarah McLachlan’s “Wintersong,” a beautiful piece that precipitated what I’d feel when my ailing grandmother finally passed.

17. Goodbye The last time I saw Grandma, it was Christmas 2007. She didn’t know who I was or that we were in a nursing home common room. I kissed her forehead.

18. Fiber-optic Tree I remember watching a fiber-optic tree flash different colors while I sipped whiskey and thought about Christmases past, as joyous and melancholy as ever I’d been.

19. Christmas Parties I hosted Christmas parties every year I lived in Baltimore. Ugly sweater themed the first year. Tropical themed after I moved to an undersized overheated one bedroom.

20. Christmas Eve I spent Christmas Eve at a bar with my best friend--not a familiar haunt, just a place close to our street We lamented our lost youth.

21. Watching Entourage My friend and I passed a Christmas day watching the first season of Entourage. Spending the day that way seemed sad, but the show did become a favorite.

22. Scrooged There’s something about the closing scene of Scrooged that gets me every time. I choke up and want to call every damn person I’ve ever known.

23. Christmas Lights Peek built elaborate light displays, which drew local TV news coverage and a stream of traffic driving by his house. And I accidentally kicked out one of his floodlights.

24. Chinese and Christmas in a Car It became tradition to eat Christmas lunch at a Chinese restaurant with my father, sister, and brother-in-law, and exchange gifts in my father’s Buick in the parking lot.

25. The Work Party I attended a holiday party at work that was Hawaiian-themed and featured a limbo contest ill-advised for the women in dresses and the office setting.

26. Miracle on 34th Street I lived within walking distance of 34th Street in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore. Houses aglow, with artistic sensibilities--it fed my soul.

27. Black Friday I visited an upstate NY mall the evening of Black Friday for the first time in years, heard “What Christmas Means to Me,” and my heart swelled with nostalgia.

28. Gifts Heather and I exchanged gifts. She hand wrote a book about how we met. I gave her a book of comic strips I’d drawn about us and a talking cat.

29. Christmas Eve Away I woke on Christmas Eve for the first time outside of my childhood bedroom, because I’d stayed in Baltimore to write a live review of The Sing-Off for my blog.

30. Gianna, Lucia, Aria I’ve spent my most recent Christmases hugging, dancing, and playing with my nieces. And they’ve been the best Christmases of my life to date.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Man in Mirror

When I lived in Baltimore, I volunteered weekly with a tutoring program for neighborhood kids. Entering my fifth year with the program, I took on a management role in which I rarely worked one-on-one with the kids, mostly assigning tutors to them, seeing to administrative odds and ends, and putting out fires as they arose.

One week, all of those administrative details were wrapped up and the fires were few and minor in nature. I had the chance to visit the upstairs gymnasium during the play time at the end of the night and simply hang out.

And I saw Carrie, one of the nicest kids who came—studious, obedient, shy, sitting alone in the corner. I asked if she was all right and she nodded. I asked if she wanted to play and she shook her head.

I thought of leaving her to her own devices, remembering the many days of my youth when I’d just as soon have been left alone.

Then I recalled Carrie walking into the church that night with her headphones on, bobbing to music before we asked her, like the rest of the kids, to put their electronics away.

I asked her what she had been listening to.

She mumbled that it was Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson, who had died when she was all of three years old. Michael Jackson, who hadn’t cut a single in her lifetime. Not Drake or Miley Cyrus, or other popular choices among the kids I worked with, who presented proof of a generational gap.

I asked her what her favorite Michael Jackson song was.

She shrugged and looked straight ahead. “I like ‘Man in the Mirror.’”

And I sang. Not quite the comic falsetto I default to in karaoke settings, but still a little high and loudly. A lot of the kids looked, never having heard me sing a note.

Carrie smiled. She sang along.

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer

Carrie trailed off into “doo-doo-doos” while I carried on with the lyrics, “if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”

She laughed. “I don’t really know all the words.”

This song transitioned to talk of others. Another girl joined us to talk about movies. And for the first time since I assumed my coordinating role, I lost track of time and called for gym time to end a minute later than I meant to. I remembered why I had chosen a job that focused on work with children, and I why I was spending a portion of my would-be leisure time with another program spent corralling and coaching and, yes, at times hollering at kids. I remembered why it was important and why it was fun, and why, at the best of times, those reasons weren't so different.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanksgiving with Housekeepers

One of the great ironies of my life: the period when my job centered on building community and making people feel at home was also the time of my life that I felt least at home and most lonely.

I spent two and half years managing dorms at a university. The job provided for some excellent professional growth. I got to meet some fascinating personalities, and living where I worked saved a lot of money.

All of that said, I don’t feel my personality at the time meshed particularly well with my colleagues, and, freshly removed from my own college experience, where I’d cultivated a pretty substantial and diverse social network, my time at my first full-time job felt a lot more insular, and I never felt quite reached a comfort zone.

My second year on the job, I sat alone in my office on the ground floor of the dorm. Most days, there was plenty of foot traffic, plenty of pleasantries exchanged, meetings to attend, etc. But things were different on the day before Thanksgiving. Since I was only an hour from home, I opted not to burn any vacation days, and instead worked my usual schedule, only in a dorm that was all but abandoned, less than 10 percent of the residents in attendance.

The housekeeping staff was still on. By late morning, the scents of a turkey dinner wafted from their break room by the loading dock, down the narrow hallway, past the laundry room and vending machines to my office. Just a few minutes before noon, when I had planned to escape upstairs to my apartment for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or some Ramen, one of the housekeepers popped his head in my office. He was a skinny guy with a lazy eye, patches of stubble that never seemed to grow thicker and that he never seemed to shave away from day to day, compulsively clad in a plain red baseball cap. “You coming to lunch?”

Lunch, it turned out, was a potluck affair between the whole housekeeping crew. Though, I had nothing to contribute, they insisted I join them. I marveled at the spread--a twelve-pound turkey, homemade stuffing and mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows, pumpkin and pecan pies. Bill, the manager, sat at the head of the long table, a patriarch. Donna, a dead ringer for Melinda Doolittle from the season of American Idol that would follow a few months later, poured clear plastic Solo cups of grape juice and cranberry juice to pass around the table.

And I made small talk with James, a middle-aged housekeeper with an accent from Wales and an ornate tattoo of a cross on his forearm. We chatted about the college kids on the fifth floor who had routinely made messes that year, most recently leaving a Jackson Pollock-like display of vomit in the middle of the women’s bathroom floor.

I said I was sorry he had to deal with all of that.

“Don’t be sorry.” He took a bite from a drumstick, tearing a scrap of turkey skin free with his teeth. “If they didn’t make a mess, I wouldn’t have a job.”

I thought of this man, literally thousands of miles from home, making ends meet on a housekeeping gig in a college dorm. And I thought of myself, just at the start of my career, just an hour drive removed from most of my friends and family, and the places I knew best.

I looked around that table. At people who scrubbed toilets and mopped floors to earn their paychecks. At people who had invited me into their fold when I sat alone at my office computer, the day before Thanksgiving. These people who were thankful for their jobs, their lives, their community.

Trite as it may sound, in their midst, I felt pretty thankful, too.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Kentucky Fried Chicken

A year and a half ago, I went a week-long road trip. First and foremost, the objective was to attend an a cappella competition in St. Louis, but the outgoing journey from Baltimore included a stop to see friends in Indianapolis, and the drive back included a stop in Lexington, Kentucky, for the sheer principle that I’d never visited the state before.

I didn’t give much thought to what I would do in Kentucky, which was probably fine because I’d only stay there for 16 hours before I headed off toward home in Baltimore. Nonetheless, the one hard and fast item I did have on my agenda for that leg of the trip was to get some authentic Kentucky fried chicken.

A round of Googling revealed that the actual original KFC restaurant was both well off the beaten path and nothing to write home about, so I elected to focus on local fare. I check into my hotel around 7 o’ clock on Easter Sunday and asked the woman working the front counter where she would recommend that I find a good fried chicken dinner.

She looked at me, bland-faced and dull-eyed. “Wal-mart’s right across the street. They have really good fried chicken.”

I put on my most polite smile, the best I was liable to mange in a weary state after eight hours of driving. “Any restaurants you could suggest. Maybe someplace more locally based?”

She ran her tongue over her upper lip. “Cracker Barrel’s good, too.”

I gave up on the front desk. Moved into my room and settled in for a quick nap. Then I got up and set to Googling on my phone. I should have expected as much, but I couldn’t find a single local joint of repute open that late on a Sunday, and realized I had all the less chance of doing so on Easter night.

So, I singled out an establishment known as The Parkette or my Monday lunch on the way out of town, and settled for the Cracker Barrel two doors down for that night’s dinner.

I brought along a book--common enough practice for me when I’m traveling and dining alone. The hostess sat me at a table for one, and fifteen minutes later, my server was there--a young woman with long, straight brown hair, severely yellowed teeth, and a brass name tag with big black letters that read Anna-May. She sounded a little nervous, a little frazzled when she asked me if I’d decided what I would like to order.

I smiled my polite smile again. “I was thinking maybe I’d like to look at the menu first.”

“Of course, sir.”

She scurried away and a minute later, returned with my menu and asked if I knew what I wanted to drink.

“How about an iced tea?” I asked.

“Would you like that sweetened or unsweetened?”

“Sweetened, please.”

I scanned the menu. Anna-May returned with my iced tea (unsweetened, but I tended to that myself with the sugar packets at the table). I elected to hold off for the real thing on my fried chicken quest, and ordered a ham dinner instead.

I got lost in my book, and didn’t notice the passing time at first. But as the wait time drew to half an hour, I did become conscious of it. Finally, my dinner arrived along with an apology for the wait. It wasn’t very good, but it was a Cracker Barrel so I didn’t come in with the loftiest expectations. The waitress stopped back three times as I ate.

The first time, she asked if I wanted anything for dessert.

The second time, she asked how my dinner was.

The third time, she asked how my dinner was again, but lingered longer after I repeated that it was great and thanked her. “You’re so nice,” she said. “This is my first night on the job and everybody seems so angry. I wish all of the customers were like you.”

She left before I could respond.

And I thought about how nice I’d really been. Only looking up from my book long enough to answer her questions. Thinking to myself that she didn’t seem particularly competent. And I remembered my first few days on the job, working the counter at the Yorkville McDonald’s. Trying to learn their limited menu, the appropriate codes to put in the register, getting scolded by my manager for giving someone the wrong breakfast sandwich.

I put the book aside after I’d finished my dinner. And when Anna May returned with the bill for my nine-dollar dinner, I told her she was doing a great job and to have good night. She blushed, smiled, waved awkwardly and said “you too.”

Cracker Barrel has you pay your bill at the counter, which left me with a dilemma. I didn’t want poor Anna-May to think for a second that I was stiffing her on her tip but putting it on my card out of her sight, but I only had four dollars cash in my wallet. I did also, however, have an emergency twenty-dollar bill stashed in my cell phone case.

I thought about asking for change. I thought better.

People have to face all manner of hardship in their lives, not the least of which is the discouragement of other folks putting them down--not out of necessity or in an effort to help them improve at something, but just for being carelessly or consciously mean.

I came to Kentucky fully prepared to pay in excess of twenty dollars for a fried chicken dinner, and I’d stayed well under budget for the overall road trip up to that point. I had a good job and twenty dollars wasn’t going to put me out in any meaningful way.

I left my twenty-dollar bill under the empty glass of iced tea Anna May had never refilled, and went to the counter without another word to settle my bill and be on my way. I slept easy that night.

The next morning I woke in time to do a little writing, grab a shower and check out of the hotel just before 11 to make it to The Parkette for an early lunch. I planned to hit the highway straight from there, and not stop for anything but gas and the rest room until I hit Baltimore seven or eight hours later. Thus, I had few inhibitions about ordering a small feast: an eight-piece order of fried chicken, a side of fried chicken livers, French fries, and a small (24-ounce) sweet tea.

I left Kentucky with a full stomach, a couple new stories to tell, and a happy (if slightly less healthy) heart. Not a bad end to a week on the road.

Friday, October 31, 2014

What Scares Us

As faithful readers have likely identified by now, I like holidays. I enjoy the ritual assembly of family that happens on Thanksgiving and Christmas, the resolution that comes with New Year’s, the signature fireworks of the Fourth of July.

And then there’s Halloween.

In my childhood, it was about costumes and candy. My mother fashioned some pretty impressive get ups for me through a combination of store-brought props and an ingenuity at crafts that she didn’t show often but was truly a hidden talent, leading to costumes that included Skeletor, Darkwing Duck, and The Phantom of the Opera. Rather than venturing door to door for candy, we traditionally took part in the more convenient, less weather-dependent store-to-store trick-or-treating at the Sangertown Square shopping mall.

In my late high school years, the holiday became more or less equal parts about candy and mischief. After a several year gap without dressing up, I realized the free candy to be had, and friends and I dressed up in minimalist costumes (I put the hood up on my jacket and wore sunglasses to become the Unambomber). While our mischief was relatively managed, I can’t deny that I sprayed some shaving cream and smashed some pumpkins in those less responsible years.

In adult life, aside from the obligatory party or two, I’ve used Halloween as an opportune time to indulge in scares, mostly in the form of watching a few new horror movies and revisiting an old favorite or two; sometimes I’ll throw in a horror novel as one of my October reads.

But in between teenager and adult I recall the first Halloween I spent at college. As I’ve written about before, it took me a while freshman year to find my bearings socially.

For the first couple months, I fell in with a group of girls with whom I had little in common besides living in the same dorm and happening to have found myself in the same stairwell the same night when we all met and first got to talking.

By Halloween, as the cliche goes, the bloom was off the rose. As the day approached, a couple of the girls talked about having a movie night on the 31st, and persisted in adding that it would be a really fun “girls night.” I laughed (I thought) along, in reference to how I was one of the girls. By Halloween eve, it was clear I wasn’t invited.

I felt betrayed, for sure, but all the more potently so for having been dismissed for a holiday. Like a jilted lover the night before prom, I felt righteous indignation for having been left to myself in a town still new to me with nothing to do on Halloween.

More than indignation, I felt alone.

I walked around campus aimlessly that night, feeling sorry for myself, hoping to stumble into some new fun, but just the same sulky enough to repel any good times that really might have awaited. In the end, I wound up back in my dorm room at a decent hour, where I finished my homework and went to bed without incident.

And perhaps because of the lack of any event or drama, I look back on that Halloween as the one that most truly realized my fears--not of vampires or zombies, but of what scared me the most, even as a relatively introverted young man. I was terrified of ending up alone. For holidays. For the long haul. Even just for one stupid Halloween night.

And perhaps it’s those moments that scare us that expose the directions in which we must evolve, whether it’s dealing with ghosts or spiders or heights. For my part, while I’m still troubled by the idea of a life without friends and family, I have also very much learned to love myself. To find the joy in a long road trip alone with my music and thoughts; to relish the occasional weekend of uninterrupted productivity. Even the joy in those pensive moonlit walks, holding conversations with no one but myself.

I’ve also come to embrace the importance of chocolate. That Snickers and Reese’s may not solve problems, but they can make most nights better. And if I’ve gone a Halloween without either, then something is seriously wrong.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

On the Ledge

29 years old, driving back to Baltimore after Memorial Day weekend in Rochester, I stopped in Geneseo to watch the sunset.

I was on the fence about stopping at my alma mater. Sure, there are few places I’d rather get a slice of pizza than Mama Mia’s, few places I’d rather get a stiff drink than Kelly’s, few better places for me to wander and ruminate than all of those campus pathways and surrounding neighborhoods. But, pulling off the highway, driving into town, and then backtracking is at least a half hour detour in driving time alone.

But it was sunset time. And as far and wide as I may travel, there are few spots I’d rather watch the sun go down than from than the ledge, out by the gazebo, outside the College Union at Geneseo. There’s a view from that spot, overlooking an expanse of campus, and well past that into the surrounding fields and farmland. It’s a beautiful place.

I didn’t always see it that way.

Freshman year, I had a hard time making friends. I embraced so many awful clich├ęs, as I took to writing sad poetry, smoking cigarettes, and walking alone at late hours of the night. It wasn’t unusual at all to wind up at the ledge under moonlight, long after I should have gone to sleep. I’d stand up there and look down upon the pavement, maybe 12 feet down.

I never considered jumping in any real, conscious way. But I mused around the topic. Started writing a story about a character who took a swan dive from a similar perch and awoke in an alternate universe only to discover in the end that that alternate universe was hell--because he hadn’t dove through any magical portal, but rather had killed himself.

And while I never quite reached the point of suicidal thoughts, and while I did make more friends, and start to feel more generally content with my time at Geneseo, that ledge remained the place to go when I was least happy.

Then it changed.

At the end of sophomore year, I hit it off with a girl. It was complicated. We worked together and she had serious boyfriend back home. We talked all around these points and our feelings for one another in the final weeks of school, until we ended up sitting side by side on that very same ledge watching the sky turn to magenta. Our elbows touched.

The girl and I wouldn’t get involved in any meaningful way for another seven or eight months. But that very simple, innocent moment was enough to transform the location from a place that embodied loneliness and emptiness to a place of love and peace.

And oddly, unexpectedly, and perhaps even uncharacteristically enough, the space retained that meaning for me.

Two years later, after that relationship had ended, and a couple days after I had graduated, on the last night I lived in Geneseo, I returned to the ledge with my Discman in hand, listening to a freshly burned mix CD full melancholy, reflective songs. It was a surreal moment. Every last one of my friends had already left for summer, and it was only beginning to register that this place--from my favorite pizzeria, to the newspaper office, to the classrooms, to that very ledge--that, over the course of four years, had become a home, was about to become more memory than reality for me. A place to look at in pictures. A place to visit, but not to live within.

I sat down on the ledge alone in the late afternoon, when the sky was still blue. I stared out into the distance and listened to that CD twice through, watching colors fade, the twilight thicken, and the dark settle in. And I walked home alone.

Eight years later, I watched the sunset from that same spot, iPhone earbuds in, wishing I had more of the songs from that old mix CD on hand, but mixing college favorites with a few newer melodies. I remembered a time when it seemed unimaginable to leave that place. I realized that for all of my visits to friends in Rochester and the surrounding area, this was the first time I’d been to Geneseo--much less the ledge--in years.

Fast forward five months. And I’m back in Geneseo, this time not alone. Two of my best friends from college--Kevin and Emily--got married in Rochester. A small portion of our old crew came together at the church and at the reception, and the next day, we returned to campus, four of us returned to campus. We grabbed lunch on Main Street. We wandered past the academic buildings. We headed for the College Union.

And when we got to the ledge I stopped. Phone in hand, I stretched my arm long and asked everyone to huddle close together. And I took a picture of us. All nearly a decade older, maybe a smidge wiser than we were as college kids. But still together. Still smiling.

And though I didn’t say it then, I knew full well that we stood on sacred ground. And whether I stood alone or with those I held dearest, that spot would always be one in which I grew. One of my favorite spots to look out from. One of my favorite places to look within myself. A jumping off point in every sense of the word.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Homework Club

Throughout my time in Baltimore, one of the best things I did was to work as a tutor for the Remington Homework Club. It was a once a week commitment over the academic year, ostensibly helping kids with their homework, more realistically doing my best to keep them from fighting one another or calling each other too nasty of names, and, on a good night, playing a little basketball with them.

When people ask how I got started with this group, I tend to give them the generic answer--that I was looking for a volunteer opportunity and Googled around until I found this one.

That version of the story isn’t untrue, but neither is it complete.

The truth is, I reached a low point.

I pulled up to a red light and rubbed my eyes, 2:30 on a Sunday morning. I had been careful not to drink too much at the Christmas party, but I’d been up early that Saturday. I was tired and a little buzzed and low on fuel, and driving the only car in sight, on some neighborhood back road after I made a wrong turn en route to the highway.

And I was heartbroken.

That fall I engaged in all-too-short romance with a woman I thought I might love who summarily dismissed me after a few weeks of dating. In the weeks to follow, Delia and I had remained friendly, exchanging the occasional text message, remaining in the same social circles. It all culminated in that Christmas party when the two of us stood on our own and I mustered the gall to ask if she’d had any second thoughts about us seeing one another. I made it pretty clear that I had.

She hugged me and told me she loved me.

Like a brother.

I made a clumsy exit and headed outside to my rust bucket Honda Accord to drive home.

And I thought about how much everything sucked. How I’d had a miserable time when I went home for Thanksgiving the month before and I was headed back there in a couple days. How my budding romance had frozen over with the first autumn frost. How I was faced with the choice of still seeing Delia all the time, or giving up our mutual friends--the entirety of my Baltimore social circle at the time.

I thought of how I was fed up with most people in my life, and most of all myself.

I called my best friend and got his voicemail. The two of us talked just about every day at that point, and for months, he had listened patiently to me prattle on about Delia—about the courtship, about the dates, about the aftermath. On this call, I told his voicemail that I might need a couple days. Not to be alarmed if I didn’t answer his calls.

The truth is, I reached a low point.

Sitting at that red light, a new thought crossed my mind. That as badly I felt everything was going, I had a job. I had my health. I had a best friend whom I could call, and dozens of other people I could have called on if I were in bad enough need. I had family to return home to and to stay with.

And so, at my low point I realized that, objectively speaking, I was still pretty fortunate.

I thought of how I always intended to do more.

Intended to do better.

Intended to give back.

For a few years running, I had volunteered at a soup kitchen Thanksgiving mornings. Waking up early, stocking shelves, taking out the garbage--it was a good day’s work at a good, symbolic time of showing thanks and an interest humankind. Just the same, it was isolated to a once a year endeavor doing work in a place and on an occasion such that, were I not there, someone else almost certainly would have stood up in my place.

It wasn’t enough.

So that weekend I Googled volunteer opportunities in Baltimore. Opportunities to have a positive impact, and perhaps equally important to me at the time, to redirect all of the hurt and negative energy I felt to something worthwhile.

That January, I started with the Homework Club. I worked with a pair of boys, seated cross-legged on the dirty gymnasium floor, upstairs from the church community room. I spent more time trying to keep the boys from grappling with each other, or at one point me, than I did actively tutoring. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

But I made it through.

And I kept going, straight through the spring and starting again the next fall. And I came back the next year. More sure of myself when I stopped kids from running in restricted areas and when I refocused them on homework. Better prepared to laugh and play along when they made up their own rules to a game of chess.

On many levels this endeavor worked for me. Long after I got over Delia, volunteering provided a welcome diversion from whatever office, school, or personal stressors were taking over at a given period of time. I met some new friends and some cool kids.

Just the same, there came a point when I wondered if, for all the time and effort invested, I was actually making a difference in any meaningful way.

As if answering a question I hadn’t spoken, that very night one of the boys I was working with looked up at me and said, “I wish we had Homework Club every night.”

And though I briefly tried to explain that most volunteers wouldn’t be available for every night, and that the kids would probably get sick of it if they met much more than once a week, and that the church was used for other purposes—despite all of that, the core of what this kid said got through to me.

That Homework Club offers these kids a safe place to play basketball and football and board games after dark. That the tutors are the best kinds of role models--not just setting good examples week in and week out, but choosing to show up for these girls and boys. That some of the kids actually do get homework done in this setting, and find help from their peers and this set of adults that they might not find at home.

Funnily enough, after that first time I heard a boy say he wished Homework Club met more frequently, I heard more kids say virtually the same thing. I don’t hold illusions about having changed the lives of every kid who came to the church Monday nights, or that many of these kids will remember me ten years from now. But I can also see that that sense of appreciation, and that those relationships we formed, as tenuous as they may have been, were still fundamentally important.

Aside from a couple of semesters when my grad school classes conflicted with Homework Club, I worked with the group for six years. A month removed from Baltimore, this particular community and this work is a part of what I miss most. Just the same, I’ll take the lessons from the experience with me. To put others first. To serve. What to do with all of my negativity.

The truth is, I reached a low point.

The truth is, I made the most of the journey back up.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Messy Room

As a child, my bedroom was a mess.

To be fair, most of the house was a mess. I come from a people who are nothing if not cluttered. Who keep things long past the point of utility, who value material possessions.

My bedroom took things to another level, though. The bed in one corner, covering toys I had outgrown and crumpled elementary school worksheets. A nightstand behind it, its lower compartment crammed with books and loose papers, drawer filled with mementos and party favors. My collection of stuffed animals. A dresser on which none of the drawers would close all the way for the sheer mass of stuff (only about half of it clothing) I had crammed inside. Another corner littered with half-completed art projects, books, games, and other miscellany.

Every now and again, I’d feel motivated to clean it all out, but even on those occasions when I did get started, the sheer immensity of the project had a tendency to overwhelm me before I made much headway. Or I’d get distracted by picking up the charge of one of those discarded art projects. Or the volume of dust would overwhelm my sensitive allergies, and I’d have to give up to tend to the flood of mucus flowing from my nostrils or my itchy red eyes. And so, the mess prevailed for a period of years, compounding upon itself, threatening to leave room for nothing but sleep if it reached much further.

I’m not sure what straw broke the camel’s back, but there came a point where my parents, and more specifically my father said we needed to clean out my room.

To contextualize this moment, my father taught me how to read. He schooled me in advanced algebra before school would get to it. I learned to drive under his tutelage. These were, collectively, some of the most demoralizing, hurtful experiences of my life. Though I developed essential skills through his teachings, they’re also the core moments of my upbringing that, though I’ve mostly made peace with them, make me believe I’ll never have an entirely fully functional relationship with him.

But there were a handful of other moments when my father taught me things in far less conscious ways and the lessons actually stuck, sans the psychological scarring. My father sat beside me, poring through scraps of the blue-and-red-grid-lined paper my mother would bring home pads of from work, and he said, “When you have a problem, you can’t just look at it.”

He went to explain the point in greater detail. That problems demanded action. That you’d never make progress without taking steps, as small as those steps may be. That, to appropriate the Chris Gardner quote I didn’t hear until decades later, “the cavalry ain’t coming.”

I’d have to be reminded, or remind myself of this lesson at different points in my life, from the immediate years to follow to recent times. But that may be the most important sort of a lesson of all--not the ones that we know, instinctively, to be true, but the ones that we must remind ourselves as the need arises. And the ones for which that need will inevitably arise time and again.

I looked at my messy room. When I learned that I needed to do more than look, everything changed.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Playing With Fire

I told the cashier my father lost his lighter and that he asked me to go to the corner store to buy him a replacement. The cashier, my father’s age, Indian and thick-browed, squinted at me and looked at the crisp five-dollar bill in my hand, carefully selected and carried into the store in my hand to create the illusion it came straight from a parent’s wallet, bestowed from father to son for a specific errand.

A few seconds passed before he parted his lips. “What color?”

“It doesn’t matter.” I made that decision on the fly. My friend, who fronted the five dollars on the condition that I’d make the purchase, had told me to buy a blue one, but decided that no grown up would really care about the color of the lighter--just that it would produce a flame to light cigarettes, cigars, birthday cake candles.

The cashier turned to the cardboard display of Bic lighters behind him, arranged in rows by color. Only two blue ones left. Three greens. Four or five reds. And, filled to capacity, over a dozen ugly, canned-tuna-colored lighters. Naturally, he picked one of those.

He punched the keys on the register and read off the total. I held out the five and cupped my other hand to accept the change.

Outside the store, Billy waited for me. “How’d it go?”

I flashed a grin and held out the lighter in my hand. “Who’s the man?”

Billy squinted. “All they had was tan?”

On the walk home, I explained the rationale for taking whatever color the cashier would give me, and we debated whether I should pay for half the lighter after messing up the hue.

We forgot all that when we got home to his place. He dragged a big cardboard box from his garage—the packaging for his family’s new TV. For a second, I thought he meant to torch the whole thing. Instead, we spent the next hour breaking of clumps of Styrofoam padding from within the box, setting them on fire, and leaving them out on the street for passing cars to swerve around or run over.

In retrospect, I envision an Oldsmobile with an unsuspected gas leak. I see a new driver veering around the flames and straight into a tree.

But little of consequence happened. More often than not, the fires burned themselves out inside of thirty seconds with little dramatic effect.

And so we advanced to the next stage of Billy’s vision, uncoiling a spool of thread around his driveway with designs on setting the whole thing alight so we could shoot hoops inside a ring of fire. With shaking fingers, I tried my hand for the first time, pressing my thumb to the cold, ridged steel of flint wheel and flicking it downward. Marveling that despite my inability to generate enough hot air to inflate a balloon or to ever fold a paper airplane that would take flight, that I could, just that simply, create a flame.

Be it a demonstration of the principles of physics or a merciful instance of divine intervention, we couldn’t get our ring of fire burning, and before long Billy’s parents got home. Billy retained custody of the lighter. I don’t recall that the two of us ever used it together again, nor that he was ever caught with it.

For the responsible adults reading this post, and particularly any child who might stumble upon it, I wish I could share a moral at the end of this story. That we came to some grand epiphany about the dangers of fire or at least playing with traffic, and that we wised up. Because the truth is that fire is dangerous, and playing with it is stupid.

Just the same, kids do stupid things. To play. To experiment. To learn. And if they survive such experiences, literally and figuratively unscathed, and don’t grow up to become true pyromaniacs, then I dare say the story itself is the worth the while.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

My Sweet Dream

I spent three summers as a student at the Center for Talented Youth--an experience that was fundamentally important to my development as a human being. At the end of my last session, I wanted little more than to one day return as a resident assistant.

To have not only worked as an RA, but to have spent six summers employed by CTY, followed by six and a half years working full time in the main office was nothing short of a childhood dream come true.

Now it's time to pursue another dream.

My life in Baltimore was not perfect, but it was important. I'll take the memories and assorted lessons with me and I'm looking forward to the next steps.

So long, Baltimore.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Counting Crows Countdown

Counting Crows is my favorite band. So, in celebration of the upcoming release of their new album, Somewhere Under Wonderland I’m presenting to you a countdown of all of their original, studio tracks.

I’m leaving off bootlegs and songs that were never officially released (“40 Years,” “We’re Only Love,” “Barely Out of Tuesday,” etc.), songs that appear exclusively on live albums, and covers (including the entire Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation) album). In instances in which the band released more than one studio version of the song, I defaulted to the first version the band released. The criteria for the countdown are wholly subjective—my preferred picks for lyrics, melody, and personal impact. Note, I’m a fan of the entire Crows catalog, so even the songs at the bottom of the list are not ones I actively dislike—just ones I love less. Feel free to debate the order amongst yourselves and let me know if I missed any songs in the comments section.

69. New Frontier Hard Candy In the right moment, I can find this song sort of catchy but the synth pop vibe and largely nonsensical lyrics don’t do much to inspire a devoted Counting Crows fan. From what I can gather it’s a song about failure to communicate—a message that the song, itself, fails to communicate all that effectively, and that sounds strangely dated for a post-eighties band.

68. All My Friends This Desert Life Counting Crows offers up its share of songs about feelings of isolation, abandonment, and otherness, and often does so in creative, thought-provoking ways. This song, in which Adam Duritz intones, “all my friends and lovers leave me alone to try to have a little fun,” feels altogether too true—about a narrator who is not just depressed, but too depressing for anyone to have a good time around.

67. Cowboys Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings A big part of why Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings rates as my overall least favorite Counting Crows album is because the impassioned noise that seems to bleed from one song to another on the first half of the album—not bad if you’re in the right mood for it, but also not the sound that I turn to Counting Crows to hear. This song seems to have appreciable political implications—possibly about a certain president being too much of a cowboy in office; it may also be more about self-flagellation. In either case, I can appreciate the emotional intensity of the song, but it’s far from my favorite to listen to.

66. Anyone But You Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings There’s a dreamy, meditative quality to this song that captures the stunted funk of post-relationship wallowing, and I reckon the song works on that level, but otherwise it feels as though the song says a bit too little to really say much of anything meaningful at all.

65. Good Time Hard Candy This one comes across as a song about awkward attempts at first moves in between more meaningful relationships. I dig the “I really love those red-haired girls, I’m just another boy from Texas…” refrain at the end of the song, but it’s otherwise kind of a snooze, a momentum killer, and a relative weak spot in the early stages of an otherwise largely underrated Hard Candy album.

64. Children in Bloom Recovering the Satellites This is one of the more off-kilter tracks on Recovering, vacillating between the cool, mellow repetition of “I gottta get out on my own” and shouting eccentricities. It sounds like a coming of age song and/or one about disillusionment. It never quite connected for me, though the outro is cool and memorable.

63. Hanging Tree Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings She brings her friends so we won’t have to be alone. She fears I might lose my composure without warning.

There’s an unstable edge to this song that I find appealing—divergent from the more pensive, self-reflective side the band usually embraces, more at home among, but also a bit more aggressively unpredictable than the rough-edged Saturday night half of this album. With the arguable exception of the chorus, the song isn’t exactly catchy or pleasant to listen to; as interesting as the lyrics and composition are, that docks it a few places in the countdown.

62. Why Should You Come When I Call? Hard Candy This song is catchy in a cheesy sort of way, not much like other tracks from the Crows catalog, but still aurally pleasing almost in spite of itself with the chorus of “ba-ba-ba-ba-bas” that easily could have been annoying and yet register for me as almost impossible not to sing along with. The content of the song is comparably dubious—ostensibly about an insomniac making the rounds trying to set up late night rendezvous with lovers, ex-girlfriends, and whoever else probably ought to know better.

61. Goodnight LA Hard Candy While I don’t actively dislike this song, I can’t help feeling that it comes across as a caricature of better songs in the Counting Crows catalog. The refrain of “What brings me down now is love, ‘cause I can never get enough” feels forced rather than earned in this tepid visit to melancholia.

60. Butterfly in Reverse Hard Candy There’s a simple, old-time feel to this song, adorned with piano keys and strings. It’s one of the prettier Crows songs and manages to capture nostalgia without slipping into a forlorn place, but rather focusing on more innocent memories and capturing them as they once were.

59. Insignificant Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings This song has a lot of the jumping-off-the-top-of-a-building imagery that pervades other Crows songs, but rather than melancholy or particularly lost, Duritz’s narrator sounds indignant and righteously pissed off to have been rendered insignificant. It’s a song of defying rejection in favor of achieving his own significance.

58. Black and Blue Hard Candy A pretty melody and suicidal imagery intertwine for a song that’s a little melodramatic and colorless (no pun intended) for my tastes, but nonetheless pretty in its own way. In a sense, my feelings for this song are similar to “Goodnight LA”—not that it’s a bad song, just that the band has done the essentially the same thing so much better.

57. American Girls Hard Candy I probably underrate this song a bit, not because I don’t like it, but because on an album with so many really good songs, this largely uninspired pop ditty was the first single—only to be followed a cutesy reimagining of the “Big Yellow Taxi” cover that started as a delightful hidden track at the end of the album, and ended up with Vanessa Carlton singing backup for a single that overshadowed far better original music.

Back to “American Girls,” it has its catchy bits, but otherwise feels simultaneously conspicuously lightweight and weirdly sentimental in the “you make me cry” refrain. It feels like a knock off of the tradition of great American rock songs about women, but never quite finds its own voice.

56. Four Days This Desert Life This is a song of separation—probably a long distance romance, for which “four days and nights” feels like an interminably long period of time to wait to see someone again. As such, the song encapsulates a sense of young, impatient love, making marks on a wall like a prisoner. It’s a beautiful, off-beat piece of music.

55. Miller’s Angels Recovering the Satellites Down trodden, mystified, with a hint of anger this song is a meditation on watching for angels that may not be so benevolent. It’s a song of victimhood without a hint of recovery. I like it as a mood piece, and particularly like the contrast when it briefly transitions to more of a rock song. That said it’s not exactly a fun or entirely coherent listening experience.

54. Another Horsedreamer’s Blues Recovering the Satellites This song was purportedly written in response to Sam Shepard’s Geography of a Horsedreamer, about a woman who can predict which horse will win races and is subject to all manner of manipulation and mistreatment as a result. However literal that translation may be, the song is a simultaneously lovely and ugly depiction of a woman in crisis, trying to do what’s right and escaping into a world of pill-induced sleep to escape from it all.

53. I Wish I Was a Girl This Desert Life Errant use of the subjunctive aside, this is a pretty profound little song about dreams of jumping to your death, and wishing people would trust what you say. I love the pleading to Elizabeth, which reads distinctly as a series of long distance phone calls. It’s a both a song of resignation and absurdist speculation about what it would be like to be the opposite gender—though the band only addresses that theme explicitly in the title and its iteration in each chorus. I think that the popular interpretation of this song as Adam saying that women only trust other women and won’t listen to men is a little too simplistic, but don’t necessarily have a much better one.

52. Le Ballet D’Or Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings Despite it’s relatively low ranking, this track represents one of my favorite qualities about Crows songs, introducing an edgy, mysterious, almost macabre sound at an unexpected point in the mostly mellow Sunday morning half of the album. The song earns bonus points for the liner notes bit, crediting Brian Deck for climbing inside a piano and playing it like a harp to provide the instrumentation for the end of the song.

51. You Can’t Count On Me Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings There’s an interesting dissonance between music and lyrics on this one, particularly in the chorus which sounds so warm and inviting and yet is all about the narrator affirming that he shouldn’t be counted on. It’s a song about someone who toys with people and openly admits he isn’t reliable—and yet seems all the more magnetic for the admission. It’s one of the catchier and certainly the most radio-friendly of the tracks from the Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings album.

50. Carriage Hard Candy I went to my first Counting Crows show in the autumn of 2005, and the band played a number of songs that would be featured on Hard Candy when it was released the following summer. This particular song may always stand out for me more based on the story behind it--as Duritz explained it at the show--than the song itself which, while contemplative and laced with smart lyric choices, nonetheless feels a bit plodding and as though it never truly reaches its climax. Adam told the story of an unexpected pregnancy and the couple contemplating an abortion, deciding against it, only for the would-be mother to have a miscarriage. I particularly appreciated Duritz’s rejection of the audience’s cheers about deciding against the abortion; he refused to take a side on the issue, placing it as a personal decision and not a moral stand. The recounting of the story offered a unique glance behind the curtain of another human being’s life.

49. Washington Square Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings The opening lines of this song, narrating the choice to sell a piano, sets a tone of forlorn listlessness to key off the Sunday Morning half of this album. The song has been interpreted as one about going home (the “traveling homeward to Washington Square” lyric toward the end seems to support this reading), but given the itinerant motif and distance from family, I think it’s more about trying to forge a new home far away from a “real” home in the wake of major life changes.

48. Daylight Fading Recovering The Satellites Historically, I discounted this song for its seemingly out place countrified, laid back leanings on an otherwise more openly emotionally intense album. The track grew on me over the years, though. Melodically, it’s not as aggressively sad or angry as others on Recovering, but on further reflection, it feels more like a song of numbness—coping with lack of meaning and inability to create, despite friends’ reassurances that “everybody loves you” and “everybody cares.” It’s a song of quiet resignation and best attempts at patience, waiting for an emotion to pass so the narrator can get on with his life.

47. Speedway This Desert Life One of the sentiments I feel Counting Crows nails best in songs like this one is not so much emotional outbursts or agony as the sense of numbness and inaction that can come after breakups and other emotional trauma. The narrator spends so much of this song “thinking about” what he ought to do that it underscores how little he has actually done.

46. Ghost Train August and Everything After This song does a sensational job of synergizing the more literal interpretation of a ghostly, ethereal train with the metaphorical interpretation of looking at all of these past relationships and lovers as ghosts—the remnants and memories of which never go away entirely. The repetition of the “Hey, how do you do?” first meeting is perfectly haunting on this off beat track.

45. Sundays Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings On an album of rock and roll, followed by melancholy reflection, this song marks a good balancing point, upbeat, fast, intricate, and conversational—the narrator denied, rejected, or dumped depending on your reading of it. Given how fundamentally different they are from the rest of the song, the choruses either make or completely fail the song, depending on your interpretation. I’m partial to the verses, myself.

44. Perfect Blue Buildings August and Everything After This song exists in the space between depression and catatonia, looking at everything as mundane to the point that it both runs together and becomes vaguely fantastical—a perfect blue building, a green apple sea—more visions from a painting than pieces of the world that the narrator could ever access himself. The song is alternately a little plodding and a little tidy for my tastes, but the line about “get[ting] myself a little oblivion” still resonates with me after all these years.

43. 1492 Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings This hard rock anthem of a song is wholly different from anything else in the Counting Crows catalog, and offers a jaw-dropping intro to the Saturday nights half of the Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings album. Vocal tapestries of sex and violence flash across a back drop of a ripping electric guitar. I didn’t much care for this track when I first heard it, but it grew on me upon repeat listenings—particularly the desperation of the bridge as Duritz swells up to scream “I am the king of everything, I am the king of nothing.”

42. Time and Time Again August and Everything After I really liked “Time and Time Again” when I first heard August and Everything After and I still think it’s a good song, but ultimately more of a “role player” track on a great album than a stand out songs in its own right. It captures a lot of the angst that recurs and is arguably improved upon in the Counting Crows catalog, but does also paint some unique, impressive images—the idea of watching someone in reverse to see them coming home rather than leaving, and the idea of laying waste to a whole city and riding out into the desert.

41. Shallow Days August and Everything After (Deluxe Edition) There’s something simple and understated about this early demo that brings a smile to my face on every listen. It’s ostensibly a love song about Adam and a girl named Mary Jane, more likely an extended metaphor for his relationship with weed. In the end, I prefer to focus on the sentiment of “small people squeezing out a good life, [who] need a little good time.”

40. I’m Not Sleeping Recovering the Satellites There are times when this band teeters on the edge of artistry and just having too much go on at once. This is among the songs that walks that line, and while it doesn’t land as one my favorites, I do feel that the overall product is successful in selling a narrator’s desperation and anger. It’s difficult to tell if the ubiquitous “she “is a lover, the narrator’s mother, a friend, or more of a concept—like his conscience or his paranoia. Regardless, the song works best on its explosions, which the shifts in dynamics set up beautifully, and I’m particularly fond of the closing sequence, led off with a sample of “Rain, Rain Go Away.”

39. Monkey Recovering the Satellites This is probably the most light hearted track on the Crows’ darkest album. While doom, gloom, and hints of desperation weave together for an intoxicating collection of music, this songs includes the whimsical confession, “I’m all messed up, that’s nothing new,” which communicates a sensation of someone who has come to terms with his otherness and life problems; just the same, it’s a mostly upbeat melody and comes across as at least an approximation of a love song, questioning where the narrator’s monkey has been all his life.

38. High Life This Desert Life This is, in a sense, the title track of its album—the only song to explicitly reference “this desert life.” It’s a fascinating bit of a dreamscape, navigating differences and overlaps between the desert and the big city, and the sense of waiting for someone and hoping she’ll stick around. The song has a distinctive sound and captures loneliness in an almost playful way. It’s long and has an ethereal sound and, thus, I think it tends to get overlooked on this album, but it’s a real forgotten gem.

37. If I Could Give All My Love (Richard Manuel Is dead) Hard Candy This song is about Adam Duritz’s revelation of the impermanence of all things, people, and relationships upon learning Richard Manuel from The Band had passed. I love the recurring guitar riff in this song, and will always feel connected to it for becoming acquainted with the track during a summer crush and envisioning it as more of a love song than an exploration of why it’s hard to love anyone at all.

36. Love and Addiction August and Everything After (Deluxe Edition) This early demo never made it onto a Counting Crows disc until the re-release of August and Everything After in 2007. Based on a few critical turns, I preferred the bootleg recordings floating around the interwebs to this album version. Just the same it’s a fun courtship song about the intersection of affection and obsession, with a whole lot of youthful ambition woven in. It’s a worthy track that didn’t quite fit the vibe of the August album, but that nonetheless stands up on its own.

35. Omaha August and Everything After Duritz wrote this song before ever visiting Omaha, and claims that having written it earned him the key to the city, which he felt pretty awkward about. More so than the city itself, it’s a piece about leaving a place only to come back to it, and a feeling tread upon. Omaha all but explicitly stands for any number of faceless places in middle America, and conflicting impulses to find a new life and to come back to what’s familiar.

34. Accidentally In Love Shrek 2: Motion Picture Sountrack I actually like this song a good bit, but just the same lament that, behind “Mr. Jones” and “A Long December,” it’s probably the song casual listeners most readily identify with Counting Crows. It’s not a bad song, but it is a bubble gum pop song that isn’t meaningfully representative of much else from the band’s catalog.

But let’s stay positive. As far as I’m concerned, “(Come on, come on) jump a little higher, (come on, come on) if you feel a little lighter” remains one of the purest representations of what new love really feels like. And I’ll be darned if this song isn’t catchy.

33. Mercury Recovering the Satellites This off-beat, almost bluesy song is an interesting mood piece amongst an otherwise more obviously emotional Recovering the Satellites album. It tells the tale of a mercurial relationship and the narrator’s willingness to tolerate or embrace all of it. The song is simultaneously conflicted and understated for a pretty intriguing final product.

32. Kid Things This Desert Life I’ve never quite understood the fad of leaving several minutes of blank space on a track before giving way to a hidden track on an album. Sure, the surprise of a bonus song is great, but couldn’t you just leave it off the liner notes? This trend seems to have given way to “exclusive tracks”—as in, exclusive to iTunes download, or exclusive to buying a CD at Target. Or maybe that’s just been the case for artists I like.

Anywho, for those of us willing to hold down the fast forward button for a minute or so or who were too lazy to get up to change CDs after “St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream,” the reward was “Kid Things”—a plucky song with country roots in which Duritz implores his homebody love interest to come out and play, extolling the value of immature activities, and their potential to lead to greater things. It’s a really fun song that I’d probably love even more had it gotten its own track originally, and thus lent itself better to repeat listening.

31. Amy Hit the Atmosphere This Desert Life There has to be a change I’m sure. Today was just a day bleeding into another.

This is a mood piece in the melancholiest of senses. No, it doesn’t carry the tragic weight of “On a Tuesday in Amsterdam Long Ago” or “Raining In Baltimore” but rather is, in a sense, is even sadder for the lack of energy and the general malaise of the song. This isn’t a song of sudden heartbreak, but rather an ongoing one that the narrator has grown resigned to. I remember identifying with this song after long days during my high school career—worn out from early mornings to get to school on time, a heavy load of AP courses and extracurriculars, followed by late nights of homework and pining for a life that was less exhausting and more loving. The particular circumstances may vary, but I suspect we’ve all been there at one time and in one way or another.

30. Los Angeles Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings In the hyperactive Saturday night half of this album, I’d argue that the Crows sound most at home on “Los Angeles”—not a hard rocker, more of a lazy party song about going out with friends and revisiting a Crows theme of coming to terms with fame and retaining one’s humanity.

Hey man, it’s a really good place to find yourself a taco.

29. Einstein on the Beach (For an Egg Man) DGC Rarities Volume 1 By Duritz’s own description, this was a song the Crows assembled when they were still learning to write pop songs, and he never intended for it to be released in any meaningful setting. Yet it went from a “rarities” compilation to radio play, and became one of the band’s most recognizable tracks from its early years. No, it’s not the weightiest or more coherent Crows track, but it is the essence of a fun summer song, edging toward deep philosophical thought, but consistently tipping back to its lighter roots.

28. She Don’t Want Nobody Near Films About Ghosts This early Counting Crows song never got a formal studio release until their greatest hits album. Like a number of Crows tracks it has an upbeat melody, but don’t let that misguide you to thinking it’s a happy-go-lucky song. It’s ostensibly a piece about social anxiety, wrestling with the competing impulses of a desire to be alone and fear of loneliness, all set against classic Crows pop song instrumentation.

27. Walkaways Recovering the Satellites Clocking in at one minute, thirteen seconds, it’s easy to dismiss this song, but I actually feel it’s one of the most underrated pieces of the brilliant Satellites album. Down-trodden and defeated, the song at first feels like one about abandonment, and yet takes a turn in the final lines in which Duritz sings that “one day, I’m gonna stay. But not today.” The lyric hints at shared responsibility for loneliness—a culture of one-night stands and short engagements. Just the same, the finish sounds something like hope—that the narrator can foresee an end to that lifestyle amidst his current malaise.

26. On Almost Any Sunday Morning Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings This is the kind of track that it’s easy to overlook for just how understated it is, but I really dig the quiet depression and desperation inherent to it, reflecting on lonely Sunday mornings with a brand of disillusionment that’s especially apparent after a raucous Saturday night. It’s one of the clearest, most fully realized tracks of the Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings album.

25. When I Dream of Michelangelo Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings The title of this song is a callback to “Angels of the Silences” in which dreaming of Michelangelo hints at hidden depths and madness in the narrator. This beautiful ballad with a fundamentally different vibe lingers on that image and explores the space between being an artist and a person of strong opinions, and being torn between that and a plainer, less nuanced life and the love interest that seems to embody that simpler life. The soft, smooth instrumentation paints this inner conflict in a soft light, creating a beautiful song in its own right.

24. ColorblindThis Desert Life This song will probably always receive disproportionate attention in the Counting Crows catalog for having been featured in a sexy scene from Cruel Intentions. Of course, it’s no more fair that I tend discount it because bandwagon fans only recognize it from the movie. All of that said, it is a beautiful piano-driven ballad that at once captures loneliness and a complete willingness on the part of the song’s narrator to unfold and release himself to the trusting arms of another.

23. On a Tuesday in Amsterdam Long Ago Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings I think of this song a bit like a poor man’s “Raining In Baltimore.” The thing is that “Baltimore” is a such a good song that even a poor man’s version is perfectly worth listening to. It’s Counting Crows at the band’s most down-trodden and melodramatic with a tragic refrain of the narrator pleading, “come back to me.” It’s haunting. It’s beautiful.

22. Baby I’m a Big Star Now Rounders: Motion Picture Soundtrack This is a pretty infectious song, released as a hidden track on the vinyl version of This Desert Life and, more prominently on the Rounders soundtrack. It revisits Crows themes of disillusionment and self-loathing, with the catchiest of hooks that suggests an undercurrent of optimism and continuing to try.

21. Come Around Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings I remember listening to this track along a road trip to see my friends for the time in months after I first moved to Baltimore. The song perfectly encapsulates the spirit a reunion—the idea that old friends and family will find a way to come back around to each other, surviving all manner of short-term relationships and other pursuits. Sure, there’s an underlying tone of abandonment and heartache to lyrics like, “What I know is, she’s going. When you know it, it’s all right. So you put yourself between you and your pride.” Just the same, the song has more of the trappings of recovery than misery, and as such functions as an excellent track to close an album.

20. Have You Seen Me Lately? Recovering the Satellites Throughout this countdown I refer to “the narrator”—a term that my background in writing workshops and literature classrooms has driven into my skull, demanding that the consumer never assume the author speaks for herself. That said, Duritz has been pretty open about the autobiographical nature of Recovering the Satellites (not altogether different from the band’s other albums). The dynamic is particularly true of this song, a meditation on exploding from artist to superstar based on the commercial success of August and Everything After, and trying to decipher real relationships from faux ones; real identity from public persona. On top of all of that, it’s a kickass rock song that subverts the expectations set by the songs that immediately surround it.

19. Holiday in Spain Hard Candy This whimsical, but downtrodden piece about a narrator retreating from a stark reality to an exotic location ostensibly caps Hard Candy (excluding the hidden track cover of “Big Yellow Taxi”). One of the sensations this band and particularly this song captures with pure artistry is the sense of keeping busy, keeping up appearances, and trying to stay cool when all the while you know your life is in shambles. For me, this is a song about attempting to recover, and just the same acknowledging that the flying away to someone new is part of cycle, not an elixir in and of itself.

18. Sullivan Street August and Everything After The debut album from Counting Crows is full of heartbreaking music. This conflicted song is all about the desperation that comes with a relationship falling apart—that uncomfortable period in which you’re still together, but know that it will be over before long. From what I’ve heard, Duritz wrote the song when he was in the habit of driving a girlfriend home, but the lyrics double up with the sensation of fighting a losing battle—doing drivebys past an ex-lover’s place with no real reason for doing so, no intention of stopping in.

17. Up All Night Hard Candy To me, this was the sweetest surprise of the Hard Candy album, a song that starts melancholy and lonesome that keys into feel like a late-night adventure, albeit one for which the narrator may still be forlorn. Indeed, Duritz ostensibly sounds as though he can’t sleep for his dreams having slipped away. He acknowledges it’s too late to get high, in the same breath observing that his sleepless night may well give way to a cycle of sleeping through the daylight hours. The song seamlessly weaves together sensations of a partying and sex with disillusionment and disappointment, all against a backdrop of booming piano chords.

16. Hard Candy Hard Candy The title track of its album is all about memories—studying old photographs, remembering the best parts of a relationship past. The imagery of a girl “standing by the water as a smile begins to curl” and “the evenings on Long Island when the colors start to fade” always grab me when I’m listening to this song—we may not all of have quite the same memories, but I reckon every one of us has specific people, signature landscapes, and moments that make us smile and sigh and reflect in all of the happiest and most gut-wrenching ways imaginable.

15. Catapult Recovering the Satellites This opening track is certainly off beat. It starts out with dreamy a quality before a solitary electric guitar chord shakes up the scene, crystallizes the vision, and stirs the listener to wakefulness. The song encapsulates longing, fear of abandonment, self-realization and so many other themes of the album that it functions something like a de facto overture. Ironically, it’s a song that I think listeners tend to overlook for such a loaded album to follow, but regardless, it is not a track for any serious listener to sleep on.

14. Hanginaround This Desert Life I know plenty of Crows fans tend to look down on this song as lightweight and uninspired. I think the lack of doom and gloom makes this song all the more special to me, though—despite the undercurrent of hanging around too long, there’s also an unapologetic air about this song. It’s not quite a party song, but more so a chill piece about hanging out with friends with nowhere to go, nothing to do, and little interest in changing all of that. Moreover, the song is smarter than folks may give it credit for, recorded using looping techniques that repeat the drum and guitar riff over and over again in a song about hanging around the same place.

13. Round Here August and Everything After The opening flicker of an electric guitar and lyrics about stepping out the front door at the beginning of this song function as an iconic introduction to the Counting Crows catalog—the first track on the group’s first studio album. The song proceeds to take listeners along an emotional roller coaster about coming of age and disillusionment. The song most truly comes to life on the positively electric bridge segment about the girl in the car in the parking lot who says man, you should try to take a shot. The song comes full circle with a soft outro for which the instrumentation falls away to leave the narrator all alone, just like he started.

12. Angels of the Silences Recovering the Satellites For me this has always been a song about wanting to believe, and I love the choice for it to be an upbeat rocker, bursting with youthful energy. The sentiment that, “all my sins, I said that I would pay for them if I could come back to you,” is a perfect encapsulation of bargaining and the desperation to hold onto something that’s already gone. Moreover, I appreciate the song’s vacillation between bitterness, regret, desire, philosophy, and crises of faith—perfectly conflicted and perfectly complete.

11. Miami Hard Candy I love the economy of this song. It, at once, has the mellow easy feel of a vacation song, but just the same, an undercurrent of longing for Duritz’s angel who won’t return his calls, and the borderline epic feel of a hero’s journey in the triumphant closing lines about “shut[ting] it down in New Orleans.” The song also has its double meaning embedded in the title, with “Miami” purportedly equating to “my Amy,” a frequent Crows muse, and a brilliant way of showing the way in which a person and a place can be become one in a person’s memories.

10. Rain King August and Everything After No doubt, “Rain King” charts as one of Counting Crows’ most recognizable songs, and fittingly so. In its original recording, despite bits of doubt and discontent, it nonetheless sounds like a carefree, rocking pop song. Moreover, Duritz has talked about the song in the context of an artist’s statement—a song about being an artist and all the disparate pieces of a life that come together to manifest in the form of self-expression through music and writing. The song also accounts for the intrinsic sense of deserving more—the sensation that the artist’s work is worth more than he’s getting credit for at this point. The closing exclamation of ‘yeah,” registers as something akin to Duritz’s barbaric yawp.

While I’m focusing on original recordings, it’s also worth noting this song as the one the Crows may have reinvented more than any other on the live stage, and used as a portal to cover many, many other songs.

9. Good Night Elisabeth Recovering the Satellites It’s difficult for me to separate this song from “Rain King,” for its most iconic line at the climax of the song.

if you’re the queen of California, then, baby, I am the king of the rain.

There’s a sparseness to this song that, for me, has always encapsulated loneliness, or perhaps more precisely the feeling of missing a specific person. The song portrays Duritz’s lullaby to a lover he lost when he was on the road. The final verse in particular captures him in a phase of simultaneous acceptance and complete denial of his circumstances. He’s accepted he won’t be with Elisabeth and readies himself to sleep with someone else, all the while thinking of, waiting for his true love. It’s a beautiful, tragic, and very real song.

8. Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby This Desert Life This elaborate dreamscape of a seven-minute song probably never should have been released as a single—far too long, thoughtful, and abstract for a top 40 audience. Duritz reportedly wrote the song as an ode to an actress, hence the references to singing to someone on a TV or movie screen and imploring her to come meet him; he his framed the song as introducing himself, by way of encapsulating everything going on his mind. Lines like “there’s a piece of Maria in every song that I sing,” speak to the roots of a writer—the people and the concepts that inform everything he does. Moreover, the song somehow manages to connect all of these disparate, abstract vignettes into one epic, greater whole. It’s an unforgettable memoir of a song.

7. A Long December Recovering the Satellites Though I tend to think of Counting Crows’ signature sound as skewing melancholy, a disproportionate number of the band’s singles are upbeat pop songs. This is one of the most prominent exceptions, probably the band’s second most famous song after “Mr. Jones” and one of their most melancholy numbers. It’s a song about everything going wrong, spending long nights in hospitals at the end of a cruddy year. And, just the same, it’s a song of remembering better times, like when “all at once you look across a crowded room and see the way that light attaches to a girl.” Better yet, there’s the closing sentiment of getting out to see the ocean, which carries the suggestion of rediscovering the things that used to make the narrator happy. I listened to this track on repeat in my earbuds, walking alone, my very first time setting foot in the Pacific Ocean four years ago.

6. Raining in Baltimore August and Everything After When I first heard August and Everything After at the ripe age of 10, I remember being struck by it. It was tragic, and as such it was beautiful. Before I had experienced any real sense of heartache or loss in my own life, I instinctively embraced this song about being so far away from the person you love that it actively hurts.

There’s things I remember and things I forget. I miss you, I guess that I should. 3,500 miles away. What would you change if you could?

This song took on another level of meaning for me when I moved to Baltimore, closer to three hundred than three thousand miles from the people I knew and my girlfriend at the time, but nonetheless recognized so many of the sentiments of the song, perhaps on an altogether too literal level.

As time has gone by, I’ve developed a greater appreciation for a handful of Crows songs that I feel encompass not only sadness, but an additional layer of conflict and redemption. Just the same, the song remains a key teacher in my emotional education and a track that still holds up after all these years.

5. St. Robinson in his Cadillac Dream This Desert Life Excluding the hidden track at the end of the CD, “St. Robinson” wraps up This Desert Life and certainly fits as a closing number—complex, epic, and endlessly narrative. It’s a song about dreaming and all the things that get between everyday people and all of the things they want for themselves.

The song clicks on a whole new level for me on the devil-may-care FU to normalcy in the closing movements of the song, when Duritz retorts to whoever dare challenge him, “there are people who will say that they knew me so well I may not go to heaven—I hope you go to hell.” The song ends on a delicious slice of Americana, the narrator inviting his lover get into his car, not to head toward any specific destination, but rather just to drive.

4. A Murder of One August and Everything After This is the epic, lovely, desperate, heartbreaking, rise-from-the-ashes finale of Counting Crows’ first studio album, and it is a masterpiece. The song is often misinterpreted as, in some way, being about homicide, and Duritz may well have been playing with that idea in a song ostensibly about an abusive relationship and urging someone not to waste her life. Just the same the song also seems to be about flock of crows—a “murder”—and all the more interesting for the title suggesting a flock of just one.

Like so many of my favorite songs, this one resonates me on a personal level. I remember listening to those gritted-teeth lyrics, “Does he tell you when you’re sorry? Does he tell you when you’re wrong?” as a junior high kid and thinking about the way my father controlled me and tried to tell me what was right or wrong from the perspective his aberrant and misguided sense of morality and prioritization. And I remember thinking of being “feathered by moonlight” as walking free and even taking flight.

Counting Crows is often at its best on deeply conflicted song and this song nails so many emotions around confinement and freedom. I love it.

3. Recovering the Satellites Recovering the Satellites For me, this is a song about rediscovering oneself and the realization that time is fleeting. Duritz sings about getting back to basics and staring at the sky in a way that feels very small town to me—but maybe that’s my small town upbringing and recollections of my first encounters with this song that inform that interpretation, and the reference to “this angel town” suggests it might have been written about Los Angeles, where other Crows songs from this era are set. Regardless, there’s a sense of inevitable loss and yearning to the song, particularly in my favorite lyric: “we only stay in orbit for a moment of time. And you’re everybody’s satellite—I wish that you were mine.”

2. Anna Begins August and Everything After Duritz inked this song in remembrance of a love affair he engaged in, backpacking through Europe in his youth. In my totally subjective opinion, it’s the most beautiful love song ever written. I can take or leave most of the verses, but each chorus pulls at my heart strings to truly profound effect—the sentiment of falling in love for every minor gesture a woman might make, such as sneezing; the idea of lovers understanding each other’s every nonsense-sleep-talking mumbled syllable. Perhaps the song is a bit melodramatic, but as such it captures young love and infatuation in strikingly earnest ways.

1. Mr. Jones August and Everything After For all of my self-professed modesty and focus cast on the craft of my art as opposed to recognition, I can’t deny the impulse to strive toward fame and fortune. The American Dream is engrained in me like so many of my contemporaries and those who came before me, indoctrinated in a culture of self-betterment and boot strapping, and the implicit suggestion that celebrity is the natural and inherently desirable reward of all that hard work.

“Mr. Jones” gets me.

The song is about seeking celebrity without a concrete sense of why you’re doing so, and the companion amorphous desires for love and companionship and influence, all couched with in the setting of San Francisco dive bar, making bold claims with a drinking buddy whilst watching a flamenco dancer strut her stuff. “Mr. Jones” is nothing short of a portrait of a generation—a song all about dreams and desires that closes on the sorrowful, unspoken recognition that the narrator may never achieve his lofty goals.