Sunday, December 27, 2015

My 2015 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. “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars Whether it was hearing this song at the gym, jamming out to it with Heather along a road trip to the Bay Area, or watching the RA staff’s choreographed routine to it at this summer’s CTY talent show, this song was as ubiquitous as it was catchy to me in 2015.

2. “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” by The Mountain Goats My friend Joshu back in Baltimore drew my attention to this track, and, moreover, The Mountain Goats’ larger album, Beat The Champ, an extended meditation on professional wrestling in the southwest, circa the 1970s to 1980s. I found the album uneven, but loved this track, earmarked for early release, and grew all the more enamored with it as I drafted a short story, “Finishers,” my unofficial coming out party as a wrestling fanatic to my writing workshop.

3. “Rise” by David Guetta ft. Skylar Grey I assure you this is it for wreste-talk on this countdown. Heather and I spent spring break this year driving down to San Francisco via Napa Valley, swinging over to Las Vegas for a spell, then coming back into Santa Clara for WrestleMania weekend, featuring a shockingly over-achieving WrestleMania show itself. Before each match, WWE played this theme song over a highlight reel, thus creating an inextricable connection in my mind.

4. “Elastic Heart” by Sia I liked this song the more I heard it over the winter and spring, culminating in using it for a key lesson plan with my English Comp class in April. It’s a funky pop tune with a simultaneously maddening and irresistible music video; a story of strength, deterioration, and perhaps most importantly recovery.

5. “She Used To Be Mine” by Sara Bareilles Before the full album of songs from Bareilles’s new Waitress musical dropped, bootleg copies of her singing this song live made the rounds on YouTube and I latched on to yet another heart-wrenching, lovely encapsulation of broken heartedness from my favorite contemporary female solo artist.

6. “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” by Silento Re-read that disclaimer about this soundtrack not being about favorites. I find next to nothing to like about this song, and yet it was such a favorite among students and staff alike at my summer gig this year that I could not avoid it, and it became permanently linked in my mind to hot, humid summer back in Baltimore--hundred-hour-work weeks, stealing ten minute naps at my desk, trying to cling to how much I used to love summer camp to survive this run through.

7. “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk the Moon and 8. “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten I first meaningfully encountered each of these songs on my weekend off during the summer, when I rented a car and drove off to celebrate (and officiate) the Peek wedding. That trip wound up being one of the best of the year (heck, one of the best of my life). At the wedding itself, I heard “Shut Up and Dance”--a song I had encountered in passing on top forty radio, but that hadn’t really registered with me until this point. It’s a song that felt like a celebration, though, and all the more fitting for Peek and Missy first meeting on a dancefloor.

I heard “Fight Song” on the drive back to Baltimore to finish the summer. Saccharine, cliché, over-produced, laced with vague platitudes--the song represented all of these elements I fundamentally de-value about pop music. Just the same, After catching glimpse of life with friends again, and remembering the life I was headed back to at the end of the summer--of writing and teaching writing and hanging out with other writers--the song began to take up space in my head as something of an anthem for reclaiming my life.

I wrapped up the summer exhausted and then suffering from food poisoning. In the week to follow, when I worked part-time hours, I would recover--sleeping in, getting breakfast, writing for an hour, before heading to the office. I listened to this song, looking ahead and moving forward with my life.

9. “Three Is The Magic Number” by Blind Melon A month after the Peek wedding, I found myself standing up as the best man at the Scalise wedding. After the ceremony, Peek discovered this strange little song that we had all heard in the movie Slackers and made reference to for years in between. He downloaded it and, at the ceremony, he, Will, and I—the groom’s three closest friends—choreographed a simple routine to the song to perform in tribute to the man of the hour.

It was silly. Objectively stupid. Too specific and odd for more than a handful of the wedding attendants to have any idea what we were doing.

And it was glorious.

10. “All I Can Do Is Write About It” by Lynyrd Skynyrd After our summer jobs had ended, and the bustle of weddings was behind us, Heather and I traveled to North Carolina. To scout potential wedding venues. To see her family. To eat southern food. To be together again as a pair, for a brief reprieve free from outside obligations.

We made our last stop in Asheville, staying in a perfect, quiet Air BnB cottage. Eating some of the best barbecue I’d ever encountered. And, finally, going on a hike through the mountains. Along the way, this old song came to mind--a snapshot of nature, and giving oneself over to it.

11. “Wildest Dreams” by Taylor Swift Despite the busy nature of the summer and only getting squeeze out about ten-to-fifteen minutes a day to write, the period also functioned as an incubator of sorts for story ideas. I walked away with four concrete ones, the first three of which I tackled with a fury as the summer wore down.

At the end of the summer, I also underwent a conversion. After a year of my fellow writers at OSU extolling the virtues of Taylor Swift, and a summer of so many staff members doing the same, I finally gave her work more than a cursory listen. I got hooked. I bought 1989 on iTunes.

This song became permanently linked to one of my stories. It’s Swift at her most sultry and vulnerable, a suggestion of danger and the loss of innocence. Objectively, it doesn’t bear that much resemblance to my violent little coming-of-age story, but I expect that I’ll always associate the two with one another in my mind.

12. “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & The News I can’t claim to be a Back to the Future obsess-ee, but between my friends and my social media, and many fond memories of watching the original film as a kid, I had to take notice of October 21, 2015—the day when the real world caught up to the future portrayed in Back to the Future 2. I listened to this song on my iPhone in recognition. When I got home, Heather and I watched the movie one more time.

13. “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC On a largely random, otherwise insignificant Friday morning in October, I woke with this song in my head. I dug it up on YouTube and played it as I got ready and along the early-morning walk to school to teach my 8 a.m. class.

When I got to class, I played it again.

The explanation, to my bleary-eyed undergrads, who were just surviving another week: “How can you listen to this song and not feel psyched?”

14. “Everything Changes” by Sara Bareilles When Bareilles’s full Waitress album dropped in November, I listened to it pretty obsessively. The trance-like “sugar-butter-flour” refrain that starts in “What’s Inside,” the up-beat melody of “Opening Up,” the comedic oafishness of “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” the adorable little triumph of “Lulu’s Pie Song.” And then there was “Everything Changes.” It’s at once, the kind of big, show-stopping finale-ish kind of number that I love dearly in a musical, and one that bespeaks personal evolution in a heartfelt way that feels much more intimate.

15. “Demons” by Sleigh Bells This minor musical rebellion set the stage for the Jessica Jones finale--one of my favorite sequences of what was probably my favorite original television show of 2015--certainly my favorite TV from the final two months of the year. On re-listening after the show and studying the lyrics I became increasingly convinced it was the perfect song to cap this particular story.

16. "Dirt Sledding" by The Killers Each year, The Killers release a new holiday song, and more often than not I love it. This is the entry for 2015, and one of the band's very best.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmas Double Shot

"I'll take a double shot of Jack on the rocks," Billy said.

I lifted two fingers. "Make that two."

Another bar, another time of year, this scene wouldn't have been so unconventional. After growing up down the street from one another, near constant companions, we found ourselves five years out of college and living 300 miles apart. We only got to hang out a few times a year, and more often than not those were celebratory occasions. New Year's. Birthdays. Concerts and festivals.

Christmas.

We were back home that Christmas Eve, a year when we were each single, before we had any nieces, and after each of our family holiday celebrations had deteriorated from large gatherings to quiet dinners--just me and my dad, just his nuclear family around the dining room table.

Ten, eleven o'clock rolls around on a Christmas Eve like that and folks leave dinner. Our parents went to bed. And there we were, in our mid-twenties and tired, but not for want of sleep.

We wound up at a dive bar a half mile from our street. The kind of place I'd driven past hundreds of times over the year, but never given a thought to stepping inside, back when I was too young to drink or when, if I were to drink, I would have gone to more exciting locales on bustling Varick Street or the bar and grill where we used to binge on fifty-cent wings and half-price drafts on Tuesday nights.

These more reputable businesses were closed. My hometown is an upright sort of community where you'll have no problem finding a party the night before Thanksgiving, but Christmas Eve is for putting the kids to bed early so they can dream about Santa Claus visiting the house; for the most righteous to find their way to midnight mass.

We sat in this bar. A portly, glossy eyed, unshaven behemoth of a man in a tweed sports coat sat at the opposite end, sipping rum and cokes and staring at his cell phone, while we kept to ourselves, save for visits from the bartender, clad in an unseasonably light charcoal tank top that exposed the tattoos along her upper arm. Daniel. Vincent. Perry. Three wise men, I mused, or more likely the names of her children. I didn't ask. She tipped the bottle and filled our glass tumblers to their brims. The surface of the bar was badly scratched and lined with rings and stains.

The only sign of Christmas in the place was a solitary, barren wreath over the cash register, set over a back drop of neon blue, probably intended to make the place look cool or hip, but now out of place. The lights in the window were the same ones that shone year round. From the bar stool they read Bud Light and Labatt Blue and Open, all in reverse.

I took a sip of whiskey and remembered out loud, "My grandma used to let us open one gift a piece on Christmas Eve. I'd always pick one of the small ones, because they were the Nintendo games, then they were cassettes, then they were CDs I asked for." My grandmother had always bought me what I wanted.

"We used to have a party at my great aunt's. There must have been thirty, forty people," Billy said. "My sister and I would wait on everyone and get them drinks or tomato pie or Christmas cookies and everyone would tip us. We'd walk out with fifty, a hundred dollars each and feel like we were rich."

"We used to eat petit fours," I said. "And we'd play Pitch because it was a good game for a lot of people, and it wasn't too complicated. And even my mom would play sometimes. And she hated playing games because my dad always gave her a hard time."

"Remember when we used to roll dice?"

My mind raced through a thousand images. Grade school choir concerts where we would sing a half dozen Christmas songs and one about Hannukah to be inclusive to the two or three Jewish kids at the school. Watching It's A Wonderful Life with my mom and my sister. My grandmother egging folks on for one more bite of dessert. One more drink. Hanging out with Billy's family when we were home from college, until people peeled off one by one and it was just the two of us left in the living room, stomachs full, staring at the flickering light of a fiber-optic tree and, even then, reminiscing about better days, without any concept of how good we had it right then.

"Another double shot?" the bartender asked Billy. His glass was already empty.

"You got it," he said.

I drained my glass, too, drinking too much too fast. It burned my throat. "Make it two," I said again. My voice was a croak.

We took our time on the second round and waited around to sober up before the short drive back, opting not to make it too late of a night. After all, by the time we were done with those drinks, it was technically Christmas. It was time to get home.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Open Mic Night

The scene is the café on the main floor of the student union at Geneseo. Two dozen people are seated, drinking coffee and eating oversized chocolate chip cookies purchased via the flex points on their meal plans. The couches are all turned to face a makeshift stage in the corner, where a live microphone waits on a stand. A rail-thin, too-tall kid with bushy black hair, baggy jeans and a gray collared shirt that’s at once too baggy and too short for him stands, his voice projected across two speakers, too big, and turned up too loud for the café so sound permeates the rest of the Union.

That kid—that voice—is me at 20 years old.

“I need for everyone to move their hands up and down like this.” I bob my whole arm like someone who has never seen a basketball before trying to dribble one—or, as my mind projects, in my best approximation of what Marshall Mathers would get an audience to do.

And, against any discernible rhyme or reason, the limited masses go for it, from my friends, to the freshmen girls, to the guy pouring coffee behind the counter.

Before they can stop—before they can conceive of what they’re really doing, I rattle off, “This is ‘Lose Yourself’ by Eminem, as performed in the voice of Kermit the Frog."

There’s laughter. Some of it in synch with the absurdist humor I’m aiming at, some of it on the spectrum between uncomfortable and bewildered. The choruses go reasonably well, when I'm familiar enough the both the cadence and lyrics to not have to look at the lyrics sheet I printed that afternoon. The verses are rougher--the first far from stellar, the second downright bad and when I look up to face the audience on the proceeding chorus they've stopped waving their hands. Some have, mercifully, stopped pay attention to me altogether. The looks of bewilderment have spread like wildfire.

*

I performed in a lot of open mic nights in college. I read poems and excerpts from short stories. I sang songs--a call and response version of Tom Petty's "You Don't Know How It Feels," a Kermit-voiced rendition of "The Rainbow Connection" that ultimately led to my 8-mile gaff. There were failures, few as abject as the "Lose Yourself" incident. And I had my share of triumphs. Moments that were remarkably gratifying for fledgling artist and performer, desperate for some form of validation of my work.

But all the more so, these open mic nights at various Geneseo locales marked the discovery of a community. Sometimes on a big scale when as many as 30 to 40 people were there as audience members, as performers, and as new friends to talk to when the performances were done. Sometimes on a more intimate level, when only a half dozen people showed up and we each read or sang three or four times and hung around to drink coffee and talk about the rest of our lives.

The open mic scene--particularly the scene that I frequented, skewing toward literary endeavors over acoustic guitars--have a mixed response. I've met folks who object to open mics because they feel like amateur hour without any semblance of quality control. I've met others who balk at them as pretentious and too consciously artsy. But I think that I always loved the scene for the flip sides of those criticisms. That without quality control, amateurs in the purest sense of the word get the opportunity to share their work and to learn from people who are more experienced (I know I did). That an artsy scene need not be pretentious or ironic--it can be about people earnestly offering to the world their work.

After college, I went seven years without attending an open mic night before friends from my grad program at Hopkins had started a literary 'zine and started a monthly open mic, ostensibly to promote it, besides cultivating the writers' community in Baltimore.

I went to my first one, a little trepidatious, and sipped whiskey and coke on the sidelines before putting down my name to read. I hadn't written much poetry in the interceding years, and I always found lengthy prose pieces to be a drag in this setting--difficult to engage the audience with, and often too long. So I read vignette from one of my early posts on this blog. And rather than reiterating the calamity of "Lose Yourself," it seemed to work. I read more excerpts in the months to follow, and even settled into a loose habit of writing poetry again, more or less for the purpose of reading it in this setting.

But better yet, I heard from others. Peers from my grad program I'd never read much work from, people from another grad program based in Baltimore, an unabashed alcoholic who said he didn't write like Bukowski, but thought that he might one day.

And I savored this scene. These words. These people.

But I retired my Kermit the Frog voice.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Cranberry Sauce

Growing up, my father did most of the cooking. He was good at it, too, if not particularly ambitious, more often not gravitating to a handful of staple dishes that, particularly after my sister left for college and there were only three mouths to feed, deteriorated to roast chicken most night, with a rotation of side dishes including baked potatoes, carrots, or corn.

But Thanksgiving was different. Not especially elaborate or adventurous either, but from my earliest memories of the holiday, my dad spent most of the day roasting a turkey, and he’d cook the stuffing right inside it. There were yams. And there was cranberry sauce.

The cranberry sauce came in gelatinous form, straight from the can—the tell-tale sign that it remained in the shape of a can in its bowl on our kitchen table, complete with the ridges from where its container had pressed upon it over months or years of storage in preparation for the one holiday in which families across the area sought after it.

And though that cranberry sauce explicitly required less effort than anything else in the spread, and was in no way unique to our family’s kitchen, something about the familiarity of it, and the way in which I could automatically associate it with that particular holiday-the one time a year when my grandmother would come to the house, and one of the few occasions when we’d eat family style and eat as much as we wanted rather then well-defined portions.

And I’d see that same cranberry sauce again. When I went to my best friend’s, and later a girlfriend’s family’s house for Thanksgiving and recognized the ridges, more subtle for sauce having been portioned into neat slices, the better for serving for oneself rather than scooping unevenly at the mass of the stuff with a spoon.

Years later, volunteering in Baltimore, we had a potluck dinner the children’s organization I worked with. On an ordinary week, one donor would contribute a full meal for all of the kids and tutors, but on Thanksgiving, we usually had a turkey donated and prepared for us, but the rest was up to each individual tutor to bring something. People brought sweet potatoes sprinkled with cinnamon, fresh-baked pumpkin pies, hand-whipped mashed potatoes, green bean casseroles, and fancy salads.

And me--I brought four cans of cranberry sauce, sliced up in a pair of glass bowls.

And it was with no small pleasure that I watched the kids forego all of these more nutritious, ambitious, and more artfully prepared dishes in favor of the sugary goop I’d bought from the grocery store the night before, emptied into a bowl that morning, and stored in my office refrigerator until it was time to head to the church.

I watched the kids shovel cranberry sauce from the bowl greedily until the woman in charge cautioned them they could only take two slices a piece, for fear it would run out and the rest of the kids would throw a tantrum at not getting their taste.

And I knew that I had done right by Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Staying in Orbit

I grew up in a small town. The kind of place where I could see the stars in the sky when I was walking home from friends’ houses, or when I looked out my bedroom window, the lamp turned off to kill the reflection of artificial light against glass.

I appreciated the beauty of the stars. I’ve never been a scientist, and while I’ve had a passing curiosity about how things work, I’m just as often content that they do, and if there were to be a show of lights in the sky, more stable and quiet than fireworks, but no less magnificent, then who was I not to look on in wonder?

In middle school, I grew consumed with The X-Files. I loved the extended mythology and the way in which horror and optimism intertwined--that the trauma of watching aliens abduct his sister could galvanize Fox Mulder to chase after them, to buck systems and convention in favor of what he knew to be true. He knew, and he wanted to believe.

I didn’t know, but I, too, wanted to believe, and alongside what I can only assume was a generation of kids looking for flying saucers, I imagined one day I might see something.

And this interest in seeing and believing took on a greater urgency, maybe just because The X-Files was newer and cooler than the Start Trek: The Next Generation episodes I had already watched for years. Space seemed to readily accessible on TNG, not a struggle but a foregone conclusion, not a mystery but simply the way things were. I don’t recall Captain Picard ever looking out at the stars, even as his ship maneuvered across a field of them.

And perhaps that’s why, a decade later, I would grow enamored with Firefly--a show in which space travel was a given, but nothing was ever easy. It was a show about a ragtag crew just trying to make ends meet, in over their heads when they stumbled upon secrets The Alliance--which I fancied not to be so different from Star Trek’s Federation, or the government agencies the Cigarette Smoking Man was a party to--didn’t want to see the light of day. Moreover, there was theme song and it’s iconic refrain: You can’t take the sky from me.

In this unlikely, unsurprisingly canceled series, Joss Whedon somehow recognized that which is most appealing about space for dreamers the likes of myself--the vastness of it. The ability to disappear into it. The wandering, against all probability and intended mission (or prime directive).

I moved to Baltimore at the age of 24. I’d visited my share of big cities prior to that point, but it wasn’t until that six and a half year stretch that I grew more or less accustomed to starless nights.

One of my last nights in the city, before the move to Oregon, I listened to “Recovering the Satellites,” the title track from the 1996 Counting Crows album, and it set me off thinking. Adam Duritz references getting back to basics and somehow, on that listening I recognized something small town in his voice and in the lyrics--about the way small town people look out on the night sky and let their minds wander. On the bridge, Duritz’s voice soars, narrating a girl who “sees shooting stars and comet tails. She’s got heaven in her eyes.” Moments later, he goes on to sing the lyrics that have always resonated with me most of all: “We only stay in orbit for a moment of time. And you’re everybody’s satellite. I wish that you were mine.”

And I reflected on the many times I had identified with that lyrics—first when I learned that my middle school crush was moving out of state at the end of the school year, then in the fleeting nights of summer camp, then in the lead up to college graduation. Again, 30 years old and thinking of the friends I’d miss most after I left Baltimore and how little time we had left in orbit with one another.

When you see someone everyday, there’s a piece of you that expects it won’t ever change. But then a simple change of schools, jobs, towns, states, or sides of country can change everything. Before you know it, the people you took for granted had might as well be a galaxy away. And there you stand, without a transporter or shuttle in sight to help navigate the light years.

So, given the opportunity, I still like looking at stars, just like I did in childhood. Less so, now, in speculation about what I might find. More in consideration of who might look up at that very same black back drop and see the same formations of burning light. Who might remember my name at the same moment their faces cross my mind.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

To Not Vote

Each November, American citizens aged eighteen or older face decisions. We can choose between political candidates who are vying for leadership roles. Sometimes that’s a cut and dry choice because one candidate represents your ideology so clearly, or the other candidate is so repulsive; just as often, it may be a matter of selecting the lesser of two evils. In addition to voting on people, there are often policies at stake—what will or will not be legalized; what people will or will not have to do. In recent years, depending on where you live, these issues may have included matters such as legalizing gay marriage, the use of recreational marijuana, or a requirement to label genetically modified foods.

And then there’s a more fundamental question: should I bother voting at all? Today, I’m writing support an unpopular opinion: maybe you shouldn’t.

Maybe it’s nothing new on a national scale, but over the past decade of my life I’ve observed a significant uptick in rallies to get people to their local polls as a matter of principle and as a matter of pride. There’s rhetoric about people dying for our vote to right. Suggestions that it’s un-American, or irresponsible not to cast a vote. And I don't entirely agree.

For one matter, a vote is someone’s personal business. We don’t allow people to see whom one another are voting for at most polling places. It’s considered poor manners to bring politics in mixed company. I would argue that the choice to vote is no less a personal matter--that my choice to or not to vote has little more to do with you than my choice to or not visit a dentist or get a cardiovascular workout. In not voting, I recognize that I am sacrificing my voice on that particular Election Day’s set of issues--and that I have little right to complain if I don’t like the outcomes for matters I chose to abstain from. Perhaps Rush put it best in the lyrics to their song “Free Will”: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

But more to the core of the issue, why would someone not want to vote? There are poor reasons, such as apathy and laziness--truly not caring about the world around you, or being so slothful not to find your way to a polling place or to file an absentee ballot because it simply seems like too much effort. But there are more legitimate reasons, too.

If you’re ignorant, you shouldn’t vote. You might mistaken ignorance for laziness, but I do feel there are important distinctions. There have been times in my life—particularly when I just moved to a new place, and just started new professionalor academic responsibilities, and simply did not feel that I had the appropriate time and attention to fully educate myself as a citizen. This left me with choices. I could scramble to learn as much as I could about the issues and people at stake, with full knowledge I wouldn’t have time to learn enough information to feel fully comfortable with the issues at stake, much less to think critically and form my own, meaningful opinions on these topics. Or I could vote the party line and have faith that my general political leanings, and the people who subscribe to the same political party, won’t lead me astray.

But the fact is, if I’m not confident I fully understand an issue, much less that I have a concrete opinion on that issue, then it’s a disservice to myself and all of the people who do understand the issue for me to make an ignorant vote. I’m better off staying home.

If you’re not affected, it may not be appropriate to vote. This is a trickier point, because I’ll acknowledge there are plenty of times in which people can use their privilege to work toward more ethical or equitable treatment of those less fortunate. That said, there are also times in which voters stick their nose into business that does not concern them. Take college kids--a group that is often most aggressively encouraged to “do their civic duty” and vote. As a college freshman moving into a new community, likely in a college bubble in which your life is very different from the circumstances “the townies” have lived in and will continue to live in indefinitely, is it really your place to shape how their local government will proceed? Conversely, if you’re a college student who only returns to your hometown for winter break and a couple weeks of summer, how confident do you feel in casting that absentee ballot pertaining to issues and candidates that are going to have minimal impact on your life in the months ahead.

There are individual circumstances that can play out much differently from the oversimplified points I’ve outlined above, but I’d argue that these points do ring true for a startlingly high number of disaffected young Americans who arrogantly think they’re doing what’s best for ignorant townsfolk in a community they're not really a part of, rather than allowing true democracy to shape the people most affected by it.

If you don’t feel represented, you’re well within your rights to not vote. Make no mistake about it, American democracy is largely broken. I won’t go so far as to advocate for a complete and total reboot or overhaul, but campaign financing games, media tactics, and the strategery of major political parties have left us with a thoroughly corrupted version of what democracy, in its purest form, is intended to be. There are a number of people out there who take flack each election season for opting not to vote because their views are not represented in the choices available in an election, or because they sincerely feel that the system is too screwed up to accomplish anything of import, and that the act of not voting both sends a clearer message than voting for the least of all evil available. Some of these folks are quietly disillusioned. Some of them are waiting on the revolution.

I don’t count myself in the ranks of this last group, but nor can I disrespect their stance. They have made informed choices.

With all of this said, I should raise an important caveat to this post. Ideally, I do support civic engagement. In an ideal society, people would follow the political issues that most affect them--they would follow them consistently, learn about them objectively, think critically, and form opinions independent from what their families, political parties, and the media would have them believe. They would vote in the district and on the issues that they feel most strongly about and that most directly affect them. Or they would consciously choose not to vote, but still engage with issues and use other avenues of organization to work toward change. The US would be better for all of that.

But with all of that said, this Election Day, I urge you to do what you want, and to acknowledge the possibility that that can justifiably include not voting.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Taking a Swing

When I was five years old, my father tried to teach me how to hit a baseball.

He was nothing if not frugal. Thus, I’m not sure if the wiffleball and plastic yellow bat were on sale or just inexpensive enough that he thought he could justify their purchase as an investment in my athletic future. Regardless, he bought them new and took me into the backyard so he could pitch me the ball and I could learn to swing.

In his mind, I imagine this might have been the first in a series of lessons. Hitting--the most obvious, fundamental piece of baseball, and the boyhood rite of passage I’d need to master to not to make a fool out of myself in all variety of gym classes and pick up games and birthday parties of the years to follow. Followed by throwing and catching, perhaps upper level teaching to follow on good fielding decisions or pitching.

We never made it past hitting.

To put a finer point on it, try as I might, and despite my father’s increasingly agitated insistence that I keep an eye on the ball I must have struck out enough times for a whole team in multiple whole games, never making more than glancing contact between the bat and the ball. I recall our practice migrating the garage, maybe because he grew conscious of the neighbors hearing him yell at me, maybe to avoid sunburn, maybe because he no longer feared me hitting the ball into a window—because he may have rather replaced a window by then than accept that his son was that instinctively bad at baseball.

We tried once or twice more with few better results. Though he would offer he me his old baseball glove and half-heartedly teach me to catch and throw in the years to follow, he lost any illusions that he might raise a baseball player. With less gusto, he aimed to capitalize on my existing talents in the years that followed. After I won a foot race against the other kindergarteners in my grade school, he had me arbitrarily run from point to point in an unfocused attempt to refine those skills. When I took an interest in basketball in middle school, he played with me a couple times to see if I were objectively skilled in that realm, only to recognize that, despite playing for hours and hours, having been blessed with slightly above average height, and learning the idiosyncrasies of the lopsided blacktop court and tight rims at the local playground well enough to best far better opponents who had trained on regulation hoops and hardwood floors, I nonetheless lacked the natural athletic ability or basketball IQ to ever be of any meaningful value to any organized team.

My limited athletic ability was a sore spot for me growing up. I (rightfully) dreaded getting picked last in gym class, and the times when my absence of athletic ability ruined plays or cost teams games, and the jocks would alternately make fun of me or scold me for sucking so hard. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the sport of baseball where I still dreaded every instance of getting called to bat in PE and in the occasional instances when my high school crew decided they’d rather play baseball than basketball or even football.

The thing was that, in most sports--football, soccer, floor hockey--I was fast enough that I could be of some value on defense, and while I wasn’t particularly skilled, I could more or less get lost in the shuffle and go unnoticed except when the ball actually came to me. In baseball, there was a concrete, unavoidable part of the game that called upon me to become the focal point of everyone’s attention, and it happened to be the part of the game that centered purely on hand-eye coordination and upper body strength--neither of which I had in any discernible quantity.

I struck out for years, before developing a sort of check-swing. I found that if I didn’t follow through but rather concentrated on moving the bat up or down, and nominally forward just to make contact, I could spare myself the embarrassment of striking out altogether (or those God awful situations in which a well-meaning parent of one of the guys insisted on pitching until I hit, because no one would strike out on his watch). Pairing this new skill with my above average speed, I actually managed to get on base a decent percentage of the time--essentially bunting because when I hit a fair ball with this method, it rarely made it more than halfway to the pitcher’s mound.

In adult life--meaning anytime post-high school (and a handful of summers when I let friends talk me into a softball game or two)--I don’t have to hit a baseball. Indeed, the idea of standing at home plate, poised with a bat eels like a distant memory. That is, until I got to reminiscing, and realized the prospect that I might find myself swinging a bat again one day.

As I grow older, it’s not a certainty I’ll ever have children. But I am in a committed relationships, and we’ve more than once talked about the potentialities of parenthood. The values we would want to instill. The experiences we would want to have. The home we would want to provide. The skills we would want to teach.

And I think of baseball.

I imagine teaching my son to hit a baseball. Not to be too gender normative about it--and I recognize that girls are about as apt to play on softball or baseball teams as boys these days--but I most identify with the very particular humiliation that comes with being a boy who can’t hit the ball, and listening to the brand of taunts reserved for un-athletic boys, and wanting to prepare my hypothetical son to be better adjusted, more skilled, and more comfortable than I was.

I don’t necessarily know what I’d say if he couldn’t hit the ball either. I know that I wouldn’t be equipped to teach him any better.

I like to think that perhaps I could be an example to him. That my failures recounted from childhood, and maybe even exhibited for him in real time might reassure him that it’s OK not to be good at everything--that this particular skill may never be his to master, but that doesn’t mean he can’t thrive as a musician or a painter or an actor or an orator a writer or a scientist or a leader or as a good friend, son, and, one day, father himself.

I get ahead of myself, I know. But then I think that if there’s one lesson I might be able to teach my son via baseball, it might have far less to do with sport than with the essence of stepping up to plate. That it doesn’t matter if you strike out or hit a home run. It matters that you fix your gaze, and that you keep swinging.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Watterson and Me

Spoiler alert: If you intend to read the Diva comic strip on The A Cappella Blog, this post does include several spoilers.

The fall of 2012, I launched a comic strip on The A Cappella Blog, called Diva. It was the story of a superficially diva-like young woman named Gabigail who goes to college and has her heart set on singing with an a cappella group, only to discover that the only a cappella group on campus is all-male. Rather than direct her musical aspirations elsewhere, she tries out for the group anyway, woos them with her talents, and becomes the first female member of the group. Over the 140 strips to follow in the first season, she finds a home with the group, starts dating her musical director, suffers the disappointment of coming up short in competition, and endures a lot of the bad puns that, alongside talking heads illustration, turned out to be my calling card as a cartoonist.

After a total of 412 strips, I put the story to bed last spring.

*

I’ve always loved comics. I remember reading the full-color Sunday comics each week growing up. By the time I got to my middle school years, I had transitioned to favoring Calvin and Hobbes. I loved the self-contained story arcs that Bill Watterson unfurled over a period of weeks. I appreciated the call backs and reprisals with babysitter Rosalyn and the cardboard box transmogrifier. I loved the imagination, the idealism, and the sheer artistry of the strips.

And, as if to guarantee that I would always hold Calvin and Hobbes dear to me, just as I came to love the strip the most, it went away.

Having accomplished all that he wanted to, and readying himself for a life focused on his family and his painting, Watterson brought his comic strip to a close in 1995, after ten years in syndication. Moreover, he promptly disappeared from the spotlight. Folks have likened him to JD Salinger and the comparison isn’t baseless, for he avoided the media and interview requests, and resisted any urge he might have had to reprise Calvin or launch a new mainstream creative endeavor.

I pined. I came to enjoy Bill Amend’s Fox Trot as a poor man’s Calvin and Hobbes and liked Scott Adams’s Dilbert a fair bit, but neither really broached the level of excitement Watterson had engendered in me. And so, whether it was my own process of maturing, or the absence of a strip to truly love, I left behind the funny pages.

*

In 2011, I came upon Nevin Martell’s Searching for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip. It’s an off-beat part-memoir, part-biography, part-ode to Watterson, his comic, and his fans for a pretty fascinating read that comes about as far as it can without any voluntary participation on the part of Watterson himself.

Part of the book that stuck with me was Watterson’s initial struggle as an artist. That for all of his gifts, it was such a fight to worm his way into a local paper, then into the outskirts of syndication, before finally arriving at a modicum of mainstream attention.

Watterson operated in a pre-Internet world, and his journey got me thinking about how much greater access I had to an audience than Watterson did in his day. While he had to scrape to find space in a newspaper with a circulation of a few hundred, I had a website sitting, waiting with a low end of a thousand unique visitors per week.

I thought about writing my own script--that for all of my lack of experience and training, it would be not only creatively challenging but fun to get back into drawing, which I hadn’t really done since the tenth grade, and that this would be a new format for storytelling.

*

The Diva project was not, by most measures, a success. It failed to garner a very vocal niche audience among visitors to The A Cappella Blog and didn’t boost readership in any recognizable way. To be fair, neither did I go out of my way to promote the comic after the first few weeks; shortly after it started to run, I grew self-conscious about my limitations as a visual artist, and didn’t feel compelled to draw anymore attention to the strip than it would organically receive from appearing on the site.

Still, when I look back on the best that the strip had to offer, I’m not sorry for having pursued it. I crafted a story that tackled gender inequities in a cappella (and by thinly veiled extension, American society); I told love stories; I crafted musical jokes. And perhaps best of all, I drew. Over the two years it took to draw, ink, scan, and file the strips to be posted over a period of three years, I best remember the process of taking thirty to forty five minutes--after a stressful day at the office, after dinner and studying vocabulary words for the GRE, and before sitting down to write my prose--to put pencil to paper and sketch. It was totally different from any other practice I engaged in at the time--artistically, professionally, or personally. And regardless of the visual aesthetics of the end result, I dare say it was beautiful.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Feel Like Home (Part 2)

For many years, I referred to the Center for Talented Youth (CTY)--and particularly my times in the summer at Skidmore College, both as a student and later as a staff member--as home.

I’ve had the good fortune of having plenty of good friends in my life, from childhood through college into adult life. Yet, for the longest time the people I would encounter at CTY seemed fundamentally different. There was an element of self-selection and elitism there. To over-simplify a bit, CTY kids take a test like the SAT in seventh grade and score at the level of the average graduating high school senior or higher. Thus, they tend to be bright. You might profile them as bookish and nerdy, and that perspective isn’t entirely inaccurate. After all the kids selected to test for the program are traditionally top performers in their schools and on state testing, and while nerdy stereotypes aren’t universally true, there is a kernel of truth to the idea that many of them are avid scientists, readers, or mathematicians from a young age.

Growing up, at home, I found friendship based in common interests like video games, basketball, and pro wrestling. The friendships that stuck matured into more than liking the same things. But as a CTY kid, at the ages of 12, 13, and 14, I discovered connections on a different level. The thing I marvel at in retrospect is how many friendships I struck up and even maintained over hand-written letters, then email, then Facebook for years to follow, with people with whom I shared so little in common on a superficial level. People who I talked with about love, family lives, politics, religion, different styles of throwing a Frisbee, and Monty Python.

And I think that was always one of my favorite parts about CTY: getting to know other people, and getting to know myself better through the process of sharing parts of me with them. This held true as a kid and equally so when I was in college and immediately after, forging new friendships with people from around the country and around the world.

Then I started working for CTY full time. And the magic died.

That’s a melodramatic way of saying it, and to be fair, working with CTY full-time was one of the most rewarding professional opportunities I’ve ever had. The problem is that the longer I stayed with the organization and the better I got at my job, the less fun I actually had during the summers. I managed logistics. I answered questions from parents. I hired people. I fired people. I sent misbehaving children home early and took a hard line with parents that, no, they could not get prorated refunds on their tuition.

I still met some interesting people, and dare I say even cultivated some new friendships with the people I supervised, but just the same, there were barriers in place. Most of them would only open up to me but so far and to be fair, I’d only open up to them so far as well, ever conscious that though we got along in that moment, in a matter of weeks I might be facilitating a conversation with them about correcting how they taught or how they supervised children; I might be telling them they were no longer welcome to work with CTY.

Throughout my first nine years with CTY--as a student, RA, senior RA, and dean of residential life--I looked forward to my arrival on location as nothing short of the best three-to-seven weeks of a year. It was when I had the most fun. When I learned the most. When I felt comfortable.

It was home.

And I lost it.

I decided to leave. I had quite a few reasons to head out of a full-time position with CTY, most of which had more to do with aspirations outside the program than disillusionment with it. Just the same, I’d be lying if I said that losing that sense of magic about the summer didn’t have something to do with it.

At the end of what I expected to be my penultimate summer working full-time with the program, I spent my last couple of nights hanging out with people the senior administrators I had supervised that summer. We talked while we were packing boxes. And over dinners. And back at the apartments before, after, and during a late-night viewing of Pitch Perfect.

And I talked with Heather. Heather, who of all the people I talked with at the time I had the least personal history with, and with whom I’d probably interacted the least during that summer. We talked about beginnings with CTY. And movies. And music we liked. She played me a video of her playing piano and singing a song she’d written for her father. And I told her about my a cappella blog and my intention of applying to MFA programs in creative writing that fall.

We talked for hours on consecutive nights, a rotating cast of characters joining us for parts of those conversations. And much more than enjoying good conversation with a pretty girl, I felt an old familiar magic begin to spark once more.

I had the sensation that I was talking with the single most interesting person I had ever met. Not so much out of common interest as sometimes-common, sometimes-complementary perspective.

I wrote earlier that CTY had felt like home. And I wrote much earlier about the way in which some people feel like home. Like they can find a foundation in one another and they can build a frame. They have electricity and they work out the plumbing. Given enough time, they fill in the drywall and the insulation.

I found Heather over vegan entrees and conversations on the worn and dusty couches of an on-campus apartment. And I found a new home.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Brother, Sister, Storytellers

Some of my earliest memories revolve around my sister and I at play. Our stuffed animals served as our proxies, each with a distinct--if not as varied as we may have thought at the time--voice and personality.

With these creatures--monsters, dogs, cats, panda bears, a rabbit, a dinosaur--we told stories. These animals had relationships with one another as dear friends, husbands and wives, the occasional adversaries.

And then we wrote. My first stories were centered on video game characters, including Castlevania’s Simon Belmont, The Mario Brothers, and Link from The Legend of Zelda, before I graduated to stories about princes, princesses, and dragons.

My sister wrote, too, and before long our talents merged on Headlines, a monthly magazine we co-authored and drew pictures for, for an audience of my grandmother. I can’t reliably recall how long we carried on for, but if memory serves it was at least a couple years.

We kept writing.

In the sixth grade, Thanksgiving night, I started my first earnest attempt at a novel, The Prince, which combined many of the elements of my previous fairy tale writings with some newer themes that broached child abuse, an amnesia segment, and my first references toward sex. Clocking in at sixty pages it felt like progress.

I recall when my sister received her first high school writing assignment, which called for a simple essay explicating some part of her childhood. And I remember that she wrote with a fever. I didn’t see the final product until after she’d gotten it back from Mr. Gazitano with a red-ink A+ on the top and comments in each margin lauding how wonderful every part of the assignment was. It was only after earning that level of praise that she shared it with the family and, indeed, it blew me away. A mostly fictitious story of my sister and fictitious friends at pre-school age, at a fictitious daycare center, escaping the nap room for a pursuit I can’t quite recall, only to be thwarted by a child-proof bottle that turned and clicked but never opened for them.

In my eighth grade year I received the assignment to write a descriptive essay, and proceeded to recount the night I got Daisy Flockhart to slow dance with me in the middle school gymnasium, recounting the sweeping chords of Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” the taste of the Altoid I popped in my mouth before I asked her to dance, the shimmering lights that swept the hardwood as couples paired off (lights that didn’t actually exist--this was a public school in upstate NY). I equally beamed with pride and hid my face with embarrassment when Mr. Moon read the excerpts from the essay aloud to the class as an exemplar, revealing all the details I assumed wouldn’t have reached past his desk.

I kept writing.

Writing became a core part of my being--what I did and how I identified; it was a passion and need long before I could objectively say that I did it all that well. But for whatever shortcomings I may have had as a stylist and creative genius, I worked my ass off, drafting no fewer than four novels over the course of four years in high school, in addition to a bevy of trite love poems that ran in the school literary magazine. I majored in English and took creative writing workshops in college, then backdoored my way into classes with the MFA cohort I hadn’t made it into at Syracuse University while I was working there, before moving on to Baltimore where I finally started publishing short fiction and earned an MA in writing from Hopkins.

My sister left writing behind. She had a personal blog for a while and probably did some journaling, but she went on to a college career studying physics and studio art, worked in advertising, and then went back to earn her certification to teach high school science—a career she pursued until a broken system broke her of the will to work with an under-privileged community of students. After a period of four or five years, she left teaching and stayed home.

And it was to my surprise that it came up over a Thanksgiving visit that she had started writing again.

She explained that she had been inspired by Twilight and I gruffly dismissed Stephanie Meyer and anything that could possibly result from her work. And I promptly regretted it.

Fortunately, my sister forgave my initial oafishness, and didn’t let me discourage her. And while she declined to fill me in on her penname so I could follow her work, over holidays to follow, we did go on to have earnest conversations about our creative processes and how the work was coming for each of us. Better yet, she went on to write a number of romance e-books, well received and reasonably well-sold in their field.

Romance e-books--surely my literary circles are cringing at these words. After all, aren’t blatantly commercial literary endeavors the embodiment of what’s wrong in a literary marketplace where serious authors can’t find shelf space and the antithesis of writing as art?

Years ago, I may have answered these questions with a definitive yes. I’m not so quick to that answer nowadays.

After my sister reached the new heights of having one of her novellas nominated for a major award by the Romance Writers of America and had a Library Journal critic place it on the list of best e-book romances of the year, not so different from Mr. Gazitano lauding her 9th grade essay/story, she finally gave in and told me her penname so I could find her writings for myself.

To protect my sister’s privacy and secret identity, I’ll withhold the name of novella, but will say that I read it over the course of a week shortly after she told me where I could find it. And I loved it. Not as a literary masterpiece. Not as a work that would shift paradigms or overtly influence my own craft. But as an entertaining, well-constructed, and well-written work, no less worthy of attention than the more literary volumes I consumed before and after I read it. Just different.

When we talk about writing, my sister tends to demure, the first to point out she’s had no formal training in writing, but rather benefits from a lifetime of reading and a decent instinctual ear for language. But perhaps the most rewarding part of reading her work all these years later came when I read aloud a particularly steamy passage of my sister's work to my girlfriend. In that moment, I was about equal parts proud of my sister’s prose and playing the role of a giggling schoolboy, unable to contain himself over explicit language about genitalia.

I read it aloud, and Heather’s reaction was, “She sounds a lot like you.” Heather went on to point out the carefully fragmented sentences. The word choices. All the little nuances and tics that I take for granted because they come naturally to me.

And it reminded me of the common roots between my sister and I, growing up in the same small, white city, under the same house rules, reading so many of the same books from the same dusty cherry wood bookcases in the living room. How for all of the ways our lives diverged, living in different places under different life circumstances, there was far more sameness beneath the surface of the two of us.

The two of us talking in funny voices then, writing in funny voices now. Creating worlds. Telling stories.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Hopeful Roads Converge

Over the course of my last eight months in Baltimore, I wrote a novel about a man hitchhiking across the country.

I first conceived of the project when one of my summer employees reached Santa Cruz, California from upstate NY by hitching rides from a series strangers, before finally getting stuck in Colorado and buying a bus ticket to get him the rest of the way. He arrived a day later than his contract dictated, but I found it difficult to blame him. After all, as I half-joked to my colleagues, he did have a plan to get to work on time. It’s just that it was a really, really bad plan.

The ideas for my story built upon one another over a period of years. That the protagonist, Jackson, would take the journey to attend his estranged sister’s wedding. That he would stop off to visit an old girlfriend in Chicago. That the novel would compartmentalize based on the characters he met along different legs of the journey--a serviceman turned trucker, a runaway housewife and her son, his ex-girlfriend’s roommate, a lonely widow.

I set to work in earnest shortly after Christmas time, thinking it the perfect project to work on while I awaited word back from graduate programs and contemplated moves to every different corner of the country; also while things got busy at work I had to snatch at scraps of time to string together a few hundred words a day to cobble together a novel.

For each novel I’ve written, I’ve gone through stages, from the brash beginnings of confidence and knowing I was working on a masterpiece, to doldrums of manuscript fatigue and questioning everything about the project, to a period when the finish seemed impossibly far off, to the moment when I was sure I would finish, and that as imperfect as the manuscript might be I would have a draft to show for my effort, and something to come back to and polish, and perhaps one day call finished in earnest.

I reached that late stage of modest certainty around the start of the CTY summer. I arrived in Santa Cruz again, and pulled up the rental minivan to a Safeway. A man in his mid-twenties, scruffy, unbathed, in a black and blue wool-knit parka approached me. I head my earbuds in and couldn’t hear him at first, but assumed he was asking for money, and told him I didn’t have any cash.

“I don’t need money. I need food.”

By an arbitrary code of ethics, I’ve always favored people who ask for food rather than money. And he looked harmless. So I took out my earbuds and listened.

“Me and my girl are on our way to Oregon.” He smiled when he first mentioned his girl his eyes went a little wider when he went on. “She only has a couple months to live and she wants to see everything she can before she goes.”

“What do you want to eat?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Anything.”

I told him I’d pick him up something. I don’t know that believed me, and I wasn’t altogether sure myself as I stepped through the automatic doors. I reviewed the pieces of what the guys had told me. The story was vague enough that it could have all been lies--the biggest hole, perhaps, that his girlfriend was nowhere to be seen. But then I thought of the unlikelihood of the situation. That this bleary eyed, disheveled dreamer would tell me he was looking for sustenance enough to get to Oregon, just as I started my last summer before my own move to Oregon, before my own cross country trip to chase an inexact dream of being a writer and to move in with my until-then long distance girlfriend. A journey both alike and totally divergent from the hitchhiker I was writing about and from the beggar in the parking lot.

The Nature Valley maple walnut bars I settled on were selling at a deal of buy two boxes, get one free. More granola than any one man needed at a time.

I checked out, fumbling between my case of Red Bull, a gallon of water, bananas and the granola bars, all balanced in my arms in compliance with California’s still-new green initiative against giving customers plastic bags. I kept one box of granola bars especially loose, clutched by my fingertips, van keys pinned between my ring finger, pinky, and palm.

The man in the parking lot was hitting up a woman loading a station wagon with her own groceries. She didn’t say a word to him and brushed past, into her car. He didn’t make a move to stop her.

He saw me but didn’t approach. I supposed a lot of people said they’d come back to him and flaked.

So I came to him.

“This box is yours.” I did my best to wave that spare cardboard box toward him.

He took it slowly and studied the front of the box once it was in hands. “Thank you, man.”

I got a better grip on the van keys. “Where are you going in Oregon?”

He shrugged and smiled a little easier then. “I don’t really know, I’ve never been.”

Me neither, I thought. “How long have you been with your girlfriend?”

“That’s the crazy thing. I only met her last week. But she’s the most amazing person.” He swallowed hard. “I love her. She’s dying and it’s so hard, but I love her. She picked me up in Vegas, and all she wants to do is go from place to place and try to make other people happy. She said I could help her.”

How did she make people happy? Was this girl a singer? A motivational speaker? A pot dealer with some especially exquisite herb?

“She’s resting in the car if you want to meet her.”

A rusted out Chevrolet waited, parked alone a couple aisles over. A part of me did want to meet her. Another part of me thought it would ruin my sense of having done a good deed were the car actually empty, and my inner child, still scarred from watching The Silence of the Lambs far too young was still wary of getting clobbered and thrown into the trunk, as thanks for being a good Samaritan.“Let her rest. And tell her I said good look,” I said, and for reasons lost on me now, threw in a “God bless” for good measure.

He reached as if to shake my hand, but seeing my arms were still full and starting to tremble slightly from the awkward distribution of weight, settled for bumping elbows with me instead. I watched him head back to his car where he opened the front passenger door and, at the least, made a show of talking to someone inside.

I retreated to my minivan and hoped for the best.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Old Apartment

To oversimplify, for my generation, there are four kinds of people in their twenties.

There are the adventurers who never stay in one place for too long and whose itineraries for the decade include multiple continents, hostels, and odd jobs.

There’s the group that can’t seem to wait to get into their thirties or forties--the folks who marry straight out of college or sooner and spend the decade to follow on the renovation of their fixer-upper starter home and wearily keeping track of toddlers.

There’s the group that stays or moves back home to save money, take care of someone who needs it, or enjoy mom’s cooking for a few more years.

And then there’s my classification: the apartment dweller. The apartment dweller may incorporate elements of a variety of the other kinds of folks outlined above, and indeed, I like to think the group is characterized by a combination of the independence of moving out on one’s own with the dependence on still having someone else to call to make repairs; the stability of getting a lease (and presumably a job to pay the rent) with the fluidity that comes with paying month-to-month to maintain the option open to move elsewhere without selling off property.

I got my first apartment my senior year of college at Geneseo, living with a friend I’d made freshman year and continued to work with on the college newspaper. I think we actually saw each other more in the newspaper office than at home, such were the schedules we kept, but it was nonetheless fun to have a buddy to wander home with after a Saturday night of debauchery, and co-host for parties. Heck, she even had a boyfriend who I considered one of my closest friends from college, and I got the benefit of seeing him a few times a month, two years after he had graduated.

After college, I moved two hours east to Syracuse where I managed a dorm and lived in a one bedroom apartment, ostensibly converted from what was once two or three dorm rooms’ space. It was the first place where I had ever lived alone for more than a season. I lived there at a point in my life when I wasn’t sure what that should mean and I was limited in what I could really do within a college dorm infrastructure, and thus didn’t do much of anything to make the space my own. Ironically, when my girlfriend at the time moved in with me for my second year, she complained that the place already too much mine, and she felt as though she were fitting her things around the space that I had already made a home. Thus, I suppose neither of us really settled there.

The feeling of impermanence in my Syracuse apartment only intensified when I went back to visit Geneseo. I recall returning to Syracuse after Alumni Weekend, with a terribly backward feeling: that I was driving in the wrong direction. I remembered all the weekend trips to see my girlfriend in Syracuse the year before, and how driving back to college felt like coming home. That as good as those weekend visits were, Geneseo was where I belonged. I got the sensation that my life was in Syracuse was borderline crippling.

I moved to Baltimore. My first apartment fell in a suburb twenty to thirty minutes removed from anything cool, but I had a balcony and central air and only one mouse sighting. The place was nice enough, but its defining factor for me may always be the woman downstairs who took to banging a broomstick when I made too much noise--at first, perhaps justifiably when I assembled furniture and lifted weights. Later, when I so much as paced the floor or had company over and more than one of us laughed at a time.

So I moved to Hampden--a hipper neighborhood, within the Baltimore city limits. I took over the lease and several pieces of furniture from a friend. The place became my own. Not without it’s challenges--an alternately corrupt or disorganized landlord that would cash my rent checks then threaten me with eviction for owing back rent. Mice who kept me from leaving any food unattended, and the cockroaches that surfaced each spring. But just the same, the bedroom came to feel like a natural place for me to rest. The couch became a workplace where I wrote hundreds of thousands of words of fiction, reviews of a cappella shows, and blog entries. In that kitchen, I dabbled with cooking--nothing advanced, but making the subtle transition from cooking college-style to cooking more like an adult bachelor (less Ramen and fewer frozen burritos; more chicken breasts and pasta and salads).

I am a planner. Though I lived in that Hampden apartment for over four and a half years, for about three of them I had a fairly concrete idea of when I would be moving, if not necessarily where (the process of applying to and hearing back from MFA programs is worth a post or two of its own). Thus, I faced the dissonance of living in a space longer than I had anywhere since my childhood home, but just the same knowing it was all ephemeral. That the apartment would never be home.

Just the same, when I started the process of packing--which, if we’re going to be honest, was at least half a process of separating books into the pile I would donate versus the ones I would take with me--I felt a strange sensation, not of regret or sorrow per se, but still a moment when my breath caught in my throat, staring at bare walls and scattered boxes, when I thought this place where I had existed and kept all of my things and come back to workday after workday, after classes, and at the end of every vacation and business trip--that this place would never be mine again.

And in that moment when it was hard, and when I felt soft, I felt at once certain that the place itself was worthwhile. That the old apartment represented an important time in my life and that, to the extent an apartment dweller can have a true home, that one bedroom in Hampden would always be a part of mine.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Claim to Fame

For my first paying job, I worked the cash register, folded sweaters, and, on a few shockingly neither disastrous nor hilarious occasions offered fashion advice to paying customers. I worked at a clothing store at the Sangertown Square Mall, performing all of these tasks against a back drop of purple carpeting and a soundtrack split between top 40 and sundry European electro-pop.

Capers, an imprint of Rue 21, specialized in trendy looking clothes that weren’t especially well made, but that were sold at discounted prices. As such, the store drew a varied crowd--from high school and college kids on budgets, to money-conscious moms bringing a similar population to the happy mid-point between K-Mart threads and the clothes their kids really wanted from The Gap, to the older segment, which was particularly inclined to accumulate massive orders of jeans and fake leather jackets that they’d pay for on layaway.

One autumn night in 2000, a middle-aged couple visited the store, the man with curly hair, equal parts dark brown and gray, sunglasses perched atop his head, clad in a black button up lined with metallic studs, over ripped blue jeans. His bleached blonde wife carried an assortment of tops and two pairs of jeans to the front counter where I rung them out.

“That’s it?” the man said, eyeing the total of just under a hundred dollars.

“I know, this place is always so cheap.” White bubble gum smacked between the woman’s tongue and the roof of her mouth. She spread black top in front of her, with princess written in glitter across the chest. “And they have the cutest stuff.”

The man handed me five twenty-dollar bills. I punched the keys on the register in time with the song playing over the speakers.

“You seem like a personable dude,” the man said. “What’s your claim to fame?”

“Excuse me?” I counted his change.

The woman put a hand to the man’s chest, her fingernails flecked with chipped neon pink polish. “He means what do you do. Where do you go to school? What do you want to be?”

I told them I was senior in high school. That I hoped to be a writer.

The man pointed at me with both index fingers, thumbs up as though he were miming guns. “An artist, I like that,” he said. “Tell me something, have you seen Almost Famous?”

“Not yet. I heard it’s good.”

“Man, we just got out of the theater, and that movie is the best.” He ran his hand through his hair, unconscious of the sunglasses which he knocked right back over his head, all the way to the floor. The woman scurried to pick them up before he backed up and stepped on them. “It’s all about rock and roll and love and dreaming. You’ve got to see it.”

I told him I would.

The man carried the two plastic bags full of clothes, a long white receipt dangling precariously from one of them. The woman took his shoulders and steered him to face toward the exit, back out to the mall. She took one last look at me, smiled and waved one finger at a time on her left hand before they walked out.

In retrospect, one or both of them may well have been stoned. But I prefer to remember them as a grown-up couple that never forgot their love of rock and roll, love, and dreaming—the very stuff of youth; I prefer to remember as intoxicated by a movie that reminded them of a time when they were closer to my age.

And I liked that question—about the claim to fame, and have since appropriated it every now again for my own conversations, particularly with younger people. I prefer not to assume that a young man would define himself by his job or his school or any other particular socially normed dimension of his identity. I prefer to offer room for him describe himself--even if he needs to ask me what the hell I’m talking about.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Lovers, Dreamers, Me

I have this recurring conversation, sometimes in my head, and sometimes out loud in bits and pieces with people who think me or themselves to be straight-laced and professional, or people. The conversation revolves around a simple, seemingly innocuous question:

How could you like the Muppets?

Liking the Muppets isn’t so much a matter of taste as of social station. After all, Muppets are at their base felt puppets made to approximate talking frogs, pigs, bears, and whatevers. They’re fine to entertain children, but surely a grown up couldn’t take them seriously—and if I were to indulge in children’s entertainment, shouldn’t it be any of the glossy new animated features that surface theaters every few months?

No.

Unlike their Sesame Street counterparts, Jim Henson launched the Muppets as entertainment geared equally toward children and adults—family entertainment in its truest form with characters and stories that were accessible to children with more than a few subtleties for grown ups to enjoy and for younger viewers to grow into.

But arguing the objective merits of any art form is largely useless. As Jeff Jarrett has purportedly said about another of my often misunderstood and unappreciated entertainment pleasures, professional wrestling, ‘To a critic, no explanation will do. To a fan, no explanation is necessary.’ Such is the case for the Muppets—if you accessed them at the right time in your life, and they struck the right chord with you, you’ll never question the brand’s inherent value and fundamental goodness. If you didn’t grow up on Muppets, and if you take yourself seriously, and you're cynical—the odds are you’ll never really get it.

But I did grow up on Muppets—most particularly The Muppet Movie. Though the franchise started with Kermit the Frog as a bit player on Sam and Friends and The Jimmy Dean Show, and then garnered the puppet crew their only night-time variety TV show, for me, the heart of the brand has always been their first feature film. The film functions as an origin story for the Muppet crew—featuring Kermit as an over-talented young frog, plucking his banjo in a Florida swamp when a Hollywood agent discovers him, and sets him on a course for a cross-country road trip to California to pursue a career in entertainment. Along the way, Kermit meets the rest of the Muppet crew.

The musical numbers alone of The Muppet Movie are demonstrative of so much of what the Muppet clan represents, and why I feel they are valuable as lessons, reminders, and anthems for viewers of all ages. “The Rainbow Connection,” the most famous of the songs is about a sense of destiny, disillusionment, and the pursuit of happiness as Kermit ponders what he’s supposed to be against the backdrop of his humble hometown setting. “Movin’ Right Along” is not just a great travel song, but a tribute to learning to share one’s dream, compromise, and work together for a greater good. “Never Before, Never Again” is a tidy reduction of every love at first sight sensation every naïve young person has ever felt—and better yet, an affirmation that if you let yourself fall in love, it can work out. “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along” is an only fooling yourself cynical drinking song for the heartbroken that demonstrates that despair touches everyone and is a natural part of falling in love—all put in perspective for the choice of a frog and dog to go back and forth singing the song. “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” is the song written from perhaps the most obviously mature lens, a wandering song about not knowing where you belong, but the just the same reassuring yourself that you must belong somewhere.

The Muppet Movie gave way to the not quite as epic, but nonetheless charming Great Muppet Caper and Muppets Take Manhattan. After Jim Henson had passed and Disney started co-producing Muppet films the brand grew less consistent with so-so Muppet Christmas Carol and embarrassing Muppets in Space and Muppet Treasure Island, followed by a little more inspired set of made-for-TV movies. A decade would pass before the franchise rebounded, now under Disney ownership to release a series of web shorts, leading up to The Muppets.

The Muppets is not as special as The Muppet Movie, but did marking a turning point when the brand recaptured some of the old magic and old spirit. Moreover, it was evident that the film was a product of a fan’s commitment to the brand—Jason Segel co-wrote the script, pushed for production and ultimately starred alongside new Muppet Walter, Amy Adams, and the traditional crew.

And it was Segel who delivered the moment that I—if no one else—will probably always remember as the best of the film. The moment that actually got me choked up watching The Muppets in the theater the first time. As good as the moments were, I’m not referring to Kermit’s admission that he needs Miss Piggy or his rousing speech that the gang shouldn’t give up toward the end of the film, or the gang irreverently ‘traveling by map.’ Rather it was the opening musical and dance number, watching Segel beam as he danced alongside Walter and then at the fore of an expansive crew of townspeople for “Life’s a Happy Song,” in a moment that felt like a dream come true, and thus embodied exactly what the entire Muppet catalog and legacy are all about.

I could go on about the Muppets and I fear this post has already grown a bit rambling and unfocused. The core of what I wish to distill is that the Muppets are all about what’s good and true. The world offers us role models of all shapes and sizes, willing and unwilling, intentional or not. But I dare say if we all aspired to Miss Piggy’s confidence, Gonzo’s rejection of social norms, Fozzie’s insistence on maintaining a sense of humor—well, we all might be a little better for it.

But as for me, I’ve always looked to Kermit as my guide. For his leadership. For his courage. For his ambition. And perhaps most importantly for his sense of loyalty to his friends and insistence on treating them like family as they pursue their dreams. Thus, to close on one of my favorite Jim Henson quotes, delivered through Kermit’s dialogue at the climax of The Muppet Movie:

I have a dream too, but it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. It’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And I found a whole group of friends who have the same dream, and that makes us sort of like a family.

Amen, Kermit. Amen.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Chemistry Lesson

Author’s Note: The following post is largely historical fiction--the parts for which I was present are a dramatization of what I remember (as is the case for so much of this blog); the parts for which I was not present are almost exclusively speculation and works of the imagination.

The test questions embedded in the text are borrowed from past tests and practice questions made available to the public by The College Board.

7. At a constant temperature, the behavior of a sample of a real gas more closely approximates that of an ideal gas as its volume is increased because the
(a) collisions with the walls of the container become less frequent
(b) average molecular speed decreases
(c) molecules have expanded
(d) average distance between molecules becomes greater
(e) average molecular kinetic energy decreases

It’s May 2001. I’m a high school senior, and though there is still a month left to the school year, in many ways the 12th grade culminates in the week that follows.

I registered for three Advanced Placement courses that year--English because I liked and performed well in the subject; Calculus and Chemistry for the prospect that succeeding on those AP exams might excuse me from taking math and science courses in college. Accordingly, I didn’t really sweat the AP English exam. And though it was among the most work-intensive courses of my lifetime, I had a good teacher and developed an unlikely aptitude for calculus, such that when the time for that test came around, it was carried less weight of anxiety than a sense of relief for having an outlet for the skills I’d painstakingly developed over the preceding year.

Then there was Chemistry.

It’s not that I hadn’t studied, and it’s not that I had a poor teacher--in fact, I’d contend Mrs. Lorenz was one of the best science teachers I had ever had. But when push came to shove, the mechanics of science rarely interested me. When I probably should have been discovering connections and unlocking profound knowledge, I instead focused on the rote memorization of vocabulary and formulas, and doing my best not mess up anything too profoundly in the lab (which, to be perfectly honest, usually consisted more of staying out of my lab partner’s way than actively contributing much of use).

My performance in the AP Chemistry course had been uneven. I did well enough early on, but when difficult concepts compounded upon one another I had a tendency get lost. I mixed up my terms, over-thought questions, and made careless computational errors.

So, when May rolled around and the AP Chemistry exam lumed, I really did need to buckle down and study. I started constructing elaborate schemes for how I would re-read a chapter from the textbook each night, side-by-side with my class notes, and drill practice questions.

My actual behavior didn’t approximate my ideal behavior all that well. I squeezed in ten-to-fifteen minutes of lip service chemistry study each night after the rest of my homework, and before stealing fifteen minutes of my own to write bad poetry and to get six or seven hours of sleep.

There was little hope. One of the few factors to spur me on was the notion that if I did poorly on the AP exam it would mean that the whole year had been a waste--that I would have endured an extra year of especially challenging high school science only to have take more science at college.

And then my grandfather passed away.

All of the following statements about the nitrogen family of elements are true except:
(a) It contains both metals and nonmetals.
(b) The electronic configuration of the valence shell of the atom is ns2np3.
(c) The only oxidation states exhibited by members of this family are –3, 0, +3, +5.
(d) The atomic radii increase with increasing atomic number.
(e) The boiling points increase with increasing atomic number.

In chemistry, families of elements are defined by common properties, and conveniently fit into the same column of the period table.

And perhaps such commonalities--some beneath the surface, some purely superficial--are what best defines the bonds within my family. After all, a number of us have been prone to living like hermits. To live frugally. To be critical. Not to express our emotions.

The family I’ve known has always been quite small. No cousins. The lineage on my mother’s side of the family is a bit muddied, and all I’ve known it for sure most of my life has been my mother, her brother, and their mother. On my father’s side, there was him and two brothers, one aunt through marriage. One set of grandparents intact until Bock Wong Chin passed away.

He had been ailing for years. First liver problems that caused him to give up alcohol, and his pot belly dwindled away until he was bone thin. His body failed him in the years to follow. After a major surgery, he looked to be on the upswing. But one day out of the hospital--just after he and my grandmother had moved into a new, smaller apartment in a building for senior citizens and the disabled—he collapsed. He would never get up again.

The phone rang at 5:36 a.m. My father knocked on my door at 5:42, almost an hour earlier than he’d ordinarily start pestering me to get up and get ready for school. He didn’t open the door, but rather stood outside and said, “Bock Wong is dead.”

Which of the following best describes the role of the spark from the spark plug in an automobile engine?
(A) The spark decreases the energy of activation for the slow step.
(B) The spark increases the concentration of the volatile reactant.
(C) The spark supplies some of the energy of activation for the combustion reaction.
(D) The spark provides a more favorable activated complex for the combustion reaction.
(E) The spark provides the heat of vaporization for the volatile hydrocarbon.

I decided not to go the funeral. If I went, it would mean missing the AP Chemistry test, and the only opportunity to make it up would be to take the test at the end of the summer. If there was one prospect even less appealing than having wasted a year of extra science studies, it was the idea that I’d spend my last summer before college, too, still studying. Even if the extra time could have objectively allowed me to spread out my studies and really learn the material, I wasn’t particularly interested in that option.

Still, I felt poorly for missing the funeral. For his final few years I’d felt a not entirely logical drive to make peace with my grandfather.

You see, when I was little, I remembered overhearing him talk to his pet Doberman pintser, Ginger, late the night before we would leave, reassuring her and perhaps more so himself, “Diane come back soon.” Diane was my sister, and I took it that he defaulted to naming the elder of his grandchildren.

Except when my sister left for college and stopped joining us on our pilgrimages to Queens, my grandfather did not start lamenting my departure. Instead, he moved backward, telling the dog, “Tommy come back soon,” referencing my father.

So, in the trips to follow, I made an effort to my smile at my grandfather more and talk to him more, to demonstrate I was worth missing.

As I share all of this--recollections that I don’t think I ever actually shared with anyone--it’s easy to interpret skipping my grandfather’s funeral as spite. That if he didn’t care to miss me, I wouldn’t care to miss to him. On the contrary, I think the desire for him to know that I cared, even after he died, was strong enough that it made it harder for me to miss the funeral.

In place of attending his funeral, I dedicated my performance on the AP exam to him. More than a vain attempt to stay especially focused or work quickly to answer every question on the test, it meant spending the weekend alone in the house, totally devoted to study. I took all of my schemes about incremental preparation and truncated them to that weekend, dedicating a two-to-three hour study period to each unit of study over the course from the year, and tackling a more or less random sampling of test questions in between to stay sharp, not to linger too long on one topic at the expense of the others.

I approached it not just as a big test, but the test of a lifetime.

I had my spark.

Relatively slow rates of chemical reaction are associated with which of the following?
(A) The presence of a catalyst
(B) High temperature
(C) High concentration of reactants
(D) Strong bonds in reactant molecules
(E) Low activation energy

I imagine an alternative version of myself. One who said screw it to the AP test and went to the funeral. Indeed, in the aftermath of the day, my father has said more than once that it may have been a mistake for me not to come--that he met all manner of people he hadn’t known existed, and that I probably should have done the same, as small as our known family and its social circles have been.

I see my father in the navy pin stripe blazer that he loaned to me semiformal dances, a mismatched black button up shirt, and the beat up pair of the only dress shoes I’ve ever known him to own. He stands in his typical slouch, an arm folded behind his back, gripping the far elbow, and tips forward and backward from his heels to his toes while my grandmother shakes her head in little spasms, dabbing at her face with Kleenex in such a way that it is nearly impossible to tell if she is crying or coping with her seasonal allergies.

And I meander the distance between them, to my uncles, who I’ve never had all that much more to say to than my grandfather. My uncle John alternates between solemn and trying to talk to me about how I should have played on my high school basketball team. How I’m tall enough that I might have earned a scholarship to at least a D3 school.

I settle on standing by my mother in what will ostensibly be a quiet spot since neither of us are big talkers and we are among the most obviously white people in a crowd of Chinese faces. We watch for connections, trying to determine who is who amidst mostly Cantonese conversations. An old Chinese man with a single hair that stretches and curls an inch and a half from his chin introduces a young woman to a man who’s sharp black suit, whose age probably splits the distance between the others. I think one of them might be a cousin. Or perhaps the old man is an old army buddy of my grandfather, a one-time fellow survivor who is now coming to terms with another fallen comrade.

The young woman shakes the middle-aged man’s hand daintily and says something that makes him laugh. And as I look on, the entire entourage turns to face me, and before I can react they're walking toward us.

The middle-aged man shakes my mother’s hand first. Then mine. He speaks in a slow, broken English. “You daughter-in-law. Grandson.”

I affirm what he’s saying and he shakes our hands again. The old man follows suit. His hand is dry and cold, the young woman’s cold as well but smooth, almost glossy like she just moisturized. They tell us their long Chinese names that I forget as soon as I hear, and I can’t quite discern how they knew my grandfather, even then, but the old man manages, that he was, “the best man.”

What volume of 0.150-molar Hcl is required to neutralize 25.0 milliliters of 0.120-molar Ba(OH)2?
(A) 20.0 mL
(B) 30.0 mL
(C) 40.0 mL
(D) 60.0 mL
(E) 80.0 mL

I walked to the McDonald’s a mile and a half from home. It was ostensibly a study break, but I spent most of the journey repeating in my mind the definitions I started recording on makeshift flash cards that afternoon, ripped from loose-leaf paper.

A sub-narrative took hold in my mind as I speculated if there were a critical point at which fatigue from over-studying neutralized the benefits of studying. Or if I were just trying to talk myself out of soldiering ahead. Talk myself out of my vision for carrying my food home and sitting at the kitchen table with the chemistry book laid open, flat in front of me. I had reached the mid-point of the book, when the pages read and unread were equal enough that the book would keep itself open without having to hold down either side.

So I made my fast food order. They were running a special that gave me four cheeseburgers for two dollars. I figured I could ration that out to dinner that night, lunch the next day. More realistically, I knew I’d eat them all in one sitting, and that that would be fine if it kept me at the table, kept my eyes on the page, got me through another chapter or two.

A bell jar connected to a vacuum pump is shown on the right. As the air pressure under the bell jar decreases, what behavior of water in the beaker will be observed? Explain why this occurs.

I’m standing with my father when a man in a blue suit and tie all the same color as my father’s blazer approach us. He’s balding from the front with a mane of dark brown hair flowing from the back and sides into a ponytail that reaches just past neck length. Another white face, who has gone from my grandmother to one of my uncles to us.

“I wanted to pay my respects,” he says to my father. “I went to your old man’s laundry the last ten years, ever since my wife left me.”

My father shakes his hand and nods, not so much encouraging the man as telling him he has been heard and he can feel welcome to move on. But the man persists.

“Thirty-six years old, and can you believe I’d never done my own laundry. My mother used to do it for me, then my ex-wife. So find myself standing in front of dryer, a roll of quarters in my hand and damn near every piece of clothing I’ve got in my laundry bag. And your father sees me. You know what he does?”

My father meets his smile halfway, awaiting the punchline.

“First of all, he turns me around--tells me I ought to use a washer first.” The man laughs too loudly. The other mourners look at him, but he doesn’t seem to notice, slapping a hand hard against my father’s shoulder in a way that I’m sure he means as affable even when Dad leans away from him. “Then the guy helps me sort my colors from my whites. He’s handling my smelly socks and my dirty Jockeys. Not in a perverted way or nothing--it’s just that he wasn’t above it. He saw I was in over my head, and he helped me out every way he knew how. Hell of a guy.”

The most unlikely thing about the situation is that as this man presses down upon my father, as he inadvertently and unconsciously spits on him he talks, my father doesn’t tell him to go away, and doesn’t walk off himself. Instead, for the only time in my life I could swear I see my father grow a little misty-eyed behind his spectacles. This man who used to call me a wimp for crying too often, and who more often chided my grandfather than he expressed any pride in him--recalling times when he beat him as a child, and mocking his insistence, as a grown man, that professional wrestling was a true sport without predetermined outcomes.

In that moment, my father feels profound pride. And sadness. And for the first time, I recognize him not just as my father, but as somebody’s son.

A hydrocarbon gas with an empirical formula CH2 has a density of 1.88 grams per liter at 0 degrees Celcius and 1.00 atmosphere. A possible formal for the hydrocarbon is
(A) CH2
(B) C2H4
(C) C3H6
(D) C4H8
(E) C5H10

I don’t remember what an empirical formula is today. Or what factors affect the rate of a chemical reaction. Or any characteristics of the nitrogen family.

I hardly remember anything at all about taking the AP Chemistry test.

But I do remember the preparation.

And as I write, I’m reminded of one of the lessons from Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture,” about the value of what he termed “head fake” learning--the process of learning a skill or bit of wisdom without knowing it, through an apparently disparate process.

I remember studying for the exam learning a whole new lesson about hard work and commitment--about dedicating a process to someone else and meaning it. About what it meant to not allow myself to fail.

I never studied chemistry again after that spring, and didn’t have to in part because I scored a four out of five on the test, which the College Board defines as “Well qualified to receive college credit.”

And just the same, I learned a lesson about family. While my father doesn’t talk about his father all that often, Bock Wong’s name came up every now and again in the years to follow, mostly when we were in New York again talking to my grandmother, or one of my uncles. Sometimes they poke fun at my grandfather for the poor card player he was, or the way he would eat too much until he made himself sick. But then there are prouder stories. Tales of his time in the army, and how for a period of time he served as a mortarman. That over a period of three years he achieved the rank of Private First Class in the infantry and earned an honorable discharge.

Whether he wants it to show or not, I’ve seen in my father hints of pride.

And so, I have glimpses of the man my grandfather was, and I know I missed out on the biggest chance I’d ever have to know him when I missed the funeral. To this day, I wonder if it was the right choice. Because even for these stories I might collect, it’s still tantamount to reading about chemistry as opposed to working a lab. Studying words on page is one thing; it's another to experience a chemical reaction.