Friday, December 30, 2016

My 2016 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. “Could Have Been Me” by The Struts I encountered this song in late 2015, and in early 2016 it became shower music and running to catch the bus music--in either case the kind of song that’s full of momentum and got me moving

2. “Formation” by Beyonce This was the it song of late winter. I was pretty enamored with the whole Lemonade project to follow, but this song in particular stands out for its bombast and non-traditional but nonetheless irresistible structure and instrumentation. I have a mixed audience that reads this blog, so I’m going to steer clear of the political implications and controversies because I’m not looking to incite new debate. Regardless, this song left an indelible mark on me early in the year.

3. “Stutter” by Marianas Trench I’d come across this song years earlier in a cappella circles, but in 2016, found that it surfaced on my iPhone on the walk from my hotel to the Los Angeles Convention Center, my first full day at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. I’d been to AWP once before, but this time, five-sixths of the way through my MFA program and actively submitting to journals and contests, I felt a different energy about the experience--at once educational, a reunion, and a celebration of this writer’s life that I’d chosen. A can of Red Bull in hand, this song blasting through my earbuds, I was ready for a day of panel discussions, readings, and mingling with editors. A lot more exciting than it probably sounds.

4. “My House” by Flo Rida I didn’t go to WrestleMania this year (it overlapped with AWP), and given other life commitments, didn’t get nearly as invested in celebrating it as a holiday this year as I have some others. Nonetheless, WWE programming remains an inveterate part of psyche, and so the theme song that played over shows leading up to ‘Mania, not to mention the event itself, finds its place in this soundtrack.

5. “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart On one road trip or another, this song came on as Heather and I were driving along a patch of highway surrounded by trees and Oregon greenery. I’ve known this song for years and always liked it, but when the lyrics hit--

A year from now we’ll all be gone
All our friends will move away

--I found myself profoundly affected. For a year and a half earlier, I’d left my friends in Baltimore, my friends and family on the east coast altogether, to pursue my writing career in earnest in Oregon. And there I was a year and half later, unsure of where my next steps would take me, but nonetheless cognizant that things would change again. For all of these friends I’d made in Oregon, all of these people I’d finally found my bearings with and grown comfortable around, we’d soon be going our separate ways again. There’s a bittersweet-ness to that sensation of growing close so quickly, then moving along to another life just as fast.

Been talking 'bout the way things change
And my family lives in a different state
And if you don't know what to make of this
Then we will not relate

6. “Levels” by Nick Jonas I’d heard this song in passing at the gym, where I absorbed most of my pop music through osmosis, but couldn’t dismiss it as background when I went to New York City once again for Varsity Vocals’ a cappella Finals weekend, and a number of groups gave this song a whirl (most memorably, my pick for the top college group, The Carnegie Mellon University Originals). It stuck with me through a good, if quieter take on this annual pilgrimage, the first time that our crew for this trip had whittled down to just two friends.

7. “Never Let You Go” by Third Eye Blind As graduation approached, I started reflecting on music from the era of my high school graduation, and got nostalgic (as I’m wont to do). Cheesy as it may be, this song stood out as not just one I remembered well, but one that felt like pure celebration, which felt appropriate to wrapping up all of that hard word and all of those good times from the preceding two years with a series of parties and more casual get-togethers, not to mention the graduation ceremony itself.

8. “Falling in Love” by Lisa Loeb and 9. “Truth and Bone” by Heather Nova There was a brief awkward period--only three-to-four days really, though it stands out in my brain for feeling longer--after Heather and I had moved the overwhelming majority of our belongings into storage, after Heather had left for her summer gig, when I was on my own in our cleared out apartment.

I was working on a new flash fiction project, featuring an idiosyncratic narrator and when I listened to this old Lisa Loeb song, it provided the skeleton of a story of this narrator meeting her new partner. I encountered the Heather Nova song for the first time during this same stretch. For a long time, I’ve found my enjoyment of her catalog uneven, with songs that I absolutely love, and songs that bore me to tears in more or less equal proportions. This was one of the ones that I really liked, and I remember listening to it on a long walk between the gym and the empty apartment under the early summer sun.

10. “Can’t Stop The Feeling” by Justin Timberlake and 11. “Love yourself” by Justin Bieber It was a long summer, but, overall, a good one for me. I had my first experience teaching a CTY summer course. While thirty hours a week of guiding a writing workshop for the same group of kids was draining, it was also one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career. I followed that up by working as a Dean of Residential Life for the first time in nine years. I was, admittedly reticent about stepping back into the job, but found rewards there, too, in working with the kids and working with a stand-out group of RAs.

Still, when early August hit, I was relieved about the chance for a break. As I was walking through dorms to gather items left behind, I treated myself to downloading these two pop songs that the RAs had played so often through evening social times and Friday night dances.

11. “Palisades Park” by Counting Crows At the end of summer, I traveled to Upstate New York for a bachelor party weekend with three of my closest friends. We kicked it off with tomato pie and a Counting Crows concert in Syracuse. Listening to this song, in particular at the start of the Crows show, felt like a book end. It was during my cross country drive to move to Oregon that Somewhere Under Wonderland, the Counting Crows album that opened with this song, first dropped, and here I was some of my oldest friends, at the front end of transitioning to whatever life would have in store next.

The concert was good, the company was better, and we moved along from there to a night at the Turning Stone Casino, and two days in Saratoga Springs.

12. “Glorious Domination” by CFO$ WWE capped its summer with SummerSlam weekend, including a great NXT: Back to Brooklyn special. During it, long-time indy star Bobby Roode made his debut, and did so with this song playing him to the ring, and a cast of fans singing along to it. Needless to say, I was hooked.

I downloaded the song and played it in the early mornings and on long stretches of open road until it became something of an unofficial anthem for the trek Heather and I made back to the east coast.

13. “I Choose You” (Live, Acoustic) by Sara Bareilles and 14. “Uptown Funk” by Marc Ronson ft. Bruno Mars Within a few months of dating in earnest, Heather and I selected “I Choose You,” and more particularly this acoustic version as our song, and so when we got engaged there was little doubt that it would be the song we played for our first dance.

Leading up to the wedding, we decided we might splice in another song, and could think of none better than “Uptown Funk”—a cliché, perhaps, but a song we had engaged in impromptu dance parties to in the car before, not to mention one that people would know. As we spent the month in the mountains of Boone, NC, and the wedding approached, I choreographed, Heather refined, and we practiced over a series of days before we were ready to perform.

Our wedding week turned out to be a stressful one--more so than most, I’d argue, for the specter of a hurricane that would pass nearby, a shuffling of plans last minute, and a number of people who were important to us not making the trip to steer clear of the storm. Just the same, the wedding itself--the ceremony and reception--went as well if not better than we could have expected. This dance marked a turning point for me in particular, the last piece I meaningfully had to remember or keep track of before relaxing for the rest of the event.

15. “Happy Birthday Guadalupe” by The Killers I came upon this Christmas song a year ago, so it wasn’t entirely new, but still relatively fresh to me in 2016, and the last track of the holiday playlist that I played and replayed throughout the month of December.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

On Concentrated Christmases

For eleven months out of the year, I do not listen to Christmas music, I do not watch Christmas movies, and I do not drink eggnog.

But once Thanksgiving passes, all of the above are fair game. Moreover, I feast upon them.

I’ll be the first to admit that the way in which I celebrate Christmas is arbitrary and more than a little silly. Plenty of folks balk at seeing Christmas displays in stores the day after Halloween, but I know of few others who both reject all things Christmas-related so vehemently for the length of November, and who so passionately embrace traditions, custom and cliché alike, after the fourth Thursday of that month has passed.

That’s me, though. With the onset of December, things don’t feel right if I haven’t propped up my crooked little fiber-optic Christmas tree in a corner of the living room. If I haven’t watched It’s A Wonderful Life, Scrooged, Elf, Home Alone, and a handful of other films. If I haven’t listened to “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” “The Christians and The Pagans,” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” a couple dozen times each.

And I know that there’s a part of me that’s been programmed and scripted to adore such things. It’s the same part of me linked to shopping Black Friday sales online as much out practical deal hunting as out of a sense that this is what I should be doing. None of this holiday season hoopla, objectively, means anything. It’s a load of commercialized sentimentality plastered over one of the otherwise bleakest months of the year. It’s romanticizing the snow that I hate eleven months out of twelve, and recalling fires as warm and inviting rather than the stuff of primal humanity’s survival against the unforgiving cold.

But when my most cynical, disillusioned Grinch of a self starts to take control of my faculties--when I stop listening for sleigh bells and forego the eggnog in favor of a lower calorie beverage--I remind myself of why it all does matter to me.

I recall sitting on opposite ends of the basement couch with my sister, blankets over our laps, with stuffed animal dogs and bears and rabbits between us, as the pencils we used for school became the instruments with which we crafted our Christmas wish lists.

I remember biting into petit-four after petit-four around my grandmother’s kitchen table, watching Wheel of Fortune on an ten-inch black and white television, and the moment when the lot of us simultaneously solved the puzzle, “Dashing through the snow,” and went on to sing, “on a one horse open sleigh, over the hills we go, laughing all the way ho, ho, ho.”

I remember my de facto niece, Gianna, four years old, clutching the middle, ring, and pinky fingers of my left hand between her two tiny palms, pleading that she wanted to sit next to me at the table, and giggling when I picked her up to carry her to dinner.

I remember cramming altogether too many guests into my one bedroom Hampden apartment for a white elephant gift exchange, and thinking that having too many friends was about as nice of a Christmas problem as I was likely to have.

And I think that that’s why all of this jingle bell crock resonates with me to this day. Why I grow misty eyed each time George Bailey runs up the stairs and kisses his children, his wife, and his broken banister. Why I have trouble keeping my mind in the present when I hear the through the years, we all will be together. It’s not December 25, or the weeks leading up to it that matter. It’s this life, for which I could so easily, so regularly, lose myself in nostalgia, for all of these amazing people, and places, and things I’ve seen.

Concentrating this holiday fever into a single month keeps me from looking back too long, from spending too much money on presents, from letting all semblance of a reasonably fit grown up’s diet fall by the way side. But savoring it while it lasts--that month of December--reminds me of all of these pieces of me that still matter. People who have come and gone. People I have yet to meet.

And so, this December, I pour another glass of eggnog from its carton, warm it in the microwave and stir in a twist of Jack Daniel’s. I drink deeply. I am merry.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Laundry Room

I still remember laundry days when I was young.

Like so many processes in the house, including dishwashing and shoveling the driveway, my father was possessive over laundry out of a sense that no one else knew how to do it right.

At first blush, the absence of my having to do such banal chores sounds like a gift--that I had the luxury of having extra time for homework and extracurriculars and writing and reading and watching movies without these domestic responsibilities. But when the implicit commentary was that I was incapable of doing such things correctly, it made each of these chores simultaneously a rite of passage and the object of intimidation because I’d never really learned how to do them.

As a kid, I didn’t think much of laundry. The days simply came and went when my father stripped the sheets from the bed, removed the towels from the racks, emptied the hampers and started the loud, clunking laundry machines at the foot of the stairs in our raised ranch. Those stairs led directly to the front door and the moisture from the washer would fog its window. The whole house smelled of detergent. Always eager to save a buck, my father was reticent to run the dryer, and so in the days to follow, damp clothes would often hang from the shower curtain rod, and from kitchen chairs; socks and underwear would line the perimeter of laundry baskets sitting in the corners of rooms.

I went to camp packed with enough underwear, t-shirts, shorts, and socks so that I wouldn’t need to do laundry for the three weeks I was away.

In the late stages of junior high and into high school, I grew frustrated with how infrequently my father wanted to do laundry, forcing me to either wear my favorite shirts two or three times between washes, or to forego wearing them for weeks at a time. I grew jealous of a friend who wore the same red t-shirt and khakis at least three times a week and admitted to doing loads of laundry with just those two items of clothing so he could wear them over and over again.

I went off to college and like so many of my peers--particularly other young men--learned to wash my own clothes. In his typical fashion, my father had given me a theoretical lesson on measuring detergent into a machine, loading clothes, setting the temperature of the water and starting a washing machine, but the practice of actually doing so, like most mechanical operations, baffled me.

My first time in the college laundry room, another boy and I stood by the washing machines, clearly equally baffled. Fortunately, a young woman came downstairs to fetch her clothes from the dryer and guided us through the process.

And so I was off and running--laundry-independent, and I relished the opportunity to wash clothes on a weekly basis, and took advantage of the ostensibly free machines (the costs, assuredly, woven into housing fees) to machine dry each article of clothing. I grew familiar with the etiquette and common practices of such facilities. That contrary to suggestions we heard over orientation about thwarting thieves, no one waited in the laundry room while their clothes washed and dried. That if you left your clothes in the dryer too long after the dryer had stopped running, people would unload it for you--some of them neatly folding your clothes (in a way that was likely meant as a peace offering, though it always sketched me out to think who might be handling my delicates), some dumping them in a heap on top of the machine. That most polite folks afforded you a five-to-ten minute grace period before they unloaded for you, but others were impatient or in a hurry and couldn’t be bothered.

I considered all of this a part of my education, and a part of a broader thesis that college was not only about learning course content, but learning to live away from home and in other communities and to operate like a functioning adult. I lived in the dorms for three years and did my laundry in the basement in each location, then, in my first off-campus apartment, hefted my laundry basket outdoors to visit the laundry room in a neighboring building.

When I moved to Baltimore, I encountered another basement laundry room in which centipedes, spiders, and cockroaches the length of poker chips consistently wandered the floors and walls.

When I decided to move to Oregon and to move with Heather, we talked about what we wanted out of a living space. We agreed to start with two bedrooms so there would be doors to close when we each needed to work, and sheer space for our respective stuff. We agreed about not wanting to be on the ground floor, and not wanting to live anywhere too close to bars or Greek life that would be too loud.

And I prioritized having a washer and dryer in the apartment.

Having the washing facilities right inside our place may seem like a luxury, but I was tired of feeling the need to keep quarters on hand, make myself presentable, wander up and downstairs, and battle bugs just to wash my clothing. I wanted to stay. To do laundry at my leisure. Never to have to wait for a machine.

And I got my wish.

I came to take our washer and dryer for granted. Laundry still felt like a chore, and more often than not, I still ended up cramming it between the margins of things on the weekend.

Just the same, as I write about laundry, I suspect I’ll look back on these days fondly--as a period before I wasn't responsible for owning and maintaining laundry machines per se, but just the same didn’t need to leave the comfort of my apartment to use them.

And I suppose that’s the nature of chores. We think about them. Plan around them. Dread them. Endure them. But for all of this, they’re ultimately a necessary part of life.

I recall hearing the Jason Mraz song “Geek in the Pink” when I lived in Syracuse, and trying to espouse its enthusiastically delivered opening lyric, “It’s laundry day!” as anthem to gear up for the routine. But later, in Baltimore, I discovered a song that seemed to more genuinely represent what laundry was about--“Laundry Room” by The Avett Brothers. It’s a beautiful, layered song, juxtaposing (broken) love with the impossibly dull. One of my favorite lyrics:

Keep your clothes on,
I’ve got all that I can take.

I still listen to this song every now and again as I gather the sheets from the bed. As I fold and hang clothes once they’re clean and dry. And as absurd as it is to romanticize something so simple and domestic, I remember all of the different laundry rooms, family and friends that led me to that moment.

I am a breathing time machine,
I’ll take you all for a ride.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

West Coast Thanksgiving

I’ll always remember my first Thanksgiving on the west coast.

If for no other reason, I’ll remember it for contrast.

You see, for the first eighteen years of my life, Thanksgiving was stationary. My father cooked a turkey and the same set of sides each go-round: stuffing, yams, cranberry sauce. An hour or two before dinner, he would call me into the kitchen to eat liver from the turkey--a delicacy the two of us loved and that no one else in the family could stomach. Thanksgiving was also the lone day of the year when, rather than going to my Grandma Jean’s house to visit with her, she would come to us. My sister and I showied off our collections of stuffed animals and engaged in conversation with her through them, and then tried to guide her through the play of Super Mario Bros. or, years later, a PC golf game. And Grandma Jean--she demonstrated remarkable patience. A willingness to listen and go along for the ride that I took for granted at the time and that, to this day, I hold onto as the most important lesson she role modeled for me about how to be a good to children (or anyone really).

Things shifted by degrees in the years to follow, after my parents separated, after my sister stopped coming home, after my grandmother passed away, and when I started dividing time between my biological family and my best friend’s family that lived down the street, and then, for a few ill-advised Thanksgivings, making the split three ways between those two households and family of my girlfriend at the time--the most memorable incident of which culminated in me vomiting in the backyard at home (the result of a combination of over-eating and a few too many glasses of smooth orange-infused vodka), only to go inside and dine on the third and final feast with my old man.

New traditions came and went. Three years of starting the day volunteering at a soup kitchen, five years of not going home, but rather traveling to be with a larger swath of family--reconnecting with them all after years of little contact.

Then I moved to Oregon to go to grad school.

I held out hope about returning to the east coast for Turkey Day, but as the holiday loomed it became apparent that between my teaching schedule and the cost of flights, the best I could realistically hope to do would be to touch ground on the east coast in the late afternoon Thanksgiving day, only to have to fly out again in the early morning a couple days later. I couldn’t justify it.

Heather was already more accustomed to Thanksgivings away, having moved to the west coast about a decade earlier, and rarely if ever made it back to family for the holiday.

For our first Thanksgiving together, we made our own feast.

We had our first experience baking a turkey--an eight-pounder we knew would afford generous left-overs. To be fair, Heather took on the overwhelming majority of planning, preparation, and execution of the cooking process, though I was able to assume roles I never had before of reaching a hand into the still partially frozen bird to rip out its innards, and later carving the cooked bird into different servings.

Over the course of the day, we played a constant stream of Muppet films, working our way from The Muppet Movie to the The Great Muppet Caper to The Muppets Take Manhattan to arrive that evening at A Muppet Christmas Carol which, like all Christmas movies, I’m adamant is only permissible between the period after Thanksgiving dinner and before December 26 of each year.

We sang along to the Muppet songs as they played on TV and mashed regular and sweet potatoes. Made two forms of stuffing, each from a box, but hers gluten-free. Drank Chardonnay and made passing efforts at washing dishes and pans as we went.

And though I made phone calls to relatives and friends on the opposite side of the country, I was surprised at how few times I caught myself missing them. It occurred to me, albeit in a trite sense, how much I had to be thankful for in my life before that Thanksgiving, and perhaps all the more importantly, how much I had to be thankful for in that very moment.

So I ate and drank too much, then snuggled with Heather on the couch for another movie. I recognized that for all of these changes, if I were lucky, some of these late-November feelings might never leave me.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

I Love It

A strange thing happened to me when 2014 gave way to 2015.

I started to love everything.

It began over the winter break--a week in Oregon after my first term of MFA studies had wrapped up, and through two weeks of travels east to visit family and friends and a stop over in San Diego when we got back to the west coast. In the mornings and evenings and on planes and between times spent with people I came to see, I read When Captain Flint Was Still A Good Man, the debut novel by Nick Dybek who was in his first year teaching at Oregon State. I was in throes of trying to decide whether I should take his class--if I could justify bucking popular convention and not only teach two sections of English Composition the following term, take workshop, and take a seminar on literary magazines, but also add a third class with an intensive reading list.

The thing is, I loved the book.

Moreover, I loved what it represented to me. It explored themes of father-son dynamics and friendship, coming of age in a small town community, economic disparity, life-or-death decisions thrust upon people in no way equipped to make such choices. The novel represented so much of what I had tried to accomplish through my writing at so many different points in my life, all wedged within in the voice of a young male first-person narrator.

By the time our last plane of the trip touched down back in Oregon, I had fewer than fifty pages to go in the book, and my mind had been made up. If this author were teaching a craft class about writing first-person narratives--moreover, a class that's repeated departmental pleas for more students attested had a low enrollment--wouldn’t I be a fool not to take it?

I took the class and discovered more books that I loved. Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, Junot Diaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Not since a freshmen year seminar fourteen years earlier, when Professor Chris Wixson hit me with a one-two punch of Jeanette Winterson and Patrick Marber had I so readily loved such a high percentage of what I was reading, proclaiming I loved each novel and that each would surely influence my own work.

Meanwhile, in my class on literary magazines, I read a book review of W. Todd Kaneko’s Dead Wrestler Elegies, written by Brian Oliu, published by Diagram, framed as a series of short poems all its own demonstrating a real passion for and knowledge of pro wrestling, that I not so much read as devoured. And yes, I was in love again.

A friend lent me a biography of Jim Henson, written by Brian Jay Jones, that I read over morning cereal and coffee. Sure enough, I fell in love, too, with the story of a reluctant puppeteer who just wanted to crack into the television business, and ended up redefining the modern landscape of puppetry.

I loved Interstellar so much I saw it in the theater twice. I loved WrestleMania 31. I loved Beat the Champ, a new album from The Mountain Goats.

And there came a point when I began to question if I were loving too easily--affected by my recent engagement and overwhelming feelings toward Heather; anxious to appreciate everything that came my way during this grad school adventure, a self-professed two-year sabbatical from real life. Had I, whose claims to (modest) (Internet) fame were rooted critiquing and nitpicking a cappella performances and pro wrestling matches gone soft?

Maybe so. Or maybe I had just stumbled upon a treasure trove of work that it was a joy to consume, and a community of people with similar enough aesthetics to drive me toward more of the good stuff.

Whatever the case may be, I decided that loving too much wasn’t such a bad thing. Whether that capacity to love were truly drawn from internal motivations or the inherent quality of the work around me, who was I to question it? Who was I not to sit back, and drink in the beauty?

I loved the world around me.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Running and Writing

I’ve never really identified as a runner.

There have been periods of my life when I have run. Four road races, ranging from 5Ks to Ten Milers, and in each case I made a point of running for weeks if not months in advance to get in good enough shape so I could achieve respectable times.

Throughout my college years, I typically ran on a weekly basis--my only meaningful, regular source of exercise.

But I’ve never been like my friends who will absent-mindedly run sixteen miles when they only meant to run twelve on a leisurely Saturday morning, and running has never come easily enough to me to consider it form of relaxation and a canvas for reflection the way I’ve heard it functions for some true runners.

By the time I lived in Oregon, I only ran for one purpose, though I did it at least two or three times per week.

I ran to catch the bus.

Hefting fifteen pounds of backpack, and more often clad in the dress shoes, khakis, and collared shirts I wore to teach, I made the absurd jog from my apartment at back of the complex to the edge of the parking lot where the bus picked up each day. I had timed myself. Walking at my normal pace, I could make the journey in about six-to-seven minutes. Running as fast as I could, I could get there in just over two. More often than not, I got out my door with only four or five minutes before my the online tracker on my iPhone told me the bus would arrive.

So, I ran.

And as I ran, I recalled advice I’d heard from friends about the emphasis of running to move you forward. How inexperienced runners, and particularly people who had done most of their formative running on treadmills, tended to have a bouncing gait, bobbing up and down with each step. Unnecessary vertical movement that not only looked silly but wasted both energy and time for not moving the runner forward.

On one such morning, as I focused on the length of my stride and remained steady and low, I thought of how the same principles might apply to writing.

Like many young writers, I'd heard the advice to get my butt in the chair and my pen to paper (or, my hands to the keyboards) to get to work. As Ann Lamott approves, shitty first drafts are a way of life. Revision is king. But the first step is simply to do the work.

And I thought of how I have espoused that philosophy. Aiming to write five hundred or a thousand words a day at different times and for different projects, and more importantly getting to work every day, whether I’m busy, sick, or on vacation.

I kept moving forward.

And I've dreamed of those days when pristine prose will simply arrive at their fingertips. When it will feel effortless. And those days do come, albeit few and far between, always the exception and not the rule. Thus, like an experienced poker player grinds his way through hands and waits to strike on a humdinger, and like a hunter doesn’t pull the trigger until she has a clean shot, and, indeed, like a runner doesn’t hit the ground too hard with each step or bounce too high, as a writer, I, too, remain patient and faithful. I wait. And I work.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Make the Choice

I felt a certain level of inevitability as a child. That one day I would go to college. That I would have a job. I would get married and have my own children and my own house. A lot of this sense of the inevitable is rooted in a place of privilege. While I didn’t grow up affluent, I did grow up in a middle-to-upper-middle class household. My parents owned their house and both of them had not only went to college, but met while they were earning their Master's degrees. My father opened a college fund for me before I started elementary school, and filled out the paperwork for me to open a Roth IRA when I got my first job, folding sweaters at a discount clothing store at the mall.

Still, this sense of inevitability wavered. The first cracks--it was around the fourth or fifth grade, at the start of a new school year, and it occurred to me that I might not pass the grade. That there was a lot to learn, a lot of pressure, and how could one successfully pass grade after grade after grade thirteen years running without faltering? While that fear turned out to be unfounded, at the end of my sixth grade year, I asked out a girl for the first time. Not just any girl but the one I’d been crushing on for more or less the entire school year. There was a strange cognitive dissonance to the whole scenario. That the starry-eyed dreamer in me thought that of course we’d end up together. That the budding cynic in me recognized, of course the shy, un-athletic kid whose nose was always running wasn’t going to get one of the prettiest girls in the school to be his girlfriend.

She said no. And while fears of failing a grade dissipated, fears that I would never find a romantic partner took root in my psyche, for despite a series of profound crushes, throughout those middle and high school years, and despite asking these girls to dance or passing along awkward love notes or sending friends to test the waters for me because I was too nervous to talk to these girls (I’m not sure what I thought would happen if one of them did say yes), I never so much as made out with a girl until my freshman year of college.

Besides school and girls, I decided it was my destiny to be a great author, and moreover a great young author. Between the eighth grade and sophomore year of college, I’d drafted five novels. I checked out books from the library about writing query letters to publishers, and began to amass a pile of form rejections in my bedroom.

Like just about any writer who has accomplished anything, I’m proud of those rejections now. Rejections mean you’re trying.

And trying was the corollary to my crumbling sense of inevitability. The realization that I was going to make my own life, and while it was frightening that it wasn’t all going to fall in line with my intentions or my preconceived notions of what a life ought to be, there was also something exciting about that. The prospect that if I kept trying--kept making choices--my life might shift in any number of directions.

Fast forward to my life immediately after college. I was in my first multi-year, live-in relationship. I had a good, stable university job that wasn’t too far from where I’d grown up, so I could still make it home for holidays. I was writing. I had the seeds for some semblance of the life I’d always imagined I might have, and before I knew it, that sense of inevitability had taken hold once again.

The easiest thing to do would have been to have seen that scenario through. To have settled down for a life in Syracuse, New York, to have married this woman, to have kept writing, as time permitted, as an avocation.

Instead, I decided to apply for, and then chose to take a job I’d always aspired to in Baltimore, three hundred miles away. Nine months later, for the first time, I ended a relationship.

I won’t bore you with every personal and professional pursuit that’s passed between then and now. But I will say that I chose to apply for a promotion, and took the job offer when it came. I chose to travel to the west coast for the first time.

I worked with Heather for a summer in California and, at the tail end of that time, had some of the most captivating conversations of my life. When I was passing through her area a couple weeks later, I chose to text to see if she wanted to hang out.

We chose to hang out. Chose to hold hands. Chose to kiss for the first time as the daylight faded, knee-deep in the Pacific Ocean off Black’s Beach in San Diego.

We chose to start a long-distance relationship from three thousand miles apart for our first year together.

I chose to apply to MFA programs. To put my writing first, in earnest, for the first time. And when I was admitted to Oregon State, Heather chose to make the move to Corvallis with me.

I chose to propose. She chose to say yes.

And Heather brought up the point that we should not enter marriage blindly. That we were choosing one another, but it was a choice we’d need to continue to make if we were to stay together across years, across decades, across a lifetime. That people grow apart, or stop growing together. There was something terrifying in acknowledging the truth in what she said. That for the relationship we had built, coming to understand one another’s ambitions and preferences and neuroses, it still might not mean that we'll stay together forever. But there’s something reassuring there, too. To be with a partner who is constantly making a choice to be with me. To know that I am making that choice, too.

Today, we make another choice together. To see through the promise of our proposal, our engagement. To very literally bring our families together to bear witness to ceremonial rights, and to converge on a dance floor.

And for that our first dance as a married couple, Heather and I will dance to this song:

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

Sarah McLachlan’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is one of those albums I’m probably not supposed to like. It came out in 1993, and I fell under its spell, listening to it over and over again during a period from 1998 to 2000.

Why shouldn’t I like Fumbling?

It’s a distinctively feminine album and features songs about love and heartbreak, yes, but also takes a rawer edge to address issues like depression, recovery, and the pursuit of inner peace. All perfectly valid and interesting themes for an album. None of which probably should have resonated with a teenage boy from the suburbs. And I can’t even ascribe my adoration for this album on my older sister’s musical influence because I discovered it shortly after she had left the house for college (though I reckon her introducing me to acts like the Indigo Girls may have paved my way to appreciate McLachlan).

All that said, Fumbling is on the short list of my all-time favorite LPs.

The album opens with “Possession”--an ultra-intense anthem about not only loving someone but positively craving and needing that someone, probably to an unhealthy degree with the repeated mantra “I won’t be denied.” It’s an honest love song that I imagine anyone who has ever truly been infatuated can connect with. As a hormonally driven teen who rarely went more than a few weeks outside the grips of an all-consuming crush, I fundamentally get this song and all its desperation.

The stark instrumentation of “Wait,” paints a portrait of a protagonist at the brink, opining,

You know if I leave you now,
it doesn’t mean that I love you any less.
It’s just the state I’m in
can’t be good to anyone else like this.

To this day, I don’t know that I’ve heard a song better encapsulating the mixed emotions of person under personal, emotional distress, trying to balance care of themselves with their love for someone outside his or her own body.

Before long, the album comes to “Good Enough,” the song that, to my recollection, got the most radio airplay, and that may strike the best balance on this album between broken, vulnerable, soft, and intense. The song harkens to images of childhood and abuse, but is most clearly a song about recovery through love--not the kind of recovery that happens in an instant or based in any particular action or development, but over a lifetime of understanding and doing the work to heal.

Hold on, hold on to yourself
‘Cause this is going to hurt like hell

“Hold On” may have turned out to be the most versatile track on Fumbling recorded as a dark, emotionally ripping song on the trials of recovery, but then re-recorded in a variety of different styles by McLachlan over the years. Though I maintain that the original cut of the song is best, there’s an argument to be made that the more uplifting, borderline gossamer take, highlighted on McLachlan’s live album Mirrorball is just as good for all of its reinvention.

McLachlan follows up with “Ice Cream,” which against the odds may have become the best known track from this album over a period of years for so simply, directly, and potently getting to the heart of what good love feels like. She deftly sings of ice cream and chocolate and all of these other indulgences, and sources of solace, with the hook that the lover she’s singing to has exceeded comfort food and arrived as the sweetest thing of all.

Peace in the struggle to find peace
Comfort on the way to comfort.

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy wraps up with the title track a haunting, plodding song about the unlikely discovery of inner peace. As the cliché advice goes, you have to love yourself before you can rightly love other people. This song is about that process, and the fumbling nature of it all that so few of us get right until we’ve had so many tries (if we ever really get it right at all).

if I shed a tear I won’t cage it.
I won’t fear love.
And if I feel a rage I won’t deny it.
I won’t fear love.

The repetitions in this song sound like a mantra and, indeed, it feels like the culmination of an album about the search for self, the search for peace, and preparation to fall in love with oneself and another and a whole world.

Sarah McLachlan is better known for her follow-up album, Surfacing, which featured tracks like “Angel,” “Adia,” and “Building A Mystery.” I like that album, too, but whether its the lingering sense of sorrow, or the cleaner production work, there’s something I find inherently more commercial and inherently less satisfying about that album, as well as McLachlan’s efforts to follow. On a different note, while I like her recordings leading up to Fumbling I leave each of them with a sense that she hadn’t quite found her narrative voice yet.

And so, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, for me, marks the apex of McLachlan’s career. It’s the unconditional, raw voice of a woman hurt and stumbling toward the other end of a long, dark tunnel. And for what it’s worth, it’s among my favorite albums ever recorded.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

September 11, 2001

Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I woke up, ate two untoasted strawberry-flavored Pop Tarts at my dorm room desk, showered and went to my 9:55 sociology class. In that class, we watched a video that captured people protesting economic inequalities outside the World Trade Center in New York.

I had ten minutes between classes to traverse the main quad and get to my first-year writing seminar--one themed around Shakespeare and how lessons from the plays could be applied to contemporary social issues. A pretty girl named Marie who I’d hung out with in groups back in the dorm came into the room and asked no one in particular, “Do you believe this shit?”

The other girl in class and I must have looked puzzled, because Marie clarified, “The shit at the World Trade Center.”

I hadn’t remembered Marie being in sociology class, but it was, by my standards, an early morning class, held in a large room in which it would have been easy enough to miss someone, particularly in my first month at college, when I wasn’t yet acclimated to much of anything. So, I made like I did on most occasions when a pretty girl saw fit to talk to me. I nodded. I said, “Yeah.”

The classroom filled in at a slow trickle before the professor showed up. From what I had gathered about Dr. Easton up to that point, she was an unflappable woman. All business. High expectations for her students. But this morning, she came in with her decorative scarf untidily wrapped around her, no handouts to administer, none of the textbooks pinned between her arm and chest. She told us all, “I can’t expect for you to pay attention to class today. Please go home.”

I learned about the terrorist attacks in bits and pieces along the walk home, snippets of overheard conversation. When I got back to my dorm, my roommate had, for the first time, hooked up his seventeen-inch cathode-ray tube TV, which aired footage on repeat of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers.

I had family in New York. No one working at the Towers, but one uncle who worked in Midtown. No one I knew passed away that day, but on a campus where thirty percent of the students came from The Big Apple, it was little surprise that plenty of other people did suffer losses.

The attacks would color my college experience. Critical essays would take new forms, questioning why the terrorist attacks had happened, whether they could have been justified, whether the United States could justify going to war, not against another nation, but rather an amorphous, ill-defined enemy hidden among less certain foes and allies. I succumbed to patriotic fervor, adding Lee Greenwald’s “Proud to Be an American” to the uneven collection of MP3s I listened to. By the spring, I had come to question rhetoric of war. I wrote my first attempts at political poetry and traveled to protests in Washington DC and New York City. I wrote a senior thesis--a novella set in the Vietnam War era that clumsily winked at, reflected, and referred to the commonalities between that time and that war and the period I was living in.

Like members of my parents’ generation could speak to memories of where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, the time and place of your life on September 11, 2001 has become the definitive marker for my own. I remember the high school friend who spoke of his willingness to fight if it turned out another country were formally responsible for the attacks. A friend of mine told me about breaking up with her boyfriend the night of the attacks--feeling the weight of the attacks, and a need to live her life to the fullest and only hold people close who she really wanted to hold close. Another friend told me about the steal of a deal that car rental companies had going--that with airports shut down, they waived the additional fees that come with one-way rentals to help folks get home, and he saved a bundle on a trip he had planned to take anyway.

I didn’t lose any family or friends. I didn’t go to war. At that point, I’d only taken one trip that required airplane travel, when I was twelve years old and my parents did all of the airport navigation for me. Thus, when I entered a time in my life when I did fly a great deal, seven years later, it was less a matter of growing accustomed to something different than learning a new procedure altogether.

Just the same, I remember being eighteen years old. Sitting in a crowd of people I didn’t really know, trying to digest what would turn out to be the defining cultural touchstone of my lifetime. I didn’t have any sense of what it would all mean or what might come next. Just the inescapable sensation that nothing would ever be quite the same.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

My Sister’s Boyfriend

I remember my sister’s first boyfriend in flashes. Sitting in the backseat of my father’s car when he picked up a bee that was freaking me out with his bare hands and tossed it out the window. Singing and playing guitar to songs by Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Telling me that he wished he had a cool younger brother like me.

My sister had other partners. An absurdly tall guy who busted my balls before I was comfortable enough with him to appreciate it. A bearded computer programmer who drank a lot of Mountain Dew. An guy who flooded the bathroom when he showered at the house. The guy who turned out to be her husband who, quite thankfully, turned out to be the kindest, most balanced, funniest, and most stand-up guy of the bunch.

But for all of the people in between, and all of the passage of time, I suspect I’ll always remember Jim.

I caught glimpses of his relationship with my sister, always cognizant that what I saw was the tip of the iceberg--tidbits gleaned from when Jim hung out at the house or rode in my father’s car with us; half of conversations when my sister talked on the phone in the same room as me; and, rarest, but perhaps the most valuable, those moments in our respective teenage lives--me just entering that phase within the walls of junior high, her in the thick of high school and looking ahead to college--when she confided in me that the two of them had their own pet-words that they shared as a private language; when they performed together, him on guitar and vocals and her on viola in lieu of accordion to perform Nirvana’s “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” at the school pops concert; when I learned that they were kind of sort of engaged.

They came from different worlds. My sister a perpetual honors student and overachiever; Jim a kid who placed into gifted programs in his youth but was prone to skipping homework if not school altogether, and thus just made passing grades. My sister followed him into the percussion section of the marching band. Jim followed her into Model United Nations conferences and onto the yearbook staff.

The two of them got together, broke up, and got together a number of times. In between one such stint, I caught a sliver of conversation between my sister and one of her girl friends in which she questioned why she had wasted so much time with Jim when her new boyfriend was so much cuter.

I took offense. Not only on behalf of Jim, but all the more so for the fact that their relationship had represented a certain ideal--funny teenagers who were into alternative rock music, Monty Python, and Muppets in more or less equal proportions. They represented a kind of cool that I aspired too when, even then, I was conscious that they weren’t necessarily cool by conventional high school standards.

More than any of that, they had seemed happy together.

I tried to articulate all of that to my sister. She told me that I couldn’t understand then, with the implication that I would someday. And, to be fair, with the benefit of eighteen, nineteen years since, I have enough experience that I can understand what she meant; and enough of a nostalgic heart that I suppose I’ll never really agree with her sixteen-year-old self.

Jim and my sister got back together toward the end of high school, but broke up before they each started college, and I never saw him again. Anecdotally, I’ve heard he dropped out of school after a year or two. That he still played guitar for bands in my hometown. That he married, had a child, and divorced.

When I was home for Christmas one year, my father told me once that Jim had called the house. That he sounded drunk and was looking for my sister. That he had trouble understanding my sister didn’t live there anymore--that she hadn’t for over a decade. Later that Christmas night, I recall sitting at a friend’s house, sitting in the dark, sipping whiskey, watching the ever-changing lights of a fiber-optic tree. We chatted about old times, and when he got up to use the bathroom, and I became transfixed with the lights. I imagined myself like Jim, sitting in the same space I had ten, fifteen years earlier and wondering where the time and everyone I once knew had gone.

A year and a half or so later, my sister emailed me, my mother, and father to share that Jim had killed himself.

She expressed her uncertainty about whether she’d attend his funeral. She worked as a school teacher at that point, and was a week removed from starting up for the year. She could make the trip, but it would mean rushing to New York and back down to North Carolina in a flurry that would set her behind before she had even started the semester.

I went into over-eager mode. I offered that she could fly to Baltimore and I’d drive her back home from there, then drop her off at whatever airport she wanted to get back to her new home to ready herself for work. Though she was very kind and polite about it, I’m sure she recognized the plan was half-baked and declined.

One of my sister’s high school friends who had played music with Jim and off over the years started a project on Kickstarter, on which he’d record many of the old songs Jim had written, and weave in some surviving recordings of Jim himself singing. The project was fully funded and a few months later, I received my copy of the CD, complete with an old pencil sketch of Jim’s face that my sister had contributed for the liner notes.

I don’t expect my sister, much less I would have any meaningful relationship with Jim if he were still alive today, and it’s strange to think of that cool older kid, and know that I’m now older than he’ll ever be. Just the same, when I look back on those most awkward years in my life, Jim remains one of the brighter spots--a musician, a clown, and an unlikely friend.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Cassettes, CDs, Playlists

We called them dub tapes, because of the process of expertly pressing play on the right-hand cassette player, and the record and play buttons at the same time on the left side, dubbing what was played on one side, to be recorded on the other song-by-song to assemble individual, personalized audio cassettes.

My sister started making these mixes and, like so many creative endeavors, I followed her lead until the both of us brought these tapes to my grandmother’s house on Sunday evenings to showcase them on Grandma Jean’s stereo while we played Scrabble and Pinochle or worked on arts and crafts projects. I remember listening to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and Don McLean’s “American Pie” as back-to-back songs to close one of those early mixes and thinking that it sounded epic, and perfect, and far better than the component pieces could ever be as stand-alone tracks.

I started writing novels in high school and associated particular songs with particular scenes. One of the rewards at the end of each project was making a new mix as a soundtrack to each draft. Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be” was the love theme from Free Throw, backed by Matchbox 20’s “Girl Like That” for a montage of the protagonist preparing to ask out his love interest and Semisonic’s “This Will Be My Year” for the New Year’s scene in which they get together. I wrote a vampire novel with more greater intensity, anchored by Eagle Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight,” a novel about high school nerds featuring REM’s “Hope,” a novel about robots with music ranging from Lifehouse to Pat Benatar to the Indigo Girls to Creed.

I made mixes for girls. Sharing my music, embracing the mix CD as a bridge between self-expression and demonstrating an understanding of someone else by assembling a collection of songs she wouldn’t know but would like. Would adore, even, and by extension adore me. Such mixes achieved mixed results.

I started burning soundtracks to years. Compilations of music to mark the events of a year--the music I was listening to it various times in a year or that were introduced to me by different people, or that I remembered hearing at specific moments. An autobiography as told through the music other people made.

I made mix CDs to edit and write and layout by in the newspaper office in college and to listen to on my increasingly frequent road trips that came up after college as I aimed to stay in touch with people who were still at school, people at home, people who had moved to new but not unreasonably distant locales, and later on trips to review a cappella shows.

Indeed, time in the car became inextricably connected to music for me. Driving alone, I’d listen to new favorites, but also not hesitate to break out guilty pleasures from my youth--the Rod Stewart, the Kid Rock. And when I knew I would have passengers, I more often than not invested a few minutes in the car before I picked them up to plug in the CD I thought would best facilitate that particular ride.

And then I plotted a trip across the country to move from Baltimore, Maryland to Covallis, Oregon. I had the luxury of an excess of time, pay off from my excess of left over vacation days made it financially viable to rent a moving truck and hold onto it for ten days. A charted a course through the Midwest and north to Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Twin Falls in Idaho.

And, of course, I made mixes.

By then they were playlists. Not bound by 45-minute cassette sides or an 80-minute CD. The only real limitation was the capacity of my iPhone, but space was measured in gigabytes. I made some general playlists. Old favorites I rediscovered in the process of organizing and packing old CDs. New discoveries.

Around that time, Tom Petty had a new album coming out, Hypnotic Eye. Truth be told, it had been years since Petty released music that I much connected with, and though I suspected I would eventually check out the album, I didn’t feel especially compelled to download it for the drive. But amidst the press about the new album came a lot of reflection on Petty’s previous work. A career retrospective from Grantland. A countdown of his top tracks on any number of music sites.

I remembered a childhood growing up on Full Moon Fever. Choreographing a lip sync routine to “I Won’t Back Down.” Writing a song that was a pretty transparent rip off of “Apartment Song.” Listening to Wildflowers in high school, and singing “You Don’t Know How It Feels” at open mic nights in college. The dozens of other Petty tracks I’d encountered over the years.

I set to ripping old CDs and to downloading. Over the course of an hour or so, I relived roughly 30 years of material to arrive at a personalized playlist of all of my favorite songs from the Petty catalog, arranged to ebb and flow, front loaded with Americana rock along the lines of “American Girl,” “Saving Grace,” and “You Wreck Me,” dipping down to “A Face in the Crowd,” closing on the one-two punch of “Here Comes My Girl” and “Learning To Fly.” To my ear, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are synonymous with traveling music, and as such, I wound up with 90 minutes of perfect songs to speed across highways and rouse myself on moonlit country roads.

I’ve never been much of a musician, as much as I’ve tried to be one now and again, and as much as I’ve written about other people’s music. Making these mixes is my gateway to that world--the songwriter, the singer, the dude who shreds it on his electric guitar. I can take the work and, in a small way, make it my own. Codify it. Tell a new story.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Landing On Earth

I did not jump out of a plane.

That was the story I intended to tell when I booked my skydiving excursion. But truth be told, when I was strapped to the professional skydiver, Steve, poised at the edge of the plane, he offered me one last reminder not to jump, not to slide, not to push off. To let him do everything.

The plane itself was rickety, old, and rusted out, with just enough cargo room for two pairs of tandem divers. In recounting the experience, I’ve always told friends that this was the most frightening part—taking flight in a vehicle that seemed so unsure of itself, like the engine might give out at any moment, long before we reached an altitude at which a parachute would do any good.

There was one other comparably terrifying part. The moment at which the first pair of divers tumbled from plane--theoretically a dive but more of a graceless fall from the doorway out into nothingness.

When Steve pushed us off from the plane, everything spun. I had imagined the dive as more of a flat fall--like belly flopping off a diving board. Instead, our bodies whirled like a discus. Nausea set in within seconds. I’ve never been good with these sudden turn-turn-turns.

When spinning stopped, I remembered to scream. This was what I remembered above everything else I had read in advance about skydiving. That screaming was not only reasonable and a socially acceptable expression of fear and excitement in the context of freefall, but actively practical as a way forcing air out of the lungs. Inhaling is easy when air pushes into your every cavity at terminal velocity. Exhaling requires effort.

Steve didn’t scream. He calmly reached forward, pressed a gloved hand to my forehead, and pushed my head back against his shoulder, my brow to his cheek.

We reached the critical point when it was appropriate for Steve to activate the parachute. We went from horizontal to vertical and in this part of the fall, it was easier to hear one another (in part because I had stopped screaming). At this point, he reminded me of the banana-shape I was supposed to have curled my body into during that initial fall—that I was supposed to have had my head back the whole time, and to have kicked back my legs to curl into his body—a more aerodynamic formation, besides which, when I instinctively curled my head forward, I made it harder for him to see where we were going.

I remember listening to this lecture as we started to spin again, less like a discus, more of a tandem pirouette in the sky. I felt vomit bubble to the back of my throat and choked it back down.

We landed on solid ground without incident. I remembered the correct position for my body this time, legs kicked out, and we hit the dirt of the field in a motion like sliding into home base.

Safe.

After it all, I returned to the skydiving office area where I had watched my safety video and had both learned and forgotten the banana position. Where I had waited for my name to be called. I waited again, longer this time, for my name to come up again, to collect a CD full of pictures from the experience. It dawned on me that there was every possibility these pictures may be more impactful than the experience itself. That my experience in the air had, in total, lasted less than twenty minutes. That it hadn’t fundamentally changed me, in the ways I had intellectually knew it probably wouldn’t, but had nonetheless hoped it might.

Two years later, I look back at that as a microcosm for so much of my life. I write about these moments in order to extend them. To remember reading the waiver that warned me skydiving had a particularly high risk of causing death, the moment when I asked Steve how many jumps he had made before (a reassuring “I don’t even know. Probably over a hundred by now”), the bruises that the harness left over my shoulders, the car sickness that compounded my nausea during the bumpy van ride over a private road from the field back to the office, and besides all of that, the realization after it was all over that I had just survived the longest fall from the greatest height of my life.

I write the words and everything before, and most particularly during the fall rushes to me. One hundred twenty miles per hour. Spinning. Dropping. The weight of the earth beneath my feet again.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hide and Seek

When I was little, I was frightened by people.

In one of my earliest memories, my father took me with him to a bank—past the lobby and the tellers, into a back office for some manner of business—opening or closing an account, or making some sort of major transaction.. He sat in a brown leather-bound chair and spoke to a man behind a desk. I crouched to hide behind my chair. When the man got up and stepped out, I circled the chair and sat down. When he returned, I hid again.

I understood that he could see me. I remember hearing him make a comment about it being just he and my father in the meeting in such an over the top way that it was obvious, even to me, that he saw me. Just the same, I stayed hidden and followed my father out of the office, refusing to make eye contact with the banker.

It wasn’t just people that frightened me, though. I recall sitting in the backseat when we ran the car through the automated car wash in which water sprayed from all directions and big rubber flaps swung into the windshields with loud thuds. I cowered in the back, covering my face with each collision. Despite past experience and my fledgling sense of logic that my risk averse father wouldn’t put the car in a position imminent risk, much less risk each of our lives, on a gut level, I couldn’t get past my suspicion that those flaps, or the buffers that came after them would crash through the glass and not only soak but crush me.

Years a passed--a few of them, anyway. I went to school and got used to spending time around people outside my family. I didn’t hide behind chairs anymore, or from most inanimate objects. I visited my friend Pat’s house, and we played hide and seek in his backyard.

He hid first. I spotted him standing around the corner from me, against his house, and as I approached and prepared to declare that I discovered him, he ran, spinning around me and darting back to where, moments earlier, I had covered my eyes and counted.

I told him I hadn’t played hide and seek like that. Indeed, the only setting in which I had previously played hide and seek had been at my grandmother’s house, in games for which my grandmother, my sister, and I were the only ones in play. Our games didn’t involve speed and chases. They were about the cunning of finding a good hiding space and the battle of wits required to discover another player’s hiding space. They were about the inevitable congratulations on finding the people doing the hiding, in a game designed for two fairly sensitive kids, an old woman’s house full of fragile trinkets, and to accommodate a seventy-plus year old woman with a bad hip.

Pat and I played the next round--the one in which I hid--by the rules I was accustomed to. When he found me within seconds, hidden behind one of two fir trees in the yard, I had to admit that it felt a little anticlimactic.

But then, perhaps that’s the nature of hiding. We do it as children when our grandparents’ houses and backyard play spaces feel like expansive spaces, full of untold nooks, crannies, and imaginative potential. We see it in movies when the serial killer stalks her prey. But in my real, adult life the most dramatic hiding I can recall doing has been to dodge an awkward run-in at a cocktail party, or to stay out of sight in produce department when I’ve spied a work colleague and I was unshowered and wearing sweatpants.

But these are the exceptions, not the rules.

I suppose as an adult, I’ve gone to parties to be seen, readings and conferences to network, made presentations to be heard. Shared my life in blogs and social media. I suppose now I’m more likely to want to be found than to get lost. More likely to want to be seen than to hide.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

At the Park

The park was dead in winter, when I returned home for Christmas, and killed a quiet, lonely evening, driving past old haunts. The house where my grandmother used to live. The old school. The shopping mall. The park.

Always the park.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen it in winter. In my youth, Mike and I took any number of ill-advised trips there. On unseasonably warm days, when the temperatures climbed into the forties, and we checked to see if the snow had melted from the basketball court (it hadn't). The visits when we would shoot hoops anyway, desperately chasing errant shots off the rim in hopes of catching it before it landed in the slush that lined the perimeter of the court, that threatened to make winter basketball even worse. We played until our hands were red and numb, beneath the usual speckled layers of black filth that came with street ball.

But rarely had we ventured to the park in December, a time too early in the winter to really pine for the outdoors just yet, and a time when we were distracted enough by the winter holidays not to feel a need to brave the elements.

I walked across the basketball court from beneath one hoop to the other. On of them crooked, tilted ten degrees, far enough to throw off inexperienced players. I walked past enclaves and bumps in the pavement. All of these details that kept it from resembling a regulation basketball court. The details that made it mine. That made me feel more at home there any hardwood gymnasium floor, and that made me competitive--better, even--than visitors to my home court. I read basketball memoirs and articles from the newspaper, and learned about the Celtics’ infamous Parquet Floor with its dead spots, nooks, and crannies, and fancied this court my own imperfect kingdom.

Throughout my high school years I wasted what easily could have been hundreds of spring, summer, and fall afternoons there. Mike and I went to the park when he started to feel the itch of wanting to get away from hoop in his driveway, where his parents could watch lovingly from the kitchen window. Sometimes we shot around on our own. Other times, we met neighborhood kids there and engaged in games of two-on-two, three-on-three, every-man-for-himself “Twenty-One” or “Rock.”

And I shot alone. An escape from the house. From homework. From my budding obsession with writing. I practiced free throws and imagined some aging expert watching me ,respecting my work ethic, and offering to take me under my wing as though I were Daniel LaRusso to his Mr. Miyagi. Or, in my fanciest flights, that an undercover NBA scout who scoured municipal courts might stumble upon me, and recognize some appreciable talent and whisk me away to fame and fortune.

Some of these fantasies translated themselves to my writing. I had, by middle school, started carrying a smushed wad of three or four folded up sheets of paper in my pocket at all times, and a ballpoint pen. After I had played for an hour or two, it wasn’t unusual for me to retreat to the pavilion, across the lawn where other guys played football or kicked around a soccer ball every now and again. I would sit in the shade and write a page or two. Of my basketball novel. Of short stories. Of poetry.

This was the same pavilion where my parents had hosted one of my teenage birthday parties and a de facto graduation party, after my father won a six-foot sub on a radio call-in contest and decided that offering it up to group of teenage boys would be the most efficient way of disposing of it. The pavilion that hosted live polka bands in the summer. The pavilion where a friend and I had disposed of nudy magazines we bartered for school, after we got cold feet about getting caught and decided to get rid of them.

In December, the pavilion remained open, but the scattered dozen picnic tables were all covered in blue plastic--meager protection against winter winds and snow drifts.

I retraced my steps across the snow, fortunate to have found a path without any hidden ice or puddles beneath it. Back to the court where I remembered George. He was ten years younger than me lived in a house just off the park. He would keep me company shooting hoops. A few times, I tried to teach him to shoot, and tried to ask him about his school life, fancying myself a big brother figure. More often than he succumbed to my lessons, he would steal the ball after I had bounce passed it to him, and run away, forcing me to chase him in a makeshift game of tag, dragging me down to his maturity level, rather than letting me bask in my age and experience.

On other occasions, when Mike was around, too, we would tell George raunchy jokes. Curse around him. Never pick on him per se, but just as purposefully talk over his head as we kept the ball in the air above his head and away from him. One time, after we had been particularly foul in concocting hybrid profanities, George went back to his house, and his father came out to talk to us. Scraggly beard, potbelly, gap-toothed, and speaking in a slow drawl that sounded vaguely southern. “You know, boys, kids George’s age can be impressive.” We told him we understood, and apologized, and as soon as he was out of earshot, laughed at just how impressive kids could be.

That winter night, I traced my footsteps back across the basketball court and back to the road. I could have walked all the way home, not more than ten minutes away. But I had my car there by the curb. One last look, and I was back on the road.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Stories from Workshop

This post is for the writers.

I’ve considered myself a writer since long before I probably had any right to--when I concocted stories derivative of the video games I played and the shows I watched on TV, scrawling them longhand on the gridded pads of paper my mother brought home from work.

But I consider my life as a writer to have started more in earnest when I started participating in writing workshops.

Writing workshops encapsulate so much of the writing life. The need to generate material, and to have it in presentable form by a deadline. The audience of amateur critics plus one professional--the teacher who has graduated from this model, and who is now deemed fit to run the asylum. Some encouragement. A lot more criticism, some of it on point, some of it just pointed; some of it constructive; some of it, from what I can gather, based in nothing more than an interest in tearing down another aspiring writer so she won’t dream she’s more accomplished than you.

I don’t mean to suggest that people who haven’t participated in writing workshops aren’t real writers--that’s not only elitist, but just plain inaccurate. But for me, it was the workshop model more than any other that pushed my craft, sharpened my aesthetic, and lent me a sense of working within a community of writers.

I’ve experienced workshops now in my undergrad, two graduate programs, and another grad program in which I back-doored my way into some classes. I've also led workshops for college undergraduates, ex-offenders and teenagers. I learned from each of these experiences, and I found that the workshops yielded some stories in their own right.

Here are three.

Ruination

“The problem is that real people don’t talk like that,” Richard said. He parted his hair anachronistically, like one of the guys from Mad Men, and wore a friendship bracelet his girlfriend from his dorm had woven for him, and sported jeans that were frayed at their cuffs, and one in a rotation of band t-shirts--this day was Sublime. He picked up Cherise’s story and read in the flattest monotone. “You ain’t know me, bitch. I oughta beat you silly.”

“So, it doesn’t feel authentic to you.” Angela did her job--assistant professor and moderator of these discussions about aesthetic, verisimilitude, and syntax.

“I agree.” Nisha crossed her legs. She was an Indian woman who couldn’t have stood more than five-feet tall but compulsively wore heels in all weather. “It’s like she’s trying to appropriate language from people she’s never actually been around.”

From what I can recall, the story in question--a family drama that culminated in a stepfather and teenage stepdaughter cursing each other out, and the young woman taking her five-year-old brother away from the house for his protection--got a thrashing in workshop, and not an altogether undeserved one. The author, Rita, a woman with puffy blond hair, round features, and perennially rosy cheeks had stared down each participant in the bashing, then stared at her notebook and ceased any pretense of taking notes in favor digging her ballpoint pen into the page, threatening to bore all the way through that and the remaining sheets, through the cardboard backing, and into the oak table beneath it.

And it was that comment that took her from passive rage to an explosion. That comment from Nisha--who so rarely contributed to the workshop conversation, and spoke in a quiet, high-pitched voice--after which Rita broke the cardinal rule of most workshops: that the writer herself shall not speak.

“This all happened! This all happened! This all happened!” She spoke the words in a rhythm, pounding the side of her fist against the table in time. By the fourth iteration, the first tears streaked her cheeks.

When the rhythm broke, Angela made an effort. “Sometimes, real-life experiences inform our fiction.” She spoke more slowly than I’d ever heard her before. The voice of a negotiator trying to talk down someone with a bomb strapped to her chest. “And sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. But that means it’s the author’s job to use the real-life experience, and craft it in a way that it will read as true for the readers.”

“This all happened,” Rita said one more time.

And I witnessed one of my own great fears, realized. Not only that a piece of writing I felt proud of would get shredded by a jury of my peers, but that my actual experiences might fall under scrutiny. That I would be made less--as a writer and a human being.

I saw the ruination the workshop could bring upon someone.

Though, to be fair, I also thought Rita’s story was awful.

Cutting the Drama

A fairly typical workshop convention: after everyone has read a writer’s work, before the group discusses it, the author reads an excerpt to refresh the workshop’s memory about what everyone is talking about, and to breathe some new life into a work by hearing the work, literally, in the author’s own voice--paced the way it was intended, ideally capturing an essence of the prose only the author really knows.

Kathleen didn’t settle for reading. She performed.

Her first-person narrator had already lost her daughter to a miscarriage and was in the process of, by degrees losing the husband who rarely spoke to her--who abstractly blamed her for the loss and for her absence of libido and for, in the scene she read, refusing to do the dishes even after her husband cooked the entire stir-fry dinner himself.

I’m so sorry, the narrator thought, but could not say. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. But I’m broken. Everything is broken. Please, won’t you come and fix me?

Kathleen’s voice trembled. I needed to look closely to confirm she wasn’t actually crying..

There were dramatic pauses between paragraphs. Deep sighs. A whimper. When she finished, the room hesitated to speak, uncertain if she might go on, uncertain if this were fiction or we were privy to an uncomfortable new truth.

And in that silence, the last fluttering breath settled. And Anish bit into an apple.

The crispest, most casual and apathetic of bites, apple juice spraining an inch from every direction of his mouth. All eyes turned to him. His buddy, Tony snorted and did his best to stifle a chuckle. Too late, as the uncomfortable laughter spread like wildfire, until Kathleen herself, still red in the face, laughed, and we all knew it would be all right.

The Fight

It was one of those workshop sessions.

They aren’t common, but if you take enough workshops you’re bound to come upon at least one. The discussion begins and, right or wrong, takes a turn for the negative. And despite what workshop etiquette would suggest about the author remaining silent, she can’t contain her thoughts on the conversation.

“Did any of you really read this?” Annette asked.

The room was a mix of nods and scrunched up faces of confusion.

“My cousin read it, and it made sense. I didn’t have to explain it to her. How could it not make sense to you?”

It was a riddle embedded in the story--as best I could tell, the whole story had been a riddle, in which cats mewed on a beach represented someone’s dead grandfather, and his spirit had risen in line with the background Creole folklore. “Obviously.”

The workshop continued. A hesitant, stuttering conversation in which some parties tried to justify their point of view, others ignored the outburst, and the overwhelming majority of students looked down at their manuscripts, either trying to determine if they had missed something (they hadn’t) or avoiding eye contact. Unfortunately, that last group included the instructor, Jim, thus ensuring a lack of any meaningful resolution.

The next time Jim spoke, in fact, was to offer a last call for comments before we turned back to Annette to ask about any unresolved questions from the workshop discussion. This is the point at which Jenny raised her hand.

“I’d like to complain,” she said. “A workshop depends on the author trusting the class and listening to what we have to say. When someone isn’t mature enough to listen to feedback, why should we bother reading her story.”

“Then don’t bother.” Annette pointed her finger from a space of two seats away. I occupied one of the desks in between them. “I sat through your story, I thought you could read mine.”

“I did read yours. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

And they were on their feet. First Annette, then Jenny leaning and then stepping toward each other as the argument turned shrill and less focused on writing. Dorian, who occupied the other desk next to me, in between the women, put on his teacher’s voice--he taught eighth grade English during the day--saying, “Ladies, let’s have a seat.”

Resorting to the tactics I used at a volunteer gig, where fifth graders regularly cursed out one another and threatened to brawl, I stood in between them--far from barrel chested, but broad and tall enough to block their view of another and offer a second of disruption. “Why don’t we all listen to Jim?” I deflected. When they went on I said it again. Louder. Almost at a yell myself as I motioned a hand toward Jim.

And remarkably, both women did. The space settled back into a classroom with the teacher at it’s center, and we listened to Jim, the brilliant novelist who read student work carefully but had rarely demonstrated a real grasp on classroom management or watching the clock carefully enough to keep our night class from running fifteen minutes over on a regular basis.

“It’s good to have passion for your work. Both as a writer and a critic,” he said. “And it’s important that we all respect each other.” I waited for more. For him to weave some profound lesson from the mayhem, or to offer a formal reprimand about people needing to conduct themselves as adults. “Let’s all pass our manuscripts to Annette and take a five minute break.”

The class moved on. No further war of words and no punches thrown. And it occurred to me that maybe ignoring the problem had been the right decision. After break we were on to a new story, the only sign of the previous tension Annette’s sharp inhales and exhales, and her not contributing that discussion. She breathed as loudly as an elephant in the room.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

In My Twenties

For this post, I’m breaking from my more traditional format of reflecting on my life through stories, and resorting my next favorite device—a list.

As I write these words, I’m 32 years old. I have few illusions about being old or particularly wise, but I do feel that I have the benefit of perspective from which to reflect on a key period of my life when I, in earnest, transitioned from childhood to adulthood.

So, without further ado, here are twenty things I did in my twenties, and what I got from it.

1. I graduated. I mentioned above a transition from childhood to adulthood. Such movements are subtle, inexact, and happen more in steps than isolated moments. My time in college moved me along toward being a grown up. I had my first supervisory roles over my summer work at CTY and for my junior and senior years of college, I oversaw staffs of forty or so other undergrads at the newspaper. I worked shifts as a writing tutor on campus and behind the counter at McDonald’s when I got home.

All of these experienced primed me for adulthood, but I’d argue I didn’t really get there until graduation—at 21 years old I completed a year-long creative writing senior thesis project, delivered a speech at the commencement ceremony and headed off into the world--in that moment, facing the revelation of how little everything up to that point meant to prospective employers and a more global community beyond the campus perimeter. “Getting over” my four years of college may have been harder than any breakup, death, or other form of loss I’ve experienced. But I came out the other side better for having done it.

2. I revised. My senior year of high school, I drafted a novel called Meddletown, a nearly-four-hundred-page speculative work about a city in which android robots that were programmed to physically grow over a normal human lifetime replaced actual human beings. It was an ambitious project, for sure.

And it sucked.

I put Meddletown aside for nearly five years because I had faith that it was a project worth pursuing and the maturity to recognize I wasn’t yet a skilled enough writer to do it justice. So, for pockets of time throughout my twenties, I picked up the charge—first in the year after I finished college, and again for my first couple years in Baltimore.

3. I let go. For a number of years, I felt Meddletown might be my ticket to fame and fortune as an author. Hell, there are still times when the old story comes back to me and I think I might have something.

But not yet. I revised and re-wrote, and with each draft of Meddletown, at least three full-fledged overhauls in my twenties, I remained certain I still didn’t have it right. At it’s core the story remained too convoluted, with too many holes, with problematic prose, and more than Band-aid solutions at stake.

So, for the time being, I let it go. After doing so, I crafted two other novels, a novella, and about twenty to thirty short stories of varying quality. I haven’t yet regretted letting “the one” cool off, perhaps for me to come back to some day, and perhaps for me to release altogether.,

4. I forgave. Regular readers of this blog know that I have some issues resulting from my childhood relationship with my father. And truth be told, the older I get, the more I realize that parts of those early life dynamics remain a core part of me—of my idiosynchrasies, insecurities, my good habits and my bad ones.

But for all the pain I’d harbored around all the instances of feeling devalued and bullied and scolded, I discovered the monster of my childhood to be, like most people I’ve ever feared or suspected I might hate, just another human being doing the best that he knew how at the time. And I forgave him.

5. I fell in love. If you had asked me at any given moment in middle school, high school or early college, I probably would have told you I was in love with someone. I was prone to crushes and infatuations and getting way too invested in way too many situations that would never amount to anything of substance.

In my twenties, the narrative shifted. I started to have relationships that lasted more than a few weeks, but rather stretched into periods of years. They were rooted more in friendship and real experiences than fantasy. They were, by and large, healthier. They were real.

And along the way, I learned one of the least logical and perhaps most patently obvious lessons about love that I like to think most of us stumble upon at one time or another: it’s most likely to happen--to really happen--not when you want it, seek it, or pursue it, but rather when your mind is somewhere else and life happens.

6. I failed. A half year out of college, I decided to launch Preston Burns: Life Unlimited, a fictional blog, updated on a daily basis that told the story of the man facets of a college students life. The experience of writing this blog was cathartic, for reimagining so many stories rooted in my own college years. It was valuable, too, for the degree to which it got me writing regularly and ruthlessly to accumulate material and advance stories--habits that were invaluable the further I got from college, when more and more of the responsibility was on me to motivate my own writing and creative processes, and when other real-life obligations weighed in more and more steadily.

All of that said, the project was an objective flop. On its very best days, when I bugged friends that they really ought to read, and invested time and money into advertising, I flirted with the 100 unique visitors line. By my best estimates, I had about a dozen regular readers, all of them friends or acquaintances.

And though I had felt invested in the project and a had fairly concrete plans to see through the project all the way through four years of undergrad, and sketchy outlines of how the plot might carry on for another couple years after that, there came a time to cut my losses. I recognized that for all of its benefits, the blog was sucking time and resources from my more serious attempts at fiction that I considered my top priority (even when I wasn’t treating them as such), from my musings about a cappella that were starting to get some traction, and all of the other odd-ball projects percolating in the back of my mind. So, after Two years, three months, I closed up shop on Preston Burns.

7. I rooted down. At the age of 22, I conceived of The A Cappella Blog. When I was 23, I launched the website with my best friend. In the years to follow, we traveled up and down the east coast and into the Midwest to cover various competitions and shows. We hosted two events. We self-published a book about a cappella music. Partnering with another close friend, we gave the site a new, more professional design.

There were plenty of times at which I thought the ACB might be a short-term project. We had our share of hecklers, questioning our content and credentials. There were questions of whether we could produce enough content and if the relationship I was involved in at the inception of the site--with a former a cappella singer who had introduced me to the form--could co-exist with a site she seemed to resent.

Nine-and-a-half year later, though, the site is still up and running. And though my move to Oregon and the pay cut I took to go to grad school full time have slowed the site, we have, nonetheless, enstated our little blog as one of the best established, best known publications in the field. And I’ll maintain that much of the site’s success, like success in many different facets of life, came from a continued insistence on showing up, working, and committing to the task at hand.

8. I said goodbye.I’ve written about Grandma Jean on this site a number of times. As a quick summary, she was a benevolent soul who embraced and encouraged my imagination and passions, gave generously of her time, offered the best gifts at Christmas time and is, in so many ways, the person I consider most responsible for my turning out to be a reasonably high functioning adult.

As I neared the end of my teenage years, my grandmother was fading. Her memory failed her and she would fall asleep in the middle of card games. She had a stroke.

There came a time when I had to recognize that she wasn’t entirely the same woman I’d grown up with. I still spent time with her, visiting in her new dwelling in a nursing home where her dementia rooted down and she lost weight. But the roles reversed and on these visits, I became the caretaker and the one to humor inane ramblings.

It’s one of the my great regrets that, during a time when I only lived about an hour away from my grandmother, I only visited her once every two or three months. When I look back on all she did for me, my failure to return the favor seems, at best, ungrateful, and, at worst, cruel.

But I do take some solace in knowing that that’s probably how she would have wanted it--that she wouldn’t have wanted to have been anyone’s burden, and that she would have wanted for me to live my life to the fullest.

Grandma Jean passed not so long after I had moved to Baltimore. I happened to be traveling through New York when it happened, and was able to come back for her wake--an understated affair in which my parents, my uncle John and I were the only ones in attendance. I held her hand as she lay in her casket. Kissed her cheek and said goodbye.

9. I moved. I never intended to live my life in Upstate New York. Not that it’s such a bad place, but I wanted to see more of the world and had vague aspirations of heading to California.

I didn’t make any moves that were quite so radical in my twenties, but I did head down the east coast to Baltimore, to my first residence outside New York State, and the farthest from my hometown that I had ever laid down any roots. The transition was tough at first, as the realities of such a move settled in--a long distance relationship, yes, but also much longer trips to get home for holidays, and having to make harder decisions about whether it were worth my while to drive twelve hours round trip for friends’ birthdays and performances and big moments.

I’m happy to have made the transition, though. While there will come a time when I intend to stay some place longer than six and a half years--to really settle down—I’m glad not to have accepted the easy route of inertia, staying put for the sake of the ease of being around the people and places I already knew. Moving to Baltimore facilitated travel to locations all over the east coast, into the Midwest, and several week-or-two stints in California, not to mention preparing me for the first move of my thirties, across the country to Oregon.

10. I read. I’ve thought of myself as a writer since childhood, and while I had perpetually heard the advice that great writers needed to be great readers, I don’t know that I ever truly bought in. I had periods in my elementary, middle, and high school years when I loved reading, most often when I found particular books, series, or authors that I loved, but I was rarely all that consistent in my consumption. Moreover, when college set in, and I had a steady stream of books to read for my English and sociology double major, I had a hard time feeling compelled to read much outside school--if I finished a book or two over the summer, I had some sense of accomplishment.

Without school hanging over my head, in my twenties, I recognized the importance of routinizing for myself. Staying in the habit of writing came more naturally to me. Reading was more challenging. So I started to read in the mornings over breakfast. Then between sets at the gym. While I waited for buses and trains. As a warm up before I wrote. I set a modest goal of reading at least one book a month, then as I felt the simultaneous lure of literary volumes and more pop lit, I started reading two books at once--one from each loosely defined genre, and recalibrated to read at least two books per month.

I wasn’t going to read one hundred pages a day, consistently read a book a week, or make it through every great novel in a year. The moral of this aspect of my story was that if you have something you know you should do that isn’t immediately appealing, there’s little better approach than to figure out a sustainable system and just plain do it.

11. I embraced a passion. I’m a huge pro wrestling nerd. There, I said it.

But I wouldn’t have said it through my late teen years and early twenties. My lifetime has spanned a pretty interesting period for wrestling fanship. My boyhood, when being a wrestling fan would be most socially acceptable, happened to coincide with one of the wrestling’s biggest boom periods, making it not only cool, but awesome to be a wrestling fan. Everybody knew Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and The Ultimate Warrior, and there was no shame professing my love of them. And then, as I reached the age when folks grew out of wrestling, the business as a whole took a downturn, thus making it particularly uncool to be into it. All of this happened, only for another turn to occur in my high school years--the rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and The nWo that made wrestling cool again. Similarly, this period passed and, throughout my college years, I became a mostly closeted wrestling fan who spent study breaks secretively reading recaps of what had happened on the last episode of Monday Night Raw, and whenever anyone caught me watching any wrestling in real time, I passed off my interest as nostalgia.

But in my mid-twenties, something shifted. I kept my fanship close to the vest when I moved to Baltimore, and watched WrestleMania 24 alone in my apartment. And I decided that I was ready for more.

I started writing weekly wrestling columns for one of my favorite sites, 411Mania. And I started openly talking about my fanship with other guys in the office who had expressed inklings of interest. I made a pilgrimage to Houston for WrestleMania 25, and for the five years to follow, I hosted WrestleMania viewing parties at my apartment, drawing together casual fans and people who were, at best, curious, for a night that everyone seemed to enjoy, almost in spite of themselves.

I’m not as forthcoming about my love for wrestling as I was when I was a child--fully aware of all of the preconceived notions about someone who watches a product so full oversized musclemen rolling around on a mat half-naked together, or the misogyny that’s been so integral to much of the business’s past. But for all its limitations and stigmas, I also won’t deny this passion any more, and coming to terms with it was one of the best things I did for myself in my twenties.

12. I rebuilt. When I look back at my childhood, I tend to remember my Grandma Jean as my favorite person to spend time with; a title that transferred to my best friend Mike in my teenage years. But if I’m going to be more objective about it, in my youth I don’t know that there was anyone I was really closer to than my sister, Diane.

In our childhood, we constructed elaborate worlds in which our cast of stuffed animals played (probably too) well-defined parts. We made hand-written magazines together, watched movies together, and were the best companions either of us had to offer on our largely miserable thrice a year family road trips to visit our Chinese grandparents in New York City.

Just the same, at heart, we’re both relatively private people--thus our teenage years grew especially insular as the both of us closed our bedroom doors more often, and grew closer to friends outside the house than each other. Then Diane headed off to college and made no bones about spending as little time back home as she reasonably could.

We still spent Christmases together, and the occasional odd-ball occasion when she would find herself home, but after I left for college and she moved to Chicago our time together grew scarcer still.

I can imagine an alternate universe in which we stayed apart, or drifted even further.

And I’m glad I don’t live in it.

I’d be lying if I said that my sister and I were as close as we once were, or that we talk all the time. But after her wedding, and after a spring break trip to Chicago, and after she moved back to the east coast, we did start seeing each other at least couple times a year, which usually involved me staying at her house for at least a couple nights, with some phone calls and emails sprinkled in between. I’m grateful that, in my twenties, we were able to rebuild some semblance of relationship, and moreover that I’ve gotten to spend time with her husband and her in-laws to the point that they now feel more like extended family than friendly acquaintances. But it didn’t just happen. It was a process. And I’m glad that we took steps to make it happen.

13. I saved. There are many ways in which I have been lucky when it comes to money, or, to use one of the buzzwords of the day, privileged. Case in point, three of the biggest financial turns in my life happened with minimal intentionality on my part:

-When I got my first job at the age of sixteen, folding sweaters at a discount clothing store, my father opened a Roth IRA retirement savings account for me.

-I put off going to grad school. Had I gone straight out of undergrad, without an assistantship or financial aid (which was the road I came precipitously close to walking down) I would have accrued pure, unadulterated debt. Eleven years later, I’m closing in on finishing my second graduate degree, neither of which I had to pay for.

-My first job out of college--and, to be up front, the only job offered to me at the time--was a live-in residence life position. The salary was minimal, but with a roof over my head and utilities included, plus a meal plan to take care of close to half of my food, I had the opportunity to put away more than half of what I was making.

I got lucky in the three aforementioned incidents, and I don’t write about that to brag but rather to suggest that there are similar paths that others might emulate. If you know a young person, challenge them to start saving for retirement absurdly early (or if you aren’t doing so already, what are you waiting for?). Consider holding out on funding for grad school. And if you can find opportunities that you can stomach to save on living expenses, by all means do so.

In my twenties, I was set up with the foundation of savings, and I did everything I felt was reasonable to further that path. I contributed as much as I felt comfortable contributing to my Roth IRA every year. And when my next employer offered a 403B retirement account on top of that, I arranged for modest automatic payroll deductions to go there, too—money I never had and thus would never miss, and that I never had to think about.

I won’t claim to have lived a Spartan lifestyle throughout my twenties. As other items on this list suggest, I traveled, and there were times when I indulged. Just the same, I also brown-bagged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch better than eighty percent of the time, at an estimated cost of a dollar for every two sandwiches. Outside special occasions, I paid attention to the cost of my meals and the cost of my drinks.

Saving isn’t necessarily fun, but in my early thirties, I look back on it as one of the best habits I forged in my twenties.

14. I routinized my writing. For the overwhelming majority of my twenties, I worked in office jobs. Sometimes they adhered to a 9-5-ish schedule. But working in residence life and planning summer programs, there were also quite a few points in each year when that schedule burgeoned to consume ten-to-fifteen hours of a day. For someone who liked to call himself a writer, it’s not hard to see that those days didn’t afford a wealth of time for my own work.

Thus, routinization became key. I espoused brief, but regular bursts of creativity. Aiming to write for half an hour a day. Or for five hundred words. Or, during those busiest periods, to at least write or revise a paragraph.

One of the lessons I learned--that I suppose most writers learn at one point or another--is that you can’t necessarily depend on inspiration or wait for the ideal circumstances under which to be creative. More often, I needed to seize on any opportunity, and simply get to work. Some days were better than others, and I won’t deny that there were times when I went a few days without meaningfully writing, when I was simply too busy at work or with travel or with company from out of town.

But I got back to it.

In my twenties, writing was all about making time and making things happen.

15. I published. I self-published two novels in the fledgling stages of my writing career, at the ages of 17 and 19. The experience felt good at the time, and I’m still proud of the sheer volume of writing I produced at that age. Just the same, as I progressed into the late stages of college and into adulthood, I recognized that publishing without any meaningful editorial standards wasn’t really the same as the accomplishment of being selected for publication.

I sent a few stories to journals during my first years out of undergrad, and started submitting more aggressively after I had moved to Baltimore and more specifically as I made headway in the MA program at Hopkins. I accumulated my share of rejections, until I reached a point when I wondered if I really could consider myself a serious writer if I couldn’t get anything published.

But then it happened. In the least likely of circumstances, I had a poem I had written in college and only recently revised accepted for publication in an online-only journal. I won’t claim that publication opportunities started flowing steadily after that point, but I was pleased to see that the longer and harder I worked at it, the more publications I saw, and that before I turned thirty I had added six short story publication credits to my name.

Publications are not the be all, end all of being a writer, but in my twenties, I did get a foot hold in that world via modest publications in small journals--a record I’m eager to improve upon in my thirties.

16. I lived with a cat. Excluding a less-than-a-year period when we kept fish as a child, I never had a pet. My father didn’t like messes. My mother was allergic to most any fur imaginable. Thus, the closest I came to caring for an animal was feeding a friend’s dog, and letting her out into the backyard to relieve herself when his family was on vacation for a week in high school.

But when I moved to Baltimore, so many of the people in my life had cats. When they went out of town, I started getting requests to house and cat sit, and, by the end of each stint, started to form connections with the little buggers.

Then, a friend who was house sitting for a professor asked if I would take in her cat for a nine-month period.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I fell in love with Archie. He waited by the door each day when I came home from work and rubbed against my legs, following me around the apartment until I picked him up, and so I took to opening the door each evening and picking him up first thing, hugging him close and listening to him purr as I wrested off my bag and my coat and started removing food from the refrigerator to make dinner. He was my companion while I wrote and read and watched TV.

I didn’t have to deal with much in the way of hard times with Archie. He never needed veterinary care while he lived under my roof and never broke anything too valuable. And while I did sneeze more while he was around, he didn’t affect my allergies so badly. Thus, I’ve always surmised that I got the best parts of having a cat and didn’t have to face the worst. I also fear that the relationship I forged with Archie will mean that any other cat-friend relationship I may embark on in the future will pale in comparison.

All of that said, living with a cat was good for me. It made me consistently put someone else’s needs ahead of my own, whether it was carrying him around the apartment, holding him still to clip his claws, or getting up at five in the morning to answers his calls to be fed. It wrested me from my self-absorbed obsession with the stories I was trying to write. And it resulted in hundreds of adorable cat photos that I still turn back to every now again.

17. I worked on my body. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I was about the skinniest boy I’ve ever known. And it’s not that I didn’t eat—as best I can tell, I just had an overactive metabolism (and, to be fair, in my late teenage years I started running). In any event, I headed off to college standing 6’1” and weighing all of 130 pounds.

On account of my waif-like physique, I never felt a need to pay much attention to my diet. I drank a lot of Mountain Dew. I ate a lot of cookies, chips, and Pop Tarts.

I aspired to a more muscular physique. As a big fan of pro wrestling, I was bombarded with images of genetic freaks and steroid users. But I didn’t bother with weight lifting. For as skinny as I was, I figured I’d might as well wait until my metabolism settled down until I bothered trying to put on muscle mass.

But upon seeing my best friend take to weight lifting and noticeably develop his physique, and upon a girlfriend making one ill-timed joke about how skinny I was, at the age of 20, I bought myself a set of dumbbells. I started a clumsy routine, lifting weights more or less every other day, using fifteen to thirty-pounds of adjustable weights. Presses using my air mattress as a bench. Bicep curls. Flies. I carried on like that for three and half years and started to take on some definition. When I moved to Baltimore, I bought myself a Wal-Mart weight bench, bar bell, and more plates.

Finally, after the first serious workout of my life while I was on vacation with friends who far more serious about and experienced in their weight training endeavors, I joined a gym, and started using it three-to-five times a week.

As I started to see gains muscle, I also saw gains in my waistline--my metabolism finally faltering, but not in a balanced way that thickened my entire body, but rather in a pot belly. So, I changed my diet, too. More vegetables. Fewer carbs. More cardio and sit ups.

I can’t claim to be a world-class athlete, or to say that I look anything like one. But, in my twenties I did take control of what I could surrounding my physical appearance and my health. Thus far, I haven’t looked back.

18. I traveled. When I reflect on my life and changes in it, some of the numbers are still remarkable to me. At the age of nineteen, I had visited, by my rough count, six different states and had never left US soil. By the time I had turned thirty, I had hit twenty-seven states, and broadened my list of far off places visited to Canada, Scotland, England, and France,

I traveled for business. Work took me on regular trips to California that, before long, I extended into vacations to explore a goodly percentage of the state. I vacationed in Europe, the Carolinas, and in Texas. A cappella trips took make to hitherto unexplored regions of the northeast, to Nashville, to Michigan, to Missouri.

Early in my thirties, I made the cross country drive to start a new life in Oregon, along the way crossing off a bunch more states from my list (I sincerely hope to see all fifty) and establishing the first meaningful, sustained chapter of my life away from the east coast. I don’t know that this would have happened without the foundation of traveling over the preceding decade.

The travel I did in my twenties opened my eyes to the fact that there really is a wide world out there--sights to be seen, foods to be tasted, people to be met. The funny thing about travel is that the more you do, the more you realize you haven’t done.

I plan to do a lot more.

19. I held on to childish things. As we grow up, we’re taught to leave behind childish things. When I hit junior high, my father chided me for still playing with action figures. So I stopped. After college, a friend knocked me for wearing too many t-shirts, and I started to grow my collection of polos and collared shirts.

You get older and you play less. You work more. You go to bed earlier. You read and watch documentaries and listen to podcasts about serious topics.

But that doesn’t mean that you need to give it all up.

One of the best things I did in my twenties was to reject more sophisticated, more mature voices, and remain loyal some of the pieces of my childhood that remained entertaining, enlightening, or fundamentally important to me. It meant salivating over The Muppets film’s release and listening to “Life’s a Happy Song” on repeat on my iPhone. It meant hosting WrestleMania parties. It meant bringing Honk, my most treasured toy from childhood, back from my childhood home to my apartment in Baltimore (and later Corvallis), regardless of how impractical it may have been.

I came to understand that just because I loved something when I was younger didn’t mean I needed to give it up in my older age. In fact, such childish things could be all the richer for time and perspective.

20. I jumped out of a plane. While I hadn’t put much serious thought into it, I was always vaguely intrigued with the idea of skydiving. At the age of 29, I tried to consider something big I might do to end a decade in my life, and on a whim, I Googled the best locations to skydive in the US.

Ten minutes later, I had discovered that one of the top spots was Santa Cruz, California, where work would have me wrapping up my summer that August.

Twenty minutes later, I had booked my first jump.

Skydiving is dangerous. I had to sign waivers that included recognition that this activity had a high probability of resulting in death. Just the same, strapped to an experienced professional who made his living jumping with tourists strapped to him, I struggle to fathom that tandem skydiving is actually all that much more dangerous than driving on a crowded freeway at rush hour.

Jumping from that plane represented more than a fall from a great height, though. It was a leap into the next phase of my life--days before a first date that would change my life, weeks before I would turn 30, weeks before I would start applying to MFA programs, a year before I would move across the country. And yes, from a height of tens of thousands of feet, everything below did look strangely small.

In my twenties, I took the leap.

So, there you have it--a look at twenty things I did in my twenties. Writing all of this was a reflective exercise for me, and if you’ve reached this ending, I appreciate your patience in coming along with me for an unusually long post. Here’s hoping you might have gotten something out of the journey as well.