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.