Sunday, October 15, 2017

My Grandmother’s House

My grandmother lived in a little, one-story ranch-style house, with seven rooms.

The Front Room
There was what we referred as the front room—a substantial foyer that easily could have been a living room, but where we hardly spent any time, and that I get the impression Grandma didn’t put to much use. The carpeting was all forest green circles with orange leaves interspersed. There was a bar on the far end that I imagine previous owners might have used for entertaining, and that my sister and I occasionally used for play, creating imaginary scenes that riffed off of Cheers. I think of this space largely as excess, though—for my grandmother who had spent her first sixty-something years in New York City apartments, a luxury that she rarely put to the use.

Most of my memories set in the front room happened on Christmas. The space was larger than the proper living room, affording space for a Christmas tree, presents, and comfortable seating for not only our normal Sunday visit crew of Grandma, my mother, my father, my sister and me, but also my Uncle John who visited just once a year and came to stay with Grandma. Once we were through with presents, we typically migrated to the kitchen or the living room, but for the overwhelming majority of my Christmas presents, it’s that front room where the holiday happened.

Secondarily, I remember New Year’s Eves, and that five or six year period when my sister and I made a tradition out of spending the night at Grandma’s. Fetching the crystal punch bowl from the crawl space above the bar. Sleeping on the fold-out couch in the front room.

The Guest Room
Those New Year’s Eve nights my sister would sleep in the guest room. All considered, this room, with its red-white-and-blue shag carpeting, an old armoire, a little television, was probably the room I spent the least amount of time in, though I do recall certain Sundays in the early 1990s stowing away in there for an hour to watch episodes of Global Wrestling Federation show on ESPN.

What I remember best about this room, though, was that each Christmas, when Uncle John came to stay, my grandmother retreated to the guest room, giving her son the bigger space, the bigger bed.

The Master Bedroom
I remember the master bedroom clouded in smoke, not from my grandmother, who didn’t smoke (at least in my lifetime) but from my uncle’s stays, and that each time he left and we visited the room, I imagined it wouldn’t be the same again, but somehow it always was within a week’s time.

I remember the dresser where, somehow or other--probably from my sister’s keener observational skills--we deduced that Grandma hid our Christmas presents, and sneaking peeks at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures.

The Bathroom
Grandma’s bathroom always smelled better than the bathroom at home, for just a single regular user who was more attentive cleaning than anyone in my immediate family. Everything in that room was blue--my grandmother’s favorite--from the tile floor to the tub. I remember that she had a shower head that detached and could be used like a hose and that seemed novel and tremendously fun to experiment with on those occasions when I showered at Grandma’s.

I remember taking the latest issue of TV Guide into the bathroom with me and reading the better part of an issue over the course of a half hour on the toilet.

The Kitchen

No one would mistaken me for an expert chef, but what kitchen knowledge I have has its roots in my grandmother’s kitchen. In my own house, my father maintained tight control over the kitchen, protective against making messes or anyone hurting themselves to the point that I don’t believe I ever cracked an egg in my childhood home or preheated the oven.

At Grandma’s house, I recall collaborative efforts to make Hungarian Goulash and Cornish game hens; routinely cutting the lettuce for salad into impossibly small pieces after Grandma complimented me the first time I did it, saying that’s how professionals prepared salads in fancy restaurants (it would be years before I recognized it as a way of keeping me occupied while she and my sister tended to more pressing tasks).

And I remember concoctions. More often than not, mixtures of sodas, and a New Year’s punch that included juices and, one ill-advised year, milk. The freedom to decide what went in.

I don’t drink soda all that often nowadays, but a couple times a year, the mixture of Mountain Dew and Diet Coke, patented in that kitchen, will still hit the spot.

The Living Room
The living room sticks with me, in part because it’s the spot from which the most furniture was salvaged. End tables that made it to my house, a sofa and TV that made it to my childhood home.

The room had a fiery orange carpet and a great big front window that looked out on the driveway. We rarely used the front door there, in favor of the side door and mudroom that afforded room to take off shoes and coats before heading into the house, but there was a door to the living room, too, that I remember my father sprinting out of when neighbors from across the street backed into the door of his Oldsmobile, leaving a crater of a dent in the front driver’s side door. They settled without using insurance, but my father never actually had the door repaired, instead pocketing the cash and still parking the car in full-view of the neighbors on a weekly basis.

The living room was littered with ceramic cats. My grandmother had kept cats for years, only to have to give it up when she discovered my mother was allergic. She had a modest sampling of cat figurines to decorate her living room. My sister and I latched on to this interest, and more cat-centered things became the focal point of every gift giving occasion. Cat calendars. Books with pictures of cats. A truly ridiculous number of ceramic or stone cats in a collection overwhelming enough that she eventually had to ask us to stop giving her that gift. (In an instance of what may be karmic payback, my sister’s love for stuffed frogs yielded an unwieldy collection after a series of Christmases and birthdays in her own adult years, until she, too, had to ask family and friends to stop. Somehow, I’ve gone unsaddled with such a collection—thus far.)

The Construction Room Of all of the spaces in my grandmother’s house, the one I remember best is the Construction Room.

It might have been an office, a spare bedroom, or storage space. But Grandma was dedicated enough to my sister and I, her only grandchildren, that it instead became a space dedicated to us, called the Construction Room for our drawing and painting and Lego projects.

The room contained an old wooden table with leaves that folded up or down to double or triple its surface area. As we grew up, we made a little less at Grandma’s house and focused more on games. Pinochle, Scrabble, Canasta, and Double or Triple Solitaire were our steady favorites, but Uno, Skip-Bo, Pitch, Poker, and Clue each had their days as well. I developed some of the best and worst parts of myself in those games. A sense of play and curiosity that I fear I too often forget in my adult life; early semblances of strategizing as I schemed triple-word-scores and how enough well-planned freezes and natural canastas might allow me to win a game in a single hand. Just the same, I also learned a competitiveness that wasn’t entirely healthy, and an excessive commitment to plans that left me disproportionately disappointed when games didn’t proceed as I had anticipated. I remember not wanting to clear the Scrabble board after one game, when I had achieved a particularly high scoring word, because I wanted to show it to my parents when they came to pick me up, as invested in impressing them as I could be as a kid.

And Construction Room had our mailbox—a department store box relabeled with my name and my sister’s where my grandmother left chocolatey treats, or the issues of the wrestling magazines she subscribed to for me as gifts. Where we left hand-drawn magazines we wrote and drew on lined paper for her. Where, in time, I left my grandmother stories, and eventually manuscripts of full novels, and where she left me notes “From the Editor’s Desk” praising what I had done, telling me to keep going.

Leaving The House
Early in my high school years, my grandmother moved out of the house, into an senior citizen’s apartment building. A smaller, more manageable space for her to maintain, with access to emergency help at the pull of a string if she fell or hurt herself.

I still saw her there for a period of years. Through the end of high school. Through visits back home most of my college years.

Then she fell.

I forget the exact sequence of events, but Grandma started using a green metallic walker she named Esmerelda. She grew tired, falling asleep in the middle of conversations, between turns at board games, watching television shows. She had a stroke.

Toward the end of my college career--probably junior or senior year--she decided to move into a nursing home.

Days later, she told my father, her last steady connection in town, that she had made a horrible mistake. That they were going to steal her money and she wanted to go back home.

Her house had long been sold. She’d made a financial commitment to the nursing home, too, and it wouldn’t be feasible to go back to the apartment building. The only option would have been for her to move into the downstairs space of the house that my mother and father had originally intended for her to live in when they put in the electricity and plumbing, back when she'd preferred her independence. My father made mention of that as a possibility, I think to show her that the nursing home was still the better option. By then, she said yes, she would move in. It never happened.

He was on the front line to recognize her changes. That she was deteriorating and that the process accelerated after she moved into the nursing home--a combination of age, a brain rattled by a stark change in environment, and, we suspected, medications that the staff might pump into their charges to keep things calm and quiet.

Though I caught glimmers of my grandmother as she once was, in a hug, in a clever play on words, after she moved into the nursing home, I never saw her in her right mind again.

Three years out of college--the same year I had moved out of state and stopped coming home to visit more than a couple times a year--Grandma passed away.

I sent a thank you card to the nursing home staff, in appreciation for taking care of my grandmother in her final days. A feeble gesture. In visits home to follow, here and there, I swung by her apartment building. Just above every visit, I made a slow, late night drive past the old house.

The house--once white--is now painted tan, the black shutters replaced with blue. The pavement space where my sister and I drew in chalk, and where I played spin the bottle with school friends for my fifteenth birthday party, is now host to a basketball hoop. A minivan parks out front. I assume there are children. A family.

Sometimes, the living room lights were on. I wondered if, inside, the carpet were still orange. If anyone scotch taped drawings to forest green wood-paneled walls of the kitchen anymore. If kids run to that side door with a sense of wonder at the world waiting inside.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

We Were Warriors

I was in the second the grade. Back when gym class still mixed boys and girls and an absence of athleticism could go unnoticed because, well, what seven year old is especially coordinated? This was two grades before the school assigned us gym lockers and required that we changed into a school t-shirt and shorts, I suppose under the rationale that the littler kids were running around constantly anyway so it didn’t matter if they sweated into their normal day-to-day clothes and they wouldn’t find their normal day-to-day clothes too restrictive because that’s what we would wear for all manner of chasing and throwing and climbing anyway.

It was at this blissfully innocent and ignorant age, lined up against a padded wall, waiting for my turn “at bat” in kickball that I first heard the chant. Two slaps of the wall pad, followed by a clap, in the approximate rhythm of “We Will Rock You.” Then the words:

We are the Warriors!
Couldn’t be prouder!
If you can’t hear us,
we’ll shout a little louder!

A series of na-na-na-na-nas followed at a steady crescendo.

I was confused. I hadn’t heard this chant before, but it was infectious and before long I had joined in. Nick Samson had been among the first to start the chant. Nick, who I had bonded with kindergarten when we discovered our mutual love for the World Wrestling Federation. The annual Thanksgiving-time Survivor Series pay-per-view event was around the corner, scheduled to feature the four-man team The Warriors—The Ultimate Warrrior, “The Modern Day Warrior” Kerry Von Erich, and The Legion of Doom (formerly known as “The Road Warriors”)—facing off against a crew of bad guys.

It didn’t surprise me that Nick would invent such a chant, or that his boisterous personality would prompt him to break into it in public. It did surprise me the volume of boys and girls who partook, even my budding first crush Pattie, who I couldn’t imagine cheering The Ultimate Warrior as he press slammed a hapless foe.

And yet there she was, red-brown hair and pig tails, four feet tall, screaming along, even giving me a little smile when I caught her eye, in a look I could interpret to be a subtle acknowledgement of the absurdity at the both of us quieter, bookish kids joining the chant.

I’m not sure when the realization hit that the second grade class of Westmoreland Road Elementary was not, in fact, chanting about professional wrestling, but rather in tribute to our schools sports team and broader sports culture. That we were, quite literally, The Warriors—a part of the Whitesboro Central School District, in one of four elementary schools that would feed into a unified junior high four years later, and then into a bigger high school.

I suspect that my classmates, bound to older brothers and sisters, or parents with lingering school pride from their youths, had gone to a football game the preceding Friday night, and come away with this chant in tow. I wouldn’t attend one of these Friday night rituals for another seven years, a high schooler myself, when the games became a backdrop against which to socialize, flirt with girls, and eat soft pretzels.

I came to accept school pride. While I didn’t have any real investment in the school’s sports teams, and wouldn’t call many of the student athletes friends, it still felt abstractly important, when they advanced to a state championship game, that I root for them to win. Moreover, I came to accept the Warrior identity. The school’s logo portrayed a Native American in a headdress—noble and strong. I recognized the na-na-na-nas as an imitation of an Indian war chant. For a mascot, a boy would dress in brown faux-leather regalia with fringe, war paint, and a headdress.

None of this registered as meaningfully problematic to me. There would be the occasional rumbling in the local paper about the mascot and team name appropriating, exploiting, or poking fun at Indian culture. Such concerns were promptly shouted down with cries of it’s a tribute, it’s a tradition, and don’t be so sensitive, ya goddamn pussy!

And though I wouldn’t recognize it until years later, I was indoctrinated in all of this—from the second grade on, even when I associated “The Warriors” not with our football team in white and blue, but rather bare-chested men who wore face paint and spandex. I was surrounded by Warrior culture, and though I was never the most vocal or devout supporter of our school’s athletics, neither did I see a meaningful problem. I joined the chorus of dismissing the overly sensitive, overly PC naysayers who wanted to stir up trouble over the most benign borrowing from Indian culture.

I look back at all of this in my thirties. And, man, that was messed up.

To crystallize the issue, consider the very seal of Whitesboro—the village that lends the school district its name (though the middle school and the administration building—not the high school or any of the elementary schools actually fall within Whitesboro proper). It portrays a white man strangling an Indian. Conquering the primitive savage. Establishing the reign of white people.

I have heard attempts at retconning this image. Claiming it portrays a white man and an Indian in good-spirited competition. That it all comes back to wrestling. But when we look at something so basic as the nomenclature of Whitesboro, I don’t buy it. Boro—a shortening of borough, an area, region, or township. Whites—there’s not an apostrophe, though I think you could argue it’s implied, and thus the borough belongs to white people; alternatively, it establishes the plurality of white people in this village, and the implicit exclusion of people of any other color.

To put a finer point on it, I remember a downtown, outdoor concert that I attended with my father, the summer between sixth and seventh grades. The Orleans—most famous for “Still The One” played on stage. As I transitioned into full-fledged adolescence, I imagined that one of my crushes from school might come to the concert, too, and hold my hand or rest a head on my shoulder.

I remember the tinny sound of the band over an aged speaker system. I remember the smell of beer—it seemed like every adult except for my father had a clear plastic cup of it, drinking sloshing foam over the brim as they danced, offering friends and wives dollar bills for them to buy another cup so they wouldn’t lose their spots in the crowd.

My father, a full-blooded Chinese man, stood out amidst a crowd of white faces. A pot-bellied, red-bearded man in a plain white t-shirt, stained in smudges of tan and brown, dirt and beer, made his way toward him and asked my father, “Are you one of those Indians?”

My father responded that he was Chinese.

The man looked back to his buddies, five or six of them in a row behind us, and made the A-OK sign with his fingers. “He’s a Chinaman.” He turned back to my father. “I was going to ask you how you felt about all this shit at the reservation.”

This shit at the reservation referred to the still-new Turning Stone Casino that a Native American tribe had opened on a reservation in Verona, a half hour drive away. A point of controversy for the gambling culture that it fostered in the area, not to mention that they didn’t charge the state sales tax, which gave them an advantage over local gas stations, restaurants, and retailers—a hot topic of debate in the local media.

I don’t remember what my father said in response—only that he smiled and laughed and kept his answers short. I don’t suspect he shared that he was, himself, a gambler who had taken to visiting the casino on a weekly basis. I suspect he kept things more neutral and to the point. Before long, the bearded man walked away.

I don’t know what would have happened had my father identified himself as Indian, or had he declined to disclose his background. As an eleven-year-old who was prone to both worry and to concocting dramatic stories in my mind, I foresaw the worst. A vocal argument at the least. The potential for fight, or, given the man-advantage, a beating.

I don’t hate my hometown. Despite having little interest in returning to live in Utica, New York, I enjoy my stops back to see family and friends, to eat the local delicacies, to wander through my old stomping grounds. I don’t even look back on my high school years with the sort of distaste that a lot of people as nerdy as myself might—there was a lot that I enjoyed about my school life by the time I reached my last couple years there.

But I also remember those smaller moments and bigger messages, embedded in the place where I was born and raised. The more I reflect, the more I realize, and the more I accept that I can never truly go home.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Meditation on Tattoos

I spent years on Meddletown.

I wrote a four-hundred-page manuscript my senior year of high school. A story of androids and love and betrayals. The promises of dystopia and maybe an apocalypse.

In a moment of striking maturity, I realized I wasn’t ready to do this novel justice and elected to table it over my college years. After college, I returned to it, faithfully. I recognized half of the manuscript was crap, and slashed and rewrote. I showed it to a professor I had bonded with at the university where I worked next, and he made vague and sweeping recommendations that led to the next major overhaul after I had moved to Baltimore.

I rewrote it. And I rewrote it. And I rewrote it.

The concept of the decagon became central--a ten-sided figure with hugely complicated ramifications that are too specific to justify a full explanation here. Rest assured, it was an integral part of the android technology that I wrote about, and doubled as a symbol for resistance to what amounted to a campaign for robots to replace humans, to the point that members of the secret resistance corps marked their skin with decagon tattoos.

Around this same time, I reached the point in life when people start asking one another about tattoos. There’s a period in my late twenties when it became less in vogue to actively show ink, as opposed to allusions that you had it, but it was covered on the back of a shoulder on a hip or a thigh. Sometimes it was a hint to more going on in someone’s life than meets the surface, sometimes a tease in a flirtatious exchange about such a tattoo not being visible now, with the implication it might be visible to you at another time.

Thus it came into fashion to ask if someone had any tattoos.

When I answered no, the follow-up questions tended to fall somewhere along the spectrum of why not? and well, if you did have one, what would you get?

My default (and true) answer was that I didn’t have an aversion to tattoos, but I also didn’t feel confident enough in my love of anything that I would have feel comfortable branding my skin with it. I can only imagine the Creed lyrics or pro wrestling slogans or symbols I might bear had I been pressed to choose the subject of a tattoo at any given point in my past. I’ve cited the example of a friend, who at one point badly wanted a tattoo of a bowling pin to symbolize his love of that sport.

A veritable sea of hypothetical regret.

In regards to what tattoo I would have gotten, I came to respond with the decagon. A manifestation of my commitment to the Meddletown project over the course of a decade, not to mention a symbolic reference to my own work, replicating a symbol from it in the real world. I even thought to myself that, if the novel were to see the light of day and achieve any noteworthy success, that might be the occasion to actually get the tattoo.

Of course, in reality, the novel still wasn’t working. I tabled the project again—this time, perhaps, for good, given my level of pleasant surprise at how many other, objectively better, creative projects opened up for me after I put that one on the shelf.

Still, I think of the tattoo every now and again. I consider former pro wrestler CM Punk, one of my favorites, who went on record to say that he pitied anyone without tattoos because it means they don’t believe in anything as deeply as he does. Amidst a field of ink that litters his hands and arms and chest and back, one of the most prominent a completely un-ironic Pepsi logo over his left shoulder that represents not only his enjoyment of the soft drink but his straight edge lifestyle.

I think of my fiancee’s tattoo of the word “breathe” as a reminder to take a deep breath when life gets to be too much, that she translated into a very visual reminder for kids who had trouble resisting the urge to express themselves with their fists at camp. I think of my friend with a tattoo that looks like a stamp from the post office, denoting her hometown, love of writing, and sense of nostalgia for an era of sending letters in one compact space above her heart. I think of any number of esoteric symbols on other friends, to denote inside jokes, pop culture references, and important moments in their lives. Names. Dates. Faces.

And then I land back on the Jordin Sparks song, “Tattoo.” Saccharine, cliché pop music, exactly the likes of which one might expect from an American Idol winner, that repeats, “just like a tattoo, I’ll always love you.” The appropriation of something cool and personal to translate into some both popular and fundamentally uncool. How quickly the meaning of the word tattoo might change, let alone any given tattoo itself.

And so, my skin remains unmarked for now, save for birthmarks and a handful of scars, most of them too small or to faded to spot without close inspection. I may tattoo my body one day, but still await that word, symbol, or moment that I not only believe in or find worthy, but that feels befitting a permanent mark all its own.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Under Golden Arches

I have a lot of good memories of my maternal grandmother. Memories of playing out the elaborate fantasies my sister and I had constructed, centered on epic sword fights and saving damsels in distress. Memories of Pinochle and Scrabble and Canasta. Memories of her reading my first attempts at creative writing while I looked on, eager for praise.

Memories of Happy Meals, Quarter Pounders with Cheese, and hot fudge sundaes.

In the house where Grandma lived in my earliest memories, she was a quarter mile from the nearest McDonald’s. Some of my earliest memories, thus, were of my sister her, and I making the journey there for an afternoon snack. My grandmother, who must not have eaten lunch those days, always ordered the Quarter Pounder. My sister and I stuck to ice cream, and occasionally French fries. One fateful day I decided that I wanted a cheeseburger—typically an entrée, absurd to think of as a snack. And to our collective shock and awe, Grandma thought that was fine.

I remember running ahead of my grandmother on the walk home, despite her calling after me that I shouldn’t and complaints afterward that I could have been hit by a car. She didn’t stay angry for long, if she had gotten angry at all, though. That’s the thing about Grandma, and about that period in my life, and these first trips to McDonald’s. There’s nothing to taint them. As much as I was a moody and sensitive little boy—prone to tears and tantrums—I recall all of this as feeling like treats, unmitigated by any perceived slights or outbursts. I remember not aspiring to anything greater than those walks, than those fatty, fried indulgences.

*

The summer before I left for college, I needed a job. My previous gig, folding sweaters and working the cash register at a discount clothing store had fallen through when I would only agree to work weekend hours during the school year and so the manager stopped giving me hours at all. I filed applications at other mall shops and at local grocery stores, but nothing panned out—fair enough given I was really only looking for about two months of work.

Finally, I applied at McDonald’s.

I went for an interview, clad in a button up shirt and khakis. I even brought a resume which, at my father’s insistence, included my SAT scores, which I recall Debbie the manager raising her eyebrows at, maybe because they were relatively impressive, but just as likely because literally no one had ever shared their standardized test performance at a McDonald’s job interview before.

I got the job and started on a Monday morning at 8 a.m.

I’ve never been a morning person and had yet to discover the virtues of coffee at that point, so I recall starting work pretty bleary eyed. What followed over that morning and for a week or two of mornings thereafter were some of the most miserable times of my life. It was hot and everything smelled of grease or the bleach-based disinfectant we sprayed over counters and trays under the mantra, “If there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean.” I grew particularly discouraged after a morning of so often being told that the wrapper on particular breakfast sandwiches was wrong and it was really this one, that I started grabbing sandwiches at random to give out to customers, only for them to one-by-one come back and complain, only for the manager on duty to give me an earful about giving out the wrong food to the wrong people.

But things settle. I got to know the menu, the register, and the functions of the job. I acclimated myself, alternately, to early mornings and late nights. I got to the know the regulars—the old man who always brought home coffee for himself and his ailing wife; another old man who made a habit of making a mess by pouring of half his coffee into a the lobby trash receptacle; my old pediatrician who didn’t offer any suggestion he remembered who I was; a firefighter and his wife who not-so-good-spiritedly joked that if we didn’t get their order together fast enough, they might not be able to put out the next fire they were on their way to and what if that next house is yours?

I found a certain kind of peace there, not just that summer but coming back to work over winter break and spring break, then for the few weeks before I started my summer camp job year after year after year. There was something to be said the physical tiring of being on your feet for an eight hour shift, the satisfaction of having cleaned out Playland, the occasional nicety from a customer who was willing to break the script of exchanging pleasantries and making their order in favor of asking where I went to school and what I was studying and what I intended to do with my life.

And over breaks, I indulged in Big Macs.

*

In Baltimore, I lived less than a half-mile from a McDonald’s for a period of years, and found myself placing an order at their front counter about once a month. An impatient traveling salesman once told me, as we waited, that he had been to McDonald’s locations all along the east coast and this was the worst of them.

I wanted to tell him that they were probably trying their hardest.

My next stop, in Oregon, the nearest McDonald’s was a mile or more away from any of my day-to-day business and my apartment, and I only made it over once, for an afternoon of eating Big Macs and grading student papers.

As I left, I thought to myself that that was what McDonald’s ought to have been.

Let’s be clear—I hold no illusions about McDonald’s being a good company. They sell objectively unhealthy food at prices cheap enough to seem like bargains to consumers but high enough to still achieve a staggering profit. They underpay workers. They hurt local businesses by using the scale of their operation to out-market and under-price goods relative to the competition.

And yet, when taken in extreme moderation, Big Macs, French fries, two-for-a-dollar apple pies, and Shamrock Shakes are good for the soul—my soul, at least. They take me back to summer afternoon with grandmother. They take me back to my first honest days of work and the first paychecks I earned. And, oh hell, I’ll confess that I’m sucker for every excess grain of salt and speck of grease and that confounded secret sauce.

It’s all horrible for me—not least of all that I can genuinely, and without irony link such nostalgia to this most consumerist of junk food, oft-marketed based on this very principle of manufactured memory.

But still…

If I’m going to be honest, I can’t resist the trap.

I’m lovin’ it.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Breakfast with Beatles

Back in my hometown there was a radio station that dedicated itself to Beatles music on Sunday mornings. Maybe it was just an hour long show—maybe two—but through a child’s lenses, it felt as though it lasted an eternity, or at least the length of a full morning.

Growing up, Sundays were for visiting Grandma. We went to her house post-lunch for an afternoon of playing cards and drinking sodas, followed by a family dinner. More often than not, it was my favorite day of the week.

For some period of years that didn’t start until late elementary school or middle school, and that ended without my noticing (probably after I started sleeping in on Sundays until eleven or noon), we listened to The Beatles.

I remember the smell of pancake batter cooking over a skillet. My father stood poised over them. We never really ate pancakes all together, but rather in an imperfect rotation. Hot off the stove, onto plates, doused in syrup--my mother drizzled hers, my father soaked his. Two pancakes for my sister, then two for me, then two for Mom, sometimes a second round for each of us if there was enough to go around. All of this against a backdrop of Beatles. I remember “Obla Di Obla Da,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” and “Yellow Submarine.” The silly Beatles songs. But there must have been some ballads, too.

Sometime in my mid-twenties, in-between relationships, a little nostalgic for these years gone by, and settling into waking up earlier not out of obligation, but out of habit, I would listen to these songs again while I made my own pancakes. “In My Life”--a song my grandmother called her favorite, that still always reminds me of her. “I Am The Walrus,” which I still remember my mother introducing to me later in my childhood musical education as a selection from the weird Beatles catalog. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” and “ “With A Little Help From My Friends” the opening tracks of the Sgt. Pepper album, the first Beatles album that I experienced in its entirety; the audio cassette I ferreted from the living room collection into my private stash of music so that it would always be accessible to me, so that I could claim some ownership over it because, at the time, it felt as though that mattered. “I Will” and “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”--these were the Beatles songs that grew into my favorites as the band’s sound came to represent to me much more than the silly fun of a Sunday morning, but rather an amalgamation of beauty and love and loss and nostalgia and recognizing that all of these sensations bound together represent something fundamentally good.

I recall a weekend my mother came to visit me in Baltimore. I meant to take her to one of my favorite restaurants in my neighborhood—The Golden West Café—for Sunday morning breakfast, but on scanning the menu online, we discovered that every option that might appeal to her was also soaked in egg. She had, at middle age, developed an egg allergy. So we stayed put. I ran out to the store to buy a box of pancake mix and made breakfast for the both of us.

I don’t know if she caught it when I hummed “Yesterday” as I turned over one pancake and the let raw side begin to sizzle. It was good a Sunday morning.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sara Bareilles Stories

I love Sara Bareilles.

An overstatement, perhaps, for a woman I don’t really know and don’t ever really expect to. She has emerged as my favorite contemporary solo artist of the past five years. I love her music. I love the persona that she puts out in the world.

But I came to her slowly.

The first time I heard Sara Bareilles play, she was opening for Counting Crows at an end-of-summer show in an outdoor amphitheater in Northern Virginia. I had heard “Love Song” on the radio and had a passing familiarity with some of the other songs because my girlfriend at the time, who was always a little ahead of the curve on budding pop stars had played her music in our apartment a bit in the five month interlude between its release and the point when I moved away.

I liked Sara at that show. I remember thinking that “Many The Miles” was a good journey song, and finding the rest of her set inoffensive if not exactly awe inspiring as I waited for my favorite band to take the stage.

Ironically, it was Counting Crows that brought me back to Sara two years later, after that relationship had come to an end, and as I broached an emotional nadir in the aftermath of the relationship to follow that. I remember house and cat sitting for two friends while they were on vacation. I remember driving along the sludgy streets of Hampden and listening to a bootleg version of the Crows playing “A Long December.” And I remember when Adam Duritz slipped out of the “na-na-na-na”s that end his song, into a series of “love, love, loves” as he began to sample Sara’s “Bottle It Up.”

I didn’t know that the song was “Bottle It Up” that time, but I remember staying in the car and driving around the block an extra time to just re-experience that transition into that song, knowing I’d heard the song, abstractly aware that it might be a Sara Bareilles song, though I could have easily been swayed if someone trustworthy had insisted it were Vanessa Carlton or Ingrid Michaelson. When I did go inside, I Googled furiously to determine what the second song was. Try Googling “love love love” or “I do it for love”—it takes a while to zero in on this particular song based on those clues.

So I found more of Sara’s music. I learned that she had sung with her college a cappella group and grew more fascinated, in particular with “Gravity,” which she wrote in college and had won awards singing the solo on with her group at UCLA. Not long after, she joined the judging panel on The Sing-Off and became the near-perfect quirky, infinitely likable complement to my pre-existing favorite solo artist, Ben Folds.

On one of her final episodes on the show, Sara joined one of the groups to perform her new single “Gonna Get Over You.” I was hooked. Just to shore up my fanhood once and for all, Sara Tweeted to all of her followers a funky little video I had recorded for The A Cappella Blog about why NBC should renew The Sing-Off.

I started downloading every Sara Bareilles song I could find. First every studio recording. Then miscellaneous YouTube bootleg stuff.

By the time, The Blessed Unrest came out, I needed no convincing to make the purchase on iTunes. I devoured the album. Fell in deep and profound love with “Manhattan,” yes, but also espoused “Chasing The Sun” as a de facto anthem for my summer, and particularly an end of summer trip down the California coastline, during which I both jumped out of a plane and made an impromptu drive down to San Diego to go on a first date with my eventual wife, Heather.

Then I fell for “I Choose You.” In one of our many Skype conversations in the months to follow, Heather and I talked a lot about the many ways in which things probably shouldn’t be working for us--her in southern California, me working in Baltimore. We talked about how everything from our first choice to go on dinner dates over a video feed, to taking cross country flights to visit with one another for a week at a time were all about choices. And I sent her a link to a live, acoustic version of Sara performing this song.

Heather loved it, too. We established our song, and said that if we ever got married, that would be the one we would have our first dance to.

We made good on that.

But while we were engaged and before we got married, I had the opportunity to meet Sara. She published a book of personal essays and went on a tour of major bookstores for signings. While Heather was away visiting friends, I made the drive from Corvallis to Portland to see her at Powell’s.

I arrive at around 2:30 for the 4 p.m. signing, only to see signs posted that the line would start forming at 12. I suspected I might be screwed, but, to my good fortune, there weren’t more than a hundred people ahead of me. So, like so many others, I took a seat on the floor for the wait. Unlike many others, I took out the the students' assignments I'd brought with me and set to grading.

At 3:30, I heard cheering. Sara had gotten set up early, and just out of sight from where I waited around a corner and behind two rows of bookcases.

But the line moved quickly--largely a credit to the hyper-organized Powell’s staff that had everyone fill out Post-It notes with their names and leave them hanging out to mark the title page of the book to make it all the easier for Sara to sign quickly. There were no posed photographs allowed, but there were personnel in place to take phones and take candid shots of each fan talking with Sara for a few seconds while she signed.

It came to my turn in line. We shook hands. I told her my name was Mike.

She smiled. “I’m Sara.”

Ordinarily, when I write about celebrities, my history in journalism and critical writing compels me to address them by last name. But in that moment--that objectively absurd moment when Sara so humanly felt compelled to introduce herself, even though I not only knew her name, but had waited for nearly two hours to have the chance to say hi to her--she gave me her first name, as if we were to be friends. Thus, I’ve felt compelled to use it.

I’ve met a handful of celebrities in situations like this--formal events in which you’ve got at most a minute to talk, to take them in, to make any sort of impression. I’ve learned not to put too much stock in such encounters. The wait in line is inevitably longer than the interaction itself, and there’s very little possibility of leaving an impression on someone who’s shaking hands with a few hundred strangers that day.

Years earlier, I had read in a review of The Blessed Unrest that “I Choose You” was destined to become a wedding song for the masses. Case in point, unbeknownst to me, my own best friend and his wife played it for their wedding a year before my own. It wasn’t a nuanced or terribly original choice. Still, I had the inkling it could mean something to Sara that day, in that bookstore.

“I’m sure you hear this a lot,” I said as she focused on the page, copying “Heather and Mike” from my Post-It. “But my fiancée are going to have our first dance to ‘I Choose You’ at our wedding. And I just thought you should know how much your music means to both of us.”

She looked up at me again. “When are you getting married.”

I told her it was a year out. She stuck her tongue out a little and smiled as she turned back to the page, signing her name, a peace sign, and a heart. “Well, I’m going write a note to congratulate to the two of you.”

It wasn’t much. A literal “Congrats!!” in the space between names. Still, it felt like a little something extra--like maybe in the sea of faces and names from that afternoon and the rest of her tour, Sara probably wouldn’t be able to pick me from a line up, but she might remember and feel heartened by the mention of one more pair of fans who not only celebrated her music, but made it a part of one of the most important days of their lives. Who got the impact of choice in love.

I devoured Sara’s book, Sounds Like Me in the week to follow. It‘s a surprisingly sad meditation on issues of self-esteem, body issues, and finding oneself as an artist. It’s arguably all the more effective for all of that melancholy and insecurity getting couched within what is, at heart, a success story. Sara's not only a survivor, but a thriver. An artist who found her voice and ended up reaching millions.

We can’t all be Saras in the literal sense of Grammy nominations, top ten hits on the Billboard charts, and crossover success as songwriters and essayists and part-time Broadway stars. But we can make art and find beauty out of experiences that might have felt like failures at the time. We can make choices. We can do it for love. We can be brave.

I could go on. But just as the forgettable opening act for a band I liked more became one of my favorites in her own right, and the type of star I would drive out of town and wait for the opportunity to meet, whose music I would obsess over, whose book I would push to the front of reading queue to indulge in--well, who knows what any of us might one day become?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Keep On Dancing

I like dancing.

But I didn’t always.

Like the majority of adolescent boys, I didn’t come to dancing with any recognizable skill out of the chute. I was self-conscious about my skinny body and my less than perfect rhythm. Moreover, there’s the sheer action associated with dancing. Speaking up in class is a courageous act: putting your ideas and your voice up for the public scrutiny of a classroom of peers--friends, enemies, and crushes alike--besides the judgment of the teacher as to whether your ideas have any merit. But dancing is so much more. Putting your body, flailing limbs and all, on display in an effort to move with feigned confidence and demonstrate your athleticism, your cool, perhaps even your sex appeal.

That’s a lot to consider putting out into the world in the seventh grade.

So, the first dances I went to in middle school, I did not dance. I did, through an elaborate network of friends asking for me, ask several girls to dance (no dice) but rarely ventured onto the dancefloor myself, or when I did it was more often than not to comedic effect--imitating the head-banging motions of Beavis and Butthead or doing the sprinkler. Safe moves, because I was in on the joke, and I wasn’t supposed to look good so much as I conjured images of other people being funny.

Then I went away to camp.

When I discuss the social benefits of my summers with the Center for Talented Youth, it’s become a go-to anecdote to recall the first time I slow danced girl, and more particularly to recall that awkward transition in “Stairway To Heaven” from soft meditation to electric rock and roll song. (For fans of Freaks and Geeks, you might recognize my plight in Sam’s first dance with Cindy Saunders, to “Come Sail Away.”)

Dancing with a girl felt momentous at the time, and it’s a good hook for a quick anecdote. But in retrospect, those Friday and Saturday nights at CTY were about more than a coming of age moment when it came to sexuality or romance. What stands out even more is the recollection of bobbing up and down and from side to side in a circle of friends, in which not one of us could really, objectively dance that well, and not one of us really, objectively cared. I remember that last dance of my first summer there and a sense of pride at having danced to every single song that night.

And the enthusiasm did transfer to my year-round life, where I started to dance more. I was rarely the one to start a circle at a middle school or high school dance, but there was more than one time when I was the second or third party in, or the first boy to do so--a fact that never ceased to surprise my friends who knew me to be quieter and more serious than all of that.

The dam truly broke for me when, in my junior year, one of the dances hosted a lip synch contest. I developed a full-on routine and choreography to Stroke 9’s “Little Black Backpack,” practiced on a daily basis, and signed up to compete. The night of the show, I recall friends expressing their doubts, certain I was about to embarrass myself and, in the same breath saying they would perform with me but they didn’t know the song at all--code for, if I wasn’t going to bail, they sure as hell weren’t going down with the sinking ship.

In my mind, the lip synch performance was great. Epic. All the swagger of a rock n roll star, amplified by the fact that no one knew I had that performance in me.

To my knowledge, no video of this performance exists, so I can’t watch it with a more objective eye. That said, when I think back on it, I really can’t imagine that it was objectively great. I can remember that moment when a hundred other kids started clapping along, though. That there were screams and hollers of support in all of the key moments I had planned as high spots in the performance. That a rush of people--some of whom I had considered friends, and some of whom I had not--came at me as I posed at the song’s finish, with hugs and high fives—about the closest I ever got to a high school movie moment of triumph. I had won the big game, danced with the prom queen, punched out the bully. All of that sentiment wrapped up into four minutes of dancing and the immediate aftermath.

That moment had a lot less to do with dancing well than what I like to think was a manifestation of everyone’s inner geek and everyone’s inner exhibitionist. That moment of letting go of the fear of looking foolish in favor of doing something bold, incredibly un-cool (when you consider the cumulative hours of preparatory work for a performance at a high school dance) and, perhaps most importantly, fun.

This is the lesson, so obvious, and yet so hard to believe in at the moment of action. The overwhelming number of settings in which dance would naturally play a part, no one cares how anyone else looks dancing--if anything, they’re worried about themselves. After the moment has passed, when a person gets in the groove, dancing is irresistibly fun. But prior to that moment, in making a conscious decision about whether or not to get on the dance floor at that bar or that wedding or that party, it can feel like the world.

I’ve never seen the movie, We Bought A Zoo, but there’s a particular line from the trailer that I’ve loved since the first time I heard it, in the dark of a theater, waiting watch another film:

“all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

Strip away Matt Damon talking to his movie-son. The logic applies to any range of situations from the decision to buy a zoo to asking someone out to dinner. To the choice to dance.

Dancing isn’t for everybody or every situation. But I dare say that it’s for a lot more people and a lot more situations than people care to admit on a day-to-day basis. It can mean the difference between blending in and standing out. Between a moment you look back on with regret and a moment of triumph. Between being too cool, or too old, or too professional, and having the time of your life.

It starts with that moment of courage. It can lead to a whole lot more.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Sock Puppets

The last semester of my MA program in writing was dedicated to the thesis—seventy-to-eighty pages of work, revised through an intensive partnership with an advisor, plus a weekly class when folks finishing their time with the program from each of the different genres (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and science writing) came together to discuss their theses, elements of craft, and what we would do once we were done with the program.

The capstone to all of that was a reading. Each of the graduates had about eight minutes to read a selection of their work for an audience of fellow students, faculty, alums, and whatever family or friends attended.

I had completed the MA part-time via night school, while working a full-time job. It took four and a half years and during that time I attended just about every these reading. I knew what I was getting into.

Still, I was nervous.

I’ve had my share of public speaking engagements and I’ve read my work at plenty of open mics. All considered, I was probably as well prepared for this reading as I could be. Still there’s a sense of gravity to events like this--that as much as they are meant to be a celebration of work, they also mean putting your work up to public scrutiny, and yourself as the conduit for your work reaching an audience made up mostly of people who haven’t read your work before and who never will again.

I was reading about clowns.

One of the stories in my thesis was “Clown Faces,” a story later published in an anthology called Things You Can Create, which I had revised heavily over the course of my thesis term, and I’d be reading from a particularly dark new segment of it--a portion when an evil clown who dropped out of clown college contemplates unleashing a lion on the other members of a circus.

In an effort to counteract the gloom of the piece and add an especially surreal layer, I decided to read while wearing a big red clown nose.

As I prepared for the reading, looking at myself in the mirror as I familiarized myself with lines and memorized key sentences, I realized another advantage of the clown nose. It was funny.

In a public speaking/reading trick that I have learned and forgotten over and over throughout the years, if I can get a crowd laughing, and particularly if I’m laughing with them early on, it can be a tremendous means to diffuse tension. The clown nose looked to be my answer this time around.

And then another answer came up.

One of the poets reading that same night (to protect the innocent, we'll call her Julie) was particularly nerved up about the prospect of sharing her work with an audience, particularly a poem posed as a dialogue between two characters, when she didn’t know how on earth the audience would follow what was going on.

I happened to walk into one of our final classes before the reading, just as she was venting this trepidation, and more importantly just as another classmate suggested that she do the reading with sock puppets.

“That sounds awesome,” I said as I took my seat, only fifty percent aware of what they were talking about. “And I’d be down to play one of the sock puppets.”

“Really?” Julia asked.

I had made the remark off the cuff, and assumed that the whole thing was a joke. It occurred to me in that moment that it may actually be serious, and that if I, who was vocally encouraging her, back pedaled out it could be seen as a real jerk move. So, I said, “Of course.”

I wasn’t sure how serious either one of us were.

But the night of the reading arrived. As always, bottles of cheap wine abounded in the lobby. I poured my first glass. When Julia found me she was already on her third glass and rapidly approaching the line at which one becomes too drunk for a reading to be a good idea.

She handed me my puppet--a bright red wool sock with googly eyes glued to it. “Don’t worry, they’re new socks,” she said. A second later, she handed me the poem, delineated on the page like a script.

Julia read early on, and she did well, in a series of poems that culminated in her inviting me to the podium. I bounded out of the audience, sock puppet and script ready, and we proceeded to ham it up to an absurd degree, in a moment I’m not sure that the faculty loved, but the crowd sure seemed to get a kick out of.

After that performance, wearing a clown nose for my own reading felt less like meat and potatoes, more like the gravy on a night of literary absurdity. And I thought to myself, that Julia and I--and the whole lot of us--hadn’t just survived that reading and the end of our grad school years. We had taken ownership over them.

It’s easy to look at a public engagement as something that has to be formal and nerve-racking, and there’s a time and place for solemnity. That said, I walked away from that reading with a renewed sense of all of the fun that life can be when we do let our hair down and worry less about perfection, more about having a good time. There’s plenty time in life to take yourself seriously. We’d might as well take advantage of the opportunities for play while we're at it.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Telling The Story

I supervised Bernice before I befriended her.

I worked full-time for my summer program, hiring and managing people, overseeing all manner of details. Bernice was a registered nurse who only worked the summers for us, and had settled into a comfortable annual gig of coming in on weekday afternoons to administer medications and tend to bumps and bruises. That first summer we worked together at UC Santa Cruz, I have to assume that she saw me as little more than another in a line of young people, plugged into a position of authority, who would hopefully stay out of her way. She was nearly fifty years my senior.

The second year, we established a rapport. I fell into a routine of asking her what she was making for dinner that night, and she would regale me with tales of lasagnas and meat loafs and roasted vegetables, any one of which sounded far better than the dining hall fare that awaited me on campus.

Summer programs tend to see their share of turnover. By our third summer, I was one of the few familiar faces to Bernice. The one she asked to hold the arm of as she descended a steep hill, and the one she defaulted to asking to carry boxes for her as she set up her office. I probably should have delegated such responsibilities, for example, to the assistants hired specifically to work with her. But there was something I appreciated about being the one she called on. About having earned her trust. Little doubt, about the ways in which helping her reminded me of how I was just getting old enough to meaningful help my grandmother when she started lose herself to dementia, and in those years before I moved away and then she passed on.

Thus, it was with some reservations when I let Bernice know it would be my last summer.

She told me that she thought she would be done, too.

In the final days of that summer, we got to talking about what I would be doing that summer, and it only then occurred to me how little I had revealed about myself beyond work, and beyond satisfying an old woman’s curiosity about my relationship status and upbringing. I told her that I meant to move across the country and write.

And she told me she had a story.

The next day, Bernice presented me with “The Story.” A five-page manuscript, written long hand in big, swooping, ballpoint script on paper from a legal pad. I sat down and read it in front of her, a reversal of roles from my own childhood years when I remember pleading that my grandmother read my stories in front of me so I could see her reactions.

It wasn’t great. Grammatically poor and largely incoherent, making winks and nods and asides without enough context to follow more than half of them. It was only in the late stages that I connected enough dots to realize she was telling the story of Jesus’s birth.

She folded her hands over stomach and reclined in her chair, looking very pleased with herself after I had finished. “I asked two obstetricians in the area to get all my facts straight about what it would have been like then,” she said.

I set aside my workshop-hardened instinct toward constructive criticism. “It’s wonderful.”

My last night on campus we went to dinner, joking that it was it was a dinner date. She picked me up her Oldsmobile with the cassette deck, handicapped parking tag on the dash and we ate good Italian food.

After dinner, she drove back toward campus, then looked at me with a sly grin. “Do you want to see my house?”

In truth, I was curious. But I also knew that it was getting late, and I was, in all likelihood already keeping her up. Besides that, I still had to pack before my flight the next day, and I had tentatively committed to meeting up with some other staff members to watch a movie.

More than all of that, though, I recognized that we had had a nice time together, and the night was more likely to go downhill than to get any better from there.

“I should probably be getting back,” I said.

She pulled into the traffic circle at Crown College--a space so often full of activity when we had had children under our care, now silent and still.

Bernice pulled to a stop, put the car in park, and put a hand on my wrist. “Thank you for letting me be a part of your story.”

As we hugged, I thought it was an odd phrasing. Sure, I thought of so many moments in life in terms of stories, but I supposed that was something older folks, and people who hadn’t devoted their lives to literature, might outgrow to recognize this tangled web of experiences and acquaintances and dinners and goodbyes not as something so contrived or well-defined as a story, but as a life. But then, I suppose she had had far more a life to base her assessment on.

I walked away from the car and Bernice drove away. As she did, I knew there was every chance I’d never see her again. That whatever story we shared had come to a close.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

On Assumed Intention

I remember reading an argument against multivitamins. The cornerstone of said argument was that there was no credible evidence that a multivitamin regimen increased anyone’s lifespan.

My response, as an inconsistent multivitamin taker, was to question why longevity of life was the metric in consideration for that particular conversation.

Call it logic. Call it neuroses. I tend to take multivitamins when I’m traveling a) because I typically have less control of my food intake and am less confident I’ll ingest proper quantities of fruits and vegetables, b) because I’m often running on less sleep than usual and c) because I’m paranoid about being in contact with more potential sources of illness—people sneezing next to me on a plane, or handling a gas pump multiple times a day without always having the chance to wash my hands soon after.

As you might very reasonably extrapolate, I’m a bit of a germ-a-phobe, and that is the primary driver behind my vitamin intake. While I guess there’s some logic to the theory that preventing sickness prolongs life, I don’t take multivitamins to prevent cancer or car accidents or old age and the myriad risk factors for an inevitable demise. I take them to stave, generally, healthy.

Maybe there’s more research and literature to further condemn multivitamins, even on the grounds for which I use them--I haven’t pursued research in the field. But for me, this simple, flawed argument pointed to a larger issue of assumed intention.

Another example: I have a friend who is a devout gym rat and who is adamant about not getting a tattoo. His reasoning is that people get tattoos in order to make their bodies look cooler, and that getting a tattoo is an easy way of doing so, because you exchange money for your new look. He suggests that the look he develops in the gym is far cooler because it’s earned rather than bought.

I’ve tried to argue the point. I’ve talked about how people use tattoos to brand themselves with important words or images. Reminders to themselves. Representations to the world. I’ve explained The Semi-Colon Project. I’ve shared CM Punk’s philosophy that he feels badly for anyone without tattoos, because it demonstrates that they don’t have as strongly held beliefs as him. He’ll grant me individual cases, but holds his ground on the over-arching argument.

As children, we learn that impact matters more than intention. That if two children are talking and one makes a joke that hurts the other’s feelings, it’s a problem, and despite not meaning to cause any harm, harm has been done. We teach responsibility. The same goes for play fighting that leads to injury, or when playing keep-away with someone’s basketball is read not as play, but as bullying behavior.

The matter of intention vs. impact grows more complicated as adults. We can assume that we know what something means--that multivitamin users want to prolong their lives; that people with tattoos just want to look cooler. Most of these assumptions are harmless, if potentially misguided and annoying. But then let’s look at another case study—WWE developmental talent Zahra Schreiber, who had, in her past, posted images of swastikas to her social media accounts. The assumed intention, and the purported reason Schreiber was released from her contract, is that she came across as prejudiced and hateful. By Schreiber’s own account, she meant to reclaim the symbol and represent not the Nazi-related connotations the symbol has carried in Western society since the 1930s, but rather the good fortune and well being the symbol originally represented. These claims generally fell on deaf ears.

Schreiber’s argument for the Swastika may not be so sympathetic to a general audience. Compare it to the use of the Confederate flag by those who profess it to represent southern pride and history. What are the real intentions there? What is the real impact? What does southern pride really mean?

These are complicated questions which I’m hardly scraping the surface of. I’m inclined to assume the best of people—an impulse reinforced by years of working with children, followed by years of teaching college students. People with strong principles--principles that were, just the same, only then taking shape. I looked at it as my role not to proselytize but challenge, complicate, and add nuance. To generally cultivate critical thinking about what they were really putting out into the world.

I suppose there ought to be no less weight attached to how we understand others. With an eye toward empathy. An instinct toward asking questions over casting condemnations. And, yes, deciding what points are worth not compromising on.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Sun Rises

Fall term of my second year at my MFA program, I was assigned to teach two sections of Introduction to Fiction. It was a great opportunity to break out of the mold of teaching first-year comp, select my own texts, and refine my thinking about both the crafting of literature and the pedagogy surrounding it.

The two sections I was assigned to teach were Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, at 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.

I had my teacherly concerns related students who might sleep through alarms and not come to class, or, little better, make it to the classroom, but show up tired, sluggish, and disengaged.

I had my personal concerns, all the more marked. I’ve never been a morning person, and throughout my own undergrad and first round of grad school, had never had a class earlier than 9:20 a.m. Even my office jobs generally hadn’t called on me to arrive earlier than 8:30 a.m., and there was an unspoken understanding that 8:30 to 9 in the morning was more or less a grace period. I’d get up between 7 and 7:30, eat breakfast, shower, and drive into work within the acceptable parameters of office culture.

But this teaching gig would have me in front of a classroom and lecturing at 8. When I checked the Corvallis bus schedule, I discovered that the earliest stop at the bus outside my apartment complex rolled in after 7:30, arriving at campus between 7:40 and 7:45 if the bus were on time. The Corvallis bus system wasn’t bad—I’d learned to trust it within a ten-to-fifteen minute span, but if the bus did arrive fifteen minutes late at that morning hour, then I wouldn’t get from my campus stop to the classroom on time; and if it were running late, I wouldn’t have time enough to make the two-and-a-half-mile walk to campus by 8:00.

I did the math and strategized. I arrived at the conclusion that I would need to walk to campus. And that in order to have breakfast and shower and not be in a rush every step of the way, I really needed to be out of bed by 6 a.m.

6 a.m. The wake up hearkened back to high school, when I needed to be at the bus stop by 7:15, and thus got up around 6:30. Only 6 was even earlier. I had had individual days of work, school, and travel, when I needed to be up at all sorts of hours, but never for more than a couple days at a stretch. I had had on-call situations that saw phone calls coming my way at all hours of the night and morning. But they were always temporary, always under two months.

I’m not writing all of this to make you feel sympathy for me--there are plenty of people who have had to get up this early--or earlier--for longer periods of their lives. People with children to tend to. People for who found the wee hours the only time they could scrape together to work out or write or pursue other passions. People who had harder work to do than teaching college students a subject that they loved.

I’m offering this background, instead, to drive home how I felt at the news of this early morning teaching assignment and the thought process I went through as it became a reality.

In those early weeks (truth be told, most of the term) I was always running late. Never late to arrive in the classroom, but often scrambling through the last stages of getting ready at home, or not so much walking as jogging for portions of the journey to school. But then there came a morning when I got up with my alarm, didn’t dawdle over my breakfast reading, and got out the door on time and in line with the schedule I had set for myself and so rarely quite lived up to.

I walked down Witham Hill. To the east, the sky was streaked in pink and orange. The clouds had taken on blue undertones as the sky just started lighten.

I’ve always liked sunsets. I like the colors. I like the metaphorical idea of something beautiful at the end of the day, just as night begins to set in. I like their accessibility—that I’ve gotten to see sunsets on drives and walks home at the end of the day, or after dinner, before I’m supposed to meet up with friends or before a show I want to watch comes on TV. Even so, I noticed as I grew older that I was watching fewer sunsets. Too tied up with my job and with work I had imposed on myself. Half the time, I didn’t even notice the sun had gone down until I looked out a window, or were otherwise roused from whatever distractions life threw my way. When I started dating Heather and after our first date included watching the sunset over a San Diego beach, I made a conscious vow to myself to pay more attention. Not to let myself miss this point in the day.

I got better about it. But still not great.

But there I was, a forty-minute-ish walk I had no way around. A class to teach. Sometimes I listened to podcasts along the way. Some times music.

That day, it was music.

REM, to be precise, “Me In Honey” to put an even finer point on it. I listened to that swell of chords and that wordless moan of guest vocalist Kate Pierson. And I watched the sunrise.

I still ran late on others, and sometimes I went so fast that I was only implicitly aware of the sky growing lighter without consciously recognizing the sunrise.

But those mornings when I did see it were better. Sweeter. Those mornings, more than any of the others, I recognized that a new day really had begun.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

To Magazine Editors

For those not invested in the business of literary journals, please forgive the momentary departure from the more typical personal essay format of this blog. I assure you, I’ll be back to more regular programming in my next post.

Think of this as an open letter/conversation starter/short rant. I’d like to preface it all with a note that I don’t intend this post as passive-aggressive, but rather as edifying for editors (as well as submitters). Rest assured, this post is not meant to target anyone in particular. The complaints, implicit or explicit, are based not in any singular, but rather multiple experiences. I’ve opted not to name any specific, real-life names, good or bad, as a professional courtesy, and because I know there’s always the possibility I happened to catch an editor on a bad day and run into an aberration rather than a habitual practice.

Another note--I can sympathize with the role of the editor. While I've never been the shot-caller at a literary journal, I was the managing editor of one for a year, and have served as a contributing editor for another over a year now.

I’ve submitted to literary journals a lot over the last couple years and I’ve had the honor to have work accepted by a range of venues--a few fairly well-known, well-established journals; some fledgling online-only ones. I tend to tier off my work and submit to publications that seem appropriate for how I evaluate each individual piece. I know that strategy isn’t for everyone, but it’s worked for me and the volume and types of work I’ve been writing.

When it comes to whom to submit to and whom to publish with, most of the onus is on the writer to do her/his homework about what she/he is getting into. For example, I have had some work published online in a format that I did not find very aesthetically pleasing. The responsibility for that result is at least equally, and probably more so on me than any editor, because I looked at previous publications and accepted the journal’s aesthetic (or rolled the dice and trusted my work to an inaugural issue).

I do, however, feel compelled to pose this humble list of six (in no way exhaustive) best practices for editors of literary journals:

1) Promote the work. We live in an era in which social media has made a lot of promotion literally free of charge. I get that time constraints and social media savvy vary, but a minimum of posting to Facebook or Twitter and sending a message to let an email list know that a new issue has gone live seems fair.

Options for going above and beyond--the kinds of things that make a writer really appreciate and feel appreciated by an editor--include: making individual social media posts related to the individual piece by an author; re-tweeting an author’s other work that has no direct connection to the journal to support the author on the whole; offering to post an interview with the author on your website; inviting the author to do a reading. Not all of these options are reasonable or realistic to expect of every journal, but trust me when I say that authors do remember when they happen, and the journals that go that extra miles are the first ones that I’ll throw subscription dollars to, refer my friends to, or help to promote the later issues of that I’m not directly associated with.

2) Let the author see proofs before a piece goes live. It’s my finding that old school, primarily print magazines tend to be better about this, probably because there’s no easy way to retroactively fix a printed magazine. Just the same, giving authors a look--with a tight deadline--can spare headaches and embarrassment later. As the author, it was my responsibility to proofread my work before I sent it in (and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been guilty of not doing so carefully enough on occasion), but if there are errors related to formatting, or line-level edits by the editor, or the editor opting to use a different name than the one the author submitted under (if I submit as “Michael Chin” please don’t make the choice to us a “Mike Chin” by-line instead), that’s on the journal. I get that giving writers rubber-stamp privileges can prolong the process, but I think a tight deadline (especially for online publications) along the lines of forty-eight hours to review the draft before it goes live is fair to both sides.

3) Be honest about the timeline for publication and keep writers posted. Here’s the thing--if you have no idea about when you’re going to publish my work, that’s actually fine with me. The trouble comes in when an editor:

a) offers a specific publication date,
b) doesn’t live up to it, and
c) lets significant time pass without any communication.

I don’t think I’m alone among writers who compulsively check a website if we have reason to believe our work is about to go live. Delays will happen, and if an issue comes out a few days--even a week or two--late, that’s understandable, and a part of life. I remember, however, meeting an editor at AWP, thanking him for accepting my work, and then being told it should be out “any day now.” It took over three months for it to actually happen, with absolutely no communication in the interim. I completely understand that not everyone can be as timely or as on top of email as they (or apparently I) would like, but it’s a great show of respect to the writer for an editor to be as open and honest as possible to the extent that they know timelines.

4) Contact the author first, then publish. Maybe I’m mistaken, but from personal experience and from my sphere, most writers submit most pieces simultaneously, unless they’ve submitted somewhere that explicitly disallows it. If an editor is excited enough about a piece to want to publish it, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for an editor to contact a writer to let them know they’re accepting a piece before publishing it. I have had multiple instances of receiving an acceptance email that included a link to my piece, already live on the journal’s website. As a professional courtesy, I’m very principled about withdrawing simultaneous submissions the same day I get an acceptance, or as soon as possible if I’m traveling. While I doubt most editors are looking this closely into it, I do feel it looks poorly to withdraw a work after its already been published somewhere else. Besides that, it sends a message to me the journal that published without even waiting for the writer to agree to any terms doesn’t really have its act together in terms of having terms, and, in a sense, views the work as simultaneously good and disposable, to cavalierly throw it up on a website before notifying the author.

5) Send rejections. This is a strange one, and I’d actually be very interested in hearing counter-arguments from those with more wisdom than me. I struggle to understand why it’s too onerous for some journals to send a form rejection if you’re not accepting work. Mind you, I appreciate those that are at least forthcoming that that’s their practice. Moreover, I completely understand not sending personalized feedback to the overwhelming majority of submissions--that’s time consuming and, frankly, sometimes the author’s work might not deserve it. But a form rejection? If The New Yorker and Tin House have time to send them, I struggle to understand why anyone else can’t.

6) Don’t put weird provisos at the end of submission guidelines. Maybe this is just me, and this just grinds my gears because I submit a lot. But if you’re going to have an unusual, restrictive guideline such as a demographic restriction in terms of who can submit to a particular issue, or require an unusually large reading fee, that information really ought to be foregrounded. Again, maybe just my personal axe to grind, but there’s a special place in literary hell reserved for journals that tag onto the end of lengthy guidelines that, oh yeah, they don’t accept simultaneous submissions.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Karate Kid

I grew up on The Karate Kid. On Daniel LaRusso as a loveable underdog. On Johnny Lawrence as a bully. As the sensai as a bigger bully. As Mr. Miyagi as a the ultimate mentor figure. I liked the sequels well enough, too, but the original was the one that I watched over and over and over again, internalizing its lessons, memorizing its dialogue, imitating its crane kick (which, if done right, no can defense).

Growing older problematized this film to an extent. I recognized Daniel as whiny, immature, and less of a passive victim than a conscious instigator in a number of the situations in which the Cobra Kai bullies ended up pummeling him. Just the same, a combination of perfectly reasonable storytelling (particularly for movie geared toward children in the 1980s) and nostalgia shored up its spot as, at the very least, a sentimental favorite that survived into other periods of my life.

When I heard that there would be a remake of The Karate Kid, my initial reaction was positive. I romantically considered the possibilities of a new generation of young people getting exposed to this story, and how whatever new production bells and whistles, and fresh-faced young actor were attached to the Daniel role might make it more palatable to that next generation of fans.

I learned of Jackie Chan taking on the role of Mr. Miyagi. As much as it stung to imagine a Miyagi not portrayed by Pat Morita, Chan’s real-life and action movie credentials as a martial artist made him a perfectly sensible fit. I could get behind that. Then I learned of Jaden Smith stepping into the Daniel role.

I didn’t love the choice. Child actors who are the sons and daughters of established movie stars always provoke a degree of skepticism for me, and the only film I’d seen Jaden in was The Pursuit of Happyness which I adored begrudgingly—won over by all of its sentimentality in spite of myself because I was so conscious the film’s most saccharine moments were also its most manufactured—a plain as day architecture of a feel-good, overcoming the odds story, albeit one based on reality.

I didn’t have a problem with Jaden Smith, but I did see him as carrying a log of Hollywood baggage, that would necessitate this film ticking off the checkboxes of a 2010-ish family underdog story.

I only saw the new iteration of The Karate Kid once, and in the theater, so forgive me for not having the sharpest memory of its story or all of the differences and similarities between incarnations. What I remember most, though, had far less to do with what happened on the screen than what happened in the theater.

Yes, I remember my friend who had never seen the original Karate Kid commenting that this movie wasn’t very good, and my desperation to explain that no, really, the original is so much better.

Even more so, though, I remember the reaction of the audience.

They applauded.

In the year 2010, a packed movie theater audience clapped their hands for the cinematic experience they had just undergone.

Some of that—nay, a lot of that—surely has to do with the high volume of children in the theater, who have just learned the concept of applauding, who haven’t learned that it isn’t the social norm to cheer in an actual movie theater, and who weren’t self-conscious enough to stop themselves for expressing their delight at this film. But I would argue there was more to it than that.

In 2010, I lived in Baltimore. And all the more so than watching any old great underdog story, these kids were a black kid beat the odds, learn kung fu, and win something. And that’s important.

Intellectuals and critics discuss the value of and issues of casting with an eye toward diversity. One of the truest values there is that a theater full of kids could much more readily see themselves represented in a black Karate Kid, and there’s something beautiful about that.

The new Karate Kid earned a middling-to-positive reception from critics, and was a big enough success at the box office that it justified a sequel for itself (in production as of the time I’m writing). All of that business aside, the most rewarding aspect of the remake for me was the conversations I heard after the applause had died down, as the latter stages of the credits rolled, and as the theater began to empty out. I heard a boy insistent that he wanted to take karate lessons. I heard a mother telling him it would take a lot of hard work.

The boy gave her a steady, straight-faced nod. “I know.”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

New York City

This post is written in the format of sharing thirty memories/thoughts/stories, each in thirty words or fewer. The focus is on my relationship with New York City.

The long drive My family made pilgrimages to New York three times each year—Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Easter weekend to stay with my father’s parents in Queens.

The alphabet game My sister and I tried to find every letter of the alphabet, in order, on road signs and license plates along the drive. Sometimes collaboratively. More often in competition.

The yellow bucket I grew prone to car sickness. We repurposed a yellow canister that had originally held children’s blocks as my puke bucket.

The tri-tone When we got within range of the City, Dad turned on talk news. I hear the station’s signature tri-tone sound. I still associate that sound with car sickness and boredom.

Chinese people For years, I thought the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers were Chinese people because our visits revolved around my grandparents’ apartment and Chinatown.

Non-Chinese people My Grandma Jean joined the drive once a year to meet an old friend. They saw Broadway shows and drank--my first hint at a non-Chinese part of New York.

Seating arrangements Grandma Jean joined in a Chinese dinner once. I wanted to sit next to her; she insisted that I should want to sit next to the grandparents we were visiting.

Spinning When I was little, my grandfather greeted my sister and I each with a hug and a spin through the air our legs dangling to either side of his potbelly.

Feast My grandmother cooked feasts of beef and spare ribs and broccoli and mushrooms and lobster to devour upon our arrival.

Lobster tales Before dinner, my grandmother kept the lobster alive in the fridge, crawling around produce and milk and eggs and beer.

Dogs My grandparents kept two dogs--their own, Ling-Ling, and my uncle’s, Ginger, the latter a Doberman pinscher I felt certain would maul me if given the opportunity.

Other visitors My uncle ran a pharmacy in the neighborhood. He and his wife stopped by for a later dinner. My uncle and my father traded barbs that rarely sounded good natured.

Museums Once each visit, we started visiting a museum--the Metropolitan Museum of Art or American History Museum. Growing up, I preferred the dinosaurs of the latter.

Buttons My father neither wanted to pay for museum admission, nor look stingy eschewing the suggested donation. We scanned sidewalks for blocks, looking for that day’s colored button to get in.

Musical artifacts A teenager, I grew bored of museums, and lingered on a music exhibit because I thought it would give me fodder to talk with the singer I liked at school.

Another girl At summer camp, I developed an intense crush on a girl from Queens, and spent whole trips hoping to catch sight of her on the street.

Return Summer after freshman year at college, I went to New York with Dad shortly after Mom left him. He meant to keep the break from his mother, but didn’t.

Conference I attended an intercollegiate conference against going to war in Iraq. We slept in the pews of a church our first night, a stranger’s living room in Harlem the second.

Reunion My first fall with a car, I drove to New York to meet up with two childhood friends. One of those nights, I saw Times Square for the first time.

Spring Break A girlfriend and I bused to the City for Spring Break. I was new to drinking and new to bars and ordered a twenty dollar rum and coke.

Last trip Just after college graduation, I made my last drive to New York with Dad. I started to recognize how weird all of those childhood trips were.

Recuperating After a bad break up, I went to New York to stay with a college buddy. I chatted up a young Manhattanite I thought might take me home. She didn’t.

A Cappella I started The A Cappella Blog, and started an annual tradition of traveling to New York to see the college and high school International Finals.

Pie After my first ICCA Finals, my best friend, my girlfriend and I wandered Manhattan with aims on sating a hunger for pie.

Central Park I was supposed to meet my friends in Central Park one year. It took forever to connect with them. But spring had just sprung and the Park was beautiful.

Happy Birthday The year Annie came with us, her birthday fell on the same night as college finals. We got the Buffalo Chips to serenade her with “Happy Birthday.”

White Castle In a drunken stupor, we once walked over two miles to reach a White Castle. It was glorious.

Early morning flight home We stayed at the LaGuardia Hotel. Got in at three in the morning. Had to be out the door by five. I found I was too old for all-nighters.

’Melo I was in Manhattan on business the night Carmelo Anthony debuted at Madison Square Garden. The receipt I turned in for reimbursement was for an eight dollar concession stand hotdog.

Taylor Swift Full disclosure, the first track from 1989, "Welcome to New York," first inspired this post. I’m not ashamed. Nor proud.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Wrestling Show Reading

Most places I go, I read.

I’m notorious for sitting on a weight bench and reading at two-minute intervals between sets. I read in restaurants when I’m out to eat alone. I read at bus stops (and would read on the bus, too, if I weren’t prone to motion sickness).

And, yes, I’ve read at professional wrestling shows.

There was a period from 2008 to 2013 when I attended my share of pro wrestling shows on my own, because I was traveling, or for lack of any interested parties to go with me; it was also as a bit of a statement of independence--that if I wanted to go to a show, I wouldn’t let the absence of company keep me from something I'd enjoy. It started with a couple shows in Baltimore. It spread to shows in California, when I made a short-lived tradition out of following WWE’s annual west coast swing along my California vacation at the end of CTY summers.

And then there was the King of Trios.

Prior to fall of 2012, the only wrestling shows I had attended were put on by WWE, WCW, or TNA—the three biggest US-based national wrestling promotions of the last twenty years. I would venture that most wrestling fans don’t make it past these three, and, in fact, that few have made it past WWE or WCW. These brands each have (or, in WCW’s case, had) national television deals and conducted tours that took their show across the US and even abroad. They were home to all of the household names--the Hulk Hogans, Steve Austins, Rocks, Ric Flairs, and Randy Savages of the world, and all of the guys who were a step down from that legendary status but that people remember from childhood fanship had stopovers there--acts like The Big Boss Man, Ricky Steamboat, and Tatanka.

Guys who work the independent wrestling scene may be on their way up to a national promotion, or they may be riding a wave of fame after having performed at that level. Then there are a bevy of performers who never have and never will make it past regional stardom, but nonetheless ply their trade long and successfully enough to make a living at pro wrestling.

Chikara is one such indie. It’s owned by Mike Quackenbush, and operates primarily out of the northeast and Mid-Atlantic, run in conjunction with Quackenbush’s wrestling school. Quackenbush himself is a mainstay on the independent scene who has crossed paths with his share of big names but never ended up with one of the aforementioned major promotions. (Sidebar: Quackenbush also happens to be an alum of CTY’s writing program).

Most years, they hold King of Trios, a three-day, single elimination tournament in which teams of three wrestlers go head to head, typically featuring a mix of Chikara mainstays, indie talent from other parts of the world, and big names of yesteryear reunited with old comrades. It’s about equal parts wrestling event and festival, featuring three solid shows, yes, but also pre- and post-show meet and greets in which wrestlers will shake hands with fans, pose for pictures, and sign autographs (often, but not always, for a nominal fee).

I took off work to drive two hours north to Easton, Pennsylvania for the show. The first night, I met Tatanka and Tommy Dreamer, then took my seat on one of the steel folding chairs set up on the high school gym floor, and observed three hours of alarmingly good in-ring performances. I was hooked.

But not hooked enough to leave my book at the hotel room.

One of the things you come to notice attending shows alone is all of the dead time. These are the moments when you’d ordinarily talk with your friends, speculating about what will happen at the show, or letting the conversation wander far outside the venue and the world of wrestling.

Alone, you eat your hot dog a little faster for lack of conversation to keep up with. You feel the weight of every passing minute of other people talking, and of looking at an empty ring.

So I started bringing along books.

Books to keep me occupied and entertained. Books to be more productive during otherwise unused times.

For King of Trios weekend, I read Philip Roth’s I Married A Communist, the second in his unofficially named “American trilogy,” which depicts a radio star ruined by allegations of being a communist during the McCarrthy era. It’s a book that met mixed reviews critically, but that I was enjoying as my work skewed more realist and I began to embrace Roth as a profound literary voice.

And on that third night, as I sat in an aisle seat and read during intermission, wrestlers milled about. Veronica approached me, the valet for Mr. Touchdown, a football player heel who acted like the most obnoxious version of high school football player stereotype.

There are different worlds in professional wrestling. There’s the contemporary landscape, in which most wrestlers--at least those in the mainstream--don’t do much to keep up appearances off camera, fully aware of all of the documentaries, podcasts, and tell-all books that have exposed wrestling as not a sport, but rather an athletic, predetermined, theatrical mode entertainment. Thus, they do not act but rather conduct themselves like any actor or celebrity version of themselves--often gracious, sometimes a bit full of themselves, but talking with their fans as human beings.

By contrast, there’s the traditional landscape, steeped in kayfabe. Kayfabe is the suggestion that everything in wrestling is real. It’s the dividing line between real people and what’s portrayed in the ring and in storylines, and, historically, when wrestlers did not broadcast that their craft was scripted, kayfabe was the law of the land and performers stayed in character whenever they interacted with people from outside the wrestling world.

Most of the old stars I met at King of Trios didn’t put on any act with me. In a charming dose of old school, Veronica did.

“What are you doing—reading?” she asked. Her voice was nasal, her forehead scrunched in disgust.

I looked up at her. “I am.”

“Who reads at a wrestling show?”

“I suppose I do.” I was conscious of all of my answers being pretty obvious

“What is it?”

I turned the spine of the thread worn library hard cover to her to show her the title as I spoke it aloud.

“Communists—that’s from, like the seventies." She was trying hard. "Why would you read that now?”

I could tell that I was broaching the edge of character and human being. That she was playing the heel bully--and playing it reasonably well--but I also suspected that her knowledge on the history of communism and the American public’s reactions to it was rusty, and I was skeptical she’d ever encountered this particular novel.

The thought crossed my mind, momentarily, that I might play back at her. Try to play the face foil to her heel chicanery, or even out-heel her and make fun of her absurd purple dress.

Call me kind. Call me slow-witted. The truth probably falls somewhere in between. I said, “It’s pretty good.”

She rolled her eyes and walked away.

To this day, I wonder what Veronica made of me. She had picked on me, and not anyone else in my section. Maybe I looked like an easy target, sitting alone with a book in hand. Maybe there was something flirtatious in a woman around my own age stopping by to tease me about my reading habit.

Maybe she talked about me afterward to the other wrestlers. About the geek reading about communists in the middle of a wrestling show, in the United States of friggin’ America.

I’ll never know for sure, and I doubt the moment stuck with her. I turned back to my book in the meantime, though, and continued my journey through until the next bell rang, signaling the start of the next match.