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 fiancĂ©e 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.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Dreams of Animals

When I was a teenager, my father told me about a dream he had had. The memory stands out, in no small part, because it’s the only time I recall my father telling me about a dream. It stands out, too, because the dream was about me.

In that dream, there was a bird in the window. I forget the particulars but maybe it was nesting there, or fluttering in some state of suspension, half inside, half out. In my visualization of the scene, it happened in my childhood bedroom with the perpetually dusty windowsill, over the stringy yellow carpet we never vacuumed.

There was a bird, my father said, and while he was considering how to get rid of it, I came at it. I slammed a pillow against the bird, its chest, its head, and sent it plummeting to its death in the yard twenty feet below.

My mother intervened in the story, perhaps trying to make sense of it in an honest interpretation, perhaps scrambling to spin it. “Your dad thinks of you as a warrior.”

The dream must have rattled my father. To not only speak of it, to carry on and recount his own feelings from that scene. “I felt bad for the bird.”

I understood him. That though I remained a gangly, quiet, largely unassertive kid, the world was coming for me. We had started our not-yet-legal driving lessons in vacant sections of the shopping mall parking lot, and he had seen me grow frustrated at his instruction and lay my foot a little heavier on the gas to take a turn more sharply than I ought to. A new obsession with basketball had lent me a habit of dribbling an old Nerf soccer ball around my room. I was growing up and my father--or at least his subconscious--recognized my potential for calamity and disaster, less out of design than poor judgment and poorer communication, entwined in a body that was evolving from boy to man, enabled by the onset of meaningful responsibilities in my life.

My father didn’t see me as a warrior. He saw me as rash and blunt and awkward enough to murder an innocent bird before he could enact a more prudent and humane course of action.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that it was only a few nights later when I dreamed of another animal intruding on our home. This time it was a foot-long lizard--bizarrely out of place in our upstate New York habitat--and for some reason, in this dream, I was convinced it was an insect, and I needed to squash it. I folded my hands together, interlocking fingers and came down on the creature’s back. Sometime between devising my plan and making contact, I recognized how foolish it was. That this was not, in fact, a bug, and that I was not coming down with enough force to meaningfully hurt, much less kill a creature of this size. I pressed down and like my non-dreamt rubber alligator of similar proportions, the creature deflated in the middle, beneath my weight, puffing out gently at each end where the air had diffused. The lizard turned on me, though, not with alarming speed or aggression, perhaps because in this dream space I was not equipped to combat it. The lizard’s mouth latched onto my neck, toothless, and began to suck at me. I couldn’t pull him off and became aware that the creature was sucking away my life, and I would die on that kitchen floor without assistance.

My mother and father were there and cognizant of what was happening. They chastised me for attacking the lizard in the first place. It was unclear if they’d help me.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Kelly’s Burned Down

I remember my twenty-first birthday. It wasn’t the first time I had drunk. But it was the first time I drank at Kelly’s.

Kelly’s had a reputation. There was no mistaking it as a dive--in Geneseo, a small college town without any legitimately nice or hip bars to speak of, Kelly’s Saloon was the lowest of the low. Walls littered with Sharpie writing. Dim lighting. Rows upon rows of bottom-shelf liquor.

Freshman year, my eighteenth birthday had fallen on the first day of classes, one of the loneliest experiences of my undergrad years for having made exactly zero new friends, in an era before Facebook birthday reminders and a week before my RA was equipped to start posting happy birthday banners outside anyone’s room.

Senior year, we celebrated.

We started at Kelly’s. I recall five or six of us lining the bar. The traditional insistence that I not buy my own drinks on that occasion. Asking for a rum and coke watching the heavily tattooed bartender pour rum up to the top line of the glass, then filling in the difference with a dash of Coca Cola from the tap.

One drink in and my face had turned bright red, my head had gone light. I was staggering.


Ten years after graduation, I got word of the fire.

There was an electrical fire on Main Street. Kelly’s had burned down.

I saw it on Facebook, posted by an old friend, then dutifully shared the news article with a caption approximating a Wilhelm scream of “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Word spread, different news articles, different outlets, the same sparse facts. No conspiracy. Little in the way of human interest stories. Just word of the fire.

Then the jokes, circling around incredulity that the bar, notoriously soaked in alcohol hadn’t exploded.

The sentimentality came afterward as we realized what we had lost. I hadn’t set foot in Kelly’s for at least five years, but the bar remained an especially poignant point of nostalgia for the knowledge that it hadn’t changed and it never would. It was the kind of bar that probably should have been improved upon, cleaned up, renovated, decades earlier that had resisted even cosmetic adjustment, and circled around to grow all the more charming for always remaining the same dank hole in the wall.

When I began to write this post, I tried to research if there were a Kelly that the bar had been named after. Maybe it’s a generic Irish name for a generic Irish pub that peddled green souvenir t-shirts with white shamrocks printed at their center. Maybe it was the original owner’s last name. Maybe it bespeaks the name of a woman someone once loved. I imagine a story of unrequited love, or the proverbial one who got away, or a woman who, herself, died in some fire or plane crash or other random happenstance not unlike the destruction of the bar itself, and a forelorn lover who drowned all sensation of love in beer after beer, whiskey after whiskey.

I found nothing.

But therein lies another piece of the charm of a place like Kelly’s. A refusal to succumb to such romanticism, a place that lived in the here and now of pouring stiff drinks for the embittered, the lushes, the celebratory. The townies. The college kids who had just turned 21, or who were making the most of their fake IDs.

In the mode of the day--disasters and recovery narratives, the next news that broke about Kelly’s centered on word that the business would come back. Timelines. Fundraising efforts.

I hope it’s all true. Sort of.

But then there remains that selfish part of me that knows Kelly’s will never be the same, and thus never be mine again.

Just the same, in an exposure of my own sentimentality and idealism, I exchanged texts with an old college friends in the days to follow. Vowing that when Kelly’s returned, so would we. Believing that everything burnt might one day rise from the ashes.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Honk and Nessa

From early in our relationship, Heather and I noticed certain affinities in common. We met on account of working for the same summer program. We had our first real and personal talk on account of her playing my favorite Indigo Girls song in her office one day. We found that we both have a love of Muppets that is rooted in childhood. We enjoy beaches and travel and gringo-style tacos.

And childish things.

We started long distance. I would visit her home in San Diego, where I discovered Nessa--a Cabbage Patch doll from Heather’s childhood. One of the few possessions she had the chance to hold onto across many-a-move as a child, and even more moves as an adult. She treasured Nessa. Had both taken pains to keep her in good condition, but also still slept cradling Nessa in her arms as often as not.

Heather would come to my apartment in Baltimore, and she discovered Honk. A My Pet Monster whose impractically heavy plastic nose had long ago broken from his face, so that his inner white stuffing burgeoned to the surface. Propped on his feet, Honk stands about two and a half feet tall. I had had him since he stood chest-high on me--an oversized inanimate buddy who I had sat beside in my first attempts at writing stories back in elementary school, and who had bodyslammed on my bed in any number of pro wrestling fantasies.

Heather and I talk about having children, and, more immediately, about adopting cats. In the meantime, Honk and Nessa have functioned something like surrogates. I put them together on a mini-papasan chair when we first moved in together. Heather worried that Nessa looked scared of the monster beside her. Later, I posited that they looked as though they were on a date with each other--telling one another stories, their upward gaze representative of them looking at the stars, muddling through the faintest, most abstract knowledge of what constellations might await them.

Heather always says hello to Nessa and Honk when she comes back from trips, and a number of times I've welcomed her home with comic drawings of what they were up to while she was away.

We’re careful never to cover their faces when we drape dirty clothes over the papasan. We want to make sure they can breathe.

For all of this silliness and play, I think the heart of our care for this inanimate pair has less to do with indulging childhood play than an extension of who Heather and I are--a drive to externalize our community of two, and to share more pieces of who each of us once were with each other. To pretend that Honk and Nessa are as excited to be with each other, and with us, as we are to have them near.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

My Fantasy Career

We want control.

Backseat drivers. Commenters on political news articles. Armchair quarterbacks.

Fantasy GMs.

I had my introduction to the world of fantasy sports in high school. I forget the mechanics of how it worked, but I recall friends luring me into the world of fantasy baseball--a sport I never much cared for, and could never really claim to know all that much about. A fantasy I chose to partake in more to be part of the crowd than out of a genuine interest in the game. I drafted a relief pitcher--the best relief pitcher, mind you--with my first draft pick. My friends scoffed. Apparently, you didn’t start picking relief pitchers until much later rounds of a draft.

My main memories of this first foray into fantasy sports was waiting for moments when girls I crushed on walked nearby, and proceeding act like a knew what I was talking about, using the kind of vocabulary and cadence with which I’d heard sports big wigs talk on TV.

But then there was fantasy basketball. In a period of my life when I watched NBA games compulsively, obsessed over my basketball card collection, played NBA Jam daily, and, whenever the weather permitted, shot hoops at the local playground, participating in a fantasy basketball league seemed like an obvious step.

But I didn’t know of any such league.

I should note that this all happened in the fledgling days of the Internet, when our family, like most, used dial up to get online and loading the most basic web pages took a matter of minutes. While my understanding is that online fantasy leagues had started to take shape, using them, like using most aspects of the Internet at the time, was at least as annoying as it was enjoyable.

Thus, I developed my own system for a fantasy basketball league. I concocted formulas that took into account points and assists per game, and shooting percentage statistics to give players overall offensive value numbers; I considered blocks and steals for defense. From there, I developed a system of random numbers to determine how players would fare against each other, using a literal roll of dice, to account for random happenstance of which players would beat out others, position-for-position, to determine who would win games. I’d even woven in a randomized system to put players out for injury at different intervals throughout the season.

I explained to my lunchtime crew the details of what I had worked out. Most of them were confused, but willing to go along with the experiment. One even nerdier friend pointed out the overwhelming similarities between my rudimentary system and the mechanics of how Dungeons and Dragons functioned.

Leading up to draft day, Ben told me that my set up sounded dumb, and that he could simulate the whole thing on NBA Live 1999 instead.

Putting my hurt pride aside, the time investment of executing my system over a projected 82-game season, versus letting his Play Station handle it all had its merits.

Thus, we proceeded with an in-person, on-paper draft to forge eight teams of twelve to play on Ben’s TV screen.

The first couple nights of the experiment went well. My team unbeaten. The beginnings of trash talk for fledgling rivalries and foreseen big games between championship contenders.

Then Ben got impatient and played out the next three seasons.

Gone were the nuances of trades, or the dramatic build of a playoff series. My team had gone to Finals all three of the seasons and won twice--the points Ben emphasized for me. And though I tried to argue the point that he had no right turn NBA Live into warp drive and peer into the future, no one else seemed to much care.

So I let it go.

I tried fantasy basketball again about six or seven years later, after college, when Internet speeds had improved and online fantasy technology had grown more advanced. But most well-developed systems required entry fees and whenever I dipped my toe in the water of ostensibly free ones, I quickly discovered layers of nuance I had never anticipated. Not just the prospect of assembling a roster, but considerations of salary caps and the variety of intangibles beyond superficial statistical information that these systems took into consideration.

Moreover, I felt an immediate pressure. These fantasy leagues tied in directly to real-life occurrences, such that real-world injuries could cripple rosters, and real-life trades could lead diminished playing time for one player, or touches ballooning for another.

It doesn’t help that my passion for watching basketball had waned in this period—in the aftermath of my beloved New York Knicks as championship contenders and the retirement of Michael Jordan, plus the arrival of a host of new rookies who I struggled to keep track of. I recognize that it isn’t really contemporary fantasy leagues that are to blame for my failure to engage with them; it was at least equally my own diminished interest and refusal to let fantasy basketball become a twenty-hour-a-week avocation.

I was invited into the fantasy world again about five years later, living in Baltimore where a hot period for The Ravens seemed to make everyone a die hard NFL fan. My colleagues staged fantasy drafts over lunch hours and were at least as invested as my high school buddies and I had been in how the season would proceed.

Time and again I got the call to join in. Time and again, I passed.

For in that time in Baltimore, I had rediscovered a truth that I suppose I'd known all along. That I couldn’t both participate and not care. My first year working in Baltimore, I participated in an ongoing American Idolprediction game, and not only watched, but compulsively studied the show in an effort to win. When I considered the time that would be necessary for me to not just participate, but be competitive in a fantasy football league, obsessing over a sport that I didn’t even like, I failed to see any meaningful rewards.

And thus, my fantasy career died.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Watch and Rewatch

I grew up not reconsuming media.

With the exception of one, particular favorite (Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons), I didn’t re-read books, perhaps because I only liked reading enough to justify one pass through a towering pile of two hundred-plus pages of text.

Moreover, as devout as my family was about watching the same television shows from week to week without skipping an episode (even taking advantage of VCR recording to keep track of shows we had to miss, or that conflicted with other programs that took precedence), when it came time for summer reruns, we tuned out, and favored catching up on video rentals from the preceding month. My father would copy some of these movies from one VHS tape to another, with what was a startlingly modern two-VCR set up for the time, and we would watch some of these films over, but typically at the behest of my parents, particularly if we edged toward the same movie more than once in the same month. Aren’t you sick of that? they would ask, in reference to The Great Muppet Caper, Follow That Bird, and oddly enough Beaches (the Bette Midler vehicle out of which I still feel a sort of absurd emotional attachment to “The Wind Beneath My Wings”).

This was before the days when people like Malcolm Gladwell had exposed to the masses that kids love routine and predictability and that rewatching television shows and films are a normal portion of development that, when used appropriately, can even be a learning tool to internalized the implicit or explicit lessons of a given product. I think my parents were more concerned with reinforcing expansiveness instead--being conscious that there’s a whole world of books, movies, television shows, songs, paintings, and places to consume and thus we should keep moving on.

I share all of this, in part, to contextualize the abrupt shift when I started hanging out with Mike (my best friend of twenty-five years, not a third-person reference to myself). I recall lazy summer days in the living room of his house, and a day when we watched Blank Check. The film is child’s fantasy in which a wealthy businessman accidentally wrecks a kid’s bike. In a hurry, the tycoon leaves the kid the eponymous blank check to pay for whatever the damages may be, and the kid ends up cashing it for a cool million dollars (note: I have not done my homework and am recounting this plot purely based on memories from over twenty years ago). Hijinks ensue, and along the way kid learns that money can’t buy happiness.

This is an un-nuanced, poorly acted movie with little to no redeeming value beyond the initial conceit that a kid gets to live out the fantasy of having boat loads of money to do with as he pleases. I found myself marginally drawn into it, but considered it an indulgence and an exploration--a rare stopover into something puerile that was enjoyable enough at the time but that would have little impact on my life. It was a sugary soda. A comic book. A crude crayon drawing. A fine enough way to pass ninety minutes before being done with it forever.

But then Mike wanted to watch it again.

“We just wateched it,” I said.

“So?” he asked.

And so would begin a summer chock full of watching rewatching bad movies, each a half dozen or more times. Yes, we would also play basketball outside, and we would talk, but with our only adult supervision his grandmother who lived in a downstairs apartment, we were largely left to our own devices, and largely wound up in front of the TV.

I didn’t own this part of my identity. I thought it was an aberration in my own behavior, for which I kind-of-sort-of looked down on Mike for not reading more or making art, oblivious to the fact that in following his lead for all of those afternoons, I was, at best, the same.

And then I discovered my own fascination with reconsuming media.

It started with My So-Called Life--the first television show that I truly fell in love with, feeling the sensation that these writers and actresses and actors got something fundamental about the human condition as I experienced it. The feelings only intensified when the ABC Network unceremoniously cancelled the show, leaving it at one perfect season that I would both treasure and have the fuel to feel righteously indignant about for years to follow. MTV acquired the rights to the show and would air weekend marathons of it, that I dutifully sat through as much of as I could. In the years to follow, selected episodes came out in VHS release. As soon as I had the requisite Christmas, birthday, or allowance money saved up, I bought them and rewatched them with a passion that re-stirred my mother’s questions from my much younger days about how I could tolerate watching the same forty-five minutes of programming over and over again.

I followed up that passion with an obsession over the world of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I got hooked based on a rerun of “Bothered, Bewitched, and Bewildered,” the summer between seasons two and three. Newly equipped with Internet access, I printed off full transcripts of the scripts of all the episodes I had missed and I started buying blank VHS tapes to record episodes as they aired so I might consume them all time and again.

I grew immersed in the world of BtVS--in its characters and its mythologies. I studied episodes and looked up the pop culture references I didn’t understand. I read spoilers in hopes of picking up on overarching trajectories where they began.

My BtVS obsession became something like scholarly study--unregimented and unpoliced, but just the same rigorous, and driven by predisposition. Thus, it planted the seeds of study to follow. For years of reading and rereading to figure out how things worked. Until they weren’t fun anymore and I fell out of love. Until I loved them all over again.

As a composition instructor, I subjected my students to a microcosm of this experience. Given the opportunity, I eschewed the traditional study of a literary text in favor of focusing on music videos. I challenged each student to select one and write a detailed analysis. Then to incorporate research about the video, the song, the artist, or most ideally some bigger issue that all of this introduced. Then they crafted term papers--six-to-eight pages of sustained argument.

When they picked their video to study, I cautioned them that they may not want to pick songs they loved. Because in order to do the video justice (and to succeed in the progression of the assignment) they would need to watch and listen over and over again. Until they, too, had grown tired of the original media, and with the full knowledge that many of them may not go far enough rediscover or reinforce that original love, but rather just grow bored and forever associate that music video with middling attempts at papers and middling grades from their first-year comp instructor.

Some of them didn’t like me or their video by the halfway point of the term.

Some of them did.

But whether they agreed with me or not, and whether or not they ended up embracing such iterative processes, I came to recognize the value of the process in my own life. For intellectual study, yes, but also for letting myself go. For re-listening to the same holiday jingle that strikes my fancy ad nauseum in December. For still cycling back to watch favorite episodes of My So-Called Life and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fifteen to twenty years after I sat in awe of them the first time.

I can mouth along the words to most of the dialogue. See, in my mind’s eye, still frames of the actions to come.

Sometimes I still discover something new.

And sometimes, I still sit in the comfort of the familiar. In a life full of change, I embrace these kernels of my teenage years and all the while add new media to my canon. The stuff that shapes an identity. Watched and rewatched.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

On Basketball Cards

I can still remember the joy of it.

Foil wrappers breaking open at the top seam after I lifted the lip on one side, pinched the other side between my thumb and forefinger and pulled. Do it enough times and you’ll never tear a wrapper again.

Sometimes I saved those wrappers but as days turned to weeks to months to years, I lost most sentimentality about such things, crumpling them in to a hidden pile, not to go out with the regular trash, so that my parents would never get a sense of just how much of my disposable income was disposed upon the world of basketball trading cards.

And I got to the cards. I rifled through these glossy pieces of 2.5 by 3.5 inch cardboard. Each with a full color photograph of a crossover, or a jump shot, or a slam dunk. I was looking for stars. From 1995 to 1999, my prime collecting years, Michael Jordan cards consistently drew the highest valuation of any active player; Shaquille O’neal, Anfernee Hardaway, and Grant Hill weren’t far behind. The cards of lesser stars—the guys who came off the bench for middling teams, were deemed “common cards” all valued at the same base level of approximately five cents (though, for a premium brand like Flair, commons could be marked as high as a quarter).

And then there were inserts—dubbed as such for their random insertion into different packs, at different rates. A 1:5 ratio (one card inserted for every five packs was good); 1:36 was premium—statistically, one card for every thirty-six-pack box. And then there were higher ratios than that. Inserts tended to feature more ornate designs, often themed around a specific style of player like young players on the rise or the NBA’s best dunkers. They had more exclusive rosters, often including only upper-tier players, and the relative scarcity of the cards gave them an immediately higher valuation—insert common cards often worth a dollar more, and inserts of star players typically reaching into the double if not triple digit values. In the latter days of my collecting habit, autographed cards, and cards that encased swaths of actual game-worn jerseys became all the rage and drew exorbitant dollar values, reaching into the thousands.

But my interest started with a single card. A 1990-91 card of Christian Welp, produced by Hoops—an economy brand of the larger Skybox card company (many companies featured different lines ranging from the economy ones that sold for a dollar a pack, to premium that went for five dollars and up). When my best friend started collecting, already a couple years ahead of me in his obsession with basketball, I looked at his cards and recalled this Christian Welp one that had come tucked in a cereal box. I couldn’t remember Welp’s name, though, and thought it might have been Christian Laettner or Chris Mullin—I was sure he was white and the name started with Chris. Enthusiastic at any prospect of a card worth anything, my friend urged me to find the card and bring it over. So I ran home and dug it out a stack of potentially important artifacts, placed in my nightstand drawer to separate them from the rest of the clutter of my room. I remember the sight of that card when I excavated from its miscellaneous pile, amidst copies of TV Guide with covers I liked, a VHS compilation of The Best of WrestleMania, a school paper that my Language Arts teacher had left especially nice comments on. The card was mercifully unbent and a little dusty. And it featured Christian Welp.

I brought the card to my friend's house, already guessing that I had overestimated its worth. But when he looked at it and asked, “Who’s Christian Welp?” I knew for sure that I had a dud—my first common card.

Still, I had discovered that initial rush. The prospect of holding something valuable in your hands that even discovering it was worthless couldn’t wholly diminish. A souvenir from the fundamentally attractive world of basketball, but also the prospect of a long-term investment. I heard stories of how previous generations fed trading cards through the spokes of their bicycles, ruining them worse with each spin of the tires. Mass production and a quorum of serious collectors, conscious of condition, meant that the scarcity of cards from decades past would never truly be reproduced; the market was already inflated, and I was unlikely to see that much return on my investment. I knew that intellectually. Just the same, for every idealistic, pseudo-pragmatic, and personal purpose, I was hooked on collecting and preserving.

That weekend, when my parents brought me to the mall, I spent twenty dollars stocking up on different packs of cards--mostly Upper Deck’s economy set, Collector’s Choice. I came home and found I’d scored a fairly rare insert of the fairly highly valued Hakeem Olajuwan, my first card valued as high as fifteen dollars. The habit was reinforced.

Before long, the random opening of packs had become just one dimension of the basketball card game. There were singles as well. Card shops opened their own packs or bought cards from collectors that were of a relatively high value and put them under glass showcases in their stores. They typically sold these cards for a bit less than book value to encourage sales. Thus there came a choice—buy packs for the inherent pleasure of gambling and chance at an unexpected score, or buy a single and know exactly what you were getting.

I, of course, engaged in both. I burned through any cash I could get my hands on in short order. Moreover, the trading aspect of trading cards drew into sharp focus. It started with my friend who got me hooked and I swapping cards, each having our favorites we protected fiercely, each having the cards we were willing to let go. Our natural predispositions toward quality (him) and quantity (me) came into sharper focus when we made our biggest trade, two cards with a combined value of about twelve dollars on my end, in exchange for all of his common cards—a boon of several hundred cards that was cumulatively easily several times more valuable, but no individual card of which was worth more than a dime.

As an aside, I should clarify that we drew our valuations from Beckett magazines—in particular, Beckett Basketball Monthly, a periodical that featured about fifty newsprint pages worth of pricing guides per issue, stretching back to the 1948 Bowman’s Best series (George Mikan’s rookie card from that series was, for the bulk of my collecting days, the crown jewel of the basketball card collecting world) up to the most recent releases. The other half of the magazine was devoted to glossy color pages with articles about basketball, decent journalism curated and edited with an eye toward rationalizing valuations and spotlighting contemporary money draws.

My trading circles spread to about five other boys on the school bus. Of all of them, I carried the most substantial collection to and from school each day, a white two-inch binder chock full of three-by-three protective plastic sheets in which I organized cards by player--first by their relative dollar values, then in alphabetical order. Others had smaller binders, some just a collection of hard plastic cases, others loose cards with bent edges, bound in rubber bands.

There were good trades and bad trades. On the school bus, we rarely pulled out price guides—at best a nerdy practice, at worst a suggestion that you didn’t trust what another collector was quoting you (albeit with good reason, since most of us inflated our prices to a reasonable degree—sometimes to deceive, sometimes to balance out the perceived mark up on the other end). As my trading circles spread into the school, it became an unexpected delight to trade with someone less concerned with price values, more concerned with collecting cards of their favorite players, or perhaps even purer, for which the pure aesthetics of the card gelled with their sensibilities.

In the latter days of my collecting, I eased from spending money on cards on a weekly basis and making trades daily, into buying a pack on a lark once every few months, and rarely breaking out my binder. But I did settle into that purer space, focusing on my collection of cards featuring my favorite player from my favorite team, Patrick Ewing. Unconcerned with dollar values, I focused on sheer quantity, accumulating two hundred-plus Ewing cards by the time I stopped actively pursuing my collection. A few years later, my best friend bookended the whole experience with a Christmas gift of a 1986-1987 Fleer Ewing card—officially recognized as his rookie card, bearing a book value of fifty dollars.

I still own the overwhelming majority of this card collection. A framed display of seven of my favorite and highest valued cards remains a memento from a different time. The remaining collection sits, split into two cardboard boxes I haven't meaningfully sorted through in over a decade. I realize that I probably should sell off the bulk of it—that I could feasibly score a couple hundred bucks if I struck the fancy of the right buyer on eBay.

Just the same, like anyone who once knew the magic of collecting cards, I crumble at the idea of letting go altogether. I'm holding onto nostalgia, sure, but just as sure continuing to take the sucker’s bet that one day these cards may swell in value, or that I might pass them on to a son or daughter who will care about them as much as I did.

So, I wait. All of those cards, like the joy that once surrounded them, collecting dust.