Monday, December 7, 2015

The Fog of War, the Aftermath of Bacon

#63: East Side Story (Squeeze, 1981)

“He leaves his cigarette burning on the desk.
His clothes and magazines make up such a mess.
Sitting up in bed, transistor on his chest,
in quintessence.”

The genre-jumping marvel called East Side Story — Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook’s White Album, really — begins with the bouncy, amusing “In Quintessence,” painting the picture of a 15-year-old loser sitting amid his vices, fantasizing about a girlfriend who may or may not actually exist.
My main vice at 15 was probably self-righteousness. It certainly wasn’t my deep strain of geekiness, which, even then, I recognized as a feature, not a bug.
Case in point: the countless hours spent playing Ambush!, a solitaire, squad-level, World War II simulator published — along with a series of add-on modules — by Victory Games back in the 1980s.
You’ve probably never heard of Ambush! But as a sprawling, solitaire, go-at-your-own-pace experience, it appeals to my contemplative, loner side, and has been my favorite tabletop game since I first read about it in Games magazine during my high-school years. Its creators have talked about the rigors of designing and then testing each mission, which is why, after sales flagged in the late ’80s, they just stopped making more.
That’s too bad; its ingenious system — based on a complex mesh of charts, tables, and paragraphs which hide enemy positions from view until you’re attacked — makes it very difficult to create your own scenarios (and, if you manage to do so, they’re virtually unplayable to you, the designer, since you built in all the secrets yourself). Hardy souls have managed to produce a handful of new missions (and I’ve bought their work on eBay), but for the most part, you’re left with the 36 original scenarios that Victory Games released in six separate modules between 1983 and 1988.
Still, replayability is good, especially if you wait a few years between dusting off the boxes. I retrieved my boxes from the basement in 2011, shortly after I turned 40, and played every single mission over the next few months — the first time I had played since the mid-1990s. As midlife crises go, I suppose it could have been worse. I’m sure Ill dive in again someday.
Back in the ’80s, I used to spend many a weekend at my Nana and Pop Pop’s huge, multi-family house in Bridgeport, which will always be the special house of my soul. I’d set up a couple rickety TV trays in the living room, spread out my maps and charts and counters, and play into the night, long after they went to bed. Eventually I’d grow tired, creep down the loudly creaking hallway, and crawl into the spare-room bed with its heavy layers of comforting blankets. In the morning, Nana would let me sleep in and then make fried eggs and bacon when I did decide to emerge. After breakfast, it was back to the couch to fend off German machine guns and tanks.
We rarely make bacon at home these days, but I always order it when we eat breakfast out, mainly at a local diner housed in a converted train car. I don’t mean to be gross here, but it’s an amazing thing: later those mornings, inevitably, I’ll burp and taste bacon, and, for a second, my mind palpably shifts, and I’m 15 years old again, sitting on Nana’s couch, creeping through a battle-torn French field, semi-automatic rifle — well, a pair of dice, anyway — raised and ready.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Swimming Lessons

#64: The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (The Incredible String Band, 1968)

“God made a song when the world was new.
Water’s laughter sings it through.
O wizard of changes, teach me the lesson of flowing.”

Who is the hangman’s beautiful daughter? Robin Williamson had an answer back in 1968:

“The hangman is death, and the beautiful daughter is what comes after. Or, you might say that the hangman is the past 20 years of our life, and the beautiful daughter is now, what we are able to do after all these years. Or, you can make up your own meaning — your interpretation is probably just as good as ours.”

And then he fell back asleep on a mossy log between two toads who were crocheting him a robe made of unicorn hairs and infant dreams, or something. Because that’s sort of how I picture these guys.
My stepfather died two years ago today, and the next morning, on Facebook, I posted a longish tribute to our not-always-perfect lives together. It resonated with lots of folks who knew him and many who didn’t, and I was grateful for that. Among the comments was a left-field memory from my mom’s lifelong friend Jennifer — our neighbor across the street during my childhood in Stratford — who recalled hearing about how my stepdad had forced me to overcome my fear of water:

“Your Dad thought you needed to learn how to swim — like, that day. So Ray threw you in your pool, while your Mom was so upset. His logic: ‘Cari, he needs to learn how to swim,’ and with that comment, your Mom in her loud voice … ‘not like that, Ray!’”

It’s true. I was 5 years old, living upstairs in the yellow house on Merritt Street in Bridgeport, and our landlord had a big pool out back we could use. Not that I wanted to. My mom had taken me, at various times during my preschool years, to swimming lessons — probably at a local Y — but I was terrified to let go of the kickboard or venture too far from the side of the pool. It must have been terribly frustrating for her.
Anyway, we were having a pool party in the backyard one day, and I refused to go anywhere near the water, and my stepdad — who hadn’t been in my life all that long, so I was still learning to trust him — had had enough. And he picked me up, quite matter-of-factly, and threw me into the middle of the pool.
I can’t recall the details of how I felt, except that I certainly wailed about it — at first. But, by the end of the afternoon, I was swimming like a fish. All the fear was gone.
He and my dad — who, is, thankfully, still around — were always very different people, and there’s a certain blessing in that. I related more to my father and have always been comfortable talking with him; we’re similar in a lot of ways and share many of the same interests and intellectual quirks, so he became the emotional anchor I would never allow my stepdad to be during the sometimes-difficult teen years, when we clashed on a regular basis. But, looking back as an adult, when I finally felt at ease with both of them, I knew I had been doubly blessed.
I guess that’s a roundabout way of saying my father would never have thrown me in the pool. But sometimes, you have to get thrown in the pool.
The essay I wrote the day after my stepdad died is reprinted almost in its entirety at #106 of this blog. I say ‘almost,’ because I took out a paragraph about how my mom, who had a very long, loving second marriage, would likely never marry again. But she did, less than a year later, to a man who’d lost his wife the same week my stepdad died.
It was a surprise, and to be honest, it seemed like it was happening way too fast. But you know what? She’s really happy, sailing confidently into this new phase of her life, and Im happy for her.
Because the hangman is death, and the beautiful daughter is what comes after.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Watch Me Whip

#65: Rubáiyát (Various Artists, 1990)

“You gave away the things you loved,
and one of them was me.”

Somewhere around 2004, after watching too many episodes of Clean Sweep — a TLC show where homeowners bargain with the hosts over how much household clutter they’re forced to throw away — I went into a purge mentality and tossed a bunch of stuff I didn’t need, and a few things I now regret dumping, like my spelling-bee and Bible Quiz trophies, the only awards I’ve ever won.
My Nelson wound up in the pile, too, but I have no regrets over that. Only fond memories.
It all started in a technical-writing class during my junior year of college. As part of a chapter on … I don’t know, maybe marketing or manual writing, the textbook included copy about a lawn sprinkler produced by the esteemed Nelson company. Mrs. Shedd was reading the text out loud, which detailed a brown, dead lawn and finished with the words — and this is a direct quote — “now is the right time to whip out your Nelson.”
Now, some of the guys in my journalism classes were, like me, prone to severe bouts of post-teenage silliness. So it took significant reserves of self-restraint not to burst out in laughter. We did not possess those reserves. And, because this was a Christian college, where many students simply did not appreciate the sheer cosmic perfection of the line “now is the right time to whip out your Nelson,” we got lots of scornful ‘calm down, boys’ looks from our more mature classmates. They are probably now youth pastors, while we are business writers with a self-indulgent blog. To her credit, Mrs. Shedd just kept teaching while we wiped moisture from the corners of our eyes.
One of those classmates was also one of my suitemates, who had helped build a massive loft in our room the first week of September. Each floor in Evangel College’s residence halls comprise nine two-room suites, usually two students to a room, sharing one bathroom between them. There were only three in our suite that year, and the loft structure allowed us to put all three beds and desks in one room, turning the other side into a rec area with couches and music and video games. My roommates also decided to remove the bathroom doors, as they had some odd aversion to privacy. Cleanliness was good, though; above the toilet was a handmade sign with a target and the words, “we aim to please, so please aim.” This was my junior year, people.
The loft was also an excuse for creative expression, where we’d write funny comments and quotes from 1989-era pop culture, like Batman and The Simpsons. Inevitably, one prominent plank became home to large, black, capital letters reading, WHIP OUT YOUR NELSON.
I’m not proud of any of this. Well, maybe a little.
Around the same time, a low, counter-style table attached to a wall in our college newspaper office lost one of the wooden legs that helped stabilize it. When Greg — my roommate and tech-writing classmate — found it lying on the table, looking pathetic, he grabbed a dark blue marker and wrote neatly on the leg, MY NELSON. Which was a strikingly self-confident thing to write, I suppose.
And there My Nelson sat, lonely and sad, under growing piles of scrap paper, for the rest of the school year. While helping to clean up the office in late spring, having grown fond of My Nelson, I grabbed it and stuck it in one of my suitcases to fly home. And, for some reason, packed it for the return trip to EC for my senior year, where it mostly sat on a bookshelf overlooking my desk.
I was in an oddly content mood that fall. I found myself feeling more at home in my own skin, more openly myself. I was elected floor president, and I felt, maybe for the first time, like I was a known entity on campus — at least known for more than my oddball newspaper columns.
That was the year I really started to dig into the history of pop and rock music, devouring books that still line my shelves. I was delighted when Elektra Records celebrated its 40th anniversary that fall with Rubáiyát, a 39-song tribute album featuring its then-current artists covering the label’s back catalog, with eclectic results. I used to pop in stuff like Faster Pussycat’s thrashy “You’re So Vain” during open houses in my dorm room to see how long it would take for folks to recognize it.
I felt simultaneously provocative and emotionally at ease. During the spring of 1991, I rocked pantyhose and a fake flower in my hair playing a man playing a woman in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then, weeks later, hung the flower from a buttonhole in my polo shirt as I took the stage to sing in public at a coffeehouse event — yes, sing! Me! — then kept the pantyhose for the following fall, when I wrote myself into a campus production, playing a female teacher. I can’t tell you how many times during 1991 someone I didn’t know walked up to me on campus and said, “dude … I never would have done that.” I’d always answer back, “did you laugh?” They’d always say yes, and I would be happy.
I also learned how to twirl My Nelson like a baton, and when each residence-hall floor took part in a homecoming parade through the streets of Springfield in the fall of 1990, I stood on the bed of my friend Scott’s pickup truck, balancing myself with one hand, twirling with the other. A few weeks later, at another floor event, a talent show, I stood up in front of a roomful of floormates and ladies from our sister floor, popped in the theme music from Field of Dreams on a little boombox, and proceeded to balance My Nelson, a roll of toilet paper, a root-beer bottle, and a tennis ball, in that order, on my outstretched palm, while reciting “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I won second place. And people laughed. And I was happy.
Clearly, My Nelson and I had developed a bond not easily broken. Which may explain why I kept toting it around, through all 10 post-college moves over the next decade and a half, usually keeping it in view on a shelf or something, rather than hidden away in a closet.
But, as I said, life shifts in odd directions, and the same weird housecleaning urge that drew my only trophies to the front lawn also brought My Nelson to its sad end in the Chicopee landfill. It’s OK, though. I mean, I’m an adult. It was time to whip it out.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Girl with the Snow in Her Hair

#66: Horrendous Disc (Daniel Amos, 1981)

“Now if I said it real pretty in a pretty rhyme,
does your mind get cloudy? That’s a dirty crime.
Does it do things any good to tell you
that I’m standing here because I love you?”

It was, to the few who dug them at the time, a true huh? moment, and one that effectively launched Christian alternative rock. Daniel Amos — whose lineup would morph over the next 40 years but remain fronted by its dominant songwriter, Terry Taylor — had recorded two quirky but tasteful countryish albums in 1976 and 1977 before moving to a harder edge, veined with Beatles and Steely Dan influences, on Horrendous Disc, which they completed in 1978.
There’s a long story behind why it was shelved and sat, unreleased, for three years, but by the time Horrendous Disc saw the light of day in the spring of 1981, it was followed, less than a month later, by the next DA disc, ¡Alarma!, a startling burst of jittery new wave. This double-barreled jolt of musical schizophrenia likely chased away some of the band’s early fanbase, but it was just the beginning for Taylor and company, who would, over the ensuing decades, delight devotees like me by making wholesale stylistic changes with almost every album.
My writing has (hopefully) evolved quite a bit over the decades as well. Between the mid-’80s and late ’90s, I wrote a lot of poems — some of which I still like a great deal, some not so much — which I laid out using Adobe PageMaker and assembled in plastic-bound collections, then distributed to friends. One of the later efforts, Convergence, was an overstuffed, bitter, largely unpleasant collection completed in early 1995, followed up by the 31-poems-in-31-days experiment Zerodhisattva a few months later. Together, they took a lot of out me, and I retreated creatively for a time.
But it wasn’t long before I was writing again; 1998, the year I met my future wife, was a particularly fertile period. The poems of this era marked a palpable shift, in that I was making a real effort to crawl out of my own head and communicate clear ideas in my poems, rather than random symbolism that meant little to the reader, a constant flaw of my early-’90s stuff. The result, Thousands in the Trees — the title a reference to the way overhanging branches sounded like cheering fans when my brother and I played Wiffle ball on a windy day — was edited, paginated, and ready for printing soon after I got married in 2000. I’ve never been prouder of a collection. But, like Horrendous Disc, I set it aside. For three years. I don’t know why.
When I picked it up again in 2003, it bothered me that there were only 17 poems, a number that scraped against my OCD in an odd way, so I found three outtakes — late-’90s poems I’d scribbled or typed but didn’t bother to include in the original running order — to bring the total to 20. One was a piece that didn’t quite work, then or now; another was a bit of meaningless wordplay that would have been at home among the New York poets of the 1960s, who appreciated that sort of thing.
The third was something altogether different. I’d written it at my desk at an expensive private school where I worked in development for a few months in 1998. I was communicating with alumni on some kind of project and found myself fascinated by the contrast between their teenage photos and their lives decades later. One girl, who graduated in 1973 and found herself, a quarter-century after, owning a shoreline clam shack, particularly intrigued me as I compared her striking yearbook photos — a winter scene and a beach scene — with her 1998 correspondence. For a moment, I felt unstuck from my own time, as the author Charles Pellegrino has described the sensation, and began to see my day’s work like one of his archeology projects. And I wrote this.

Charlie Pellegrino and Me

Now I know what it means to get unstuck
in the corridors of time, the sediments of God.
Only, my hallway leads not to the great lizards,
the tossing tubeworms, the legendary wars.

It leads to my desk on Chase Parkway, to an open yearbook.
Inside I see Susan, snow on her hair. Her smile is great fiction,
impossibly so, like London, Hobbiton, Archenland, Nubble Light.
She is catching snow on her long brown hair, unmelting snow,
forever the snow, impossibly so.
Below she is dancing, running along the shore. No snow, only sun,
a cool, dying Apollo, swallowing Luna, thrusting wide the shoreline.
She is reaching for stars in her pocket. She is deepest black silhouette,
almost not herself.
And underneath, the teenager’s words:
“I am what I am.”
It is 1973.

Yet,
Susan is still catching snow, reaching for stars, grasping the fading tide.
Only now she trades clams for new tales in Nantucket,
the salt-carved lines on her face bringing light and chill
to old men with worn, wet boots, holding buckets aloft.
They seek shellfish like Jesus seeking souls about Jordan.
She’s forever cooking clams.
I am what I am.
And I can’t stand knowing nothing else.

I’ve shared a lot of poetry on this blog and will certainly share more; my old poems are as much a part of my story as any random song lyric or childhood memory. Some are better than others, and your mileage may vary on any of them. But here’s the weird thing: I really like this one. A lot. So, I’m not sure why I didn’t include it in the first place. In a collection that deals soberly with death and the passage of time (with a couple of oddball attempts at humor tossed in), it fits perfectly. The ease with which it emerged from my keyboard 17 years ago makes me wish I still wrote poetry, but I’ve managed very little since.
Horrendous Disc still stands up as well, a bit out of its own time but all the more intriguing for it. Of course, the passing years have proven it to be the start of something important, much bigger than itself. Unlike Thousands in the Trees, which seems only to mark an end.

Friday, October 16, 2015

My October Poem

#67: Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (The Cure, 1987)

“Daylight licked me into shape.
I must have been asleep for days.”

Twenty-four years ago this week, I rode out to Fellows Lake, got buzzed on wine, and coughed up something that improbably became one of my favorite poems.
But it wasn’t written, exactly. Those who knew me best at Evangel College might remember the ever-present mini-recorder I carried around to document hours and hours of college life, particularly in 1990 and 1991. Seems corny, yes, but those are priceless recordings now, and I really need to transfer them to mp3 before they disintegrate.
Anyway, on Friday morning, Oct. 11, 1991, my good friend Jeoffrey, who had left Evangel at the end of 1989, suddenly stopped by. I’d visited him in Chicago a couple times since then, and he’d pop up in Springfield on occasion, but this time was a surprise. As throngs of students exited chapel and headed up the ramp to the neighboring barracks, there he was, facing against the human tide, waiting to greet me. “How the f— are you?” he said, loudly, with the utmost cheer. Post-chapel provocation. I loved it.
The next day, we decided to be arty, so he drove us out to Fellows Lake with a bottle of red wine, notebooks, a boombox for music, and my little recorder. The place was a den of iniquity at night, at least for young couples who didn’t want to (or, in Evangel’s case, weren’t allowed to) get naked in their own dorm rooms, but during the day it was a sprawling picnic and nature area, equally ideal for recreation or contemplation. We arrived to find the water level significantly down, with entire cove areas completely receded. Jeff and I walked out a couple hundred feet onto the dry lake bed, took our time emptying the bottle, scribbled some creative writing, and caught up on each other’s lives. During a hectic yet reflective ninth and final semester, it was a welcome afternoon of relaxation.
I happened to have the recorder running when I started wandering about, cup in hand, and delivered the following impromptu speech. The following week, I transcribed it exactly, down to the last stammer and mispronunciation and three interjections by Jeff. In later years, I removed one short line — nine words — that referred to a current news story; it was silly, and it dated the poem. Otherwise, I kept everything intact.
By the way, the Cure was playing in the background, a semi-rare cassette called Concert and Curiosity (highly recommended, by the way, for the kickass live versions of “One Hundred Years,” “10:15 Saturday Night,” and “Killing an Arab”). The ‘curiosity’ side of outtakes and demos was on, but I was standing a good distance away from the boombox. A moment before launching into my spiel, I murmured what song (“Other Voices”) I thought Robert Smith was warbling, and that became the poem’s title.

Maybe Other Voices

There’s a very small man walking on the other side of the lake.
He’s very small to us, ’cause we don’t know him.
He just walks along the banks. We don’t know much about him.
Maybe he has a family. Maybe he has children,
and he’s sad, because he can’t give them what they want.
Or maybe the ones he was supposed to love have abandoned him,
and now he’s a washout. He’s a thunderclap. He’s a lightningbolt faded.
He’s the image left on the sky when the lightning has gone.
It’s like a stain on the linen, the linen of the sky, after he’s gone.

And Robert is still wailing in the background,
and I can still barely hear him, but he’s kind of fading out now.
And the lake is dry, and I’m walking on the bottom of the water,
walking on the bottom, I’m walking on the banks.
And I’m in the mud, and I sink.
And I stare at the moon, and I say, this, this is it.
This is— this is what it’s come down to.
I’ve sunk, and that’s it.
And my shoes are muddy.
He’s soiled his shoes. My shoiled my shoes.
He spilled the wine and sank into the mud, like his feet.
Didn’t spill much, I spilled a l— I spilled a drop, which—
which is also appropriate. I went to the very bottom, the ver—
the attainable bottom for us, the bottom of— of— the bottom
of the lake that we could get to.
And I left just a little bit here.
Because we’ve reached the end of something.
And— and I left a little bit— I left just a little.
And I didn’t mean to, but I did.
I tripped when I began to sink.
I tripped, and I left a little bit.
I didn’t come down here— when I came down,
I didn’t mean to leave anything.
I didn’t leave— come meaning to leave any of myself.

And now that it’s getting dark, the place is crowding up with pissers.
But isn’t that the truth, though? We came down here—
you came down, and I came down—
and we came down here, and we tripped into it,
and we began to sink into it,
and we thought we would just—
college, OK, fine—
and accidentally we left a little of ourselves here.
Just by accident.
Just a drop.
That’s enough.

Late Sunday morning, after recording another impromptu poem while drying my hair (in the days when I had enough to dry), the two of us walked out to the track behind Krause Hall, again with the boombox and the recorder, inserted Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, and cranked “Just Like Heaven” and sang along. It was a tradition, something we did to mark virtually every parting until we lost touch in the late ’90s (though usually not so publicly).
To passersby, it must have seemed obnoxious, but I didn’t care. It was just another bit of me tossed into the mid-October wind of southwest Missouri, to be scattered and forgotten like so many errant drops of wine.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime

#68: Illinois (Sufjan Stevens, 2005)

“In the morning, in the winter shade,
on the first of March, on the holiday,
I thought I saw you breathing.”

It was actually March 2, 1991, a Saturday, when I woke up in a big bed, covered in a thick comforter that might have needed laundering. A plastic trash pail was nearby. My friend Jeoffrey was sitting on a chair beside the bed, facing me.
“How are you feeling?”
I was not feeling well. But I was conscious and awake, which was an improvement.

A year earlier, I had spent spring break at Jeff’s house in Naperville, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. We were great friends, but he had left Evangel College at the end of 1989, so our time together was rare, being an eight-hour ride apart. That first visit, in the spring of 1990, was a leisurely week spent touring the streets and museums of Chicago, eating at Greek restaurants and deep-dish pizza joints, and watching movies at night. It’s still one of my favorite weeks ever. Obviously, I wanted to do it again the following March, and Jeff was happy to have me.
Fortunately, a casual friend from Chicagoland, Ed, was kind enough to offer me a Friday-afternoon ride to Naperville, and, save for a quick stop at McDonald’s, I spent most of the trek buried in my headphones in the back seat, listening to Camper Van Beethoven. When I arrived at Jeff’s house as evening fell, I had barely enough time to drop my bag before he whisked me away to a party filled with lots of people I did not know. That was OK, though; my introverted side makes it easy to melt into my own head in situations like that.
But there were margaritas.
See, the party was a send-off to military service for a friend Jeff worked with in a local restaurant. A bartender from that establishment was making the drinks, so the margaritas were large, delicious, and very, um, friendly. So I drank one. And kept drinking.
By the time I finish this blog (actually, by tomorrow’s entry), I will have brought up the only three times I drank alcohol in 1991 — illegally, since I was 20. At a Christian college where drinking could get you expelled, there weren’t many opportunities to imbibe, and the sheer rarity of those incidents makes them all the more memorable. I have never been much of a drinker — even today, it takes me weeks to get through 12 bottles of the latest Sam Adams seasonal collection — but I was stressed out by senior-year obligations and just wanted to relax, and at 20, it’s natural to want to sow some oats when given the opportunity, and this party, where I had no obligation to talk to anyone and the drinks flowed freely, was just such an opportunity. Oh, did I mention they were delicious?
But I had never gotten drunk before, not even close. So I had no idea — literally none — how many drinks it would take to reach that point. But I was counting, in my head, because my OCD forces me to count everything and then log the number. I drank five of those huge margaritas in fairly rapid succession. Then I drank a beer. Then another beer. It was more alcohol than I’d downed in my entire life, total. And I weighed around 170 pounds.
Everything else I remember about that night is contained in very brief flashes, separated by darkness. Sitting on a couch in the living room, which was starting to swim. Trying, at one point, to dance. Running to the bathroom (I’m not sure how I even found it.) Pressing my face against the toilet as the familiar voice of my friend drifted above me: “Oh. You had french fries tonight.” Then two more, seconds-long moments of vague awareness: being carried by my armpits across a lawn, and sticking my head out of a moving car window. And then, nothing.

I don’t know how I got into bed, but someone left that party with Jeff to put me there. I don’t know if his father, a nationally known figure in evangelical circles, heard us or suspected anything. Mostly, I don’t know how dangerously close I had come to alcohol poisoning, or winding up in a hospital, or worse. I suppose folks who go to party colleges have experiences like this all the time, but for me, it was new — and, in retrospect, frightening to lose that much control.
I do know that Jeff’s night at the party was cut short, and that he sat with me until I fell asleep, and then sat in the room early Saturday morning until I woke up. Then he went out and bought me a bagel with copious amounts of blueberry cream cheese, which I ate at the breakfast table with him and his parents.
This is how much distress I had caused: later that day, we ran into the guy who’d hosted the party, who had to clean up the disgusting mess of some guy he didn’t even invite. And when he saw me, he didn’t seem mad, or even sarcastic. Instead: “Dude. Are you OK?”
It took me about 15 years to tell my mom this story, probably thinking I didn’t want to ruin her image of me as a basically good kid during my college days. But she didn’t judge me; she just nodded and said everyone does stupid things when they’re young, and you just have to thank God when you manage to reach adulthood relatively intact.
Sufjan Stevens’ “Casimir Pulaski Day” may be my favorite song. From an engineering perspective, it’s a marvel of efficiency, telling a complete story, in only 42 short lines, of the life and death of a young woman with bone cancer. From an emotional perspective, it’ll rip your heart right out of your rib cage. The takeaway, I guess — amid the blurred, fragmented memories and the honest questioning of God — is that life is short, and not everyone gets a full one, and that’s not fair.
So … I guess we shouldn’t waste the days we’re given with stupid choices, right? Except, everyone does dumb stuff when they’re young. My Mom said so.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

True Love Blooms

#69: Blood on the Tracks (Bob Dylan, 1975)

“In a little hilltop village,
they gambled for my clothes.
I bargained for salvation,
and they gave me a lethal dose.
I offered up my innocence
and got repaid with scorn.
‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you
shelter from the storm.’”

When I met my future wife in late 1998, I was not what one might call, um, relationship-savvy. In fact, up to that point — I was almost 28 — I had spent roughly eight months of my life, total, dating women. So, really, I was just winging it.
For instance, only once before 1999 had I been dating someone on Valentine’s Day (and that was a lackluster, two-week attempt at a college relationship that would end two days later). So my first V-Day with Jenn (who had already been my first Christmas girlfriend) was essentially uncharted territory.
I thought I was being unique and romantic by buying her a red-and-white, heart-themed photo album from a local craft store. She appreciated the creative idea, but admitted to me later that women really do appreciate flowers on Feb. 14, hint-hint. I’ve never neglected the flowers since — sometimes roses, sometimes a mixture of spring blooms or wildflowers, which she likes. Sometimes I bring the kid to help pick them out; he has good taste.
Anyway, back to that initial goof. I decided to remedy the oversight a week later by doing something I knew I was good at: I made her a mix tape, in this case one populated with love songs and, um, quasi-love songs, something else I had never done for a girlfriend. I even cut the printed insert from red and pink construction paper. I laugh today when I think of what was on the tape: plenty of stuff I’m sure Jenn liked, but also several artists, I realized as I got to know her better, that just weren’t her thing — think Cranes, Bruce Cockburn, the Pogues, and especially Bob Dylan, who was on board with “Shelter from the Storm.” Oh, and she’s really not nuts about pink, either.
My gift-giving has gotten better over the years, and Jenn’s presents have always been top-notch; she’s terrific at coming up with delightful, unexpected gifts on holidays and birthdays. My favorite, from about a decade ago, is the baseball and bat display rack she spent weeks secretly building, sanding, and polishing in the basement so we’d have a place to display the balls from the (now more than 25) major- and minor-league parks we’ve visited. That Christmas morning, I also got a ball, bat, and photographs signed by Phil Rizzuto to display on and around the rack. It was overwhelming; the thoughtfulness and effort that went into those gifts moved me nearly to tears.
Interestingly, very early in our relationship, Jenn and I discovered a mutual apathy toward greeting cards, so we’ve never bought each other cards on birthdays or holidays. Ever. Sorry, Hallmark. More money for presents. And, sometimes, flowers.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Food for Thought

#70: Songs of the Letter People (Alpha Time, 1974)

“Do you like doughnuts? Delicious doughnuts?
Well, if you do, then you deserve some doughnuts.”

One day in 1975 or 1976 ­— so I was either 4 or 5 — my principal at Blackham School found out I was a good speller.
Specifically, I spelled ‘encyclopedia’ for him, rapid-fire, in the cafeteria. That was as much a memory trick as anything else, but he was impressed enough that he brought me to a table of sixth-graders and had me repeat the feat, which I did. Then he asked what else I could spell. I suggested ‘earthquake,’ and spelled that.
Yes, I was the principal’s own vaudeville act, and the cafeteria was my Vegas strip.
Truth was, I could spell a lot of big words by then; I’d taught myself to read at age 3 and much preferred, yes, encyclopedias (both Childcraft and adult) to kids’ books. It’s why I started kindergarten at age 4 and, a bit later, completed first and second grades in one year. The world caught up, of course, and I’ve often joked that there isn’t much I’m particularly good at. But I’m still an ace speller.
So I didn’t really need the Letter People. But I loved them. I still do.
Alpha Time was a St. Louis-based educational outfit that created the characters in the early ’70s as a way to teach kindergartners the alphabet; the program comprised teaching guides and other classroom materials, a cheaply produced TV show, plush ‘huggables,’ and those songs — those catchy, gloriously tacky songs, typically around 90 seconds long, that drove home the properties of each letter through wit and alliteration.
The first letter introduced was M:

“I’m Mr. M, with a munching mouth.
My mouth goes munch, munch, munch.
My mouth has lunch, lunch, lunch.
I munch from morning to midnight, midnight to morning,
munching mouth. I’m Mr. M.
Meatballs, macaroni, mashed potatoes, I adore.
Marshmallows, maple syrup, melon, milk.
There’s room for more!”

Then it was on to Mr. T, a country crooner who leisurely spun spectacular lies about the hundreds of toothpaste tubes it took to brush each one of his Tall Teeth. Next in line was Mr. F and his colorfully adorned Funny Feet, followed by Mr. H, who had grown out his Horrible Hair mainly because he feared the barber. And on we went. The consonants were men, the vowels women. And each week, Miss Baron would introduce a new letter, play the song, and pass out a colorful picture of that Letter Person with a white blank space in the shape of his or her letter; we were tasked with covering that space with a bright-red letter sticker.
This was the highlight of my week. I’m not kidding. I loved these crazy guys, with their Ripping Rubberbands and Delicious Doughnuts and Beautiful Buttons. And then I got older and forgot about them — well, maybe not completely, but the songs largely faded from memory.
And then, the Internet happened.
It was probably through a long-defunct online community called Yesterdayland that I discovered I was not the only one obsessing over the Letter People, and search engines led me to other corners of the web where the love remained strong. It’s how I found someone in possession of the original Songs of the Letter People on CD, and I sent her $20 to burn me one. The songs are psychedelic in that ’70s kind of way, but also wildly diverse in style. Cheesy? Yes, but they absolutely rock.
Unfortunately, I also learned through those online searches that the Letter People exist today in a different, much tamer form. The magic, honestly, is gone. For one thing, no longer are the girls vowels. They’ve lost that special quality, as the genders now boast a 13-13 split. And the other changes! Mr. H got a slight trim and how sports Happy Hair. Mr. R has traded his Ripping Rubberbands for Rainbow Ribbons. Gone are sweet treats like Cotton Candy; Mr. C is now known for his Colossal Cap. And don’t get me started on Mr. X, who used to be MiXed Up. Now he’s just Different, a name which — let’s say this together — doesn’t ... even ... contain ... the ... letter ... X.
Times change. The original, ragged, rebellious, sweets-scarfing Letter People were a good fit for a decade when kids rode their bikes all over the city without adult supervision, behavior that gets parents arrested in 2015. So of course today’s Letter People are sanitized. Serene. Safe.
Different.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Runnin' with the Markers

#71: The Christmas Song (Nat King Cole, 1963)

“All is calm, all is bright.”

Music can be transporting, and few albums whoosh my brain away to a specific time and place like Nat King Cole’s unassailable Christmas album. Just a few bars of those opening high strings and that dusky yet crystalline voice — evoking chestnuts, Jack Frost, and folks dressed up like Eskimos — and I’m back in my childhood living room in Stratford, lit only by the bright sparkles on the tree and the gaudy, very ’70s star that reflected multi-colored W shapes across the white ceiling. Even Nat’s brown chair on the album cover looks uncannily like the one that sat for years in the corner beside the fireplace my stepdad built.
My childhood is a pleasantly weird assault of memories — some sharp, some blurred, all out of context considering how much I’ve forgotten. But I do remember the final morning before winter break in Mr. Nelson’s sixth-grade classroom, and his attempt to cultivate a Christmasy vibe, and how Nat King Cole might have helped.
You know what always rushes to mind when I think of sixth grade? The silver pen I accidentally stole from the teacher. It was engraved with his monogram, CTN, and Mom saw it at home one day, surmised its owner, and insisted I return it to school. I don’t think the theft was intentional, considering I had recently emerged, traumatized with guilt, from a summer of stealing money from my parents. I was probably using the pen at his desk, carelessly stowed it in my bag, carried it home, and was too embarrassed to bring it back, until Mom told me to.
I clearly remember a few other images from sixth grade — paper-triangle football on the oversized window ledge, getting my desk dumped several times for messiness (once in a single massive pile with other slackers, and having to sort out the contents), leaving Stonybrook School every Wednesday to take part in a citywide advanced-learning program, winning eight out of 13 classroom spelling bees, perhaps the only moments I ever really felt important among my friends.
And, of course, the last half-day before Christmas break. The general theme that morning was arts and crafts, but we could pretty much do whatever we wanted. Good Catholic that I was, I drew (well, being a horrible artist, attempted to draw) a créche, complete with star, angel, Magi, sundry animals, the happy couple, and — try this in today’s public schools — the Christ child himself. “I’m drawing a nativity scene,” I proudly told Mr. Nelson as he strolled among the desks, checking everyone’s work and probably wondering why we all couldn’t just stay home and break out the markers and glue there, him included.
But what I remember most about that day late in 1980 was Van Halen. Someone had brought a tape of the band’s debut album, and kids were blaring “Jamie’s Cryin’,” “Runnin’ with the Devil,” and the like for a couple of hours. There might have been some AC/DC and Ramones thrown in, but Van Halen owned the day. I mean, sheesh — would it have killed someone to play a Beatles song or two in honor of John Lennon, who had just died? I wrote a report on John that month. I drew his face for the cover, complete with those trademark round shades. To be honest, it turned out a lot better than the nativity scene.
“You know,” Mr. Nelson intoned at one point, although he never did turn off the tunes, “when I said you guys could bring in music, I meant Christmas music.”
That’s OK. My living room — and Nat King Cole on the 8-track — awaited.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Poem for a Sunday Morning

#72: Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Gavin Bryars, 1993)

“Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.
This one thing I know, for he loves me so.”

In 1971, the year I was born, avant-garde composer Gavin Bryars was helping a friend film a documentary in London, when they recorded a homeless man singing the simple lines above, in near-perfect pitch. The footage didn’t make the movie, but the filmmaker eventually sent Bryars the unused recording. As he recalls:

“I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios, and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back, I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual, and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.
“I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man’s singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the homeless man’s nobility and simple faith.”

Indeed, the recording became something of a lifelong obsession for Bryars, who crafted a 25-minute arrangement around a repeated loop of the song snippet, which he eventually expanded to 60 minutes with the advent of cassette tapes and 74 minutes in the CD age; that latter version, which features a typically ragged, affecting Tom Waits in the final movement, has long been one of my favorite discs.
Why? Beyond the sheer beauty, I think it’s the simplicity. It’s the entire gospel message encapsulated by a man who, some might say, had no reason for such optimistic faith. It’s graceful and deep in every way the pink sign was not.
What, you ask, is the pink sign?
Well, it doesn’t exist anymore; I believe it disappeared sometime in the mid-’90s. But for the entire six years I lived in Springfield, Missouri, it graced a billboard alongside Glenstone Avenue. It simply read, “Look up! He’s coming again, you know. Just like He said He would. Hallelujah!”
In a fiercely evangelical Christian city, there was nothing technically wrong with this billboard. I doubt anyone ever complained about its message. But there was something jarring about it, to the point where the pink sign, as we simply called it, became an ironic cultural touchstone for a certain bunch of smartass Evangel College students. References to the billboard showed up in our stories and poems, and in our conversations, for years to come. I don’t know why. Perhaps the quintessential Springfieldiness of it. Or the mildly scoldy, off-putting “you know.” Or maybe the sign’s general … pinkness.
Speaking of poems, I plundered the billboard’s message — more affectionately than ironically — in a poem I toyed with for years a decade or two ago, and have since shared with only one person. A bit cheeky but not jokey in the least, the piece has long confounded me; I suspect the random images will mostly get lodged in my head on the way to the reader’s, so I’ve never known quite what to do with it.
But the homeless man’s simple, unencumbered statement of faith that so touched Gavin Bryars makes me want to share my poem here. So I will, without further comment or explanation.

Hallelujah

The day I met Jesus Christ, I saw no colliding stars,
no spacecraft engulfed in flames, no meteor shower scars.
I saw no extinction wrought by heavenly flood and fire,
no ozone collapsing on a mutant cavedwelling choir.
I knew no destruction. O, but I knew one thing I should:
He’s coming again, you know, just like he said he would.

I heard about Jesus Christ, Messiah who slightly rocks,
whose footprints fall heavier when heading to dying docks.
I heard of the blood that heals, elixir so roughly poured
from welcoming plaster walls protecting the triune Lord.
The parking lot overflowed. I saw and I understood:
He’s coming again, you know, just like he said he would.

I talked about Jesus Christ, the Savior unsparingly,
the mercy immoderate for unmeaning scum like me.
I talked and I talked and I, appointed the hallway ghost,
sat screaming like careless waves that suck sinners off the coast.
But I tasted glory. O, the glory was very good:
He’s coming again, you know, just like he said he would.

I learned about Jesus Christ, the Alpha, bit part for them
who whisper in ignorance, a haughty bed-making Shem —
who toss their fair foreheads back, a prophet on every street,
who wish to dine tableside, but don’t like the taste of meat.
The scent filled the temple. O, the train belched its smoky hood:
He’s coming again, you know, just like he said he would.

And then I saw Jesus Christ. I saw him descending. O,
his robes were a lullabye, his halo a porchlight. “Joe,
remember the mirror dream, the sweat from a trembling kid,
when I pulled your blanket up, and you thought your Nana did?”
And then he ascended. O, I finally understood:
He’s coming again, you know, just like he said he would.

Friday, July 10, 2015

In Praise of Mild Stupidity

#73: Loose (Victoria Williams, 1994)

“Better run and hide if they’re searching for you.
Can you get home without them catching you?”

Loose is a sheer delight because, well, so is Victoria Williams. Both are heartfelt, compassionate, witty, deeply spiritual, and awestruck at the tiny miracles of life. “Polish Those Shoes” is a good example, packed with vignettes ranging from dressing for church in the shadow of a stern father to playing neighborhood games and running like lunatics from threats both silly and imagined.
For me, that brings to mind the snowy, slippery Connecticut morning when several middle-school pals and I hunched behind shrubs and trash cans and pegged passing cars with five or six snowballs at once, choking with laughter as they skidded to the curb in surprise, which, admittedly, seems horrid in retrospect. One guy actually got out and ran after us as we scattered into the backyard; he actually caught me, but my friends reappeared, and he thought better of belting me in public, as I so richly deserved.
The news story from Maine last week, about a 22-year-old dying instantly after lighting a firework on his head, brought to mind a number of stupid things people do when they’re young. OK, maybe not that stupid — but as a college student, my friends certainly upped the ante on that childhood snowball assault. I’m talking about car rocking, and I did it only once.
Fellows Lake is a scenic spot a few miles north of Springfield, Missouri, a popular fishing, boating, and picnic spot during the day and just as popular a makeout spot for college kids at night. At least it was when I attended Evangel. Maybe the cops have cracked down on that activity, considering the … um … dangers.
I had heard about car rocking, a practice whereby a group of (clearly bored) guys would approach a parked car at the lake and surprise the denizens of (usually) its back seat by suddenly, and violently, rocking its back fender. The more smartass among us called it “keeping then out of sin,” at least temporarily. When a bunch of guys I knew decided to head to the lake on an otherwise uneventful weekend night, I tagged along, thinking it would be a hoot to sneak up behind a car, rock it, then drive off to another section of the lake and find another victim, and so on.
But that’s not how car rocking was done.
At least to these guys, it was less a game than a challenge. After reconnaissance on a few potential spots, we parked at a promising picnic grove, where four cars dotted the lakeside, a discreet distance away from one another. The challenge, I then learned, was to rock every single car — and not leave that particular grove until we had done so.
This is stupid. Not firework-on-the-head stupid, but think about it. We had no idea who was in these cars. Or how angry they would be when … interrupted. Or if they had a gun. After all, this was Missouri, not Connecticut. But we were college students. Thinking was for the classroom, not the weekend.
Now, this was almost 27 years ago, so the details are fuzzy, but I know we got at least two cars, maybe three, before things started to go wrong. First, one victim refused to take it lying down. More accurately, after taking it lying down, he quickly sat up, jumped into the front seat, threw his highbeams on, and went looking for the idiots who were now giddily melting into the trees.
Then the police car showed up.
“Quick! Get down!” my friend Nick whispered as we and a couple other guys dove into a gully alongside the narrow road. “NOT ON ME!” he hissed as I landed hard on his back. But otherwise, we lay there like statues, unseen, as the blue lights slowly drifted by a couple feet above us.
I don’t remember how long we had to lie there. I’m pretty sure we didn’t finish the job, or even if that last parked car stuck around after all the commotion. I don’t know if dodging cops was a typical outcome when heading up to Fellows Lake to unsteam some car windows. I don’t know if anyone ever got hurt. But I’m pretty sure my mom — 1,200 miles away, forever convincing herself I was in safely my room, studying — would not have approved.
But, hey — at least no one’s head blew off.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

When I Was 9, It Was a Very Bad Year

#74: Peter Gabriel (Peter Gabriel, 1980)

“I know I’ve gone too far;
much too far I’ve gone this time,
and I don’t want to think what I’ve done.
But I don’t know how to stop.
No, I don’t know how to stop.”

From his prog-rock days in Genesis through his eclectic solo career, Peter Gabriel has always had a flair for the dramatic, occasionally adopting different personas in his songs. But he went a little dark in 1980, giving us a home invader (“Intruder”), an amnesiac (“I Don’t Remember”), an assassin (“Family Snapshot”), and the high-strung, possibly violent narrator of “No Self Control” — and that’s just side one.
Around the same time, I became a petty thief.
It started that spring, when I’d lift a few dollars at a time from my teacher’s desk drawer to pay my outstanding book-club fines, a transgression I’ve written about before. My sister Lori and I celebrated our first Communion that spring as well, and each of us wound up with about $50 in cash gifts from relatives, which we stashed in our respective dresser drawers.
I spent my hoard fairly quickly. Then Lori’s money started to disappear, little by little, until one day, all that was left was a $5 check. One morning, I was sitting in the living room, in front of the TV, when she tearfully, almost hysterically, discovered the crime. My mom and stepdad asked me about it, but I just shrugged. And, had the stealing ended there, I probably would have gotten away with it. But I didn’t know how to stop.
I started raiding my mom’s dresser, lifting a couple dollars here, a fiver there. I even swiped a ten from my Nana’s purse while visiting her house one weekend. Eventually, Mom noticed something awry, put two and two together, and cornered me about all the missing money. I denied involvement.
She suspected, though, and, I’m guessing, started keeping a closer eye on me. One evening, while she was making dinner, I crept into her shade-darkened bedroom, intending to dart quickly into the purse that was sitting atop a nightstand, but I must have felt footsteps in the hallway behind me and walked back out before going through with it. My inner alarm was right — she met me in the hall and asked, curtly, what I was doing in her bedroom. I told her I was checking the time. “With the door closed?” she asked.
As more money went missing, Mom continued to grill me. Once, she suggested that maybe I didn’t realize I was stealing, or my guilt was blocking the memory, and perhaps I should visit a psychiatrist. “What does he do?” I asked, curious. “Just talk,” she said. “He’ll just talk to you.”
Now, thinking back, I firmly believe two things about my mother when it came to childhood infractions. The first is that, lacking incontrovertible evidence, she generally stood by what we told her. She was the anti-Roger Goodell. One time (also that spring — I was apparently an awful 9-year-old), Miss Keane wrote a note to Mom reporting that I had flipped the bird to a fifth-grade classmate, and Mom wrote her back, explaining that I was just wagging my index finger at the kid in an “I’ll get you” kind of way, because that’s what I told her.
But this is my second belief: I don’t think she bought my crap at all. Not for one second. Not with Miss Keane, and certainly not with her lost-memory suggestion; instead, I think she was trying to draw me out, get me talking, maybe trip me up. If she wasn’t going to bring the hammer down without proof, she sure wasn’t about to ignore the problem, either.
But I got sloppy.
You’ll understand why when I tell you what I was doing with the money. For a few weeks that summer, while hanging out with neighborhood kids, we’d occasionally make our way to the local corner store, and I would let everyone pick out a snack — a candy bar or a popsicle or something — and I’d pay for all of it. Being younger than everyone, less talented in sports and general coolness, this made me feel awesome, if only for the day, because the guys (not all of whom were, technically, my friends) liked when I bought them stuff. It’s funny — for the past 30 years or so, I’ve adopted a philosophy where I honestly don’t care what people think of me, and it’s freeing. But during the summer of 1980, I apparently cared. And I bought their approval with stolen money.
Why is that sloppy? Because, out of all the stores I could have run this scam at, I chose Turtles (later Peter & Sons, after it burned down and was rebuilt), which was a five-minute walk from my house, and where my mom stopped in all the time. And one warm, brilliantly sunny morning, while I played in my front yard, Peter asked my mom how I could afford snacks for up to 10 kids at a time.
I was standing in front of our Light Street home, making my way through an illicit pack of Tic Tacs, when I saw her come into view, pushing my 2-year-old brother’s stroller, maybe a tiny bit faster than usual. I hid the candy in the bushes, but my trouble was only beginning. I got pulled upstairs into my bedroom, where I got grilled hard, and eventually realized the game was up. It didn’t help that, as a child, the blood would rush out of my head if I lied or felt guilty about something, and my lips would turn white, so that was a giveaway. At one point, I felt dizzy and tried to lie down on the bed, but Mom wouldn’t let me. No more playing around with psychoanalytic BS; she wanted confessions. Of everything. Now. And I confessed to it all, every last dollar.
Except stealing from Lori.
I don’t know why; maybe I felt extra guilty about that, or maybe I wanted to hang on to one last denial. It logically made no sense; my crime spree was out in the open, and I expected her to believe … what, exactly? That the 2-year-old or the 4-year-old did the Bank of Lori job?
But I absolutely refused to fess up to taking that fifty bucks. In the end, Mom gave up, but was probably happy everything else was in the open. She grounded me for weeks, but later that day, when our first Cablevision guide came in the mail, she tried to cheer me up by showing me the new service’s movie options. I think Jaws was one of the featured films.
And you probably think that’s the end of the story. But it isn’t.
Sometime in late August, my mom and stepdad were packing up for their annual weekend getaway to New Hampshire, when I decided to strike again. Now, why not wait until they were gone, and I’d have the house to myself (and a non-suspicious Nana)? Because I totally lacked common sense — the same reason I bought all that candy at Turtles and not the store literally right across the street on Broadbridge Avenue, where my Mom never shopped. Anyway, as they prepared to hit the road, I noticed eight quarters sitting in a bowl on their bedroom dresser, so I pocketed them and waltzed merrily to the drugstore right next to Turtles and bought myself … a notebook. Because I loved notebooks.
Unfortunately, those weren’t random quarters; Dad had set them aside specifically for tolls. I hadn’t been out of the house five minutes when he noticed they were gone, and he actually burst into the drugstore as I was paying for my purchase. He asked where I got the money — basically giving me a chance to at least tell the truth — and I told him it was proceeds from the variety show Lori and I had recently staged in our basement. Wrong answer. He plunked the notebook on the counter, got his quarters back, and told me to run home, which I did. Mom was waiting upstairs, a furious look on her face. I whimpered the same lie to her, but it wasn’t going to work. Not this time.
When Dad got home a couple minutes later, I held onto his bedroom door while his belt got familiar with the backs of my bare legs. Minutes later, he and Mom were on vacation.
I was sitting on the couch with Nana a short time later, picking at a scratch on my thigh, and she asked if that was from the belt — you know, concerned in that grandmotherly way. It wasn’t, I said; it was an old scratch from the woods. In truth, the whipping didn’t last long, and there were no marks, not even any redness.
Personally, I don’t have much of a taste for spanking, and despite yelling at me a lot and being generally intimidating when I was a kid, neither did my stepdad; grounding was far more common in our home. In fact, that August morning in 1980 would be my only experience with the belt.
But it’s worth noting that I never stole anything again. I’m pretty sure I never even considered it.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Wedding Story (Part Three)

#75: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles, 1967)

“Will you still need me,
will you still feed me
when I’m sixty-four?”

I’ve written everything that needs to be said about my awesome wedding day in posts #179 and #157, including the fact that Jenn and I didn’t choose the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from Our Friends” for our wedding-party dance, so much as we wound up there because we couldn’t think of anything else — basically the same reason you might visit Denny’s after midnight. Not an especially danceable number, it turned out awkward, but at least it was short.
It struck me, though, that I had never danced at a wedding before, unless we’re counting chicken dances and conga lines. I was in my brother-in-law’s wedding party in 1992, but he and my sister opted for a tasteful, jazzy band at their reception instead of a dance floor. It’s conceivable, in fact, that my first dance with Jenn at our wedding eight years later (to Trisha Yearwood’s “I’ll Still Love You More”) was the first time I’d ever danced in public with a girl I liked. We had previously kissed, however. We’re not Duggars.
Still, there wasn’t much time for anyone else to dance at my wedding, because we had to end it by a certain time, and folks were just starting to hit the floor after dessert when we called it a day. But my brother’s wedding in 2003 — that was different.
It was an evening reception, so no one was pushing us out to bring in the next party. I remember it rained steadily that day and night, so no one was going outside, either. I was Jeff’s best man and practiced more diligently for my lengthy toast than for any speech I’ve ever delivered — in front of Jenn, in the car, in front of mirrors, even alone in a restroom right before the big moment. I also brought along Kitty, a stuffed lamb (don’t ask) Jeff had treasured as a child, to present to him during the speech. Kitty even made it into a wedding photo or two. It was a great night.
What put it over the top, though, was the dancing. Jenn and I danced a lot, free from the photo and meet-and-greet obligations of our own wedding. And so did everyone else. Jeff and his bride, Julie. My mom and stepdad. My older sister and her husband, 11 years into their own marriage. All this surprised and delighted me — we had never been a dancing family. Oddly moved, I wrote this poem soon after.

Everyone Loosens Up

That day, I saw my Mom and Dad
as one. And dancing. He took lead
and held her like a dream he had
that answered every waking need.
The moon fell dim that rainy night;
my parents made their own spotlight.

My sister and her husband moved
like stars. And dancing. Not as when
they sat and smiled, as it behooved
them on their wedding day. Since then,
they’ve tasted years. So many more.
Enough to bring them to the floor.

But then the stars fell back. I saw
just two. And dancing. He was once
the child, my brother, anxious, raw,
now held in some glad permanence
of days. So close, he held his bride.
Rain kept their rhythm from outside.

I saw these scenes in half a glance,
content. And dancing — with my wife,
breath catching faster in the dance,
like Lazarus raised to gasping life.
There was no time, just drifting sound,
and a love that sails horizon-bound.

That night, I saw my Mom and Dad
as one. And dancing. Could it be
we’re older, knees worn, eyesight bad,
but finally moved by sounds we see?
The dance had never drawn us in.
But the spirit moves. So we begin.

It’s a little sentimental for me, I know. But it was a wedding. My brother’s wedding. And Kitty was there. I’m not made of stone, people.