Monday, July 24, 2017

A Sort of Homecoming

#54: Wee Tam and the Big Huge (The Incredible String Band, 1968)

“Boys and girls come out to play.
The moon doth shine as bright as day.
Leave your sorrows and leave your sleep,
and join your playfellows in the street.”

I launched my first blog on my birthday in 2005, when Jenn was about seven months pregnant, and continued it — regularly at first, then sparsely — for several years, attempting to wittily document the early years of parenthood while mixing in a bunch of pop-culture lists and accompanying essays. It made for an occasionally odd blend, but not far removed in spirit from what I’m doing now.
That blog is long gone, but I saved all the content, and I’m glad I did, because it preserves the tiny but important details of those blurry years, which might otherwise coagulate and decay. Especially interesting are those final months before our son was born, in a section of the blog called “Waiting for the Baby,” a bizarre amalgam of fairy-tale reviews (I’d read Grimm’s originals out loud, through the amniotic fluid, then riff on how graphic and disturbing they were), serious thoughts on becoming a father, and breathless, anxious updates to my family as we approached the due date, then passed it by a week, then two.
When I perused some of these posts recently, one of the interesting themes that popped up was our confidence we were having a boy. Before we ever sought ultrasound confirmation, we felt sure of it, and not just because Jenn was really looking forward to teaching the kid to play baseball and use power tools, and not so much buying princess outfits and creepy dolls.
Our suspicions were ultimately confirmed, to a point; the ultrasound image — the kid was being modest, partly obscuring the evidence — left a sliver of doubt. But it was enough for us to start painting his name on colorful blocks for a nursery shelf; we didn’t even have a girl’s name picked out.
Without the blog, though, I’d never have remembered the morning of the ultrasound:

Jenn is wearing pants today that go well with either a pink or blue sweater, and she wanted to know which to wear as we go for our possibly gender-identifying ultrasound test. We reflected on two things. First, she dreamed we had a boy. I had some vivid dreams last night as well, but our nephew Ryan was in them, not our baby. But he's a boy, right? Advantage: blue sweater. Then I went downstairs this morning to shoot some hoops [note: the indoor electronic basketball set was a gift from Ryan’s parents]. I decided to try 10 shots, and if I made an even number of them, we’d have a boy, and if it was an odd number, the test would show a girl. (Normally, I’ll make 6 or 7 of 10.) Today, not only did I make all 10 (even number), but I just kept shooting and didn’t miss until I had drained 20 in a row. Oh, and March 20 is our due date. Advantage: blue sweater. So I’ll be seeing the blue-sweatered Jenn in a couple of hours, and we’ll see if the ultrasound accurately reflects our hoops and dreams.

So, yeah, I’m glad I kept those tens of thousands of words from our son’s first few years; I’ll need to hang onto those quirky memories, if only to get me through the oh-so-charming teenage years. But I did notice I didn’t write much at all during his first month or so, possibly because free time, like sustained sleep, was a myth; any moment he wasn’t crying was time one of us could be attempting a nap.
Zombie month began the night we brought him home; within hours, he was feverish, screaming, and giving vent to an assortment of positively foul substances. This followed two serene days in the hospital when we thought he was perfect, but it turns out he was just tired, and conserving his infernal energy for the homestead. Sure, all parents face that dazed, sleepless first month, and we just laugh about it now, but wow, did he bring the drama.
One night, though — a far more peaceful one — as I sat in the nursery rocker and fed him, I started singing:

Following my fortune, now the holy grail is found.
And the holy bread of heaven, it is given all around.
Farewell sorrow. Praise God, the open door.
I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
Farewell sorrow. Praise God, the open door.
I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

The Incredible String Band recorded during an era when their odd, catch-all embrace of mythology, religion, nature, mind-altering substances, and psychedelic folk could actually be accepted by a large audience. I’ve loved their songs for a long time, but none more than “Ducks on a Pond,” a dreamlike, nine-minute suite (in three distinct movements) that evokes the hazy innocence of childhood, the inevitability of death and the great beyond, and plenty in between.
But it’s especially the final three minutes — given joyous, syllable-stretching voice by Robin Williamson against a careening backdrop of kazoo, harmonica, and washboard — that never fail to raise my spirits.

Poor as the birds but to give their songs away,
gathering possessions ’round to make a bright array.
Dark was the night! Praise God, the open door.
I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
Farewell sorrow. Praise God, the open door.
I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

Sometimes I belt it out in my car when I’m alone. The version I sang to my son was quieter, more conducive to (hopefully) a few hours of sleep. Either way, it makes me happy. So does my son. Most days.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Change Is in the Air

#55: Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (Camper Van Beethoven, 1988)

“When I lay down to sleep, I feel the world spin.
Slightly off axis, it’s shaped like a fig.
And when I lie next to you, I shiver and shake.
You tell me you love me; I dream I’m awake.”

A few days after the Whittier, California earthquake of 1987 that killed eight people, David Lowery — who had stood in a doorway to ride out the quake — began writing “She Divines Water.” It’s impossible to know how the jolt influenced the song’s construction, but it’s a remarkable piece of art, subtly shifting between 4/4 and waltz time, disintegrating into chaos at one point and then regaining its structure, backed throughout by reversed sound snippets, weird tape loops, and samples of other CVB tracks. I’ve assembled a top-100 song list every five years since 1992, and this track has been comfortably perched in the top 5 of all six countdowns.
On a blog where Lowery offers meditations on hundreds of his songs, he wrote the following:

“The earth is not round. It’s true. It’s ALMOST something called an oblate spheroid. Its middle, the equator, sticks out farther than it should. The North Pole is 21 kilometers closer to the center of the earth than a point on the equator. And then it has a lot of bulges here and there; that’s what makes it NOT an oblate spheroid. Also, it has the teeniest wobble. That’s what I was thinking when I sang, ‘slightly off axis, it’s shaped like a fig.’ I know it’s not shaped like a fig. But I couldn’t think of any fruits that were oblate spheroids. Besides, I was only trying to make the point that the ground beneath our feet is ever so slightly unstable. Metaphorically, I meant that what appears to be real and certain is not always so. This mystery, aberration, or distortion is always small and almost imperceptible, yet it has great consequences. To the earth, a tiny shift southward by the North American plate against the Pacific plate means little. But to those of us who grew up in California, these tiny disruptions mean a lot.”

I’ve always wondered what it’s like to live on a seismic hotspot, feeling mild rumbles every now and then and hoping they’re not a prelude to bigger shocks, learning strategies like standing in doorways, hoping that will provide more protection than, say, crawling under schoolroom desks to avoid atomic-bomb damage in the 1960s.
I did spend six years in Missouri, though, which borders the Tornado Alley states of Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, so I learned all about tornado preparation. Our college campus ran drills at least once a year; one of the six residence halls had a basement, so that was an obvious shelter, but in the others, we had to gather in a specific first-floor wing, the one least likely to face the wind, and sit in the hallway, using the dorm rooms as buffers, with the doors closed to protect against shattering glass. Only once — that I remember, anyway — did the protocol come into play for real, during the fall of 1990, but what manifested that afternoon was nothing more than a moderately windy rainstorm.
In fact, in all my time in the Midwest, I never came close to a tornado. Yet, I’ve found myself in immediate proximity twice in New England. The first was the twister that cut through my family’s Watertown, Connecticut neighborhood in the summer of 1989 and took down a bunch of trees in our brookside yard. The second was six years ago — June 1, 2011 — in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts, where I have worked as a business and healthcare writer for 17 years now.
The weather was supposed to take a downturn late that warm spring afternoon, but no one in the office was talking about a tornado — or multiple twisters, as it turned out. But soon after the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for our region, a funnel did form in nearby Westfield, gained force as it drifted across West Springfield, then crossed the well-trafficked Memorial Bridge over the Connecticut River as it barreled toward Springfield’s central business district. Working on the sixth floor of one of the downtown towers, we watched through our sturdy windows as the sky quickly turned from gray to deep purple, and a mass of light debris began blowing, vortex-like, around the building.
The few of us who were still in the office then — at 4:30 p.m. on a production Wednesday, shortly after we put that week’s issue to bed — quickly moved to the conference room, which offered a wider view of where the storm was heading, and saw a black blob descend from the clouds and strike down in the city’s South End, about four blocks from our tower, followed by what looked like debris billowing up from the ground. Our insulated windows offered no sense of the sound, so we watched in silence. Our editor thought it was a microburst. Others sensed it was worse.
Still, I walked to the parking garage across the street a half-hour later and, despite the sound of emergency vehicles in the distance, had no trouble navigating to the highway and home. It wasn’t until the next day, when groups of us from the magazine walked to the impact site, did we realize the extent of the damage — block after block of buildings missing walls and roofs, and piles of bricks and wood and metal strewn everywhere. In all, some 500 homes and commercial buildings in the city — not just the South End, but Sixteen Acres, East Forest Park, and other neighborhoods — were destroyed.
In fact, nine communities felt the storm’s wrath — the small town of Monson, for instance, with its broad, sweeping vista of destroyed trees, will see generations pass before the landscape returns to its former beauty. Satellite images clearly captured the path the twister carved — a half-mile wide and 40 miles long — through Western Massachusetts.
The Springfield tornado, as it turned out, was one of seven that landed in New England that day, and by far the most destructive, causing some $140 million in damage, injuring about 200 people, and displacing about 500, some of whom sought temporary shelter in a convention center across the street from my workplace. Amazingly, though the storm struck at rush hour, only three people died.
As the region’s business journal, we got a lot of mileage out of covering the twister’s aftermath, both the initial challenges and, eventually, the successful efforts to rebuild devastated areas. Mind you, our impact wasn’t like that helicopter footage you see from the big storms in Oklahoma where entire towns are essentially wiped off the map, but for New Englanders not accustomed to such events, it was a hurdle. There’s a casino rising up now in the South End, and eventually memories of the tornado of 2011 will blur and fade, replaced by the melodious, brain-numbing sounds of slot machines.
Which are still less of a gamble than living in Tornado Alley. Or on a California faultline.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Easily Amused

#56: Another Side of Bob Dylan (Bob Dylan, 1964)

“It’s all new to me, like some mystery.
It could even be like a myth.”

Midway through Another Sides “I Don’t Believe You” is one of my favorite moments in my entire music collection. As the third verse starts to crest, Bob just  starts laughing. I have no idea why. He’s not supposed to. Maybe producer Tom Wilson made a face. Maybe a sound technician tripped over a wire. Maybe Dylan suddenly remembered a joke. And he laughs.
And just left it in. No edits. No retakes.
It’s the sort of charm absent from today’s upper-echelon performers — remember, Dylan was by this time a major star, albeit in the folk realm, one album away from plugging in and taking over the rock world, too — but it kind of fit the ethos of the album, which is peppered with oddball humor and was, for some reason, recorded in a single, one-day, marathon session (June 9, 1964), with no second takes. If that meant keeping the laugh track on “I Don’t Believe You,” well, OK, then.
I like the confidence of the move, but I like Bob’s comfort in his own skin even more. There aren’t a great deal of things about myself I especially admire, but topping the list might be this: for better or worse, and with few exceptions, I’ve never really cared what people (outside of close friends and family, anyway) think of me. I certainly don’t crave the company of crowds, let alone their approval. As I noted in my last post, I’m perfectly fine with solitude, and I’m still happily aloof when it comes to what’s trendy or fashionable. I’m just … me, drifting about in my own head.
Seventh grade offers a good example. I was years away from discovering Bob Dylan — he wouldn’t be on my radar until college, and I wouldn’t start buying up his catalogue until the early ’90s — but I loved Simon & Garfunkel, thanks mostly to HBO, which, in February 1982, aired the duo’s reunion concert in Central Park from the previous September. I had no doubt heard some of these songs — “The Sounds of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Scarborough Fair,” etc. — before, but this was the first time I’d heard them gathered in one place. And I listened. And listened. And watched that concert as many times as HBO could air it. I was enthralled.
I clearly remember humming the end chorus of “The Boxer” as I hit Wiffle balls in my Light Street backyard, banging the bat down on the patio with each solitary drumbeat that breaks up the lie-la-lies. And I remember telling my slightly older classmates — it was on a bus to the YMCA where we had our weekly gym class — about the concert, and these amazing songs, and … well, let’s just say they didn’t share my enthusiasm. My passion fell on Def Leppard ears, at a time when everyone in my class was fixated on Pyromania. But they were nice kids, mostly, and the mockery was gentle.
I didn’t care. I was 11 years old, and Simon & Garfunkel made me happy. I don’t remember my peers’ apathy dampening my enthusiasm one bit. It’s a small, fondly recalled moment from my life — just another phase in my many decades of sharing my musical loves with anyone who might listen — and I wanted to share it on this blog, despite Paul and Art not appearing on the countdown. So I hope you’ll pardon me shoehorning them into a meditation on Dylan.
Speaking of whom, Bob is always reworking his songs, and “I Don’t Believe You” is no exception. But how he treated this one in the ’70s was just awful — a loud, graceless, lumbering mess you can find on any number of live recordings from the era. Gone is the delicacy, the vulnerability, the humor. Gone is the unexpected laugh, and the effortless cool of not caring what anyone thought of it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Wheeze of the World

#57: Horseshoes and Hand Grenades (Chris Mars, 1992)

“Heaved up my Apple Jacks and shit my PJs.
My pillow’s full of nasal drain.
Cartoon cowboys float by on broomsticks
through a field of mayonnaise.
Head’s banging like a drum.
School’s out, but it’s no fun.”

Chris Mars has quite an imagination — check out his surreal, cheekily grotesque paintings, some of which adorn his album covers — which apparently kicked into a higher gear while laid up and drugged up with some childhood illness. “Better Days,” his fantasy of spacemen in the basement and “purple spots on Soupy Sales,” among other visions, is a highlight of his witty, crunchy, unexpectedly delightful solo debut, released not long after the Replacements splintered. (Not that their ex-drummer seemed to mind; he titled his second album 75% Less Fat.)
I’ve got to be honest — my childhood sick days were far less traumatic. As an introvert since very early in life (my mom always said I preferred my own company), alone time has always been a precious commodity, and what could be better than a day of sitting up in bed, watching game shows, rifling through encyclopedias, and tackling crossword puzzles in Games magazine?
My mom was no germaphobe when it came to her sick kids. In fact, it was her bed I typically got to sit in, propped up by a beige, corduroy-lined, armed backrest. She might move the tiny kitchen TV in there, but the dresser it sat on was so far from the head of the bed, it hardly mattered. More important was the stack of pencil-puzzle books that invariably got me through the day, with a cup of orange juice on the nightstand to my left, maybe accompanied by a not-yet-cleared soup bowl or crumb-lined plate of mostly eaten toast. Below that, on the floor, was a white pail in case of a sudden urge to return said toast to the world.
If you didn’t think about the throat pain, or deep chest congestion (I managed to land a bout with bronchitis every November, without fail), or whatever the malady was, it was, I have to admit, an awesome way to spend a school day.
Of course, maybe I would have achieved the wild visions Mars saw had I actually taken my medicine more often. I had pill-swallowing issues as a child (it was my Nana who later taught me a technique to get them down), but instead of using applesauce or yogurt like a normal person, I’d just palm the antibiotics and hide them in a desk drawer, and lack the common sense to later toss them. One memorable day, Mom found the large stash in my desk, leading to the following line — which I can repeat to this day, in her exact enraged tone: “DO YOU WANT TO DIE?
No, not really, but I didn’t like pills, either.
Liquid medicine was worse; I suspect the flavors have improved somewhat in the past four decades, but back then, dear Lord, were they horrid. Mom encouraged me — like I do with my son today — to hold my nose and get it down fast, but I went through some other ideas first. Like pouring the little cup of cough syrup into a big cup of grape juice. I only realized which flavor won that battle when I was forced to drink, basically, 8 ounces of cough syrup. I might have been looking for the pail after that.
Left alone, though, I was in my element, with my books and puzzles and friends like Richard Dawson and Monty Hall. Not Soupy Sales, though. Chris Mars, born a decade before me, clearly remembers him well — with and without purple spots, I’m sure — but I encountered him only in a cheeky puzzle in Games, where you had to identify celebrities, past and present, by visual clues; he was represented by a sailboat floating in a bowl. I think Mom got that one for me. Hey, even when you’re out of school, it’s good to keep learning. And taking your medicine.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Passionate Disses

#58: Throwing Muses (Throwing Muses, 1986)

“I make you into a song.
I can't rise above the church.”

On the night before New Year’s Eve, at my youth group’s regular Friday gathering, my youth pastor asked me to give a short address to the other teens, one of a few he solicited to help welcome in 1989. I was a month short of 18, and back from college for Christmas break of my sophomore year.
Crossfire, as we called ourselves, had long abandoned the church’s fellowship hall to gather in the main sanctuary, which was appropriate, because our weekly gathering had long morphed into more of a church service — often with fire-and-brimstone sermons — than a social night. Fellowship would come later, often at Friendly’s or Chili’s, where we’d bitch about feeling persecuted in our own youth group — it was, if anything, an extra layer of epoxy to bond us — but mostly relax and laugh over sundaes or nachos. I would attend my last church service there eight months later, but the friendships remain strong, and lifelong.
On this night, I don’t remember the details of my short speech, except that it involved the idea of doing things with passion. I must have overused the word, actually, because my friend Nick later told me a couple of younger kids were mouthing it to each other in a gently mocking way. He also said he understood why some people wouldn’t get it, but that my speech made perfect sense to people who knew me well. I took that as praise. I’ve never been a great communicator outside my own circle; it’s why I don’t do much public speaking.
But the idea of being passionate about things — well, that did make sense to me during my college years; it’s why I wrote poems and turned them into chapbooks for my friends, regardless of whether they were, you know, any good. It’s why I performed in plays — and wrote one — and sang on stage and made dozens and dozens of mixtapes, all things I don’t do anymore. But back then, on the cusp of adulthood, I wanted to share every thought, to feel every moment.
Kristin Hersh’s quirky, charming memoir, Rat Girl, documents the year after she turned 18, as I was about to do when I took the podium that late-December night. But her story is much more raw and chaotic than mine, veering from her diagnosis with bipolar disorder to an unexpected pregnancy to her band, Throwing Muses, scoring a record deal and recording their striking debut.
It’s by turns a gorgeous album — check out Tanya Donnelly’s impossibly delicate vocals in “Green” — to harrowing, most notably Hersh’s unhinged turn in “Hate My Way”; in the book, she describes how her producer, Gil Norton, encouraged the unsettling screams from ‘evil Kristin.’ Not long after, she was probably screaming again as she gave birth to the child she decided to keep and raise, even though she had no idea how.
“It all happened twenty-five years ago, so it really can’t count as a story about me — that girl isn’t me anymore,” Kristin writes in the book’s prologue. “Now it’s just a story. And, interestingly, it turns out to be a love story. One with no romance, only passion. Passion for sound, reptiles, old ladies, guitars, a car, water, weather, friends, colors, chords, children, a band, fish, light and shadow.”
My son has a passion for piano. He’s 12 and has been playing for less than a year, but he’s addicted to practicing and is way more advanced than anyone expected he’d be right now. He’s always on the lookout for pianos to play in public, and when he finds one, he’s all over it. That’s earned him some grief from peers at school, who have belittled his passion, even though they probably wouldn’t give a second thought to someone who came in on Monday morning equally enthusiastic about the Patriots. I think it’s time to introduce my kid to the wise words of Wil Wheaton, who has addressed the overlapping topics of passion and geekery at length:

“I’ve said that being a nerd is not about what you love, it’s about the way that you love it. So you can be a nerd for football, and obsessively follow stats and player trades and figure out things that give you an advantage in, like, sports betting and things like that. Or, you can love Battlestar Galactica and try to work out all of the complex mythologies and get into things like blueprints of the ships. And then you can love things like Agents of Shield and Winter Soldier, and love that so much that you end up going to a comic-book shop and then reading all the way back through 10 or 20 years of Captain America comics. Someone who I would describe as a ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ is a person who loves something to its greatest extent, and then looks for other people who love it the same way, so they can celebrate loving it together.”

He’ll find those circles of like-minded friends in college; everyone does. The teenage years can be more difficult to navigate, but if your passion is strong enough — and you have a dad who talks to you about why being a geek for something is actually kinda cool — maybe you’ll be OK.
My world-changing ambitions are long past; my focus now is on trying to be the husband and father my family deserve. I’ve written before that I’ll never impact millions of people — but maybe my son will. Kristin Hersh certainly did. I hope she still feels passionate about things. I hope I do, too.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Hurty Dozen

#59: The Ideal Copy (Wire, 1987)

“How fast do you run?
How fast can you run?”

Today? Don’t ask. But there was a time when I could run. A tiny window in my life, really, but one I suppose could have stayed open had I been willing to work for it.
I’ve long grappled with my exercise-induced asthma and wondered how much of it is a legitimate condition, and how much is my body just not wanting to run. But I do have asthma, and it can certainly become crippling if I exert myself too much. So, when I hit my final semester of college and had basically run out of time to take the single-semester running course required of every student, I asked my mom if Diane, my pediatrician — and her employer — would write me a note excusing me from the requirement.
Diane’s response was a challenge, with a safety net: take the class. And if it becomes too difficult, she’d write the note. I took the challenge.
And I took it seriously. When school started that September, I couldn’t dash across a small parking lot without gasping for air, and one quarter-mile trip around the track had me practically heaving. The final requirement to pass the course was going to be a non-stop, three-mile run — yup, 12 laps. I didn’t see how that was possible, but I decided I was going to work at it. Slowly. Gradually.
All my college semesters have a certain soundtrack, but the fall of 1991 — my ninth and final term — is especially vivid, because so much of it was pumped directly into my ears from a Walkman — possibly the same device I used to record hours upon hours of residence-hall life, a project I’ve written about before. I’d take the cassette player/recorder to the track, which was, conveniently, right behind my dorm, and fire up the Pixies’ Trompe le Monde, or the Blake Babies’ Rosy Jack World, or the Breeders’ Pod, or that self-titled obscurity by the Swoon. Or, most often — in fact, way, way more often than anything else — The Ideal Copy.
Wire, in all its arty, angular glory, is one of my five favorite bands, and they’ve progressed through a passel of styles over the decades, but for some reason, I found their mid-’80s incarnation — a weirdly satisfying meld of Europop drive and postpunk angst — perfect running music. I’d usually hit the track at the end of the day, when it was coolest, and just try to add another quarter-mile each time. Halftime of Monday Night Football was appointment running, but I got out there several evenings a week. Still, going into the final exam, I had never completed more than two miles without stopping.
I was nervous that morning. At lunch, just before class, I poured a bunch of sugar packets into my lemonade, thinking they’d give me energy. (They probably just made me jittery.) What helped the most, though, was Carter.
We were only casual friends (and remain so on Facebook), and today, she’s an incredibly talented singer and actress with a national following and Broadway credits. But she was also my assigned partner in that class, which basically meant we timed and encouraged each other during our scheduled class-time running sessions. We split the final into two groups for that reason, and her group ran first. Then it was my turn.
About two miles in, I was doing surprisingly well, meaning my legs hadn’t seized up, and my lungs hadn’t collapsed, although the panting was beginning to morph into gasping. Not that I was bothering any of the other runners, because they were all inside cooling down; by my ninth lap, there were only two people on that track: Carter, with her sweats and stopwatch, and me, sweating and desperately longing for the click that would signal the final time. I don’t even remember the coach being out there; he probably told Carter to lock up the gym when we were done.
She never moved from her spot at the finish line, always smiling, never complaining about the extra-long class or needing to be somewhere else, waiting patiently for me to make my ninth pass … then 10th … then 11th. My run had long become more of a slow stagger, but, amazingly, I never actually dropped into a walk. I wouldn’t call the final quarter-mile a second wind, but I was so happy to be nearing the end, I’m sure it was one of my better single-lap times. When I crossed the finish line, I dropped to the black asphalt in a mock — but kind of celebratory — collapse, and you’ve never seen someone more genuinely cheerful about a friend’s accomplishments than Carter was right then.
I’ll bet she never gave my run a second thought after that day; as I said, we knew each other only casually. But her enthusiasm for my unlikely three-mile effort was one of those little moments of kindness you remember. Which is why I’ve never forgotten it.
I’ve also not forgotten my time: 30 minutes, 24 seconds. And I suspect I could have whittled that down below 25 minutes, maybe better, had I just kept at it. For the first time, I was training my body to overcome its asthmatic limitations. Had I taken the running course as a freshman or sophomore, that track behind my dorm might have become a regular destination. Maybe even a habit.
But I graduated that month, moved into an apartment on the south side of Springfield, and took an editing job that involved a desk and a daily donut cart. I stopped running completely, and my body shows it to this day.
Still, at least for a couple of months, “I remember making the body search,” as Colin Newman sings in the anthemic “Ahead.” And that body found an opportunity, and a momentary victory. But I let it slip away.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Gutsiest Days of Our Lives

#60: The Wall (Pink Floyd, 1979)

“Will I remember the songs?
The show must go on.”

I came by The Wall late — in March 1990, actually, while visiting my friend Jeoffrey in Chicago for spring break, and he had it on in his car. It immediately grabbed me, and today I can appreciate its sharp writing, its crisp production, its ingenious sequencing, its schizophrenic vision — everything, really, and try to ignore the fact that Roger Waters is an anti-semitic narcissist.
Before that, all I knew of The Wall was its centerpiece track and inescapable single, “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2,” the chorus of which — “we don’t need no education” and all that — positively delighted fifth-graders like me everywhere.
Still, I don’t know what possessed me and three other students — Michelle, Billy, and my sister — to ask a lunch monitor if we could clamber up on stage (Stonybrook School had one of those classic ’70s gym/caf/auditorium combo spaces) and sing this vaguely teacher-threatening ditty in front of a couple hundred kids trying to separate their pizza from its aluminum prison. But she let us.
Turns out, that was the easy part. Because once the four of us were on that wooden stage, memorizing every scuff in its decades-old polish as we stared down at our shoes, we all began wondering why the heck we thought this was a good idea. As our schoolmates started to pipe down and turn their eyes toward us, the reluctance built.
The time that passed, during which we exchanged glances with each other, then the diners below, then the scuff marks, then back at each other, may have been only a minute or so, but it seemed to last so long, and was so tense and chest-compressing, that it’s entirely possible it’s still actually happening, during which time I’ve hallucinated the past 37 years of my life. So, really, I can’t say for sure whether we managed to choke out our acapella performance.
I think we did, but I honestly don’t remember how it went. My brain is iffy on the details, like it dissociated and built a protective … well, you know.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Good Night, Maverick

#61: The Crane Wife (The Decemberists, 2006)

“Well, the shot, it hit hard,
and your frame went limp in my arms.”

Maverick was taking his last car ride, to the emergency animal hospital in Deerfield. It was raining.
Before we carried him outside in a blanket, like a sling, and loaded him into the back of the 4Runner, I had hoped it was just Lyme disease, or the sudden onset of … something. Something treatable. Jenn had seen a dog die before and knew what it looked like. She knew Maverick wasn’t coming home. And as I sat in back with him in the dark, feeling with my hand for his breath and feeling his lips turn cold, I knew, too.
His first car ride was pretty traumatic, too. Eight pounds of tiny golden retriever, about six of those pounds legs, loaded into a cat carrier with plenty of room to spare. We got him from a backyard breeder in Westfield, a mistake we won’t repeat. What I mean is, it was a mistake to encourage backyard breeding (we later adopted two springer spaniel puppies and a mutt, one from a reputable breeder and the next two from rescue shelters). Maverick, however, wasn’t a mistake. Maverick was the best golden ever.
On that first car ride, in 2001, he was such a wreck, he desecrated the cat carrier from three different orifices. After he got cleaned up, and for several nights afterward, we sat on the kitchen floor with our legs splayed and tossed around a ball to tire him out before bed. He was crate-trained, like all our dogs, but for most of his life he slept on a big, comfy dog bed in my office.
He was an incorrigible chewer early on — a windowsill, the molding in the hallway, an entire braided rug in the living room, so that for months I was picking up blue poop in the yard. But then something amazing happened. He became the best, most well-behaved dog you’d ever want to meet, and also the kindest, and the most patient. When Ripley came home in 2002, he accepted her right away. We have a wonderful photo of the two of them that first day with a big plastic ball Mavi liked playing with. His head is pointing at the ball, like he’s saying, “this is mine, got it?” She’s got this expression of, “sure, whatever you say.” Nothing was ever truly his after that, if Ripley (and later Crash), like Belloq with Indiana Jones, wanted to take it away.
But he always accepted new family right away, including our non-furry son in 2005. He loved everyone, dogs and people alike. He loved attention, and a head scratch, and running in the woods. On vacation in Acadia, when he wasn’t even 2 yet, he jumped up on a narrow bridge rail spanning a 50-foot drop, looked over the edge, and, as we lunged toward him in panic, turned back around. I was still shaking two hours later. Thankfully, his fun times weren’t usually so terrifying. He loved catching thrown tennis balls, even though he had a mental block about giving them back. Once, we played catch in the road, and I didn’t notice until we were inside that all his pads were broken and bleeding; Mav was not one to stop a game of catch on account of bleeding feet.
Jenn started him on agility when he was a couple years old, and he was the only puppy to completely fail his first class. We still have a hilarious VHS tape of him flailing through the little course that was his final exam; it feels longer than The Sound of Music. Years ago, our groomer (whom Mav spent his last day with) initially thought he had mental problems and couldn’t believe he was even doing agility at all. But he eventually earned three C-ATCH titles in the CPE organization. I talked to the groomer the day after he died and told her what happened; she sounded like she was going to cry and told me what a good dog Maverick was.
I mentioned that he was patient. Early in his life, he contracted a serious ear-canal infection that baffled a number of doctors and animal hospitals. After a couple of years and thousands of dollars in useless tests and treatments, a local holistic vet identified an allergy issue, treated the ear with an herbal concoction, and switched him to a raw diet ... and his problem went away. But before that, every couple of days for about a year (sometimes every day), we washed his ear out with a vinegar-water solution, and Jenn used cotton balls to scoop out the black gunk that accumulated each day, and often came out with some blood as well. Maverick never complained, even though it must have been incredibly painful. Those years left him half-deaf later in life, but that didn’t matter in agility runs, where — even after old age slowed him tremendously — his strength has always been staying right by my side.
He was by our side that night in Deerfield, as the emergency vet diagnosed the problem — a probably cancerous growth in his spleen area that had ruptured. It’s not rare, and usually undetectable until it’s too late. If we’d opted for surgery, the best we could have hoped for was a couple more months of life, but what kind of life? I remembered the ear years. We didn’t want Maverick to suffer like that anymore. In any case, he took the decision out of our hands; by the time he lay on that table, wrapped in the yellow blanket we had used to line crates at agility trials, he was just about gone. As the tech struggled to find a vein, Maverick Martin (his first name a Top Gun reference, his middle name echoing a very brave mouse in the Redwall books) died in our hands, and almost instantly found himself running and chasing balls at Rainbow Bridge.
I’ll always associate that animal hospital with the Decemberists, whom I discovered in December 2011; I immediately began buying their catalogue and immersing myself, one arty, pretentious, compelling album at a time. Our older springer spaniel, Ripley, was viciously attacked by two off-leash pit bulls the following month, and during my trips back and forth to the hospital for her two surgeries and follow-up care, the soundtrack in the 4Runner was The Crane Wife, which, with its waves of tasteful violence, sort of made sense.
But the night Maverick died, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” was in my head, on repeat, and stayed lodged there well into the next day. I don’t know why. But I know he found his acre of land. Many acres. And he’s running. It’s sunny with a cool breeze, and there’s plenty of cold water, and a rainbow, and he’s running. He’s running fast.
He’s so fast.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Confidence Games

#62: The Lion and the Cobra (Sinéad OConnor, 1987)

“I have learned. I will rise.
And you’ll see me return.”

“I know someone special who lives in Stratford and Watertown.”
In a Venn diagram of ‘liberal-arts colleges’ and ‘affiliated with the Assemblies of God,’ Evangel College (now University) would occupy a tiny sliver of space, and that unique model has long drawn from all 50 states; that was one of the things I loved about it. Years after graduation, I took two separate three-week roadtrips and stayed in a motel just once, because I had friends with spare beds everywhere.
Reflecting the campus’ multi-state character were outlines of a dozen or two states, hand-painted on wooden blocks, that lined the walls of certain hallways. They went up sometime during the mid-’80s, before I arrived, and students would identify their hometowns, and maybe write something witty, in pencil or pen. As amateur art projects went, it was inspired.
Connecticut wasn’t exactly one of Evangel’s more representative states, but it actually made the cut, and sometime during my freshman year, I penciled in the coastal town of Stratford, where I had spent most of my childhood and teen years. And when Mom called early in 1989 to tell me that, yes, they were moving an hour inland, to the rural community of Watertown, I was sure to make a note of it on the painted wood, both with the identification of my new hometown, and with a dotted line running from it to Stratford, and the words “my path of emigration.” And elsewhere on the map (there was plenty of open space; as I said, Nutmeg Staters weren’t exactly flocking to EC), the girl I was briefly dating wrote the words that open this essay.
When I first saw Watertown over spring break, my parents had already moved in and decorated; it felt lived in. The bedrooms (including one I shared with my 11-year-old brother, Jeff, when I was home) were small, but it was the character of the place that drew Mom — the dark hardwood everywhere, the quirky layout, the steep driveway beside the stream running through the backyard, just 10 feet from the walk-in basement.
I liked it right away, but I may have liked the town even more. The second-run, dirt-cheap movie theater where I saw Field of Dreams five times that summer. The Revolutionary War-era cemetery tucked behind the downtown shops, which I eventually wrote a poem about. The multi-story building in the center of town with the name ‘Haddad’ carved atop it, where a guy named Joe ran a café, which I eventually wrote a poem about. And, of course, a record shop called Fine Tunes, which I — well, you know.
My first purchase there, over that initial spring break visit, was Sinéad O’Connor’s The Lion and the Cobra, to which my friend Eric had introduced me that spring. And I kept coming back. When I wasn’t working as a proofreader at a print shop in nearby Waterbury that summer — or playing Wiffle Ball with my brother Jeff — I spent many, many hours just hanging out there with the proprietor, a no-nonsense but gruffly friendly guy named Larry, perusing the racks of cassettes, talking about music that interested both of us, sometimes brushing up against the business of music sales or American politics. I especially liked it when Larry was out on an errand and his young employee was running the place. Still in my late teens, I had trouble talking to women I liked, especially ones I thought were pretty or cool or, in this case, both. I’m sure I never impressed her. But when I wrote a longish poem called “Fine Tunes” the following year, she was all over it.
I was going to quote bits of it here, but ... no. Its not exactly high art. It doesn’t even dream of approaching the mad brilliance of Sinéad, who wrote and recorded her masterpiece when she was only 19. But it gave harbor to the things I’d have said had I been more confident, and there’s value in that.
I never learned much about the girl, not even her last name, and after the summer of 1990, I saw her only once, the following May, as we showed up simultaneously at the print shop to apply for a summer job. But they weren’t hiring; the late-80s recession was still in full swing, so that wasn’t surprising.
I lived in that late-1800s house, though, off and on, until the spring of 1998, when I struck out on my own, meeting my future wife late that year and running off to Massachusetts on the first day of the new millennium, preparing for the marriage we’ve now celebrated for 17 years. She was pretty and cool, too. Still is. A few years after that, my parents left that house behind for the last time and moved to North Carolina, and our family’s Watertown story was over.
But someone special did live in Stratford and Watertown. And parts of both still live in him.

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.