The Hug Goodnight

For a big chunk of my childhood, my mother stopped in my room to give me a hug and turn out the light before I went to sleep. It was a sweet, if generic ritual which probably shouldn’t stand out as much as it does in my mind, but for it being an oddity. We didn’t say I love you much, if at all in our house growing up. Mom worked long days, and I had a stay-at-home dad whom, in retrospect, I look back as particularly ill-equipped for the role. He’s more of a social creature than I ever realized as a kid, when he mostly closed himself off and seemed to locked in a state of arrested development from my and my sister’s early childhood, and a need to micromanage behavior and penny pinch--sensations that outlived their real-world necessity. Our home was a cold one—in the emotional sense I’m alluding to, sure, but also because my father insisted thermostats never reach over sixty degrees, and during the waking hours of the day insisted we stay in uncomfortably close quarters so as to only heat the house to that degree in just one room, with the door shut and a towel stuffed at the bottom for insulation.

When other people in my life talk about warmer childhood memories, I tend to come back to this nightly routine of the hug good night that went on longer than I thought normal, particularly for a boy, into some point in middle school. There was a period when it involved reading, too. There was a school program that involved parents and kids reading to one another, and I remember Mom reading the first few chapters of Jurassic Park to me under that premise. More so, I remember that I would read to myself, or sometimes write my own stories by hand on grid paper Mom brought home for work, until she came to my door.

Most of all, though, I remember when things shifted. I don’t recall the precise context, though I expect I was writing something, or reading something I was really invested in, or maybe I’d gotten in an argument with my father. More than likely, for whatever combination of circumstances, it was tinged with my pre-teen angst and feeling more tired than I would have admitted in the moment.

Mom came into my room earlier than I’d expected her to, and I lashed out. You know, you don’t have to come in here every night.

I regretted the words as soon as I’d said them. Even as my stubborn pride meant I couldn’t begin to take them back in the moment, I immediately felt the sensation of having given up something important. The closest experiences I can liken it to from adult life was the immediate pit in my stomach those times I broke off romantic relationships. Each time I did so, the decision was overdue, and I wouldn’t regret it in the long term. But in that moment? More so than wanting to avoid confrontation or a feeling of guilt at hurting my partner was a sense that maybe I was giving up on something I’d later wish I had back.

That next day, I told Mom that it was OK if she wanted to come to say good night sometimes. I thought myself logical, clarifying a matter of complicated wording. And though I should not have been surprised, Mom did come to my room that night around my standard bedtime, saying I’d made an offer that was too good to pass up on.

Mom came to my room more nights that not in those days to follow. I’m not sure when she stopped, though by high school I was staying up later for homework or to watch TV; the occasional later night phone call. Like so many pieces of childhood—like sleeping with my My Pet Monster, Honk; like playing with my wrestling action figures; like drawing for fun—goodnight hugs fell by the wayside without my noticing in the moment it had happened, and never to return.

I remember all of this while holding my son to my chest, bouncing seated on an exercise ball--a rhythm that soothes him when little else will. This practice, something I do every day now, will fade as he gets too big for it, doesn’t respond to the motion, or doesn’t need soothing in the same way anymore. He’s too little to remember these moments, but I know soon, there will be those memories does carry with him. A foundation for how he understands family and love and good in this world.

I promise myself I’ll hug him tight.

Every Road Roamed

I remember “Forever Young.” Not the version by Bob Dylan, the objectively more insightful, more artful, more original, better song, released in 1973. The version by Rod Stewart that came out in 1988.

I remember hearing this song in a period of my life, just starting school, when I started to become conscious of music, not as background sound but as something to be enjoyed with individual artists to be identified. A stage before I owned any album or any music-playing device outside our bulky metallic portable cassette player/recorder, and when my sister and I just started experimenting with recording songs as they played on the radio so that we could get our first taste of owning music—the ability to play a song we liked on demand.

I remember that this song appeared in Chances Are, a schmaltzy flic starring Robert Downey Jr. and Cybill Shepherd that offered me my first glimpses into the concept of reincarnation.

I remember listening to this song on the radio, sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table, and thinking that the lyrics were profound. This idea of what youth might represent, especially for someone much older. How we might cling to it. How we might wish that people in our lives would never change or go away.

I remember hearing this song on the car ride home from swimming lessons--those miserable, freezing summer mornings when my father drove me to the municipal pool to learn the crawl, back, and breast strokes. I remember a particular sense of gratitude, one of those mornings, not for lessons, and not for the time in the car with Dad, but for those parts of the day being over. That the rest of the day would be mine, and that that could mean anything. That notion was inspiring, even when the day’s greatest potential meant things like playing Castlevania, or sketching dragons on the unlined backs of the grid paper my mother snagged from work for my sister and I to write and draw on.

I remember sitting with my best friend at his kitchen table--maybe ten years old-—when he asked me to name a song I liked, and I told him “Forever Young.” I imagine he had just learned about the concept of calling a radio station to request a song, and went on place the call to Lite 98.7, with no concept of different radio stations focusing on different genres, and lucking out that this was a match. I remember lingering at the table, by the radio, as we crept up on the time I was due home for dinner, and finally staying later until we could hear our request made good. Until my mother called his house, midway through the first chorus, to ask his mother to remind me to get my butt home.

I remembered all of this, earbuds in iPhone on shuffle as I stepped off the city bus for a day of teaching and writing in Oregon, and this song came on. I’d forgotten I had it on my phone, and don’t remember what the occasion might have been to download it.

But on that particular spring day, when I didn’t need an umbrella or jacket and the sun beat down and the breeze was warm, this song sounded right. And I listened again.

Year By Year

With one week to go before WrestleMania 34, I'm recalling the last 33 years in my life and in 'Mania.

In 1985 Tito Santana made The Executioner submit to his figure-four leglock. I was one.

In 1986 Rowdy Roddy Piper lost a boxing match to Mr. T when he picked up the A-Team star and threw him to the mat. I don’t remember it now, but when my sister went to school, I experienced a sample of life as the only child in the house.

In 1987, Hulk Hogan body slammed Andre the Giant in front of a purported live crowd of 93,137. Some of my earliest memories come from the VHS tape of that show, that match.

In 1988, The Macho Man won four matches in one night, culminating a victory over The Million dollar Man to win his first world championship. I started kindergarten.

In 1989, Miss Elizabeth refused to pick a side, and stood in a neutral corner to support both wrestlers when The Mega Powers—Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage—came to blows. I won a foot race among all of kindergarten kids on the last day of school, in what may have been the greatest athletic accomplishment of my life.

In 1990, Roddy Piper painted half of his body black before a match with Bad News Brown in what was generally considered an ill-advised attempt at positive message about race relations. I played Super Mario Bros. for the first time.

In 1991, The Macho Man hit The Ultimate Warrior with five consecutive elbow drops from the top rope, and still lost. I played AYSO soccer for the green team.

In 1992, Bret Hart countered Roddy Piper’s sleeper hold into a beautiful bridging pin to win back the Intercontinental Championship. I read Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons and, for the first time, understood why people like to read.

In 1993, Doink the Clown beat a man into unconsciousness with a prosthetic arm. My best friend (now of twenty-five years) and I had our first conversation on the school bus over an issue of WWF Magazine.

In 1994, Razor Ramon defeated Shawn Michaels in the WWF’s first live broadcast of a Ladder Match. I took an interest in basketball for the first time when the Knicks went to the NBA Finals.

In 1995, Lawrence Taylor turned in the celebrity performance of a lifetime and nailed Bam Bam Bigelow with a forearm off the middle rope to pin in him in the main event. I asked out a girl for the first time.

In 1996, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart worked the longest match in WrestleMania history at 61 minutes, 52 seconds. I spent the first of 19 summers (to date) at CTY.

In 1997, Stone Cold Steve Austin refused to submit to Bret Hart’s Sharpshooter and passed out in the hold instead while gushing blood from his forehead. I started writing my first novel.

In 1998, Mike Tyson counted the pin when Steve Austin defeated Shawn Michaels to win his first world championship. I tanked my Earth Science final.

In 1999, Triple H and Chyna reunited as good guys only to turn heel together later in the show. I kicked of the year sitting alone watching episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer I’d recorded off of TV onto VHS.

In 2000, Triple H became the first heel to ever win the last match of a WrestleMania. I got my first job, folding sweaters at a discount clothing store in the mall.

In 2001, Steve Austin pinned The Rock and then clinked beer cans with Vince McMahon in the middle of the ring, newly aligned characters, not to mention real-life business characters toasting WWF buying out WCW. I graduated from high school and started college.

In 2002, The Rock defeated Hulk Hogan in an intergenerational dream match. I shaved my head.

In 2003, Brock Lesnar nearly broke his neck when he undershot on a Shooting Star Press against Kurt Angle. I went an OAR show that was one of the best live concert experiences I’d ever had.

In 2004, Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero celebrated the two of them holding world championships while confetti rained from the rafters at Madison Square Garden. I finished my first year as editor in chief of the college paper and decided to come back for another year.

In 2005, John Cena won his first world title. I got to speak at commencement.

In 2006, Edge speared Mick Foley through a flaming table. My best friend and I decided to start a website about a cappella music.

In 2007, The Undertaker stole the show in a minor epic with Batista, pinning The Animal after a Tombstone piledriver. I spent the summer working at Princeton.

In 2008, Ric Flair lost his final WWE match to Shawn Michaels. I started a new life in Baltimore.

In 2009, The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels put on an all-time classic match, and I was there for WrestleMania live for the first time.

In 2010, Bret Hart returned to wrestle his first WWE match in over twelve years. I visited Europe for the first time.

In 2011, Michael Cole defeated Jerry Lawler by disqualification in the worst WrestleMania match of all time. I was a groomsman for my dear friend Will’s wedding.

In 2012, Sheamus pinned Daniel Bryan in the shortest world title match in WrestleMania history (clocking in at eighteen seconds). I finished my first master’s degree.

In 2013, John Cena pinned The Rock for the WWE Championship. I jumped out of a plane and asked Heather on our first date a couple hours later.

In 2014, Brock Lesnar became the first man in twenty-two years to defeat The Undertaker at WrestleMania. I moved to Oregon to start my MFA program and move in with Heather for the first time.

In 2015, Seth Rollins became the first man to cash in a Money in the Bank championship opportunity in the middle of a WrestleMania main event. I participated in two weddings that summer: the officiant for Peek and Missy’s, the best man for Scalise and Amy's.

In 2016, Shane McMahon jumped off the top of a Hell in a Cell cage, through a table. Heather and I got married.

In 2017, The Hardy Boyz made a surprise return and won the tag team championships in a four-way Ladder Match. I found out my wife was pregnant the morning of the show; my son was born in December.

The Dark World

There was one Christmas when I was—I don’t know, twelve years old?—and all that I remember about it is Dark World.

For all my nerdiness, for being a budding fan of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis and Patricia C. Wrede, and pretty obsessive about The Legend of Zelda, I’d somehow evaded the world of Dungeons and Dragons—was vaguely aware of its existence, but had never played and didn’t know anyone who had didn’t really feel as though I’d missed out on anything.

And then I saw the ads for Dark World.

I wonder if there may have been a TV spot for it, too, but I remember best the Toys ‘R’ US full-color pull-out flyer from the Sunday paper that featured Dark World, a board game, yes, but a three dimensional one in which castle walls and forests sprouted from the board, equipped with armies of little figurine knights and goblins and wizards. The morning I saw it--probably around Black Friday--I drafted my first Christmas wish list for the year.

An aside: I have to suspect that my parents and grandmother regretted whatever point they’d advised my sister and I to start making lists. Before long, it became an exercise in obsessive calculation and ranking. For most of my childhood, I knew my parents and Grandma to spend about fifty dollars each on gifts for the holiday, so I tailored my lists around those dollar amounts. First, more expansive lists with the items I wanted most at the top, then more concise lists in hopes nothing would go overlooked or they wouldn’t take liberties with order of preference, or settle for something lower on the list because they found it first in the store. I provided different lists to Grandma and my parents, too, both to avoid overlap and because I knew, for example, that Grandma was more likely to send away for video tapes or books using an order form I’d clipped from a pro wrestling magazine, whereas my parents would only buy what they could find at the mall.

In retrospect, this was all kind of awful--the worst kind of losing the so-called spirit of the holiday and appreciating what I had, in favor of targeted, deeply analyzed materialism as I produced multiple drafts of each list.

But back to Dark World.

Dark World topped both Christmas lists, so certain was I that this would be the game that changed my life.

And then I reconsidered.

This was also around the time that I was falling in love with music, and some of the biggest takeaways from Christmas time the past two years had been cassette tapes from my new favorite artists. When I assessed the price tag on Dark World--thirty dollars, plus tax--it would leave room for, at best, two new cassettes, and that wasn’t even taking into consideration t-shirts, books, or cash.

And for what? For all its bells and whistles, the more I thought about Dark World, the more I struggled to imagine actually making use of it. I didn’t have friends I played board games with with any regularity. My parents didn’t play. That left only Grandma and my sister, and Grandma was more of a traditionalist with games she’d known for decades, and my sister tended to balk at longer slower games, which I had to imagine this one would be. Indeed, hadn’t it been an immersion in a fantasy world that drew me in to start with?

So, my final draft of my Christmas list, turned in less than a week before Christmas, did not include Dark World. In retrospect, all of the Christmas shopping had to have been done before that date, which in turn provoked my mother asking me directly (by our conversational standards) about it--that she’d noticed Dark World wasn’t on my list anymore, and didn’t I still want it?

I gave a hesitant, half-hearted, half-true response that I did still want it, it’s just that there were other things I also wanted.

I knew before I opened the wrapping paper that Dark World awaited me Christmas morning, and did my best to smile and thanked my mother, who I’m fairly sure saw through my faux-excitement in noting that she could return it and get me something else if I didn’t want it.

After a moment of thought, I kept it.

But the question haunted me. How late was too late to return a game for a refund? Days? Weeks? As we actually opened the box and as we played our first game, I had the sense I was taking an irreversible step. All the more so as we made the decision, as the game’s instructions advised, to paint the little figurines so we could personalize them.

To my best recollection, we only played the game two or three times. Predictably, Grandma and my sister didn’t much like it, and in all truth, I didn’t really get into it either, though I’ll never know for sure how much that had to do with all of my wish-list-remorse, versus the shortcomings of the game itself. I’m not sure what became of the game in the end. My best guess is that my father either sold it when he was clearing out the house years back, or its still collecting dust in some corner there.

But I’ll always remember Dark World--not it adventures, promised or realized, and not the fun of playing the game or personalizing it, but as the last toy or game I remember asking for.

I was growing up--into a dark world, indeed.

New Shoes On

For far too long as a kid, I didn’t know how to tie my shoelaces. I wore the sneakers with two Velcro straps that were not so uncommon for a kid in that era who was five, even six years old.

I don’t remember the surrounding circumstances, but I recall quite vividly a day when I was ten years old and this gap in my knowledge was exposed at school. Not in a big, public humiliation. Not in anyone making fun of me. But in another boy smiling and trying to show me how to do so--as if one demonstration would be enough to internalize the lesson for a lifetime. I remember his kindness and how profoundly it felt like condescension.

I remember thinking that tying my shoelaces was simply a skill I’d never master. As a boy, I wasn’t intimidated by learning multiplication or division or algebra. My vocabulary expanded and expanded. By tying shoelaces--there was something confounding in it.

And yet, one day, I got new shoes. As was customary in my family, I only had one pair at a time: all-purpose sneakers, and I only got the new ones after I’d outgrown the ones before them. And that day, my feet were too big for any of the ones with Velcro straps in the store. And so it was decided. I had to learn.

I learned there was more than one approach. The loop-swoop-and-scoop. The bunny ears. I latched onto the former, and after a day or so of sheer rote practice, I’d picked up the skill. A minor triumph.

I don’t remember those first lace-up sneakers, but I remember that the ones after them were the kind with light-up heels, that flashed red when I ran. I remember that the light-up heels were already a little out-of-style, and also meant for boys younger than me by that time, but they’d been the only pair I half-liked at the discount shoe store that afternoon. My father and I were both impatient with shopping, so I went home with them.

Another pair were black, branded with the Colorado Rockies logo. Cool enough to look at, though I had no more affinity for the Rockies, or baseball in general, than from the New York Rangers (or hockey) that branded my winter gloves.

I outgrew the point when it was socially acceptable to wear sneakers as part of a dress-up outfit just as my feet grew to about the same size as my father’s, and so he lent me his lone pair—the shiny black monk-strap shoes that I wore to play in orchestra concerts and to the winter semi-formal and to prom.

I was low-maintenance, but in an early high school growth spurt, I got five inches taller my feet stretched two sizes past the pair of sneakers that I still wore for a period of months before saying anything to my folks. From then on, my mother made a habit of asking how my shoes fit, and for the first time in my life, I began getting new pairs even when I didn’t necessarily need them, as the shoes got just the least bit tight or I imagined they did.

When I left for college, my mother bought me my first pair of dress-ish shoes. The ones I picked out. Big, brown, boot-like shoes, rounded at the toes. I remember asking one of my girl friends at college if she thought I could pull them of with shorts. She did her best not to laugh when she told me no. For years, I wore them with black socks, unaware of that fashion faux paz.

A few years out of college, a few years into office work, I had settled on three pairs of shoes at a time—a real wealth of footwear relative to childhood, though I developed my own penchant for wearing these shoes into the ground—until the soles wore away or parts of the heel separated. Until they actively hurt to wear or looked overtly stupid.

When I left the office to go to grad school full time, one of my last items I treated myself to before I adjusted to life on a tight income was a new pair of sneakers. The Onitsuka Tiger brand that seemed to sprout up in variety of social circles, that I liked the look of, perhaps the only time in my life when I consciously sought out a particular pair of shoes and paid a modest premium for them.

I wore these shoes in a new life, when it was not out of the ordinary for me to walk two-and-a-half miles to or from campus in a given day.

And my feet ached. These sneakers looked sharp, and maybe some people do like the way they feel.

For me, they were not a fit.

I stuck it out for the year—relishing the novelty of getting to wear sneakers, not shoes, so often again. I stuck it out until the pain became chronic, and I was unwilling to go on weekend hikes because I knew I’d regret it all week afterward.

That summer, I worked an intense job, in which the hours were brutal but the paycheck was commensurate with the effort. At the end of it, I decided it was time to treat myself again, and Googled the most comfortable men’s sneaker on the market.

This was how I found my Brooks running shoes.

Even tying the laces that first time, I could swear I felt a difference.

That fall, I taught at 8 a.m.--too early for a bus to get me to campus on time, so I was walking to campus three days a week. But in these new shoes—these big, not particularly fashionable sneakers—I felt strong. I felt comfortable. Despite the early hour paired with my night owl tendencies, I even enjoyed these walks sometimes. A leg up on the day. Putting my best foot forward.

On Melt Day

They used to yell “Melt!”

Down the hallways of the high school. In the cafeteria. Now and again, even in a classroom. A ragtag group, mostly boys—or at least it was the boys whose voices carried most clearly. Not popular, but not particularly unpopular, either. A mix of nerds and musicians and misfits who didn’t fit the school’s football culture, but also couldn’t rightly be called losers by any meaningful measure. Truth be told, were I year or two older, or had the dice of my own social life rolled one extra time before settling on the chosen faces, it’s not unreasonable to think that I might have ended up among them.

Melt!

To my recollection, it was a nonsense syllable. Just a thing to say. I have a suspicions that I might be forgetting some inside joke to set it up as the word, but regardless, if it did have meaning, that meaning seemed to dissipate over time. These guys yelled melt. Sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it was annoying. As far as I could tell, it was always harmless.

And then we arrived at Melt Day.

March 2, 2000. More to the point, a date that read “3/2,” which was converted to 32—the tipping point degree at which water freezes. The point when ice may begin to melt (though some sticklers for science and semantics argued that March 3 would have been a more appropriate Melt Day).

[Note: Someone closer to the situation contacted me to indicate the actual date was March 3, 1999. In lieu of any official documentation, I have to defer to his memory and presume I was mistaken.]

Melt Day would be an informal holiday. A day when the Melt crew would scream Melt a little louder and more often, and maybe even welcome new members into its fold, if just for one day. One of the Melt guys told me about their plan to bring a large block of ice into the school and yell “Melt” at it throughout the day until it had fully given way to water.

The thing is, in March of 2000, our high school was less than a year removed from the news of Columbine. Rumors swelled--I don’t know the source--that Melt Day, executed by these not-quite-cool kids, would be a day of massacre.

They’re going to throw snowballs at people outside school and shoot at anyone they hit.
they built a bomb. They’re going to melt the school.
They’re going to kill everyone.

The rumors moved fast. A letter went home to parents to explain that the administration did not have reason to believe anyone was at risk, but that they understood some students and their families would not feel comfortable attending school that day, and so absences on March 2 would not count against any student’s attendance.

The story made the local paper and at least one local news channel’s TV coverage.

I went to school on Melt Day.

Most people didn’t.

Included among the absentee—every recognizable member of the Melt group, who I anecdotally heard were advised it was in their best interest not to come to school that day.

I don’t have any specific statistics to cite (indeed, in a quick Google search, I was interested to have not found any references to Melt Day), but from what I remember, about two-thirds of my classmates were missing that day. I never experienced another school day quite like it, and my best approximation would be teaching a morning class on the day before Thanksgiving when I was in grad school. The teachers couldn’t cover any meaningful content, and yet were still compelled to hold all of their classes. It was a strange, wasted, awkward day.

Action movie sequences did flash through my mind once or twice--what I might do if there were a shooter. But these thoughts were far more fanciful than practical. I knew some of the Melt guys reasonably well and didn’t perceive any likelihood of an attack. It felt entirely more likely that one of the bigger guys who picked on me on and off over the years might take a swing at me than that anyone from the Melt crew had a weapon, much less any thoughts of mass violence.

Most of my teachers didn’t address Melt Day. They put on a movie, or went through the motions of some sort of exercise in place of advancing their teachings. I do recall my math teacher delivering a soliloquy, though. One of the teachers I really liked that year—a man who not only taught his subject well, but had a rare combination of a sense of humor and the gravitas of a sage. He looked down and stood in front of the room with his hands in his pockets. “There are people who created this situation today,” he said. “And those people will have to meet the consequences of their actions.”

I had taken the day as a farce. A big misunderstanding that snowballed on account of students who wanted an extra day off and overprotective families still reeling from school shootings far away. But here this teacher was, assigning responsibility and casting blame.

It was one of my first encounters in which I both respected someone talking to me and fundamentally disagreed with what he had to say. A time when I understood the opposing position and couldn’t help but sympathize on account of the stakes and how Melt Day must have affected his teachings, while simultaneously finding it absurd that he’d isolate all of the weight of the disorder on a small group of students, one of whom I knew for a fact had been one of his prized pupils the year before.

Melt Day passed without incident. The next day, the hallways were full again. Our lives at school went on as normal. But those yells of “Melt!” which had grown scarcer and quieter as the Melt Day situation took on greater gravity that winter, disappeared altogether at that point. No longer harmless. No longer fun.

Over the intervening eighteen years--a literal lifespan of a new crop of graduating high school seniors, the US has seen an unfortunate number of mass shootings, some of them in school settings, some of them tragically recenly. I’m grateful that none have occurred at my alma mater. Grateful that all of this hubbub can go forgotten--scarcely spoken of among those friends I still have from high school, scarcely documented anywhere I can find. I doubt I’m alone in this gratitude. But here’s the twist. I regret that I haven’t heard anyone yell, “Melt!” since. That nonsense. That laughter. That sense of unity among a strange group. That bit of innocence that has vanished not after running its natural course, and not out of impropriety, but rather a collective circumstance.

That piece that melted away.

Fast-Paced Scrabble

I grew up playing Scrabble with my sister and my grandmother. We kept score and used a clearly defined set of house rules, cobbled from a combination of official rules and whatever clarifications of gray areas my sister and I could come to a consensus on (the latter, often as not, born out of some mid-game controversy). My grandmother, always a paragon of patience and accommodation for our nonsensical whims, was tested I’m sure, as we agonized over turns, attempting to figure out the best approach to hitting double-letter and double-word score boxes with our J, X, Q, or Z tiles to maximize the point output. Grandma didn’t worry so much about the score, often as not settling on three-letter words for three-point scores, unfazed as our scores doubled or tripled hers.

My sister left for college, but Grandma and I continued to play Scrabble on our weekly visits, and, if anything, with greater frequency, as so many of our old standby games demanded a minimum of three players, while Scrabble was mostly unchanged.

I got faster, rarely taking more than a minute between turns. I can attribute a lot of that to familiarity with the game—for having seen so many combinations of tiles, so many formations on the board, and so more quickly seeing my way to the highest point play, or the play that would open the board if we were clustered too tightly in a corner. Our roles reversed as Grandma, growing older and slower by each dimension needed to puzzle out any play at all, and while she took her turns I could plot two or more options for my next turn—playing immediately after she was done.

And I recall a day in high school, senior year, playing Scrabble with my friend Dylan in our Chemistry classroom. I’m not sure why we would have played there, but can only fathom that the AP Exam was over and we’d exhausted whatever lab Mrs. Lorenz had planned. So we played.

We fell into that familiar dynamic, in which I’d play a word quickly and strategize different follow up moves while my friend deliberated how best to respond just that one. He apologized for taking so long with each turn, and I told him not to worry about, all the while aiming to hide my smugness.

And Ben, looking on as Dylan rubbed his forehead in frustration, commented, “Chin’s not that much faster than you. He just uses your turn to figure out what he’s going to do next.” He may have been trying to be nice to Dylan. Otherwise, it might have been a simple expression of a need that I recognized in myself, too, that I expect is common in precocious boys without opportunities to effect much change in the world—that we feel a need to point out patterns when we spot them, to call attention to our own skills of observation.

I haven’t played Scrabble in years now—a fact that I’d find not just tough to swallow, but complete anathema when I fell between the ages of eight and eighteen. I’m not sure I could have conceptualized a life like that. And yet still, the game calls to me now and again. Seeing the word quizzical in a book for example, I mentally calculate the Scrabble-tile point total if that Q-fell on a double-letter space, and if the word overlapped a triple-word box. I recalibrate, knowing full well, of course, that there’s only one Z tile in play, and so one of those Zs would have to be a blank tile and thus worth no points; I recognize, too, that at nine-letters long, at least two letters would have to have already been on the board, and most likely it would have been Q-U-I-Z that already existed, thus immediately reducing the potential word score because, while I could still attain the triple-word score, no single double- or triple-letter value could be assigned to the tiles already in play (unless happenstance, for example, left two I tiles two spaces between one another, with plenty of room for play on either side).

I imagine I’ll play Scrabble again. With my own children, or if time and biology favor me, grandchildren. But I imagine a different style of play then. Less rapid-fire and perhaps I’ll suggest that we don’t keep score. For as good as those seventy, eighty-point turns felt, I recall a better, purer joy in weaving words between words, interconnecting spaces to create connections horizontally and vertically, sometimes three or four of them at a time. These were the turns that felt less like mastery than poetry, less about score than creating something new.

Why I Blog

For over five years now, I’ve written this blog.

I had other blogs before it. A LiveJournal and notes on Facebook. The A Cappella Blog that’s run since 2007. My weekly wrestling column at 411mania that I always looked at more as a wrestling-centric blog than anything else.

This blog, though--Three Words That Became Hard To Say--has been different from the beginning. I started it to have a place for miscellaneous writing about whatever I wanted to write about, not to mention a home base on the web where I could regularly self-publish, regardless of what happened in terms of other websites, or what literary journals saw fit to accept my work. It evolved into a place for short, relatively raw personal essays—often nostalgic, sometimes esoteric, and rarely given more than one pass at revision before I share it with the world.

No doubt, a part of why I’ve stuck to the project is to externalize ideas. As I came to accept from a pretty early age, I communicate better in writing than in speech—more clearly, more cleverly, more assertively. It’s what made writing workshops, let alone teaching writing such an interesting conundrum, simultaneously frustrating and fundamentally important for learning to articulate what I knew, via instinct and decades of practice to be true about the written word. When it comes to day-to-day life, though, as much as I enjoy catching up with an old friend every now and again, or talking to my wife, I still find there’s no substitute for me to putting the words down on paper or on my computer screen, for fully realizing an idea and for achieving intellectual discovery as one idea transforms or evolves into the next. So, the process of writing this blog has allowed me to not only conjure memories, but connect these seemingly disparate moments and ideas.

When I’ve taught writing, the subject of audience tends to come up. Who are you writing for?--the great rhetorical question that differentiates academic papers from op-eds from creative writing from personal blogs. But what of a blog with no central focus other than what’s on my mind when I sit down at the keyboard? Can such a project possibly interest anyone but me personally on any kind of a sustained basis? And if the blog were just for me, why not keep it as a private journal? Why put it out to the world?

One of the most surprising discoveries of these years of blogging has been just who is reading. There are the family members and close friends whom it’s sensible enough would be interested enough in whatever I’m writing, at least to the extent that they’d peruse my latest entry to see if it rests in our overlapping areas of interest or experience. But then there are those more casual friends—co-workers, classmates, the sort of people I know better on Facebook than I do in real life. Every now and again, these people will say something about the blog in real life, or leave a comment when I share the post on Facebook. Something surprising. Something that shows they engaged with the material far more than I would have expected for them to.

This might be the greatest pleasure in blogging for me—this essence of engaging in conversation with people, like me, who are more comfortable writing than speaking, more at ease reading than listening. People I might enjoy a cup of coffee with but for whom, all things being equal, might draw even greater enjoyment from knowing we’re sipping coffee at approximately the same time, reading the same words, mulling over the same ideas, from hundreds, if not thousands of miles apart.

There’s an undercurrent of fear around social media and the Internet at large. This culture of connecting without proximity or touch. Of hiding away in our various holes in the world without human contact and what that might do to a person’s sanity, to a person’s soul. I’m not here to argue that we should embrace any number of nightmare-scapes from Black Mirror or dystopian fictions; that we ought to let our bodies fester in favor of robots acting in our place (I’m thinking the 2009 film, Surrogates). But there’s also something to be said for what technological advances we’ve had and to this ability to maintain, or even create different kinds of relationships, in no small part through the written word.

I don’t know that this post has answered the question of why I blog. But maybe I’ve offered some new fodder for you to think about; maybe I’ve inspired you to write, or see if Surrogates is streaming somewhere. And that modicum of influence, from me to you across long distances, over the screen of your computer, phone, or tablet—-maybe that’s the point.

My 2017 Soundtrack

Since 2002, each December I have compiled a mix CD or playlist to document the past year--a soundtrack that charts memorable moments, trends, and events in my life over the preceding twelve months.

The rules are as follows:
-The collection must be short enough to fit on a standard 80-minute CD.
-The song choices are not bound by “favorites” so much as songs that are, in my mind, distinctively connected to the preceding year.

Without further ado, this year’s track list:

1. “Wake Up” by The Vamps
The last couple months of 2016 had been a little rough as unemployment settled in and we weren’t living anywhere stably. In early 2016, we moved into the last of a series of short-term rentals, and arrived at final terms to return to my old employer on a seven-month contract. Meanwhile, part-time employment offers from the fall started to bear some fruit. In short, I moved from unemployed to a full-time job and three remote part-time ones. All considered, I’d have liked to have been a little less busy but it was good to be active again. We spent the first month of the year at Myrtle Beach, before we settled into a lease on an apartment in Wilmington, NC, shored up our honeymoon plans in Orlando and, however briefly, life felt as if it came back into focus.

2. “Queens” by La Sera

In an effort to revitalize my stagnating music tastes, I subscribed to a song of the day podcast to expose me to more indie music and new (to me) artists. This was one of my early favorites that I associate with our time in Myrtle Beach and listening to in the car on drives between our place and the gym I frequented for the month.

3. “Billy Elliot” by Chris Cubeta and 4. “Show Me the Stars” by Temple One
“Billy Elliot” was the opening track from the Chris Cubeta CD I first heard when it was sent for review to my college newspaper, and had largely forgotten about until going through old CDs in an effort to pare down after we moved all of our belongings out of storage and into our place in Wilmington. “Show Me the Stars,” was, by contrast a new song I discovered via the aforementioned podcast. While the two had little in common, they became two of my favorites of the springtime this past year.

5. “Greenlight” by Pitbull, ft. Flo Rida and LunchMoney Lewis
I wish I had a better song to commemorate our honeymoon trip to Orlando. We drove down and spent two days at Universal Studios—mostly visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter—before going to WrestleMania. This was the official song of WrestleMania 33, and the artists performed it live to a less than engaged audience at the stadium.

It was a heck of a trip. Oh, and the morning of WrestleMania Sunday, we had our first pregnancy test to suggest we might be expecting.

6. “Mantra for a Struggling Artist” by Andrew Joslyn

This is a pretty strings-based song that I liked a great deal in the spring, and that felt particularly compelling if only for its title and the struggle to maintain time for my writing escalated through the spring, into a busy summer.

7. “The Night We Met” by Lord Huron and 8. “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” by Soft Cell
13 Reasons Why is a problematic show on a number of levels, particularly for the implications it might have for impressionable viewers. For better or worse, though, I found it entertaining, and was particularly captivated with its mood-setting soundtrack. “The Night We Met” captured a particularly memorable scene at a dance and was one of my favorite songs the show exposed me to.

On the note of songs offered up by Netflix shows, I’d known the David Gray cover of “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” for a decade or so, not realizing it was a cover until I heard the Soft Cell original on an episode of Master of None. While 13 Reasons became a bit of a guilty pleasure, I have not shame at all in proclaiming myself of a fan of this latter show, and absolutely fell in love with the second season.

9. “Take It From an Old Man” from Waitress
In late April, I made what may have been my last annual pilgrimage to Manhattan to meet up with my best friend and attend Varsity Vocals’ a cappella finals weekend. Over the course of eleven years we’ve gone with a rotating cast of other people and done all sorts of things, but this was the first time we made it to a Broadway show. Finals weekend happened to coincide with Sara Bareilles’s first stint starring in the show she’d written the music for, Waitress.

I had a great weekend and loved the show. In particular I appreciated this song. I’m a sucker for old timers imparting wisdom in dramatic settings and this was the kind of song to enjoy in the moment, and take heart in on repeated listenings over a tough summer to follow.

10. “Devil Knows You’re Dead” by Delta Spirit
It was a long summer. Summers with my old employer always were. This summer had an unusually clear finish line, though. I’d finish up in Philadelphia on a Sunday and fly to Atlanta, where Heather would pick me up and drive me into our new life in Georgia. I started orientation for my new teaching job the next day.

On that last flight, I re-watched the last episode of Friday Night Lights. It was, admittedly, a bit of a random choice, but (spoiler alert to anyone who hasn’t finished the show and intends to) the ending resonated with me in this moment of transition. Eric and Tami Taylor moved from Texas up north to start a new life; here I was flying south to do something much the same, new professional pursuits for the both of us, on the cusp of a new family life.

11. “Heroes” cover by Peter Gabriel

On a re-watch of season one of Stranger Things, in preparation for the new season to launch I found myself particularly captivated by the scene in which the supposed body of Will Byers is unearthed, and this eerie cover of the David Bowie classic that played over it.

12. “Ready for It” by Taylor Swift
As an adult man, I’m probably not supposed to care much for Taylor Swift. I found myself captivated by 1989, though, and all too eager to pre-order Reputation as a treat to myself coming out of a challenging summer. The album’s first pre-released single, “Look What You Made Me Do” was poorly received. I didn’t necessarily think it was as bad as the broader reception would suggest, but it also wasn’t great. The second single “Ready For It,” captured more of the spirit of what I saw Swift going for as a harder edge and more EDM style for this album, while also actually being a really catchy song. It was probably my most listened to track of the fall.

13. “Call It Dreaming” by Iron & Wine

I came upon this song via the aforementioned song of the day podcast, and connected with it on my first listen, driving to work in the early morning hours.

it’s here where our pieces fall in place

It’s odd how much can change over the course of a year. While there were many ways in which our life in Oregon was a happy one, I was also conscious that we lived in Corvallis for me. We’d moved there because that’s where I went to grad school, and our social lives mostly revolved around the friends I’d made through that program. The year to follow had involved moving around and, in a sense, waiting for our life together to take shape. As fall edged toward winter, we were both working fulfilling jobs, and mere weeks from parenthood.

For all the love you’ve left behind, you can have mine

Applying this recurrent lyric to my life, I imagined our son being born into the world—out of a warm place where he was constantly cared for, into life outside. That outside of Heather, I might offer my love to in some way compensate, so Riley might know there was not just one, but two people who meant to make him the center of their world. And then, as I listened more, I thought to of applying the lyric to myself. One of the harder parts of all of this moving has been leaving parts of my life behind. I only tend to see my family and my closest friends once or twice a year these days. I left the community I’d built in Baltimore behind, and just as I’d settled into a new one in Oregon, it was time to leave there, too. But for all of this love I’d left behind, here was my son on his way to change what family meant altogether.

A new life awaited.

14. "I Will" by The Beatles

"I Will" has been one of my favorite songs since I first came upon it in my teenage years. On an off night while Heather was pregnant, we took turns singing songs to Riley in the womb, and this one came to mind.

We sung to him again, on and off, trying to soothe him during his first full day of life at the hospital. When I sang "I Will" to him again, there in the bassinet, his head in my hand, it occurred to me that I'd sung these same words when he was more dream than reality for me, more idea than something I could hold. I started to choke up early in the song, and couldn't stop myself from breaking into tears in the latter stages, one of the happiest moments of my life.

And when at last I find you
Your song will fill the air
Sing it loud so I can hear you
Make it easy to be near you
For the things you do endear you to me
Oh, you know I will
I will.

Waiting for Santa

I wasn’t raised to believe in Santa Claus, but my wife was.

My Christmas eves and Christmas mornings growing up had a distinct lack of dressed up Christmas trees and stockings, much less half-eaten cookies and empty milk glasses, or complex mythologies about how Santa broke into the house despite our lack of a chimney. For a period of years, Heather’s were all about such wonder. Waiting to catch a glimpse of a silhouetted sleigh passing the moon. Listening to her father simulate the sound of reindeer hoofs outside.

My sister swears that, in a flight of fancy one year (a year I was too young to recall), the two of us tried to believe in Santa and reject our parents’ pragmatic insistence on all of the reasons why a man traveling the globe in one night, pulled by flying reindeer was impossible. One year (I like to imagine the same one) Heather and her siblings caught word there wasn’t a Santa and told all of the kids in the neighborhood. Their parents told them that if they didn’t believe in Santa and were going to ruin the idea for a dozen other kids, then Santa really wouldn’t bring them anything that year, and promptly returned or resold their presents.

In the aftermath of the Santa Claus years--after which point it was no longer a faux-paz to discuss Santa as fantasy among age peers, and there was no longer any fun in spoiling it for younger people, Saint Nick became a part of the background scenery. He had little more potency than a Frosty the Snowman or any other subject of decorations and Christmas carols. But as the years passed, I clung to certain Christmas traditions--the annual viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life and Scrooged, listening to “(Happy Xmas) War Is Over” and various renditions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I split time between family and friends and girlfriends’ families and took to hosting an annual Christmas party in my Baltimore apartment that was in no way sized appropriately for the number of people in attendance. Through it all, each Christmas day I awoke on the street I'd grown up on--Graham Ave, either in my childhood home, or my second home, on the opposite end of the street, where my best friend grew up. The holiday evolved and I spent a high proportion of it enjoying the company of my de facto nieces--playing tag, building Lego towers, and making stuffed animals talk with funny voices.

For all the Christmases that she, too, spent at home, Heather settled into the absence of tradition, foregoing expensive, crowded flights and bouncing between relatives’ couches in favor of staying on the west coast. She watched movies with friends. She attended a Jewish ball.

Our Christmas stories are different in many ways and didn’t converge for over thirty years. Nonetheless I’d suggest that if you could reduce our holiday stories--and those of plenty more people I’ve come across in my lifetime--to a common theme, it would be trying to recapture magic. The magic of a bearded old man in a red suit, or of an even more abstract concept of the magic of spending time with relatives who have gone separate ways or passed on since we were kids. The magic of waiting on what Christmas gifts await us, or even that simple magic of what it was like the first time we heard our favorite Christmas songs, saw our favorite Christmas movies, or had our first bites of our favorite Christmas cookies. We chase these sensations in trying on Santa’s clothes ourselves, in the gift giving, in being the ones to cook Christmas dinner.

This spirit of waiting and wishing threatens to overtake our lives. The drive to recreate based on nostalgia, balanced with pursuit of our own dreams, evolved and sharpened from childhood. That sense that each of us might still become the very best versions of ourselves, if just for one day of the year, when we attain some semblance of a Christmas miracle, or at least achieve our best approximation of a perfect holiday.

My friend Ben--older, wiser, and a father years before I was--once summarized the three stages of life as believing in Santa Claus, not believing in Santa Claus, and becoming Santa Claus. I suspect he was right. Just the same, I like to think that that first stage is one that goes on longer than many of us give it credit for. That at the age of 34, I may still be waiting for Santa Claus on some level, to bring me the things I can’t buy or will into being on my own—a lucrative publishing deal, or more time with my the family and friends I’ve moved far away from.

And as long as I have those hopes, those dreams, those ambitions, and--perhaps most importantly--faith, then I suppose I’ll always believe in a Santa Claus whom I never thought existed.

I’ll keep waiting.

In Art Class

Art was messy. As a kid, I enjoyed drawing—in pencil, in markers, in crayon. But watercolors tended to end up dripping over my hands, over the table, and I was rarely happy with what I painted. Papier mache and pottery and any projects that involved lots of cutting and gluing were little better, and thus Art class remained an uneven proposition for me. Better than Gym class where I was bad at most sports, a welcome reprieve sometimes from the regular elementary school classroom where I struggled to pay attention after long periods of sitting, and on more or less equal footing to Music class which tended to strike the middle ground of not objectionable nor fun. Art could be great. Art could be awful.

I remember my first art teacher, a thin, very tan, very Italian woman with a fiery temper who scolded the kids who talked while she was giving instructions and who tsk tsk tsked when we failed to follow the instructions of a project correctly. I recall one such tsk when I heard the rattle of her metallic bracelets over her wrists and thought for sure she would slap me on the back of the head (she didn’t--I already knew, but hadn’t yet internalized that teachers couldn’t do that).

I remember my second art teacher. I remember thinking, even in the moment, that her projects were too ambitious for her student base. Regardless of how interesting its composition was, no one wanted to sit still to draw a still-life of an empty violin case and plant with long vines and an open book. I remember upon volunteering to hand out something or other one day, that she said, “thank you,” that I said, “sure thing,” and that it gave way to a lengthy monologue on why you’re welcome was the appropriate response, and how children didn’t learn to speak properly these days.

I encountered her again in high school--perhaps she had moved up the ranks, or the school system had simply recognized older students as a better fit for her. She gave us sketchbook assignments, one asking us to capture something from a dream. I drew my crush de jour (with an elongated nose, lest anyone recognize her), drew a dragon. The art teacher held it up as an exemplar of what we might accomplish in our exercises if we applied ourselves.

And another art teacher—the better art teacher who worked with juniors and seniors, and who had worked closely with my sister, peeked at my progress now and again. Lauded the texture of my shading, and chastised me when I rubbed it into even tones. I suspect he may have been waiting to work with me, and so it was with some regret that that I stopped taking art classes after sophomore year, in favor of focusing on AP coursework and editing the school newspaper; relishing in a daily study hall instead of the extra elective.

I figured drawing would always be a part of my life, anyway. It had been throughout childhood. Surely I wouldn’t let it go. As I started to identify more concretely as a writer, though, I made less use of the still half-empty sketchpad from my last art class.

At my liberal arts college, I fulfilled my art requirement first with an art history course freshman year, and then, in my senior year, a studio class focused on pencil sketching, where I found myself entirely average in skill and not all that inspired.

Now and again, I still think of drawing. I can still remember some of the fundamentals—that capturing what I saw rather than what I assumed or imagined tended to be truest route to an accurate sketch, and that the human head is shaped more like an egg than a sphere. And I think one day, work will slow down, and I’ll carve time from writing and reading and family life to make a go at visual art again.

But I don’t.

And so I look back to art class not as something that I objectively miss, but as a conduit to a way of being in the world that I rarely think of, much less pine for in my day-to-day as a thirty-something. The way my hand used to cramp after drawing for too long and the way the side of my hand turned gray from absentmindedly pressing against the page while I worked.

These are the pains, the messes, the side effects that I miss as much as the art itself I used to make.

These are the pieces that make me think one day I really might try again.

On Everyday Conversation

I remember my final day of work in Baltimore. That I’d already experienced a really generous series of farewell lunches, happy hours, and farewell notes from my friends and colleagues. And that three o’clock on that final day, a dear friend from the preceding six and half years came to my office.

It was his last day, too. He suggested we grab a beer to celebrate.

I still had work to do. A lot of it, for 3 p.m. on a Friday, with very little to hold me accountable. Still, I recognized this as a final opportunity to have final drink with someone I’d talked to on a daily basis for a period of years, and thought I would be foolish and hard-hearted to decline.

So, we walked down the hill to the tavern some of us had frequented in years past, that I’d only made it to a half dozen or so times in the past year. We grabbed a table near the bar and sipped our pints. Talked about the adventures we were both moving on to, and his son, and TV. We finished our first drinks and, in good spirits, I said I could go for just one more if he liked.

My friend had a family to get home to, and politely passed.

On my way back to the office, I walked my friend to the car. I said to keep in touch. He said that our friendship had always been an easy one, and he was sure we would remain in contact.

And I remember talking with another, older friend about this exchange. “You really think you’ll keep in touch?” he asked.

I wasn’t certain, but in the direct aftermath of such good conversation, riding high on all of these fond farewells and the nostalgia they had conjured, I said, “I think so.”

We texted a handful times along my drive across the country and that fall. The following summer, when I returned to our old mutual employer for seasonal work, we caught up on the phone and ended up meeting for drinks at the same bar.

“Keeping in touch” is a relative and arbitrary term. I still have a small handful of friends my teenage sleep-away camp experience with whom I’m Facebook friends. We’ll “like” one another’s posts here and there, sometimes offer a comment. I expect if we ever found ourselves in the same city again, we’d say hello, maybe grab lunch, but it’s hard to earnestly say that we’re really in each other’s lives now.

That friend from work--I like him a lot and I wish him nothing but the best. Just the same, it’s hard to say that we’re really still in touch in any meaningful way.

I got to thinking about all of this upon listening to the “What’s Going On In There?” episode of This American Life. One of the segments profiles a young man who grew up in the States with his Chinese immigrant father who never learned English. The son reports that the family made a conscious decision to focus on the English language opportunities that would afford their son opportunities in the US, assuming he would pick up Chinese more casually at home.

Only, he didn’t.

So the boy grew into a man without ever having a conversation that extended past pleasantries with his father.

This relationship depicted on this show conjured thoughts of my own relationship with my Chinese grandparents--strikingly similar, if even more distant for only having seen them for three weekends a year growing up, plus strained weekend and Christmas morning phone calls in which we fumbled through polite how-are-yous before giving up on account of the language barrier.

All the more so, this episode got me thinking about my relationship with my own parents.

Growing up, I tended to see my father as a monster--a man with a temper who was quick yell at and demean me, my sister, and even my mother for any transgression. I remember him saying that all I did was make more work for other people when I spilled gravy at one family dinner, and years later asking how I’d ended up so stupid when I dropped a gallon of milk as I fetched it from the fridge.

My childhood memories of my mother tend to be faded, like out-of-focus photographs, in the shadow of my father. I remember hugs good night and singing along to Beatles songs, but these memories are fewer and factor less prominently in my childhood psyche.

As an adult, I don’t harbor ill will told either of my parents. I believe that they were each mostly doing the best they knew how in the mind-bogglingly complicated domain of trying to raise other human beings. And I like seeing them now, though it typically doesn’t happen more than two or three times a year, and typically not for visits that last more than two or three nights.

I’ve thought from time to time that one of those visits might be the one in which we break new ground. When I tell them something profound about my life and uncover pieces of their past that I’ve never heard--origin stories or secrets or even forgotten memories from times I would have been too young to fully recall.

But we rarely move much past basics. My mother and I share a limited capacity for small talk and once we’re through with the essentials some chatter on the TV shows we watch, our conversation tends to run dry. Conversations with my father usually gravitate around his obsessions—ballroom dancing, Texas Hold ‘Em, the stock market. We get stuck when we talk about my life--when he doesn’t know what to ask about my writing or teaching, and when my childhood instincts for assuming that what I have to say isn’t important resurface.

Still, when I listened to “What’s Going On In There?” I sensed a common drive to know more, to have a connection.

I listened on. And it became clear that a meaningful connection there, too—even with the help of translators and the written word--didn’t come to fruition through any grand revelation or moment of truth.

But this segment of the podcast spun off. Away from big changes, into the everyday.

The father and son began emailing. Texting. Nothing profound. Just how-are-you-doing questions, the father’s reminders to make sure his son was eating enough. These exchanges began to happen more regularly. Until the father and son were, for the first time, part of one another’s lives.

And I thought about making more of an effort to do this with my parents. With my sister. With all of the friends I mean to keep in better touch with, but rarely make the time for.

I got overwhelmed, just imagining it. You can’t maintain a consistent connection with everyone.

And then I think that perhaps I don’t have to. That these everyday conversations with people in my everyday life, for as trivial as they may be, are not unimportant. They’re the foundation for shared experience, for a shared life. And when our time together passes, it doesn’t mean that that connection goes away or didn’t matter, but rather that it’s served it’s purpose, and might be there waiting for us down the road or on the other side (however abstractly, profoundly, or literally you want to take that).

I know most of my readers are friends or family--some from today, probably all the more so from some time in our shared past, drawn together now only through Facebook or Twitter. And to you, I say, “Hello,” “how are you,” and “don’t be a stranger.”

Memories of Thanksgiving

It’s funny—the things we remember and things we don’t. Then there are those memories that get garbled and distorted with time until it’s all but impossible to distinguish a version of a story from what really happened from.

Thanksgiving night, in the sixth grade, I made my first earnest attempt at writing a book.

It was that critical period of my life when I started to transition from child into teenager and started staying up past my nine-thirty bedtime, not to hang out with friends or do anything dangerous, but more often than not to read, write, or draw. So it was, sitting in bed that I began work on The Prince. Riffing off of The Enchanted Forest Chronicles that I had read and reread in the preceding years, and maybe borrowing from The Hobbit which I would have just been starting, I wrote a fantasy story about a prince and a princess—the princess smacked around in public by her domineering father, a king; the prince from a neighboring kingdom who consoled her and fell in love at a feast.

I think this all happened in the sixth grade. The staying up late and the literary influences line up. That, and I remember Steve Cabrinski shaking his head in wonder a couple month’s later in Mrs. Kroll’s Language Arts class when I showed off the typed sixty-ish page manuscript. Chin wrote a book.

But then the memory grows more complicated. Because I recall casting the princess in my mind as a girl we'll call Dana, who I’d had my first crush on in the first grade, but who I hadn’t circled around to thinking about again, much less writing about, until the seventh grade. That means that the Thanksgiving i'm thinking of must have been the Turkey Day of my seventh grade year, but then how to reconcile that with the Steve Cabrinski comment? If anything, it might have taken longer to finish the manuscript than I’m remembering, which would place Steve a year later in life, all the way in the seventh, maybe eighth grade, not the sixth, and that just couldn’t be right.

I have trouble lining up other Thanksgiving memories as well. That I remember eating the turkey liver with my father on Thanksgiving afternoons, hours before dinner was ready. We were the only ones in the house who liked the liver, and one time I was distracted by doing something else while my father called for me to partake, and I told him I didn’t want any, and I recall the terror afterward that he wouldn’t offer me liver again--this once-a-year delicacy, this piece of my childhood that the two of us shared. I remember all of this, but also remember spending Thanksgiving afternoons with my sister at my grandmother’s house--probably equally to stay out of our parents’ way as they cooked and because we were so in love with spending time with her. But how could I have been at my grandmother’s house and in the kitchen at my childhood home?

Speaking of pleasures that my father and I shared, separate from the rest of my family, I remember Survivor Series, the annual WWF wrestling super show in which teams of four or five squared off against one another. We never ordered pay per view, but in those days, the cable company would broadcast a scrambled image while still delivering the sound of the show loud and clear, so I would listen. My parents would drape a blanket over the screen so I didn’t hurt my eyes. I would dutifully write down who won and lost, and sometimes attempt to act out what was happening on TV, based on the play-by-play, with my wrestling action figures. I remember this being annual part of Thanksgiving--after dinner, after my grandmother had gone home. I don’t remember it happening for a first time or last time--just that Survivor Series always happened and I assumed it always would. For this particular memory, there’s more historical record available to support and refute pieces of what I remember--that the Survivor Series show launched in 1987 on Thanksgiving night and stayed there for four years, then moved to Thanksgiving eve, before falling in line with the then-WWF’s more uniform pay per view schedule, occurring on Sunday nights (note: that part continues to this very day).

I remember doubling up on Thanksgiving dinners, eating with my best friend’s family as well as my own, and what seemed like years of tripling up with Thanksgiving at my girlfriend-at-the-time’s house as well, though I think that only happened one year.

All of these memories, and all the more so the discrepancies among them may seem frivolous, and I’ll concede that most of them probably only matter to me, and perhaps my closest family and friends. Still, as another holiday season takes flight, and particularly with Thanksgiving around the corner, I feel inclined to look backward. To remember these days that I alternately looked forward to and treasured as a child, a teenager, an adult.

It can be disconcerting to recognize when the memories are off. To identify paradoxes and pieces that couldn’t possibly be right or when my memories conflict with someone else’s. It can be particularly problematic when those histories aren’t the kind that archived in any meaningful way, and the best route to confirming a story is to ask someone else who was there and trust her or his memory will align with one side or the other and not complicate matters further.

As a writer, and particularly a writer of fiction, I grapple with all of this. The prevailing logic is to focus on scene work--not to be afraid to consolidate characters, and to pick isolated moments that will convince the reader of broader messages. I want to find similar grains to piece together my own life, to feel like, if not a comprehensive, at least a representative whole.

Through that lens, I suppose the factuality of memories is far less essential than what my memories stand for. The feelings they evokes. Whether the stuffing was Stove Top, Bell’s, or homemade that year, and whether I ate dark meat or white, it’s more far important that the food was warm. That I felt hope and that I felt loved.

That I was happy.

That I am thankful.

Surviving Haunted Houses

There’s a pivotal moment in the lives of horror movie characters. Pivotal because their lives are on the line. Pivotal because, in most instances, that moment represents the last choice the character will ever make. Pivotal because that’s how most of these characters die.

The killer lurches forward--Jason, Freddie, Ghostface, even the little girl, Samara, from The Ring. Killers of this ilk rarely move at rapid speeds, but rather, because of physical limitations, enjoying the victim’s terror, or another tension-building plot device, they prolong their attacks. The victims tend to fall in one of three categories:

1) They freeze.
2) They fight.
3) They run.

I suppose there are characters who call for help, too, but they tend to fall into the freeze category because help is so rarely available, or if it is, the films tend to present such help as based more in happenstance, or the rescuers' clever planning, as opposed to the victim truly having chosen the best strategy and allowed for his own preservation.

The characters who freeze are goners. Fair enough, given that they didn’t even try to survive the attack, and I almost respect these characters more so than the ones who fight or run, because the latter groups tend to execute the fighting and running strategies so poorly.

The fighters don’t seem to understand that they are in a fight for their death. I had a friend in Baltimore who used to insist anyone held up at gun or knife point should fight for her life, because there was every likelihood of being killed anyway in such a situation, and so the victim should do everything in her power to end the life of the assailant in the process. I don’t necessarily agree with that philosophy, but in a horror film context, when the villain is clearly more interested in murder than money or assets, I can get behind the idea of not only fighting, but assuming that one is in a fight to the death. That’s the point at which most horror movie victims fail. They land a good shot and then they flee (or, even worse, don’t flee and stand around the not-really-incapacitated monster). In either case, if the fighter gains the advantage, she tends to let up, when a few more head shots with a blunt object might have sealed the deal.

The runners are even worse, though. I don’t fault the running strategy empirically--in fact, faced with a serial killer or monster, I think the odds are that that would be the first option I’d embrace. But there’s the insistence on looking back while running that has a tendency to only distract and slow down the runner, making him especially prone to trip over a tree branch or curb. And then there’s the direction of running--inevitably upstairs, toward a sketchy alleyway, or toward a lake, each of which lessen the chance of rescue or continued escape.

I like horror movies in spite of myself. Despite recognizing these logical gaps, and as often as not feeling deeply unsettled by them, I feel drawn to the prospect of witnessing high stakes monstrosity through the safe lens of fiction. Paradoxically, it’s my favorite horror movies--the ones that I feel are best realized and most authentically scary--that are also the ones that leave me most disturbed and checking beneath my bed at night. Thus, I embrace that which psychologically scars me.

I haven’t been too many haunted house attractions. I went from too scared of what I might find as a kid, to too grown up and prone to recognizing the hokie-ness of it all to really be scared or entertained, without ever lingering in that middle ground that haunted houses are made for.

But I did act in one.

The setting was Huntingdon Ave in the Remington neighborhood of Baltimore—a not particularly nice area of the city that just the same neighbored the Johns Hopkins University campus, and thus was subject to a disproportionately high volume of volunteer efforts. I volunteer-tutored kids in the area on a weekly basis during the school years, and was thus made aware of Hauntingdon, a street re-branded for a Saturday night outdoor street festival a couple nights before Halloween. The community blocked off the road. Front porches hosted pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey-type games, and folks erected a stage for a costume contest. And there was a haunted house.

When I offered my services, I was advised to put on some make up, wear ratty clothes, and plan to be a zombie in said haunted house. I wasn’t sure what to expect--if I’d spend the evening cooped up in one of the neighborhood basements waiting to scare people who were led down, or if perhaps the organizers had contracted with someone who would set up a plastic apparatus to approximate a house.

In reality, the haunted house was a homemade construction. A frame of wire and two-by-fours, walls made of slit open black trash bags. We decorated it further with fake cobwebs and rubber spiders. A self-described makeup artist enhanced my self-applied black and white face paint with splashes of fake blood.

The whole operation seemed kind of shoddy and underwhelming to my overly critical eye. I didn’t imagine anyone being scared by it or by me.

And I was wrong.

I took in this haunted house not only from a place of economic privilege—expecting a nicer haunted house set up--but perhaps even more detrimentally through an adult’s eyes. The first group of children came through and shrieked as the garbage monster (literally a woman dressed in black with candy wrappers and soda cans taped to her) lurched out of a corner and toward them. They screamed and actually ran when they spotted my fellow zombie and I waiting in the next “room.”

And so, I got into it.

I experimented with a slow stumble versus convulsing. Rolling my eyes into the back of my head versus staring straight at the passersby. More often than not, they were scared—even half of the grownups shocked by the surprise of coming upon us in the penultimate stage of the haunted house.

And I had the time of my life. Years later, I would listen to podcasts and read articles, and learn about all of the technical pieces we hadn’t gotten right. The importance of spacing out visitors to a haunted house so the first group wouldn’t scream and tip off the second group about when the scare was coming. I learned of the concept of “scaring forward”—that catching groups from behind is both more frightening because they can’t see it coming, and helps move people forward through the attraction at a faster clip. In that moment, I didn’t know much about best practices for scares. All I knew was that what we were doing seemed to be working. We listened with glee as, outside, we heard the host at the entrance warning families that this part of Hauntingdon might be too scary for their little ones.

And then there was Reggie. A rambunctious ten-year-old I’d worked with week in and week out at the tutoring gig. He came without parental guidance and without any friends. Contrary to all of the kids who had edged through the haunted house slowly, weary of the next threat, he espoused something closer to my old strategy for the levels of Super Mario Bros. that I found most challenging—running straight through.

Except Reggie didn’t just run. He fought. I heard him yell at the trash monster, “I ain’t scared of you!” Then he came us zombies. Rather than freeze or scream, he looked me in the eye. I thought he might recognize me from Monday nights—and maybe he did. Regardless, he kicked me hard, straight in the shin, and bellowed “Take that, motherfucker!”

And he was gone.

Thus I discovered in the city of Baltimore, the bevy of people--children and adults alike--who might make perfectly reasonable horror movie fodder, freezing in their terror, stopping in their tracks. And I found Reggie.

He would be a survivor.

My Grandmother’s House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she fell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Were Warriors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My father responded that he was Chinese.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation on Tattoos

I spent years on Meddletown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A veritable sea of hypothetical regret.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under Golden Arches

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

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

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

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

*

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

Finally, I applied at McDonald’s.

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

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

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

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

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

And over breaks, I indulged in Big Macs.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But still…

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

I’m lovin’ it.

Breakfast with Beatles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sara Bareilles Stories

I love Sara Bareilles.

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

But I came to her slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We made good on that.

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled. “I’m Sara.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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