Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Christmas Morning

Accepted for publication by The Penwood Review.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Top 100 things to remember about 2008 (in no particular order)

Albums released:
1. Coldplay – Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends
2. Mates of State – Re-Arrange Us
3. Low – Drums & Guns
4. Beck – Modern Guilt
5. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
6. Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs
7. Rosie Thomas – A Very Rosie Christmas
8. Kevin Max – Crashing Gates
9. She & Him – Volume 1
10. Ben Folds – Way to Normal
11. Keane – Perfect Symmetry
12. The Submarines – Honeysuckle Weeks
13. Lucy Wainwright Roche – 8 More
14. Coldplay – Prospekt’s March
15. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

Heavily-rotated albums:
16. Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha
17. Stars – Set Yourself on Fire
18. Beck – Sea Change
19. Ben Folds – Songs for Silverman
20. The Decemberists – Castaways and Cutouts
21. The Blow – Paper Television
22. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
23. The Submarines – Declare a New State!
24. Lucy Wainwright Roche – 8 Songs
25. Low – Long Division
26. Rosie Thomas – If Songs Could Be Held
27. The Most Serene Republic – Population
28. Spoon – GaGaGaGaGa
29. The New Pornographers – Twin Cinema
30. Bright Eyes – Cassadaga

Shows attended:
31. SubPop Anniversary at Marymoor Park
32. The Decemberists at Moore Theater
33. Bumbershoot
34. Stars at Western VU
35. The Blow at Western VU
36. Rosie Thomas at Town Hall
37. Dana Little at Lettered Streets (x3)
38. Christine Bron at various coffeehouses (x plenty)
39. Corban Watkins at Common Ground Coffeehouse

Movies released
40. The Happening
41. Burn After Reading
42. Batman: The Dark Knight
43. Smart People
44. Be Kind Rewind

Books read:
45. Walking on Water – Madeleine l’Engle
46. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine l’Engle
47. Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris
48. When You Are Engulfed in Flames – David Sedaris
49. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim – David Sedaris
50. A Wolf at the Table – Augusten Burroughs
51. Dry – Augusten Burroughs
52. Magical Thinking – Augusten Burroughs
53. Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck
54. Take This Bread – Sara Miles
55. Traveling Mercies – Anne Lamott
56. Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott
57. Plan B – Anne Lamott
58. Choke - Chuck Palahniuk
59. Snuff – Chuck Palahniuk
60. Bonk – Mary Roach
61. The Fidelity of Betrayal – Peter Rollins
62. I Was Told There’d Be Cake – Sloane Crosley
63. Bee Season – Myla Goldberg
64. You Can’t Go Home Again – Thomas Wolfe
65. Girl Meets God – Lauren F. Winner
66. Mudhouse Sabbath – Lauren F. Winner
67. Bowl of Cherries – Millard Kaufman
68. Lamb – Christopher Moore
69. Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

Writing samples published (in Jeopardy Magazine)
70. “Nicodemus” – poem
71. “The Line Starts Here” – poem
72. “I have nothing memorized” – poem
73. “Because I speak on my feet” – poem
74. “Waiting for the Feast” – poem

Assorted events:
75. Graduated college
76. Celebrated 22nd birthday
77. Caught up in computer-gate scandal (I’d rather not discuss it)
78. Attended Peter Rollins’s lecture at Mars Hill Grad School w/ Seth Thomas, Sarah Johnson, Stead Halstead, and Ty Chang
79. Resigned from WWU Writing Center
80. Began working at Village Books in Fairhaven
81. Did yard work for Erv on Lake Whatcom
82. Stained Roberta’s fence in Ferndale
83. Counseled for one week at Camp Lutherwood on Lake Samish
84. Began leading an INN music team
85. Opened for Christine Bron at 3 Trees Coffeehouse
86. Headlined an Open-Mic at 3 Trees w/ band formerly known as We Walk Through Fire
87. Joined Amateur Prose for CD release show at Wild Buffalo
88. Performed w/ DJ Morgan and Hailey Mitsui at the INN Open-Mic Fundraiser
89. Performed w/ Christine Bron, DJ Morgan, Dana Little, and John Furtado at INN Welcome Back Carnival in Red Square
90. Traveled w/ the INN for a mission trip to Vancouver
91. Participated in Salt on the Street
92. Started first attempt at a full-length novel
93. Voted in first election (presidential or otherwise)
94. Traveled to Portland w/ Jake Summers, Sarah Condreay, and Lisa Schwank
95. Recorded one (1) song demo
96. Began Smart-Tripping regularly
97. Watched all available seasons of LOST w/ Megans Taft and Goodwin and others
98. Watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at Fairhaven Outdoor Cinema
99. Experienced coffee tasting (first of many, hopefully)
100. Competed in the running leg of Ski-to-Sea (first of many, hopefully)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Vespers: Advent

I've been expecting trumpets,
a jubilee trimmed in joy and triumph,
heralds and heralds.
I have come to expect Emmanuel
and Incarnation, but Advent—
Advent, where we wait,
when we watch the days grow darker,
and, my, how they have darkened.

And the dark only knows how to oppress,
constrict.
Bound with cords of worry and frustration,
we are lashing out at everyone we bump into
as we fumble about.
And we find we can no longer stand it,
hearing news of light and joy and rest.
Elsewhere, as mere gossip.

I am most familiar with the darkness,
the wait.
Almost.
Delay, again.
I admit to having kindled furnaces
from jealousy, applying pressure
like bellows, just to keep warm.
The fire scalds as harshly as the cold.

They say the birth of Christ was most likely
in June—obviously, so light and comfortable,
Incarnation as solstice.

But I understand why tradition dictates
Advent for the coldest, darkest days.
Because it reminds us
that the days get brighter ahead.
Because another, kinder thread
has stitched us together with Hope.
Because our binding Hope is His
arrival, with Heaven in hand and a gift:
Peace. A clean and gentle heat—
opulent—that does not scorch.

So we wait together,
as Israel waited, gravely hopeful.
Thus we bid: Emmanuel, come.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Look Here

There's a blog campaign going on called Faces of Bellingham. Lea Kelley, an artist by profession, keeps the blog to promote the beauty of the individual (and we have lots here). She goes around politely asking people she sees on the street if she can take their picture, and then posts their portrait on her blog. Recently, she developed a poster that features a mosaic of hundreds of Bellinghamsters that composes her own portrait. Now, I always hoped to be pulled aside by a strange woman who wants to take my picture, but I kept that to myself. Besides, I get terrible red-eye; the only reason my eyes are so blue in my senior pictures is they had to use a lot of airbrush. But I think Lea's is a fantastic idea all around, especially since she occasionally employs promotional contests. For instance, finding two portraits on her blog of the same person, who looks completely different. That's the one my roommate Jake won, the prize: a photo shoot!

After much deliberation, he decided to use his prize to complement our friend Andrew's farewell party. So, along with the mounds of barbequed burgers, guests could expect a professional photographer. Fortunately for everyone, Lea is a wonderful and funny addition to any dinner party. Somewhere between discussions about her own college experience and the supernatural, she suggested we take a few fun photos. We made human pyramids, and we hung ourselves out the upstairs windows like teenage girls within a five mile radius of Elvis Presley.

When Lea took my picture for her Faces of Bellingham blog that night, she took two. The first she decided had too much red-eye, so she covered the flash. "Look here, again," she said. This one turned out normal, and I was impressed. "The flash reflects off your retinas and causes you to have red-eye," she said. "It's just something that happens to some people, usually ones with larger pupils."

Suddenly, my life made sense. For as long as I could remember, I developed red-eye in pictures and didn't know why. Incidentally, I've also always been aware of the large diameter of my pupils, like if I had a nickel for every time someone said, "Your pupils are huge! Are you high?" It's even gotten me into trouble with University Police. It's a long story, but the short version is that I scraped up my car trying to turn around on an extremely narrow road in the Ridgeway Complex one Friday night. I did this because I am a poor driver, not because I was intoxicated. UP decided this was the case once they had tested my sobriety for half an hour. It was after the second breathalizer that the officer finally told me he wouldn't arrest me for driving under the influence. With as much effort as he was putting into the whole investigation, I didn't have the heart to tell him earlier that I naturally have pupils the size of a Japanese cartoon character. Just like I have one good ear. My left ear works quite well, and then there's my right ear. I like to think of this as my FDR ear: one too many illnesses and now he's in a wheelchair, but I keep him around because he's just so likeable.

I spent the rest of the night relishing in my own private revelation. Flash photography itself actually has a vendetta against me, and here I was thinking I was the perpetrator. It seems the camera just cannot capture my individuality. Indeed, the size of my pupils has been an asset in that I've never required dilation for an optometric exam--of which I've had plenty--for them to see what they need to. Although I have a different set of hangups concerning the optometrist, like when he decides he wants to test for glaucoma and shoot air into my eye. I still get nervous anytime someone points somewhere and says, "Look here."

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Leaf Season

The things I love most about autumn are with me today. In a donut shop downtown, I sit at the window, the sun frequently bursts over my shoulder to light the page of my book and heats my back. Stray leaves tumble through the open door on this bright and exceptionally windy fall day. It might be unseasonably warm, or maybe it's the humidity; maybe it's just the window seat. The leaves still hang from branches outside, creating an illusion of perpetual sunset. Next to me is a father of two. He's treating his kids to donuts while they run a few Saturday errands, and then they'll spend the rest of the afternoon flying kites.

The way everything is so exciting to them--the old sci-fi flick silently playing on the TV, the familiar song on the radio, the rows of delicacies in the display--reminds me about the way Saturdays were growing up. Today actually feels much like the Saturday five years ago when I drove to Whitworth University. I was buying tickets for the Jars of Clay/Caedmon's Call concert that would be on campus a few weeks later. Driving out Division St., to the campus that lay just north of downtown Spokane, made me feel like I was living a life completely separate from the one I had led up to that point. Everything was lit in amber. From the campus trees to the city streets, I can only remember the excursion in shades of sepia.

Like a parallel memory, this last year I visited another small college campus. Only this time, replace Spokane with Portland. Replace Whitworth with Reed College, and replace my mom with my roommate. But everything else is the same. The leaves are the same puberty of green to brown, as unevenly matured on the branches as high school students, the green ones envious, intimidated even, by the crisp appearance of the red ones. The tingling in my ribs is the same pitch and frequency. Everything is equally beautiful.

Rewind even further to Saturdays as a child. Before working at the library, before I was old enough to watch shows like Saturday Night Live, when homework came in negligible amounts, there were Saturdays when my only responsiblities included straightening my room, cleaning half the bathroom, and vacuuming the living room. I'd get a $5 allowance. The sun warmed our gold shag carpet in contrast to the brisk winds outside that carried away the milky veins of smoke from the burning leaf pile that my brother and I helped my dad rake together. Candles made the house smell like pumpkin; the crockpot was filled with stew. My brother and I each had to take a bath before we all watched Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and I was in bed before 10pm.

Today feels a lot like that. Autumn always feels that way, but I miss wedging into a corner of the couch with a book, smelling mom's stew. I never really flew kites with my dad, and burning leaf piles hasn't been legal in at least ten years. I miss more sunsets now because I no longer live in a house with a big, westward-facing picture window. But the thing about autumn is the same thing about Saturday, and it's the same thing about sunsets and about rainy days. It's nostalgic. It's idyllic. What it is comes naturally to a place like Bellingham, where it's rainy much of the year, where Saturdays occur as frequently as anywhere else, and the comparatively mild climate can make any day seem like October 3rd. And when it all comes together, on a day very much like today, I feel home.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

My Baggage


Some friends of mine have posted similar photos on their blogs. Interesting what we carry with us everyday. Although the contents of my bag change frequently, more so with school starting next week, this is more or less currently what I have been carrying with me.

First, the bag. This one-strap shoulder bag has been with me to Scotland and Australia, in addition to campus, the INN, coffeeshops, and various other locales in Bellingham. The buttons on the outside represent a child in Uganda and Bumbershoot 2008 (one of which says "Mine is playing in the road"--I do not know what "mine" is exactly, but I do understand that it lives recklessly).

There is some loose change I was surprised (but charmed) to find in one pocket. Next to that are the pink sunglasses I found on a bench at the Fairhaven lawn (finders keepers...). To the right of them is more Bumbershoot 2008 memorabilia (a magnetic button, a schedule, and a program booklet).

I try to keep food in my bag--Triscuits this time--to augment my lunch. And sometimes I just like to snack. Next to that is my iPod, with its broken screen and dodgy earbuds. Purell is always nice to have on hand, as are sticky notes. Lately I've been keeping Saint Augustine's Prayer Book around, curious about liturgical prayer.

I like to have my Moleskine journal with me just in case I'm accosted by the muses. It's why I also keep a pen with me, too. The brown Crayola marker made its way into the bag, but never back out again: I do not know why, on both counts. Finally, I keep literature around for lulls in my day. The novel is book sixteen for my summer reading and is called Bowl of Cherries, by ninety-year-old, first-time-novelist Millard Kaufman. He invented Mr. Magoo. The book is funny-ish, eloquent, engaging, and weird. Kind of right up my alley. Next to that is a monthly lit publication called Solarium. It's published locally and features short stories and poetry based on themes. This month: Too many ghosts in my closet to risk changing my clothes.

In the past, I've developed minor shoulder/back discomfort when I was carrying too many books and things in this bag, so I try to keep it light. That's all.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

You Can't Come Home Until You Leave

My new job at Village Books has me shelving books in all kinds of subjects. Like clothing brands and high schoolers, some books are just more popular than others. If you drank three cups of tea for every copy of Three Cups of Tea that we stock, well, I just hope you enjoy the decor of our restrooms. (See also, Water for Elephants) The Twilight series is also quite popular, as is Eat, Pray, Love, though I imagine for different reasons. Jokes aside, I enjoy being surrounded by the good, the bad, and the ugly of literature. I always end up wandering through the biography section in downtime, and I’ve been enjoying the travel section. I haven’t read anything from it yet, but opposite the guides to places like London and Brazil are what we call travel literature. They are, in a sense, memoirs written by travelers to anywhere and everywhere the world has to offer.


When I was in high school I worked at the public library in my hometown as a page. Vaguely resembling what I do now, this meant that all of the materials that were returned went through me. I checked them back into the system and shelved them in their proper places. I’d always been an avid reader—nothing extravagant, just a modest interest in literature—but when I became a page, I became intimately acquainted with every section of the library. Whereas before I stayed safely within the boundaries of the fiction section, now I was introduced to the vast variety of topics in nonfiction, the human stories of the biography section, and I was forced to reconsider the quality of genres I thought were behind me, books for children and young adults.


Because I spent more time in these sections, almost by osmosis I began to read more from each of them. I started with the more popular titles or the books in the “New” section. I picked up the Harry Potter series shortly after the fifth book was published. I read the Sting autobiography Broken Music. Then I started reading Mary Roach’s investigation into the curious world of cadavers in her nonfiction title Stiff. I revisited her when she published Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. At a moment I can no longer identify, I fell in love with nonfiction. The word itself seems to say, “bland.” Something about it screams, “BORING!” Something about facts and figures. That it actually happened in real life, and real life is decidedly uneventful. But Mary changed that. Mary and those that came after her, Steve Almond, Sue Carpenter, David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs.


In addition to the new brand of books, I simply could not get enough of was the independent film. My library (because I had grown to think of it as my own and that all others were simply guests) had a subscription to Film Movement, which issues a handful of titles each year from all around the world and distributes them on DVD. Admittedly, and much to my own embarrassment, my first draw to them were the advisory warning on the back, that these films are unrated and may not be suitable for children under 18. I was in high school, what can I say?


I began with the Brazilian feature The Man of the Year about an assassin who becomes a town hero when he begins picking off members of the local gangs and mafia. The film was enthralling. I enjoyed every minute. When I returned it, I immediately checked out a Norwegian film called Buddy. In this dramedy, one man tries to juggle a serious relationship and a best friend who suffers from agoraphobia. From there, it was only a matter of time before I watched four Canadian titles including The Republic of Love and Wilby Wonderful and two Australian films (one starring musician Ben Lee in The Rage in Placid Lake). Spain gave me El Bola, and Croatia offered Witnesses. Italy, Light of My Eyes; Russia, Roads to Koktebel; Morocco, Le Grande Voyage. I saw The Forest for the Trees thanks to Germany, and Brazil showed me The Middle of the World. Over two years and fifteen international features later I began to itch for cities like Toronto and Oslo and St. Petersburg.

Each movie I checked out at work, I watch the following afternoon, when both my parents were gone. My brother had moved out by then, so I gorged myself on international cinema alone, in the basement, jumping every time I thought someone might have come home. This was my own secret that I wanted so badly to keep. Each of these movies took me somewhere far more interesting than Post Falls, Idaho.


#


The summer before leaving for college, I joined fifteen or so other high school students on a mission trip to Scotland. We spent two weeks in Glasgow facilitating a youth program at the local Assembly of God church. We took a day trip to Edinburgh. Another to Sterling, where there is a memorial tower for William Wallace of Braveheart fame.


Two summers later, I would spend a month in Australia with two of my roommates. We would spend a majority of our time in Sydney, taking a week to spend in Melbourne, and a few days for Brisbane. While there, we would see Sydney Harbour, the Opera House, the Royal Botanic Gardens, and the National Gallery of New South Wales. We would play a Tuesday night trivia game at a nearby pub, hike the trails of the Blue Mountains, and surf the beaches of a small Sydney suburb called Cronulla. In Melbourne, we would stay with family friends of Seth’s. They would show us the Queen Victoria Market (the largest open-air market in the Southern Hemisphere), the Great Ocean Road, and a sanctuary for the continent’s most famous animals. In Brisbane, we would go sailing with local yacht club, explore the city’s particular botanic gardens, and restlessly wander the city streets until the train station decided to re-open its doors to us in the wee hours of the morning. Over the consistently large blocks of travel time (13 hour plane rides, 12-16 hour train rides) I would read a total of six books:

Nicholas Nickleby – Charles Dickens

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rawlings

Running with Scissors – Augusten Burroughs

Billy Liar – Keith Waterhouse

The Reivers – William Faulkner

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald


After three and a half weeks of constant travel, constant activity, and endless walking, we would decide to settle into Lorin’s dad’s apartment for the last week. We would stroll into town and spend hours in the local Gloria Jean’s Coffee Shop, just reading. We would also get an account at the local Blockbuster. We watched four Harry Potters, an Indiana Jones, and Idlewild that week, every night deciding that the world was sometimes just too big and exciting for me. I could pretend like I was home, safe, normal, simply watching all the excitement on the screen.


#


At Village Books, I’m shelving tour guides to Sweden and Montreal. In three months I’ll be done with school. I’ll work full-time. I’ll participate at the INN. Meanwhile, I’m deadly curious about places like Helsinki and Amsterdam. I would love to go to Denmark. I want to see Russia. When I got back from Australia, I swore the next big trip I took would remain stateside. There’s so much of my own country I have yet to see.

My friends Katie and Allison visit. They’re looking for cookbooks, and then Katie mentions, “I want to go to the Tillamook factory in Oregon.”


Vile temptress. “Me too! I love the Tillamook cheese factory,” I say. I know I won’t be able to go because I’ll be working, but Oregon just happens to be one of my favorite vacation destinations. Portland. Tillamook. Astoria. The coast.


As much as I do want to see those places far away, I’m most assuredly not going alone. So until I can wrangle someone to join me for a couple weeks in Finland, I might just stick around and visit (or think about visiting) the cheese factory in Tillamook with friends.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Music Review: Beck

Modern Guilt
1. Orphans
2. Gamma Ray
3. Chemtrails
4. Modern Guilt
5. Youthless
6. Walls
7. Replica
8. Soul of a Man
9. Profanity Prayers
10. Volcano

I feel super hip for having bought the CD before its official release date, but that has little to do with anything else I have to say about Beck’s new album Modern Guilt. For what amounts to be his eighth studio album (because nobody, apparently, is counting Stereopathic Soulmanure and One Foot in the Grave) Beck Hansen teams up with producer and half of the electronic/soul duo Gnarls Barkley, Danger Mouse. I’ve learned quickly that Beck doesn’t do “follow-up albums” in the traditional sense; for example, nobody saw Sea Change coming in all its orchestral and clinically depressed glory. And the country-western vibe of Mutations still remains something of an anomaly in his catalog. I’ve also learned that he can do nothing wrong. Sure, The Information was half bad, but it gave him an excuse to make music videos, which is, deep down, I think, what he enjoys most about songwriting. Besides, how does someone follow such a solid album like Guero? It’s like expecting salmon to go with the flow, or hoping I’ll take Kanye West seriously. It’s simply unrealistic.

Modern Guilt might not be too much new territory, but Beck gives it all a new look anyway, dousing everything in radioactivity and chemicals. Never being one to shy away from electronic music, he and Danger Mouse are like a match made in heaven, making the album much more danceable than I originally gave it credit for. With a pulse of drums and Beck’s familiar twangy guitar, “Orphans” opens the album where Guero left off with songs like “Scarecrow” or “Earthquake Weather,” except here there’s more atmosphere, more psychadelia, more Cat Power. It quickly found a home on my list of favorite tracks. Following that is “Gamma Ray,” a catchy pop song similar to Guero’s “Girl,” with rolling drum pads and throbbing bass that might make you wonder why Cee-Lo isn’t singing this song.

On “Chemtrails,” Beck turns up the atmospheric rock and gives us some of his falsetto, which we haven’t heard since Midnite Vultures. But don’t expect sex and neon anywhere in this song. This is the track that makes his touring the nation with Band of Horses click for me. This is quite an impressive fusion of rock ballad and the chemical sound he seems to be developing for this record. A soft piano and walking bass start the track before the drums break in, bringing things up a notch. Usually, you might expect Beck to end a song like this by deconstructing every instrument into static and noise for another 45 seconds. Here, he parodies himself by reprising the song with a tag that expresses just how polished and mature this album is as a whole.

The title track and “Youthless,” a current favorite, are bouncy and scream “Beck!”—and kind of sound like Beck’s been sneaking around Khaela “The Blow” Maricich’s apartment in his free time. But this is how Beck operates. There’s usually something vaguely familiar about the music he makes. He takes elements of everything already in circulation and then breaks them up and open like a glow stick. There are some people (remaining well within their rights in musical taste) who might be turned off to an album with so many transparent influences. I, however, am always the kind of person who thinks, “What if Andrew Bird did a record with A Fine Frenzy?” So the teaming on this record is like a pipedream come true for me.

“Walls” stands up as another song that could have easily been mixed in with Gnarls Barkley’s latest effort, and Cat Power returns for another go at the microphone. But beginning with “Replica” and increasing exponentially through the final track, “Volcano,” Beck’s maturity on this record bleeds through any familiarity with Danger Mouse’s other project. “Soul of a Man” is a crunchy, guitar-driven rocker that carries just the right amount of swagger, and “Profanity Prayers” is exactly the kind of rock music that you should grow to expect from Beck. Capping the track-list is “Volcano,” a slow-boiler bringing us back down to a guy and his guitar, but not without a smoldering chemical residue.

I’d venture to say Beck knew what he was getting himself into when he asked Danger Mouse to produce for him and gave him some drum credits. I’d also guess that Beck knows exactly what his music can be compared to for any given album. There is certain level of intentionality to Beck’s work that expresses more than flattering imitation. He reinvents. The result is an inspired collection of ten songs that I can honestly promise will be imprinted on the summer of 2008, permanently, in my mind.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

What Doesn't Kill Me, Right?

Interstate traffic isn’t too bad at 10am. As much as I’d rather not use four and a half hours out of what is supposed to be the nicest day of the year-so-far driving, I set the cruise control and settle into the music playing from my iPod. The only songs I’m able to access are the ones on a playlist I created of mostly folk and country-western influence. Some months ago, my iPod got smashed and now the screen doesn’t work. It still plays music, but I must navigate blindly, from memory. Rather than spin the click wheel, which is now much more like roulette, I just press the center button a few times and begin a playlist of Bright Eyes, Tarkio, Wilco, and the most cowboy sounds Beck has ever made.

By the time I reach Redmond, it’s nearly 11am, and I’m right in time to meet the father of a friend of mine. We had decided to do some recording today of songs that I had written for my band. With an upcoming show in September, I thought it would be timely to get some more feedback on our material and maybe get some demos out of the deal.

“I keep the shades drawn,” Darrell says, ushering me inside his house, “to try to keep the house cool. It’s supposed to be really hot today.”

“That’ll be great,” I say. “It’s still nice and cool in here.”

“Let’s hope it stays that way.” He smiles. “Let’s go upstairs and hear some of your tunes.”

At the top of the staircase, there’s a study that has been outfitted with some modest sound equipment (modest compared to, say, Chris Walla) and foam insulation on the walls. In front of the bookshelf, there’s a digital piano, and next to that is his desk with his computer and speakers. I take my seat at the piano, and after some adjustments I begin playing. Even though I’ve played this song a hundred times, I’m shaky and mar the music. I feel my heart pounding in my chest. My voice trembles in my throat, and I just want it to be done. I want to try again. I know I can play this. I’m pretty sure I can sing this. It’s just this new space, this new audience that’s throwing me off.

I play it again and my fingers find their way more comfortably, but my voice just doesn’t sound right. I’ve never claimed to have great pipes, but I thought I could at least nail a melody.

“Okay,” Darrell says once I finish another time through. “What’s this song called?”

“Where We Begin and End,” I say.

“And what’s it about?”

I pause to think.

“I think it’s about life,” he offers. “It’s not pretty and it’s not easy, but it’s real and that’s beautiful.”

I nod. “Yeah, it’s about relationships between people. About how we’re all broken and will hurt each other sooner or later, but to find solace in the times that we’re good to each other and support one another.”

“Okay.” Darrell looks at me. “Now, I’m not sure if how you’re singing it is really communicating the heart of this song.” I cock my head, and he explains, “You’re really trying to belt this thing out, but it just seems like you’re throwing the words at the music. I’m having a hard time figuring out where the melody is going. Can you sing the first line?”

I begin, and he stops me. “Okay,” he says. “Now can you play that on the piano?”

I try once and then twice and then get the first few notes. I repeat them until I can find the next few.

“See, I don’t think you really know what the melody to this song is. You haven’t really found the heart of the song.”

I’ve taken my fair share of creative writing workshops, so I’m not new to criticism. These are places where people bring pieces they’ve written—poetry, fiction, memoir—and receive feedback from their peers. Over time I have developed something of an ability to disconnect myself from the things I write enough to gauge them critically and receive questions and suggestions for change. But sitting here with Darrell in his office-cum-studio, I have lost all sense of objectivity. I wrote this song in the privacy of a practice room in Western’s Performing Arts Center and fairly recently grown brave enough to relinquish its intimacy to the friends I am in a band with. And now a man I met not a month ago is telling me I don’t know my song. That I had not yet discovered its heart. I’m not mad, just a hard blow to my ego.

Picture me as two people now. I am Dave the author, and I am Dave the songwriter. I am only now realizing there is a distinction between these two. When Darrell says, “You haven’t really found the heart of this song,” the songwriter is crushed and offended. Something is twisting icy fingers around my stomach, and I know my bile ducts are going crazy.

The author must be downstairs in the living room. I imagine him eavesdropping as he reads the newspaper. “You’re fine,” he says as he turns the page. “The song is great. These are just some helpful suggestions so you don’t make a fool of yourself in front of all your friends in two months. You know, so they take you seriously.” And I keep my head enough to listen.

“What I want you to do,” Darrell says, “the best advice I can give you right now is to draw out the melody of each of your songs. Write it down. Play it over and over. Because right now you’re just throwing the words at the music and that’s not going to connect with an audience. Don’t try to belt it out. Think vulnerability. Think unadorned. Do you like Wilco?”

“Yeah,” I nod. I’m trying not to appear put-off, but I’m not sure I’m good at hiding it.

“You know how he just has really simple vocals, nothing special. You can tell he’s more of a songwriter than a singer, but if you listen, he’s always on pitch. I know you can do that. When you started picking out the melody, you were starting to get the melody better. You just need to get control of your instrument.” He holds his throat. “I don’t think you have that yet. You need to be able to hear it in your head and know what it feels like in your throat. Here, close your eyes.” Darrell plays a simple set of four chords then strikes a single note. “What’s that note?”

I consider the question and keep my eyes shut tight. I listen as it continues to resonate in my ear. This is my greatest ignorance: I’ve played music all my life, but have never learned any theory. Everything is experimental, and there is no method. Names like “cadence” and “diatonic” mean little to me. I regard a metronome as a form of abuse. And I have never quite understood how to identify a note. “E?” I say with muddled confidence.

“C,” Darrell replies.

The songwriter is packing up my things. “This is why I got out of piano lessons the last time, you know that,” he says. “I don’t get theory. It’s not for me. We’ll probably have to cancel the show in September. Or get a real singer for our band.” He shakes his head. “Man, I wish the guys had told me not to sing. This has just been a waste of everybody’s time.”

“Quit being so dramatic,” the author calls from the kitchen where he’s making a sandwich. “Darrell’s helping out a lot right now. This is just a wake up call that there’s more to songwriting than music and pretty words. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”

We set note identification aside to record the song. “Just remember: vulnerable, unadorned,” Darrell says.

This time, instead of power, I almost whisper. Each time I miss a note, Darrell stops and we go back.

“What note do you start on here?” he asks.

“A,” I reply with hollow confidence. I find the melody on the piano and we continue.

By 2:30 we have a nice piano and vocals sketch of a single song, and Darrell says he’ll do some more work on it and email it to me. Meanwhile, my work is just beginning. I know that when I get back to Bellingham I need to write melodies for about eight songs. The author and songwriter pile into my car and we take the interstate north.

“Let’s not do anymore music today, okay?” the songwriter says.

“Tomorrow, then.” The author smiles. “You’ve only got two months, remember?”

#

When I wake up the next day, I don’t feel much better. “Sometimes I hate being a creative person,” I told my roommate Jake the night before. We were walking back from a music show at a local beer garden. “It means putting yourself out there for people to critique, and it doesn’t seem to get any easier. It’s not fun to hear that you’re not good at something.”

Jake and I ride our bikes to the farmer’s market. The weather has finally turned warm this late in June. After we lock our bikes, we run into some friends inside the market. My mind wanders from the previous day’s events and disappointments, though some of me is still tender to the touch.

As we wander through the booths we run into another friend, Seth. We spend some time comparing weeks and reveling in the glory of summertime. Then Seth asks, “Dave, are you around next weekend?”

“Yeah,” I reply. “What’s up?”

“Do you want to play music with me for church on Sunday?”

My chest feels like I started swinging my heart and lungs around in circles by any vein or artery I can get a handle on. I’m not ready to quit music entirely. Not yet, anyway. I remember when the guitarist in my band set aside his instrument indefinitely. “It just doesn’t make me happy anymore,” he told me. This was before we had officially formed the band and he was back in full force a few months later, but I still appreciated the enormity of the situation. I don’t think I’m there and I hope to never reach that point, but Seth’s offer is like a cannon fired over the surface of a lake, raising any and all drowned and disfigured bodies.

I smile and nod anyway. “Sure.” Maybe I’m better at faking composure than I give myself credit for.

“Alright,” he says. “We’ll talk more this week. You guys enjoy the farmer’s market, and I’ll see you around.”

#

Sitting on the roof a few hours later, I try to read a bit, but I can’t focus. Here, alone, I finally resign to relive the previous day in all its bitterness.

“It’s like I’m trying to write in a language I can’t speak,” the songwriter says. He’s dangling his legs over the edge of the roof, looking completely dejected. “Everything I want the song to communicate, everything I feel in the music that I write I can’t seem to say because it comes out all muddled. But it’s not even like I don’t know the language, it’s like I’m blindly navigating a language that I’m physically unable to produce correct sounds for. You know, like clicks and whistles.”

“The only way to get better is to practice,” the author says, taking a seat just below the window.

“I’d really rather not go back to that right now,” the songwriter replies. “And I’d rather not think about next Sunday either, if you don’t mind.”

But instead, music is the only thing I can manage to think about. Prior to this I might have considered the idea of being drawn to the piano as being romantic. I’ve probably talked about being impassioned to play before. I didn’t know what I was talking about. Now, sitting in a chair on my roof I can think of nothing else but music, and, to my misfortune, I want nothing to do with the matter. Because I know, at least for now, I cannot sit at a piano and not think about how I can make my throat match the pitches for a melody.

“Can’t you just be the productive one?” the songwriter asks the author. “Why do we both have to create things?” Then he turns on me. “You’d do anything in hopes of fame and recognition, huh.”

“Hey.” The author looks at me too and holds his hands up in innocence. “If you’re expecting me to get you anywhere, you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“I can’t believe either of you.” I finally speak for myself. “I’m not trying to use either one of you to ‘get me anywhere.’ I just like working with the both of you, but if you’d rather bail because you don’t think you’re good enough, nobody’s stopping you.”

We sit in silence. Every time I close my eyes, I see the digital piano we keep in the corner of our dining room, and I can feel everything behind my ribs aching with raw tension. If this is what Ben Folds and Jeff Tweedy feel toward their craft, I might want to opt out now, before this goes any farther.

“I guess I could give this another try,” the songwriter says. “I mean, I already know what I want the songs to sound like. It’s really just figuring out the melody and how to sing it.” My stomach flips when he says that. “We can do that, right?”

“You’ve got to stop being self-conscious about singing in front of the roommates, too,” the author says. “I think that’s the first step.”

“Well,” the songwriter says. “What doesn't kill me, right?”

“Then let’s go, right now.” I’m sure the author meant this as nothing other than a good, old-fashioned dare. We all look from eye to eye and decide unanimously: the work is cut out for us, let’s get to it.

I climb back through the window and pick up the sheets of music I printed for my band-mates. The only thing left to figure out is the melody. Maybe it’s more than I can handle. Maybe this is all a pipe-dream. But I only know what I’m compelled by, and for reasons known only to a higher power, I am compelled by both words and music.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

July! July!

[A seasonal poem for the upcoming holiday.]
Submitted for consideration.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Book Review: Eric Greinke

Selected Poems 1972—2005

For more than thirty years, Eric Greinke has been crafting poetry with colorful quality and provocative texture. This collection attempts to capture the unique evolution of a poet, and, I’m sure, only begins to paint a picture of Greinke’s true merit.

From the beginning, Greinke sets a mood of dedication. The first poem, “Postcard,” is a message sent to someone far away. Short and simple, he writes:

The sky is grey here.
My room is quiet & near.
Thinking of you

in my little cocoon.

From there, this collection becomes a series of poems as postcards, dedicated to family and friends and poets near and far. It’s like stumbling upon a box of old letters, in a desk, in an antique shop, inviting a stranger into the warmth and intimacy of Greinke’s life.

[Go to PoetsWest for the full review and more about poetry in the Northwest.]

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Brief Comma

Submitted for consideration.


Postscript:
This poem may be more convoluted than I usually like my poetry to be. The images are more oblique, and it has less of a straightforward narrative to it. It's a holdover from my Fantasia Poetry Night days, although I don't think I ever read this one. It's a situation that reminds me of the necessity of revision. Far from what I might call complete, this is actually an amalgam of a three-poem set I had written, respectively titled "Acquisition," "Deficiency," and "Aphasia."

Recently I have begun thinking of revision as a game of Jenga. The initial draft(s) are a simple stack of simple ideas. It doesn't look bad, just kind of boring or obscure; the game is in moving the blocks. I usually go for the easy ones first, the pieces that shift at the slightest touch of my finger. With this poem, I actually stole entire blocks of text from the stack to place in different poems because it was easy and I liked the lines so much. Invariably I leave the harder blocks to move last--the process I have most recently been undertaking. When the structure starts to get wobbly, I want to stop playing altogether. I'm at about that point with this one. I'm afraid any more revision and it will fall to pieces. From three separate poems to one cohesive piece (now titled "A Brief Comma"), this one has been on my mind a while and it's come very far. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Out of Ink

My pen slides along each page,
lifting at the end of each word,
but only sometimes between the letters,
leaving meaning to slip in and out of ink.

I stop briefly to read my writing
with loops and scribbles twisting
in hieroglyphic alphabet. Maybe
I’ll decipher what I meant later.

Elementary school taught me
to write in print and then in cursive,
languages in casual and formal wear.
Now my hand writes a messy combination

that spills out left-brained stigmata
through my pen perched between my fingers
at the point of the page that unites
white, lined paper with an inky rolling ball.

I remember desktops with sketches engraved
deep in their wood which sometimes
possessed my writing when the paper
overlapped against the creviced surface,

when I was given handwriting assignments
with letters to trace like connect-the-dots
on wide-ruled paper. The grooves
worked in opposition to the tracing lines.

I entered high school in 2001,
a small private academy in a small,
private town, where the teachers
loved the way I looped my l’s.

Maybe no one invented cursive writing
but I’ve always felt that whoever may have
would hate the irreverent way I mix
the conventions that distinguish it from print.

Or perhaps they would praise the way
I refuse to segregate, separate
my scripts, like I’m making advances
in civil handwriting rights,

where all letters are created equal.
The ideas are represented by an
objective race, regardless of appearance,
with readers discerning what is meant

solely by the combinations and construction.
My hand is always writing in curves,
layers that lean to the right of the page,
making script and stories out of ink.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sanctuary

Submitted for consideration at Tiferet.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Respiratory Systems

My lungs reach maximum capacity and then my chest relaxes. I can feel the cool burn of air against my nostril walls subside just as I take another breath. I imagine my head a little lighter, with a little less pressure. The thousands of blood vessels God sent running through my skull expand with each burst of oxygen; all my muscles relax a bit.

Somewhere I got the idea that I enjoy swimming. Not just splashing in the lakes during the summer, but actual freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly swimming. I took classes on it; when I went to the gym, I’d head straight to the pool. Once in the water, the echoes of people talking or patting along the wet floor sunk into shifting murmurs, worlds away. I only heard water in my ear. Goggles tight against my eyes, I pressed off into suspension. Soon my arms and legs took over, propelling me further down the blue tile lane. Water swished in my ear with every pull.

Then I needed air. For the first few seconds swimming was natural. Slow jets of air would slide through my nose, developing individual bubbles I could feel grazing along my cheek. Everything went without saying, without a thought. Effortless. But when my chest began to burn, my throat would join the revolution. My arms grew weak. My legs all but stopped kicking, kicking being their natural method of argumentation. Rising to the surface I turned my head and let my mouth and throat and lungs do what they do best before I interrupted, again submerging my face below the restless water-level.

After a few laps, once I’d battled my body long enough over regulating the very thing that keeps me alive, I appreciated liberty in breathing much more. The same way I feel after a cold. The same way I feel when I’m alone, in my room, with my door shut; only God with me. And although we don’t talk much anymore, I can breathe easy with Him.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Over Sloppy Joes

My friend Seth made me breakfast at his house the other day. Coffee, eggs, and toast. Coffee always makes me a little jittery, especially the thick, dark kind of smooth espresso Seth made. It’s a good jittery, though—a sort of unstable energy that keeps me going all day. It’s like nuclear power in my blood. Most mornings I spend breakfast-time leaning against the kitchen sink eating a bowl of cold cereal. Bored, tired, half asleep. But breakfast is different. Real breakfast isn’t soggy flakes eaten over a dim countertop. It’s a warm kitchen, the smell of eggs and coffee, classical music on National Public Radio, and good company.

A meal is an excuse to spend time with someone. I love to get together with friends and family over food because a person is often so much more relaxed if their taste sense is stimulated, provided the taste is a good one. But regardless, food is an instant conversation-starter. When it’s good, the guest can ask, “How did you learn how to make this?” Even if it’s bad, the cook has the opportunity to apologize, and the guest has the opportunity to deflect with a comment like, “Oh, it’s not so terrible. There was one time I was with so-and-so and we were making such-and-such. Now that was bad news.”

My childhood saw its fair share of meals when dinner was long over, but Dan and I still sat at the table, staring at each other over Sloppy Joes. I’ve never been impressed by certain types of food—tomatoes, mushrooms, soggy breads—so it’s not a stretch that as a child, I was less than thrilled by what had been set before me. The Joes sat on our plates, barely touched. I guess my brother wasn’t much for soggy bread either, and the longer we sat there the mushier the buns got.

“You can sit at the table until you finish,” Mom called from the other room. It wasn’t an offer so much as a command. She and Dad had finished eating over half an hour before, leaving Dan and I alone. A face-off that only resulted in us poking at our food and horsing around—things Mom and Dad did not allow while they were at the table.

I picked at the top bun, eating sesame seeds and small bits of bread.

Dan finally grabbed his sandwich and took a big bite, eyes closed. “Come on, David. Eat your dinner,” he said through the food, a greasy orange stain trailing up his cheek from his lips.

“I am!” I said, indignant.

“No, you’re not,” he said. “You’re picking at it.”

“You’re not the boss of me,” I replied.

“Okay,” Dan said and took another bite. “But Mom’s going to be mad when she gets back in here and you haven’t eaten anything.”

“So,” I muttered. He was right, but I wouldn’t admit that until experience confirmed his snide wisdom. Mom and Dad were in their room getting ready for the evening service at church, and they had been yelling at us for the whole meal to eat up so we wouldn’t be late. To me, it was a game: push Mom and Dad far enough so they would end up making something I liked for dinner, like macaroni and cheese.

“Are you two finished yet?” Dad asked walking into the kitchen behind me.

Dan was mere bites from being done. “David’s not.”

“I don’t like Sloppy Joes,” was my defense.

“I don’t care,” Dad said and continued on his way downstairs to get some socks.

I looked out the sliding glass door by the table. Our dog Crissy lay on the steps, back against the glass. I knew she wouldn’t eat my dinner. She wouldn’t eat the pancakes Dad made, and since I liked those, I couldn’t imagine her eating something I didn’t like.

Not until my brother had finished his Joe and left the room did I finally make a point to finish my own dinner. Misery loves company, but what happens when the camaraderie ends? You’ve got to go it alone, hunker down the sandwich between gulps of room-temperature milk. To this day I don’t like eating alone. It becomes a job, a chore, something I’m required to do to keep from passing out while I’m doing something I actually enjoy. I still don’t like Sloppy Joes, probably never will. It’s like eating a pre-chewed hamburger; I’ll do my own chewing, thank you very much.

Dinner is best when there are jokes cracked and milk gushes from someone’s nose—like when my friend flubbed the name once and called them Messy Bobs. Or quiet morning conversations over simple breakfast creations. I think that’s why some people hold hands when they pray over a meal. Touch is the greatest reminder that there is someone next to you. To accompany you, to bear with you as you both embark on something that may or may not be a fortunate endeavor. Unconditionally. No matter how sloppy things get.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Song of Saint George

(In honor of Saint George's Day today, here is my reinterpretation of the folktale.)

Near foot of barley hills and roads
rides fair Penelope
across the pasture by the church
with George on faithful steeds.

Within the guarded bulwarks' hold,
the Presbyter and priest
consoles his wife and eager waits
the day they are released.

The ruined walls of belfry stalls
all crushed beneath the feet
of dragons dealing blows to stone
and wrecking their new keep.

The saint strides out against the wind;
his foes crawl forth to meet.
He draws his sword, the dragons arch,
their fire shirks his shield.

And George, before the raided church,
is scorched in harsh defeat,
as willows wail their mourning song
for old-time jubilee.

The daughter of the Scotch Reform
looks on at all the grief
with furrowed brow and prayerful heart,
the Lord her soul to keep.

She begs the Lord to raise her knight,
commissioned to relieve
her parents from the monsters' clutch
and tortured devilry.

The hero fell in bitter brawl
with ancient sorcery.
The serpents crushed him once and twice,
will gladly make it three.

Below the boughs of weathered yew,
he lies revived in sleep,
from fiendish claws and wicked wind,
from monsters' flame and teeth.

Again he rides toward church and snakes,
again their fires breathe.
Their heads brought low to seal his fate,
his sword is plunged in deep.

The demons' scaly necks are hewn
by blade, the cut is neat.
Decapitated, now their forms
lie, mountains in the wheat.

Without their fearsome dragon guards,
the captives are released,
are reunited with their girl
whose suitor felled the beasts.

Rebuilding what the devils razed,
they spark a revelry,
and parents, George, Penelope
return to life in peace.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

On Restlessness

Submitted for consideration.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Bits of String

Sometimes there are simply things I don't want to forget. I try to remember to write them down, but I've never been consistent with keeping a journal. For one of my courses this quarter I'm required to keep a writing journal. We'll see how it goes; it seems fitting to me that of all my writing classes in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, a multi-genre course on writing spiritual autobiography would be the first to place heavy requirement on consistent writing. Much like this blog, my journal will not be emotionally driven. Instead, it will be a log of concrete details, unique metaphors, and clever dialogue to later draw from for whatever cohesive pieces I work on. Simply put, my journal should eventually be full of ideas I don't want to forget.

I made a quick list on Monday that featured as many things I could remember from my recent visit to Vancouver, B.C. Having failed to keep much of a record during the week, I did what I could to keep from forgetting. Fortunately, there are hundreds of pictures to help me remember at least for a time. I managed to keep a more detailed list of events from my trip to Jackson, Mississippi last year. Upon my return from the South, I was talking with my boss at the Writing Center, and she asked me about the trip. After I related a fair overview of my crash-course on race relations, white priviledge, white flight, predatory lending, and so on, she asked me if I had written about any of it.

"No I haven't really gotten a chance to," I replied. "I've just got a list of events written in my journal."

She gave me a quizzical look and responded, "Isn't that writing about it?"

The journal can be a powerful tool not only for writers but for all people who actively engage their experiences. Writing about something doesn't mean it needs to be a proofed and published authority on anything. I know I remember things better if I write them down. That seems to go without question, but what I mean is that even if I don't look back at what I've written, I still remember better. Admittedly, the more detailed journal entries are, the more effective they will be later on, but I think there is something to be said for short-hand and bulleted lists when reflecting on an experience. Like bits of string tied around your finger. Or a mnemonic device.

I wrote a poem that explores the power of forgetfulness a while ago called "I have nothing memorized." Although it takes a fictionally romantic turn, it remains a testament to my unstable short-term memory. This poem, along with four others have made it to the final round of consideration for publication in this year's Jeopardy Magazine, Western's campus-wide literary annual. As I understand it, the final round of consideration determines whether pieces will appear in the actual physical publication or on the new web-zine at http://jeopardy.wwu.edu/. Final decisions and respective publication should occur before the end of May.

For now, here is a prose piece that was not picked up by Jeopardy. I closely modeled it after a piece by Gretel Ehrlich as an assignment last quarter.


A Strike at the Heels
after Gretel Ehrlich's "A Match to the Heart"

Twisted in two. I am doubled down the middle. My guts splinter and spiral, suspended in the vacuum of my abdominal cavity. Something switches and the ground begins to pitch. I am walking on open water. My palms slip against each other’s sea-salt sweat. There are no voices. Only echoes. I cannot tell where soliloquy ends, so how do I decide where conversation begins? I feel anxious of future events I have invented in my head. The world is unstable. The room is spinning, sinking, turning over on its end. I lash my mind to anything right side up, but the twine is almost gone.

#

A single breath stirs words that churn my brain. What light. What space. What cluttered silence.

#

Another breath and words reawaken me from dumb vacuity. A tincture to calm the waves inside my tempest chest. I can’t tell if I’m speaking. My lips open to release flocks of butterflies chased by felines that arrest only the muscle bed of my mouth. Another breath and I have run out of my reserves.

#

Music slants the gaps between exhaling. They are the words I’d always meant to say, I just never knew the notes to write. I lean against the music staff to catch a breath of what is left. It steadies me, gives me rest.

#

My heart is punctured, and I am smitten.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

White Elephants

Garage sales are places of learning. If you pay attention you'll learn that items, if not sold at ticket price in the first hour, become prime candidates for even bigger bargains. For instance, a pleasant, mannish woman will kindly take 17 DVDs off your hands for a generous $1 a piece after waiting for an hour and a half. After glancing over the stack featuring Godzilla and the first installment of the Spiderman trilogy, I'm not sure who's getting the better end of that deal.

You may also learn that the rummage salers that darken the doorstep of any garage, yard, or estate sale 15 minutes before it is supposed to begin are quite confident in what they think items should be priced at. I watched one man mark down himself a ceramic bowl he wished to purchase by pointing out each nick, chip and scuff. You can't take your eyes off them. Not even for a paper-cut. Not even if you break the skin. Given the opportunity, I think that breed of person might try to talk down the price of blood transfusion while in critical condition.

#

There was a blood drive held in what looked like a RV converted into a small clinic on campus yesterday in Red Square. I didn't go, but not because of any sort of needle phobia--my freshman year at Western I used to drive out to Meridian to give plasma. Yes, I did receive money for this. No, I do not consider it prostitution. No, I am not allowed back--I have been permanently deferred from donating plasma. Something about my liver. I don't want to talk about it.

I don't donate blood anymore either. Chalk it up under Things I Can No Longer Bear, right below Lunchables and DuranDuran. But I think it's a good cause. When I was a senior, my high school was doing a blood drive. I had donated a couple times before, so I was familiar with the rundown: paperwork, pin-prick, needle, relax, cookies, juice, etc. I was looking forward to doing my part. You know, giving of myself for the greater good of mankind...

#

Almost stranger than what's bought is what is donated to garage sales. I would never expect to find packages of disposable razors or facial tissues. A water-pick, maybe. I'd be skeptical of the obviously used electric razors. And the unmentionables...well, I'll leave them unmentioned. The books/movies section usually has some gems like the cult film Ghost World in the midst of lutefisk cookbooks and pulp fiction.

#

In ancient times, physicians often practiced bloodletting, thinking that to drain one's blood would heal and prevent illness. By the 19th Century they used leeches for this practice. Now it's been proven that bloodletting doesn't work out so well for the patient losing blood. However, we also know that putting a person's healthy blood into someone else's unhealthy system (in certain cases, of course; I'm no doctor) can be quite beneficial.

#

As someone with a wider foundation in the rummage sale scene, Seth has some philosophies on garage sales, pricing, etc. "I like to aim high," he says, the profits from the garage sale helping subsidize the cost of mission trips for a goodly sum of INN students. He also likes to draw attention to the bigger items. You know, show the buyers what they'd be missing out on if they don't buy now, Now, NOW! "This couch is so comfortable," he sighs and leans back with a book and his coffee mug, really driving home the relaxing luxury of the well-worn loveseat.

#

Things went really smoothly as I filled out my paperwork while waiting to see the nurse. I don't even think I flinched at the pin-prick. I probably made some sort of face as the nurse squeezed the life out of my index finger, leaving it with a stiff, pale complexion usually reserved for bitterly cold days. And I bet I tensed up as the needle burrowed into the bend of my elbow, but everything was cool. I was cool. I was giving my A-positive blood and making a difference by the pint.

#

At a garage sale, you may also have epiphanies. You may realize that you are painfully ungifted at haggling. You may hear the word "shafted" a lot. It may be revealed to you that you often require a calculator for simple math. That patrons with cash suddenly add mounds of unnecessary pressure on the critical thinking skills you had once been proud of.

#

Maybe I didn't eat a hearty enough breakfast earlier that morning. Maybe I didn't drink enough water throughout the day. For whatever reason, when the nurse pointed me in the direction of the cookies and juice (across the width of the gym) I managed about halfway there before I realized I was losing my vision. Everything was getting darker. I had no peripheral. Then most of my visual field was black and cloudy. I'd had this experience before. It's like when I stood up just after the anesthesia wore off when I had my wisdom teeth removed. Or trying to get out of bed after having the stomach flu, feeling sweaty, cold, dizzy, and simply disoriented. I usually end up on the floor, though with no idea how; I just know that my shoulder hurts and my headaches.

I didn't end up on the floor that time. I focused on keeping my hands in front of me, my feet one step in front of another until I felt the refreshment table. After I regained my vision, I grabbed a handful of cookies and a Styrofoam cup of apple juice and found a chair.

"Dave, you're really pale. Are you okay?" someone else asked.

No would have been the right answer. "Yeah, I'm fine," I said, and smiled because a smile means everything is okay. Always. No exceptions. "I just need to sit for a little while."

#

The beauty of a garage sale is cleaning out. People can donate all the things they don't want or use anymore, like old T-shirts from the Thomas family weekend or a tea set still containing a used teabag. They can get rid of their Dance, Dance Revolution floor pads (though they may never be completely healed of the disease). All of this so others can find enjoyment in the many, many, many items strewn over tables and shelves. To find new purpose. To rediscover everything, in shame of nothing.

I enjoyed the movie Ghost World once. I read the graphic novel for my comics literature course last spring. Lisa just shook her head when I bought the VHS. I didn't care.

#

Chances are I'm fine to donate blood. I just need to make sure to eat and drink properly beforehand. So maybe I will eventually donate blood again. Maybe. Someday. But not in Red Square. Not in an RV converted into a clinic about the size of my body.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

For the Impressionist

Submitted for consideration at The Believer.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

As Luck Would Have It

The highway community of Grand Mound lies just north of Centralia, approximately ten miles as the crow flies. It's a speck along I-5, and aside from the elegant concrete guidepost welcoming weary travelers, Grand Mound is home to a mere handful of gas stations, burger joints, and, as luck would have it, a Dairy Queen for pilgrims with a sweet-tooth.

I was traveling south from Bellingham on a weekend with a few friends of mine, hoping to meet up with some other friends in Portland. One of my weekend getaways. We were driving Sarah's car late into the night. Conversations rolled from the day-to-day to Marry, Date or Dump to playful arguments heavily laced with sarcasm.

"Lisa, do you kind of feel like this is a mission trip?" Jake asked as we pulled off the freeway. "I mean, you're taking a trip with a bunch of students."

"No," Lisa replied, shaking her head at the steering wheel. "Usually when I'm on a mission trip and driving somewhere, I handpick who sits shotgun. Someone who I think will be good at navigating."

We all look at Sarah, who occupied the position. She tightened her lips, sighed, and looked out the window.

"And," she continued. "I'm usually driving a rental."

"Well," Sarah retorted. "Just remember you're not driving a rental this time."

"You should go to the 76 Station over there to get gas," Jake said. "I've got a gas card."

"I do get a gas card on mission trips, though." She pulled up to the stop light and turned right toward the gas station.

We all soon realized that the road we were on would not take us to the 76. In fact, it would lead us right by the parking lot but with no means of getting inside. This was about the time that I finally conjured a clever Marry, Date or Dump: "Gary Busey, Nick Nolte, and Gary Cole."

"Who's Nick Nolte?" Sarah asked.

Wasted. Fantastic. "Hey Lis," I said ignoring the flat reception of my look-alike trio. "I don't think this is going to take us where we want to go."

"Thank you, David," she said in a tone that implied she was not at all thankful for my contribution. "Let me just find a place to turn around." Finding a wide place in the road, she pulled the car onto the shoulder and made sure there were no cars coming.

"Just remember, Lisa," Sarah said. "This is my car. This is not a rental."

Lisa spun the wheel and pulled out over both lanes of traffic to make her U-turn. As she did this, we all noticed the growing headlights of an oncoming car.

"Lisa!" Sarah blurted. "You almost got us killed!"

"Relax," Lisa said, effortlessly navigating the car into the returning lane and gassing it. "You'd think this was your car or something."

"It is my car," Sarah pouted.

"Oh," Lisa laughed.

We found ourselves again approaching the 76 Station, but with no idea how to enter the parking lot. With a shrug, Lisa turned down the only other road that even appeared to take us to our destination.

"Oh!" Jake said. He pointed to the sign now in front of us that read To 76 Station above a large, red arrow pointing down a dark road that evidently had not been paved since the gas station was erected. "Thanks." When we stopped, he got out, filled up the tank, and reentered the car.

As we left the parking lot, we found ourselves behind a semi turning onto a different road. "Why didn't we find this road on our way in?" Lisa asked.

"I don't know," I replied. "It looks like it should take us back to the main road."

"Doesn't it?" Lisa said. "I'm going to follow this truck."

She did. She followed the truck out of the parking lot.

"I wish there was a Dairy Queen here," Sarah said whimsically.

"You mean like that one," Lisa pointed through the windshield, across the median, and beyond an intersection.

"Yeah! Can we go there?" We all agreed there would be nothing better.

Lisa turned left onto the new road, still following the truck in front of her. And, just like the truck, she ended up back in the 76 Station parking lot. "What! Well, I guess we can't get out that way." She pulled out from behind the truck and began speeding up. "Oh goodie!" In front of us was a large pool of standing water. Maybe it was from the earlier rainstorm. Maybe it was left over from the recent flooding. Either way, Lisa was headed straight for it at increasing speeds. Sarah tensed. Jake laughed. I laughed. The car bottomed out just as the displaced water reached its peak.

"Lisa!" Sarah cried again. "This is not a rental!"

"Sorry," Lisa said through giggles. "I keep forgetting."

Lisa finally found the way out of the gas station and back to the main road, turning off into the Dairy Queen parking lot. "What does everyone want?"

"I think I want a strawberry sundae," Sarah said.

"I'll have an Oreo Blizzard," Jake said.

"I want a Snickers Blizzard," I said.

"Okay," Lisa turned to the speaker. "We'll have one strawberry sundae, a Butterfinger Blizzard, an Oreo Blizzard, and..."

Butterfinger Blizzard? I thought. That must be Lisa's order. I wonder why she's so hesitant to order my Snickers. Did she forget? Maybe I should--

"...and a Snickers Blizzard."

Nope. She got it.

"That'll be $10.09 at the window," the speaker replied.

We pulled forward, fishing around in our pockets for cash or cards. "I can't wait for my Snickers Blizzard," Lisa said.

The rest of us looked at each other with shared confusion. "Lisa," I said. "You ordered a Butterfinger Blizzard; I ordered the Snickers."

"No," and suddenly Lisa's face shifted to match ours. "Oh no!" When we reached the window, Lisa waved exasperatedly to get the servers' attention. "Excuse me, I think I misspoke."

They were able to change the order right away, and when they asked for the $10.09, Jake said, "Ask if they can make change for a $100." Something one must know about Jake is that he's a giver. He gets things--like $100 from his parents--and wants to give it away. To let the people around him enjoy it as much as he would. "I've got this one, guys."

I wasn't going to argue. Apparently, neither were the girls. We exchanged the money for ice cream and moved on to enjoy. Sarah took the lid off Lisa's Blizzard and repeatedly offered it to her before we reached the road. Lisa finally said, "Sarah, I'll take it when we get on the freeway. Just give me a minute," like Sarah was trying to hand her a flaming bowling pin when she was already juggling two knives, a chainsaw, and an ostrich egg. I didn't feel inclined to comment at the moment, seeing as I was occupied by a Blizzard; but had I, I would have explained to Lisa that God created us with a lap for a reason and that one should not turn down ice cream when it is offered or one risks losing said treat.

Back on the freeway, we continued south. Anything that was said was mumbled through gobs of soft-serve. Twenty-six miles later, Jake began patting down the backseat, twisting and turning, and lifting up jackets and miscellany. "Hey guys." The statement piqued my interest in a way that I knew that the inquiry that would follow would not be humorous. "Did we get our change?" Or convenient.

This question. The way this question was phrased, had, at its core, the same revelation as when my brother would leave his orthodontic retainer in a fast food napkin. The napkin, along with its contained appliance, was invariably discarded, and his realization would only come later. Only after we were back on our way. Only when the solitary solution would be to return and dig through large bins of fast food waste because, most often, nobody could remember which trash can we had thrown our trays into.

Somewhere along the way we had forgotten all about our $89.91 change. Maybe it was the ice cream: I'm inclined to forget everything going on around me when ice cream is involved. But this is only after I already have the ice cream. There was a time at age 4 when I would not smile for a portrait despite my mother bribing me with a milkshake. I was grumpy, probably needed a nap, but I was simply not going to smile. I suppose that's another story for another time, though. We had forgotten a fine sum of money back in Grand Mound and now the freeway had no visible exits.

Jake tried calling Information. Unfortunately--and this is something to remember in times of distress--411 cannot locate a place by its county. We had not noticed which town we had been in until later, only that it was in Thurston County. We thought hard: Millersylvania? Centralia? Chehalis? Nothing fit. We finally found an off-ramp and turned around, hoping we would retrieve the money. We also managed to blame each other, blame the DQ staff, suspect their intentions, and even suspect ourselves the plot of a Mary Higgins Clark novel (though there was only one passenger who had read anything by Clark; I was not her).

"This will make a good story for a talk," Lisa said.

"No," I replied. "This will only be a good story if we get the money back. Otherwise, this will be a really bad story." But I still wasn't worried about it all. I don't think any of us were all that desperate.

I don't know what's changed. Maybe it's my generation, maybe I'm just growing up, you can decide. But I'm curious when I reached a point that I'm able to step outside my surroundings. Had this been any Dave prior to the one I am now, my blood pressure would have been off the Richter scale and I'd have developed an ulcer before we had a chance to turn the car around. As it was, I was concerned, but I wasn't going to let it get to me. It would not have ruined my weekend.

I went to an amusement park with a friend of mine from high school a couple summers ago. We rode one of those water attractions that completely soaks its passengers. As luck would have it, the ride ruined my cell phone. But I didn't really care. I was disappointed, but I got over it by the end of the afternoon. Months later, my friend was still apologizing for the incident, even though he had no control over the situation. I'm learning how to roll with the punches. Jesus says, "Do not worry, saying 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we wear?' See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin." Bono once sang, "Don't let the bastards get you down" on my favorite U2 album, Achtung, Baby. Worrying about things doesn't really get you anywhere, especially if you worry about flukes that happen in strange towns like Grand Mound or at amusement parks. I'm still learning how to practice that. There are days I get all bent out of shape about the state of things in my life, but I'm a long way from where I started.

Back in Grand Mound (40 minutes after we had left it), we were banging on the windows of the now closed Dairy Queen. "I tried to give you your change, but you drove off too quickly," the manager said.

Oh, so you want to blame us, I thought. Typical.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

At Home with a Piano

On any given three-day weekend, I'm usually thinking about where I can go to get away from school and work. I went to Portland for the last few, if I recall correctly. I'm planning to go there again in a couple weeks (sans a Monday holiday). This last weekend I went home, though. To the same house I've lived in since I was two, until the day I moved to Bellingham about 2.5 years ago. It doesn't look the same as it did during my formative years. There's no more gold shag carpet or popcorn ceiling. No more yellow kitchen appliances or cold, unfinished basement. In fact, my parents just finished turning the last unfinished room in the house into their office. Really, the place looks a lot better than it did 16 years ago.

Being home this weekend brought back a lot of memories. I gave some of my friends a guided tour of my hometown: where I went to school, where I went to church, where I hung out. We looked through my old yearbooks. And it's funny, I don't ever really remember the growing, but now I look back and realize just how far I've come. (I think those who had the pleasure of seeing my 7th grade yearbook picture will agree.)

The changes are really easy to see looking at pictures, but I've been experiencing similar revelations in my creative nonfiction class. Writing personal essays and memoirs forces you to look at your life from a different perspective than you're used to. You get the opportunity to tell the same vignettes you tell your friends all the time, but this time it's on paper. And when the story's on the page, you've really got to look at it. Somehow the experience becomes real in a different way--it is a reality independent of its experiencer, free to be experienced by anyone who happens upon the words.

I'm realizing that I was something of a brat as a child. Granted, I've been choosing the more bratty occasions to write about--they make for more comic anecdotes--but all the same, one bad apple... Regardless of what type of child I may or may not have been, I think the man I'm becoming is more outside himself than I was as a child. Which is, if I'm not mistaken, the point of maturing. In more concrete terms, my experience with the piano is a good illustration of how I've grown up.

This is an alternating essay I scripted a few weeks ago. I think this form best shows the dramatic change over time without having to detail the change itself.

Pianoforte

When I was still taking lessons, Mom and Dad—mostly Mom—wanted me to practice half an hour every day. More if possible. I never liked that idea much. Minutes were precious, especially during afternoon reruns of Spiderman and Animaniacs; I couldn’t spare any of them between coming home from school and eating dinner. And then after dinner were chores, homework, and bed. There simply wasn’t any time for piano. I frustrated my parents. Probably made my piano teachers feel uncomfortable when I had nothing to offer them after a week of avoiding practice.

#

“Hey Dave. This is Lance. I was wondering if you would be available to play tonight—my piano guy is sick. Let me know if things aren’t too crazy for you today, and I’ll see you around five.”At the beginning of every week I secretly hope to get a message from Lance to play piano at the INN on Tuesday night. For one reason or another I was unable to apply for a regular position on a music team, but Lance makes sure to get in touch with me on the occasions he needs someone to fill in. So after my last class ends around 5 o’clock, I hurry down Garden Street toward First Presbyterian Church of Bellingham where the INN meets.

#

I figured out a number of ways to trick my parents into thinking I had practiced. If they finally coerced me into sitting at the piano for half an hour, one method I used—more on principal of avoiding actual practice—involved playing only the things I already knew how to play. All the stuff my piano teacher had assigned me for the week remained untouched in the magazine rack next to my instrument while I only played pieces I had learned for previous lessons or recitals. To my parents, this looked like practice, but I suspect my piano teacher always knew.

#

As I walk into the church sanctuary, warmly lit with chandeliers suspended on chains from the vaulted ceiling, Lance is tuning his acoustic guitar in the music pit. Corbin rat-a-tats the drums. Another student thumps his bass. Another strums her guitar. Others, with hands in their pockets, are poised behind microphones.

“Hey Dave,” Lance says, without looking up from his guitar. He carries himself with a perpetually cool demeanor. Nonchalant. Effortless. “Glad you could make it.”

“Thanks for having me,” I reply, sliding onto the stiff padding of the piano bench. Suspended above my lap is the keyboard of a Boston baby grand. The lid, cocked coyly to display the tension on the strings, is a black mirror of everything it faces.

“We’re just doing some sound check things, and then we’ll get started,” he says. He turns to the back of the room and calls up to the intern behind the sound board, “You want to set the piano on a little lower setting. That way we don’t get as much of a pop over the speakers.” He turns his head a bit to catch my eye over his shoulder as he continues. “Dave has a tendency to play a little more percussively than our other pianists.”

I grimace but am still a little flattered. I have been listening to the heavier-hitting rock piano from the likes of Ben Folds and Elton John and emulate them. I want to do everything with a piano that they could. I’ve never ceased to be amazed by how Elton John manages to stretch his stubby little fingers to fiddle with so many keys. And I simply consider Ben Folds to be the Chuck Norris of piano.

#

The most effective way for me to avoid practicing was when my parents went out and left my brother and I home alone. They had to be out for at least forty-five minutes for the lie to work best. When Mom and Dad decided to run errands, all I had to do was get my brother to be my alibi.

“David, did you practice today?” Mom asked.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I practiced while you and Dad were at the grocery store. Right, Dan?”

“Right,” was all he needed to say. Sometimes he made me play one or two songs straight through. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a good compromise.

#

Lance stops the music. “Dave, I think the passing tones you’re doing there are throwing off the harmonies a little.”

My stomach drops, and I feel the heat on my cheeks. I’ve never been called out like this before. Never been told that what I’m doing isn’t working. Over the top. Cocky?

The bassist chokes a snicker.

“Sorry,” I mutter.

“Don’t worry about it,” Lance smiles. “It sounds cool. I just don’t think it’s working for this song
right now.”

I nod. We start again.

For the next few songs I pull back a little. Triads in the treble, octaves in the bass, quarter notes all around. Then the set begins to pick up again, and I start moving my hands more. Suspended chords, sevenths, small trills here and there.

On the last song before dinner, Lance calls over the music, “I like that, Dave. What are you playing there?”

“It’s a G-7th,” I call back.

#

Despite all the dawdling and diversions, there were days I just couldn’t outsmart my parents. “If you don’t practice today, I want you to practice for an hour tomorrow,” they said.

I sighed, hung my head low, and shuffled into the living room. We had a Technics digital piano, like the gaunt figure of a cyborg, speakers out the bottom of the keyboard.

“Sit up straight,” Dad said when he caught me slouching. “Why don’t you play Für Elise.” Everything seemed to test my patience. I snubbed requests, only playing what I wanted to.

When my second teacher introduced me to a book of Disney sheet music, I was intrigued. He began playing “Chim-Chim-Cheree” from Mary Poppins. I watched his hand bend the keys into the soft, lilting melody. Somewhere in my guts resonated with the familiarity and enchantment of it all. We were turn-of-the-century London, and he was a busking chimney sweep.

Over the following weeks I learned how to play “Cruella deVil.” The song was sinister and jazzy. It was a dark side of the piano I had been deaf to before. The rhythm popped much more than the simple ditties from Alfred’s Basic Piano Library or the soaring melodies of Beethoven and Bach that I was used to. This was music intended for a dilapidated upright piano in a smoky speakeasy or on a vaudeville stage. The notes were entrancing.

#

After two hours of practice—give or take—we’re ready for the 9 o’clock service. The lights go down, and our set begins. With each song I find new direction. This one leads me into the lower octaves, off-beats, and triads. The next is slower, broken chords. Then I play the melody. Then passing tones. Higher octaves. Mid-range. The music guides my fingers, and suddenly my hands separate. They are self-sustained, and my mind is carried along.

I learn the delicacy and power of the piano. It is beautiful. Aggressive. It is both spiritual and physical. It is subtle and passionate. I hear Ben Folds, Elton John, Tim Rice-Oxley of Keane. I play alone, with others, for others, in the presence of God. I am captivated by the manipulation of black and white keys. Hammers on strings. Melody. Harmony. Percussion. Silence.