I’ve finally figured it out – what real people do on Thanksgiving. Americans don’t sit around the table talking turkey and politics and what they’re thankful for (okay, MY family does do all that on a yearly basis, but what sort of freaks are WE?).
Americans are A.D.D. like crazy. They get bored. And there are a limited number of things open on Thanksgiving.
So what do the abandoned and bored of turkey day do? They go to Walmart … and they go to the movies.
So I saw three movies in the theatre on Thanksgiving because that was what there was to do and Jennie’s boyfriend had decided it was about time that they had some alone time together since we’ve been keeping possession of her and her house. So we went and saw the Matrix revolutions on IMAX as a group and then rob and I left to go seek our fortunes in the world of Thanksgiving Colorado.
We found the one place that was open to eat and I ordered turkey and stuffing. The woman left and came back to inform me there was no stuffing left, which seemed the ultimate in depressing. IT was the only part of the dinner I’d really wanted, the only part that really said Thanksgiving for me, but how was she supposed to know that. I opted for mashed potaties instead.
Figured I would polish it off with pecan pie. Ordered that. The waitress came back and told me they did not have any more of that. Key Lime or Peach Cobbler. I asked for the peach cobbler. She came back and told me they didn’t have that either, and suddenly my desert was free and chocolate cake materialized as one of my options though it hadn’t been there before. And chocolate cake is wonderful, but not when what you really wanted was pecan pie … or peach cobbler in the least.
It was then that I started feelign a little strange. I realized it was the first Thanksgiving I’d spent in a restaurant. Not that I had not spent Thanksgivings away from my family in the past, but I’d always been with a family and friends in a traditional setting. And now I was in a restaurant, making due with food that could not be what I started ordering in the Thanksgiving spirit.
Then I went to see two movies because the walmart was too crowded and we had another five hours to kill before we could come back to the house. I picked the first and rob picked the second. I picked ” Love Actually,” which was amazing, but a total chick flick. Even rob liked the movie.
Rob picked the cat in that hat, which was so bad he apologized to me the entire ride home. 🙂
And I stood outside in the 10-degree cold and ate dippin dots because I love them and haven’t had them in ages and burned all the taste buds off the first layer of my tongue, to my unending delight. Not very Thanksgiving, I suppose.
I’m feverishly working on trying to finish up a new song before I get back. I think it could be really good, I just don’t want to mess it up in the last couple details. We’ll see. I have another week and a half yet.
Oh, my God, the font is a different color [yeah, yeah, yeah, meaning NOWADAYS “the category is set to ‘Heather'” – rob 12/27/17] – That could only mean one thing: Heather’s writing her first journal entry in about … forever. We went to a great open mic tonight and I was compelled to record the details I knew rob would glaze over.
I am sitting in Pittsburgh, sniffling alongside the perpetually sick cat, my companion in illness misery. When it looks over the top of the computer screen at me, it looks exactly like The Nothing staring out of the cave at Atreau … but very small, so not nearly as scary. Sort of a cute apocalyptic monster kitten.
But anyway, we’re traveling again, which always fills me with an intense dual sort of productive happiness and regular-sized-apocalyptic monster dread that stares at me from over the top of my computer. On the one hand, being out makes me feel like I’m doing something, like I’m on the brink of success …
And then I start thinking about what that success might mean.
I imagine it’s the dirty little unspoken secret of everyone doing well at one thing: You are terrified it will all work out. And where will you be then? Will you be the rockstar (so you can never be the journalist), the traveler (so you can never have a kitten), the constantly near-impoverished (so you can never buy the coffeeshop/bookstore/music venue you’ve always wanted or come up with some extra cash to help pay for your brother’s college education). Will you wear the label “touring musician” and nothing else, because nothing else will fit, and there’s no time to divert your energies to a mediocre poetry career, or drag racing career, or shitty artwork hobby?
Alright. Enough of my angst. What I was really writing to tell you about was the open mic tonight. You remember about the open mic tonight? 🙂 Jozart Studios is an incredible multi-media sort of arts hub tucked into the backstreets of a little east-coast college town with a big west-coast name: California. Down the street from the California University of Pennsylvania, Jozart is a sprawling loft in a building celebrating its centennial in 2004.
The proprietors, Bish and Jay, have just gotten the permits to maintain the place, which was a mercantile store for steel workers, etc. and later reincarnated as a five-and-dime and, rumor has it, as a roller rink, which explains the arcs etched into the matte wooden floor. I imagine during the day, the space is flooded with light, but for the night-time open mic, it is sparsely dotted with antique lamps. Into this space, Jay (who does Native American reproductions) and Bish (who Jay says can do ANYTHING) have squeezed a series of small design studios, a tattoo parlor, a kitchen, a stage, a projection wall for movies, and comfy couches to admire all of it. There’s even plans for a coffee counter in the corner. It’s the kind of space that just begs for a visionary mind and a weekend warrior’s do-it-yourself attitude. Rob and I are both instantly in love with it and its possibilities, and rob laments aloud that you can’t hijack a building. The bookstore/coffeeshop/music venue owner in me is incredibly jealous.
I’ve learned this week about another unspoken dirty little secret among all small-time touring musicians: that to be a touring musician is to turn being judgemental into a business tool. You don’t want to do it. You WANT to believe that people are different than they look, like different music than they look like they should like based on your preconceived notions of age, race, class, dress, geographic location or the simple choice of whether they opted to spend the night in a coffeehouse or a bar. But a smart business person winds up doing a quick mental demographic sweep of the room to determine the target audience and the most effective set and advertising strategy. The way the open mics tend to go is that you have to make a snap judgement about what these people probably like based on the only information you have about them, which is largely visual. Do we play a fast set or a slow one because bar patrons are less likely to be here for music than for their regular weeknight drinking hang-out and we need to show off and grab their attention? A more folky set because we’re in a coffeehouse or a rock set because we’re in a bar? Most of the people look like they are over 35, do we include “Locomotive Breath,” “Little Wing” or “White Rabbit” to appeal to them? We’re down the street from a college and these are mostly college kids, do we do the most indie stuff to appeal to them? The one heartening thing as I become so jaded, is that our judgements this week, and most of the time, are almost never completely right. Yay for the stereotype breakers
Somewhere on I-76, racing through Ohio, waiting for something to change. Anything. We realized before that Ohio is boring. I was perfectly prepared for Nebraska to be the worst state ever to pass through. But Ohio… Ohio is bland stretches of nothing whihc gently fade into grey horizons, in a never-ending almost mist of rain..
It’s an unfortunate state, Ohio is.
Last night we played Howler’s Coyote Cafe. A weird name, an awesome logo. It was a jam session hosted by Tim, the fleugal horn (?) player from Aspinwall. With it, I became absolutely amazed with the jam/open stage community in Pittsburgh. I’m not really aware of anything that compares to it in Maryland.
The local musicians HERE are much more funk/jazz based – and the bass player was just – spectacular. I sat there in awe… I’d forgotten the tiny little belt that I bought SPECIFCALLY for the purpose of keeping my jaw from hitting the ground under JUST such circumstances.
Sigh – so good. Anywho, the sound guy came up to us as we were setting up and gestured to me as I was tuning my guitar (God, BAD tuning night). I couldn’t hear a damn thing, and I thought he needed to get something off the stage…
He sat down at the drum throne, which is NOT what I was expecting – but at that point you can’t really say “er…. I thought you’d left your like.. uh.. left your cat on stage…” and we plunged into a set and hoped for the best.
God he rocked. (wow – we almost got hit by a gargantuan heron just now!!!)
It was an awesome combination, and Dramell followed all the changes and kept up and Loved it and has agreed to be our Pittsburgh percussionist. Hell yeah!
Ah, but we’re finding that in order to make up for the absolute nothing that you find in Ohio geographically, their radio stations are awesome. Perhaps a little TOO awesome, as Heather just discovered the beauty of the high-speed 180 – not QUITE a pull-the-emergency-brake bootlegger – but she still laid down some rubber. Eep.
Wondering why Heather did the 180? Read on dear reader…
I am in Oberlin, OH just down the street from the university here, which is beautiful. Some of the buildings are very old, some new, some built in the shape of huge letters indicating geographic direction for Cold War-era pilots to fly by.
Tonight I went to see my first drive-in movie at a place just down the road from here. It’s only the third drive-in I’ve ever seen along a highway and tonight during the previews, the place showed some statistics that would reflect my experiences seeing drive-ins in America. There used to be something like 2,500 of them throughout the U.S., and now there are roughly 400 still operating. Even after we left, we could still get the F.M. radio dialogue from the films running. Rob and I both wonder if people in the neighborhoods within a mile radius or so stay home at night listening to those dialogues like old radio programs or presidential addresses. Everything about small towns like this feels like it’s so long ago. You forget what year it is in towns like this, which I sort of like.
Yeah, the “Auto-rama” drive-in was awesome. T’was a double bill of Kill Bill 2 and Walking Tall… we actually didn’t end up sticking around for KBvol2 since you’re sitting there with the engine off and it actually got really cold.
Sharif has come out with us to Oberlin, and I can’t wait for Ren Fair tomorrow. I wish he could stick around and go back to Pittsburgh with us. Sigh. But it’s good to have him here. I’d Love for him to be able to travel with us on a permanent basis.
It’s just not an available option yet – we picked up a booking agent a couple of weeks ago, so maybe the money will flow freer sometime soon, but we’d also need to change vehicles. Driving two cars everywhere would just be silly. I was stupid to ever sell my VW bus. It would be perfect for this.
After the radio show Sunday, rob was really tired, but I find that we live so much at night these days that I crave sunshine, and I was determined to go out and soak up the last rays the day would give me. I didn’t have any particular destination. The only thing I knew about where we were was that, if all else failed, fifteen miles or so down the road there would be an intersection with a gas station on each side of it and a tavern. If I made a right there, there would be some shopping strip or something. The man at the bar who gave me those directions made it sound like that was the most happening spot I might find. Really, I didn’t care about “happening” or not. I just wanted to go somewhere.
So I got onto 58, the main road through the campus and the location of Aaron’s house, and just kept driving. It confirmed my suspicions about how small this place is. I passed a sign along the road that I could have sworn said “Adopt-A-Highway,” and the adoptees were the “Lorain County Witches,” but I wouldn’t get to verify my weak eyes until the ride home … yup, Lorain County Witches. Much more interesting than the later adopt-a-highway sign with its “Boy Scouts.” It took me at least 15 miles to find a Wendy’s, a convenience store, a KFC and a car dealership or two. Other than that, fields of dandelions as far as the eye can see.
And I just kept driving, not knowing what I would find, not looking for anything, but liking the cool wind through the car and wishing I could put the driver’s side window down and get it back up again. Liking the feeling of safety of driving small town roads in the spring sunshine. Something untouchable about it. Something always young.
And then my road dead-ended.
I pulled forward into a small, unpretentious community of houses and pulled into a driveway to turn around. And there it was, Lake Erie right in their front yard, stretching so far out it looks like ocean if I didn’t know better. So I decided to see if there was a way to go down onto the beach.
I found a park a little ways down. Parked the car and took my shoes off. With delight, I sank my toes into the damp, fluffy sand (it had been raining all morning before this sunny afternoon), and headed for the beach.
The tide was low, and I wanted to see if I still remembered how to skip stones. Like many similar childhood pleasures, I only learned how to do it about three or four years ago. My boyfriend, Zvi, took me back to his tiny home town of Highland Park, NJ, and in a park there, in the rain, he patiently taught me how to skip stones. So years later alone on a sunlit beach, I went about hunting for those flat, rounded stones, the ones he’d told me were the best for skipping, and set about relearning how. It took me a few tries, and some flew wildly in unintended directions (I was glad the beach was nearly empty), but many hit the mark. I could only get about three skips before any given stone would plunge in.
Everything about a beach is about the passage of time. I trolled the beach, picking up tumbled stones, shells and sea glass, rounded by the progression of years of waves, travelers from lake bottoms, river beds, other states or other countries. The sand erodes under your feet, gently threatening to take you out with it. You sink a little deeper into the beach. Waves come in steady, almost ticking alternation, with little half-waves and catches that remind me of my heart murmur.
I’ve always been fascinated by beach erosion, because it is one of those natural processes that human beings throw themselves into desperate, unrelenting, futile attempts to slow or stop. At Lake Erie, they’ve built barriers to take the appetite out of the waves, but the curve of the beach shows they are still gobbling up sand and taking it downshore, building up a new beach while eating away at another. Comparing pictures of islands taken in the early 1900s with pictures from today, it’s amazing what a century of water can do to land, shrinking it, changing its borders drastically. I always look at beach-front properties with a certain knowing smile: They are fighting a losing battle with time. And to add to all this obsessive chronology, I looked over to see the sun was about to set.
So I walked down the beach until I found a dock of rocks that went out into the water. I walked out onto it, beach treasures safely tucked away in my pocket and sandals still in hand, and put my self as close as I dared to the darkening lake water.
It’s funny the way the sun seems to speed up in those last moments before sunset. Like it’s been steady at work all day, but now it’s time to punch out and it’s thinking it might be able to sneak out a few minutes before quitting time without the boss really noticing. When it hit the horizon, it was a perfect ball of orange-red, and I kept my eyes wide open, refusing to let that last light go unseen, selfishly wanting it all, wanting every last minute of daylight. And at the last moment, eyes burning, it looked like a match being blown out, or a single birthday candle taken out in one clean, wish-fulfilling exhale. If it could have made a sound, I swear it would have been: “Poof!”
And when it was dark, on the walk home, I met the dead thing.
So waterlogged, such a black mass of spread out, decaying fur I couldn’t guess at it’s true size and I didn’t even know it was a creature until I made myself look closer at the glimmer of white among the darkness, and saw very sharp teeth. It made me shiver.
The next day, when I returned to see the beach again in sunlight, the dead thing was gone, washed away by high-tide, taken by scavengers, or cleaned up for our safety and protection. There were new shells on the beach, abolone and the spirals of very small unicorns cowering beneath Haggard’s Red Bull, the fierce daytime sun back and high.
“I was born mortal, and I have been immortal for a long, foolish time, and one day I will be mortal again; so I know something a unicorn cannot know. Whatever can die is beautiful – more beautiful than a unicorn, who lives forever, and who is the most beautiful creature in the world.” – Schmendrick, The Last Unicorn.
It’s weird when you get to the point where people chastize you for not making a big enough deal over yourself or some event that is yours.
It’s an incredible compliment, that people think you are worth making a fuss over – That you are actually being somewhat remiss NOT making the fuss.
I played my first solo show ever tonight. And when I say ever, I mean it. Before I joined the band, I only played open mics as a hobby, having long-abandoned my musical ambitions of childhood for the relentless pursuit of my journalism degree. I had never performed more than three songs in a row solo (these at open mics) … and never been booked or even pursued a booking as a solo performer. My first appearance on stage with ilyAIMY, Nov. 16, 2001, was the first time I ever took the stage as a booked performer. And I have played every gig since with at least rob – and always under the banner of ilyAIMY.
So my solo outing: It was a very recent sort of decision so that rob could go to the HFStival and we could keep our booking committment that night. It was Amy’s birthday and Gwen’s graduation party. I expected little, and I made little fuss, because I wouldn’t want anyone to feel the least bit obligated to come see me play, just because I was playing alone, when other major life events were taking place all over. This also means that, having no sense of obligating anyone, I would not feel bad if the turnout was small. I would not look at who didn’t come, who I thought might but didn’t, and be disappointed or feel weirdly unloved.
And it was my first … so I had no idea how it would go. If it went well, I would know that I could do it again with all the fanfare … and if it sucked, maybe hardly anyone would be there to tell the tale, and I would have learned my lesson away from the watchful eyes of others. 🙂
Let me also say this. Individual identity is incredibly important to me. I am a late-comer to ilyAIMY, and rob is its undisputed standard bearer. I am a partner, but I did not carry the child to term. So these days, since so much of my life is ilyAIMY, it’s even more important to me to have some sense of self and of my own contributions to that enterprise as well as elsewhere. To be a singer-songwriter unto myself and recognizable. To be a valued contributor. To be someone who people would want to see and listen to independent of my ilyAIMY identity, where I can hide my mediocre guitar skills deftly behind rob.
Playing the ovation again reminds me of my beginings. I have come so far when I come back to this little guitar. My hands feel differently on it. So, no solo tour or anything, no real desire to do lots of shows on my own, but it is definitely important not to forget myself. Not to be content to hide my failings behind a gifted partner.
So the verdict after the fact: It was fun. It was strange. It was more crowded than I thought it would be (at least 40 people in the crowded little coffeeshop), and I was more nervous than I imagined I would be. I sold a couple CDs. People showed who promised they would. Random people came who I would have never thought I’d see. I made a very funny, completely inadvertent joke. I did a neat cover of “Every Breath You Take,” and Ani DiFranco’s “Sorry I Am,” along with my stuff. And all in all, I think I could do it again. I could probably do it with a little fanfare even. 🙂
It’s extremely hard to walk the fine line between knowing accurately your worth and tastefully celebrating it versus being an arrogant prick. I’ve never dwelled comfortably in that range. I think it’s important that people have realistic views of themselves so other people don’t think they are pompous idiots, or sadly deluded. I like to be objective when it comes to my talents or virtues. I’d rather judge myself too harshly than kid myself about something.
At the same time, there is something beautiful about those people who can do that sparkling self-confidence and charisma thing. Who can make others believe they are talented or interesting because they know how to make people believe it, or believe it so strongly themselves that no one could imagine questioning it. Or they know EXACTLY what their talents are and they have an accurate view of their blessings. My ex-boyfriend was great at interviews because he talked like a person of action. He talked like he had already accomplished his dreams. And he had the most magnificent blue-green-sometimes grey eyes to drive the point home. When I saw him recently, he told me about all the things his band is doing now, and he talked just the same way he had years ago. God, it’s a skill I’ve always envied.
Still, I feel there is a certain advantage to starting with an assumption of sub-par. It means you can improve. I am a firm believer as people “in progress.” You have somewhere to go, and you can earn it. And then the compliments are real. I am notoriously bad at taking compliments, and I used to say that the only ones I believed were from strangers or enemies, because people had to really mean it to make the effort.
And I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with analyzing turn-out. Did they come because they love me, or did they come because they love my music? Bands with a million friends have big audiences … but is it really the compliment they think it is? Shitty musicians have lots of friends.
So I didn’t go out of my way to publicize the show.
But thanks, Tyler, for saying I should have. Thanks to my high school physics teacher for coming out without warning and buying CDs. And to Jason Cox who said he’d come be my garaunteed audience (and who I knew would be good to his word). To my mother for being cheered by the audience for driving me there to play. To Sharif’s cousin, who came with friends and even called the place to make sure they wouldn’t miss my set. To Brennan, who called to apologize for missing my set because he hurt his back. To the woman who asked my mother when I was playing in the area again.
And whether you did these things for me because you love me, or because you love my music …. at this moment, the two are indistinguishable. I am only grateful for the love, period.
So in the cicada theme of seizing the day, I’ve resurrected an ancient idea of mine: to self-publish a chat-book of poetry. I’m finally getting to the point where I have more than ten (dare I say twenty) pieces that I might show people or read in public. I’ve had a cover design and a title floating around in my head for years, and I finally started laying it out a few days ago.
I’m also working on a slam piece about the cicadas based on some very interesting things I’ve found in my background research. For example:
1. There are several Greek accounts of a person named Eunomos (i.e. Mr. Goodtune), an accomplished cithara player and singer, who was performing in competition when one of his instrument strings snapped. He was miraculously assisted by a cicada, which perched on his instrument and substituted its voice for the missing fifth string, enabling him to win a prestigious victory.
2. Plato and Socrates talk about a traditional belief that cicadas were once, long ago, human beings. Once music was introduced to human experience, though, these men became so enthralled with the works of the Muses that they devoted themselves entirely to music and forgot to eat or drink. Their bodies wasted away. The Muses, to reward them for their devotion, transformed them into cicadas and charged them with reporting on how other humans honored the Muses.
And there’s tons of other neat little tidbits. These hibernating insects go as far back as the Trojan War era! There are sculptures of them in tombs since their strange life-cycle suggested a ressurection … or some kind of immortality.
With my new-found knowledge about their lives – the longest of any insect, but lived completely underground save a month – I am watching them slowly die off. They twitch on the pavement everywhere. It’s weirdly sad. The world around the physical therapist’s office is a small ignored graveyard. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. A man comes out with a trashcan and a broom and sweeps at the concrete. And I can’t help but flinch every time I hear one of those dull little thuds on the windshield of the car I’m in.
Entire lives are being lived out while we wonder about futures impossibly distant for almost any other creature on Earth to even dream of. I put one of their wings in my wallet … it reminds me of very fine gold leaf.
Sigh. They will probably be gone by the time we return from this three-week road trip. I wonder if any of the seven states we’re headed through will be having them during our trip. I found a website where you can get state-specific brood X cicada t-shirts, and the list was longer than I’d thought, so it’s possible.
I wonder if the quiet upon our return will shock us.
Yesterday I visited my first American bus station, and though I’d never been to one before … it was almost like I had. So much of it was this perfect visual cliche of 1950s linoleum, silver-grouted floors of old elementary schools, mass-produced industrial office furniture, the bland greens and the utilitarian fonts all under the same dull flourescent cast, the lists of destinations, the grey timeless uniforms of the aging Black bus drivers. It was …. what my brain told me before I even walked inside ….. EXACTLY what “bus station” should look like.
In fact, it looked SO much like what I thought it should, that it almost had the effect of looking like a movie set … the way, as Terry Pratchett says, things MADE to look like something often have the effect of looking MORE accurately like that something than the original. But this … this was so real it was almost fake.
And there was even a young couple embracing tearfully. The long-haired man looked well-traveled, wearing a worn leather jacket, black jeans, black boots and a stuffed backpack that looked too heavy for his thin frame and included a sleeping bag on the bottom and a silver liquor flask in a net pocket. The young woman had no backpack, and it was obvious whom was leaving whom. Both of their faces and eyes were flushed red and damp, and as the line to the buses moved forward, they would break from time to time and then hold onto each other again, and as she buried her face in his neck, I could only see his face and the way he held onto her hair, and I knew what her face must look like buried, damp in the shoulder of his leather jacket and the way her warm breath and her hot, salty tears must be making the air in that space between them so humid and thick.
And in that moment, I snapped a quiet, flashless picture.
And I’m not sure why I did it.
There were a lot of thoughts in my head. I was thinking that it was this movie moment in real life. I was thinking what a shame it was that at those moments in our lives, someone is not standing there with a camera … with something … preserving our pain, lending those moments the archival importance they deserve. Or the way those moments take forever to get through while they are happening, and then seem to fly from our memory so fast we can hardly believe it. Fuck graduations and proms …
where are the pictures from the REAL important moments in our lives, not just the socially presribed ones.
I watched him hold her hand as he stepped out the door to the waiting buses, only letting go at the last possible moment, when their outstretched arms had exhausted all their length and their fingerprints couldn’t leap the gap between them any more.
And with all these thoughts in my head, I almost wanted to walk up to her and tell her I had seen it. I had seen that moment and it had happened, and the moment itself was truly as sad as she looked and as she felt it to be. And then I would show her the little digital frame as some kind of proof of that. And then she could look at herself from the outside. She could see what I had seen. How I had seen her. That someone besides her and her departing lover had seen it, would remember it. That in this place of so many such departures, this one was somehow important.
I did not do this. I figured she might think I was crazy, or worse yet, that it was completely insensitive and innappropriate and she might be offended. Was I, in fact, raping their moment or actually cheapening it by making it fake to make it real; Making it two-dimensional, making it digital, making it something I could carry in my pocket, making it something I could process? I didn’t want the picture for anything. I will not print it or publish it and had no such intention at the moment I took it. I just … I had to take it. I couldn’t let it just go by. Letting it just go by, in a way, seemed more like cheapening the moment when I had the unique ability to care, and to capture it.
So it’s funny how many of those moments, those frozen images have been burned into our retinas by a movie or television screen before we even actually see them for the first time in real life: the departure at the bus station, the way an old school building looks and the way that architecture and decor changes us and our behavior as we take our cues from it. These images are so archetypal that even children understand what to do with them in the case of our open guitar case as we were busking on the street at the Penn Avenue Community Festival yesterday. We made three crumpled dollar bills in tips, each one of them bestowed to us by a passing child. They didn’t know why they were giving it to us or what we would do with the money, but they saw an open guitar case next to two people playing instruments, and balloon-hatted little girls and boys – who could not have been more than eight years old – pulled dollars from their pockets and placed them inside.
I don’t know whether to be happy or to be sad. I don’t know whether I should be thankful that, in this world where understanding and communication are often the most difficult things to come by, that we have these shared experiences and these archetypal moments to unite us or to help us take in the world. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism teacher of mine told us that a sure-fire way to write a good feature piece was to start with a cliche and work our way from there. That the stories we connect with the most and the best are ones that start from a place of common understanding or experience … those movie-plot-script-perfect moments that fall into catch-phrases like: “Man v. Man. Man v. Self. Man v. Society. Man v. God,” or “Underdog Wins!” and “Boy Rescues Cat Out of Tree.”
Are we all just filling the same character roles, rotating one over for each different situation in our lives, playing the same scenes with different people or as a different person in the same scene in a history of repetitions? And do our scenes have to be documented on celluloid to be validated, or important or REALLY REALLY REAL?
And if all this is true, does that mean we are boring, unoriginal, and not striving as we should to create our own experiences …
Or does it mean that, at the heart of this often-isolating life, we all have so much more in common than we ever think? That the cliches that surround living, dying, loving, losing are all there for a reason. Are even maybe a comfort ….
I thought we might make it through our two-days of camping dry-shod, but that’s not the case. Still, with the way storms have been moving across the mid-west, we are fortunate we only wound up with a half-day’s rain and not a full two. But packing up wet tent is just no fun. Tomorrow morning better be sunny enough to dry it out. Here’s hoping.
It was absolutely beautiful yesterday when we rolled in to the KOA Kampground Greenfield, IN, about 20 minutes’ short of the city of Indianapolis. The Kampground is operated by the Witek Family, and the walls of the Kampground office give you a good idea what the clan is like: the ten commandments, various psalms, a sign asking you to wear a shirt and shoes in the office to respect their “convictions,” and blown-up photographs of scenic views from family vacations. The perfect arrangement of the people in each photograph makes it seem like the children have been ideally spaced out in age and growth rate for just such an aesthetic purpose.
And the Kampground is a family deal, right down to the four blonde and strawberry blonde-haired kids. Quite a few of the big photographs show the family all uniformly decked out in their KOA polo shirts. As we pull into our camp site, one of the young sons is riding around on his golf cart, leaping off before the thing has even come to a complete stop in order to direct RVs into their sites. The gesture is done in a way that is not “whee!” as much as the practiced boyhood indifference of someone who does this every day and has not gotten hurt yet.
And I, not as practiced, not as confident, managed to do okay on my first day of the Heather-as-nature-girl installment of our trip. I pitched the tent, I got a fire going and I made dinner over it: cavatappi pasta and sauce (Tyler, whose redneck cred makes him an authority on such things, says this does not count and scoffs at the idea that this place contains public bathrooms and showers in the main building). But I didn’t burn the food or myself, which I consider a stellar accomplishment. And I sat outside as I watched my fire burn to embers and played guitar. I watched the Kampground slowly fade out of the light and into its perfect moment … its moment of becoming.
Just like people have these perfect moments of beauty or accomplishment or self-actualization, campgrounds have it too – the perfect and quintessential campground moment, when everything about it is magic.
It’s dusk, when the fireflies come out in such numbers that they look like the ground is shooting up glowing green seeds and the young sun-kissed children start going after them. People start to lounge in front of their RVs to the hum of bug zappers or outside lights. The air smells like citronella and smoke and warming food. The nighttime campfires are going, and maybe there are marshmallows and hot dogs. The day’s swimming pool towels flap in the gentle breeze, draped over doors, fold-up lawn chairs or picnic tables. The gentle hum of distant conversations reaches you like you are underwater, a present vibration, but otherwise non-descript. So it’s reasonably quiet, but the world is gently active all around you. It almost timeless.
I love campground culture. I’d forgotten how long it’s been since I had any foray into it. My father and brother are the hardcore campers and my brother can cook over a campfire like nobody’s business. To my mother’s gently rolling eyes my father always talks about retiring to an RV and driving around the country. He actually sparked an interesting idea in my head for a different sort of summer/fall tour. A lot of the Kampgrounds feature live entertainment. We could perform and barter for a place to stay and some tips. I was so happy with the camping yesterday, I have to admit that it’s food for thought.
And I’m in love with the little maps people stick on the back of their RVs and then fill in the states where they’ve been. I want one. I’ve been scoping the ones on the RVs at this camp site and on the highways and you know what …. I could give most of them a run for their money. Eighteen states and counting.
I can’t remember what I did for most of my 24 birthdays, but for some reason I seem to know exactly where I’ve been on Independence Day almost every year of my life. And my birthday is at least a holiday in its own right: Halloween. Maybe it’s the fireworks. Maybe I would remember my birthdays better if there were more fireworks involved.
This year I am sitting in the sunroom of my parents’ house listening to “ rather than watching – fireworks being set off by my neighbors. The ones climbing and exploding five minutes’ west in Reisterstown sound like tree branches cracking, splitting and falling through the other branches and leaves until they hit the forest floor. Others sound like the popping of green wood in a campfire, as the moisture or sap heats to bursting. As for the rest, all you can hear is their whistling ascent.
Before last year, we had a massive wooden playset that sat in the side yard of my parents’ house. It was transplanted from my childhood home in Randallstown a decade ago, when I remember it took many of our very large male neighbors to move it. Years after I gave up sliding down its fireman’s pole or hanging upside down by crook’d knees off its rope ladder, I would climb atop it on July 4th to watch the fireworks invisible to me from 10 feet below. A couple years ago, my father decided it was time to get rid of it. At first he tried to sell it, but when that didn’t work, he put a sign on it that said, “If you can haul it, you can have it.” The house faced the main road and that was pretty much all the advertisement needed.
A man came to the house one day when my father wasn’t here and said he could take it and would like to. It seemed like his entire family, including a very small child that could not have been two, turned out for the purpose. My brother, Justin, and I agreed to help get the sliding pole out of its anchor in the ground so the structure could be moved freely.
My father is a very ¦¦. efficient person. If he builds a deck, or lays a tile floor, or fixes a concrete step, it is done to an almost overwhelming and unnecessary degree of perfection. And when my father secures a child’s playset to the ground, it is done to last the ages.
My brother and I set about the task of digging out the fireman’s pole with the relaxed naivety of people who think their task is going to be easy and short. We started with garden spades. Eventually we got a shovel from the garage and took turns digging and piling up the dirt. The shovel eventually made a clanking noise. We removed a few rocks from the hole, and then more, which my father had apparently put all around the pole to steady it in the earth. Periodically, we tried to pull the pole straight up, but it would not budge. Even the very large man who had come to take the playset couldn’t move it.
When all the digging was said and done, and the pounds of rocks removed, it was apparent my father had sunk this pole a good couple feet into the ground and attached a wooden plank perpendicular at its base to keep it from being pulled up vertically. Then the years had done their part to settle this thing firmly into the yard.
Once it was free, the man’s entire family guided it through the front yard to the truck they’d brought. It was a long truck “ the sort that furniture or appliance movers use “ but it was not very wide, and there was no good way the playset would fit into it. As all this was being figured out, the child kept trying to crawl into the back of the truck with the playset hanging half out of it. We all kept laughing and taking him out.
We didn’t know this family and have never seen them again, but there is something about the way moving a large piece of anything requires teamwork and brings strangers together in that moment. For the duration of that endeavor, it’s like you have all known each other all your lives. You laugh and joke freely. You know the other people feel the same strain in their muscles and in their minds as you. You get each other cool drinks and tell each other similar stories of how tasks like this have been surmounted in the past. At that moment, you imagine you might get together like this for family dinners at some later time, but really you know better. This is all just the magic of the moving of something really big and heavy.
Eventually, it was decided the playset would be wedged into the open back door of the truck and balanced on the ramp that folds out so you can roll sensibly sized things into it. My brother went to the garage for some rope, and with all his Boy Scout skill, fashioned knots with names I know not until it was as steady as a giant wooden playset hanging out the back of an 18-wheeler can be, and we said our goodbyes to its new owners, who hauled it and had it indeed.
I wonder if that kid is perched on it right now.
Before I had my personal firework-viewing tower (and since I lost it), I have seen the Fourth of July fireworks from many other places. My parents’ favorite method was to park on one of the highway overpasses looking out over Baltimore City. We did this for years, and still I never got over the way my insides would seize every time a passing car shook the concrete beneath me.
The summer I held down the fort at the University of Maryland student newspaper, I lost my photo editor to law school and his assistant to the Army reserves, and had to do all of the art for the week of July 4th myself. I bought a lawn chair, sunscreen and a single use camera, and spent the entire day taking pictures and talking to folks camped out in one of the university parking lots for the night’s fireworks display. When the show started, I stood with my camera pointing directly above me, praying I could capture one good solid firework before deadline. I took about twenty pictures, trying to time my clicks just right. Not knowing how to develop my own film the way the real photographers had, I took it to the local convenience store, and an hour later I had one good
Two years later, I went with a boy to one of the western Maryland battlefields, and sat next to a cemetery to watch the fireworks. And as they were exploding what seemed like right above our heads, he leaned in to kiss me and was interrupted at the last second by the searching calls of his friends coming up over the hill. I think he cursed.
And one year I sat in the middle of an empty field and watched them all alone.
I’ve always had mixed feelings on what it must feel like to be a firework. All this kinetic energy ¦ this unrealized explosion for which you were born just stored up inside of you. And then you climb, hoping to be the big burst, not
really knowing what you are until you open up like a baby bird spreading its wings for the first time. But you only get to fly that once. All eyes on you as you are all noise and light, and then you finally start to fizzle and fade
and turn to ash. And then you fall to earth. A few seconds’ glory. That’s it for you.
Is it great as lives go or incredibly sad?
And this year, what is July 4th to me? It is my friend Dan Zimmerman’s song-that-is-my-personal-hope-anthem, “Placid 4th”: “My eyes have seen the light/ It ‘s dim, but it’s there/ My eyes have seen the glory/ of the ending of this fear.” It is the tattered flag my mother found while cleaning today, and that I suggested we should burn on the front lawn “ not because I feel strongly about burning flags, but because that is how you are supposed to dispose of damaged ones and my brother, as a Boy Scout, is one such person who can perform the ceremony. I was curious. I mean, how many people can say they’ve legally seen a flag burnt?
Okay, so it is not a flag burning. But it is a seafood dinner and my first corn-on-the-cob in a year and fireworks I can only hear. And it is a scar in the side yard of my parents’ house.
The first thing people say to you when they hear you are a touring musician is almost always this wistful, smiling, admiration-intoned cliche: “You’re living the dream.” I’ve commented on this before.
At a poetry open mic last night, one of my brother’s friends recognized me and asked me about my travels. Though she did not use the expression, “living the dream,” she asked me the question that almost always comes right after people say that, which is, “How do you like it?”
It’s a strange question to answer. How do I like (living the dream)? I mean, if the person asks the question that way, there’s a certain expectation that the answer will be positive. I mean, how would you answer if someone asked you how you liked living the nightmare?
But this is not a nightmare, by any stretch. And it is also not the dream. Like so many things in life, it is almost nothing like what people think it is, best or worst case.
I am on this kick today because my answer to the question changes on a daily basis. If I am having a good day, the answer is usually the one people expect they will get. If I am having a bad day, I often give them the answer they are expecting to get with a public relations sort of inflection.
It’s rare that I tell people I don’t like it, because for the most part I do. It’s rare that I will tell people that I am scared.
But today I am scared and I feel like telling people about it.
I am looking at my bank account. It is not a bad-looking bank account. There are three accounts that each have their purpose. I trained myself to forget that one of them is there at all. This savings account contains the check they cut me for my destroyed car, which, when combined with things that should be coming, will replace it. So I don’t think about that money because that money just has to sit and wait until there is more of it and a car to buy.
The second account is one I feed, but otherwise forget it’s existence as well. This is my “Bill” account, which I established before we went on tour knowing that bills would be coming to the house that I might not see for a few weeks. This account is a joint one with my mother so she can write the checks as the bills come: cell phone, the rare credit card bill, car insurance. I try to put $100 into it every week to keep it going. The last time I could do that was about a month or so ago.
The third is the actual money. The part I can see, touch. The part that takes me to movies and puts food in my stomach and gas in my car. After I pay my health insurance this month, and contribute to rob’s car insurance, and all that, I will have $173.51 in that account.