Friday, December 8, 2017

The Cookie Lady

I just got back from running some errands at the grocery store.  I needed some things, regular stuff - eggs, some produce, stamps - and then I went to check out.  I usually wait for a cashier, I figure they don't pay me to self check, and I'm not really in a hurry.  Sometimes it is Jane, who always asks about the boys, or Dianna whose been there as long as I remember, or Pearl who always gives me a hard time about the fried chicken I get there now and again.  Today it was the very chatty, and opinionated Rose.

The woman ahead of me had a pretty full cart, lots of baking staples and cute green and red storage containers.  There was lots of decorating stuff, sprinkles and icing, flour, white and brown sugars, and, well, you get it.  I was thinking about how much fun it looked like she would have, maybe making cookies with her kids or something.

I was trying not to listen in on her conversation with Rose, but, sometimes people talk so loud, I think they want strangers to hear them.  Here's the thing, she wasn't a stranger to me.  I know who she is, the mother of a girl the boys go to school with.  I'd volunteered with her a few times in the library at the elementary school and I've seen her on the sidelines of a few soccer or baseball games, maybe a band concert, I'm not sure.

That being said, she is not the sort of person who remembers others, especially others that have nothing to offer her.

"I am soooo busy," she was saying, "I have to make a bunch of cookies for my son's church class that I teach and more for the Cub Scout den, I'm the den mother, you know.  Of course I need a bunch for the cookie exchange in my neighborhood and then more for the family.  And those I'm going to have to take to Florida where we Christmas."

(Is "Christmas" a verb, and, if so, do I capitalize it?)

"And of course, everyone likes different ones so I've got to make a bunch of different kinds.  And, I've got to get them all done by Saturday," she kept on.

Rose, who doesn't really have much of a filter, said, "Sometimes when I've got a lot to do, I use the cookies in rolls, or even the frozen ones."

Aghast, the cookie maker, said, "Oh, no, they simply must  be homemade.  I not going to bring cookies from frozen to a cookie exchange.  It's not as special."

Now, I heard that as a sort of slight to Rose, so I interjected, "They really can be quite good, the frozen ones.  I also like the peanut-butter chocolate chip ones in the tube, they..."

"Oh, no, I can't bring peanut butter ones, so many are allergic these days."

"... right."

Rose, who had been slighted, looked my way.  "You do a lot of cooking, Big Guy,"  she always calls me that, "What kind of cookies do you make?"

"I make Oatmeal Craisin, everyone really likes them," I said, I think we were both trying to stop the woman from going on more.  She made a quick sour face, no doubt oatmeal cookies were too pedestrian for her high standards.

"I like to do cookies I can decorate," indicating the sprinkles and such Rose was scanning.

"Craisins instead of raisins, that sounds good.  What's your secret for those?"  The woman was getting on her nerves, which Rose doesn't hide well.

"Well honestly, I just follow the recipe on the Quaker oats box and substitute the craisins.  I would say that it is really important to get everything out early and bring it to room temperature.  You know, the butter and the eggs, even the flour and sugar and the milk and...," I said.

"Oh, who has time for that?" baker lady interrupted me as she was fishing in her fancy purse for her card.

I leaned a little to get her eye and said quietly, "I do."

Rose smirked.  I smiled.

"Well, I've got to do so much today, I've still got to go to Target and, hopefully get some more presents bought and... Do you think the groceries will be okay for a while in the car?"

I said, "It's forty degrees out, they should be fine in the trunk."

"Well, I don't have a trunk, I drive a Yukon."

"Of course you do," Rose said under her breath.

And, with that she was off.  Off to her world of self-congratulatory, self-absorbed busyness.  No, 'goodbye' or 'thank you.'

I sort of felt sorry for her.  Rose, well, didn't.

"Well she's full of herself," she said.  "What're you gonna do with these pork chops?"

I remembered to thank her when I left.

Listen, I can't tell you how to do your holidays.  Some people like all the hustle and bustle of it, thrive on it even.  But, if you're complaining about all the cookies you have to make, or the shopping you must do, or the traveling you must do... well, maybe you're doing it wrong.

That all sounds a little preachy, doesn't it?  A little judgemental?  Well, then, I guess I'd better call it a day...

I went to Costco right after I went to the grocery store.  It was right at ten when they open.  I parked a ways back and watched as folks were getting out of their cars and vans.  I've never seen such hurried, harried looking people.  No smiles, no laughing, just grim determination.  I went towards the door but hung back.  The line for returns was forming, a huff of folks.  Everyone had carts and their little red cards ready to show the gatekeeper.

The whole mood was one of agitation and dread

I left.

As I walked back, against the angry grain, an old man with a cane was headed my way.  I moved aside to give him some room in the parking lot.  He asked me if the store was open.  I told him it just had.  He looked me up and down and asked where I was headed.  I told him it was just too crazy for me, I told him I panicked.

"Seems like you're the only sensible one here today," he said and patted me on the shoulder, "It'll be better next time.

Actually, this all happened yesterday.  I went again today, the mood was much happier... or, was it just me?


Wednesday, December 6, 2017


Nick did this one time.  All he said when I asked him why was "I felt like it."

Life's like that, ain't it?

He also made a cake for a dinner we made for a meeting at the church.

He's a good boy.

Zack is a deer boy as well.

That's all I got.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Noni's Black Apron

I remember her hands, mostly.  Thin, once elegant I'm sure, the knuckles now arthritic.  Her hands were amazingly soft in contrast to the angles and sharpness time had twisted them into.

She wore black, always a dress.  On Sundays she wore a black lace widow's veil.

Her face was pinched and drawn, deep wrinkles on olive skin.  Twinkling, sharp green eyes shone out from her weathered face.

She lived down the hall in a three-family apartment I once rented in Astoria, New York.  Nineteen-hundred-and-eighty-eight.  Her family owned the house, she'd raised a family there, three boys, but, so many years later, she lived alone.  She was well into her eighth decade.

She went to Mass most mornings, seven, noon on Sundays.  Sometimes we'd pass each other on the sidewalk or steps in front of the house, me coming home from an evening's work and night's partying, she off to pray her black and silver rosary that hung around the high collar of her black dress.  She seem to not notice me.

We were unlikely friends.

The house shared a common entry on the side for the two upstairs apartments.  We'd pass each other, I'd try to say hello, but, short of a quiet sort of sighed greeting, she didn't say much when I first moved in.

Honestly, we would never say much, but...

One cool fall day, I came in from running errands and, as I was about to open my door, I noticed hers was open.  The hallway was full of a scent I was unfamiliar with, like licorice sticks but prettier, purfumey.  I couldn't figure it.

I lingered in the hallway.  She saw me standing there and walked a little outside her door.  She shrugged a 'what' look my way.  I smiled and inhaled deeply.

"Ah!  The cookies.  Come, come."

They were little shortbread cookies, flavored with just a hint of anise.  To this day I hate licorice, but those cookies were so perfect.  She invited me into her kitchen and she showed me how she made them.  A pinkie-sized, flat oval, that she gave a little half twist before she put them on the tray.  Brushed with egg whites, they were golden, tender at the ends and crispy at the twist.

I'd visit her kitchen many more times from that afternoon on.  At first it was cookies and treats, but soon she was making lasagna and Alfredo.  I watched as she made noodles and gnocchi.

One day she was cutting some onions and she set the knife down and rubbed those tired hands.  I took up the knife and continued chopping them.  She was delighted when she saw I knew what she was doing.

I was working evenings in those days, long ten, twelve hours shifts, but only four a week.  I was home most afternoons and some nights.  She took to leaving her door open when she was cooking or baking, and sometimes she'd knock me up and ask, no, tell me to come help her.

It's imperative that you understand we had no way of communicating.  Her English was minimal and heavily accented, my Italian was non-existent.  We gestured and smiled and winked.  I remember cutting the roasted red peppers she'd scorched on the gas stove, covered to sweat, then peeled - a process I'd never seen before - too large for her liking.  She pushed me away with her hip and showed me how she wanted them.

She always had a bottle of limoncello and she'd offer me a bit every now and again, in a classic sherry glass.  She asked me to help her one time and the day was hot, I went to get a beer out of my apartment, when she saw it in my hand, she grabbed a little pony glass off her shelf and had be pour her a few ounces.  We'd repeat that little ritual dozens of times.

In the crazy, wild world of New York City, she offered me quiet and stillness.  She worked slow and carefully, so different from the frenetic kitchens I watched in the resturant where I worked. She showed me tradition.  She had me taste sauces and pastas, soups... and beans.  I had no idea about the diversity and difference in beans - giant cannellini, tiny pinto like beans, dried Limas and peas - so much a boy from the Midwest had never seen.  I came to treasure our time together and I hope she did as well.

She sent me once to the Salumeria just down the street - the one I was afraid to go in because the proprietor looked so rough and ill-tempered, the one with sausages and pepperonis hanging in the window - with a note in loopy, shaky Italian.  I opened the door to the dinging bell that markets had in those days to the scowl of the butcher behind the counter.  I timidly handed him the note.  I was suddenly his best friend.  His English was better than Noni's and he filled me in a bit, same sad story, children gone, busy, never visit.  She made food for church, socials, funerals, parties and such.  He seemed sweet on her, I know I was.  From that day on I was a regular in his shop.

I carried home to her a bag of sausages and meat and who knows what.  I watched as she turned it into meatballs, spicy, hot, delicious.  She baked them in the oven, flipping them half way through.  She called the sauce she made for them "arrabbiata" and it made my eyes water and she teased me about it.

That's what brought all this to mind today.  I made meatballs recently. 

When I form the balls I always coat both my palms with olive oil, just as Noni did.  I often remember her when I make Italian food.  I remember standing next to her, watching her form the meatballs, thinking of my Dad's hands forming hamburger patties, of my mother's hands peeling potatoes or carrots, of my sons' hands, stirring sauce, browning meat.

One of the last times I cooked with her, she caught me in the hall and showed me that her hands were stiff and she needed some help chopping some canned whole plum tomatoes, the only kind she used.  I was going out and had on a pair of jeans, cowboy boots and a white dress shirt.  I went into her kitchen and indicated I was afraid I'd get the shirt dirty.  She took of her black apron, trimmed in black lace, and put it over my head.  It hung on me like a cummerbund, I can't imagine how very silly I must of looked.

She offered me a glass of sherry, and kept giggling like a school girl, at me in that black lace apron.  I danced a little cowboy jig for her, I remember, and she laughed until she had to sit down.  I'll never forget how happy she was that evening.  I wish I could have kept that apron.

We were unlikely friends.

When I finally left that apartment and headed back to Ohio, she cried.

So did I.

It's nice to think of old friends.  I'm sure Noni is long gone.  I never knew her last name.  I never thanked her.  But I honor her often, I think of her often.

Oddly, this is not the first time I written about meatballs.  Here is that piece.

I hope you've enjoyed meeting Noni, she lingers long in my memory.

The day I left one of her sons was there, the one who still managed the rentals and sometimes checked in on her.  My then girlfriend, a girl named Howell, was there to see me off.  It was the first time Noni had ever seen her.  She had an animated conversation with her son, lots of hushed voices and furtive glances my way.  Noni gave me one last hug, we both knew it was our last.  She looked at me, tear in eye, a slight smile and said something to her son.

"She wants you to know that all this time she thought you were gay.  She'd have never let you into her home if she'd thought you were straight."

We laughed, and our tears fell again.

See, there's always more.  

Peace, and, I'll see you next time.

Monday, December 4, 2017

A Sackful of Memories

I recently came across this bag of images, like, real old time photos, you know, the kind you had to have developed and wait for.  I was looking for a headshot for the post I did earlier this month, Forward Looking Back.  The bag was in a chest I've been trundling about for most of my adult life.

I'm afraid to look at them all.  Is that silly?  I guess maybe a little.  Honestly, I like looking back on my life... usually.  But, I know that these are from the eighties and nineties, maybe the early aughts and, well, I wasn't always happy in those days.  I was lonely and I thought life was not really going my way and, well, sometimes that can be hard to admit, hard to think about.

Also, these days, as a parent with all the activity and responsibility that entails, I wasn't ready for the onslaught of memory that looking through these photos might bring on.  I was afraid I'd cry or laugh or recoil or, actually, be physically overwhelmed by them all at once.

But, I know there is a lot in that bag, images I should see again, just, you know, not all at once.  Let's do this, I'll pull one out at random and I'll tell you about it.

Well... okay then.

I was right, this is gonna hurt a little.  That's me in the fall of 2002.  Marci and I went down to the Smokies and were tent camping.  We had a lovely site, right on a creek that ran through the campground.  It was a beautiful trip.

So, I guess the question is, why does it hurt?

I have to tell you, I had to stop working on this post.  I started it this afternoon and it is now well after dinner.  You see, I couldn't figure out why it hurt so much.  I mean, I look happy, fit, slim, pretty macho there with the water pouch strapped to my thigh.  The photo itself didn't bring up any of the negativity I was afraid it might.  The background is lovely, the creek, the fading fall colors.  I know I was having a good time.

I think I know.  I'm not sure I want to tell you, but, I will.  It's hard, especially as an older parent, to realize that your children will never see you in your prime.  They've always known me wrinkled and gray and heavy and, well, old.  I doubt they'll have many memories of me under fifty considering that they were six when I turned over that half century mark.

They'll never see that I was young once, vital and full of life and energy.  They'll never know that I wasn't just the life of the party, I was the party.  I was funny and happy, hopeful and bright-eyed (most of the time), carefree and careless.  Actually, I sometimes forget that as well which sort of doubles the hurt.

To them, I'm afraid I will always be old, done, tired, sore...

I really shouldn't admit to all this.  I should try to regain that attitude, I guess.  But, I am who I am, this is where I've arrived.  I know, truly, that old isn't the only way they see me.  They see me happy and funny and sort of vibrant, but, dammit, I wish they could have seen me shine.

I did once, you know.

I guess that's all for today.

Hopefully, next time a reach into the bag, I'll get something less, well... sad.

Peace, as always, and, hey, thanks.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Doves in the Kitchen

Yesterday I thought on hawks, today I'll speak of doves.

For as long as I can remember, my Mom put up Christmas cards on the cabinets in the kitchen.  There was an old box of cards she'd been sent over the years - she still has the box, and many lovely old cards - and, when Christmas season came around, she'd choose some to put up.  Delightfully, she had a family friend whose last name was Partridge who'd always send a pear tree themed card and Mom would put them all together on a pantry door or such.

When I started out living on my own, I decided to do the same thing.  For a number of years I simply put up what I got, as I think my mother did when she first started doing it, but over the years and with the influx of cards my lovely wife received I had more to choose from.  I like to group them by theme, if you will.  Some angels here, Santas over on the cereal cabinet doors, a group of beautiful cards from the Arizona artist DeGrazia my Mom always sends on the spice cabinet.

I like doing it and it's a nice way to get Holiday cheer into the kitchen.  But, this year the boys finished trimming the tree early - they wanted only balls on  it this year - and they were, well, in the way, as Marci and I tried to finish getting up the creche and the Swarovski crystal ornaments we've been collecting since our first year in this house, now home (I tell that story in this Christmas post from a few years ago called The Best Half.)

So, I put the bags, three full quart Ziplocs, onto the table and told them to pick out forty or so they liked and I'd hang them.  Truly, I was trying to distract them - a strategy I'd honed in their toddler years - but, something pretty cool happened.  They embraced it wholeheartedly. They discussed - calmly, I might add - each card.  Laughing at ones they hated, discussing why they liked the ones they did.  They even began to pile them into themes and such.

Now Zack is really into Christmas decorations, always asking when we'll put them up.  I think he really likes Thanksgiving because we always do the decorations the day after... he's not a Turkey fan, sad that.  He especially likes the cards in the kitchen.  Nick's a tree guy, he likes that it brightens up the living room on dark and cold winter nights.  But, what I didn't know was that they both knew that I worked on themes and such for the cabinets.

A good forty-five minutes later, well, they had a plan.

Santas as usual by the cereal, as usual.

A "naturey" theme by the serving bowls and platters.

A "Three Wisemen" them for the cup cabinet, the cupboard, I suppose you'd say.

Christmas trees for the plate cabinet.

There's these two above the stove, a grouping I particularly like.  One is a Madona and Child by an artist unaccredited (thanks Hallmark) paired with a "Mother Reading to Child" by artist unknown but in a sort of Toulouse Lautrec style.  I really like them both together, and, honestly, I'd have never thought to put them together.

They even remembered the DeGrazia's I always put on the spice doors, which was thoughtful.

And finally, a very pretty set on the chip and canned goods door.  "Doves and Peace and Blue," I think Zack said.

I gotta say, well, I expected puppies and kittens and cartoons and Santas.  I was wrong.  They worked hard, together, carefully and purposefully embracing and remembering the mood of this advent season.

Never underestimate the children.

Never think they aren't watching.

Always honor them.

It's important.


(It occurs to me that if you're eve around during the holidays, you'll know where everything is in the cupboards.)

Saturday, December 2, 2017

A Hawk in the Yard

This fall a hawk has come to the back yard.  I see him every day.  The hawk hunts for worms most of the time, listening like a robin does, perhaps even feeling the vibration in his feet and suddenly plunging his beak into the soil and pulling out a big fat one.  But sometimes that sleek black beak comes up with something larger, plumper, a mole or a vole, usually.

He swoops in and out so royally I've gotten to where I imagine a little fanfare for him.  He's probably, one, one-and-a-half feet tall and his wingspan must push four.  Hawks come in fast, quietly and elegantly.  He lands so softly and straightens up.  Hawks have excellent posture.

He just showed up, I swear.  He stood for a while and headed into the maple tree, Nick's maple tree, the one on the right.

Serious looking fellow, ain't he?

It's interesting to watch him back there.  He gets a lot of grief.  Smaller birds, jays and such, squawk and fly at him, trying to chase him away.  The squirrels chatter and fly around the tree near him, safe, I'd guess, protected by the limbs and branches from his wide wings.

I know the science of a lot of it.  Predators and prey, the circle of life.  There's aeronautics and lift.  Tangible things, talons and sound waves, entrails and blood.  Tufts of fur left behind will, some season soon, line nests and burrows.  It's nature, it's codified and explained.  For instance I assume this guy is a Cooper's hawk, Accipiter cooperii.  There are pages of information about them.

Here's the thing though, people have been watching hawks since before men could remember.  Sometimes I see them through those eyes.  I see a raptor soaring on the wind, I see it sweep down, I watch it labor away into the sky, prey dangling.  I marvel at its ease and comfort, the surety of it all.  I can understand wanting to be that hawk. 

I will wear a chest plate and stand up straight and proud, unafraid.

I will fashion a helmet for battle and it will look like a hawk's head.

I will wish for his wings, wish for his freedom, speed and courage.

I will want to be him.

We know so much, we've explained it all so well.  But, sometimes...

...sometimes, I am just a man, at the dawn of time, looking up at a soaring beast and sensing that I will someday fly.


Friday, December 1, 2017

Forward Looking Back

I used to scan and photo a lot of things for this blog.  When I first started doing this I had the notion that a "blog" - a word that no longer has meaning - should be image driven.  So, I included these visual elements.  It was fun.  It served the mission at started with, and... it was easier.  Here's an example, Postbituary.

As a result of that, my computer (the one in the cold basement) desktop was littered with folders, poorly marked, sometimes labeled by date but more often called something obscure like "freeelies" or "PLOVIES".  It's just as bad on the "Tooshba", the aging Toshiba I use these days.  I've run amok here as well, littering the screen with folders and random homeless images, sometimes a draft or two.  I pretty sure it drives Marci nuts.

I should have been more organized.  I wasn't.  I know why I wasn't.  You see, sometimes there is a urgency in the creative process.  To stop mid-project and carefully archive something...?  not gonna happen.  Painters leave paint-tubes unlidded, potters leave wet clay uncovered.  I watched so many musicians just drop the sheet music onto the floor after song.  I've seen actors forego a break to continue on, dancers decline a much needed break.  I, personally, write mostly indecipherable notes to myself.  Nobody wants to loose it, the vibe the process the energy the... whatever.

I am so profoundly off track here I am about to get lost...

Earlier, I opened my computer, waited, waited a little longer and, when it finally came up, I was looking around and noticed a folder marked "9.17tempim".  I'd not noticed it before, scrunched up into a corner and also because it was relatively new.  I'd scanned some stuff in September and shoved it all into this file and, well, completely forgot about it.

Whaddya say we take a look?

What fun!  I'd forgotten all about these.

First there is this.  We'd forgotten to take pictures of the boys on their first day of seventh grade.  I rendered this for the obligatory FB post about the first day of school.

Here is an actual picture I took when they got home.

I think I nailed it...

There's this.

Dude is weird, but, that is a snappy scarf.  I'm not really sure what Z was going for here, but this squirrel-bear has a pair of kaleidoscopic glasses - although he's not looking through them, safety concerns I'd guess - and I believe he's thrown a love-bomb there in the foreground.

This still has me baffled, I see what's going on, but, well... why?

"Chariot" won, right?

I'd forgotten all about this disturbingly cute family portrait Nick made.

Zack is on my head working a Rubik's cube, Marci is on Nick's head holding the banner and laughing.  Nick and I are below.  Those are frying pans in our, well, not hands... at the end of our upper sticks, and we are flipping a steak back and forth.  It's a T-bone, because it has a 't' on it.  It's really... odd.

Just a few more.

It's a full-sized sheet of paper with a little cat not centered on it.  I hate obscure symbology.  Is this about Z's cat, the emptiness that surrounds it - and us all - or is it just unfinished, which could mean something, too?

This was an abandoned idea for his skin on his school-issued Chromebook.

It's interesting, don'tcha think?

There's just two to go.  But...

You know how I always says there always more.  Here's these images "more" first.  (What a delightfully horrid sentence.)

If you want to get into a fun conversation with an actor, ask them about their "headshots" over the years.  They'll smile wistfully, maybe chuckle out loud at just the memory of some of them.  She might tell you about the big wall of hair in one, or the sultry makeup in another.  He might remember the slightly cocked head of one that went too far and he looked like a cocker spaniel or the one where his hair actually looks like a helmet.

I had a few over the years.  I don't have a single one left.  They were expensive and you only got a few printed and ended up giving them all away and... you never really liked it in the first place.  Actors are funny that way.

I wish I had a faded, crumbling one of mine in particular.  Remember, it was the mid-eighties - I looked very stern and serious and was sporting what I thought was a stern and serious looking mustache.  I was wrong about that.  I pretty much looked like an emaciated, dirty-blonde, Confederate drummer boy from a Civil War textbook, or maybe I looked like Billy the Kid on the run and hungry.  I was supposed to look rough and tumble, Marlboro-mannish.  I ended up more, sort of, cute, in a "bless-his-little-heart" sort of way.

I imagine having a lifetime of headshots, I know many actors and former actors who do.  It would be hard to look back on them, I'd think.  Not just the way they'd age and gray and droop with years, but the memory of the hope and dreaming that they inherently project could sting a bit.  I'd compare my first to my most recent and try to fill in the time in between.  I think I am glad I don't.  I sometimes wish that someone would have been taking pictures when I was in college and thereafter, it'd be lovely to see those faces again, young and eager, but secretly, I'm glad there aren't any... I think.

Nick and Zack worked on the crew for the fall play, something called "Toto, Too", and seemed to enjoy the show.  For the program, they wrote a little bio about themselves and next to it was a grainy black and white photo of each of them.  I didn't know it, but there were also prints of each on boards in the room they held a reception in after each performance.

They got to bring them home.


And Zack...

These may look off for some reason, it's because they both don't have their glasses on which they've had for the past several years.

There's something about these a really like.  They look happy.  They look confidant.  They look... well, whole.  They look like they know who they are right now.

They shine.

I hope they never regret looking back at them, and, I hope they will always look forward with this kind of joy.

I've just recently entered my sixth year of blogging and this is my 470th post.  That seems crazy.  For the past year or so I've been trying to not focus as much on the boys.  I've explained why in numerous posts including this one, Transitionings.  I may have been wrong on that.  I asked the boys about using these images, they said they didn't care.  Listen, the truth is only a few dozen folks will see this.  I'd post any of these images on FB and, with the "likes" and such, a few hundred might see them there.  I think I'm fretting over it more than it's worth.

So, that's all I've got today.

Thanks for stopping by, I appreciate it, really I do.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Notes on Prayer

You know, some folks might say I've got a lot of goddamned nerve talking about prayer. I think they're right. I'm far from reverent, miles from righteous, a lifetime away from holy. I cuss too much, I make inappropriate jokes, like a few beers and loud music and rough lyrics. I anger too quickly, love too deeply, sadden at the drop of a tear.

In other words... I'm human.

I am an animal, zoologically speaking. We all are.

We forget that. We forget that deep under all this intellect and cleverness there shivers a frightened animal ready to fight or flee. We forget that our gluttony and lust and jealousy and rage are the animal in us. The fact of this is inconceivably... simple - just look in the mirror.

We forget, also, of Grace. There is a love, undeserved and true, that lifts us out of that bestial legacy and anchors us firmly to our imagination, intelligence and integrity. And there? Science, art, romance, literature, philosophy, physics. All because, somehow, we said as one humanity, there is more to this than than those evolutionary "Four Fs" (fighting, fleeing, feeding and, uh, mating).

Now, somewhere, between the two, perhaps at the very crossroads of the two, is where I often find myself. I think this is from where we pray.

I am being presumptive, aren't I? I am tempted to go up there and change all the "we"s to "I"s and apologize for proselytizing so. I won't though. I believe we all pray. I believe we all feel that endless love I call Grace. I believe we all feel it so deeply we cry out at it in praise and wonder and anger and hope.

That's just me. It helps me to think we share that in common, even if it is not true, and it certainly may not be. True that is.

The Language Arts assignment was simple, a tribute essay. An opening, some paragraphs of body, a closing, a quote, a word count. Later the essay would become a speech to share with the rest of the class. All and all, a worthy assignment.

One boy decided to do his on a parish priest he knew who had passed away from cancer a while back. He'd taken it hard, harder than he'd let on, but he'd also drawn a certain inspiration from the event. He'd given it a great deal of consideration and that shows in the essay, the details of which aren’t necessary here - suffice to sat they are sweet and tender, heartfelt and little sad.

He chose his quote from a book about a would-be prophet turned martyr, The New Testament, in a chapter called simply, Luke. In a story about mothers, births and wonder: "For with God nothing shall be impossible " A bold choice, perhaps a little out of context, but... He opened the essay with the quote and began his speech the same.

He is practicing the oral essay with his mom at a table. He begins too quickly, gets tongue-tied, loses his place and becomes frustrated. In the past he's been good at speeches. He mentions this and is assured that it might be harder this time because it is so close, so personal. He agrees and tries again.

Again he begins too quickly. His father, lingering in the kitchen pretending to be wiping counters, listens. He wonders if the boy is perhaps embarrassed by the quote, reluctant to cite scripture, as so many are. He dismisses the thought, knowing that it is really about himself. The boy struggles through the whole thing. His mother encourages but he seems dejected and worried about it.

From the kitchen, the father, thinking finally of the boy, suggests that the quote is really a sort of prayer. If in God all things are indeed possible then the speech should be no problem.

The boy thinks this may be true. He tries again and is much better, much more fluid, much more confident. He finds the rhythm of the words and is engaged. He is storytelling, which is always a kind of prayer. The words he'd written become more real, he speaks of "his own Spiritual journey" and seems to sense that he is in the middle of it, doing it, right now. The change is remarkable.

The boy is surprised. The mother smiles tenderly and tells him she knew he could do it.

Back in the kitchen, the father shakes his head in wonder and whispers, So did God...

The brother of the novice sojourner, listening this whole time, is in the same class. He's chosen as the subject of his tribute... his brother. His essay is also sweet and tender, heartfelt and little sad.

That's about all for today, or not...

I rarely pray from my knees. Most often it is from my heart. I don't use many set prayers - although I could suggest dozens to you. I don’t twist beautiful beads or light incense - you're right, I do have a thing for candles. I do like sacred places, beautiful chapels, churches and cathedrals and have prayed in many. I've had little success with trying to pray at certain times or on a particular day.


The truth is, I do pray from my knees when I set a fire in my hearth, the kindling and logs my words, flame my inspiration. I pray on my knees with a baby on a blanket, each coo and murmur an amen.

I don't pray from my heart all the time, that's too difficult and I am not that strong yet. More often I pray from my mind. I ask for things. I cajole and barter and act the sycophant. I pray from my spleen, lashing out, vitriolic. I pray from my shoulders and arms, legs and feet, pleas for relief, that the journey is too hard and wearying. I pray from my gut, sometimes so empty and lonely, sometimes just and right.

In my head I whisper a set prayer many times a day. I'll teach it to you.

"Thank you God."

It doesn't need an amen.

It's true that I don't hold rosaries or icons in my hands. But I've prayed holding so many other things. Sticks and cigarettes, silver bound gemstones, a rock with a hole in it. A feather, a worn pair of shoes, tiny stained and worn sweatshirts, old sheets. A book or a bottle, both. A scrapbook, a frame, a phone, a photograph. Dirt. Tears. Heads. Hearts. Hands...

I don't scent with sandalwood or frankincense, but I do with garlic, syrup and brown butter.

I do love to pray in sacred places and I've seen so many. Like the NICU of a hospital called Christ. A tent, cold and wet. A livingroom, this one and ones remembered. A bunk-bedded bedroom. A stage, a bar, a break room, a closet. Great forests and stone quarries, jumbled city streets and jetliners.

I also do say prayers at specific times. The morning prayer that is simply lifting myself up and into the day to come. The one that I always say to the subtle dawn or outrageous sunset. The one I shout back at thunder. The one that is simply closing my eyes and drifting towards sleep.

I don't mean to sound preachy or even evangelical. I won't invoke the name of a savior, or issue born-again promises. I'm not urging you to lift your thoughts upward, that isn't what matters. I don't care if you want to pray or not, from my perspective, you already are. We all are.

Peace and thanks for sticking around. I’m embarrassingly uncomfortable talking about my own Spiritual journey, over the years that's not always gone over so well. But, if a boy can, than surely I can keep at it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Safe. We. Are.

He sits between twin little boys, maybe three, maybe four.  They are huddled together in a little pop-up camper not for warmth, but for fear.  A thunderstorm rages and cracks, just outside the canvas walls and fiberglass roof.

A typical Ohio valley summer storm, but it is after dark and that intensifies the drama.  He's seen them before, sat through them on porches and in tents and barns.  He knows it will pass.  He feels...

"Are we safe, Dad?"

"Define safe," he thinks to himself.  They are not on a high ridge, not exposed, the camper is supposed to mitigate a direct lightning hit.  The rain is hard but not coming in anywhere, the wind is gusting and the canvas, well-made and dependable, holds strong.

He knows they are afraid of the noise, the cacophony that is hard rain on a fiberglass roof; afraid of the unmuffled thunder; afraid of the foreboding lightning.  He feels they are "safe."  But they are young, they haven't spent a some fifty years weighing the odds.  They haven't come through mountain thunderstorms, too close tornadoes, roiling sailboats, blinding blizzards safely.  They are afraid because they've no evidence that they will be okay.

"Let's shove your sleeping bags and your bear and kitty into this trash bag and we'll make a run to the truck where I know we will be safe."  He grabs a towel and shoves it in as well.  He waits for a flash and a crack and runs ahead of them, throwing open the doors, and the hustle in.

They are wet and cold, even in summer the rain can seem so icy.  The boys dry off and bundle up in the blankets, hugging their little stuffed animals.  The car starts, the heat and defrost blow.  The windshield wipers clear away the sheeted rain.  They are in the middle of it.  Trees blowing, leaves and sticks fall to the pavement.  The lightning is much brighter, sharper and cleaner.  The thunder and rain are muffled better in the vehicle but still loud.

He worries that this all will scare them more and turns in his seat to assure them.  They are both smiling in wide-eyed wonder at the energy and crazy beauty of the storm.

"Thanks, Daddy, I feel safe now."

Her eyes are puffy, his nose is snotty.  A school bus approaches and two second grade boys spill out.

"Oh, God, those poor children were the same age as these boys, my sons," she thinks as they laugh and spin towards the couple.  It is a bright and pretty December day, the fourteenth, 2012.

"I can't do this," he says to her as they approach.

"We have to."

And they do, at the dining room table, inside their home, on their street, in their community.  They tell them the incomprehensible.  They speak vaguely of a crazy man, a school, boys and girls shot and killed.  They avoid words like 'slain' and 'automatic rifle' and 'Glock' and try to tell them the untellable.  They try not to cry.  They try not to break.

When they are done, when have finished saying what the had to say, they wait.

One boy says, "Are we safe.'

"Oh yes, sweetheart," she says through the tears which can no longer be dammed.  They hug their dear sons, hold them too tight, perhaps scaring the young souls in a way they may wonder about for a lifetime.  They look over the blonde heads into each others wet eyes and both wonder the same thing,  "Are we lying to them?"

Some five years later, the bus again, older boys, young men, mancubs, get off the bus.

"Hey Dad, did you hear about that crazy dude who shot a bunch of people in Las Vegas?"

"Yeah, I did.  I shoulda told you about it this morning.  I'm sorry I didn't..."

"What the frick is up with people like that?" one boy asks shaking his head.

"Yeah, I don't get it.  Who could be that, that... mean?"  The other boy this time.

They continue on in and sit at the same table, in the same dining room, on the same street, in the same community.  They talk of mental health, of evil, of gun control.  They speak of the "helpers" (thank you, Mr. Rogers) of police and firefighters and panic and - God help us - what to do in an "active shooter" situation, which they've already discussed in detail - God help us, again.  They imagine scenarios, scenes, situations and wonder how they might react.

It is a horrible and necessary conversation.

When it is over he asks, "Are you okay, boys?"

"Yeah," they sigh together, defeated, their armor cracked but somehow intact.

"Dad," one says quietly.  He hesitates, perhaps afraid to ask, afraid to be answered.  "Are we safe?"

I am silent...

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

I Had a Bad Day

I had a "bad day" yesterday.

I remember when Nick was in first or second grade he came home one day long in the face.  One of the very special things about young boys - children in general, I'd guess - is the sleavedness of their emotions.  I asked him what the matter was and he answered, simply and quietly, "I had a bad day."

I pressed a little, maybe to see if something big was bothering him, you know, bullying, workload pressure, math problems, the ever looming proficiency tests that seem so important but aren't.  I guess I wanted to fix, to make better, to solve.  I know better than that, I really do, but little souls are so damn vulnerable.

"I just had a bad day, Dad!"

Yep, sometimes that's all that needs to be said.  I reckon he did all the figuring in his head, understood where the day failed him, knew why his day was bad.  And that's the whole of it, don'tcha think?  Understanding why your day was bad?  I think inherent in a young, growing mind is a concept that, embarrassingly, eludes me sometimes - Hope.  Nick knew better days would come.  In fact, if I'd had cupcakes or cookies or salami or pie at the ready, I could have quickly made his day good again.  I'd bet after his bath, in cozy pajamas, reading a chapter of Narnia or whatever we were reading aloud that evening, he probably forget all about his bad day.

But, this morning I was still hanging on to mine.  Oh, I try not to let it trickle down to Marci and the boys, I mean, it's not like something awful happened yesterday, in fact much more awfuler things happen all the time.  No, it was far more selfish than that.

For instance yesterday I played a set of maybe ten or twelve songs on the old Alvarez, new Ernie Ball strings a-janglin'.  It's a little known fact that artists and craftsmen and hobbyists and enthusiasts must work on their thing - "practice" we call it.  Honestly, I sounded good, didn't make too many mistakes, nailed a couple of  Slaid Cleves songs I've been struggling with.  It was a good session.

But for some reason, as I cased up my guitar, I wondered why I go to the effort?  No one hears me, really - occasionally my family, a couple times in firepit season around a campfire for some friends, a few Christmas carol singalongs, that's about it.  Yesterday, I couldn't help but seriously think that if I shelved the guitars away for good, well... nobody'd even notice.

I've been doing some writing lately.  I'd guess you wouldn't know it as the tumble weeds roll over the crickets on this blog, but I have been.  I've been working on longer stuff - memoir style pieces, longer short stories and fiction, some songs and even some prayers - all of which take cajoling and tweaking and mistaking and deleting.

Yesterday, I was working on a story about my own seventh grade year of school as the boys start theirs.  Well, the phone kept ringing, the text kept blooping, the chores kept interrupting.  I considered driving over to the old Junior High school I went to in the seventies, now an administration building, and bullshitting my way in and taking a tour of the old place, smelling it and tasting it, realigning myself to the perspectives of size and time.  But, all I could think was if I go out I'll need to stop by the library and Nick needs reeds and I'll have to get some groceries and then the timer went off and the boys would be home soon and I'd better this and that and the other thing and... I shut down the computer.

And, I choked back a sob as I did.  It felt like I was casing up my thoughts, boxing them.  I thought, well, maybe that's where they belong.  Boxed.  Stored.  Offcast.  Sequestered.  Abandoned.  I know this feeling well.  I've let go a lot of dreams and wondered if this was another.  Somewhere in one of the Corinthians in the book labeled "King James" it says:  When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Yeah, but what defines a "childish thing?"  And, perhaps if we all "understood as a child" this world might...

But, it still echoes in my mind, this verse and I often feel childish, writing and singing into the wind, into the trees and ashes and dust.  Perhaps, aside they should be put.

This morning, I was making breakfast and packing lunches.  I'd purposefully avoided opening FB or The Post on my phone, I could think of nothing better to make a bad day worse, and, well, I wanted to have a better day today.  I did register, as one will do these days, that I had a new email.

After the boys left, without any real forethought, as if instinctively, I grabbed my coffee and opened my phone and just before I opened FB I saw that email notification again, and, risking spam or more things to put on the new whiteboard calendar we've had to hang as times get busier, I opened it.

It was a note from a writer friend of mine who said he was looking through my archives (only available on the desktop version of this site) and stumbled upon a couple of posts he very much liked. Well, that alone was enough to make me glance over at the pile of boxed memories and dreams I'd just yesterday set aside.

It is a silly little post from my first year of blogging - actually, my eighth piece ever - that exactly forty-seven people have seen.  It's called, complicatedly, Inexplicable Instructions and Flow Charts.  He used words like "clever" and "wise" and "meaningful."  I'd not thought of it in years but remembered being pretty proud of it when I wrote it.  It did exactly what I was trying to do back in those early days.

He said he'd jumped to it from another post he'd seen called "Simple Gifts." He called that post "purposeful" and "sweet."  The boxes rumbled a bit.  My friend said other nice things, said I'd been supportive and kind to him, he said I'd influenced him in his early days, said he'd hoped to have as clear a purpose as I had.  He said that I had a sense of...  not really the point, Bill.

I needed his encouragement this morning, I really did.  I had to get to an early morning oil change appointment for my truck, so I showered and headed out.  I put a box on the table as I left, no dust was on them, yet.

The repair shop is next to a coffee shop in my old home town of Mason so I walked on over there to wait for the truck to be done.  The place is a local place, not a soulless Starbucks, and I walked in the front and through I few rooms set like living-rooms, and headed to the counter.  I ordered my extra-bold with heavy cream and sugar and, well, I heard an accordion. Yes, you read that right.  And then... a banjo.  And then, some sort of percussion and what seemed to be another, or was it two, accordions warming up.

The shop, Kidde Coffee, has a sort of sun-room patio out the back door, where they have live music of an evening.  In fact, I've played a couple open-mics there in the recent past.  I opened the door and what to my wondering eyes did I see?  An accordion band.  Three older guys on the ivories, a very wizened Gandolf looking dude on cowbells and washboard, and a guy maybe my age claw-hammering a five-string.

At, 7:55 in the morning, of a Wednesday.  Well, once I became accustomed to the sight, I took a seat at a table a ways away.  I mean, what else mattered at this point.  They were bantering back and forth, straightening out their music and getting settled.  One guy had sent his instrument in to be worked on and was trying to get used a spare one of the other guys let him borrow.

"I'da sent it in sooner," he said "But, I couldn't find a ten-foot box."

They all shook their heads in sympathetic agreement.

"Been there," one of them said.

"But then my wife said I might be able to close the bellows and use a smaller box," he said.

They all agreed what a smart and good woman his wife was.

I laughed out loud, never having encountered accordion comedy before.  Later one of them called it "bellows humor," which I again found very amusing.  They waved hello to me and asked me my name, one of them said he thought he remembered my older brother.  I sipped my coffee and smiled.

After a few more minutes, right at eight, the aged wizard punched out a three-four beat on his two cowbell and washboard kit and the accordions started a lovely German polka in three part harmony.  They were wonderful, joking and happily playing for their audience of one - and each other, I'd have to say.  They did standards and waltzes, all of which I knew.  They laughed back and forth, teased each other and were having a grand old time.

About ten minutes in, a group of what one might call "little old ladies" came in and got coffee and sat down to listen, groupies no doubt.  A little later a young woman who'd been at the counter with an eighteen month old little girl, came out to leave and, without missing a beat, the band segued into "The Chicken Dance" a sort of polka thing with choreographed hand and body chicken movements, with a fun little butt wiggle and... it's Cincinnati thing, you wouldn't understand.  She set the girl down and they did the dance, the choir of groupies did in their seats.  I tried as well, but I'm famously bad at it.  Every damn one of us were grinning like idiots.

It came out that they got together every Wednesday morning for what the banjo player, the straight man it turns out, called a "painfully public practice."  They called themselves the "Mason Mediocre Band" but that didn't get any search results, so, I think they were joshing.

I had to go, the truck was ready and I had stuff to do.  I thanked them and headed out and picked up my truck.  As I started it I thought, you know, what the hell, I'll go back for another cup of coffee and a bit more music.  I pulled in just after nine and, well, they were gone.  One of the guys had just finished putting his instrument in the trunk of his late model Buick and was on his way out.  I watched him as I parked.  If I hadn't of seen him I may have wondered if I'd made the whole thing up.  You still might be wondering...

I got to thinking as I drove home - as I'm wont to do - that maybe it's not time to put those old guitars up on a high shelf, and maybe it is time to open those boxes back up - time to uncase the lot.

Honestly, I'd never played and sang to be a big star someday.  I may have lied to myself about that, but... I just wanted to have some fun, accomplish something, impress a girl here and there and maybe a few guys as well along the line.  I've played my share of open stages and and hosted a few backyard and kitchen hootenannies in my day.  It was fun, it's been fun, it's still fun.  The wind, trees, ashes and dust have made a pretty fine audience as well, thank you very much.

I guess what it comes down to, in summary - finally, you might add - is that I'm glad I had a bad day yesterday, it made today that much sweeter.  In less than two hours I'd been reminded of why I do these things I do, reminded of the childlikeness I will not and should not put away.

There's more, there's always more.  Yesterday, Nick had an after school lesson on the bassoon (he plays oboe now), his first.  His dear music teacher let him bring home the instrument and he couldn't wait to get it out and play it for me.  I've had the fortune of hearing some bassoon in my life, a dear friend from a lifetime ago had a friend who still plays as a professional, she was a student at the time.  It's a beautiful and rich and soothing sound.  And as Nick played a low B-flat, it seemed to come floating back through some thirty-plus years of memory.

As he went to bed last night he laid back on his pillows and said, "I had a good day, Dad."

You know what, today, so have I.

Thanks for coming 'round.

Here's something from the backseat...

 "I like thunder and interventions."

Who doesn't...?


(Nick's playing the bassoon right now, I wish you could hear it, you know, to add some verisimilitude...  Lord knows, this piece could use some.)

Friday, September 1, 2017

"Ghost on the Car Radio" - Slaid Cleaves

I first heard Slaid Cleves on a local PBS station a number of years ago.  It was a song called "Quick as Dreams," a beautiful story of horses, friendship, loss, sadness and, perhaps, salvation.  I just remember the song ending and me saying to myself, I gotta learn that song.  Stop by the porch anytime the light's on, and I'll play it for you.

(I've been staring at this screen now for ten minutes, I even went up for a fresh cup of coffee, and I can't figure how to proceed - which is unlike me.  I usually just let the words and ideas take me where they will but, today my mind is taking me somewhere I don't really want to go, a place, a situation - I don't really understand - something I'd rather not admit.)

Here goes.

I listen to a lot of music these days.  I take nostalgic trips back to old tunes that shaped me and shake my head at some of the songs I thought were good realizing, well, otherwise.  I hear tunes, new and old, that I've not known.  I've been heavy into Bluegrass, Newgrass, Americana and Roots music.  I give some of the current pop stars a chance, to mixed results.  And, truth is, I do it all on Spotify.  There, I've said it.

We've got a paid subscription, and I think it's wonderful.  It rarely fails to come up with the song I want to hear, especially all my old favorites, and, through algorithms and computery-magic-computation stuff it gives me stations - pop country from the seventies, western swing, one based on the music of Guy Clark - and new music and hot hits and all that.  I come upon some great things I've never encountered, tunes and albums I would never hear otherwise.   I'd be lying if I didn't give the credit to Spotify for this renaissance I've been experiencing.

I know, I know... listening to music on Spotify is not how most artists want their music listened to.  A recent article in the Washington Post states that an artist gets seven dollars for every 1,000 plays - that's a lot of plays.

Oh, and it gets worse, and I'm going to help that along.  You see, I also listen to a lot of music on YouTube - or do I view it?  I like to take a look at the artist, get the vibe, see the instruments, and, confession time again, try to crib the chords from live performances.  And for every 1,000 plays on YouTube the artist - or performer or ham or scammer - gets exactly... a buck.

So, just to be clear, I'm using the least profitable platforms to listen to, share, and steal music from artists I very much like.

I'm an awful person, so, I'm going to link to YouTube videos in this post and direct you to Spotify (link) and generally do what most musicians probably hate... bother.

Well, now that that intro-interruptus has been endured, I'll continue my previously scheduled introduction.

After I learned that first song, I delved a little deeper into his music.  I listened to his older tunes, he's been at this a long time, and really got a taste for his style and all that.  And then, as will happen, I sort of set him aside and found new places to go.  But then, a few months back, I heard a new track of his on one of those personalized Spotify playlists, "Your Release Radar," I think it's called, and remembered what a profound singer-songwriter he is.

Folks recommend music to each other all the time, but what Ive noticed is that they don't always say why.  They'll say, This is the greatest Such-n-Such album ever!  And, I'll think well, I like Such-n-Such or I've never heard of Such-n-Such, I should give it a listen, but I'm never quite sure what I am listening for.

Also, I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about.  I'm not a musicologist.  Style confuses me,  terminology escapes me, and, honestly, I have trouble figuring out what the time signature is in most songs. I do know words and stories and that is what Slaid Cleaves does best for me.

Here's a link (I think it's the official one, but I like this one better) to the first song on the album - am I still allowed to say it that - 'album'?  It's called "Already Gone" (here, also, is a link to the lyrics of all the songs from his official site), and it's a perfect introduction to the melodic roads we are about to...

You know what?  I don't know how to do this... just bear with, if you don't mind.

The chorus to "Already Gone" is:

Time's running out and you can't help believing but
Here you are now at the end of the song
Down fall the tears when you hear the silence
When you finally know that you're already gone

I often feel I'm at the end of my song..  I'd guess we all do, sometimes.  In one of the verses he says ...May not have gotten all that I dreamed of / Pretty sure I got what I deserved.  Life's like that.  

I've driven across the country six or eight times in my life.  In later years, as I did it alone, this very thing happened:

Heard an old ghost on the car radio
Under a diamond sky
Sang along as the wheels beneath me rolled
Cast my troubles out into the night

He finishes the verse with Feel the weight lift up off my shoulders / Feel some kind of mercy in the wind.

He opens the song with Young love breaks like a wave on the shoreline / A rolling crash and it's gone  and ends with mercy in the wind, I can't think of a prettier pair of metaphors to bracket the span of adulthood. 

In "Drunken Barber's Hand" he says:

I don't need to read the papers
Or the tea leaves to understand
That this world's been shaved
By a drunken barber's hand

I kinda feel like that's all I really know about this song.  I suspect a few other things, but, as with all good poetry, my notion of a world shaved by a drunken barber's hand may be a lot different than yours.  I suppose it could be about environmental issues or some such thing, but, for me, it just means this world is a pretty messed up place and yet, here we are.

I rode ten thousand miles
On a carousel horse of wood
We end up where we started
Get right back on if we could

I know I would.

I thought "If I Had A Heart" was a really good song, but I was wrong... it's damn near perfect.  You see, I initially under judged it.  I didn't go where the song, I think, ultimately wants to lead me.  I thought the song was a love song, perhaps one about unrequited love between an older man and a young girl (maybe it is, I dunno, or, maybe worse, I'm the only one who thought that) but, after several listenings I finally got it.  It's not a love song, it is the love song - a song to a child, to a son.

Then you come around
With your soft young skin
With no idea what you're about to step in
And in these times you remind me
Of the man I used to be
If I had a heart, you'd be breaking it now

It's a song explaining the implicit difficulties and juxtapositions, the twists and turns of this thing we call life.  He starts the song with:

The more I see, the less I understand
The harder I work, the poorer I feel
The deeper the faith, the more I'm broken
The more I hear, the less it all seems real
And later sings:

You'll see truth, turned into lies
Light turned to dark, hearts broke in two
Just one thing, before I die
I want to make one lie come true

"... make one lie come true."  Man, ain't that the truth.

One of my favorite things about Slaid is his willingness to take me along with him, and here, in sort of the center of the album, he does just that. I feel like he's just driving me, us, around in an old seventy-four Pontiac and meeting some of the crowd.

In "Little Guys" we meet Butch and Evelyn's boy.  He's a nice guy, a good son, and he knows the truth about what he's seeing as his little town gets too big for it's britches.

Stop lights we had one, now there's four
And you can't see the shop from Main street anymore
There's a new H.E.B. 'cross town
But over here things are slowing down
As I turn out the lights, lock up my front door
Mom and pops like us don' t have a place in the world today
The little guy shops don' t stand a chance when the big guys start to play

He knows it ain't right.

But he also knows a deeper truth, I truth that he owns here:

Oil and grime in the pores of my skin
Think of all the brake dust I've been breathin' in
I got a stack of new regulations
And high tech specifications
I can't keep up, too old to go to school again

He speaks of joining the old men mornings at the coffee shop after he closes his own.  He pipe-dreams, Or I could set up the navigation / Head out and see the nation, but we all know he'll be turning wrenches at B & E Auto until he dies - that's what "little guys" do.

Now, we're leaning against that old Pontiac '74, painted "Primer Gray" with a new alternator and stock drivetrain.  Specifically, somebody's dad is telling us about his old car.  But, truly, it's every dad, lamenting, perhaps lost times and races, or, simply, the passage of time.  But, the passage of time yields wisdom and Everydad drops some.

'Cause you don't need that flash and shine
You just need to be hard off the line
So keep your lacquer chrome and flames
I'll paint mine primer gray

He knows me.  He says I know the things men hold inside, I understand what he means by thatHe knows I am, or was, one of the Kids today, they all want something more.  I'm the guy talking to his buddies down at Dickie's - I pulled the engine with a block and chain ? Got the oil pump in just before the rain - a triumph we all can dig.  I'm the boy under a ramped rear-end, marveling as his dad explains the mysteries of a clutch and transmission.  I am that dad, later, desperately trying to explain a lesson that takes so long to understand.

The final couplet of the song is:

It's what you do, not what you say
I'll paint mine primer gray

You know, I can only guess at what a songwriter means or where he found inspiration.  The process is emotional, fraught with errors and misunderstandings, and so very personal at both ends - the artist and the audience.  But, I wanna say that just the other day as I got ready to shave and was taking myself in, I saw my beard and my hair, my mustache and my eyebrows, and said aloud to mirror, "I guess I'll paint mine primer gray."

I've been neglecting the musicality of these songs, so far it seems like I'm talking about stories or poems.  As I said earlier I don't think I'd be good at that, talking music, but it doesn't mean I leave unexplored the melody and rhythm and key and such...

That's a lie, I totally leave it all alone, I don't notice it until I try to think about it.  "Primer Gray" made me feel melancholy, nostalgic, haunted.  I later noticed that it's also in "E", one of the most round and open and honest of keys, lending itself well to sevenths and minors and wispy slide guitar solos and...

I'm sorry, I don't seem to have the right nomenclature.

Or maybe I do.

The song "Hickory" did the same to me, the music waited in my periphery as I focused on the words.  But later, when I considered the chords and melody, phrasing and tonality (basically, when I was cribbing the song from videos so I could play it), I was flummoxed by the grace and beauty of the melody.  A melody simple, familiar, and true. Those beautiful whole and soft G, D, and C acoustic chords make the story so listenable.

In less polished hands "Hickory" could be sappy or sentimental, it is not.  It's a familiar story: a beautiful thing brought down in the sadness that is time and progress and the waiting for - and, perhaps, trusting in - redemption.  It wafts in on the wind, as though from across a parking lot, and compels you to lean into it.  It is confessional and private.  There is a moment in the song - a moment I will let you discover - that truly is breath-taking.  A moment you forgot to expect, that moment where the story tells itself.

Just take a look at this stanza:

Heard saws on the mountain, saw the trucks rumble by
Filing past like a funeral line
Those big iron trailers were piled up high
With hickory, walnut and pine

You can hear those saws, abrasive and raw; you can see them old diesel trucks, round and belching black exhaust, lumbering and growling on dirt roads and switchbacks; you can reach out and touch the bark of a newly felled tree, warm and moist from sun and sap, and then run your hand down the rusty, cold, and dry iron.

Really, give this song a listen, or stop by the porch when the light's on and I'll sing it for ya, hell, I can even play it in the dark.

I can't seem to shake my imaginary scene here in the parking lot of Dickie's Place.  Another guy - a friend of Butch's boy's, I imagine they played football together back in the day - opens his story, "Take Home Pay," with a couple solid electric chords and a quick bass riff that both floats and drives and these words:

Been hanging rock for twenty-odd years now
Six days a week and I can't keep up
My shoulder burns like a grinding gear box
These young crews are too fast and tough

I never hung sheet-rock, but my shoulders sure do burn from thirty-plus years of throwing boxes, trays of food, baby boys, and an occasional friend or foe on mine.  I've rarely been in "fast and tough" situations, but I've been passed up for younger folks.  I know not being able to keep up.

This is why I find his songwriting so rich and captivating.  In spelling out small details, using first person, shaping a particular scene, manipulating my senses, he paints universal themes.

That's what storytellers do.  He's telling us that in this chorus:

Schemers scheme around the edges
Dreamers dream of better days
Everyone knows what the catch is
It's all about the take home pay

The take home pay is what we get in the end, severance for our pain; sometimes it is money, sometimes it's just getting through another damn day - and sometimes it's poetry and magic.

Well, you know what, we've been standing in this parking lot for a while now, let's go have one last round inside with "The Old Guard".

Dickie's Place is a tavern where I often go
Like tonight when this heart of mine is achin' low
Through swinging doors I hear the voice of old George Jones
I find myself a bar stool and I'm right at home

Damn, I'm pretty sure I've been here before.  In fact, I may have tended bar here.  Familiar faces, old friends, lots of beer, memories, stories...

The old guard down at Dickie's drinks up all night long
Every face, lined and weary, hides a country song
Ruined lives, broken dreams, countless cold regrets
On the jukebox, their stories told in silhouette

Cheatin' Hearts, Crazy Arms, now it's Crying Time
Heartbreak goes down easier with beer and rhyme
Every night we get together to be with our own
And the old guard feels a little less alone

The songwriting is so clever here.  The sound and mix echoes out of the seventies country scene, with a little western swing and catchy guitar hook that makes you smile every time.

I was dozens of times into listening to this song before I actually looked at the lyrics, and then I saw it.  I was so mesmerized by the ease of the lyrics, the poetry of them, I didn't hear it at first, didn't make the connection.  The line right after, Heartbreak goes down easier with beer and rhyme, so captured my attention with its insight and universality that I missed the specifics.

"Cheating Hearts" and "Crazy Arms" and Crying Time" are all titles of songs from the era he's hankering back to, the titles of the songs on the jukebox.  Just brilliant.

In the song, the Old Guard sit and shoot the shit and listen to some old George Jones, or maybe some Dolly or Waylon or Price.  A younger crowd, the Young Guard perhaps, comes in. Then some kids they start playin' their fast modern tunes / And the floor bounces when they dance around the room.  But one of the old dudes says he's had enough and 

He starts punching in the numbers of the ones we feel
Those old heart-breakin' melodies with cryin' steel
The young ones start leaving, it's too slow and hard
But they'll be back when it's their turn to join the guard



 "... a carousel of horse and wood."

It's time to get going, time to leave my new, old friends.  Slaid has something else to tell me, but it's personal, not the stuff for crowds.

Sometimes it's the shape of a song, the structure of the thing, that captures my attention.  "So Good to Me" has verses, what appears to be a chorus, and what seems like a couple of bridges.  It's starts all jangly and open, and then it saddens,  The harmonies are different, the mood changes... and then it comes back around and then somehow mixes the two and fades.

This song sounds to me like the wedding renewal vows of a really cool dude to his extraordinary wife.

With the world so cold outside
You'd be always on my side
If I stumbled blindly you could make me see
Through thick and thin you stayed
All through my darkest days
How could you possibly be so good to me

A long relationship is often a cyclical and seasonal, and he lays that out so honestly, heart wide open.

Times were tough but we were tougher
Slings and arrows we did suffer
Scars, we've got a few, but who has not
Words of love and words of anger
Times of peace and times of danger
Never take for granted what we've got

Yeah, that about covers it, doesn't it?

Men - well, the kind of men I like and respect - apologize in whispers and love quietly.  Slaid does that in "To Be Held."  It's a private song with haunting harmonies and floating guitar, and it is aimed directly at not me.  But there it is, on an album, it must be for me as well.  And... it is.  Why?

You're not asking for diamonds
You don't want furs
You don't dream of silver and gold
All you're asking is to be cherished
To be held and to hold

I needed to hear that.

And this.

I walk around blindly
I bumble along
In my heart I know that I'm wrong
It's a cold consolation:
I'm sorry again
One more time the same story told
And all that you want is a chance to get closer
To be held and to hold

It is easy to let this all fall into an apologetic hug, but I think it is more.  I hold my sons and my wife and my family inside me.  When you hold someone, even those miles or lifetimes away, you regard them, you honor them, you raise them up and show them about in wonder and thanksgiving.  And, of course, the inverse is true.  When we know we are being held, we feel lifted, sacred.  Sunsets are prettier, stars are brighter, greens greener, happiness, well, happier.

Holding is the hard work love asks of us.  It is Hope.

To be held is Hope's reward.  It is Grace.

I suspect there is more to "Still Be Mine" than I know.  I'm cool with that, I'm not sure what most of the music in the seventies was about.  Sometimes a mood or phrase or piano riff can be enough.  Perhaps a certain phrase wallops you upside the head, say, like...

I won't ask more questions
I'm old enough to know there is no remedy
Could I ask one favor:
Would you try to hold on to what's left of me?
Forget the rest of me, and all you thought I'd be

Am I sure what this means?  No, not at all, but I know what it's like to hope that someone is willing to "try to hold on to what's left of me."  We all need and deserve that.

"Junkyard" is just a simple song, a plaintive fingered guitar, an easy melody, but it equals, somehow, the whole of the rest of the album.  He's opened the album with upbeat waves breaking like young love on the shoreline and closes it with one last trip to the junkyard.  It's been a journey, but it ain't over, it'll circle back.

I choked back a sob the first time I heard this tune.  Not just because it hurt me, but because it lifted me.

Oh, I'm headed out to the junkyard
On the lonely side of town
This time it's a one way trip boys
I won't be coming back round

And it's one last time to the junkyard
I've swapped out my share of parts
From fenders and alternators
To shoulders, knees and hearts

The doctors and the mechanics
Have done all they can do
With hammer, wrench and scalpel
Ball joint, valve and screw

It's time to throw in the towel
Some breakdowns you cannot mend
Like all that have come before us
We all must face the end

So I'm limping back to the junkyard
In cloud of smoke and dust
I won't be driving out this time
Gonna lay me down to rust

Gonna leave this old shell behind now
Set our spirits free
Gonna walk on out to glory
Sun setting down on me

I've pulled my own parts at the junkyard on the lonely side of town... it's still there, way out in Cleves, which is a nice poetic twist, I think.  I've had scalpels cut me wide.  I've felt like I'm "Gonna lay me down to rust" and "walk on out to glory."  Truly, sometimes it's hard not to feel done...  especially as you feel that dust and rust and wear and tear of age.  Man, I get what he's laying down here.

And, that's what lifts me, knowing another human, another man, another brother, a dude I like and respect, feels the same way... it helps.  I think Slaid knows that, I think he's known it all along.  So many of the songs in this collection could seem sad, even bitter, but they don't.  Everyone's gonna be alright; endings will begin; beginnings always end.

All through this album I've felt spun, gently, as in a quiet eddy.  I've started here, gone way over there, and ended back here.  I walked a timeline that seems to constantly fall into itself.  I've loved through heartbreak, hoped through through breakdown, I've celebrated through sorrow.

And... that's a good thing.

It's impossible to fathom how many kinds of wrong I probably am in my assessment of this album.  And yet, I'm gonna plow on.  Themes of passing time, long relationships, bittersweet memories, aging and restoration run through it all, but...  am I allowed to even do that, tell you his themes?  Maybe not, and maybe that makes things easier.

I can tell you that I heard those themes.  I can tell you that this album lingered and echoed in my head long after my little Bose speaker ran out of juice.  I can tell you that I needed to meet these people, hear their songs, celebrate their stories.  I can tell you I needed to think about time and seasons and circles and such.

Finally, I needed to think about redemption.  I used the word restoration a bit ago because I thought it was clever and hearkened back to old '74's and junkyards and shoulders - but, I meant redemption.  Redemption is restorative.  I said once in this post that "It is not the “redeemed one” that’s important, it’s that there is a redemption song."

I want to thank Slaid Cleves for singing his to me.

And (if in my mind only), that circles me back to where I started - you remember, feeling guilty about how I behave as a music listener.  I feel like I don't support my favorite artists in a way that leads to their financial success.  He doesn't tour close to here in the near future.  I suppose I could buy a shirt or something, or just send him a twenty.  But I don't need an album or a CD or a digital download - although I would, actually, really dig a shirt.  I like listening to him on Spotify.  It's easy and simple and affordable.  I'm glad there are videos of him on YouTube and the like.

So, what's a guy to do?  Well, I wrote this exceedingly long post in a way to offer my support in another way.  I want him to know he touched me, and I want you to know why.  I suspect he already does.  You don't write songs like these and not know you're going to move folks.  I wanted him to know that he reminded me what a great medium that old-fashioned, set aside, album/record/LP was... is.  He brought back old friends and good times and broken hearts and bright yesterdays.  I want him to know that he did, for me, what an artist is supposed to do.

I owe ya, dude.

You know, when I was a kid we'd actually carry albums around.  You might take the newest Stones or John Denver over to you friends house or carry a stack of good dance music or rock-n-roll to a party over off Court street.  Your girl, or that glam rocker from second period math, might make you suffer through something you didn't like.  We'd all poor over the liner notes and cover art like it was scripture.  We were compelled to both share it with others and hold it in our own hands...  that's what I've tried to do here.

To be held and to hold...

Thanks for staying around.  It was fun.  Stop by when you can, I'm learnin' a couple more...


(I don't usually add anything to a post after I've published it, short of a blatant spelling or grammatical errors, I usually just leave it, but something happened that I think merits attention.)

I wrote above of the artist/audience relationship and said:  "I want him to know that he did, for me, what an artist is supposed to do."

I wrote a note to Slaid on his website, he's got an "Ask Slaid"  widget and just told him a wrote about his album.  Well he took the time to do two things, first he responded positively to what I laid down, which I thought was damn decent of him,  

"Goddamn, Bill, that might be my favorite review of all time. Nail on the head. You do a lovely job expressing the effect the music has on you; no need to apologize for lack of professional training or anything like that. (And you'd be surprised how many published reviews misquote the lyrics.) Thanks for letting me know that I'm doing the job I set out to do."

... the job he set out to do, that really touched me because he got what I was trying to do.

He also did what I think any of the characters in his songs would do, made sure to thank and acknowledge the folks that made this all happen.

"One caveat: I had a lot of help in writing and producing this album. Co-writers Rod Picott, Nathan Hamilton, Karen Poston, Mike Morgan, Jeff Elliott, Graham Weber, with Scrappy Jud Newcomb producing."

Seems like just the thing Butch and Evelyn's boy would do... 

Slaid Cleaves is the real deal, friends; he's honest and real and earthy and decent and right.  I wish he lived next door, and had a nice porch...

Peace, again.