Thursday, April 27, 2017

The What For

Three times in twenty-four hours, I was asked the same question - nearly the same phrasing.  Each time, the answer got more complicated.  At least I think it did, I'll let you judge for yourself.

"What's this even for?" Nick asked me this one evening as he was looking for a ping-pong ball near the dryer.  I looked his way and he was holding up a spent dryer sheet.  Now, if you didn't know what one was, I could see how it might confuse.  Is it a really lame piece of paper?  Why does it have a slight scent?  What on earth could one do with it?  I'd imagine these same questions coming to the mind of a future anthropologist several hundred years out as he finds them by the thousands in an old dump.

I explained what they were to Nick, which turned out to take longer than one might expect.  I showed him a fresh one, hit on some properties of static electricity, shamed myself to him by explaining they had a lot of chemicals in them - though I use the unscented ones - and weren't really necessary and that they basically just coated the fabric to make it feel softer and that one shouldn't use them on towels.

We all basically know the nature of this question in this context.  You've been there, holding up a leftover lock washer, bolt or even more curiously shaped part, fixing or assembling mowers or grills or bongs.  It's wondering about that toggle switch or a slider on a sound board.  It's wondering what an emoticon is or what the actual hell that icon is supposed to represent.  You say it to yourself as your bumbling about a word processing program to change your indent and you see all this stuff you can do that is way beyond my skill level.

The thing is, it is an answerable question.  Just because you don't know the answer, doesn't mean there isn't one.  You didn't follow the instructions.  You didn't look it up or haven't been taught something but the answer is available.  You were buzzed or...

Let's move on.

My buddy Kirby sent me the lyrics and simple tune to a song he'd been working on.  He plays a baritone ukulele and sang it like an old Irish ballad.  We had a nice long discussion about it and he asked me to do, like, a cover of it.  I changed the words a little, fleshed out the tune and taped myself doing it on my phone.

Here's a link to it if you're curious:

Somewhere in this exchange, he asked me "What's this for?"  It was a good damned question.

He was wondering about the endgame.  Would this lead to a final recording?  Was this just a lark?  Was it a song we might play regularly?  Were we just goofin'?  What was my level of commitment?  All necessary questions when considering what to do next with something.

My answer, which was understandably frustrating to him - and is, frankly, not a very good one - was: "This."

Yeah...  I'm like that.

(The boys aren't allowed to say the word "stuff" in their Science teacher's classroom and I think he has a problem with "thing" as well.  I wouldn't last long.)

Here's the thing, sometimes stuff is hard to explain.

By 'this' I meant the very exchange we were having.  For a couple of guys who had to call each other after midnight because it was cheaper then and exchanged cassette tapes for years to be talking about wave-files and digital algorithms is a moment to acknowledge.  We were collaborating, which I think is a basic human need.  We were laughing and teasing and thinking and creating.  "This."

But there's more to that this.

Our journey has been a similar one, his and mine, except for one major deviation - I had kids and he did not.  We've not spent a lot of time talking about the boys.  I share a baseball victory or a band concert now and again.  Maybe a cute story about their cleverness or stupidity or silliness, but, I try to not make it the focus of our conversations.  We've plenty of other things to talk about (sorry Mr. F.).

Would you mind an aside?

Thanks.  There's a delicate balance that must be respected between those with and without children.  I've many friends who are not parents and many of them have been annoyed by the notion that you haven't really lived until you have children, or that everything changes, or that it is something that simply must be experienced. 

Yeah, bullshit.  My friend Terri (remember the names are all changed around here, unless they're not) is a talented and successful ceramic artist.  She and I had a discussion about all this at a bar one night.  Another acquaintance, a dad, had been spouting off said bullshit and then had wondered off.  I told Terri that not all parents feel that way.  We laughed when I said something about how a lot of parents are in the opposite position, thinking the higher plane might be childlessness, and that I certainly had my moments like that.  It was a longish conversation, but my point was, and still remains, that hers and mine is a parallel experience, that her life was certainly not a failed attempt at mine, nor vice-versa.  Her inner journey as an artist, a creator, is just as important as mine as a parent, a creator.  It's about depth of understanding, it's about joy, love, inner peace, spirituality, Faith.  It's about work and desire and doing the next right thing.  However, you get to these places doesn't matter... getting there does.  Get it?

End aside.

As I was saying, we don't talk about the boys much, but he wrote a song of great tenderness, a prayer almost, a blessing.  He'd never said as much before, but from what he decided to tell me in this song, I learned that he thought about it, considered my road, considered the road of these young men coming up.  It means a lot to me.  That I guess is another thing I meant by my this.

As many of you know, I get the past and the present and, increasingly, the future all tied up in a big Gordian Knot in my mind.  I try not to let it bother me but it does incline me to look at things (boy, I do that a lot, damn you Mr. F.), well, longer.

Think about this, nearly forty years of shared experiences, a stray significant anomaly - the twins - and a song that floats up out of it all that speaks to a hope for the future?  Yes, that's the this I mean.  The neverending and neverbeginning now is deucedly complex but speaks to me, and you, I hope, so profoundly.

Oh, I hate when I get caught up in these time paradoxes.

So, the last time I heard the question was in a different context.  My friend Brian (remember the names don't matter) and I were talking over coffee.  We are both the same age, latish-fifties, and both have children.  We met in college some thirty-five years ago.  We've, well, lived life.  Though divergent paths, both have been rocky, twisted, rough and long; and both have been beautiful, joyful and rewarding.  We are both men of Faith and we talk about that a lot.

We were discussing Fr. Richard Rohr's book, Falling Upward, which delves into the faith journey and how it changes as we approach and begin our lives in what I like to call "elderhood."  We spoke of leaving our warrior selves behind, filling and emptying and protecting our vessels - our souls - and marveled at our profound lack of understanding faith and Catholicism and energy and eternity.  We shrug our shoulders a lot when we talk.

I shared my reluctance to tell people an absolute in my life that folks just don't seem to want to hear: I have no regrets.  People take offense at that, perhaps because so many embrace the burden of regret.  They say, 'what about smoking, surely you regret that?'  Yeah, it seems like I should, but... I don't.  I have too many fond memories of cigarettes and the people I smoked them with to wish it all away with a regret.  'What about that move you made or that girl you dated or that shitty Toyota you had or...'  Stop.  Too many lessons, too much insight, too much growth, came out of all that to say I regret any of it.

Brian said that more than once he'd benefited from an oddly specific lesson he'd learned from what may, at the time, have seemed a regrettable situation.  A horrible, rainy, very-bad, camping trip that taught him to build and tend a fire in the rain and, years later, a Boy Scout Jamboree where he used those skills to save a troop of boys from a very-bad and cold night.  It happens all the time to me as well.

He said he looks at setbacks and disappointment and confusion and hears his mind asking a simple question, "What is this for?"

It helps, I think, to ask that of the cosmos, or the Holy Spirit, how ever you might see it.  I do the same thing, perhaps you do as well.  It's in the wail of "Why is this happening?" or in the confusion of the question, "What am I supposed to learn here?" or in the feeling of heartbreak I hear in my own head, "What am I missing?"

Unlike the first two instances, this 'whatfor,' if you will, is, in the moment, unanswerable.  It is not rhetorical, there is no pat answer. In a way, I think when you ask the question it is a prayer, a prayer for understanding, clarity, peace, a prayer that goes out and remains unaddressed, impotent, untended.  But it echoes in us, in time, in the corridors of memory and can, at any time, be suddenly, surprisingly, well... answered.

It happens to me all the time.

In fact, it's happening right now, my now, yours and another now way down the road.

I should just say peace out and end it right here, shouldn't I?

Well, I can't say I'm gonna do that.

There's a lilac bush outside the garage, I've mentioned it before.  I just went out to get the mail and it is nearly in full bloom.

I planted the bush a dozen or more years ago, it was, frankly, a little runt of a thing and I didn't feel much confidence for its future.  I probably asked myself 'what for' as I dug and watered and tended it for all these years.  I've marveled at the beauty of it, the science, the botany, all that.  It was years before it bloomed and it did poorly for a while.  I wondered 'what for' about that old dwarf lilac more than once, I'd admit.

This morning, on our way out to the bus, I turned back because Nick was lagging and saw him hugging the lilac bush, face buried in the blooms, and, through the purple blossoms, I heard a muffled prayer, an answer, "God, it smells like life!"

And, that's the what for.

Peace and thanks for sticking with me, I appreciate it.

My friend Terri is indeed a real person and she is a beautiful artist and soul.  You can check out her FB page here, her work is lovely. 

Friday, April 7, 2017

On Meatballs and "Stuf" (sic)

When we were kids - and by we I mean me and maybe two others - I listened to a lot of comedy records.  Weirdly, nearly everyone I knew had them, Carlin and Cosby, Bob Newhart and Red Skelton, Cheech and, of course, Chong, even an off-color black comedian or two like Redd Foxx.  There was a societal homogeneity to life when I was a kid, I mean we all knew them, these funny guys - and they were all guys.  Our parents listened to them late nights as the party was winding down and us kids, well, we listened to them when our parents were not around.

I'm glad I did, listen to them, that is.  I was thinking this morning about how to proceed and for some reason those old albums came to mind, and I got to thinking about comedy writing - something I think is about as hard as writing gets - and then just writing in general.  Comedians tend to structure their acts one of two ways.  Some tell a series of jokes, one leading to another, often in staccato rhythm, you know, the classic "and speaking of shoestrings..." approach.  The others tell longer stories, the jokes and bits woven into the fabric of a larger story.  I always preferred the later, Cosby's "Noah" bit comes to mind.

When I write, I prefer to languish, even wallow some might say, in longer stories, but, lately I've been struggling with that.  I could tell you that it's because I don't have the time I need.  You know, kids and life and the fast pace and unslowing rhythm of this hyper-modernity we all must suffer,  but that's just glorifying busy and I hate that.  I could also reason that the time to reward ratio is way off-balance, but that would be self-indulgent and more than a little sad. I could say that often these stories get away from me and spin to places I don't want you to know are in me, but, I covered that in my last post... bother.

I did short silly pieces when I first started around here, my blog was formatted not unlike those old joke-tellers, and I wonder if maybe that wasn't a better way to go, you know, "one and done," that sort of thinking.  It sure seems easier, perhaps even more engaging for you, but I have trouble doing that anymore.

"What's this got to do with meatballs?" you might be asking yourself, I know I am.

Here goes...

I made meatballs the other day.  I make them from scratch grinding the beef chuck and pork country ribs in my trusty Oster.  It's sort a pain in the ass but I grind five or six pounds and make a lot of meatballs, they freeze well.  Nick came in and was helping me make the balls.  There wasn't much teaching or even conversation, I'd already covered that a long time ago with Playdo.  We stood, watching the birds and the wind out the tired kitchen window, and, well...

That's it.  Here's the recipe:

There could be a lot to tell you about this recipe, like my inability to remember measurement abbreviations or why it says mysteriously "325g" there at the bottom.  Or that I use flatleaf Italian parsley and not the curly kind and put in more garlic than this recipe calls for.  I can only hope that in any number of years I'll remember that this stained and annotated piece of paper and ink holds a story, a pretty long story.

But today, all I want to remember is the watching Nick's hands shape meatballs as the porch chimes sounded and the wind blew brown oak leaves across the greening yard.

Here's a collage of things I found in pockets, which is quickly replacing "take-home folders" as my go to source for strange things around here:

"... but wait, there's more."  That's what I always say, isn't it?

Who did which?  What's the shark thing about?  Who forgets the second "f" in stuff?  Who's "Little Owlly" and is that his dog?  Is that an oboe fingering?

Truth is, I'm not really sure.  Like I said, I just pulled them out of the pockets of jeans before I washed them.  Could I make things up, conject, even fictionalize?  Sure, and that'd be fun.  In fact I had long stories about all of those little pieces of paper fomenting in my little mind, but, for some reason, I don't think I'll do that today.

Sometimes the story might be in not telling the story, hell, I don't know.  Maybe the story's not ready.  Or, and I think this is closest to the truth, maybe the story is just short, and concise and, well, just simple and I have trouble accepting that.  For now.

Perhaps that's what those old vaudevillians knew, sometimes a gag is just a gag.  Sometimes a joke is easy and plain.  There's plenty of time for long stories, but sometimes, the story is done with us before we are done with it.

I've been in a writing slump lately, "writer's block" they call it.  I don't really believe there is such a thing.  I don't like the connotation it has.  I may not be writing so much, but, I'm not in a creative void.  I've been looking at other things, listening to music, viewing documentaries, singing new songs, reading non-fiction and children's lit, watching baseball.

It seems like there was one more little thing I wanted to tell you...

Oh, yeah.

These dudes turned twelve this week.

I guess that's the story I've been trying to tell around here...

Peace and thanks for stopping by.