Memoirs


            I’ve spent my life trying to figure out where I’m from.  It’s annoying, really, to be asked over and over to explain where my home is.  People don’t really want to know.  No, they just want to figure out if they have the ability to like me.  It’s a form of pre-selection, a method of determining whether they should put the effort in to becoming my companion.

Where someone is “from” is a form of socially acceptable Zodiac calculation.  It’s as if one who is from place A is hardwired to accept those from places D, F, H-N, W, and Y, and incapable of loving those from the remaining letters.  With all the people in the world, I guess there has to be some litmus test in place to decide such things.  You can’t be friends with everyone you meet.

I have no real place to call home, in the sense that “home” means an area of land where the people who live thereon are common and common to each other, “from” the same place.  No, I was born in a city I cannot remember seeing.  I was then moved from town to town with my parents and I am left with a barrel of various recollections and stories that took place in each town.  Every person in my family has one of these barrels and each of us likes to sit around our particular collection and compare.  If we’re in the mood, we’ll just listen to the other person’s, but mostly we like to compare the similar tales to make sure no detail has been omitted.  It’s like finding money in your jeans if one family member has a detail no one else has.  And even though the one who has the detail feels a heightened sense of authenticity for having a monopoly on it, the rest of us smile as we question its veracity.  We seldom accept it.

I find myself craving stories and songs from people who know the answer to the question, “where are you from?”.  I love music with lyrics touting the generations who’ve always been “here” and the people who have always known everyone in the songwriter’s family.  I love storytellers who spin yarns of “old man such-and-such” who would anger easily every time this or that happened.  I love reminiscences of some stream flowing through some valley or branching from some river that signified the landscape of some town or community that cause a select few listeners’ ears to perk up because they know it exactly and have stories of their own.

I remember the first time I heard Garrison Keillor tell stories of his Minnesota hometown.  I don’t know where my Dad got the cassettes, but they were all lined up in a prepackaged row inside a small wooden case made to look like a vegetable crate.  My brother and I were riding in the captain’s chairs of silver GMC Safari van whose engine, when running correctly, sounded like a small Learjet slowly moving across the Washington County roads in Indiana. 

Garrison tells of the local Lutherans and their natural fear of those who took the Reformation too far.  He tells of local ministers and officials whose livers absorbed too much alcohol and generated both gossip and acceptance.  He’s proud of his town, his state, his history, and his ability to tell the whole world about it every week.  Whether or not his characters are real makes no difference because the endearing quality about Woebegone is that we’re all from there, we all know the characters, and we have no problem believing this or that happened.

I loved and love it.  And every time we rode in that van, we listened to him.  In retrospect, however, it all may have been an accident.  I may actually love these things because of a penicillinous, cottage cheese-ful, stale Peeps-like, and wine-ilicious mistake.  A mistake of avoidance.

The van smelled like corn, but not good corn.

My father is a man of many phases.  He’s gone through many mini epochs in which he wanted to become an aficionado of this or that.  At one point, he wanted to be an expert in remote controlled airplanes.  At another, he wanted to be carpenter.  Still at another he wanted to be the voice in commercials that narrates the strengths of some product or company.  Somewhere in the midst of all of that, he wanted to be a rodeo reporter travelling from town to town watching droves of people watching tough, young men ride bulls and rope calves. 

Gardening was one of my father’s more short-lived phases, and understandably so.  He had heard that there was a man in our small village in rural Indiana who raised the finest ears of corn in the county.  I’m not sure who ran the research to figure that out, but it was an impressive statement to say the least.  I don’t know whether or not my dad wanted to compete with the old man, but he called a friend to turn the ground on the west forty of the parsonage and the race with Mother Nature and that old man began.

I don’t remember a long string of details about that garden, I don’t think anyone does.  In fact, I don’t think there are more than three facts and one story to tell about it because my dad fell victim to the one and only danger of having a garden phase: the passing of said phase before the harvest.

Fact #1: He watered it once.  Not once a week, once a day, or once ever so often.  Once.  And never in the history of suburban agrarianism has such a deadly practice proven so productive.  In that one time, he used a product that was supposed to accelerate the growth of any vegetation on which it was used, and he used well more than the recommended dosage.  There is also a great deal of irony in the time he decided to water that garden.

Fact #2:  He watered it in the rain.  I thought that was a bit strange, but my dad didn’t because he knew what I didn’t: the rain didn’t have Miracle-Gro in it.

An untended garden is the picture of chaos, one I’ve very much grown to like with flowers, but not with vegetables.  An unruly flower garden looks natural.  Americans love it so much they allowed a president’s wife to throw wild flowers along the country’s vast infrastructure.  It’s gorgeous.  A chaotic vegetable garden, however, is brown and looks a lot like a blanket of dead alfalfa sprouts on a metal pan full of cafeteria lettuce. 

Fact #3: We had a chaotic vegetable garden.  I don’t remember more than two things he planted.  All the rows of corn stood in the front half of the garden (a good choice, in retrospect, because it hid the rest of the garden from road traffic), and what seem like the back forty of beans took up about seven rows of the back half.

The day my parents decided we were going to attack what the summer convection oven had left of that garden was stifling and felt like a prison sentence for my brother and me.  I can’t remember what my dad was doing, but my brother and I were on our knees watering the soil with sweat and spit.  It worked every last racist molecule out of our bodies.  We filled what felt like thousands of grocery sacks full of brown green beans that had been picked exactly according to the instructions we had received. 

Long story shortened, after hours kneeling before the god of garden bedlam, I think we were only able to keep one bag of beans.  My anger was immediate and as soon as I discovered the boundary-line concerning the amount of complaining I would be allowed, I set up my tent at that border and didn’t break camp for several years.  In fact, as of this writing, that was almost sixteen years ago, which is apparently the amount of time it takes to get over such a blow, but not enough time to forget it.  I’ll keep you updated.

The corn itself is an altogether different story from the garden.

Maybe my brother and I didn’t pick any.  Maybe picking it was so much more traumatic than the beans that he and I have blocked it from our memory.  I don’t remember.  In either case, there was an old man in our small town who was, at the very least, a little jealous that day.  My father had planted a garden, forgotten that garden, and watered it once in the rain.  Yet somehow in the race toward the best corn in town, my father had risen victorious. 

He had a dream which involved kettles of boiling water, a flatbed trailer, music, and loads of townsfolk gathering in lawn chairs eating ear after ear of corn.  An old-fashioned corn boil.  He’d grown up going to them, and the underlying stream of genetics flowing through most of my family required him to dream big and invite a lot of people to come along.

I liked the idea, myself.  I’d gone to several corn boils over the years and despite the fact that the title combines two very painful skin conditions, it really was fun.  I loved the music.  I saw my granddad playing bass, I saw my first steel guitar, I heard live rock and roll, all at corn boils.  I loved the idea.  Maybe that was why I, despite my complaining, continued to pick beans and help Dad move forward with the garden.  If I could just keep going, I could sit at the feet of live musicians who might ask me to join them on the trailer bed.

I secretly shared in my Dad’s pride over his rows of long, victorious stalks.

The ears were collected in clothing baskets.  I don’t remember how much, but I know it was a lot.  Rows and rows of stalks were stripped of their ears and left to stand lighter, taller, and deafer.  I’m sure they were relieved and talked among themselves like old men discussing military adventures and genealogy over shortcake and coffee, with the most prominent phrase being “huh?”.

I don’t understand why, but once the collection was complete, the baskets were placed in our van.  As many as would fit were placed inside, side by side, and stacked.  And left.  Left for days.  In the same sun that twice baked his sons and his garden, my dad prematurely held a corn broil in his van.  And contrary to cartoon lore, no popcorn was produced.  Instead a flaming flume of fumes filled the cabin and baptized our nostrils in a stench that was just as hard to remove from our clothing and memories as was to remove from the van itself.  I’m sure it instantly lowered the re-sale.

Since we couldn’t just buy a new van, we just did what every Holocaust survivor recollects doing to get through her/his ordeal, we tried to think of something else, anything else.  And the closest “else” we could turn to lay in another vegetable crate on the floorboard: Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion cassette series.  We listened till our minds were in Minnesota and our nostrils were numb. 

Who knows if I would have encountered my country-lovin’, folklore cravin’, down-home, Mayberry penchants had history not filled our van with high fructose corn stench?  Who knows if I would have ever chewed on the question of where I’m “from” had I not contemplated how to get myself out of that van, if only in my mind?

No matter what, I now know that where I’m from is nowhere near as important as where I am and where I’m going.  Yes the past informs the present, but it should never enslave the future.  That’s why I plan to have my own garden again someday.  Who knows what manner of simultaneous nausea and affinity it will cause me to develop next?

Advertisements

Every night I sit down with a guitar and a mandolin and we all three have it out.  It’s a tears & fears argument I’m tellin’ ya.  Of course, I’m the pessimist of the bunch.  I look at all their frets and all their strings and it doesn’t seem feasible.  So much to learn, so much to play, so fast I need to be. 

They argue back, though.  They don’t put up with my whining and self-deprecation.  Don’t get me wrong, they do it in love, and I guess they do have a point.  They own the strings and frets, but they can’t play either. 

“We need you,” they say.

Maybe.

I picked up that very guitar for the first time in 1990.  My mom gave it to my dad as either a one-year anniversary gift or a wedding gift, I can’t remember.  Dad played it for a while. 

I didn’t have a clue how to play it, but I wanted to.  It sat in the corner behind an old Stella guitar that dad got when he was 13.  The bridge on the Stella broke.  To this day I stand my ground–I didn’t do it.

Dad didn’t like for me to play the Fender (that’s the one I have now), but he would let me play the Stella.  Once it broke, I had to sneak in rounds with the Fender.  I placed it flat on its back on my knees as if it were a Dobro (maybe that was my natural calling).  I can even remember playing it like I had a slide in my hand.

It didn’t sound pretty, but I figured out that the top and the bottom strings were two octaves apart.  I could press them down on the third fret and get a really strange sounding G.  I could take them up to the 8th and get a weird C.  Although I couldn’t figure out the D, I had two chords and that was enough to make me feel like John Denver.

Soon I forced myself to play the thing correctly even though I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. 

In 1992 I went to my dad’s best friend, Danny Morris, at a youth event for the Meigs Avenue church in Jeffersonville, Indiana.  I brought dad’s guitar (he’d finally come to grips with the fact that I was going to play that thing one way or another) with me and said, “teach me everything you know.”  Tall task.

I don’t know why, but Danny did it.  To this day I have refused to teach others, but Danny did it.  He took an hour or so and showed me five or more chords.  I practiced until my skin sliced open.  I would go through memory drills to see if I’d gotten it.  Then I would go through transition drills to get my fingers used to switching.  Then singing drill to be sure I could play and sing simultaneously.  I bought a poster for my bedroom door with all the normal chord variations and practiced those, too.

I played with the radio, CDs, tapes, the TV, and anything else that pumped music out.  I tried country, rock, heavy metal, and bluegrass.

It was a long, long journey, but I did it.  I did it alone.  I didn’t need a teacher.  I had Danny to show me a few chords, my dad to show me a few variations on how to finger those chords, and that’s it.

Dad eventually gave it to me. 

A little over a year ago Karen and I drove to Paducah, Kentucky, from Florence, Alabama, to see Glen Phillips and Nickel Creek at the Luther Carson Center.  I was so dazzled by what I saw that I decided to branch out to the mandolin.

I’d been as big a fan as I could be of the group, but I could no longer deny the fact that I was in the room with a genius, a man beyond normal modes of thinking–Chris Thile.

When I got home I sold a Kona acoustic/electric that I’d gotten at a pawn shop in Jackson, Tennessee.  I took that money and bought a Stagg A-5 mandolin at The Sound Shoppe in Florence.  The irony of it all is that I’d traded a classical guitar and a Kentucky mandolin that I bought in Franklin, Tennessee, to get the Kona.  (Boy, that was a sad, sad trade.  I had a beautiful acoustic/electric Fender.  I’m not a fan of Fender acoustics, but this one may have been the only one they made with crystal clear highs and deep, warm lows.  An ex’s dad got it for me, and as much as I loved him and that guitar, I didn’t want anything else to remind me of what would turn out to be a pretty low point in my life so I got rid of it.)

I’d come full circle.  From guitar to mandolin back to guitar and mandolin.

I practiced that Stagg until the people around were annoyed.  When I couldn’t get the licks I was trying I would be tore up like a can of kraut.  I named it Feste after the jester in Twelfth Night because even though it could be a bit shrill, it spoke the truth to me.  I could learn more.  I wasn’t finished growing.

I played it all the way to Orange Beach while Karen drove.  She was quite patient.

As I progressed on the Stagg I kept stopping by shops to play F-5s.  They sounded so much fuller.  The chop was so nice and they felt like a baby in my arms.  And they looked so regal and vintage.  It was like having a cathedral strapped to your shoulder.  I drooled over several and disappointed the salesmen.

When I completed graduate school, my mother-in-law and Karen went in together on a Kentucky F-5.  I won’t bore you with the details, but it is heavenly.

Here’s the problem.  The more I listen to the greats, the more I want to be one.  I guess I just can’t be satisfied being an amateur picker.  I argue with my fingers, my hands, my pinky, my eyes, and my instruments every night. 

I know I need to play, so I do.  I play every day for at least 30 minutes, but most of the time for about an hour.  I play either what’s in my head or I turn on Comcast 404 and listen to the Bluegrass Music Choice channel and try to keep up.   Sometime it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.  If I’m in A it’s perfect (of course) but there are so many stinkin’ songs in B and Bflat! 

I’m just impatient.

Last weekend I took a buddy with me to the IBMA festival.  My friend, Josh, works for Peter D’ddario and gave me a couple “go where you want to and do what you want to” passes.  It was great.

While there I got to sit down to a decent conversation with Ron Block, the banjo player for Alison Krauss & Union Station.  He told me something that’s helping make peace between my instruments and me.  Being a tremendous player is simply the art of applying rear end to chair and fingers to frets.  Practice.  Discipline.  Tenacity.  Just do it.  You may not be able to play an entire break, but you can play five notes of it and that’s five more than you could do yesterday.  Run the marathon one telephone pole at a time.

He was right.  We talked for about thirty minutes and I left feeling like I’d been given a completely new set of hands.  There was so much more bluegrass to be heard that night, but I wanted to go home and play right then.

I didn’t.  We stayed and heard the Grascals, Mountain Heart, Tony Rice, Cherryholmes, and several more. 

I have a completely new mindset with my instruments now.  I learned how to play in the first place because I knew what I wanted to do and I wouldn’t quit until I got there.  I just need to renew that.

I feel like I’ve been to couples counseling. 

I’m going home now to tell the Kentucky mandolin–who I’ve affectionately named “Hildi” after Hildi Santo-Tomas on Trading Spaces–about everything I’ve learn.  I haven’t named the guitar, but I’m going to tell her, too.

dsc04028

I’m in my office, feet propped up on the desk, typing to the sounds of NPR and a little fan behind me.  I was the first to office for the second day in a row.  That’s rare. 

I used to be more of a morning person.  Actually, I still consider myself to be a morning person.  I’m just a bit frustrated.

You see, in Florence, it was easy to go to bed by nine or ten in the evening.  Our TV room wasn’t that big and it wasn’t really all that comfortable.  I don’t think anyone ever really preferred to hang out in our TV room.  That all changed when we moved to the ‘boro.

Now, the TV room is the bonus room (a completely stupid title for a room–a bonus is something you either get or don’t get based on knowledge or choice; it wasn’t like we weren’t going to get the room if we didn’t want it–I hate the way marketing preys on our intellect).  The bonus room is really comfortable.  It has a long, posh, leather-and-cloth sectional.  The lighting is low and yellow.  The chair I sit in is long, gold, and soft.

It’s like the room is a warm, soft bosom you don’t want to take your head off of.  It’s so hard to go to bed!

That’s only part of it.

When I was but a lad, it could hardly be said that I was sporty.  I wasn’t athletic, I didn’t like to play outside much.  Pathetic, I know.  I did, however, have a secret love for a few sporty things, though.

I was a Celtics fan.  My parents are from Indiana, I spent my high school days in Indiana, and who in their right mind couldn’t love Larry Bird and Danny Ainge.  It was a small obsession.

We watched playoffs and finals.  Every time the ball dropped it was like I was being validated.  I wasn’t sporty enough to play, but I was smart enough to like the right team.

So here we are several years later and I get to taste a bit of childhood when I see Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett (I met him once in Indianpolis when he played for the Timberwolves.  We were in a hotel gift shop.  He’s huge.), and Ray Allen pick up the torch and run like the fourth leg. 

I loved Celtics and Pacers NBA basketball, I loved Tennessee NCAA football, I loved Kentucky mNCAA basketball, and I loved Colts NFL football.

All of them pale. 

They all fall short of the glory of God in comparison to the real obsession. 

The diamond, the bags, the ball, the bat, the peanuts, the 7th-inning stretch, the no-hitters, the long balls, the tobacco filled cheeks, the manager/umpire shouting matches . . . I loved it all.  I love baseball.

As best I can tell, the first team I loved was the Braves.  My lifelong friend, Ashley, intrduced me to the incomparable (on and off the field) Dale Murphy.  Seven All-Star appearances and all sorts of leads in RBIs, ABs, runs, hits, EBH, etc.  He was a parent’s dream come true as far as sports role models.

Outside of the Braves, there are a few pictures of me in Reds gear. 

My first baseball game ever was a Louisville Cardinals game.  They’re not in Louisville anymore.  They moved to Memphis.  At the time, the Cards were the biggest thing in the Minors.  They once drew over 1,000,000 fans in a single season.  They played at Cardinal Stadium, the old one for U of L, before they built Papa Johns. 

I was addicted.  The lights, the noise, the loud beer man.  The colors were perfect.  I’d never seen such pure shades and well-lit uniforms.  I could feel the crunch of peanuts beneath my sneakers as I found my seat and I could smell the leather gloves on hands awaiting foul balls, and leather balls in the hands of children waiting for autographs of men who’ll probably never make it to the bigs.

Since then I’ve only been to a few more, but I think about one everyday.  While I’m watching SportsCenter or Baseball tonight I’m jealous of the people filling Wrigley, Turner, Great American, Pacific Bell, Camden, PNC, and the beloved Cathedral–may she soon rest in peace beside her much younger sister, Shea.

Now that baseball season is in full swing, now that the bonus room is as soft and inviting as a chesty woman, now that all these great childhood obsessions keep me awake at night watching All-Stars knock 28 homers in the first round of the Derby (Josh Hamilton, you’re truly epic!), it’s hard for me to be a morning person.  I’m late a lot.

Maybe I should switch to a morning SportsCenter.