Good Enough for Rock n Roll is Good Enough for Harvard

Thirty-four years later Harvard picks up the mantle of Southern Rock!

Bands were, and continue to be, a classic example of collaborative burnout. I’m not sure if this is an example of cross-cultural contamination, wonderful insight or simple irony. Or if someone in graphic design went through their parent’s vinyl collection and went “Aha!” Regardless, I got a history flashback standing in line at Whole Foods. Who says plagiarism at the college level is a myth?

Turn it up, Harvard! And straighten your tie…

I’ll Have a Malibu

“Saw a man die in here the other day, Neeko.” Lamar picked some more pretzels out of the bowl of ChexMix that was sitting on the bar in front of him, popped a couple in his mouth.

“You have an appointment or something? Bars aren’t your thing, Lamar.”

“Some kid architect, due any time. Art Deco restoration.”

“He think you were around for it the first time, or what?”

“Prob’ly. You not hear me?”

“I heard. You saw some guy die in here. Kind of a weird place to kick. Low stress, not much light, limp music.”

“Yep. Sittin’ right over there where the fat guy is sittin’ now. One minute he was there, next minute he was on the floor. Why I fuckin’ hate bars.”

“For a guy hates bars and saw a man croak out you’re back awful soon.”

casablanca1“People have to do meetings in these places now. Used to be restaurants, but they got too noisy or somethin’ I guess. Stock in martinis went up a while back, too. Posers, mostly. I’m waitin’ on fedoras to come back. Everybody under forty’s Bogart or Sinatra.”

“I thought it was the black and white version of Sean Connery they were after.”

Lamar let out a choked laugh. “Yeah. Pussy Galore is out there drinkin’ wine, three and four to a table somewhere, and these cats in here playin’ solo big boy. Fools. Women an wine are a lot more fun than hard liquor and business bullshit.” Lamar made a quarter turn on his stool, looked at the floor by where the fat man was sitting. “He coulda just gone out, you know. Quiet. Peaceful. Man was anguished.”

“You talkin’ the dead dude now?”

“Yeah.” He turned back to the bar. “Do I look like a priest?”

“Not so anyone would mistake you.”

“Dead guy sure did mistake me for one, going on. Confessin’ his life to me. Bartender said he’d been in here four, five hours that night. Wasn’t drinkin’ hard or nothin’, knockin’ back a few expensive scotches. Older guy. Nice suit. Had a job, accordin’ to his wallet. Company plastic, business cards. The emergency boys opened up all that, waitin’ for the cops. Not an Arab oil or age or salary downsize casualty. Makes you wonder.”

“Not really. I see it all the time. Probably divorced, or nobody to go home to, anyway. Or nobody he wants to see when he gets there. Burned all his gas and bridges getting to here, home life is worse than work for some guys.”

“That’s fuckin’ sad, Neeko. Nice lookin’, well dressed successful guy, sittin’ in a goddam bar five or six hours of an evenin’, payin’ retail for liquor. Bartender said he’s been a regular for a while now. No trouble ever, left the waitresses alone. Said he’d talk if somebody sat down, kept to himself otherwise. I know he wasn’t here to watch captioned CNN on four different screens and groove to that Pandora easy listening crap the bartender’s pullin’ off his phone.”

“Maybe he was looking at retirement, or somebody died. Wife, maybe. Maybe he got popped with a girlfriend, no place safe left to go. Maybe everybody at home, including the dog, was just tired of his shit.”

“Maybe. I don’t think so. Guys like him, you’d think he’d have a country club or somethin’. Somewhere besides a bar in the basement of a downtown bank buildin’. Someplace with some friends, other suits and briefcases. Loud nylon shirts and checkered pants, cigars. He was a local they said. And he was in big pain. Man pain, you know? Been carrying it a lifetime, sounded like to me.”

“You said anguished before. Now he’s got man pains? So you have something to say, amigo, or are we gonna sit here and wonder about his dead ass till your appointment shows?”

“‘Third rate.’ That’s what he said. ‘Third rate.’ Layin’ there kind of cross-eyed, man knew he was dyin’, kept sayin’ it. ‘Third rate.’ I was bent over him, getting his tie a little looser, everybody else standin’ back. ‘She said I was third rate. I was a fool to think I was anything else. Third rate. I’ve been proving I wasn’t for so long…I’m dying, right? Gaw-awddammit. Tell her I wasn’t third rate. If I was, then tell her I got over it.’ Grabbed my shirt when he said that last part. I couldn’t believe he kept saying that to me. ‘Third rate.’”

“Third rate? Like a loser third rate, or a has been? You sure it wasn’t ‘third base’ or something else? Him laying on the floor dying like that, you hanging over him, he coulda been looking up at your ugly old ass saying ‘turd face,’ Lamar. You have that effect on some people.”

“Nope, Neeko, it was ‘Third rate.’ He said, ‘She stood there on that porch, smiling, then followed me down to the driveway, told me my car was third rate, my dick was third rate, that clown standing right there with her, and I deserved it, however bad I felt. I was a loser and always had been.’ So I said to the man, ‘Bad divorces happen. People say things. They change their minds, we fuck up, shit happens. Ain’t the end of the world. Don’t mean you’re a loser or third rate or a quitter or nothin’. Just hang on.’ He said ‘Hang on? What for? I fucked my whole life up since I was a kid proving to some girl who’ll never even know that my third rate dick got promoted, or that I spent my life in hock up to my ass driving cars I couldn’t afford, all because of her.’ He was fading about that time, going in and out. I was keeping up CPR on his chest all this time and he grabbed my wrist, told me to stop. Said it hurt worse than dyin’.”

Lamar was slowly twirling a baby pretzel on the bar, a million miles away. Neeko let him sit, let Otis Redding and the clinking of glasses behind the bar wash over them, prayed the bartender’s Pandora didn’t let “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” sneak in like they did on every channel. He didn’t want to hear Lamar go off on that shit, not at the same time he was in the middle of feeling the pain of some stranger’s third rate dick, anyway. “So that was it? Lights out?”

“He was whisperin’ it by now, you know?” Lamar was still twirling the pretzel. “Quiet. Squeezin’ the shit outta my wrist. I know why they call it a death grip. Man was hangin’ on till he unloaded all his pain. He said, ‘No matter what a woman says to you, how young or old you are or how much you think you’re in love, let it wash. Don’t carry it around.’ He went out some then came back sayin’ ‘I’ve been so pissed off, for so goddam long, it was just part of my life. It got in the way of everything. Couldn’t enjoy what was right in front of me.’ I told him ‘Man, women have said some shit like that to me, and maybe they were right, maybe they felt justified some way sayin’ all that. 55f1f65c2c00004e00aaf755Some just walked away and didn’t say a word. Those are the worst, when you don’t know what you did wrong.’ I tried to smile, lighten him up a little. Told him at least he knew her problem, and if he was to see her again he could show her his car and how he’d worked out that third rate dick problem. Maybe show it to her goin’ through the car wash in his fancy ride. Like I was jokin’ with a dyin’ man about women. That’s some shit, right? He said he finally realized he’d let her give him a third rate life by not letting her go, letting her get in the way of everything, be a part of everything he did. He was cryin’, then, I think. Eyes were waterin’. ‘Third rate,’ he said. ‘I fucked my life up over a gold digger tellin’ me I had a third rate car, and a third rate dick? How fucked up was that for a life?’ I said I didn’t know and he said ‘I hope there’s a heaven. I hope she shows up one of these days so I can ask her what the hell? Third rate car. Third rate dick. What the hell? Huh? What…the…hell…’ That was it. Gone. Successful. Nice guy, so they said. Bet he had a hell of a car. And miserable. Just plain miserable, layin’ there that way. All down to how he caught one from a woman that left him sideways. Can you imagine, livin’ your whole life believin’ you’re third rate because some girl got over on you when you were young, rantin’ on your car and your dick? Jesus, man. ‘What the hell’ he kept askin’ me. That one question of his, how messed up a life was that? Hard to answer that one…I keep tryin’ but I may never, you know?”

“Sorry, Lamar, but you need to let him go before his pain gets to you. He’s not hurtin’ anymore, that’s for sure. Looks like your appointment’s here, bro. Stay out of bars for a while. Make them meet you for dinner, forget their martinis. Fedoras make a comeback you should buy one. Us old guys look better in ‘em. They need a face with some character underneath. Like give DeCaprio Bogart’s or Harrison Ford’s fedora? No way. Swing low, aim for the deep bleachers, buddy. I’m gone.”

“You got it, Neeko. Stay loose.” Lamar turned back, looked at the young guy standing next to him. “Evening, Angelo. What’re you drinkin’ tonight?”

539fcaa55c511_-_cos-09-martini-recipes-de-mscn“I’ll have a Malibu, please, Lamar. Pomegranate and pineapple juice martini. Been here long?”

“Not long. Eatin’ pretzels, waitin’ on you. Fuckin’ hate bars, you know that. Saw a man die in here the other night. Sittin’ right over there where the fat guy is now. Next time we do Corner Bakery or La Madeline to talk Art Deco if it’s okay with you. A Malibu? What’s wrong with you, Angelo? Some kind of fruit juice martini? Next your gonna tell me you’re shavin’ your nuts and readin’ Cosmopolitan to keep the women happy.”

“Maybe I should, Lamar. My GF just walked. Told me I had a piece of shit for a car and a third rate dick and she’d already found a better one, I’d never amount to nothing and I deserved being in business for myself and by myself because nobody else would have my sorry ass. You believe that? The shit they say when they leave?”

“Yeah, I believe it. That they say it, anyway. Don’t you hang on to it, though. Let it go. Words like that, carry ‘em around too long and the weight of them gets to be enough they can kill a man.”

“Not me. I say the hell with her, she feels that way.”

“Good. ‘Cause I saw a man who forgot to say that die in here the other night. Malibu. Jesus, Angelo. Like the car or the beach?”

Women Don’t Talk Enough

I’ll take the heat for that. It could have read, “Women don’t say enough when they talk.” And that would be true as well. Now I admit, there’s a stereotype qualifier and it is this; all of the Betty and Suzie and Julie and Crissy and LaTeesha too, and all the stupid and wonderful and awful and competitive bitchy things they do is, well, what it is and for the most part out of this discussion. Also out are the discussions and the Pinterest pins and the websites where it would be so nice to remodel the kitchen with one having slightly more square footage than the footprint of the entire house. What is in this discussion is asking a woman about pointed, personal history, and how we have to pry that out. Even when we do, what we get is female haiku. If you slow down and really listen to it, that’s almost enough.

In a relationship, we, as men, are expected to expose ourselves. “Who was she? What was she like? Why did you/she break up? Did you ever go here/there/anywhere? Have any fun? Beat her, get arrested, wreck her car? Well there was some reason you were together.” Women drill down for detail.

“Where did you go?”

“I stopped at the store for lettuce.”

“Oh? How was that?”

“I dunno. Like buying lettuce?”

“That’s all? That’s it?”

“Uh…” So we invent an emotional and experiential travelogue or shrug and slump away lost like there’s more to shopping for lettuce that we missed and somehow we’re stupid for missing it. However, even a busy woman will answer;

“Well, first I had to move the man with the all the vegetables on the cart, and that took forever because he didn’t speak English but that’s okay, he smiled and I finally got him moved but then the stupid sprinkler thing with the fake thunder? Well, it went off and if he hadn’t been in the way I could have just grabbed the lettuce first and I wouldn’t have a wet sleeve. And they had the cutest cookies. Little round ones with strawberry filling? I got some for the kids when they come over next time. And you wouldn’t believe it. The snottiest girl in the world was checking on express. Would I like a bag? Like I want wet lettuce rolling around in my car. Really? Just put it in the bag, silly girl. So she had to drop it two feet into the bag but by then I was tired of dealing with it. And that parking lot is the absolute worst. No one knows how to drive anymore. They’re all messing with their phones, they don’t look, they just point and go…”

When I bought lettuce, maybe all that happened, but I didn’t care. I got lettuce, got out, maybe gave somebody in the parking lot the finger, got home, got the third degree, let it go. Lettuce, in the bag. Done.

That was facetious on the face of it, but pretty accurate. My point is, if that was buying lettuce, then the next time your wife, girlfriend, significant other female glosses over a question, call her on it. Find a picture of an old boyfriend, her prom, some picture of a beach in an old book she has in the closet, ask her about it. “Oh, that was awful. I hated that trip.” Done. Next. Whoa. Why? “I just did. You know what happened after. He was a real jerk.” No, I have no idea what happened. Why? Exasperated we hear, “What is it that you want me to say?” Okay, right here is the break point between men and women. This is where a guy will say, “She was crazy, she was lousy sex, she cried all the time, her cat peed on my shoes, she was jealous of her own shadow, she was a kleptomaniac, insomniac, nymphomaniac, alcoholic, shopaholic…” We will invent things to say just to get off the topic. Women? Ask them why was it awful? “It just was, alright?” Female communication haiku. Maybe they’ll tell other women a whole story. Us? No way.

So I learned, after a very long and difficult time, to read the novel between the sparse words that women say about things that hurt, or were embarrassing. Things they’ve “forgotten.” I’ll buy some of that, but I’m no genius and I remember things. Good and bad and embarrassing. This is where I go back to that ladies lettuce moment. They have some stories in there and unless estrogen automatically shreds memory after a given amount of time, we’re not getting the stories. Because they don’t want to let go of them. They aren’t part of their lives anymore, they aren’t relevant. I say they’re wrong. Anything formative, anything that makes or made them who they are is important. Not just the fun and funny things, but the embarrassing things, the foolish things, the things they want the kids, and us sometimes, to believe they never did.

One afternoon not long ago I leaned pretty hard on a grown woman with three college degrees when, after about a tenth of a story, I got an “It’s not important.”  Headlines. No substance. Like the female mastery of soundbites and verbal haiku was enough for the simple minded male. She fought me all the different ways I tried to ask, and I was being one of those psych profile tests with a heartbeat so she was having to work. It was maybe half an hour before she finally said, “We’re all girls like that once, alright? All of us. For a summer, for a semester, for a month or a year or at some party summer job we had maybe, and any girl our age who tells you she wasn’t is lying. Alright? Jesus. Are you happy now?”

Hell yeah. No details, okay. Access to the female mindset? Priceless. Because I thought there was a magic word or phrase or coolness factor and I find out they’re just people. And they hate to give that up, let us know they’re human. To give us a chance to know a little more about them, so we can care a little more about them.

Why should we care? Because women and their stories are valuable and they sell themselves short with all of the dodgy answers. Because they think we’re men and we don’t or won’t get it and there’s something judgmental or Neanderthal going on in our heads when they talk. Like if they’re talking about Twelfth Century poetry we’re thinking about beer and booty and that red bra in the top drawer. Not always. Personally, I love to hear my wife talk when she has something to say because there’s music in her voice. Beer and booty is saved for all that office politics and people you never heard of and their cute babies and so-and-so’s such a bitch stuff. Then? Yes, ladies, we surf our brains for pictures of you naked, or at least in that red bra, so we don’t kill you.

***

Something that I found almost always inextricably linked to women and their stories is their mothers. I have no idea why, but if you’ve ever lived with a mother-daughter combo you’ve seen it. If you’re smart you stay out of the middle of it. I don’t care if a girl’s mom was a crackhead or a dentist or civic leader or a man-chasing drunk. She’s mom. I asked some women when I was doing research one time to tell me about how they got where they were, what happened. All of them, mom was in the picture. “Mom died, my family imploded and I got lost.” “Mom decided she wanted to re-career and moved us, and decided against it, and then moved us back and I felt kind of lost.” “Mom did this when she empty nested, and when that happened to me, I followed her.” “Mom did me a favor when she committed suicide. Because my sister and I didn’t need what she’d become in our lives. I don’t get mad, I thank her for that.” “Mom let my brothers feed me dog food so I’d learn not to listen to everything a man said.” “I live with her now, she’s on disability with cataracts. She was messed up a lot when I was a kid, but we always lived someplace okay, she made me go to school and she never made me do anything weird or be like her. She was a good mom.” “I wish my mom had known what to do with me.” “I wish I still had my mom.” “I wish I could ask my mom what to do sometimes.” “I really miss my mom.”

I was asking questions of grown women roughly my own age because I wanted to know what made a girl tick. I’m not one, so I had no idea. Every one of those answers, even paraphrased as they are, contains a novel in between the words. When you can get in between them, the words and the fences around them, there’s beauty and wisdom and insight and laughter and tears. If you look closely there’s an entire story in every one of them. Hopefully not many about desperation and loneliness because I found a few like that, along with the headstones of the women those kind of stories belonged to.

***

Women, for the most part, seem to be blessed with a “now” gene that somehow supersedes memory and pain and even us men and puts the immediacy of what’s important now in their lives right in front of them. It makes shopping for lettuce more than a couple of plastic bags and transacted commerce, makes a weekend  with the grandkids a return to being three years old instead of just bruised thighs, bad TV, a sore back and unknown but colorful sticky stuff on everything. It makes what they want from life and for their kids more important than flowers and poetry and romance. It’s amazing that they can manage all of that, be all of that, with whatever suitcase of blues they keep in their attics. It seems simple from the outside, like if they are loved and allowed to love they flourish like flowers, often in spite of the quality of the soil. Their answers may sound simple as well, but they are actually very poetic, and tell remarkable tales.

So make your girl talk to you. Dig out the real story. You might have to work for it, you might have to listen to her , but you’ll learn something fascinating about her you didn’t know. Something that might make you smile, maybe make you a little jealous or even really proud of her when she shows you where her strength, her humor, her judgement and her heart came from. What made her who she is. That for sure trumps hearing about what that bitch Audrey did at work today, right? Or that bag of lettuce and kitchen remodeling you don’t want to talk about. Some more.

 

Way More Than MIDI

For some reason, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) seems to be getting more attention on its thirty-second birthday than it did on its thirtieth. I’ve read more misinformation than I thought possible until I realized I was reading things on the Internet. Did you know, according to RedShark, the Yamaha DX-7 was the first synthesizer to support MIDI? Strange. For those of us lucky enough to be standing in the Sequential booth at the Anaheim convention center to see it work for the very first time we saw a Sequential Prophet 600 and a Roland JP-6 play each other, and miscommunicate program changes by one number. That’s not what this is about, though. This is about celebrating more than MIDI. It’s about celebrating a little company on North First St. in San Jose, California that could see into the future.

On MIDI’s thirtieth birthday I sent Dave Smith a note telling him I’d just purchased a MIDI interface for my iPhone, and how cool was that? That same 5-pin DIN plug hadn’t changed. Of course, the 30-pin on my iPhone was doomed, but not MIDI. Dave reminded me that MIDI was still at rev 1 after all that time, and that hardware was more fun than software, cheers. And that is one of the legacies of Sequential. The resiliency of good design. When something works and people can use it; when it’s simple and elegant and deep enough to hang for a long time, particularly in the world of technology, it’s a good idea. Look at Dave Smith’s instruments now. They are sleeker and faster than the originals of 1977, and incredibly similar. Dave has always designed and built performance instruments, and thirty-two years ago MIDI was designed primarily so that physical musical instruments could discuss making music together. Yet MIDI is the defacto standard for hardware and human interfaces to discuss the making of music with pretty pictures of instruments captured under the glass of a computing device’s monitor. It doesn’t matter if it’s a USB cable or that thirty-two-year-old 5-pin DIN, the language spoken is MIDI.

In 1982 when I’d walk by and see Dave in that corner office with reams of green-bar paper and teletype pages covered in hex I had no idea. I don’t suspect that he did, either. Or he might not have given it away. That’s right, the MIDI protocol is free. A very Northern California concept. Hippie engineers making the world a better place for synthesizer players, free. Imagine. MIDI was conceived to foster a sense of modern musical community. That’s some pretty serious save-the-future tree hugger engineering for you right there.

Now for the other really important “seeing into the future” thing that rarely gets mentioned. Barb Fairhurst. What? A female vice president and business manager in 1977? In a couple of male dominated businesses? Not just technology and engineering, but the music business as well. Back in the old cigar smoke, big talk and “what can I do for you, little lady” times. Back when women were usually the vice presidents of the laundry room and the grocery store run, at Sequential we had a lady boss. Who gave this long haired kid from Oklahoma a shot at seeing the future, a coffee cup with my name on it, and made us sign things in a specific color of ink as a “standard.” Barb dealt with the business end of things, the banks, the vendors, the dealers. Us. She even handled the great “we’re not galley slaves” revolt in manufacturing when it was decided they should use anti-static wristbands that were attached to their workbenches. Walk from the “carpet” to the “tile” at Sequential back then and you got an earful from someone about indentured servitude until Barb calmed the waters.

Sequential was the heart of a romantic music-meets-technology ideal in a pragmatic world, and, as a result, is no longer with us in that little building on North First Street, but it is still with those who make modern music every day. I would like to suggest that instead of just wishing MIDI a happy thirty-second birthday we also celebrate the programmable polyphonic performance synthesizer, vector synthesis, multi-timbral workstations, the insight and wisdom of female executives and the spirit of a global musical community that rides for free on the three hot wires of that 5-pin DIN plug. That’s the real reason to be nostalgic and celebrate Dave, Barb and Sequential. To celebrate the little company so small and long ago that showed us the future.

Cross-eyed Cupid

Now most times when I tell this story I try to be clever with how I start it. I’ve tried lots of ways, but lately my favorite is callin’ it The Cross-eyed Cupid. Like this one time he got his bow and arrow out and hit a couple of people in the shoulder. Close enough, but no cigar. It goes like this.

“My girlfriend will be there with some other girls,” the big guy said. His name was Jeff and he was the second string football center at OU. We were workin’ this summer construction job, I guess that was the summer my old high school girlfriend and her mom shut that down between us. I mean lookin’ at it, they were right. A lot of us got that year, year and a half, maybe two in high school with a regular date, some finding out about sex in awkward places. But it’s always got a sell-by date. Just when we’re kids we don’t see it, can’t hear our parents sayin’ it. Like we think we invented all that, the same way we tell our kids they didn’t. I’m sayin’ that because when something ends and you think it’s the end of the world some other thing has you in the headlights like a slow deer on a country road. For some reason we’re so blinded by whatever happened we don’t see that train a comin’. Or maybe, like me, just a little dumb-blind. I think we all are, a little. Dumb-blind. Me, I’m some kind of poster boy for it.

The big guy and his tall, skinny friend with the pickup, they’re from Edmond where we’re doin’ this work, where they went to high school. So the girlfriend, or girlfriends, they’re like a year behind and they haven’t put a stop on it yet like what happened to me. I still don’t know why we’d be working and these girls were in school unless it was summer school, or maybe Christmas break but it was hot as hell, so I guess summer school. I followed them, my Edmond partners, in my own car. I still had that orange POS, the one that looked cool once I got all the wheels on it to match, with the six-cylinder stick and my name on the back in chrome letters where the Chevy sign went. It was bad-ass to look at and ran like a tractor and to this day I don’t why I was so damn proud of it.

Anyway, these extra girls they said would be there were from Edmond, some place I’d never met a girl from, so I thought, you know, twenty, thirty minutes up the road, how different can they be? I’d met this girl from Kansas and a couple from San Antonio, one even from this little town called Washington, in North Carolina. That girl, her name was Melody, like a song, and she coulda read the phone book with that voice of hers and people would have listened. I would have. I’m just sayin’ girls seemed to be girls back then. Just without that regular once or twice a week-end sexing it up, I was kinda frustrated. Getting to know somebody, blind dates, double dating, hoping you’d find a girl on your own, smoke a joint, get that way with them. Seemed to happen to everybody else. But lookin’ back I think a lot of those jokers were lyin’, like young guys do about sex and weed and how fast their car is.

We pull in to the Bonanza right there on the extension. I know the place. In high school I went to a yearbook how-to at that junior college, ate lunch there with this girl, we did the yearbook together. We made out in the parking lot after, and a couple of other places before we made it home. And she was driving. That sort of thing went on a lot. In the back of my mind I knew my old girlfriend and her mom had read my book. Once I graduated and wasn’t underfoot all the time she’d protect her baby from me, get me off the tit, so to speak. It worked to some extent, but I wonder sometimes if girls’ parents realize it takes two to tango horizontally. Moreover, did they know that a guy didn’t need to be regular bowler to be knocking the pins over as history proved out to be happening. Parents of daughters listen up right there.

In the Bonanza the girls, maybe five or six, seems like one or two guys, I may be wrong about that, all sittin’ on one side of a long table. Now there’s only three of us, the big guy, his tall, skinny friend and me. By this time I had longer hair, got some looks from the Edmond boys in their polo shirts. I got used to that look, but it took me forty years till I just didn’t have much hair. We’re all dusty and crusty, dried sweat and that sandy red dust you get north of the city, and it was expected we sit across from them for the sake of sanitation I suppose. I don’t know the players in this game so I wait. The big guy sits across from his girlfriend, the skinny guy next to him across from this other girl. I’m not going to sit by them, across from some girl looks like the church lady and scowls me out, so I skip a chair, knowing this is a long nowhere lunch for me. One in a long line of them.

The girl across from me, she’s cute. I’d say pretty. She smiles, kind of shy. She’s got the biggest brownish-hazel eyes, the kind of hair we’d all kill for. Thick, a little wave. Miss Breck ad hair, that perfect ski jump nose. I could have picked a lot worse chair. But she’s shy, or disgusted. I never really could tell with girls and me, and she doesn’t talk much.

We eat, there’s enough talking from the people who know each other, dating each other, their friends chipping in with some comment. The shy girl doesn’t talk that much, she has a nice smile, not too big. Her voice, she’s no life-timer in Edmond. Turns out she has some boyfriend, he’s her age, still in school, plays football. My luck.

Her name is Deb, Debbie. She said it’s Debra, De bra, not like she’s talkin’ underwear, just sayin’ it, how it is. I ask “Deborah, though, spelled the regular way?” And she says “Yes, but say it like I said.”

Here it gets interesting because Debra, she has a bent earring. It was a gift from the boyfriend. She has to see him later, doesn’t seem all that excited, and really wants that earring fixed. Maybe he’s the kinda guy will thump her, she screws up the earrings. It goes all the way around the table, the clean guys, my two work guys, the girls. Everybody sayin’, well, no, need some needle nose pliers, need a clamp, can’t bend it, need this tool or that. I’m no mechanical genius but I get geometry, always have, so when the earring makes it to me, last call, I see the problem. I ask Debra, I called her that properly, would she unroll that extra red napkin and hand me a clean fork and the knife. She wants the earring fixed more than she wants to ignore the sweaty shaggy guy, so she gets them for me. The fat part of the fork at the back of the tines is just right, so I open up this one part of her earring with the knife, park it over the fork, squeeze the snot out of it, and there it is, no needle nose pliers. I see why they wanted some, they were just seein’ it as a man-handle it project and I applied some finesse. Probably used my lifetime supply of it right there in that Bonanza in Edmond, Oklahoma.

I said, “Here ya go,” hand Debra her earring back, my hands are clean, it’s okay. Now I’m some kind of hero, even for the girls down the table. The big guy Jeff, and the skinny guy, they’re suddenly glad they know me, the clean boys not so much, but they have to be good sports, the girls down on that end liking me a little. The guys get jerky they’ll be dry and lonely like me this weekend. Debra is flustered a little, maybe I’m not the guy should have fixed it for her, maybe all the attention from her friends. Anyway, she knows it’s fixed, keeps being distracted and can’t stick it in her ear. For the second time I say, “Here ya go,” like I did when I gave it back fixed, only this time I get up, we’re almost at the end of the table, and I walk around and say, “Pull your hair back,” and she does, looking at me as far sideways as her eyes will go. She’s got it in, the little thing in the back isn’t cooperating is all. I’m not a moose, so I don’t rip her ear off like I’m sure she’s thinking I might, you know, me being all dusty and shaggy. I say, “I got it on there now, but you should push it tight. I don’t want to be the stranger who smashed your ear.” I’m being funny, the other guys laughing, the girls with that worried look. “I’ll hold your hair back, you do it.” I hold it with a finger of my left hand, she gets it right this time. I ask “Okay?” She says, “Yes,” I let go. She brushes her hair out with her fingers, not like I got it dirty but that way girls do getting it back together.

Down the other side this girl says, “Well tell him thank you, Deb,” and a couple others say something, she looks at me, tries it, gets flustered. I say, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it,” offer her my other hand for a girl handshake, take her fingers, a light squeeze. She squeezes back, looks at me with those big eyes like she has something to say but doesn’t. I know that look, the girl wants to talk to the shaggy guy like maybe he’s not like the boyfriend or somebody else, but you know, mom and dad, her friends, not this guy. Mostly for younger girls back then. Give it a couple of years when they want ‘em out of college, out of the wallet, I’d be okay. A pretty senior in high school, republican parents, horses. I was the plague in jeans.

Here’s the kicker. Two years later I’d go on a blind double date with this same earring girl and end up marrying her. She confessed to me before the wedding how her cute, perfect little ski-jump nose wasn’t really stock, and showed me the place where she was kneeling when the horse kicked her in the face. Told me she had a real shnoz, kinda like mine, so we made “we’ll have kids with clown noses” jokes. Hell, I was nineteen and dumb-blind. Closest idea I had to marriage was a couple of apartment weekenders. Pizza and sex and too embarrassed to hit the toilet hard until they went back to the dorm, or in her case, Stillwater. Clown nosed kids was funny if you didn’t have some idea of what that was really all about.

When we did get married the preacher must have gotten into the champagne a little because he put the date on the marriage license a day off, and scratched through it. It was hard to tell what day it was. One time I looked it up, to see what day it really was. It wasn’t like we celebrated it much. Maybe once or twice, if, you know, so I wouldn’t have it committed to memory. That marriage wouldn’t last but a couple of years, both of us not having any idea what the hell we were doing. Victims of that classic line from our parents, “You can be anything you want to be, get good grades, stay in school.” That was a great line, got them off the hook. But for a lot of us, what did we want to be? We’d take tests, talk to vocational counsellors about civil engineering or law school or biology, journalism, psychology. I didn’t give a damn about any of that. Thought I should, tried for three years. She was the same, taking art history, art, wanting to be a sculptor maybe, or work in a museum. We got stoned, and married, and lost our way in the culture of be somebody, be yourself, when we didn’t even know who the hell we were, much less who we should be. When it was all over she went crazy, I went to Texas. I wonder sometimes were they interchangeable, crazy and Texas.

Even more crazy than that earring and then the blind date and getting married and the license being off a day? Our Social Security numbers were the same, reverse the last two numbers. After I got her out of bed with this fella who sold me pot once in while back then to sign the divorce papers, then got an arrogant Dear John letter six years too late from someone else, I gave my home town the finger. She did the same and within six months she headed north and we lost touch. Well, truth be told we both let that touch go. I talked to her once maybe five or six years after all of that, but she didn’t make a lot of sense, kind of scared me for her. I think she said my mother gave her my number which was crazy, mom never liked her much. At the beginning of that marriage some words or knowledge I was never told passed between the set of parents. Whatever it was it should have been something they shared. Might have been the answers to a lot of questions. Might have been she’s allergic to cheese. I’ll never know.

Years later I learned that she had gone up and down the roller coaster I’d experienced from her a few times. Heard she vacillated between Artsy types of men like me and rugged, bearded Mountain Man types like that pot salesman. She’d met a new man in a bar when she was down one time, got married and they went on cruises together. I was told she and her hubby that rescued her drank their way all around the North American Continent on boats. She got pregnant, and there’s some other stories in that, and she went clean. No smoking, stopped drinking, which was something we never did much of, and I never understood happening to her later, and turned into a good mom and wife. Went all the way up to living in a post card in Southern California not far from where her horse ranch folks retired. Could almost throw a rock from her place to the ocean, had two young barely teenage kids. Woke up one morning, drank a quart of vodka and took a handgun to the condo swimming pool. Bang! She was fifty.

That divorce we got was final on a May 4th. She died on a May 3rd. One day off, one number off, one more step, this time her last one, just a little out of sync.

Now I know better than to think either of us put all those one number, one day off things together intentionally, but there they are, clear as can be, and I find that as fascinating as I do frightening. I fixed that earring, though, and I knew, but didn’t know, a pretty, artsy, and interesting if secretly big nosed and unpredictable girl for a couple of years. That earring, I always thought of that as being one of the only one of those things to happen to me, the future being telegraphed so obviously. Of course I didn’t see it, but there it was. Dumb-blind, like I said. But I’d be wrong sayin’ that about it bein’ the only one. There’ve been other times, the “here’s your story in the blink of an eye” times. Missed them, too. We all do.

There are those moments when we are told the entire story, in a flash right before our eyes, if we only had the power to see it unfold. The signals as plain as the sun in the summer sky. Like that sun, they’re so bright and obvious they momentarily blind us to their significance. Or maybe it’s just because it’s easier to ignore them and live like we don’t see that train a comin’. Unlike that train, which you probably can’t avoid, if you ever see that cross-eyed cupid fella comin’ you’d best get up off the tracks and haul ass the hell on outta there and wait for one that can shoot straight. Trust me on that.

Not Too Deep or Wide and Kind of Slow

You could fish here with your Grampa. Or stand by the rail and think about Route 66 a long time ago. Walk across and feel the wood move, hear it creak and groan. You could park just off the road in the shade and blow an entire afternoon with the stereo off and nothing but the music of the breeze and the birds and the creek to serenade you on a hot, Oklahoma summer day. You could share it with a friend or your true love, lean on the rail and watch the leaves land on the water and get carried off into nowhere like your thoughts. You could think about who you are, where you’ve been and where you haven’t and how you might correct that. You could think about nothing at all and let the movies your mind wants to play for you run until the sun starts to set and twilight says get home before they eat without you. You could bask in the simplicity of your not very deep thoughts and be all the better for it. Because simple isn’t always as easy as it appears and navigating shallow waters is often worse. Which is why we should enjoy all of our moments with our not so deep thoughts. Because they pave the way for deeper ones.

Not far from this peaceful bridge in Catoosa, Oklahoma, a man shot and killed a police officer. The man convicted of it somehow seduced, from prison, a girl who was at the top of the list of girls most likely to be somebody. She became the somebody in a story full of tragedy who helped him escape from jail and they moved to nowhere in the Dakotas. Years later they were both recaptured, and she died of an overdose and a broken heart at forty-nine, the love of her life back in jail until he turned to dust. Her house could have been on your paper route. Maybe her mother made you talk to her through the screen door. She might have made fun of a record you took to a swimming party once, but your name wasn’t on it so you dodged that one. You could watch a leaf kiss the water and float away and make it almost any allegory you wanted.

Oklahoma trip 039You could stop here after taking a picture of your lover in that Route 66 Blue Whale, laugh, drink a Coke and talk about all those people who splashed in that mud hole like it was fun, watch another leaf kiss the creek and wonder where memories go, and if they really live forever.

One day no one will stand here because the bridge out of Catoosa will have rusted away. All of the dreams dreamed by dreamers with the top down on their MG, the travelers with their tired kids who needed a place to pee right now, the people who crossed this bridge daily or only once, all of those will no longer have a home. Did the girl who escaped with the murderer cross this way? Will their memories all die with the bridge?

Lord Byron begins his ode to Venice with,

I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs

and ends with,

There are some feelings time cannot benumb,

Nor torture shake, or mine would now be cold and dumb.

All of our dreams, all of our crossings travel a Bridge of Sighs. A bridge of memories that once made, cannot collapse or die. They merely fall like leaves in the breeze, kiss the water and float off into forever.

 

 

 

How Old Guys Get Lucky

I got lucky the other day. I didn’t win the lottery, don’t have a fat retirement portfolio or a ranch with a vineyard or a golf course out back or a luxury foreign car. I don’t vacation in the islands or the keys or ski anywhere and none of the twenty somethings at Trader Joe’s winked at me. But stay with me, and I’ll tell you how I got lucky.

If you’ve been married a while you know all of your wife’s names. Nana, Gramma, Mom, Professor, Doctor, Executive, Boss, Volunteer, Nurse, Conflict Manager. All of them and more. I’m telling you, if you want to get lucky put all of them in the top of the linen closet. Here’s why.

Our wives carry all of our sins in a big ol’ bag around their neck and seeing them, sometimes I think we see all of that. The missed opportunities, our failings and faults. We see the girl who keeps us even when we fart the covers off at two A.M., who knows our hearts, our dreams, even our pain. All of it in that albatross around her neck, the one we made. It’s not all bad. Our successes, our wins, the BG Denton Ballet on point on Stageones that counted, when we remembered to love them. Read that carefully. Not the flowers or the gifts, but when we remembered to really love them, the girls we married. Take that necklace away from her, put it up there in the closet, too. Now stop. Look at the girl. Not what you’ve been through, kids and jobs and houses. Just look at the girl you married.

My wife still goes to ballet class three times a week, Pilates streams from the living room ROKU, she says “Hey you, want to do some yoga with me?” Some red lipstick, jeans and a t-shirt, I’d still follow her home if I didn’t have to. Professor, Nana, Ballet, Pilates, read, write, teach, learn go, go, go. She may be all of that, but what is she really?

The Box of photosother day my wife was out of town and I was rummaging around looking for something. I was up in the top of the linen closet and pulled down a cardboard banker’s box. Inside, not whatever I was looking for, but what I needed to find. There, in a toe-shoe box full of photographs, was the beautiful girl I married.

Nothing says pretty girl to me like a pretty girl in a summer sundress. There she was. Man. Think of a sleeveless summer dress. It fits her figure, it’s soft, it’s not naughty or short, it’s meant to catch the breeze and make her grab it before oops! She can twirl around in it, put her arms around my neck, and she did. She’s just a girl. That special, flirty innocent girl I married. Her hair barely under control, her big blue eyes, smart and pretty. Strong and passionate, shy. She still runs me off and closes the bathroom door. She dresses in private, or shoos me away unless she’s got her ‘hey, sailor’ working. I used to be a major pest. Semi-exposed girl parts, she would be fixing her hair, defenseless. I learned better, but what a pain in the ass I was, thinking I was cute and affectionate, honking her boobs, pinching her butt.

Passionate. Oh hell yes. About many things, but best of all, about us. We could piss off  the neighbors. The lady upstairs thought I was killing her, the one next door smiled. Back before baby or business that sweet smiling girl stole my heart and gave me hers. Sometimes I think if I’d known then what I know now I’d have said “Run little girl, as fast and far as you can.” But I was selfish, how could I not be? I’d found a mainstream girl. Beautiful, artsy, a college degree. And she liked me. Go figure that.

She was angry, mostly at men and the things we do. How some men treat women like objects, culture trophies, how pretty you are, look at what I raised, look who I was screwing when your back was turned. She was mad at all of us but she let me in, told me how it was going to be if I was going to stick around. Beautiful and standing in a deep hole of insecurity that I never saw. How could I? I saw everything else and she loved me anyway.

There she was, sitting on the porch surrounded by the plants that loved her, playing Scrabble. She always won. She had an English degree and I’m not an idiot. Warm afternoons we’d drink cheap Chardonnay and talk, eat Triscuits and cheese, read, play Scrabble, make love.

One day we sold it or gave it away, put what was left, including a noisy cat, in aPH w vw van htown VW van and a trailer, headed to the San Francisco Bay. I was going to be the next big thing. We know how that turned out. On the way I got tired and said “You can drive.” Through those narrow mountain passes in the dead of night, a tin can van and a trailer. The big strong man curled up in the back, sleeping through it, secretly scared to death knowing we were a fireball down the mountain in the making. When the sun came up and the desert loomed I took over again. The van blew up at Pea Soup Anderson’s on the I-5, got fixed in Modesto, twice what they said it would be. She was a trouper. My dream, my adventure, this girl who loved me right there.

The day after we got there she hit the temp agency with her Houston creds and Liberal Arts degree, went right to work. I drug my feet for a week. She handed me a phone number with her foot in my ass, asked what was I scared of? Rejection, working, paying the rent? A short time later when she said she wanted a baby, I said get some insurance we can’t afford it. The big chip company hired her, baby insurance included.

To this day she thinks I wanted her to wait to tell anyone when she got pregnant thinking maybe I thought I could talk her out of it. My long haired, no suburbs, no station wagon, no republican rants. The truth was that guy was back, the scared one, curled up in ball. Whatever could go wrong, would go wrong, don’t tell anybody it will mess it all up. I hadn’t had an adult thought in my life and Ash w mom and bottle 2that precious, innocent girl I married had a baby to carry. And me. Two babies to carry. The things we do when we’re lovers, the things she said, making a baby. I heard the words. I didn’t grasp their meaning.

Here she is, pregnant as can be in that purple maternity dress. We had a king size waterbed frame that looked like real furniture, but we lived upstairs so we put an air mattress in it. The last two months she was pregnant I slept on the floor on a couple of giant pillows we got at a flea market the size of a small town. Why? I was on that air mattress without baffles, she came in after work and flopped. I was up in the air and on the floor before I knew what happened. A nice five foot five girl, eight or nine months pregnant can own a king size bed, and I let her. I did it to her, that small, tired girl. It was the least I could do.

She worked right up until she gave birth to our one dollar insurance daughter. The best thing about my girl being pregnant? Junk food. Well, our daughter, but junk food runs second. Never before would she darken the door of a fast food joint with me, her shaggy rock n’ roll husband. But on the way home from Bradley birthing class, Tuesday night was Taco Bell night. It was only for a couple of weeks, and our daughter turned out fine. And yes, I know better now. But I can get her to eat some things. Burgers have always been no. No red meat. Something happened before my time and never again she said. She meant it. Chicken or fish or fresh and leafy. You should see the pizza I have to order.

EH w PH and Ash after mastersI’d forgotten how I marveled at her, her masters, her doctorate. Our daughter in tow, me in tow. Her ethic and tenacity. Her strength. Fearless and frightened and determined. I found her in a toe-shoe box in the linen closet, the amazing little girl I married.

If you want to get lucky, put Nana and Mom and all the other things she is and has been in the linen closet where that box was. Go find the beautiful young girl you married, dust off your heart, tell her how you feel. Tell her how empty your life would have been without her, open the windows and piss off the neighbors. If you can get any luckier than that, send me your lottery numbers.