Thursday, October 20, 2011

#141 - Loss


10/20/11 (#141)

I lost my dad this summer, a fantastic man who gave me 44 years of guidance, wisdom, humor, and love. I can't do him justice in an essay, as none of us really could with our parents — his influence on me and my siblings is so broad, so subtle, so all encompassing that any attempt to define it leads to endless addendums and clarifications, each tangent getting no closer to a complete truth than the insufficient phrase it expands upon. There would be no me without him, literally and figuratively. For every good thing I am and I've done, he and my mom deserve the credit. I will miss him forever.

When he passed, I was blessed to have many people who expressed condolences, and I was reminded of a very peculiar aspect of human communication: despite thousands of years of evolution and enlightenment, humans are still struggling to build a language to respond to or assuage a deep loss. Perhaps it's a complex emotion that we are fortunate to not have enough practice at expressing; perhaps it's an instinctual sense that the language we use to corral and quantify our ideas is simply incapable of addressing the pain and sadness of losing someone we love.

Whatever the reason, it is always hard to know what to say. I love words, but they are simply not suitable for all occasions. The platitudes of sympathy cards, however well-intentioned, seem formulaic; the tried-and-true stock phrases we rely on have become the accepted cliches because we have collectively and silently resigned ourselves to being unable to express what our hearts are experiencing. There's certainly no wrong thing to say, because we know that whatever we say is simply a placeholder for something larger, something more inexplicable. I appreciated everyone who tried, right down to a friend who said simply, "I don't know what to say" and wrapped me in a bear hug.

Yet one recurring theme that gave me genuine solace was stories. My friend Scott recalled the era when our band practiced at my parent's business, a cavernous woodshop that could fully accommodate our four-piece band and the racket we created. When we practiced, dad would come over to check in on us now and then. I know he didn't like the volume, and he wouldn't stay for the actual practice, but he was great company as we set up, relating well with all of my band mates, sharing laughs, telling a joke, whatever. I suspect he would have preferred that I wasn't in a band, worried that we would emulate the career path of Motley Crue despite us behaving more like The Wonders from "That Thing You Do", but he kept that to himself — I was obviously passionate about songwriting, I was playing with three great friends (and great people), and he was there to support me.

If I had listed 1,000 memories of my dad, I wouldn't have listed the story Scott told. But when he brought it up, it felt like yesterday. The same was true for all of the stories that friends and family recounted — their stories were the ideal expressions of sympathy because they didn't mourn his death, they reminded me of his life. They told me that, while I have an intensely personal image of my dad, it wasn't an image I had simply conjured — so much of what I saw in him was visible to everyone, and that was never more clear than when I heard these simple little stories of moments that had no particular significance yet lasted through decades of life. The moments may have been insignificant, but the characters were essential.

I reflect back on a life with my dad and realize that memory is like an iceberg - we might think we can recall a lot, but there are so many more memories resting comfortably in the recesses of our minds. I wonder how many more there are in there, but I don't wrack my brain trying to find them, because they rush out suddenly with the simplest provocation: when I think about where to get coffee and hear my dad advising, "keep your money local"; when someone notes with incredulity the amount of sugar I put in my coffee and I hear him chiding, "you don't drink coffee, you drink dessert"; when a photograph captures me channeling him through a particular expression or gesture. There is so much of him in me and my family, and while I would have groaned to hear that when I was 18, I celebrate it at 45.

I have a lifetime of memories filed away, yet I cherish the stories I hear from others. In the scrapbook in my brain, my mental snapshots are all taken from the same angle; these other stories give my father more dimensions and allow me to see things I might have missed from my vantage point. That's something Hallmark can't offer, and it reminds me that when I have to try to express the inexpressible when someone else suffers a loss, I'm not going to try to wordsmith the right thing to say — I'm just going to say, "I remember one time..."

©2011 wpreagan

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

#140 - Sonic Coincidence

Sonic Coincidence

5/25/11 (#140)

As a prologue to this story, let me quickly recount a music listening experience from my college days, when a friend said he loved how the harmonica in REM's "Pretty Persuasion" was strangely out of key. Harmonica? I had heard that song at least 40 times and had no recollection of a harmonica. He popped on the album (kids, your parents can translate) and as the third verse started, he pointed at the speakers. Sure enough, buried deep in the mix, there was a hard-blowing harmonica, clearly not the right key but close enough to make the friction interesting. 40-plus listens and I had never heard it, and from that day on, it was impossible to miss. How had it eluded me for so long?

Flash forward a couple of decades to the necktie-wearing version of me standing at a downtown Portland Max stop, waiting for the Yellow Line to whisk me home. I was in the midst of a serious fascination with The Roots, the Philly-based hip-hop/funk/awesome ensemble, and one of my favorite funky songs began flowing through the thin white wires of my iPod. I stood close to the platform edge so the world could shuffle behind me while an involuntary sway took hold of my middle-aged body.

About 15 seconds into the groove, I began hearing a violin line that I had never heard in the song before. Hearing unusual instruments is not unusual in a band with a full-time tuba player, but this was one of my favorite songs---how had I not heard this before? It wasn't pushed up to the front of the mix, but it was clear enough that I was astonished that I was hearing it for the first time.

As I focused my ears, I could feel my jaw dropping. The violinist was totally adventurous, pushing against the textures and rhythm of the song, veering toward chaos and suddenly resolving into achingly gorgeous melodies. He bowed right over Black Thought's rhymes, seemed only loosely tethered to Questo's beats, and played with an enthusiastic abandon that made the song completely new. I stood on the train platform, entranced and ecstatic. It was truly one of the best listening experiences of my life.

Then the song came to an end, and the violin didn't. In the pause between songs on my player, I realized that the violinist was standing behind me, playing an entirely different song that was coincidentally in the same key. What I had been hearing was pure chance, a cosmic fluke that could never be repeated intentionally, a private headphone moment juxtaposed against a public sountrack. It was like a DJ's mash-up, and god was the DJ, squeezing disparate elements into the same sonic space.

On the train home, I contemplated the odds of what had happened: eight minutes on the platform that happened to overlap with the violinist's performance; 25 hours of music on my iPod, all in various keys, dozens of songs in the violinist's repertoire, all in various keys, and within that eight minute window, we were in tune. If the train had been early, if I'd gotten off work late, if the violinist's tips had been enough to call it a day before I arrived, the unlikely duet would have never materialized.

I wish the violinist could have heard what I heard. I wish I could have recorded it. But it wasn't meant for that - if I could listen to it again and again, I would be more critical, mentally mapping the missed notes, lamenting the sections that weren't as seamless as I recalled. This gorgeous collision of sympathetic melodies was meant for that moment, a cosmic spark that flared and faded in a matter of minutes, burning itself into my memory and disappearing forever.

©2011 wpreagan

Friday, April 8, 2011

#139 - The Wrong Right Jeans

The Wrong Right Jeans

4/8/11 (#139)

All the cool kids wore Levi's jeans.

I was in eighth grade, at my second Junior High School in two years following my family's relocation to Maine. I was the new kid, and like most new kids — and like so many eighth graders — I wanted nothing more than to assimilate, to disappear into the crowd, to not feel like I was being assessed and summarized by a class full of kids who had known each other since they were sticking rulers into paste pots in kindergarten. And that assimilation wasn't going to happen in rust-colored corduroys. Even if they were Levi's cords. Levi's blue jeans were the invisibility cloak my 12 year old soul dreamed of.

Now to put this into perspective, my parents gave me everything I needed. I always had a few new outfits at the start of the school year, I was able to play little league baseball and hockey and soccer (with hand-me-down gear, but that meant it was already broken in for me), there was always delicious food on the table at dinner time. But my folks had four kids, so we couldn't have everything, and Lee and Wrangler were more affordable jeans. My mother was incredulous when I expressed my disdain for Wrangler - wasn't Wrangler a brand name? Weren't they better than the ill-fitting denims available at Zayre and Kings? I'm sure I seemed like an ungrateful little cretin when I lamented that, no matter what they were, what they weren't was Levi's.

"Bill," my mom assured, "anyone who judges you by your pants isn't a friend worth having." Thanks mom. Straight out of the Parenting 101 handbook. Mom was an adult - how could she understand what it felt like to be the new kid? I was exhausted by feeling alien and out of place, and all she could do was utter meaningless lies like "no one is paying any attention to your pants." Of course they are — I AM, so why wouldn't they? I resigned myself to a lifetime of lunches at the misfits table, eating brown-paper-bag sandwiches while the cool kids ate school-lunch pizza in their cool jeans and planned their fabulous futures.

That was my reality until the day my mom came home and flopped a stiff pair of denim pants onto the bed - LEVI'S! I was ecstatic, quickly slipping into the rigid fabric, buttoning them up and feeling like a changed man. I couldn't wait to go to school the next day, imagining the nods of approval from boys who barely acknowledged me the previous day, hoping one of the blooming eighth grade girls would notice all the wonderful qualities about me that had been hidden by my corduroys.

The next day, I proudly donned my new jeans, strutted to school with newfound enthusiasm, and was delighted when the guy at the locker next to mine remarked, "Hey, new jeans." It was just as I had imagined, and it was happening as quickly as I had hoped. I replied with forced nonchalance and overt brand-dropping, "Yeah, I just got these Levi's yesterday."

"Are they red tag or orange tag?"

I quaked at the question, unsure what it meant but concerned for the possibilities. "Turn around," he said, taking a peek at the small brand tag sewn into the stitching of the back pocket. "Yeah, orange tag. I prefer the red tag." And as I walked to class, I quickly learned that all the cool kids preferred red tags. The tiny tabs on everyone's pants suddenly shined like tiny LED christmas lights, and less than 10 minutes into the school day, I felt foolish for trying so hard to fit in and for failing so completely, the inflexible fabric scraping the flesh of my legs as the orange tag scraped my psyche.

I don't know how much I actually learned that day, but I look back on it as a milestone, my first glimpse behind the facade of "cool": even if you buy a ticket, the ushers at the door can call it out as a fake. It also showed me that those ushers are assholes, guarding the gates to a club I no longer wanted to join. My mother was right: If the test of my worth is based on a 1/4" tag on my back pocket, I had no desire to pass that test. My Lee jeans never felt so comfortable.

I'm sometimes reminded of this when I attend music shows in Portland or stroll on North Mississippi, seeing the meticulous effort some people put into their exterior identities. The self-concious haircuts, the skinny black pants, and vintage t-shirts and white-plastic sunglasses seem to serve as beacon calls to others of the species, a preliminary filter to sift out anyone who supports chain restaurants or network television. I'm probably wrong — I prefer to imagine they're all thoughtful folks who judge their fellow citizens by the content of their character, not the cut of their coat — but to me, it all looks like red tag Levi's, and I outgrew those many decades ago.

My daughter is eight, and I know there's nothing I can do to save her from learning this lesson on her own. At this moment, she has no awareness of clothing brands, and judges every outfit on color and comfort - the only true measure of a good wardrobe. I hope that remains her focus, but I know that once she hits junior high, her concern with the tag is going to come, another of those heinous rites of passage that occur as we try to figure out how to live in our own skin. She's probably going to want her generation's version of Levi's, and if my current budget is any indication, I'm going to have to buy her something else and assure her, "anyone who judges you by your pants isn't a friend worth having." She's going to look at me and think, "Sheesh, dad, you have no idea what it's like to be a kid."

Of course I don't. What could an adult possibly know about that?

©2011 wpreagan

Saturday, January 8, 2011

#138 - Waxing Psychological

Waxing Psychological

1/8/11 (#138)

I was passing time on the bus by peeking over the shoulder of the woman in front of me and reading the headlines of her People magazine. Personally, I would never buy People magazine — and I say that with so much righteous intellectual superiority that my you'd think I didn't own a television — but in truth, it's always my first choice when I'm at the doctor's office. It's the cotton candy of magazines: no nutrition, no substance, but so much pointless deliciousness.

What immediately startled me during my visual eavesdropping session was the awful appearance of the stars featured on a particular two-page spread. Each one seemed happy enough, but almost catatonic, as if they were all auditioning for a starring role in The Stepford Wives and the casting agent was facing some difficult choices. I jockeyed for position in hope of finding an explanation, my face close enough to smell the other rider's hair, and saw that the article was comparing which celebrity women faired best at wax museums.

Halle Berry was featured, looking far more ordinary than she ever looks in film or photographs. Actually, her breasts looked fabulous, it was only her face that failed to match reality. (It's clear where the artist spent the most time on their work.) Lindsey Lohan looked spacey and stupefied — surprisingly lifelike in that regard, though her paraffin doppelganger sported a pre-tabloid innocence that looked oddly anachronistic. I shifted to see the other women featured, but my move coincided with the bus hitting a pothole and caused my chin to gently bump her shoulder, so I spent the rest of the ride glued to the back of my seat in order to make it perfectly clear that, no, I did want to nuzzle her neck (anymore), and no, security did not need to be called. But those glossy photos of those glassy-eyed celebrity duplicates continued to haunt me.

It's clear that wax museums have a solid base of supporters, but I am not one of them. I just don't understand the allure — the creepy figures they house may bear a general resemblance to a Hollywood celebrity or historical figure, but their lifeless gazes and frozen postures make the museum experience seem like an open-casket wake for 300 irrelevant personalities.

There are a few I can understand: What is it like to stand next to 7'6" basketball star Yao Ming? It's rare we encounter anyone approaching seven feet in our daily life, and I am unable to imagine the scale and proportions of his size by making a mark on the wall at 90". Maybe jockey Willie Shoemaker as well, though he was 4' 11", and I see people that tall when I drop my daughter at school every morning.

But what is the excitement of seeing a wickless-candle version of Matthew Mcconaughey? A wax casting of Princess Di? A plasticized Michelle Obama? Boy George, Adolph Hitler, Franz Kafka and Gandhi all standing rigidly at the world's most boring cocktail party? I don't get it.

Looking at wax museum sites online, I found one that boasts of a life-size facsimile of Glee's caustic cheering coach Jane Lynch — if ever there was a celebrity who you would want to be vocal, Jane is it, because without her wit, she's a middle-aged Old Navy display hawking affordable red sweat suits; another brags of their lifelike Julia Roberts, though the awkward expression and shimmering creepiness of her molded face makes her look like the dream date for BK's King.

It seems like a strange commentary on our culture that our celebrity obsessions are so deep that ogling claymation replicas of Beyonce Knowles and Jennifer Lopez is deemed an afternoon well spent. Yet countless online photos confirm the popularity of the pastime, fans posing with mannequins dressed as their favorite movie characters, the lifeless eyes of James Bond or Jack Sparrow or Al Gore staring slightly away from the camera as if they themselves don't want to be in the picture.

I'm not passing judgment* on people who spend $35.50 for a day of silent socializing with a warehouse full of Hollywood has-beens. I simply don't get it. A few hours spent at the Smithsonian Museum is an opportunity to see or experience something tangible — observing the scale of Linburgh's plane and the Apollo 11 space capsule, examining the skeletal frame of a triceratops or the confines of a Chicago "L" transit car. Is there a similar historical value to seeing the waxy version of W.C. Fields or the original cast of television's Star Trek?

Personally, if I'm ever going to have my picture taken with the likes of Snooki or Speaker of the House John Boehner, I don't want it to look like I'm standing next to a scientifically preserved version of those people, because...wait, maybe those aren't the best examples.

* Of course I am.

©2011 wpreagan