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In The Time Before

when you were only shadow and wonder, I asked an absent God to show me your face in a dream. Because the thought of missing the moment, the signs, the signals, of walking by you and not feeling that sense of instant recognition crushed my fragile heart.

But in that dream you were often unknowable, infinitely unfamiliar, a blur of features and colors outside my feeble ability to comprehend. Or worse, an amalgamate of every love and lust, imprisoned in comfortable names, fragrances, walking with recycled steps, singing reprocessed songs, and I would wake in fear, convinced I could never know you the way I was certain I had to know you.

But here in the time after, in the same room together, my old heart loving you the way only old hearts can love, I marvel at my good fortune, the life I never expected or knew I wanted unfolding in remarkably ordinary days and nights. You rise from the sofa, a half finished novel in your hand, take the three short steps that separate us. I look up, expectant. You smile that crooked smile I adore, kiss me softly on the head.

It is more than enough.

Poet

The afternoon I met Craig Arnold was a stressful one. It was my first day at the University of Utah (I’d just transferred from SLCC), and I was trying to pull a fast one. I had not taken the prerequisite for English 5520 (advanced poetry writing workshop), but regardless, had put myself on the waiting list. I’d been writing poetry for most of my life, and thought I had some skill. But that didn’t mean the professor was going to agree with me and allow me into the class.

Thirty one years old, Craig was a PhD candidate, the English department’s golden boy, about to have his first book published. He was the Yale Younger Poet of the Year for 1998, and from the very first moments, of our relationship I wanted his approval.

Craig asked me to email a writing sample, and if it wasn’t crap (his word), he’d sign off and let me stay in the class.

The workshop was small, 12 students, and my presence would kept no one else from joining the class, but I stressed over the writing sample for days. I highly doubt he gave it all that much thought, but he told me the poems were passable, that there was some potential.

“It’s not all bad,” he said.

In the workshop setting he was absolutely ruthless and absolutely always on point. Never before (or since) in my writing life have I felt like someone genuinely wanted my writing to be successful as when Craig was ripping apart my poetry.

It was never personal, and looking back it was in that class where I learned criticism had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the writing.

I am grateful for that.

Craig was also in a rock band called Iris. He played guitar and sang terrible songs with really odd lyrics. I saw them perform at a coffee shop in downtown Salt Lake City. Forty people were there, some of whom were likely annoyed that their late night coffee came with the added price of listening to live music.

And he had literary groupies who stood in front of the stage, sang all the songs, hung around after the set just because. Of course Craig soaked every moment of attention.

At the end of the semester, we gathered at the apartment of one of the members of our workshop to celebrate, drink beer, say goodbye. Craig’s book was coming out soon, but all he wanted was to talk about the female body builder roommate of our cohort (her photos from competitions were all over the walls), and how many times he’d had sex that day.

Three times in case you were wondering, and with a wink in my direction, he implied he was ready for a fourth.

But that was his personality- Brash, bold, confident to the extreme. And oh, how he could write. His poetry blew me away. My favorites were his narratives. One in particular was composed in couplets that flowed seamlessly from end rhymes to slants, rich and eye. His stories were precise, and his writing clean, tight.

That night at the class party, five or six beers into a twelve bottle night, after I spent fifteen minutes complaining about my lack of writing success, my envy at his, without the slightest guile he shook his head and said “your day is coming. Be patient.”

The most important thing he taught me about writing poetry- Form is the vehicle, not the destination, which altered the way I approached writing, changed how I used words.

I saw him sporadically after my graduation. He’d show up at the library where I worked, and we talk about what he was doing. He always asked about my writing, and I always lied, telling him it was going great.

A little over ten years after our first meeting, I learned he’d gone missing while hiking on the small volcanic island of Kuchinoerabu, Japan. Searchers found traces of him on a trail near a high cliff and it is presumed he fell to his death.

I had not spoke to him or seen him in at least 8 years, but losing someone I thought of as an important guide on my writing path was hard.

I don’t know what made me think of him today or why I felt like I needed to write down a few of my memories.

Catharsis?

Maybe.

Craig could rub people the wrong way, and there are likely more stories about the awful things he did than the positive ones, but he was always good to me. I admired him for his fearlessness, his talent, his friendship.

He only gave us two collections of poetry, but they are powerful and worth your time. Check them out here

All of us have people who influenced/impacted our lives, changed our direction for the better. I’m curious about yours. 

 

 

 

 

 

The Most Impact

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine tagged me in a Facebook post, challenging me to share a list of ten albums that had the most impact on me, and that still got regular play. I’ve made this sort of list many times in the past, and have my *go-to* albums I usually pull out whenever someone asks for my favorites.

I fully intended to do the same with this challenge, convinced that these records still were representative of my current tastes. I stood in front of the stacks of records and CDs, pulling out the albums I wanted to use. I made a mental note of them, made my first post.

I wrote a few paragraphs detailing why this record was important to me, how it has affected my musical appreciation and the sorts of music liking this record opened up for me.

So far so good.

Day two was much the same- an album, a description, an hour spent thinking about what that music has meant to me. Then my father commented that while he loved the album in question, it was not his favorite from the band. I was about to argue in defense of my choice when I realized it wasn’t my favorite either. In fact, it might have been my third favorite. At that moment, I realized this list was going to be very different from others I’d created. I no longer had interest in a list of favorites, but rather a list of records that pushed me forward.

Any mental notes I’d made about the remaining albums were tossed aside. With a different perspective and mission, I went through the records again. At least four of the titles I planned to use didn’t remain on the revised list. Some I never expected to be on the list suddenly needed to be there.

In the end, I think this current list is a much more accurate representation of my musical education. One realization, I talk a big game about my varied musical tastes, and while I do enjoy all sorts of music, my favorites reside in a very narrow style window. Which means I need to give more attention to other genres, styles, and see if one of those albums might push its way onto the list. Some are very close. Some I haven’t owned long enough to see where they take me.

It was a very fun project and as I always love listening to music, a great opportunity to spend ten days listening to the stuff that had the greatest impact.

Here is the list if you’re interested. It isn’t in any particular order.

Isis- Panopticon
Big Country- The Crossing
The Cure- Pornography
The Police- Synchronicity
Boris-Pink
David Bowie- The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
The Nocturnes- Aokigahara
Russian Circles- Station
Siouxsie and the Banshees- Peepshow
Nine Inch Nails- Pretty Hate Machine

If asked, what sort of list would you make?

With a Small Stain

I arrive for work at the usual time. Fifteen minutes of chit chat with the dinner chef, George  (later, he’ll earn the nickname Jorge Flambe’ after burning his eyebrows off lighting the convection oven), before daring to walk into the dish washing room where I’m certain my friend Darrell has left at least three trays behind for me to finish.

It’s not that he’s lazy (though I know he takes an hour nap each morning between the two breakfast rushes), because I’ve seen him work. And I want to believe it isn’t because he dislikes me and wants me to start my shift with something unpleasant. I should just ask him outright, but I’m only 18 years old, and the thought of confrontation still fills me with dread.

I’ve talked to Joel about it. He works with Darrell each morning. Also, he’s my best friend.

Joel says they often run out of time, and certain things take priority- The pans that must be ready for the next shift. The line that cannot be covered in debris when George comes in to work. The floor that must be swept of all food and filth or the head chef will be angry (though the thought of an angry Stewart almost makes me laugh).

So I swallow my frustrations and clean the leftover dishes, rinsing them with water so hot it scalds my skin (I’ve lost sensitivity to the point I have to test shower water with my elbow, unable to trust my fingers). Then I send them through the *sanitizer* before making my way back to the kitchen where a massive pile of green beans waits to be cut.

I pull a tape from my pocket -Nothing’s Shocking, by Jane’s Addiction- put it in the grease covered tape deck and press play. George hates this music, but allows me the honor of the first selection each shift. He gets to play all the classic rock he likes when the restaurant opens and the bus tours arrive.

On bus tour nights, I’ll be running between the dish room and the grill for the entire five hours the restaurant is open. There are only two of us and when 85-170 people descend on the dining room, George can’t cook all the burgers, fish, and chicken by himself.

I’m the jack of all trades- Dishwasher, food prep (I make the best cheesecakes, Cajun potatoes), short order cook, errand boy. Sometimes it is overwhelming, but most of the time I enjoy the routine. Even the days I get yelled at by the asshole who runs the front end become comical stories, and we all have our tales for sharing.

This night there are no buses at the hotel, only a few guests here for a midweek mountain getaway, and we are not anticipating much of a rush, so we talk more, laugh more, pause between tasks. George tells the same jokes, and I laugh at them like this is the first time I’ve heard them.

The tape ends and George puts on something atrocious by Aerosmith, and since I’d rather chew nails than listen to this, I excuse myself to run silverware to the dining room. The lights are still out and I don’t hear the usual bustle of servers getting ready for opening. Puzzled, I return to the kitchen.

“Hey George, isn’t John supposed to be opening tonight?”

“I think so.”

“Well, it’s quarter to five and there isn’t anyone out there.”

He replies with a string of profanities, then walks to the office to call the asshole who runs the front end. He shuts the door. I pour myself another coke from the soda machine. It is one of the perks, free soda. Also, we get one free meal a day, and 2$ a night lodging at the hotel. It’s a good gig, really. One night after my shift, I made a steak and cheese sandwich with the trimmings from the beef fillet. Best. Sandwich. Ever. I figure retail on it was close to 25 dollars.

I hear some muffled talking, then George’s raised voice. A curt goodbye and he is back in the kitchen.

“Someone will be here by 6. You’ll have to be host and server until they arrive.

I’ll have to what? I’ve never waited a table in my life, and how can I host and serve?

“George, look at me.”

I motion to my working clothes- A dirty pair of jeans, a stained apron, a grimy black Brian Head t-shirt, shoes covered all sorts of yuck, a greasy baseball cap.

“It’ll be fine. And we likely won’t get anyone in that first hour anyway.”

By the time I wash my hands, try and make my hair presentable, it is 5:05 and one couple waits at the still locked door. I swallow my nerves and unlock the restaurant.

“Sorry folks, We’ve had a bit of trouble this afternoon. Two for dinner?”

They don’t appear too upset and reply kindly to my inane questions on the way to the table with the best view.

I hand them menus and offer bland suggestions as to what they might like. The woman looks me over, most likely noticing her server is covered in kitchen filth and smells like deep fryer oil mixed with stale sweat.

“I’ll give you a minute to look over the menu and I’ll get the drinks.”

I smile, turn and walk briskly back to the kitchen. George laughs at me as I overfill the glasses and spill all over the floor.

“You’re making more work for yourself.”

They order the baked chicken. I check on them twice after taking their order, bringing them refills and a basket of poorly cut bread.

I’m still too nervous to stand still and wander back and forth from the front desk to the kitchen, sure it’s taking way too long for the food to be ready and the couple will walk out very soon.

Finally, the chicken is done. I carefully carry both plates to the table and place them in front of the couple.

“Can I get you anything else?”

No, everything looks great.

I retreat to the host desk, hoping there is no one else waiting. From my stool, I can see them cutting into the vegetables, the meat. They seem pleased.

George wanders out from the back, gives me a wink. Just then, John arrives.

“Sorry guys, I totally forgot it was my night to open.”

“It’s cool,” I say, hoping I’m not letting on how glad I am he is here. “Just the one couple and they seem alright with my service.”

He laughs.

“I’ll take over from here, but I’ll bring you the tip.”

Back in the kitchen, I finish making a pan of potatoes, put them in the oven. The Aerosmith tape ends and before I can put in some Oingo Boingo, George slaps in something from Supertramp. It could be worse.

Ten minutes later, John comes up and hands me two bills. Both ones.

Two dollars.

They tipped me two dollars on a 30 dollar meal.

John laughs, tells me to keep my day job.

 

 

 

 

A Few Words on a Wednesday

One month before the placement of twin seven year old boys in our home, Sheryl and I took our last vacation together before becoming parents. I’d never been to San Francisco, we both wanted to go, so we went. It sometimes seems like only yesterday.

I don’t think I had the slightest idea how my life was about to change, or how insane being a parent would be/is. Looking back, I wouldn’t change one damn thing. I’ve got great kids who are less than 6 months away from graduation. I love them. But once again things are about to change in a huge way, and as before, I have zero clue about the how.

Anyway, here are three pictures from that trip. It was a really good time. Also, don’t pay any attention to the plastic bag in the last picture. It isn’t really there. You’re mind is playing tricks on you.

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One More

The kids are back in school. Seniors. Their last year of compulsory education has begun, and honestly I don’t know how to feel about it. On a abstract level, I understand that they are nine months away from graduation, a year from 18, from having to really decide in what direction they want to go. As for actually knowing what that will look like, or how it will impact me, I’m clueless. I can only hope I’ve given them enough information, skills and direction to make the best decisions they can.

This transition from summer to the school year feels the same as every other. One day the boys are here, all the time, no real responsibilities, sleeping in, hanging out with friends. The next morning the house takes on a strange stillness. This year, the puppy is taking up some of the slack, and all of my free time, but I’ve still noticed an altered energy. Something is clearly missing, again.

I can’t help but think of myself at their age, my last year of high school in front of me. It seems forever ago and almost like it just happened. I can clearly remember many things that I did, wanted to do, experienced. My kids are different. School is different. They will have a completely different experience than mine, which is just as it should be.

But just like mine, the school year will pass, it will be over before they know it.

If I’m being honest (and I try to be), I’m looking forward to the time when it is just Sheryl and me, alone again. I know how amazing it is to have the empty nest, and while I will always welcome my kids home, I’m excited for the places Sheryl and I will go, as well as the quiet nights when it is just the two of us.

The anticipation is killing me. The possibilities are exciting to ponder.

Anyway, here are a few pictures of the lads, the traditional first day of school photos. destry.jpg

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both

The headless dog photobomb is my favorite.

 

Under the Influence

Music has always been a very influential part of my life. It is hard for me to remember a day without the presence of some song or other. I’ve talked before about how music (and books) are sacred to me. Musicians are storytellers, and as a storyteller I feel a connection with them that goes beyond just enjoying their talents. Certain music has the ability to reconnect me with my past, transport me places, allow me the opportunity to experience old emotions, people. I’ve been moved to tears by music more times than I can count, and each time I’ve been grateful for the experience.

Music also fuels my writing.

There was a time when I needed silence to work, and any outside distraction was a detriment. I don’t know what changed, but now I cannot compose anything without some music playing. It influences the direction of my writing, the tone, the development. I know certain scenes in my first novel were created in direct response to what was on the stereo at the time I was writing them.

And I have so much  of it.

discs

 

Hundreds of vinyl records. Thousands of compact discs. A few lonely cassette tapes.

I’m always acquiring more as well. The more new stuff that I add to the collection, the more some albums get forgotten. Some albums have not been played in years, maybe decades.

In order to try and remember the lost ones, I determined to listen to each of my CD’s (in reverse alphabetical, reverse chronological order) over a two year period. I call it “The Great CD Listening Adventure. I started in the fall of 2016 and just moved through L and into the letter K this morning (L7 to Kylesa, in case you were wondering).

Because some albums have not aged well, I give myself some outs- I play everything, but if after three songs, I’m not feeling it, the disc gets yanked (set on the pile to take to my local record store where I can get store credit). I can skip live albums and greatest hits collections. Singles are also optional. Otherwise, it’s every album by every artist. It’s been so much fun. I’ve rediscovered some forgotten gems, and realized that I’ve lost interest in some bands completely.

My tastes have always been all over the place, ranging from bubblegum pop to Black Metal and most everything in between. I firmly believe that there is a gem in every genre, and that some of the best music ever made is being created right now. If you’re wondering, disagreeing, curious, I can give you a nice list of artists to consider.

What about you? What sort of role does music play in your life, your writing? When authors use music, does it have any affect on the way you perceive a scene?

Who are some of your favorite artists? Who are you listening to right now? Tell me all about your love of music, please.

 

A Small Contribution

Yesterday, I was fortunate to enjoy having breakfast with a very good friend. She doesn’t like eggs, but I am willing to look past that. I don’t see her as often as I’d like, which is mostly my fault. I need to do better. We worked at the library together.  We did good things. I love the library. I love librarians. They are among the best people.

I also made plans to meet up with another library friend in the early afternoon. We both share a love for a certain band.  They performed in Salt Lake this past weekend. I got to attend. He didn’t. His young son, also loves this band. I had acquired a clever poster of the band members, and thought his son would enjoy it. It gave me a good reason to get out of the house, go to the main library, which is a place that still means the world to me.

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I worked at the Salt Lake City Public Library for a decade. It was a career I sort of stumbled into, not realizing how much I’d love it, or how deeply the philosophies of librarianship would penetrate my personal, emotional, intellectual life. I made the best of friends, shared hours of conversations and debates with like minded individuals.  The best part was the reference work. Finding the correct information from the best possible resources, seeing someone light up with excitement, was very rewarding. It was important work, it had infinite integrity. I like to think I made a difference in a small way in people’s lives.

I miss it more than I’d like to admit.

Back From

Our family trip to Cancun was, as usual, wonderful. I can never get enough time near the stunning waters of the Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean. I have not stood and stared out at every sea, but I would still argue the water near Cancun is among the most beautiful in the world.IMG_8723

Even before I had ever actually seen one, I was compelled, intoxicated by the thought of the ocean. Incomprehensibly large, powerful, beautiful, my first experiences on the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean have stayed with me throughout my adult life. I was 19, living in Maine, serving a mission for the LDS church. I stood on the sand of Old Orchard Beach, near dusk, staring out at the retreating tide, the evening sky darkening the water. I was humbled. Nothing has frightened or thrilled me as much as staring out at that vastness.

Most likely because of my affinity for the ocean, our Cancun trips usually consist of a week of sitting on the beach, gazing out at the water. The hum of it is endless. The ocean looks and sounds different as each day progresses. I tried to capture some of it.

At sunrise the sky dominates, and the ocean is a muted turquoise. IMG_8719

By mid morning, the sky pales and the blue green water is nearly impossible for me to look away from.IMG_8722

In the evening, the colors and textures are stunning.

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Under a bright yellow moon, words fail me.

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Last. A slightly edited image (shadows and light to bring out the textures of the clouds, the water) of an approaching storm. IMG_8718

I am glad to be home, back to the usual routines, but I miss the constant sound of the waves, the insistent wind. I’ll have to go back soon.

 

Illegibly

I have some of the worst handwriting in the history of handwriting. It is a family curse. All my siblings (and my father. My mother writes beautifully) create equally atrocious letters. If word processing had never been invented, if I were forced to write everything by hand, it is highly likely I would not be a writer.

Elementary schools used to (maybe they still do) include handwriting in their grading system. My first D’s were earned in handwriting. I remember the teacher’s comment- “Sloppy work. If Ryan were to practice, take his time, his handwriting would improve.” Sorry, Mrs Lindsay, some of us are deficient in our fine motor skills (I’m not allowed near scissors), and all the slowness and patience in the world isn’t going to make things any better.

Still, there is something very appealing to me about handwritten texts (letters, poems, stories). I enjoy going through the stacks of letters sent to me by family and friends over the years, not only to relive old memories, re-discover forgotten moments, but to revel in the intimate connection something handwritten provides. Each smudged letter, crossed out word, is a connection to the moment of composition, a closeness to the expression of thought.

At various points in my life, I’ve kept handwritten journals. Some of these are day to day, what did I do, sorts of writings, while others are sketches- of emotions I’m dealing with, people I’ve encountered or characters I’ve created. I like the difficulty of handwriting, the struggle I have to write legibly. It focuses my efforts, narrows my scope. Sometimes, I don’t bother and just fly through a page, laughing at myself as the ends of words blur into unintelligible squiggles; sentences and paragraphs that barely qualify.

I’ve just spend the last two days reading a journal I wrote when I was between the ages of 19 and 21. Terrible spelling. Every event described was either the most important or most mundane of my existence. Certain phrases repeated themselves on almost every page. As I read, each entry made me guffaw at my strangeness, cringe at my hyperbole. Today, I plan to read a journal from my early years at the community college. I expect to have a similar response.

Every time I go through one of these readings, I am ready to commit myself to writing more often. I’ve managed a page a month for the last two years, but I want more. So much of life gets lost over time, altered or forgotten, and while a handwritten (or typed) account of an event is not free of bias or distortion, it is an honest attempt at telling.

Do any of you keep journals? If so, are they something typed, stored in a file, or are they written out longhand? Is your handwriting like mine?