The Graveyard Near My House

I don’t enjoy singing in public.  Generally, I don’t enjoy anything that precipitates an anxiety attack.  Singing is like reading one’s words aloud as one writes them, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in front of an audience of one or one thousand – it makes me physically ill.  My throat closes, my chest tightens, and I gasp for air as if I am being suffocated.  I guess you would call it “stage fright,” though what frightens me the most is the way singing exposes a person’s soul to interpretation and criticism.

However, there was a time when I wasn’t so concerned with exposure.  As a child, I loved being onstage.  The spotlight felt warm, familiar, and blinding, like the sun at the beach.  In school I auditioned for the starring role in every production.  I joined chorus and involved myself in extracurricular activities related to theater and music.  One teacher told my mother that I was either going to be an actress or a writer, and both careers had her scared to death because probably neither would allow me to support myself financially.  But I had a passion for the stage and the pen that has transcended to adulthood.

After high school, I pursued a more reasonable career path, but turned singing into a hobby.  I paid for singing lessons and enjoyed learning how to train and strengthen my voice.  My instructor encouraged me to get involved with community theater, confident that I had both talent and skill, and I honestly felt her disappointment when my other goals and pursuits did not line up with the stage.  Eventually, I quit the lessons and life took over – marriage, moving, and the mundane day-to-day activities that left very little time for hobbies like singing or writing.

Since he was a 16-year-old bass player in a garage band, Hubby has been trying to get me to record something with him.  He doesn’t sing much, but he loves music, and playing the guitar is more than just a hobby for him – it’s a talent in his family that has been passed down from generation to generation.

Over the years we have acquired some equipment and practiced here and there, but the majority of time has been spent talking about it and never actually doing anything.  Other than a couple inebriated karaoke sessions at our local taco joint, my singing career – I mean hobby – had become stagnant.

Then when Wesley died, it was over.

Like so many things I used to enjoy, singing was something I thought I could no longer do.  Unlike mindless humming or the repetition of words in a song on the radio, real singing - the soul-exposing, heart-revealing expression of melodies that come from deep within – was an impossibility for a long time.

Likewise, and most disturbingly of all, Hubby stopped playing the guitar altogether.  He refused to even pick it up.  At one time, he even considered selling it, because even though it was my graduation gift to him, it became a sore sight in the living room.  Grief will do that to a person, and it is non-discriminatory.  Grief doesn’t care that you are a 4th+ generation musician.  It will blow the skill right out of your brain, and then beat you with it.

On the flip side, grief can also be harnessed and used to create art.  But this doesn’t always happen automatically or immediately.

It was during that terrible dark year following Wesley’s death and my miscarriage that I “discovered” The Airborne Toxic Event, and the song “The Graveyard Near The House” hit very, very close to home.  It felt like one of the many conversations we were having during those horrible months of accepting our reality and reeling from the nightmarish truth that our lives could end at any time, and what would happen then?

It is a love song for the realists, a fact which makes it quite possibly the most romantic song of them all.

It is also known to make me weep shamelessly at concerts.  Or in the privacy of my own home, when no one is around.  I have heard it literally thousands of times, and there are moments still when a certain line or note will hit me right between the ribs where I think I’ve so cleverly hidden and buried my fears, only to discover they are collecting at the surface, seeping and festering on an open wound.

When we finally reached the point of desperation readiness to start trying for another baby, we began filling the great abysmal unknown with negative pregnancy tests and the last pieces of what were once hopes and dreams.  We started having conversations about adoption, or selling everything and buying a couple motorcycles and never walking through the baby aisle of a department store ever again.

Infertility is a grief of its own, a vacuum of despair and humiliation that steals a person’s humanity.

We were already humbled within an inch of our lives when our son died.  Then came the miscarriage, and now I was having trouble getting pregnant a third time.  Meanwhile, our friends were having babies left and right, as we were slowly going insane.

So one day in the spring of 2013, I snapped.

“I want you to play me a song,” I told Hubby, and I handed him the guitar I got him when we were 18.

“No,” he said, pushing it away.  “I’m probably going to sell it, anyway.”

I bit my lip, ignoring the hurt I felt that he would sell his graduation present.  But this wasn’t personal – this was grief.  And like all issues I feel strongly about, I continued to push it until he finally relented.  I mean agreed.

“Just think of it as an art project,” I told him.  “Let’s use all that equipment we paid good money for.”

And then I pulled out the big guns.  “You always said you wanted to make music with me.”

Hubby can’t resist a challenge.

First, Hubby had to learn the song by watching live performances of “Graveyard” on YouTube.  This took him less than an hour.  Then we had practice sessions in our living room for a couple of weeks.  Lastly, he cleaned the dust off his effects pedal and microphone and we set a date to record it live.

We talked about various locations around town where we could film it, but nothing seemed feasible without an electrical outlet.  We had to think smaller.

Our filming date coincided with his parents’ camping trip, so out of convenience our location was chosen for us – the back deck of his parents’ house that overlooks the woods.  It’s a picturesque little backyard in the springtime, and it also afforded us the use of electricity and unlimited trips to the refrigerator, which ended up being a necessity.  We were unprepared for the amount of time this was going to take.

Hubby began setting up for the shoot, and then it hit me, what we were about to do.

I had baited him with talk of putting it on Facebook and YouTube without really considering my proposal: that other people would see it.  I was throwing myself under the bus to get my husband to play the guitar again, because one of us losing ourselves in this fight to survive was enough, but both of us was unacceptable.  And also I had gone a little bit insane.

But in a moment of clarity before the camera started rolling, I panicked as if I was stepping onstage.  It didn’t matter that the audience was an as yet undetermined amount of people – someone was guaranteed to see it, even if it was just my mother-in-law.  And in the months and years since Wesley, my social anxiety has grown into an out-of-control wildfire that threatens to consume me into staying inside and being a hermit for the rest of my days.

Nevertheless, I was fed up with life.  I had all but given up.  What difference would it make, really, if I put a stupid video of me making a fool out of myself on the Internet?  Even if it was truly awful, no one could have made me feel worse about myself than I already felt.

Besides, if nothing else, Hubby can play the guitar, and he looks good playing the guitar.  So it couldn’t be all bad.  Could it?

We spent hours doing take after take.  A dog would start barking, and we would have to stop.  A plane would fly overhead, and ruin our audio.  And I kept having waves of anxiety that threatened to steal my breath and voice and made my skin tingle.  The left side of my face eventually went numb.  But we kept going until we finally hit our stride and got a decent take.

The sun was setting on our way home.  A full day of playing the guitar and singing, to make up for the years of silence in our marriage where there should have been music.

Hubby spent a week editing the video. I suggested we add a black-and-white filter, as a tribute to the band’s video. I watched it one time, all the while resisting the urge to criticize myself out of existence.  Again, what did it matter?  I was already becoming a ghost in my own life, wasting away from grief and desperation.  Who really gives a crap, anyway?  Not me.

I declared it “not terrible” and we put it online.  And then I tried to forget about it, like I do everything that requires some kind of soul-exposure.  Even blogging.  Even this blog post. 

Over time, I’ve tried not to think about it. I never watched it again, and I refuse to listen to the audio recording. I can’t take it, and I can’t even really explain why. I think it has something to do with the fear of my own severe, harsh, and sometimes unfounded criticism that I only use on myself being realized, and then I will truly never sing or write or do anything creative ever again. And it doesn’t matter that a few people saw it and actually liked it, or were inspired by it to do something creative themselves, or were just glad we had done something that didn’t involve sobbing over our pain. If I were to watch it again, it’s like singing in public, except it was a year and a half ago, but the anxiety is still hanging around.

The only reason I started thinking about it again was because Hubby was tagged by some of his old band mates in some viral social medial survey in which they requested to know his Top Favorite 20 Songs Of All Time. Amongst other respectable choices, there was “The Graveyard Near The House.”

“Really?” I said. “‘Graveyard’ made the cut?” Because I’m surprised when Hubby mentions in any capacity the band that has taken over his wife, and is sometimes met with affection, other times with annoyance. I always forget that he was the one who introduced me to them, not the other way around.

“Yes, of course ‘Graveyard,'” he replied like I should have known better. “Those are just some of the best lyrics ever written.”

And then out of the blue, I suddenly remembered I sung that song in the public forum that is YouTube.

“Hey, remember when we did our ‘Graveyard’ video?”

“Yes.”

I paused to remember the person I was in that video – that desperate, grieving shell of a person.

“Why did we do that?”

Now it was Hubby’s turn to pause. He thought for a moment and then simply said, “Because we had to.”

He is right. We had to. We had to do something. Even if it was just a makeshift, homespun little music video covering an obscure song that isn’t even on the radio. Even if no one will watch it, or think it is anything great, or even if they think it’s awful. We had to do it. Whether it’s because we were at the very end of our rope emotionally, mentally, and physically and we just had to put something out there into the void . . . or we risked losing the last of the charred remains of an empire that was our past selves if we didn’t cultivate and nurture our creative roots. We had to do it.

And it had to be this song, because there isn’t another love song for realists out there – the people who openly discuss the devastation and downright absurdity of death in the same breath they acknowledge that love is worth it, no matter the outcome. Win, lose, or die . . . in the end, it’s better to love, whether the person is your spouse, the unborn children you’re hoping for, or the dead child you miss so much it hurts. This is our soul-exposing, heart-revealing truth. In the end, love wins.

Since then, Hubby has picked up the guitar more, and has even written his own songs. We even learned a few more Airborne songs, and other songs that were fun to play.

It’s a slow process of rebuilding the people like the ones we used to be. And although I will probably never sing onstage in public again, it’s nice to know that the soul-exposing, heart-revealing person I used to be is not completely gone forever, and might be salvageable after all.

Here is our video. It’s not anything special. It’s probably not even really that great. But we had to do it.

Brothers

I hear it all the time. Even now, as an adult. Even as recently as last week.

“You’re their little sister? I never knew they even had a little sister!”

It doesn’t surprise me anymore. I roll with it now. Sometimes with invention: “I was locked away in a tower” or “I grew up in France.” Sometimes with humor: “I’m the best thing about my family, and they just didn’t want anyone to know.”

The truth is, I was a latecomer. The last of the progeny. The baby. They were learning to drive when I was learning cursive. When I started middle school, they were starting their adult lives – moving out (and back in), working, dating, and leaving a legacy with friends in the Tri-State Area. Friends that I met in my adult life, and continue to meet as time goes on.

It’s like being the little sister of a couple of celebrities. People instantly recognize my maiden name. And it’s not “Oh, are you the daughter of So-and-So?” No. It’s “Are you related to So-and-So? Oh, they’re your brothers? I didn’t know they had a sister!” And so on, and so forth.

I can remember a handful of times they let me, their tomboyish kid sister, tag along – but this was the exception rather than the rule. A day at the amusement park there, letting me hang out while they played computer games here. But I was just a kid, you see. And nobody wants to be responsible for their kid sister when they’re trying to have fun . . . unless there are girls involved. Then I became a commodity. Look at how awesome and sensitive I am, taking care of my little sister. Right.

Sometimes my oldest brother T would let me hang out in his room while he played video games, with the ubiquitous array of electronic innards scattered about the floor.  He was the child of the Commodore 64, growing up in the utopian age of computers, and familiarized himself so much with the technology he made a career out of it.  He used to try to explain to me what everything did, and how it all fit together so I could play Lemmings, but I never quite understood what the heck he was talking about. It wasn’t until I was about 13 and he was 23 that he had vital information for me: how to download music using the program Napster. Those were the days, my friend.

My other brother (and he is definitely the “other” brother and poster child for Middle Child Syndrome) never let me go near his room. I was mostly okay with that, though, because it smelled pretty bad in there. On the rare occasion J would come out of his room, we would usually start fighting, and more than once it got physical, to the point where I do believe I took off a few layers of arm skin with my fingernails. But to his credit, he probably could have literally killed me, and he didn’t. He just disappeared into his room with a bowl of cereal and a Band-Aid.

Nevertheless, as I was growing up, I always knew that both of my brothers were extremely talented.

T is the artist. His artwork is meticulously crafted and breathtaking. From cartoons to comic books to detailed portraits, his talent is second nature, but never superficial – his subjects have heart and soul. His portfolio is an extensive marvel of precise skill.

Not just a talented artist, he is well read and intelligent, taking his skill with computers to “wizard” status and running the gamut of the English language. He was the first one to teach me about Word Of The Day and introduce me to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as well as the prolific sci-fi genre in general. His quick, sarcastic wit often goes over the head of his audience, a fact which often amuses only him, but has pushed the parameters of my own understanding to get his jokes.

T wearing an example of his favorite kind of humor.

T wearing an example of his favorite kind of humor.

However, with his massive brain comes a deep and attractive quality of humility and compassion that permeates everything he does. His intimidating size throws people off, but his friends know him to be a great listener, diplomat, and mediator. He is something of an oxymoron, with his deep brow and terrifying glare, but absolute disdain for controversy. It could be said one might be able to walk all over him. Except no one would ever, ever try.

At an Airborne show, T is my bodyguard.

At an Airborne show, T is my bodyguard.

J’s talent has always been poetry, though this might come to a surprise to those who don’t know him well. For as long as I can remember, he has kept a folded piece of paper and a pen in his pocket at all times, and will produce it randomly in any given setting to scribble down a verse or two. His poems can be shockingly painful, about life and death and heartache. But he, too, is an oxymoron. The same person who can take your breath away and break your heart with words can also make you laugh until you can’t breathe. He is the paragon of middle children everywhere, demanding your attention whether it’s positive or negative. It doesn’t matter. You got mad. You laughed. You reacted. He is pleased with all forms of attention, even going so far as growing a handlebar mustache for controversy’s sake. He uses Instagram like target practice, taking aim at every picture you post with sarcastic wit at your expense. Sometimes I will go on there just to read the comments he leaves. He walks the very thin line between a good-natured dig and an offensive remark, and he is beloved for it . . . for the most part.  But even the ones whom he offends amuse him.

J - the non-conformist "Middle Child."

J – the non-conformist “Middle Child.”

Though close in age, they’re both very different, but equally beloved by those who know them. They have an extensive group of friends of different ages, one so large it often overlaps with mine. And every once in a while, I will meet someone who knew them when they were young adults, and only later will they realize I am their little sister.

Maybe we’re not as close as we could be, or should be. Time and age has influenced that up until recent years, but as I became an adult and started a family of my own, things began to change. I wanted them around more. Sometimes this came back to bite me. Such was the case during my first time seeing The Airborne Toxic Event. I rounded up a couple girl friends and my brother J. Mostly, I wanted protection an older brother affords – just in case. I had never been to a concert without my husband since I got married, and for all intents and purposes, I had never been to one like this at all, as a fangirl in the front row. But J – well, he can only be himself. The Middle Child. The big brother who never grew up.

In the middle of the show, during a prolonged and quiet pause, my brother took aim at my expense in a singularly public way, much like he does on social media. Very loudly, and with great pleasure, he yelled out “MY SISTER IS IN LOVE WITH YOU. AND SHE IS MARRIED.”

In horror, I whipped around and whisper-yelled back at him. “Shut up, you moron! What is wrong with you?!”

And of course, he just smiled. Because all he wanted was a reaction. And maybe that was his way of putting me in my place. Maybe he thought it was his job, as a big brother. Or maybe he is just a turd. Whatever the reason, in the end he smoothed things over with the purchase of my first band T-shirt. And thankfully, no band member past or present seems to remember my total humiliation.

I didn’t have those classic sibling moments growing up that you see on sitcoms or read in memoirs. I just have what I’ve got now, as we are all grown up and trying to make sense of our lives and the challenges along the way.

Those challenges define who really is your family. It doesn’t have to be the person your mother gave birth to before or after you. Sometimes a friend can be like a brother, and I am blessed to have many “brothers” in that sense.

But these men with whom I share my maiden name are both my friends and brothers, and they have proven to be such in my own times of distress.

The brother who can meticulously craft a portrait of the anguish in the eyes of a human was there at my son’s funeral, with tears streaming down his cheeks, as he held my head against his broad shoulders. And he was there in the days after, quietly listening with compassion – his intimidating form never an intimidating presence, but that of a welcome and warm companion.

The brother who delights at making others laugh or pissing me off was there at the funeral with a poem he had written for me, about the nephew he never knew. A poem about life, death, and a kind of heartache he couldn’t possibly understand, but somehow seemed to capture in verse.

These are my brothers, the men who have preceded me and left a legacy. And I’m the little sister no one knows about.

For a long time, I wondered where I fit into the trifecta as the only girl, the little sister, and the baby. We are each so different, yet there are overlaps in our respective interests and abilities. I draw a little bit, but I’m not even close to being an artist like my brother T.  I’ve tried writing poetry, but it pales in comparison to J’s raw exposure of emotion through verse.

I guess I’m just trying to write it all down.

And maybe this is my legacy, a string of words on a nonexistent page.

But I would hardly be the person I am today without my brothers, and I am proud that, for some people, their first impression of me is built around their last impression of my brothers.

*For T and J with love, from your li’l sis

Not For Wimps

**The following post is not an attack on those who have chosen, for whatever reason, whether by necessity or choice, not to breastfeed.  Certainly we moms are hard enough on ourselves without having someone criticize what we feed our children.**

Like most women, I had grandiose ideas of motherhood. I watched my friends have babies and admired the ethereal transformation that took place when they tended to their infant children and toddlers. Most notably, this happened when they attached a hungry child to their breast seemingly without difficulty, while one hand supported the baby and the other reached for a glass of wine. It was an incredible thing to witness, this moment of ultimate multitasking. When I found out I was pregnant, and the idea that I might actually have a baby one day became a real possibility, I was already on board. If this was breastfeeding, sign me up.

Sure, I was a little concerned about cracked and bleeding nipples, and the likely reality that my already monstrous-sized boobs would go up a size or two. But by the time I was eight months pregnant with Little Rock Star, these concerns paled when I considered how fortunate I was that I could have a baby, much less breastfeed one. After all, everyone else survived it. And not only were they successful, they encouraged me to try it as well.

So we signed up for breastfeeding classes and patted ourselves on the back for being proactive parents and giving our son the very best food possible. I pictured myself like my ethereal mom-friends, having that special bond with my baby at the same time I enjoyed a glass of wine.

However, there was a question that everyone wanted to know, even down to the paperwork on breastfeeding I completed for the hospital when I gave birth. Why was everyone asking me if I had a support group for breastfeeding? I didn’t see any entourage following my mom-friends around while they breastfed their babies. Why the heck would I need one?

I shrugged my shoulders and concluded that I did have a support group, if that’s what my breastfeeding friends were. They were supporting me to breastfeed, too. So there you go. I guess?

Then I had a baby to feed. Only then did I understand to the fullest extent what that actually meant.

Because breastfeeding is not for wimps.

Now, I have been through hardships, both emotional and physical, in my relatively modest lifetime. I have had two C-sections, a miscarriage, and have experienced the death of one of my children. I also ran 5ks and endured grueling exercise programs to get in shape.

So let me assure you, breastfeeding is hard.

It is one of the hardest things I have ever done.

And I just wish someone would have prepared me. Yes, I took the classes. Yes, I talked to friends and relatives who successfully breastfed their children. But no one sat me down and said, “Look, what you’re about to do? It’s like, the hardest thing you will ever do. You will cry. You will feel like you’re running a marathon every day for weeks, on the littlest amount of sleep you’ve ever had in your life. And your nipples will crack and bleed. And you’re going to feel like giving up. In the middle of the night, one of the many bottles of formula they throw at you at the hospital is going to look mighty tempting. But you’ll get through it.”

Yes, I got through it, even in spite of having to give my son formula at the hospital to help him gain weight because my milk hadn’t come in yet. I got through having to trick him back to breastfeeding with my husband’s help, with him hovering over us holding a syringe of expressed breast milk that he would squirt into my son’s mouth when he tried to latch. I got through having to wake up every hour and a half to feed him – which meant spending 20 minutes waking a sleepy infant who wanted to stay asleep as much as I did, then another 15 minutes trying to get him to latch while he screamed in frustration, then at least another 15 minutes trying to get us both to stay awake while he ate, only to repeat the process again several times before the dawn.

I got through leaky boobs, a painful letdown (which, for those of you who don’t know, feels like some invisibly strong and painful gravity is pulling at your boobs), and a mild bout with mastitis (read=aching pain). I got through an overactive supply, which made my boobs go up not one, not two, but three whole sizes to the point I felt like Jessica Rabbit nursing a baby. And I got through the guilt of watching my poor baby cough and choke on his food because once my milk came in, my boobs were set to “garden hose.”

I also got through bleeding and cracked nipples, which, as it turned out, had the easiest remedy of all. I just slapped some coconut oil on those bad boys (well, not exactly slapped, but you know what I mean), and the next day I was ready to face whatever challenge this breastfeeding job would bring. And it is definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, a job.

And that support group everyone was asking about? That was actually every single woman I knew who breastfed their children. They became my go-to people for advice on how to handle these formidable challenges, in addition to the breastfeeding consultants whom I asked for help. Together with about 20 other people, me and Little Rock Star were a champion breastfeeding team.

But I still felt like I was missing something. Breastfeeding was not enjoyable for me like it was for other more ethereal-looking moms. I didn’t feel that special bond that I thought I was supposed to feel. It was more like a sense of satisfaction one receives for completing a task, not hearts and flowers and warm fuzzies.

And there was still the issue of breastfeeding in public, which I was having trouble doing. Little Rock Star wants to eat like the true performer he is – not from behind a curtain. He literally threw off every cover I tried to use, and I tried them all – from Babies ‘R Us to Etsy homemade models to nursing scarves. He would cry and wiggle and flail his arms around until I finally realized I had to go au naturel.

But the challenge of breastfeeding became, not the act of breastfeeding itself, but how I felt about breastfeeding – and my failure at becoming the perfect ethereal mom I had always hoped to be.

The idea of nursing a baby in public gave me such great anxiety, I packed bottles of breastmilk when I wasn’t sure I could find a private place for me to feed my little guy. After all, he refused to eat under a tent or a cover, and who could blame him? I wouldn’t want to eat like that either.

But what if someone saw me? What if I became some sort of public spectacle, with my Jessica Rabbit boobs and my little acrobatic breastfeeder?  How could I reconcile all this with my crippling social anxiety?

Despite my legal right to breastfeed practically anywhere I want to, the thought of being that ultimate multitasking mom with a baby at her breast and a wineglass in her hand seemed like a dream.

Then last week, when we were at the park, Little Rock Star was hungry.

And I didn’t have a bottle.

I quickly surveyed my surroundings. Several feet away, in a small theater pavilion, a few teenage boys were skateboarding on the concrete stage. Across the clearing, a birthday party was taking place at a shelter. Next to the shelter came the cheerful cries of children at the playground.

And there we were, right in the middle of the park, taking shade at a picnic table under a tree.

I could have retreated to the car, where I could try to (uncomfortably) feed my child. Or we could have taken a walk to find some private wooded area where I could sit on the ground like our ancestors and feed him there. But the more he cried out of hunger, the more desperate I became.

And so instead, I sat down at the picnic table and lovingly calmed him before I discreetly fed him –  in public, surrounded by several other people. No cover, no scarf, no acrobatics. Just a mom feeding her baby in the most natural way.

And wouldn’t you know it, no one gawked at me, or tried to take a picture, or told me I couldn’t breastfeed in public. No one even cared. Maybe they didn’t even notice.

No one knew they were witnessing the most beautiful thing – that at that moment, a transformation was taking place. I became the perfect ethereal mom I always wanted to be – confident and calm, knowing I was giving my child the very best food there is. And maybe that’s all it takes to become “that” mom – giving your child what they need, when they need it – whether it’s taking a moment to calm them down, kissing a scraped knee, breastfeeding in a park, or waking up in the middle of the night to give them a bottle of formula. All of it is part of the selfless, unconditional love that comes from being a mom.

The only thing missing was that glass of wine.  But when I looked into my son’s beautiful blue eyes, I knew I wasn’t missing anything at all.

Check

For a moment, she considered it.

The cashier was a woman, not a 17-year-old guy.  Check.

No one ahead of her.  Check.

Then she made a sweep with her eyes of the contents in her cart.

Less than 20.  Or was it 15?  Wait . . . 12.  No.  That’s crazy.  It’s 20.  It’s 20 items or less, and I have less than 20 items.  Check.

But then she saw the Self-Checkout Lanes.

Shining like the proverbial pearly gates of heaven with an angelic choir, the allure of buying groceries privately with no social interaction whatsoever was too strong.  She passed the cashier that wasn’t a 17-year-old guy.  She passed the No-Wait, 20 (or maybe 15) Items or Less Lane.

A conversation in which she didn’t have to answer was too great a promise.

“Welcome valued customer.”

“Are you using your own bags?”

“Scan your item.  Then place your item in the bagging area.”

The first item she plucked from the cart was a red pepper with a bar code sticker on its skin.  She carefully held it above the scanner, waiting for the red laser lines visible through the glass plate of the metal surface to do their job.  Technology is wonderful, she thought.

She continued to hold it, but there was no familiar chime.

She turned it over in.  She smoothed the sticker in case a tiny fold or crease was the culprit of failure.  She even gently pressed the pepper against the surface of the scanner, to no avail.

“Did you pick self-checkout,” said a real and decidedly male voice behind her, “so you didn’t have to interact with anyone?”

“Maybe,” she replied, avoiding a husband’s judgmental glare.  Then she all but smashed the pepper into the scanner.  Work, you stupid piece of crap!

“Honey.”

His voice was kind but impatient.

“Let’s go.”

“It’ll work.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“It.  Will.  Work.”

Ding.

“Place your item in the bagging area.”

“See?”  She held up the pepper condescendingly, then did as she was told.

Her husband shook his head, and the baby in his arms smiled and cooed at the sight of his mother’s face.

“You have a problem.”

She continued scanning and bagging more groceries.

“You know,” her husband said as she individually scanned and individually bagged the sixth jar of baby food, “these people are paid to help you.”

“I like doing it myself.”

“This takes three, maybe even four times as long.  All so you don’t have to speak to another human being.”

“That is correct, yes.”

He sighed.

“I’m going to go get the car.”

“That’s a good idea,” she said cheerfully.  She didn’t even look up as he passed, making his way to the exit, and as she placed another item in the bagging area.  The price was high, she thought, but the rewards are great.  Perhaps one day they could afford to have their groceries delivered to their home, eliminating this problem altogether.  But who has the money for that?

Money.

She looked in the cart where the diaper bag was supposed to be, and in which her wallet was now living these days.

It was gone.

Of course it was.  He had taken the diaper bag with the human for whom the diaper bag was used: the baby.  Not the adult woman.  The adult woman was supposed to carry a purse, and if she had been, there would be no problem.

The pause in the transaction elicited a response from the machine.

“Attendant has been notified to assist you.”

No.  No!  Cancel.  Cancel!

Within five seconds, she had her cell phone pressed to her ear.

“Yeah?”

“I need the diaper bag.  My purse is in there.”

His voice faded as he hung up the phone.  “You have got to be kidding – “

After an excruciatingly 3-5 minutes, her husband reappeared carrying the baby in one arm and the diaper bag on the other.  With an exaggerated and comical pursed-lip expression, he extended the bag to her and she offered a polite “thanks.”  He turned to leave, and she returned to scanning her items and placing them in the bagging area, just like the machine said.

Machines don’t get impatient with you, she thought to herself as she scanned and bagged a pack of hamburger buns.

Her last item was a small four-pack case of ginger beer.  It was a last-minute addition to their grocery list, her husband having been wanting to make Moscow Mules ever since their friends had introduced them to the refreshing, summery cocktail last month.  He “just so happened” to be walking through the liquor aisle and discovered their local store was now carrying it, and had excitedly held it up to her face so she, too, could be excited about the prospect of Moscow Mules.

Now she just wanted to leave.  It was getting dangerously close to the start time of the bedtime routine.  Countdown would begin at the first unpleasant sound from her infant son, and for all she knew, that could have been minutes ago during her husband’s first trip to the car.

She went to pick up the ginger beer.

This special beer, however, was not packaged in the usual way of its Michelob cousins or its distant relative, Smirnoff.  The beers were wrapped on the top, bottom, front, and back with cardboard, leaving the sides exposed and open.  Instead of a handle, there was a hole at the top, presumably for an index finger.

Perhaps if she had just taken a moment to examine the item before she tried scanning it, the following would never have happened.  But the machine gave no such instructions.

She reached for the beer, paying no heed to the hole, and lifted the beers by their cardboard container no more than two inches from the infant basket at the rear of the cart.

The momentum was not enough to knock them all over, but one beer was shaken loose from the questionable cardboard and tumbled gloriously to the hard, unforgiving floor where it very satisfyingly smashed into an explosion of glass and ginger beer.

She blinked her eyes and felt a sense of dread come over her.

Not over her bare foot in the flip-flop she was wearing, that was now covered in beer.

Not over the tiny bits of glass on her big toe.

Someone would be coming to “help” her.

But it wasn’t just one person.  Oh no.  It had to be three people, all under the age of 23, descending upon her humiliation like vultures, ready to feast on her pride.

This time, the voices did not come from a machine.

“Hey, Sara, we need a mop.”

“I think it’s somewhere in produce.”

“No, the other mop.  We need to get this cleaned up before Darlene sees.”

“But it’s glass, too.  Do we mop up the glass?”

“Just mop it all up and get it out of here.”

“Ma’am, do you need another case?”

She glanced up to the stranger who called her ma’am – a young girl with sleepy eyes and a pretty bad set of jagged-cut bangs.  She was heavyset and looked annoyed, in the way that only those who work in the food industry can look both annoyed and pleasant at the same time.

“Y-yes.”

The girl turned to the direction of the liquor aisle.

“I’m so sorry,” she heard herself say to the remaining two, feeling both guilt and panic rushing in now that the shock was over.  Since meeting their gaze was impossible, she began picking glass bits out of the bottom of her foot, absently tossing them to the floor.  Whether real or imaginary, she perceived their displeasure with her, and the disgust of having to interact with such a clumsy fool.  Perhaps they were watching all along, she told herself, and saw that she had to wait for her husband to bring back the diaper bag.

Humiliated, she hid her face as the third girl returned with another case of beer.

Instead of placing the item on the scanner, she returned it to the same place it was in the cart.  Then she walked away, likely distancing herself from the scene entirely.

This time, there would be no mistakes.  She carefully wrapped her hands around the entire case, foregoing the questionable hole on top altogether, and warily placed the item on the scanner.

Ding.

“Please show your ID to the attendant.”

She shuttered.  Now it seemed even a lifeless machine was twisting the knife.

However, a message flashed on the screen.  Age verification bypassed.

She sighed in relief.  Still, she was forced to awkwardly scoop the four beers from the scanner’s surface, and deposit them into a plastic bag.  The action left her flushed and trembling.  She made a mental note to call and complain to the brewery and manufacture, a thought she found ironic later.  Call and speak to another person?  On the telephone?  To lodge a complaint?  She would rather drop a whole case of beer than have to go through that kind of torture.

She quickly retrieved her bags, carefully adding them one by one to each arm.

Then she turned to the two store clerks still cleaning up the mess.

“I’m really very sorry,” she said softly.

They glanced up at her with polite smiles, and one of them exclaimed that it was “all right.”

She left the store with her bottom lip between her teeth, her nerves shaken, and her pride sticking to the bottom of her flip-flop.

She needed a drink.

A Moscow Mule.

Check.

 

A Leaf On the Wind: A TATE Fan’s Perspective

It came without warning.

During the last few moments of an interview on Sunday, the news broke. The temporary bassist for The Airborne Toxic Event, Adrian Rodriguez – who had been covering Noah Harmon since his paternity leave – was announced as a permanent member of the band.

Hours later, Noah confirmed the news on Instagram. “I got fired,” he said. “7 years. 0 regrets.”

Fired? What?

I rubbed my eyes in disbelief and exhaustion. It was almost 3:00am, and I just happened to be in the middle of a bout with insomnia. In hind site, I should have turned my phone off and tried to sleep. Normally, I am a reasonable person with responsibilities and a family. But when it comes to That Band, I am known to forego basic needs like food, water, and sleep to get the coveted barrier spot at a show. I take my passions seriously. And I have yet to be disappointed.

But this. This was shocking. Unbelievable. Disturbing.

I immediately took to the social media capital of the world to make sense of what I couldn’t believe with my eyes. I wasn’t the first to have seen it. A collective wailing began – words so loud on a screen, you would have thought someone had just died.

Then the rioting started. A demand for a formal announcement and an explanation. A cry for justice. A search for someone to blame. Some took the objective approach. Some intellectualized it. Others chose a state of denial. It can’t be true. It just can’t.

To the casual observer, we seem like stark-raving lunatics. “It’s just a band,” you might say. “Get over it.” And do you know what? You would be absolutely right. At the end of the day, they are all just people. They are fans of their favorite bands, just like we are fans. They have families just like we have families. They make mistakes, they get mad, they make up, they move on, just like you and me. And what happened is none of our business, no matter how frustrated we are over the news.

The problem is some of us are not simply frustrated. We are heartbroken.

How is that even possible? How could someone be heartbroken – yes, truly in emotional pain – over a bassist’s departure from a band?

As I wrestled with those questions myself (contrary to popular belief, I really do question my sanity when it comes to this band quite often), I remembered I had made a similar connection some years ago, only this was with a character on television. His name was Wash.

Speak the word “Firefly” in a group of sci-fi loving nerds and you will immediately summon the fangirl in all of them. If they had it their way, the show would still be on TV, not cancelled after its first season on FOX more than a decade ago. Following its premature cancellation, a movie was released based on the TV show, called Serenity. If you’ve never watched this series, but you’d like to, I would advise you to stop reading this post altogether.

 

********************************************************************************************************

 

Still here? Great.

Part of what made the series Firefly and its subsequent film Serenity so memorable was, among other things, the characters – their individual personalities and unique perspectives they brought to a ship of misfits. So when Wash, our beloved pilot, was suddenly and violently killed in the middle of his wistful mantra, “I am a leaf on the wind, watch how I soar,” another kind of collective wailing was heard in the universe. As one Firefly fan put it, “It was the closest I’ve come to feeling real grief over a fictional death.”

It came without warning. It can’t be true. It just can’t.

The departure of Airborne’s beloved bassist has elicited a similar reaction from the fans. All anger and shock aside, the overwhelming response has been sadness.

Certainly, Noah Harmon’s contribution to the band was superlative, and his performance onstage is unforgettable. He was (and still is) a ridiculously talented musician, and just about every single fan of The Airborne Toxic Event hates to see him go. Undoubtedly, he will be sorely missed.

But we are grieving something more.

A few years ago, when I was still furiously writing a novel about a fictional musician’s journey, my “research” was interviews and articles about The Airborne Toxic Event, simply because they were the band I listened to the most at the time. Little by little, I uncovered the distinction this band had over any other, that of a refreshing and honest approach to the way they made music and the way they connected with one another. Even from an outsider’s perspective, witnessing the chemistry between band members who at the same time share a common goal and an inside joke is electrifying and highly attractive. It’s as if they share some creative magical bond, and the end result is music for which we’re willing to pay good money.

For The Airborne Toxic Event, this was a group of exceptionally talented individuals who brought their distinct personalities, unique perspective, and even sense of humor to a collaborative project that ultimately became three albums’ worth of material, and then some. But they didn’t leave it at that. Instead, we have hours upon hours of interviews with the band detailing their journey, a DVD that was essentially a making-of special of their concert at the Walt Disney Hall in 2009, and even homemade video blogs of their adventures during the early days of touring. They weren’t shy about bringing us along for the ride for the past seven years, and we packed our proverbial bags and joined them. Surely, it could be said that a few classically-trained musicians and a prolific writer with a flare for the melodramatic and propensity toward death-defying motorcycle trips across the country are a band of misfits (but not the band Misfits), a group of characters who are real people, and have graciously shared their lives with us onstage and downstage for a chat after a show. This wasn’t just once or twice or just long enough to make a video and create an “image” of how the band wanted to be perceived. This has been going on for years, long before I ever jumped on the bandwagon. But even if you were to discover them today, you could start with their pilot episode on YouTube and follow their journey as a fledgling band of an undetermined musical genre with a handful of fans, to playing Lollapalooza to a screaming crowd of thousands in the pouring rain.

Yet time and time again, in more interviews than there is time to cite, they attributed their creative success to their collaboration with each other, not just as musicians, but as friends. As recently as the spring of 2013, Mikel Jollett himself stated during the live session at KCRW: “It’s a collaborative process between artists, and there is an overlap of a lot of friendship, and also just a common sense of you’re a team . . . and every part is extremely important.”

These sentiments spilled over onto Twitter just days prior to that session, when he reminisced and waxed poetic publically just enough for us to feel proud we were supporting such an overlap of artistry and friendship:

“Falling asleep to the gentle, stoney sounds of the band and crew skateboard-jousting in the loading bay. Some nights when I can’t sleep here in the bunk of our bus, I worry the bus will crash..and all I can think is that it’s precious cargo..You know my friends are here sleeping. We’re in this vessel together and I just don’t want anything bad to happen to them. I feel responsible. I feel protective. Im reminded of the night the Drowning Men got hit by a drunk driver. We turned our bus around and there they were in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, on the side of the road. We slept 19 people on our bus that night..And all I could think was: I’m glad we’re here together.”

Whether this was the intention or not, the vast majority of fans felt this connection as soon as they took the stage. As outsiders, we were eyewitnesses to their dynamics and chemistry, both on and off the stage. Their humility and their humanity set them apart from other bands, and ultimately endeared themselves to us, to the point we believed we were sharing some kind of collective cathartic experience every time Anna Bulbrook pulled the bow of her viola across our heartstrings.

Now one member of this band and group of friends has left.

It came without warning, and we are scratching our heads in wonder and rubbing our eyes in disbelief. It can’t be true. It just can’t.

“It is a loss of innocence,” as one fan stated, “that the perfect band of friends who have a blast and just happen to make amazing music and whose live shows are transcendent are human after all.”

Photo by Ryan Macchione

Photo by Ryan Macchione

It is the humanity we are mourning. A reality, both refreshing and tactile, that perhaps this wasn’t just a job for them – that maybe they enjoyed it as much as we did. And being human, they make mistakes, they get mad, they make up, they move on, just like you and me.

But all of us will have seven years’ worth of music and memories, and none of us will have any regrets.

As for me, I’m excited to welcome Adrian to the group, and I’m anxious to witness The Airborne Toxic Event transition into a new season. I know things will never be the same. But I’m glad their story isn’t finished, and I’m glad they’re still making music, and the feeling I get when I see a show will always remain: that I’m glad we’re here together.

Photo by Ryan Macchione

Photo by Ryan Macchione

*Special thanks to Anneke, Wendy, Jennifer, Ryan, Kristina, Elizabeth, Jamie, Christina, Susan, Kevi, Andy, Christie, and Glen.

The Serviceman

He could feel the sweat begin to pool on his brow.  It was 11:43, exactly seventeen minutes until he felt he could reasonably break for lunch.  As he turned the Phillips screwdriver on the riveted glass of the light fixture, he thought about the sandwich he painstakingly made this morning.  Two swabs of mayonnaise on both bread slices.  Three leaves of lettuce.  Four slices of meat.  A slice of tomato and a two slices of cheese.  His mouth began to water.  Seventeen minutes.

At 12:01, he was replacing the glass to the light fixture when Terry arrived, asking if he could eat lunch first.  The answer was an instinctual yes.  Terry was known for taking longer than a half hour, but he could take a look at the flickering light in the foyer while he waited.

He bit into his sandwich at 12:46, the same time Mike – his manager – told him one of the A/C units was on the fritz at the main office.  Let me know when you’re finished, Mike had said.  But he ate the sandwich in three large bites and followed Mike, leaving the bag of chips and chocolate M&Ms for later.

Three-forty-five and the A/C unit was not yet working on a 90-degree day.  The employees at the office were leaving suit jackets on the back of chairs and fanning themselves.  He was due to take a break, but he knew if he could just isolate the problem, the solution would reveal itself.  It was almost time to go home, and he didn’t want anyone to swelter the next day.

The cold air was moving through the office at 4:02.  A few people clapped and one young intern cheered from the cubicles.  Their last hour of the day would not be spent in an oven.

His cell phone went off at 4:16 while he was fixing a sticky window in the office of one of the assistant managers.  It was his wife, and she wanted to know what time he would be home for dinner.  He told her he didn’t know, that he had to stop and see his mother on the way home, and he still wasn’t sure what time he would be leaving work.  She sighed and said she would put his dinner in the refrigerator so he could reheat it when he got home.  Meanwhile, in the background he could hear his grandson squeal and scream near the phone.

At 4:58, Terry said he had dinner plans with his girlfriend and wanted to know if he could leave early.  Before he could tell him to go, Mike appeared with the news that there was something wrong with the electricity in one of the auxiliary buildings.  He could see the reluctance in Terry’s face as he offered to stay, so he told him to go on home and that he would take a look at it.  Mike sighed with relief.

It was 6:30 when he got into his car.

He pulled in his mother’s driveway at 6:47.  Her garbage cans were still by the street, so he brought them in as he entered the garage.  He shouted hello from the kitchen, and he heard his mother greet him over the TV.  Before he could go see her, he noticed her pill dispenser was out, and several pills were on the counter.  He asked if she had taken her medicine with dinner, and she replied that she wasn’t sure which ones she needed to take.  He sighed as it occurred to him that she was becoming more forgetful, and less independent.

He poured a glass of water and shuffled the pills into his hand and brought both to her.  She smiled at him and asked if he had eaten any dinner, and he said had dinner waiting at home.  Then he asked if she needed anything before he left, and she told him her bedside lamp wasn’t working.  A simple bulb replacement later, he said goodbye with the reminder to call him if she had questions about the medications she needed to take at bedtime.  She said she would, and thanked him again for coming to see her.

It was 7:59 when he arrived home.

There was no one to greet him, as he heard the water running upstairs, signaling it was his grandson’s bath time.  He placed his keys on the shelf by the door and was about to head for the kitchen when his cell phone rang.  It was Mike.  When he answered, Mike told him that one of the managers of the main office had accidentally left his keys inside, thereby locking out the staff in the morning, and could he get there before 7:00am the next day to make sure everyone could start work on time.  He said he would be there, and he hung up the phone.

At 8:15, he took his plate of food out of the microwave and sat down to eat.

After two bites, he heard his grandson’s quick descent down the stairs as his wife shouted instructions for him to say goodnight.  His grandson appeared in his pajamas, smelling of Suave.  He opened his arms and his grandson fell into them, quickly muttering something that sounded like “night” as he avoided eye contact with his grandfather.  He said goodnight and wished him good dreams, and his grandson clapped his hands in front of his face eight times.  The ritual completed, he ran out of the kitchen and back up the stairs, his deepening voice squealing at every step.

He ate his dinner quietly and methodically as he listened to his wife’s soothing bedtime stories travel down from the second floor.  After two lullabies, he was finished with dinner, and he took a deep breath as he heard the soft shuffle of her gait.

She sat down at the table across from him and asked how his day was.

Fine, he said.

She asked how his mother was, and he considered telling her about the pills.  Instead, he replied that she, too, was fine.

She wiped her face with her hands, clearly exhausted, before she began to recap her day.

She was late to work this morning because she was on the phone with the insurance company to dispute a denial of coverage for one of her surgeries.  She was berated at work by a patient who was demanding a second round of pain medications that the doctor refused to fill.  Then that afternoon she received a call from the middle school that her grandson had bitten another child, and they were holding him in the office until she could pick him up.  On her way to the school, she stopped at the store for a few essential groceries.  When she picked him up from school, he screamed the duration of the trip until she took him for an ice cream and he finally calmed down.  Then she told him that their neighbor had been laying in front of her house, having fallen trying to go up the concrete stairs, and she had to call the ambulance to pick her up.  She spent the rest of the evening keeping her grandson occupied until it was time to get ready for bed.

He sighed and said nothing.

She blinked a few times before suddenly exclaiming that she forgot to bring the groceries in from the car.

With being prompted, he immediately jumped up from his chair and started for the door.

He pulled the two plastic bags from the car in the driveway.  Laundry detergent.  Granola bars.  Nothing that would have spoiled.  No money wasted.  This made him so cheerful, he was whistling when he walked through the front door a second time.

At 10:00, his wife turned on the TV.  He settled into his favorite spot on the couch as she tried to engage him in more conversation.  But the day was almost over, and conversation was as difficult a task as staying awake.  He fell asleep three times before the 11:00 news came on, and his wife went upstairs to bed.

At 11:27, he turned off the TV.

As he got ready for bed, he reminded himself that he needed to be up early tomorrow, and that he should set his alarm accordingly.  He pictured the faces of the staff as he arrived with the key, and smiled at the realization that he was both their savior and their prison warden.

His wife asked what he was smiling about, and he said nothing, that he was just thinking about work.

It was 11:59 when he got into bed and turned off the light.

And before he fell asleep, he remembered the bag of chips and chocolate M&Ms he left on the table in the break room.

Three Words

Recently I entered a contest on This Is Nowhere, the unofficial fan blog of The Airborne Toxic Event.  The rules of entry were simple: Submit three words that best summarize what the band means to you via text or video, and win a prize.  When I read the contest rules, however, I smiled and shook my head and immediately disqualified myself.

Three words.

Suddenly I was back in elementary school, sitting at a wooden desk that smelled of pencil shavings and art supplies, with a stack of lined notebook paper.  I could see my arm shooting up as soon as the teacher finished explaining the rules.  “Does it have to be just three words?  Can we do more?  Can we write a page?  Can we write a short story?”

How about a blog post?  How about a novella?

No.  You already did that.  Stick to the assignment . . . er, contest rules.

Three words.

The task hung over me like a raincloud.  How was I supposed to come up with just three words that summarized three years’ worth of music, of raucous rock shows, of testing my husband’s patience and wallet?

I was never supposed to.  I couldn’t.  After all, I was the reason for a teacher’s long sigh at a 12-page story for a one-paragraph assignment.  Three words?  Forget it.

Then other fans started sharing their three-word entries.  Instead of diving into the Deep Significance of Life, they chose the clever route.  Some were laugh-out-loud hilarious.  Some even got their children involved.  And I realized that, once again, I was way overthinking things.

I brought Hubby into the brainstorm.

“Help me think of three words that best describe Airborne,” I said.  “What three words would you say?”

“Poop monkey butt.”

He always knows which buttons to push to get me just upset enough to laugh.  “No, seriously.”

“Well, it would have to be something about music.  And something that captures the show.  Because they put on an amazing show.  I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

“It can’t be something lame.”

“No.”

“This is hard.”

“Oh, come on.  You’re The Girl With the Bird.  You’ll think of something.”

And I did.  Eventually, at the last hour.  I went the clever route.  Something I hoped would encapsulate their music, literary edge, and crazy devoted fans like me.  Hubby helped me make a little video.  I watched it once through squinted and scrutinizing eyes and sent it along with the request that I not be included in the running.  I made this just for fun.  The serious stuff I save for here, on this blog that has become the public version of my heart.

The day after I submitted the video, I started thinking more seriously about it.  How would I describe its significance without the need to break out a bottle of wine and a box of tissues and the warning that some people are unable to even read it?

That’s when I stopped thinking about the band.  I stopped hearing the music in my head.  My mind fell silent, like someone had hit the mute button.

Three words.

Three years.

The mental photographs I took began to flood my mind with little 3-second memory montages.  The innumerable amount of times I listened to the music.  All six shows.  Road trips and one trip to California.  All the fantastic people I met, all the sweaty hugs I’ve received, all the times I cried when a certain lyric or swell of the violin punched me in the gut and left me crying on the treadmill, in the car, at the grocery store, in an empty house, and on the way to the hospital the day my second son was born.

This is life after Wesley.

Life.

After.

Wesley.

Three words.

Three words that are meaningless to anyone else, and have nothing to do with the people that make up The Airborne Toxic Event.  They are not clever or profound.  But its these Three Words that reflect more to me than pages glutted with verbosity ever could.

Life after Wesley.

It’s not the life I wanted, but it’s living nonetheless.

graveyard