The Road to Anywhere

(Here’s one from the archives: I originally wrote this story for Metroland in 2003 for a gang feature piece on what summertime meant to us all. It seems an apt time to me to replay it here today, as midsummer is almost upon us).

Forget cut grass and sea breezes: The most evocative smell of summer for me is the composite odor of a hot vinyl dashboard, roadside food, caged animals, automotive air freshener and my father’s Royall Bay Rhum aftershave—all inhaled while rocketing down the highway in the back seat of a Ford LTD station wagon for destinations known or (more often) unknown.

The summers of my childhood were largely defined by long-haul family road trips, when my father (a career Marine Corps officer), mother, sister and I (along with an assortment of dogs, cats and plants) would vacate one home, pile into the car, and set off on a long, one-way trip to a new life with a new home in a new town. Summer was the season of change for us, and somewhere during each one of those summer road trips—as my sister and I sat in the back seat, sticky with melted chocolate and potato-chip grease, hypnotized by the power lines that appeared to oscillate up and down as you stared at them—there was a tangible crossover moment, a faint psychic “pop” as the last cord attaching us to our departure point snapped, and we began to feel the gravitational pull of our new destination.

During years when my father didn’t have a new assignment, we’d pile into the car anyway and drive down to visit relatives in North and South Carolina, just because it somehow wasn’t really a summer if we didn’t have that car time together. And if there were no necessary trips lined up, my father would often make some up anyway, just to go drive somewhere with us, to go see what a road on the map looked like when we were actually on it, to figure out the best way to get from here to there, even if we didn’t need to go there for any particularly good reason.

Who knew what we might find if we just got in the car and drove? Maybe a great new place for chili dogs. Maybe a battlefield where one or more of our ancestors fought in the Civil War. Maybe a miniature-golf course with great soft ice cream and a layout simple enough to allow the kids to be competitive with the adults. Maybe a town with a funny name. Maybe a mountain my father climbed when he was a boy himself. Maybe an old airplane. Maybe a stray cat that my mother would pick up and bring home and keep in our basement until she could find it a home. Or maybe nothing at all . . . which was fine, really, because the chocolate still melted just the same way, and the potato chips were just as greasy, and the power lines oscillated up and down anyway, whether we got anywhere worthwhile at day’s end or not.

My mother recently asked me about my earliest childhood memory, and of course it took place during the summer in the back seat of a car, which at the time I had to myself, since my sister hadn’t been born yet. I had a pinwheel, and was letting it spin in the breeze created by the open window in those pre-air-conditioning days. My mother turned to tell me to be careful not to let it blow out the window . . . just moments before I lost my grip on it and it sailed away, gone almost before I realized it. What sticks with me to this day from that memory is the sense of shock I felt sitting there, realizing that something perfectly secure and happy—a summer road trip, no less—could change so suddenly, a whim of fate and physics taking something from me, just like that.

I relearned that lesson on a completely different scale nearly 40 years later, when I received a phone call at work telling me that my father had been critically injured in an auto accident. He was out running errands, preparing for yet another road trip to the beach, when another driver blacked out, crossed the median on a marsh causeway and hit him square on, front bumper to front bumper at high speed, fate and physics in full force again.

Once the full gravity of the situation became clear to us all, I hopped a plane and flew down to South Carolina from Albany. I was there, holding my father’s head in my hands, with my mother and sister and a trusted family friend beside me, when he died the next day. After his funeral, though, I didn’t fly back home to Albany. I got behind the wheel of a rented car and I drove that trip, taking a variety of routes that I’d never taken before, visiting  some towns with funny names, passing a few battlefields and miniature golf courses, stopping along the way to have a chili dog or three in his honor. It was September, the end of summer. That was fitting and apt.

My father taught me how to drive, and he taught me how to love driving, and he taught me the value of loading my family up, buying all the junk food we can eat and going somewhere, anywhere, to experience what summer looks (and smells) like from the inside of a car.

Just hold onto your pinwheel, kiddo.

Monday’s Rain

1. Marcia and I had a great anniversary weekend staying at The Lodge at Turning Stone. It’s technically part of the casino there, though it’s a completely independent physical space, free from the chintz, smoke and gaudiness of the gambling area. It’s elegant and tidy, both features I appreciate. On Saturday, we played a round of golf at the Kaluhyat Golf Club. A combination of a late tee time and a gentle drizzle essentially turned it into a private course for us; we saw only two other carts with players in them throughout the afternoon. The course is a challenging one, with a couple of Par 5’s that were almost laughably complex and convoluted in terms of the combination of over-the-river-and-through-the-woods and sheer distance involved (see links posted in the comments below). I’d definitely play it again, though. We then had a great dinner at Wildflowers and started Sunday with massages at the Skana Spa. Even if you detest casinos, I would recommend The Lodge as a great weekend getaway spot, since you never have to set foot in the main casino building. They offer some really nice combination packages, too, that can cut costs considerably. Hint, hint, dooders. (And I don’t mean “Boys’ Drunken Golf Weekend Away”).

2. A couple of weeks ago, I asked you to take my library, please . . . and you did! My zillions of books and cassettes, collected over decades, have now been rescued from my basement and sent to loving new homes. It was great to have folks come visit and find things that they’d been looking for, and great to have a bunch of the books go to support good charitable causes. I feel a nearly visceral sense of catharsis in letting go of something that it took so long to collect, and that consumed so much space. As noted in the earlier post, at this stage in my life I have no desire to have the grand oak-paneled library anymore, but would prefer to live in something like this. A few dozen well-loved books with sentimental attachments on a small bookshelf will do me just fine there.

3. I’m one of the apparently relatively uncommon folks from the United States who actually, actively follows international soccer through the years of qualification rounds leading up to the World Cup, all the way through the big event. And, because of that, while I’m sorry for the players on our national team that they’ve been eliminated, I actually feel a sense of relief every four years when Team USA steps off the pitch for the last time, because this event really doesn’t mean very much to us a nation, and I don’t think we’d really appreciate it properly if we won it. Since the African contingent (who I always root for) mostly tanked this year, and having traveled to Argentina with the aforementioned native a few years ago, I’m now pulling for an all-South American Final Four of Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina, with Maradona’s squad taking the title. Be gone, Old Europe! It’s our hemisphere’s turn to celebrate!

21 Years Ago Today

And we still smile when we walk arm in arm. Boy, how did I get so lucky? And how I have stayed so lucky for so long? These are great mysteries, indeed, although I am immensely grateful for and appreciative of my good fortune, even if I can’t pretend to understand what I did to deserve something and someone so wonderful. It must have been something very, very good, indeed, that’s all I can figure. Yay, me! Yay, she! Yay, we!

Lemons Never Forget

1. I haven’t been space geeking much here lately, though two mind-bogglingly cool things have gone down in recent weeks, both of them pulled off by JAXA, the Japanese space agency. First, the Hayabusa spacecraft returned from the asteroid Itokawa after a seven year mission, with its sample return capsule landing safely and (apparently) intact in the outback of Australia as the main probe disintegrated in the atmosphere; if its sample collection apparatus worked while it was at Itokawa (which is uncertain at this point), then this will be the first chance we’ve had to evaluate material returned from a near-Earth asteroid. The second cool JAXA triumph of the month was the successful launch and deployment of the IKAROS solar sail, which is now cruising toward Venus on solar power and photon propulsion. The photo above right was taken with a small outboard camera that was launched from the sail itself to confirm deployment. How freakin’ cool is that? As we enter the final months of the brontosaurian Space Shuttle era, and complete the International Space Station, it’s great to see other national space agencies and domestic private concerns picking up the slack, and also to know that the Russians’ dependable workhorse Soyuz TMA is still well capable of running ferry service from Earth to low-Earth orbit. We are in an amazingly diverse and far-reaching era of planetary exploration right now (see this list of active missions), and hardly anybody knows about them all. Why is that, do you suppose?

2. During the invasion of the noodle dance people a couple of week ago, I read an article about The Dave Matthews Band that mentioned an album of theirs called Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King. And I first found myself thinking, “Boy, that sure is one stupid album title.” Then, after further reflection, I found myself thinking “Gee, that’s still one incredibly stupid album title, but what is it about it that gives me the willies and makes me think of other dumb albums, specifically?” And I think I figured out what it was, beyond the bad, sub-Tolkien ickiness of the word “GrooGrux”. In the same ways that there are loads of band names of the form [Proper Noun] and the [Plural Nouns], which has become something of a cliche accordingly, there are also a good number of album titles of the form [Modifier] [Noun] and the [Modifier] [Noun], and my gut tells me most of them are really, really stupid titles, even if the music contained on them may, occasionally, be okay. Some quick examples that sprung to mind:

  • Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, by The Dave Matthews Band
  • Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, by Limp Bizkit
  • Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, by Smashing Pumpkins
  • Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, by Elton John
  • Wee Tam and the Big Huge, by The Incredible String Band

What other album titles are there out there that fit this pattern? And are any of those album titles stupider than the first three listed here? I’m having a hard time imagining so. (P.S. I know that the DMB title has something to do with their late sax player, so you don’t need to write and lecture me about that, please and thanks.)

3. While I celebrate the act of being a Dad to my daughter this weekend, I’ll miss being able to celebrate the act of being a son with my own Dad for Father’s Day, since he’s no longer treading this mortal coil with me. A couple of years after he flew away, my sister shared a dream she had about him, that she found powerful, profound, and comforting. I later crafted a poem from the imagery of that dream, and I reproduce it below (it’s a villanelle, for those poetry geeks out there who care about forms), with Happy Father’s Day wishes to all the Dads we love and loved, both here and in the beyond.

BEYOND (Copyright 2004, JES)

(Beyond the dark of evening comes the dawn).
The shadows danced, she slipped into the mere.
“It’s alright, follow me, keep swimming on.”

The shorelines she had known were long since gone,
the tiny pond grew outward, like her fear.
(Beyond the dark of evening comes the dawn).

The currents drove her downward, fast and strong,
the water shimmered crystal black yet clear.
“It’s alright, follow me, keep swimming on.”

She saw an ocean floor, a sandy lawn,
and darkened castles ancient and austere.
(Beyond the dark of evening comes the dawn).

She crossed a pit, then felt her fear withdrawn,
pulled from her by a presence strong and near:
“It’s alright, follow me, keep swimming on.”

They swam, those two, through caverns deep and long,
’til light flashed, and he turned and said “We’re here.”
(Beyond the dark of evening comes the dawn).
“It’s alright, follow me, keep swimming on.”

Top Ten Albums of 2010 (First Half)

In the same way that I stop considering albums for my year-end list in early December, because things need to spin successfully for at least a couple-three weeks before I consider them to have legs, I cut off my first-half list of contenders in early June, meaning it’s now the time to commence with the listmakery. Huttah! Old music critic habits die hard! Here, then, are the ten new releases that have rocked my world the hardest over the past six months, in alphabetical order by artist’s name, with links to help you explore:

Broken Bells, Broken Bells

Fang Island, Fang Island

Frightened Rabbit, The Winter of Mixed Drinks

The Joy Formidable, A Balloon Called Moaning

The National, High Violet

Owen Pallett, Heartland

The Radio Dept., Clinging to a Scheme

Sleigh Bells, Treats

These New Puritans, Hidden

Yeasayer, Odd Blood

In 2008, I gave Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight my album of the year honors, and if 2010 ended today, they’d probably take the title again. The only thing giving them a run for the money thus far is The National’s High Violet. Both of them are melodically lush, richly arranged albums, with The National’s disc being defined by singer Matt Berninger’s awesome baritone (deftly complemented by the whole band, but especially drummer Bryan Devensdorf), while Frightened Rabbit’s signature sound hinges upon Scott Hutchison’s reedy and emotive Scottish burr. The most unusual albums in the bunch are probably by Owen Pallett and These New Puritans, both of whom incorporate elaborate, orchestral arrangements over interesting mixes of rock, pop and avant garde music. I wouldn’t expect to find two albums in a single year mining that lode.

All things considered, this is a pretty accessible group of records, especially by my standards. I must be mellowing. Quick! Emergency Napalm Death infusion from 2009! Grrrrrrrraaagghhhhhhh!!! Mmmmm.

Take My Library, Please

We’ve got basement work that needs to be done, and I’ve reached the point in my life where I realize that I’m never going to have a gigantic oak-paneled library where all of my many books can be displayed in public. The combination of those two factors leads to the realization that I need to get rid of lots and lots and lots of books, several thousand of them, I would estimate.

Before I put them up on “Stuff for Free” on Craigslist and let the garage sale gremlins come hoover them all away, I thought I would first offer them here (also for free!) and on Facebook to folks who might actually be interested in what I read, since you read me. There’s lots of music criticism, history and biography, tons of natural science and history, political science, an eclectic blend of fiction, tales of human suffering (Arctic exploration, lost at sea, etc.), and who knows what else mixed in the pile. We’re a big reading household with omnivorous tastes, so there’s probably something for everybody here.

You can have as many of them as you want (for free!), if you’re in the area and can get to my house to get them. I’ve pulled them all up to the garage, and will plan to pick an evening or two later this week when you can stop by and forage. I’m hoping to have lots of them go away, rather than having you spend an hour digging through them for a couple of rare finds (of which there are a good number). Special bonus for the hardcore music geeks who aren’t technology snobs: a HUGE box of cassettes from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, some pre-recorded, some recorded from vinyl, some mixes, etc. I don’t even have anything to play them on anymore.

If you are interested, please shoot me an an e-mail, and I’ll get you the location, and we can figure out the time.

As a second order question: how else do you get rid of books? I have donated to the town library in the past, though I’m not sure that’s still as much of an option as it once was. I also have taken books in to used book dealers, though the cost-benefit return on that is generally low, since they tend to be a bit more selective in what they’re willing to buy, given space constraints and resale considerations, so a lot of what I took in also came back home with me. I need these to go and not come back. Thoughts?