"He said, 'The trouble is I have always been able to imagine almost anything. It has been my downfall.' It had also been his strongest suit...It was what led him to be a writer or, as he preferred to put it sometimes, a 'delusionist,' which struck him as less pretentious. He saw himself as a man who wrote because he couldn't think of anything else to do with his delusions."
from The Storm by Frederick Buechner
You can read part one of the story here.
We were walking in the direction the homeless man had pointed us. The sidewalks were packed and it seemed every corner had a different street performer. We passed a human statue and some kids who looked like they couldn’t be over 15 playing a drum routine on some buckets. We were about to cross at a corner where a street preacher was yelling into a portable sound system and waving his Bible. Something about the end of the world and how Santa Claus was evil.
“Why doesn’t he just leave the jolly old guy alone and mind his own damn business?” Hayley said to Marcus. She did not try to say it quietly.
“Excuse me miss,” the street preacher said. Hayley turned toward him, “Yes, you. Do you believe in Santa Claus?”
“Oh boy,” Cassie said.
Hayley smirked, “Maybe I do.”
“You do?” the preacher asked with a mocking laugh.
“Of course I don’t, but he’s not evil. Why don’t you just leave the poor bastard alone?”
“I’m sorry, the poor what? What did you call him?” The preacher sounded indignant.
“I said ‘bastard’. Sorry did that ‘offend’ you?” Hayley made sarcastic air quotes as she spoke.
“It doesn’t matter if it offends me,” the preacher was obviously relishing this moment. “What matters is that it offends God. Making light of those who have sex outside of wedlock.” The preacher’s tone was getting louder.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Hayley rolled her eyes.
“Nice choice of words,” Scott said.
“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God?” the preacher was shouting now. “Be not deceived: Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate…”
I had been watching Marcus and had seen his anger building as the preacher’s tone got louder. Finally he couldn’t take it any more. “Hey man, just lay off her,” Marcus yelled.
“You want me to be quiet, but God wants me to speak up. The wicked do not like to have their sins exposed,” A crowd was growing at the corner and the preacher was eating it up.
“There’s no reason to call anyone wicked, dude,” Marcus was trying unsuccessfully to calm himself down. “Just take it easy.”
“Perhaps you have taken part in sin with this woman,” the preacher moved in closer to Marcus until he was practically in his face. “The sting of truth is too much for you to bear.”
I watched as Marcus’ hand turned into a fist, he was slowly raising it as Scott stepped between him and the preacher, “Ok, I think we’ve heard enough. Pizza is this way, kids.” Scott half pushed Marcus across the street as the preacher continued to rave, moving on to his next topic and random pedestrian.
“C’mon man, it’s not worth it,” Scott said to Marcus.
“Yeah he’s just a damn idiot,” Hayley said, raising her voice and talking in the preacher’s direction. “But thanks for having my back,” she smiled at Marcus and grabbed his arm.
Marcus smiled back, “Anytime,” then yelled behind him, “stupid old fool.”
We moved on to consume some of the best pizza I have ever had and after a few rounds of drinks all of the troubles of the day had been forgotten. In a slight haze, we headed back to our hotel room. We were sharing one room to save some money. The girls took one bed and the guys would rotate who slept on the bed and the floor.
On this particular night, Marcus and Hayley seemed to both “disappear” together on the way back to the room. It was something we had all seen coming. So, Scott and I crashed on one bed around midnight, while Cassie laid down on the other one. I fell asleep in that state of restfulness you only achieve when you are inebriated just the right amount.
I woke up a few hours later to nothing in particular. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room, I looked over to the other bed to see Cassie staring in my direction, eyes wide open. It wasn’t like she was staring at me, I could tell that she just couldn’t sleep. I smiled and I could see her return it in the moonlight. She motioned toward the door and I nodded.
We both quietly got out of bed. On the way out I noticed that Marcus and Hayley were still not in the room. Cassie and I stepped out in the hallway in our pajamas and winter coats, leaving Scott snoring by himself in the room.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked.
“Let’s just go for a walk,” Cassie said. “I love seeing the city at night.”
We walked outside and set out toward the lake. A full moon cast a soft glow over the city. It was chilly for sure but somehow did not seem unbearable. Just as we started walking, snow began to fall. Small flakes began coming down in a flurry and then gradually got bigger and denser. The snow was beginning to cover the ground as we stepped on the beach of Lake Michigan.
“It’s called the lake effect,” Cassie said in a quiet voice with a small grin on her face. She had a shy way of talking, like she was embarrassed either about knowing something or telling it to someone else. “The cold wind picks up across the lake, gathering up the moisture as it goes, until it builds up and starts to snow.”
I didn’t really have an answer to Cassie’s weather lesson. I just stared in wonder at the white flakes falling down on the beach. Across the water, the Chicago skyline seemed to drift lazily under the hazy fog of the falling snow. It’s not that we had never seen snow before or even that we had never seen snow in a city. It was just that standing here on a snow covered beach, everything seemed surreal. The city on the lake looked like a giant snow globe.
Cassie reached out her hand and I took it in mine, something that seemed completely natural and completely foreign at the same time.
“It’s been a fun trip,” I said, staring at the skyline rather than Cassie’s sincere blue eyes. “I needed it.”
“Me too,” she said, giving my hand a reassuring squeeze. “I think we all did. It will be different going back, though.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Oh, we’ll all go back to our own friends and classes and everything,” Cassie said. “I mean I’m sure we’ll hang out and all but it won’t be the same.”
“You think so?” I was a little surprised at the dismissive way she spoke. “I feel like we’ve become pretty good friends.”
“Oh yeah, we have,” Cassie said somewhat defensively. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s been great. It’s just that it feels like friendships don’t last this long at our age. Especially when we share moments like this.”
“Why do you think that?”
“I don’t know. It just seems to happens.”
“Well, why don’t you think it lasts? Is it just our age?”
“I don’t know, maybe it’s any age. Maybe friendships just aren’t meant to withhold many moments like this,” she smiled at me and ran her arm through mine. “Maybe moments like this are just too perfect.”
I wanted to argue with her, or to tell her that it could be different. That we could make moments like this build into something more lasting, more permanent. But I didn’t because she was right about the moment being perfect. I didn’t want to spoil it with a disagreement. I figured time would tell and we should just enjoy the moment. Like the Beatles said, “Let it be” I thought. I chuckled out loud at that thought.
Cassie looked up like she was curious as to why I laughed. But she didn’t ask, probably for the same reason I didn’t argue. We just stood there and watched the snow fall on the windy city. We stood there until the cold got to us and we headed back to the hotel.
Tomorrow we would head back home to family and friends, schoolwork and responsibilities. We would leave behind our road trip and memories. Memories of street preachers and lake effects. Memories of cities and relationships newly discovered and left behind. A trip that brought us together, that brought us to one perfect moment.
The Homeless Traveling Christmas Show was the unofficial name we had given to our little group. Of course we weren’t really homeless, we just really wanted to avoid our families over Christmas break.
We all went to college in Baltimore and had gotten sick of the same old shit there. So we gathered up a couple hundred dollars apiece, piled in Cassie’s minivan, and set out on a winter road trip. We hit up Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and ended up in Chicago. It wasn’t the most glamorous of road trips but our motto was to go wherever the road led us.
The road seemed to be about done leading. We had just pulled onto North Michigan Avenue in Chicago when the car got much quieter and began to slowly roll. “Is that what I think it is?” Marcus asked.
“Sorry guys,” Scott said with a nervous chuckle. “Guess I was cutting it closer on the gas than I thought.”
“Damnit Scott!” Cassie yelled and leaned over from the passenger seat to hit him.
Marcus and I laughed from the back seat, while Hayley joined Cassie in berating Scott’s stupidity.
“Ok, ok. I’m an idiot,” Scott turned on his hazard lights as cars began to honk at him from all sides.
“At least we can all agree on that,” I said.
“Ok, we’re going to have to push this thing,” Marcus said. “Cassie, you steer and Scott and Carter help me push.”
“What about me?” Hayley asked.
“You can just sit there and look pretty,” Marcus said with a wink. “You know, chivalry and all.”
Hayley smiled and blushed a little. “Well, maybe I can at least help direct traffic or something.”
We all got out of the van and began pushing it up the road. The road was packed and there wasn’t a parking spot in sight. There was a strong gust of wind pushing against us which didn’t help when it was already “colder than a witch’s tit” as Scott had so eloquently put it.
“You’re going to owe us all drinks,” Hayley said to Scott as she apologetically motioned at an angry car behind us. “Maybe, dinner too.” The driver honked his horn and gave the finger as he zoomed around us through a brief opening in traffic.
A cop car pulled up beside us to ask what was going on. Marcus explained we had run out of gas, casually motioning toward Scott as he did. The officer muttered a few choice words about Scott’s family lineage to which Marcus politely agreed. Still, the officer turned on his lights and helped direct traffic as we pushed the van into a nearby parking garage. Scott offered to pay the steep parking cost and Cassie made it clear that wasn’t really an option.
Everyone seemed a little cross as we started walking into the cold Chicago wind. Well, everyone except Scott, ironically enough. Still, the bad moods didn’t last very long, not even for Cassie, no matter how hard she tried. We were in a new city, living out our winter road trip dream. Scott dropped in a local coffee shop and bought us all drinks and all was forgiven.
You can learn a lot about people by living with them in a van for a couple of weeks. I don’t necessarily recommend that as the primary way to get to know people, but it’ll do the trick. We weren’t a tightly knit group of friends to begin with. We were really just the only ones in a larger circle of friends who were ok with ditching our families for the holidays and hadn’t come up with lame ass excuses at the last minute. Or we were the only ones whose families didn’t care about being ditched and who didn’t have any legitimate reasons not to do it. Either way we had grown closer and learned a lot about each other. It was kinda like friendship on steroids.
“So, where are we going next?” Marcus asked.
“I don’t know, man. I’m down to my last few twenties.” Scott said. “I think the Homeless Traveling Christmas Show is about to the end of its line.”
“Well, let’s go get some food. I’ve heard Chicago pizza is killer,” Marcus said.
“I could go for some pizza,” I agreed.
We passed a legitimate homeless man—not some spoiled college student using that moniker. He had a sign that read “Every little bit helps.” Scott dropped a couple of dollars in his tin and asked where the best pizza place was around.
“That’s a good question,” the disheveled man said with a laugh. “That’s like asking if you go for the Cubs or the Sox around here. What kind of a guy are you?”
“What kind of a guy am I?” Scott repeated.
“Yeah, Cubs or Sox?” the homeless man said.
“Oh, I don’t really keep up with sports,” Scott said.
“It’s not just about sports,” the man said. “The Cubbies haven’t won the series in over 100 years. Going for them is not just being a fan, it’s about lifelong disappointment. And believe me I know about disappointment.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry to hear that,” Scott had a way of saying things in such a genuine, sincere way. It’s partly why you could never get mad at him. “But really we’re just looking for some pizza.”
“Well that’s what I’m trying to say,” the man said in a hurried way like he was building up to a big point. “Are you loyal in the face of disappointment, or are you just looking for a good time?”
Scott laughed a little, “I guess in this case, we’re just looking for a good time. I don’t really want any long term relationship with my pizza.”
“You’ve missed what I’m trying to say,” the man in a serious voice while shaking his head. “It’s not about pizza. It’s about life.”
Scott looked toward us, about to laugh. Hayley slyly gave a motion of drinking from a bottle, Cassie snickered and elbowed her.
“Yeah, I get it man,” Scott said in that genuine voice. “You’re saying I should be a loyal stand-up guy. I’m with you.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” the homeless man said with relief like he had finally gotten his message across. “Now as for pizza, I recommend Gino’s East. It’s just a couple of blocks away.”
“Thanks, man,” Scott said pulling out a couple more dollars and putting it in the man’s tin can. “And thanks for the advice.”
“I thought he was on his last twenties,” Marcus whispered to me and we both chuckled.
I watched two movies last week, both were musicals. Not the “I’m walking down the street and burst into a song that suddenly everyone on the street knows” musicals, just movies that are about musicians and have lots of music in them. One was a new release Inside Llewyn Davis, a story about a musician in the New York folk scene of the 60’s. The other was The Sapphires and is about an Australian aboriginal sister group that sang soul music during the Vietnam war.
I was excited about both films for different reasons but I was really excited about Inside Llewyn Davis. I had been looking forward to that movie since hearing about it as a concept about a year before. It is by the Coen Brothers, who I’m kind of a fan of. They made the great musical comedy O Brother Where Art Thou, and more recently the great western adaptation True Grit. The music was produce by T. Bone Burnett, a producer that I really love, who also worked on O Brother Where Art Thou. And of course the topic was Dylan-era 60’s folk music, which is pretty much the foundation for all music that I love. I had gotten the soundtrack for it about a month prior and the soundtrack is phenomenal. I had all but decided that this would be my favorite movie of 2013.
To my surprise, I ended up loving The Sapphires more than Inside Llewyn Davis. The two movies actually had a surprising number of similarities. They were both about struggling artists who wanted to make it big and had to overcome a lot of conflict. In The Sapphires the conflict mainly had to do with racial issues; in Llewyn Davis it was mainly because, well, he’s kind of an asshole. I’m not going to give away a lot of the story lines to either but the difference between the two movies basically came down to one word: hope.
The difference between the two movies can actually be summed up well in a quote from The Sapphires. Toward the beginning the main character Dave (played by the awesome and hilarious Chris O’Dowd) convinces the girls that they need to quit singing country music and should start singing soul music. He contrasts country and soul by saying, “Country and western music is about loss. Soul music is also about loss. But the difference is in country and western music, they’ve lost, they’ve given up, and they are just all whining about it. In soul music they are struggling to get it back. They haven’t given up.”
While he is talking about country music and soul music, the same could be applied to Llewyn Davis and folk. The musicians in both stories are going against a lot and in the end they both achieve similar results. But one does it with a sense of hope and positivity and the other does it like he’s got to fight against the whole world.
I began to realize the same could be said for a lot of art out there, whether it is books, music, TV or movies. There seems to be a mindset that good art has to be dark to be real. I would never argue against art containing darkness, but we don’t have to leave it there for it to be good. I’m not saying every movie needs a cheesy happy ending but it doesn’t hurt to sprinkle in a little hope here and there.
I’ve never been much for writing year-end lists. I’ve always enjoyed reading them and hearing what people’s favorite music, movies, books and experiences were from the previous year but never have written one out myself. It feels a bit reductionistic but that’s not necessarily a bad thing and it can be a good way to reflect. So, here, in no particular order, painted in very broad strokes are some of my favorite things from 2013.
New Twists: Vampire Weekend & The National—There are bands that you discover before they get big, then they get relatively big and change their sound. Sometimes that’s a bad thing. In the case of Vampire Weekend and The National and their new releases, it is not. Vampire Weekend has always been a fun band to me but that was pretty much it. However, Modern Vampires of the City brings out a depth that wasn’t seen before. Thankfully they still do it with the same whimsy and charm. And it’s hard to believe that The National—the kings of slow burn—could burn more slowly or intensely. Yet somehow they do on Trouble Will Find Me.
Late to the Game: Emmylou Harris, Macklemore, and Daft Punk—One of my issues with year end lists is that they only reflect what was great over the past year. If all you’re listening to is new music, I can’t help but feel you’re missing out. I have often heard that Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball was considered one of the greatest records of all time by many people. It’s ironic that it was in a year when way too many people were talking about another Wrecking Ball that I really discovered it. It’s a beautiful classic that somehow feels older than it is and yet way ahead of it’s time. I guess what I mean is that it feels timeless.
Contrast that with Macklemore’s The Heist—one of the biggest hip hop albums of last year. I wasn’t as late to the game here and it seems odd to me that it has stuck with me. But I just know that I can’t start listening to it without listening to the whole thing. It’s just a damn solid album front to back.
Speaking of popular music andmusic that is timeless, you get both with the funky electronic goodness of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. While I wasn’t late to the game on this album, it was my first exposure to Daft Punk besides the Tron soundtrack (which is also awesome). Its strength lies in that it finds a theme and embraces it completely. And the theme is straight up 70s disco funk. They aren’t just making electronic music that sounds funky, they are making funk music electronically. The fact that they incorporate acts like Giorgio and Paul Williams shows that is their intention.
Embracing my inner child: Something Wicked this Way Comes and comic books—Though I had casually read them before, in 2013 I really started reading X-men, Spider-Man, Batman, and Ray Bradbury. It seems weird to talk about comic books in the same sentence as a southern gothic literary classic, but they feel very similar to me. Both are largely metaphors of a never ending battle between good and evil. Both embrace the joys of being a child but don’t shy away from the darkness children fear. And both make me wish I had picked them up a long time ago.
Some classics: Shakespeare and Star Trek—It’s an odd pairing but I’m not surprised that these are my favorite movies of 2013. When I heard Joss Whedon was adapting Shakespeare, I got nerdy about it on so many levels. It was hands down my favorite movie of 2013. It was beautiful and poetic and hilarious all at once. Also, I loved the first Star Trek and throwing in Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, I knew it would be gold. It was.
Memorable moments: Over the Rhine, Powell’s bookstore—Sometimes it seems like some of the great moments are ones you don’t necessarily plan way ahead of time. Going to a concert at the home of one of my favorite bands—Over the Rhine—would have been on my bucket list if I could have foreseen it. It was a very memorable night at Nowhere Farm and an experience that will be hard to top.
Visiting the world’s largest bookstore—Powell’s books in Portland—was kind of a dream of mine that got fulfilled in 2013. It was as cool as I had imagined and was a highlight of our trip to Portland. Also, Voodoo Donuts deserves an honorable mention because that place is amazing. I now know that I can’t move to Portland because I would die from diabetes in the first year.
Change: New house, new job, and new car—This year brought some big changes that we weren’t necessarily expecting. We bought a house after being dissatisfied with out apartment options and long to settle down. I casually applied for jobs, got a few interviews and landed a job at a school. Within the first week of the new job, the breaks went out on my car and we had to buy a new (used) one. Each change was unexpected but each has been great for us. It makes me excited to see what 2014 will bring.
It was the cape’s fault. Well, really it wasn’t a cape, it was a towel. But really it was a cape. A cape that propelled him off the orange paisley couch, up through the roof, and into the stars. A cape that transformed him from a hyperactive seven year old to a superhero. Only he didn’t really make it to the stars, not even to the roof. He made it a few inches of the couch and then his arch nemesis gravity took over. Down to the floor he plummeted, cape swinging behind, towel just catching the side of the lamp, lamp crashing to the floor behind our caped hero.
And that’s when the yelling began. It was mom yelling about the lamp, that was to be expected. But then there was more yelling. It was hard to understand at the decibel level and tones they were speaking. But it seemed to be dad yelling at mom about yelling about the lamp, mom yelling back about dad never being there, dad yelling more about mom yelling and never understanding. Then dad started yelling in Spanish and mom started yelling because she didn’t speak Spanish and she didn’t appreciate him cursing her in another language.
Once again our hero finds strength in his cape. He pulls the towel tight around him, trying to block out the yelling. Trying to hide his crying. But most importantly, trying to pull together his home and his family. Surely a cape with such wonderful powers could do that. A cape that has the power of flight and gives strength to its diligent hero. Surely a cape that strong could bind together three people who belonged together. Three people who should above all else love each other. But no matter how hard and how tight he pulled the cape, the yelling continued.
Finally, he pulled with all his strength and let out a yell, a cry of desperation as he pulled the cape tighter with all his strength. Then followed a sound of shaking cabinets filled with pots, and pans. Glasses began to shake and the yelling finally stopped. The yelling turned to frightened exhales as the walls began to slowly vibrate. Then a sound that surpassed them all. A single glass shattering and pieces spraying across the floor. Then just as quickly as the sound came, utter silence.
We both see the same when we look up
A vast expanse of impressionless blue
That we can reach toward but never touch
And I have trouble believing
In a faith that falls
Like water from the sky
But they say we could use the rain
Now it looks like a storm is coming
They say we should build a boat
But I lack the proper tools and skills
And I know you don’t believe
In a doubt that falls
Like water from the sky
But they say we could use the rain
Somehow the flood still leaves me dry
Longing for a drop to quench
My parched and trying tongue
And they say grace can fall
Like water from the sky
God I hope so
We sure could use the rain