Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Happy Thankgiving (The Legend of the Little Doll)

I am writing this posting in the dreary fog all parents know too well. For this fog was created by broken sleep. The only thing worse than no sleep, is broken sleep. One can not subsist on power naps alone. If one tries, one will lose his/her mind. At some point, your brain needs to shut down in order for your subconscious to once again remind you that your spawn isn't resisting sleep out of spite. Somewhere around three in the morning, my mind begins to convince me that he's snickering at me every time I'm roused from my bed when faint whimpers turn to blood curdling wails. I tell you all of this as a simple disclaimer in the case that my wanderings of incoherence are for more frequent than normal.

It's that time of year again. The time when families come together to once again marginalize the spirit of a holiday by adhering to elaborate traditions of the various menu options we use to induce family-wide food comas. It's THANKSGIVING!!! A holiday based on giving thanks to God, family, and friends for the gifts we all too scarcely recognize during the day to day grind of trying to survive. Sure, our first world problems are no match for the hardships faced by the early European settlers of the new world, just as much as the small acts of kindness that we show to those around us are sadly no match for the selfless consideration that the native Americans showed toward the pilgrims by sharing their limited resources to ensure the survival of strangers. Their actions did not mirror the law of natural selection. In the wild, if an animal doesn't identify the perils of it's surroundings and plan accordingly, no other random animal swoops in to save the poor fella. He's toast. That's the miracle of Thanksgiving that we all too frequently forget. The kindness shown to our ancestors was uniquely human. It was humble, not boastful; caring, not selfish; and most importantly, it was a gift, not a loan.

So what is true thanksgiving? It isn't a day, or a meal. It isn't Thursday afternoon football games just meaningless enough to ensure that there won't be any post-tryptophan sportscenter guilt. Instead, I think it has more to do with a mindset that we should all challenge ourselves to uphold on a daily basis. "Well Jamey, what is that grandiose, pompous statement supposed to mean?"

Well, I think it means that we all should pay attention to those around us that "get it." There's always someone in your life that provides you with the example of a spirit of thanks. So, here is one of mine:

My dad came from very humble beginnings. His young life was marked with sacrifice while excess was rare, if ever. The thought to treat oneself simply didn't make a blip on the radar. Niceties were for others. That's why I always loved to study my dad's appreciation for the seemingly marginal things in 20th century life. When I was about 5 years old my dad bought a car. In true Dale Nolan fashion, he scoured the classifieds to find the right model to suite his transportation needs, budget, and totalitarian emphasis on reliability. After patient consideration, he went down the road less traveled. He purchased, with cash, an aggressively beige 1982 Toyota Corona station wagon. To me, and to my then teenaged siblings, this car represented a rolling pocket protector. The headlights resembled nerdy wire rimmed glasses, the exterior paint (beige) was a vacuum of auto personality, and it was a station wagon, for God's sake. The tiny four cylinder engine was just powerful enough to reach highway speeds, or run a weedwacker if the grass wasn't too thick. And upon ignition, it emitted a thunderous roar similar to that of a dust buster.

All that aside, it was the definition of practical. It had space. It was economically priced, and with the price of gas in the 1980's, you could run it up and down the roads all month long for about the price of a Clark bar.

But it wasn't just the purchase of the car that puzzled me so. My dad LOVED this car. Of all the inanimate objects in the world to heap affection on, I couldn't understand his fascination with this excessively unfascinating vehicle. Every Saturday, especially during pollen season, I would watch, and sometimes help, him wash and wax the little doll in true OCD fashion. He would pull it into the yard, take a few minutes to check it for pine sap, then break out all the necessary accoutrement to treat this pauper like a princess. He would then spend the next few hours washing it multiple times, waxing it to streak-less perfection, and finally giving the engine a once over to ensure all the fluid levels were up to par. It was a love affair inexplicable to anyone but he and the car, which he named "the little doll."

He kept this car for the next twenty five years or so. Over that time it developed quirks, like the fact that once it was cranked you could safely remove the key, if necessary, to retrieve anything you needed from a locked glove compartment. Somewhere around the 240,000 mile mark, the odometer stopped working. That was in the early 90's. I have to imagine that when he finally parted ways with the little doll, it probably had something like 750,000 miles on it. And no, that's not an exaggeration. There was, however, a brief period where the little doll saw some down time. In the early 90's he bought a second corona station wagon. It was a fancier 1984 model that was a noticeable upgrade when you considered the automatic transmission and blue paint job. But, it never had his heart. It was an also ran. The funny part is that for a brief period he would trade off driving the cars. During the summer he drove the little doll because it had A/C and no heat, and during the winter he drove the also ran because it had heat, but no A/C.

It took me until adulthood to truly understand my dad's motives. He wasn't crazy. And God knows he wasn't disillusioned about what constituted a cool car. Before he and mom married, dad saved all of his money and bought a 1957 Chevy Belair 2 door hard top, the cherry-est of all rides. No, his love for this car was due to one truly fascinating fact: He was thankful. He was thankful for the fact that he'd identified a vehicle that he could afford that would meet his NEEDS. And he treated it with the heart of a truly thankful person. He humbly cared for it in a fashion not of it's own deserving. He placed so much emphasis on this car not because of what it was, but for what it represented. This simple car was all he needed. No longer was his life faced with the hardships of decisions on how to stretch a nickel or handmade clothes. No, he was in a place in his life where he understood that while he could do more, all that he was required to do was to painstakingly care for what he had. He didn't have to struggle to piece together his means. Why then, would he ever care for anything he had less than completely?

It was a powerful lesson. The grateful and humble nature of thanks for all he had was not one that most generation X'ers could ever understand. He didn't spend his time looking at others for his cues of social norm and competition. For him, the competition was complete. He'd won. His struggle was over, and there was no more simple and content way to celebrate his victory than to love and care for a car whose worth only he was able to recognize. Maybe that's what he always wanted. Humble beginnings scream for recognition. Maybe there was a person in his life who reached out to him and recognized his beauty and worth when he needed it most. Maybe that's what we all should be thankful for. Maybe we should constantly focus on those around us that saw our worth and fostered our growth through friendship, mentor ship, and unexplainable love. And maybe, the best way for me to teach my kids about thanksgiving is show them that understanding the contrast of who you were and who you are is only half as important as recognizing those who selflessly helped you along the way.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

One of These Things is NOT Like the Other

My parents loved to travel. Because of this, I've been to 46 out of 50 states, all by car/motor home. I've been to mountains and oceans, canyons and caverns, and rivers and Great Lakes. The most interesting thing about all of this travel was definitely the sights and scenes. However, a very close second was meeting the different people from many various cultures. Some parts of this country made life in south Mississippi feel very cosmopolitan, while others made me feel like we rolled in straight off the set of Andy Griffith. I distinctly remember trying desperately to explain to a group of kids from Michigan, that I absolutely owned shoes and had never driven a tractor to school. They were shocked at the fact that Mississippi actually had roads and that my parents weren't a part of the klan. It was very frustrating. I found myself consciously straightening up my twangy southern accent and trying to reference all of the new, hip things I'd most recently seen on MTV.

It was shocking to be forced to understand, at such a young age, the vast cultural differences and ignorance that existed among the people of just one country. While assuming that it existed globally, one night in London really drove home the concept of how different people can be, even when they speak the same language.

Our college choir traveled to England during the spring of my junior year. We spent a week visiting different areas of the country side including Stratford, Canterbury, and Oxford. Eventually we ended up spending three days in London, singing in various churches, to round out our trip.

I may have mentioned this before, but I hate flying. I fly a lot with my job, but the anxiety has never subsided. The trip to England was the first time I'd ever been in an airplane. We took a small regional plane to Charlotte. It was a little bumpy, but overall not too bad. However, I had no idea what I was about to experience with an overnight transatlantic flight. First off, we were on the biggest damn plane I'd ever seen. It was some model of Airbus that could apparently accommodate around 10,000 passengers. It was HUGE. Well, no one told me that planes that size don't simply perform a rolling take off. No. You can imagine my surprise when we pulled on to the runway and revved the engines up so loud that everyone started sharing looks of concern. Just when the crescendo of jet propulsion reached a climax, the pilot dropped the emergency brake, slamming us back in our seats, and we blasted down the runway. I pretty sure I left fingerprints in the armrests of my coach seat, and I may have made a few sounds one would deem less than masculine.

There are a few things about transatlantic travel that no one ever cared to explain to me. Had I known these things, I could've probably saved myself a lot of mental anguish and pain.

1. Bring some type of sleeping aid.

Jet lag is one of nature's cruelest tricks on the human body. You can be square in the middle of an enlightening conversation, when you suddenly become drunk with unexplainable exhaustion and your body feels pinned to the earth by gravity. This is only exacerbated when your nerves of flying cause you to stay awake during your entire overnight, twelve hour flight.

2. The meaning of the term transatlantic.

It all seems very romantic and lofty to travel the world on a "transatlantic" flight. You half expect Humphrey Bogart to sit down next to you and order a nicely aged scotch. What you don't expect is the cacophony of dark and terrifying images that flash through your mind when you realize that once it starts, your only chance of survival, should the unthinkable happen, is to out swim the inevitable hoard of hungry sharks below until they've had their fill on the carcasses of those passengers who skipped their swimming lessons. In my exhausted state I began to stare down the aisles of the plane, imagining the oxygen masks dropping from the overhead as we bounce violently toward the sea below. I envisioned panicked flight attendants, screaming women and children, and a litany of sloppily filled vomit bags. This went on for TWELVE hours.

3. I would rather plummet than descend.

I have bad ears. I had tons of ear issues as a child, much like Jackson. But as a young adult I was sure that my years of ear aches were far behind me. Wrongo. The descent in to London was a long, arduous journey that completely changed my outlook on how I would hold up under torture. Around an hour in I would've drop kicked a kitten to make the pain stop. I tried not to cry, but I may have sprinkled an ounce or so. It was unbelievable how much pain I was in. I would look around at casual businessmen reading their papers, completely unaffected by the pressure in my head, and fantasize about running across the aisle and violently boxing their ears so I wouldn't be alone in my agony. Little did I know that my pain was centered around the fact that I was in the beginning stages of a pretty severe sinus infection. That explained a lot. Anyway, always bring gum.

4. London is foggy.

Two rules about flying in to London. Don't confuse fog with clouds. You're probably much closer to the ground than you realize. Also, DON'T scream like a girl when your plane apparently lands on a runway while in said clouds. Just because you can't see the ground, doesn't mean you should draw attention to yourself when the plane jolts to a sudden halt. Show some testicular fortitude.

Aside from the trip over, and the first few days of being incredibly sick, the trip to England was magical. We sang in front of Shakespeare's grave, visited Windsor castle, and I sang a solo during a master class in the catacombs of the Canterbury cathedral. We were constantly surrounded by history and culture. But like any good college story, eventually history and culture take a back seat to partying and the shaking of one's booty.

Our last night in London was pretty amazing. Some attended the theater. I, and a handful of professors and students saw Thomas Hampson perform Kindertotenlieder with the London Philharmonic. We got in rather early from our stuffy affair, and decided that there were just enough hours in the evening to see what the nightlife had to offer.

After listening to locals wail out Meatloaf's greatest hits at a local karaoke night and drinking a little, a few of us were sure that there was something great going on in north London, and we just had to find it. So, like in any harrowing adventure, a small band of us (slightly intoxicated) set out to find a decent place to dance. Our group consisted of four girls from the choir, all hooched up in their going out clothes, and a buddy and I. After being assured by many passerby's that a cool nightclub was just up the street, we chased our wild goose all the way to the end of the rainbow.

There it stood. A five story building, with very little activity going on outside. In fact, there was just one guy. In bright green neon letters near the top of the building read the work SCALA. Well, this was the place we were told of, but we all took a minute to exchange worried looks before our inner party animals forced us to take the plunge.

As we approached the bouncer at the front door, he moved in an aggressive manor, to block our path. "I'm sorry," he said, "club's closed for a private party."

We immediately freaked out. We'd walked about fifteen blocks to reach this place and were furious to find that our travels were in vain. I try to reason with the guy by explaining that it's our last night in London and we really want to find a fun place to party. He's not phased by my attempts of reason and guilt. Finally, one of the girls, who will remain nameless, decided that a flirting with the fine chap might do the trick. After talking to him for a couple of minutes, he relents and gives us passes in to the party. Girls are magic.

He hands us a small piece of paper with the following blanks and instructs us to go to the top floor:

Cell phone number:

We think nothing of the slips of paper and eagerly head in the front door, where we are met with a completely dark hallway. "Umm, this is weird." Noticing the stairs to our left we begin our climb. Floor two is made up of a pair of locked double doors and more stairs leading upward. The same can be said for floors three and four. By this time, all of us are definitely experiencing a chill as the hairs on the back's of our necks begin to rise. That's when we finally reached the fifth floor, where we are met with one final set of double doors. Behind them, we hear a faint thumping noise. Scared of what lie ahead, we gently crack one of the doors, where we are blown away by the sight before us. On the other side of the doors was a huge, open ballroom with club lights, loud techno music, and about 500 Londoners dancing to the beat.

We stumble forward, amazed, at the contrast of silently dark hallways that hid this raucous party only feet away. To our left was a huge bar, with young people crowded around it in a frenzy for social lubricant. To our right was a small DJ booth where the music was created and the slips of paper were processed. On the wall above the booth was a giant projector that would display a new slip of paper for all to see every few seconds. This was a hook up party, where single people would introduce themselves anonymously, and choose over their cells where and if they cared to meet up with potential suitors.

I couldn't have cared less about that. Mine and my buddy's target was the bar on the left. After fighting our way to the front of the bar we ordered ten shots of tequila to share. I wasn't much of a drinker, but I could handle tequila pretty well. Plus, there was no telling how long it would take us to get another drink, so we ordered all at once for the evening. After hearing our order, a young attractive South African girl approached us, aggressively. "You're American, aren't you?" "Yes, we are. Where are you from," I said. "South Africa. I have an internet boyfriend in Michigan, who I'm going to see soon. Do you live near Michigan?" I explained that we were no where close to Michigan and that we were leaving in the morning. After a few minutes of her telling us how badly she wanted to go to America, we decided to hit the dance floor.

The girls from our little band of idiots were tearing it up on the dance floor. They were going all out trying to lure some unsuspecting British chap. But, a small circle formed around them like a viewing party. None of the guys would dare approach the scantily clad vixens. It was weird. As my friend and I returned to the masses the environment completely changed. The circle dissipated and the dance floor felt as crowded as ever. After a few minutes of jumping up and down to the beat and tequila shots I began to notice a trend.

Everywhere I looked I saw a different version of an early twenties male, dressed predominantly in black and grey clothing. There was no color, no wild and crazy outfits, and very few females. That's when I realized why the girls from out party were having such a difficult time attracting a dance partner. We had crashed a party that was mostly made up of young, gay men.

One would think that the girls stood out like sore thumbs. While that's true, I think it was my buddy and I who were the most noticeable. We looked REALLY American. My outfit consisted of Timberlands, carpenter jeans, a peach polo shirt, and a fitted Alabama ball cap on backwards. We were a freaking parody of the American youth. We looked like walking glow sticks in a sea of black and grey slacks and cardigans.

And boy, were we popular on the dance floor. Here in this sea of humanity, instead of panicking at how outside of our elements we were, we decided to embrace it. We'd walked a long way to party. There was NO way that we were going to let this get in the way of our good time. The journey was too long to give up now. So we danced and had a great time. It was pretty obvious that we were straight, so there were no uncomfortable rejections on the dance floor. Instead, we acted like who we were, loud and bright Americans. After all, we were the freaking belles of the ball.

Friday, November 4, 2011

This One Time, In Band Camp....

Some of my proudest moments are directly related to my experiences playing the trumpet in my high school and college marching bands. I loved band. My love of it grew out of traveling to watch my brother march in junior college. It was loud, bright, fast, and exciting. It was just so big. But I think what intrigued me the most about it was the serious nature of the band members. It was cool to see 100+ college age students work, tirelessly, to put on a very complicated musical show. When they snapped to attention, their bodies rigid and still and faces as solemn as a funeral, I shuddered in anticipation. It was a powerful thing to behold at eight years old.
The weeks leading up to band tryouts in the sixth grade were some of the longest of my life. Basically, those interested in band would travel all the way (300 yards) to the big imposing high school campus to tryout. The tryouts consisted of trying to make a sound on a few various types of instruments and playing a very rudimentary rhythm on a snare drum. You were then assigned which ever instrument you inherently played the best. For me, there was a lot riding on this little test. I took it all very seriously. What if I nailed the flute? How in the hell could I show my face if I was naturally inclined to play an instrument that was less than manly. Maybe, when it's my turn to try the flute, I should just grab the thing and smash it over my head. Surely they won't assign it to me if holding a flute causes me to be a danger to myself.
And before some league of manly flautists starts keying my car or egging my house, you must understand that I'm not really dogging the flute. It's a perfectly acceptable instrument. The scary part of the flute is the case! It looks like an oversized make up compact. You can't look cool carrying that thing around. No, for me it had to be the trumpet. It was bright, loud, and usually carried the melody.
Wow, I just exposed a lot of my personality issues with that revelation right there. It seems that my "please notice me" insecurities found a way to control every decision I've ever made.
Anywho, I never really gave much credence to the whole band geek moniker. I mean, it made sense, but for me it was like calling a white guy a cracker. It really didn't hurt, and I didn't really mind it. For me, I was doing something that I felt was too cool for non-band geeks to understand. We worked hard, played some cool music, and were very competitive. We competed every Friday night "against" the opposing band. We competed at band contests to get good scores, and we competed against each other for the highest chair position in our sections.
But today's stories have nothing to do with competition or music, or even marching. Today's stories revolve around the band bus. In junior college I had two very interesting experiences on the band bus traveling to and from away games.
My times at PRCC was some of the most exciting times of my life. Everything was accessible. There was no safety net. I was on my own. Little did I know exactly how scary being on my own could be.
One Thursday night we loaded up the buses and traveled to Decatur, MS to East Central Community College for a football game. We stopped at a little town called Newton, about a half hour from our destination, to grab a quick dinner at McDonald's. The band usually traveled in three coach buses. Unlike high school you weren't really assigned seating. You could pick your bus and ride with whomever you wanted.
After our dinner we all lounged out on the grass, and I began to feel a rumbly in my tumbly. I knew that once we reached the campus I would be relegated to using the restroom in some stadium bathroom with wet floors and urinal troughs. That was not going to happen so I looked at my clock and figured that the ten minutes we had before departure time would be plenty long enough to take care of business.

You know, for the slightest of moments, as I sat in the McDonald's bathroom with my pants around my ankles and heard the roar of the charter buses pulling out of the parking lot, I actually considered rushing out of the restroom screaming for them to stop. But, thankfully, the good people of Newton, MS did not deserve to be subjected to that sight. Nope, like a little Fonzi I stayed cool as a stranded cucumber and weighed my options. The sticks of MS was no place to order a cab, and it was probably too far to walk, so I was completely at the mercy of a stranger's kindness.

I shyly approached the counter and asked the cashier if she knew how far it was to Decatur, and what my best option would be to get there. She smiled and said, “oh, it's just up the road a piece. Tammy gets off in a few minutes. I'm sure she could give you a ride.” Whew, Tammy to the rescue. My relief was quickly dashed as Tammy rounded the corner and spotted her passenger for the evening. Now, I'm not going to be rude here, but Tammy kind of looked like a meth addict. She was 5'0” and about 94lbs. She had a wiry look to her and appeared 15 years older than her real age. The cashier asks if I'm willing to wait about ten minutes until she finishes her shift, and she'll give me a ride. She lives in Decatur with her parents and dropping me off would be no problem.

As Tammy's tiny little toyota truck tears out of the parking lot a wave of “I might be about to live out a horror movie” rolls over me and I begin to survey my escape options. Luckily, I haven't spotted anyone hiding in the bed of the truck with a machete, and Tammy hasn't brandished a single fire arm. The following is a transcript of the beginning of our conversation:

Tammy: So, you got a girlfriend?

Me: Uhh, yea.

Tammy: That's cool, I guess.

Me: Yea, she's nice.

Tammy: (excitedly) So, you're in a band?!

Me: Well, no. I'm in THE band. A college marching band. We are going to the ECCC football game tonight.

Tammy: (puzzled look) Oh, what kind of music do you play?

Me: Marching band music.

Tammy: (satisfied) Well duh, that makes sense.

At this point, her smiles and glances have gone from flirty to rapey. I begin to wonder if I can hold McDonald's responsible for sexual harassment. Nah, it would never stick. I change the subject and tell her that I'll soon be moving to a different college in Jackson. She gets REALLY excited and tells me how much she loves Jackson. She used to date a guy from Jackson after she got out of high school. Her tale of love and loss went something like this:

Tammy: I used to date a guy from Jackson. He was so great. I thought we were going to get married one day, but daddy told me I couldn't see him anymore, seeing as how he was a skinhead and all. I don't know why daddy didn't like him. I mean, daddy don't like blacks neither, but he said the skinheads liked fighting too much.

Yep, I'm going to die.

As we pull in to the parking lot at ECCC I open the door and begin to get out while the truck is still rolling. Tammy, obviously worried for my safety, slams on the brakes which sends me crashing in to the door and I collapse to the ground.

Tammy: “Oh Lord honey, are you ok?

Dazed, I hop to my feet, look for any witnesses, POLITELY thank Tammy for the experience, and sprint through the parking lot desperately looking for a familiar face. She sat there for a brief second and watched yet another potential love fade in to the night. Maybe, just maybe, Tammy is somewhere writing a blog about the time she almost bagged herself a band geek.

Laundry was not my strong suit in college. During my first semester at MC, it took me three months to realize that I'd been washing my clothes in fabric softener rather than detergent since the beginning of the semester. Sure, they smelled great and were ridiculously soft, but there's no telling the level of filth trapped in every fiber of my clothes.

At PRCC, I took my clothes home on the weekend to take advantage of the mom and dad laundry service. All week long I would pack my clothes in a mesh bag and haul it twenty minutes to my parents' house for a nice washing. There was, however, one article of clothing that never made the trip. I owned one pair of black dress socks that only served one purpose. I would wear them with my marching band uniform every time we marched in a football game. Upon returning to the band hall I would remove my marching shoes, shove the socks inside, and head out to whatever party was scheduled for the night. For a year and a half, these socks never saw a washer. At the end of my first semester, they stayed packed tightly in my marching shoes until the next August. When I pulled them out, it actually took some effort to un-bunch them. They were pretty stiff. In fact,they could probably stand up straight if I tried. I would describe the smell for you, but I was never brave enough to get them anywhere near my face.

One fateful Thursday night in November of my sophomore year, we were returning to campus from an away game. I had removed my marching shoes and devil socks and spread out across a bus seat, hanging my feet off of the arm rest. Even if my feet had smelled, no one would've been able to tell since the entire bus stank of teenage sweat and body odor. My girlfriend at the time was hanging out a few seats behind me playing truth or dare with some of the other girls and guys. I wasn't really paying attention so I had no way of knowing that one of her close friends requested a dare when her time came.

Not really awake, yet not really asleep I dozed off gently to the hum of the bus engines and the white noise roar of 50 young adults on a bus. That's when I felt it. The big toe on my left foot began to tickle and feel very warm. I opened my eyes and locked gaze with one of the most horrified faces I'd ever seen. Apparently this poor girls was dared to suck my toe. I always felt that she may have had a thing for me, but this was unbelievable. For God's sake, she knew I'd spent my evening marching on a football field sweating my butt off. What was she thinking? In that instant, her eyes told me that she was coming to the same conclusion. She was living the repercussions of her mistake.

That's when my thoughts shifted to the socks. I began to get the precursor to vomit where hot spit started collecting in the back of my throat as she shivered and pulled back from my foot. There sat my toe, covered in saliva, standing as a barricade between her face and mine. Both of us horrified at the confluence of forces that would undoubtedly lead her to gargle unscented bleach. She quietly stood back up and returned to her seat as if it wasn't that bad. That's what she wore on the outside. On the inside, which I could see when I looked in her eyes, she would've given her last penny for a sip of ANYTHING to drink, and her first born for some mouthwash. Poor kid. Maybe next time she'll think twice about trying to hide a personal fact and she'll just go with “truth.”