Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dreams of the Golden-Eyed Girl: Cry

It’s quiet now. Outside in the hall I can hear the nurses passing by, soft puffs of air escaping their sensible but comfortable shoes. I sit in a chair next to her bed where she sleeps peacefully and at rest. It’s probably fair to say she has been the calmer of the two of us since we first got here yesterday. I’ve read about expectant mothers entering a nesting phase toward the end of their pregnancies, and for her it seemed to create a sense of peace I couldn’t quite match.

When she first told me that our two would soon become three, I felt my breath catch in my chest and my heart skip a beat. Of course I was excited, that my beautiful golden-eyed girl and I had together created something wonderful, that the two of us would almost literally become one in a new life full of potential and wonder. But a small part of me was terrified. Would I be up to the task of guiding our child through life? What made me think I was worthy to be a father? She could see the worry and fear in me, and in that way that only she has, she was able to soothe and comfort me.

I never worried about her as a mother. The last nine months of preparation and worry seemed to focus her in a way I hadn’t seen before. It was like another piece of the puzzle we had started that night by the campfire was fitting into place, and I could see the picture of our future more clearly. Several times she caught me staring at her, dazed as always that this amazing creature was the other half of my life, and she would just laugh and kiss me. Every time it felt like she both stole and gave me breath. But then, that’s how I feel in her presence most of the time.

We signed in to the hospital early yesterday morning for her induction. The moment we passed through the hospital doors my heart started racing. Would she and our child be healthy and safe? Had we done everything we needed to prepare for this? Would I remember everything I learned in the classes and books that had taken over our lives since we found out about the multiplying little bundle of cells in her womb? And even if I remembered them, would I be the father, the guide, the leader our child deserved? I could feel my face flushing with worried heat, and the intensity rose when the nurse took her to the room to change and get ready for her procedure. Before she left me to the paperwork and last minute phone calls, she kissed me and brushed her hand down the side of my face, her private little gesture just for me that still gives me chills every time. She looked me in the eyes, held my gaze, and simply said “We’re ready,” like she was reading my thoughts in my worried eyes. And as though caught in a hypnotist’s gaze, her words took the heat in my face away, steadied my racing heart.

While the nurse was prepping her for the doctor’s arrival, I called my mom. She excitedly talked of her upcoming visit, reassured me, and cried with me as we both wished my dad could be there to meet his granddaughter with her. Her parents were staying with us for a while to help us when we first brought Lily home. We chose Lily after her beloved grandmother, the one whose ring I had worked so hard to replicate when we first got engaged. She often tells me her grandmother was a huge influence on who she is today, and we both agreed that giving our new daughter her name would be a fitting tribute.

And then, all at once, it was time. The drugs were administered, the nurse helped me dress in scrubs and led me into the room, and the doctor began her work. I stood beside her, holding her hand and talking quietly to her. I told her how much I loved her, how she had changed and completed my life, and how excited I was for us to meet our daughter. Worry flashed through her eyes, mixed with the pain, and I did what little I could to reassure her, pale platitudes in comparison to the quiet strength she had given me over the past months. Over the course of our entire married life, for that matter. The doctor called out for one last push, one last Herculean effort… and then we both heard it. The sound that I will never forget, the sound that changed my life forever, the sound more melodic than any symphony: my daughter’s first cry. Here she was, the combination of me and my golden-eyed girl (though hopefully more her mother), arrived at last to make us complete. While the nurses cleaned the baby, I covered my wife with kisses and tears. And then Lily was in her arms, still squalling in the cold and bright room.

I stared at my new daughter, lost for words or thought or reason. I knew the days ahead would be difficult, that we would be stressed, and tired, and probably snap at each other a few times. I knew the fear and worry would not only not go away, but probably increase as I began my life’s journey of loving and protecting this little life. I knew there would be illnesses, and disappointments, and a myriad of other things I could in no way plan for or expect. But in that moment everything in my head was washed away as I watched my two golden-eyed girls, (for Lily had inherited her mother’s amazing eyes), listened to my wife’s soft whispers to the baby, listened to the baby’s cries soften into small coos and burbles. All my life I had felt as though I was moving toward something, though I could never figure out what. When I met my love, I thought that was it, that her peace and intelligence and beauty were the culmination of all my life experiences. But looking down at the tired faces of my wife and daughter, I realized this was it. This was the sum total of my life’s worth, this little family. I swore quietly to myself, to God, to the universe, that I would spend every day trying to earn this gift, trying to be worthy of these two women and the joy that threatened to fill me to bursting.

The next few hours are a bit of a blur. More paperwork, phone calls, her excited parents coming to see Lily for the first time. I love her parents deeply, and her dad and I have become close since the death of my own. While her mother held Lily and sang to her, her father came to me and put his hands on my shoulders. He looked intensely in my eyes, and pulled me close into a strong hug. We both cried a little, I told him I loved him and how much I wished my own father could be there, and he simply whispered “He is.”

Eventually visiting hours ended. Her parents returned to our house to get some sleep so they could be at the hospital as early as possible the next day. After we both took some time to kiss Lily and tell her how happy we were that she had finally joined us, the nurse wheeled her to the nursery so we could both get some rest. I kissed my wife and told her how proud of her I was, how much I loved both of them, how happy I was that our family was whole. As she was drifting to sleep, she kissed me and whispered “And you were worried.” She giggled a little, her nose gave its little wiggle, and she finally fell into a well-deserved sleep.

So now I sit here in the quiet room, listening to the soft hospital sounds. I’m tired, but I’m still too amped and excited to sleep. I want to walk to the nursery to stare at my new daughter, but I want to be here in case my love wakes. It will be feeding time soon anyway, and then we can float in our little bubble together, taken out of the world’s worries and woes by the miracle that is Lily. I try to read a magazine, but instead find myself thinking about a story I heard on the radio.

Medical scientists had recently discovered that, when a woman gives birth, some of the fetal cells remain in her body for the rest of her life. There was all sort of debate over what this meant, how it affected the mother, and other things way beyond my ken. But there was a theory gaining ground that said the cells protected the mother, guarded her against diseases and disorders. I liked this idea, that a part of Lily would always be with her mother, protecting and loving her on the subatomic level. I am comforted to think that, though I cannot see them, they will always be with my wife. I imagine I can feel their weight around us, just as I can feel the weight of our love, expressed by the weight of our daughter in our arms.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Dreams of the Golden-Eyed Girl: Facets

Before I’ve even stopped the car, she throws open her door and starts running toward the water, the epitome of youthful joy and abandon. She kicks her sandals wildly in the air so that they arch backwards over her head, strips off her t-shirt and shorts to reveal a black swimsuit covered in pink skulls, and dives into the lake. After I park I take my time removing my clothes, basking in her graceful and powerful swimming. She moves like she was born in the water, cutting through it like a knife. After a few moments she surfaces, floating in place, and calls out for me to join her. With a wild whoop I dive in and swim slowly out to meet her with my clumsy and inefficient strokes. When I reach her position she throws her arms around my shoulders and plants a kiss on my lips. I’m tempted to give in to her and dissolve in her embrace but I know her too well, and sure enough she breaks the kiss by shoving my head underwater. We wrestle and laugh and play for a while, but I quickly tire and swim back toward shore to give her time to swim a bit more. I’ll never be as good a swimmer as she, and I don’t care. Her grace is one of the ways in which we differ wildly, and one of the many things which leaves me in a permanent state of awe when we’re together.

After the camping trip at which we met we’ve been mostly inseparable. Every day is a new lesson in the wonder that is her, and I’m an apt pupil. I feared before our first date that the connection we made on the trip was transient, that we would discover in the light of day that it was one of those shooting star moments that comes and goes before you can blink. When I picked her up that first time, I was so nervous I thought I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the dinner we made plans to share. I knocked on her door and stood on the threshold, nervously shifting from foot to foot and picking imaginary lint off my jacket.

After a few moments she opened the door and stood there, smiling shyly at me with a look I imagine matched my own. She greeted me with a quiet “hi” and I answered with an overeager “hey there!” whose dorkiness I immediately regretted. She giggled, clearly aware of my discomfort, and suddenly threw her arms open and launched herself at me. We both stumbled backwards, almost fell, when some hidden reserve of balance opened within me and I steadied us both. Just like our kiss that first night, the hug we shared was open and full, and I found myself relaxed and at ease immediately. I’d never met a woman like her, so willing to open and show herself to me. I swore to myself then that for as long as I was privileged to know her, I would match that openness, would let her see every facet of me no matter how embarrassing or shameful.

As we walked to my car she took a small gift bag from her purse and handed it to me, making me promise not to open it until after I dropped her off that night. I was itching with curiosity but decided to honor her wish. We drove to dinner, and the conversation never stopped. We greedily consumed facts about one another, largely ignoring the meal before us. At some point in the evening I told her a really bad joke I’d heard from a coworker earlier that day, and I saw for the first time that her nose wiggled when she laughed. That little wiggle stole a piece of my heart (not the first or last by any means) and I found myself doing everything I could think of to make her laugh just to see it again.

Before I realized it three hours had passed and it was time for me to take her home. When we turned onto her street I slowed the car to a crawl, telling her it was because I was trying to extend this last part of our evening as much as I could. She laughed and told me in that case I should take a couple of laps through her neighborhood, a suggestion I was more than willing to follow.

Eventually I had to return her to her home, as it was getting late and we both had work the next day. I pulled up to the curb in front of her house and walked her to the door. I knew this was the moment that movies and TV tell you should be awkward and filled with tension, but I felt none of it. Still, I was hoping to see that little wiggle one more time that night, so I started to make a joke about it. As I started to speak, however, she held up a finger to my lips to silence me. Slowly and gently she stroked my cheek once only, then took my hands in hers and simply met my gaze. I can only imagine the awestruck look on my face, but if she noticed it she didn’t comment, and instead simply held my eyes with hers like some sort of vaudevillian hypnotist. No matter how much light was around us I could’ve sworn her eyes glowed, their unique gold coloring as beautiful and marvelous as the first time I’d seen them.

She stood on her tiptoes but didn’t move toward me, so I took that as my cue to move forward into a kiss just as powerful as the first, but somehow more knowing and welcoming. When we parted I must have looked a bit aghast since I got my wish to see the wiggle once more when she laughed at the look at my face. She unlocked the door, paused, then turned and planted a quick peck on each of my eyelids before turning away and entering her house. I stood there until I heard the deadbolt engage, then turned back toward my car. When I sat in the driver’s seat I remembered the gift bag and pulled it from the backseat. She had told me about her love of knitting and similar creative endeavors, so I was delighted when I pulled a small knitted zombie doll from the bag. I had told her about my obsession with zombies, about my fully functional evacuation plan in the event of the zombie apocalypse, and not only did she not think it ridiculous but went so far as to offer suggestions on ways I could improve it. She had not only remembered but had gone so far as to create a unique gift just for me. This woman, without even trying, had completely undone me, and never had I been so glad to be formless.

Now, almost a year later, that zombie doll sits on my desk at work guarding over me. When I look at it during difficult or boring periods of my workday I think of her and am renewed. It’s strange to say that a representation of the undead reminds me of the love of my life, but it’s true. I knew after two months of dating her that I wanted to know her for the rest of my days, but held that knowledge close so as not to scare her off. This fear proved to be unwarranted on the day I discovered a small note in my messenger bag written on a piece of paper torn from a spiral notebook. In her best approximation of a small girl’s handwriting, she had written “Do you want to fall in love with me? (Because I’m falling for you…)” followed by the instructions to “check one” and three boxes with Yes, No and Maybe written beside them. I’m not ashamed to admit I got a little misty at the sweetness of the note, and I added a box with a huge check mark inside and the words “Too late” written beside it. She framed it and now it sits on her dresser. On the days I’ve spent the night at her place, I’ve noticed she touches it each morning like a lucky charm, though I think it’s me that’s the lucky one.

I’m torn from my happy memories of the past when she emerges from the water. The sun is beginning to set behind her, and the sky is on fire with oranges and purple and reds. The water beads on her skin and she ignites with refracted light, blazing in the waning day. It’s as though she’s covered with jewels, almost too brilliant to look at. The sparks of light coming from her wet form remind me of the small box in the bottom of our picnic basket, the small box that contains the only secret I’ve been capable of keeping from her. It’s an almost exact match of one I saw in a picture of her grandmother. She told me the story of how it was lost when her grandmother moved in with her parents shortly before her passing, and it’s one of the few times I’ve seen her cry. I went to several stores that specialized in custom work before I found one that could match the detail and beauty of the heirloom. I think it’s a pretty good match. I know it’s not the real thing, but my hope is it’s close enough that it will remind her both of my love and the love of her grandmother, the woman she once told me was her best friend.

As the sun continues to set I spread out our blanket and the food I prepared that morning, and we settle in to eat and talk. We watch the sun slowly disappear and the moon begin its ascent. After a while we both become quiet. I lean my head back against the bumper of my car, and she moves up close and places her head on my chest. For a while we sit quietly, savoring this moment only we share. After a while I ask if she wants dessert, and instead bring out the box. I ask my question, we both cry and she says yes, and then laughs when I struggle while putting it on her hand. Her nose wiggles, and I find my heart still has room to grow.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lost in my dreams

I recently took a road trip with my family (approximately 2700 miles of driving, not including city driving in our final destination) during which I did a large part of the driving. As anyone who has ever driven through West Texas can attest, there's not a whole hell of a lot to look at to keep your mind engaged. Aside from watching the sporadic traffic around me, I found my mind often playing through story ideas that have been stewing for a while. Several new ideas have presented themselves for my consideration, and I'm sure eventually I'll get to at least a couple of them, but none of them really got the grip in me I need to get writing. Then I started thinking about a story I wrote a few years back detailing one of the most intense and affecting dreams I've ever had.

The dream was about a girl with eyes of gold who took me out of my crazy head for a while, and took interest in me in a way no real world woman ever has. I'm sure we've all had dreams that felt all too real, and I'm equally sure we've all woken up from those dreams a little confused and, assuming the dream was a good one, a little sad that it was over. This was definitely one of those dreams for me. In fact, it was so real and so engaging that I found myself looking for that girl the entire following day. It was almost as though the dream were a sort of premonition, an advance notice to keep my eyes open and my senses sharp. Of course, as I'm sure you can tell from the large number of emo and almost self-hating posts I put on this blog, I never actually found her or the happiness the dream promised.

Strangely, however, the dream still pops up in my memory from time to time. It's as though my brain, without any (conscious) help from me, has established the feeling in that dream as a template for what could be. It's almost like an audio/visual representation of my hope that, no matter how much I fail or let myself and others down, that maybe one day a happiness like that could be mine. I've never dreamed about her again with such intensity (though she HAS popped up once or twice more in my dreams), but sometimes on a busy street or some other crowded place, I still look for those eyes, and a small part of me still hopes that she could be out there.

I wanted to follow the girl further from the initial dream, and imagine the life that would follow that sort of joy. As a result, I will be (attempting) to write a multi-part story of moments with the girl. So here now I am reposting the story of the original dream, (originally titled "Dream a Little Dream"), as the first in what I hope to make a five-part series, "Dreams of the Golden-Eyed Girl". Enjoy, and comment if you like.

Dreams of the Golden-Eyed Girl: Tremble

I was camping with friends who were more like family, enjoying the peace that only that sort of location seems capable of bringing. We drank, smoked, played ridiculous made-up games that would only amuse a close circle of friends, and generally made a party of life. As a general sense of well-being and joy carried me through the trip, I found myself floating through conversations and events as a detached observer. Of course I also participated, but mostly I listened and enjoyed my time with these people I loved. While listening to the third or fourth retelling of the time one of my friends almost got arrested because of being mistakenly identified as a Peeping Tom, I spied a girl that was new to me. I was instantly fascinated; maybe even, dare I say it, enamored. She sparkled and was intoxicating to me, even from a distance. I felt myself pulled to her and made my way over to the small circle of which she was a part. In the back of my mind I observed with amazement as I, normally shy and reticent, introduced myself and struck up a conversation with her about the latest music, or books, or Lindsay Lohan scandal, and she listened with seeming fascination and enjoyment. We laughed, talked, laughed some more, and generally just had a wonderful time learning about another person.

So enraptured was I, time seemed to skip in that easy way it often does in dreams. There’s no sense of having missed anything, just a natural progression or flow of time. It was quickly becoming apparent that this captivating girl and I had made one of those random connections that happen all too rarely, so I, continuing to display huevos grandes far beyond any I normally had, asked her out on a date. She smiled slightly, looked down, then met my gaze and, as I watched the moonlight play in her eyes, breathed a quiet "Yes." We sat outside that night, under that perfectly clear and starry sky you only find in unspoiled nature, making plans, deciding when and where to meet up, what to do on the date. We also were laughing, ribbing one another, and enjoying each other’s presence in a very easy and familiar way. I remember thinking “She’s the one I’ve been looking for,” which, while clichéd, felt absolutely true. Its truth made it even more special because it proved the cynic in me wrong. Proved that sometimes the cheesy clichés are truth, and it’s wonderful to be surprised by that revelation.

Plans made for the date to come, we began to head our separate ways to bed, to rest, and perhaps, in what felt like an already perfect night, weave dreams of even more perfection that we could return to at any time. She started to walk away and I, bemused, watched her go for a short while, before turning in the opposite direction toward my lodgings. I had a walk of about 100 yards back to my cabin, and I was in no hurry to get back. I wanted to walk slowly, breathe in the cool night air, and think about this new friend who already felt like so much more. The night was chilly enough that I could watch my breath plume out from my mouth like harmless dragon’s breath. The dry pine needles crunched under my feet, reminding me of the crunch of snow, which is one of my favorite sounds in the world. I was so enraptured by nature and by my thoughts of her, that at first I didn’t notice that the crunching of the needles was much more rapid than my own two feet could account for. In addition, the sound was coming from behind me as well as under me, and I knew that no matter how clear the air, I couldn’t be producing an echo that convincing.

I turned around, already preparing myself for a playful tackle from one of my other companions on the trip. So when I swiveled 180 degrees, a vulgar greeting ready to leave my lips, it’s only natural that I stumbled a little when I saw not one of my buddies but her, jogging toward me. She stopped about 3 feet from me and laughed quietly at my defensive posture, I’m sure knowing the mistake I’d made and finding it silly in a sweet sort of way. I was excited to see her back so soon, and was preparing to ask to what I owed the pleasure, when she took a couple of tentative steps toward me. Those steps brought her eyes into the light, and just as the first time I’d looked into them they took my breath away a little and made me forget what I wanted to say. She had golden eyes, ringed black and flecked with glittering reddish-copper. We watched one another, unsure but comfortable, and neither of us moved for a moment. There was an unspoken agreement in that instant, a hesitation to interrupt this all-to-brief instance of connection.

Eventually she closed the remaining distance between us. I saw nervousness and happiness play across her face in equal measure, and I marveled that this girl who so undid me could be anything less than self-aware and confident. I was being pulled tighter into her web, and I wanted nothing more in that moment. She reached out a trembling left hand (though whether from the cool air or from nervousness, I’m still not sure), and took my right hand. She simply held it for a moment, and looked into my eyes in an intense and absorbed sort of way that no one had ever looked at me before. She then lifted herself up on her toes and kissed me. It was a movie kiss, perfect in every sense. The night’s chill did not extend to that small surface area of skin that connected us in that too brief moment. The kiss was not forceful, not hurried, not lustful in any way. It was simply an acknowledgement of the bond we had formed so quickly and strongly. It was innocent, intense, and the best kiss I’ve ever had, awake or asleep. She reached up with her right hand, slightly cupped, and gently ran the back of her fingers down the side of my face. An electric chill travelled up and down my entire body, and I shivered noticeably. It felt as though the kiss could have lasted forever, and that wouldn’t be nearly long enough.

When she finally pulled back, I could see her cheeks were flushed, and the burning sensation in my face told me mine were as well. We looked into each other’s eyes again, and despite being dazed by the wonderful kiss we had just shared, I was still overwhelmed by the strength and intelligence and life I saw in her impossibly beautiful eyes. The look lingered only briefly; then with a quick squeeze of my hand, she turned and jogged back toward her cabin. Not a single word had passed between us the whole time, but we had communicated more deeply than I ever had with any other person. If I sound overly effusive, it’s only because it’s the only way I can think of to fully illustrate the beauty of that moment. I realized, once I’d regained the ability to think coherently, that my lips tingled slightly from the contact we’d shared. I carried this pleasant sensation with me back to my bed, too much in her spell to respond to entreaties for conversation or games, and fell soundly asleep, hoping to dream more about the golden-eyed girl.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Here we go again

In the past, I’ve used writing as a form of “therapy” for myself. Just as people say that talking things out helps you to feel better about them, I feel the same way about writing. I think of myself as an open and honest person, but some of the fears and concerns I have I know are baseless, and therefore I feel stupid bringing them up out loud. I don’t like to worry or bother people with my worries. I’m a noted worrier about all things, especially interpersonal relationships, and to bring it up every time would be to create a “boy who cried ‘poor me’” persona for myself. Nobody likes to listen to me whine, and I’m so terrified it will push people away that I just swallow everything. Yes, I’m aware that’s not particularly healthy, but that’s how I’ve been for years now, and I can’t seem to shake it.

So what am I whining writing about today? Despite what is probably the truth, I feel like everything good in my life is fading away. I was recently promoted at work, which is awesome and frankly a long time coming, but even that has a tinge of pointlessness to it. The additional money it brings is already accounted for since my car has decided that it hates me and two major systems went kaput within a two week span, necessitating $1900 in repairs. Not to mention the additional stress the new responsibilities bring. Don’t get me wrong; I’m very grateful to have a job in the current climate, much less one where I’m advancing. I only mention it as part of the pile of shit under which I feel buried. It’s really part of a larger issue I have with money management (i.e. I’m really bad at it).

My mother and I are polar opposites in terms of beliefs and opinions (be they political, religious, or what have you). I love her with every fiber of my being, and I know she returns that love, but it’s very alienating feeling as though I have to constantly defend my “hippie liberal” beliefs against a family of conservatives. And defend myself I do. I make every effort to avoid these hot topics (and the store Hot Topic), and yet I still get drawn into conversations that make me internally cringe the entire time. I know I’m not alone in this. We all grow up, start thinking about this world we’re living in, and distance ourselves, in same way or other, from the beliefs we held as children. Parents often don’t understand this change. My mother in particular views it as a rejection of the VALUES she and my dad instilled in me, though that’s completely not the case. What does this have to do with why I’m writing? It’s because family is supposed to be a source of support when you’re feeling low, and while my mother supports me in the best way she can, she’s never been someone I’ve felt comfortable turning to with my crazy issues. We’re actually a lot alike in that regard.

Really when you get right down to it, my largest problem is how I feel rooted in place, unchanging and stifled. Most of that is my own doing. I have a hard time talking to or opening up to new people, and often change terrifies me. I worry constantly about pushing away the friends that are most important in my life with my neuroses. Knowing that some of my worries are shared by these people alleviates nothing. I watch my nearest and dearest as they live full lives, having loving relationships and healthy families, being active parts of the human race. I watch as they gravitate toward newer and more interesting people whose lives are in turn full of other interesting people and events. A large part of me rejoices for them that life is so meaningful, that they are doing things that leave lasting impressions on the world around them, that they can so clearly connect to life. And then I see myself, standing still and unchanging because of cowardice or sadness or whatever you have. I add nothing of significance to my world, and I can’t help but extrapolate that to mean I add nothing of significance to the lives of the people I love.

I’m a big ball of neuroses: jealousy when my closest friends become closer to others (which is pure selfishness and neediness, I’m aware, and nothing I would EVER IN A MILLION YEARS act on), sadness at my own cowardice, anger at myself for mistakes of the past, and fear of mistakes yet to be made. And when I compare all of that against the things I DO contribute both to the world and my loved ones, it becomes worse than a zero sum game. I sometimes feel like I’m actually subtracting from life, making things harder for the people I love, and as a result I wonder why they love me, and how long it will be before they realize how little I bring to the table and decide it’s not worth it. And then I feel terrible for those thoughts because all that displays is a lack of faith in them. The cycle turns ever onward, and here I sit, unchanging, not growing, feeling as though I’m holding those that I love back.

“So move! Make things better!” you might say. And I know I need to do that. But every time I feel ready to start, to make myself better, to make myself worthy of the love people continue to show me, the other thoughts take over and once again I’m lost in my own head. Which, if you haven’t guessed, is a dark and twisty place. So I guess this is just a venting session. Who knows if it will help me in any real way? If you’ve made it through to the end, I thank you for reading. And if you’re a close friend, know that despite my darkness I’m so grateful to know you and be a part of your life. I might not feel worthy of it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize and appreciate it, and I will continue to strive to make myself worthy of your love and respect.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Simple Gifts

The memory is so strong in my mind it’s like a wood carving. Textures and smells and sounds all stand out in perfect relief: the twinkle of stars, the singing of crickets, the smells of the musty old building and the laughter of my friends, young and strong and happy. The future was a thing to be desired, an attainable goal, the Christmas morning present we couldn’t wait to open. Years and decisions and memories yet to be made or had, and every one of them full of possibility. Distance and time and a narrowing of focus had yet to drive us apart, and in our minds never had a group of people been closer or loved one another more.

That night we had decided to just drive, to take in the sights in our small college town for one last time. We would all be graduating in a couple of days, and we hid our fears at being separated in talk of the future and jobs and families. What we wanted to do was weep and hold one another tightly, because right now this was our family and its end seemed unthinkable. We knew we would still see each other, but none of us was naïve enough to believe that this closeness, this sameness of mind would continue once we started down our own roads. So we hid our sadness in laughter, recalling the time this one fell down the stairs, or that one was glued to his chair by jokester roommates. Still, we kept each other close for one last night and loved each other as fully as our breaking hearts would allow.

Most of our old haunts visited, we decided to drive out to the local “haunted” road to scare ourselves like we once did as freshman. Every small town probably has one of these. There’s no real haunting, but time and location and isolation elevates what’s really probably only a back road for farmers into a place of horror and slaughter in the minds of young people looking for thrills. Tales of Satanists run wild, horrible spirits seeking vengeance, cries of babies long dead served to add some thrill to this small town where the local burger joint was the height of fun. Every one of us had heard (and eventually retold) the story of Mary Paine, the girl who never made it to prom because of her death by misadventure on that very road. The fact that we had found no such story in the paper’s archives didn’t lessen the thrill of driving over the bridge that led to Paisley Road, didn’t lessen our hope to see that forlorn spectre wandering the lonely dirt road. We all longed to see her in her prom dress, beautiful and resplendent, none of us admitting that what we really were looking for was tangible proof that our emotions and memories would live on long after we left this town. Mary was the avatar for both our hope and sadness, and never before had we strained our eyes so strongly, almost desperately, for a glimpse of her pale form.

We didn’t see Mary that night, or ever for that matter, but we continued down the road all the same. Paisley Road had long ago been dug out of the earth so that walls of dirt stood 8 feet or higher on either side of the road. It was so narrow that compact cars only just fit on it, and many times had we heard of larger vehicles almost getting stuck. Old growth trees loomed over the road, forming an almost impenetrable canopy above us. Despite the perfect clarity of the sky that night, only the most scant of star shine and moonlight reached us below, so the effect was one of being all alone in an almost pitch dark earthen tunnel. We would stop our cars and extinguish our headlights, and bathe ourselves in the darkness. It was that darkness so deep you can almost feel it, like a large blanket wrapping you warmly. We felt the pressure on our ears and eyes, but it never seemed ominous. It was comforting, and there were more than one or two groans when the lights came back on and the engines roared back to noisy life.

Eventually we came to our actual destination on Paisley Road, Cold Springs Baptist Church. None of us knew for sure if the church was still used, though the condition of the building led us to believe it was, to some degree. It was always unlocked, and we had been here on many occasions before to drink and smoke (which we never did inside the building) and enjoy the quiet and peace this old one room building afforded us. Many students from our school had spent at least one evening at this church, and every one treated it with respect. It was simple inside, with plain wooden pews, a small altar with room for the lectern and a chair for the pastor, and a small choir loft behind that. There was no organ in the church, but there was a small, mostly in tune upright piano to one side. A sense of peace and long held belief fell upon us every time we entered the building. New families were blessed in this building, lives celebrated when they came to their eventual end. None of us said it out loud, but we all felt that this was the perfect place to end our evening, to consecrate our time together.

We sat talking, laughing in hushed tones, drinking our beers and ribbing one another. Couples shared quiet small kisses more full of meaning than any that had come before. Everything felt bigger, more full of import, and this in a time when we loaded every experience with the weight of all our as yet insubstantial years. We were raw nerves, every experience painful and joyful at the same time, and we wanted to feel it all. We were greedy, wanting to fill ourselves so full of this night that no other experiences would fit. We knew it was impossible, but our love could be found in the striving.

After a time all of us became quiet, lost in our own reflections. I admit to drifting quietly between sleep and waking, I was so content and at peace. Beside me sat my friend Claire, her head resting peacefully on my shoulder, my fingers slowly combing their way through her long soft hair, hair like a river of silk. I had long harbored an unrequited crush on Claire. She was kind, and her blue eyes sparkled when she smiled, and I thought no creation on earth could match her beauty. Not only that, but she had the most heart-rending voice I’d ever heard. It was high in tone, and so sweet it sounded like it might break at any moment, though it never broke but soared. It was so pure and good it sounded like something from a higher level, a brief whisper from a loving God. I’ve always loved women who sing, but Claire is the template by which all of them are judged.

I had begun to drift again, my hand slowly falling away from Claire’s head and falling on the back of the pew. I was roused when I felt her head leave my shoulder. She rose from the pew and approached the piano. A few whispers from my other friends rose up when they saw her walking that way. I wasn’t the only one who loved Claire’s voice, and all of us straightened up a bit in our pews in anticipation of the gift of song she was about to give. She seated herself at the piano, lifted the lid, and plinked out a few halting notes. Satisfied with the state of the piano’s tuning, she settled herself more squarely behind the keys and began to very quietly play the melody to the old Shaker tune “Simple Gifts”. After one full rendition of the tune alone, Claire began to sing along, and we were all enraptured.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

When she finished singing, she softly closed the piano lid and returned to her seat beside me. I felt tears on my face, and heard small sniffles from all around me that told me I wasn’t alone. I looked at Claire with fresh love, and she smiled at me through tears of her own, and her eyes sparked in the moonlight coming through the church’s windows. I thought then that my heart might burst, and that it would be okay because no moment could match this one. I gently wiped her tears, and she laughed and did the same to mine, and with that the spell was broken. We heard chuckles from the rest of our friends, and the good-natured teasing started up again. We finished our beers, gathered our empties so we could leave this magical place just as we found it, and got in our cars to head back. Sitting in the back seat, I held Claire’s hand, and watched the night sky, and thought about how grateful I was for my friends, for the people who were my simple gifts.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Felicia Day Pwns My Heart

**Another reprint from Pop Kultr.**

I’m an unabashed nerd. If it’s random or odd or geeky, I’m probably into it. Really, the only reason I don’t have a Mac is because I’m also a broke nerd. But I carry my iPhone with pride, and I pwn zombies in Left 4 Dead (not to mention, I have my own actual Zombie Apocalypse escape plan; Organize BEFORE They Arise!), and I’ve been to the Buffy musical sing-a-long. And with all that comes the pointless pining for nerd objects of desire. Natalie Portman, Summer Glau, Sarah Michelle Gellar…these are the ladies of nerdy dreams. And recently, a new idol has been added to this pantheon…Felicia Day.

My first encounter with Felicia Day was in the original airing of Season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where she played one of the potential Slayers (though I wouldn’t remember this until recently when I watched the DVDs). She was awkward and cute, and she survived until the end, which was no mean feat given the enormity of the situation before the Slayers.

Cut to a few years later (What? I’m not sure how many. If you really care, you too have the webternet on which to look such things up; I can’t be arsed) when a little mini-musical called Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog was taking the internet by storm. Two of its leads, Nathan Fillion and Neil Patrick Harris, were well known within the nerd community: Fillion from Firefly and Serenity, and Harris from How I Met Your Mother and nostalgia. The musical was funny and dark, and the songs had that solid-but-fun feel that Joss Whedon first introduced in the special Buffy musical episode, Once More With Feeling. But songs about an also-ran villian and his smarmy nemesis, while clever, would not be enough to carry this little phenomenon through three episodes and into countless portable devices. No, what it needed was a center, a beating heart on which to hinge all the silliness. And that beating heart was Felicia Day.

Ms. Day is no opera singer. Her voice is a little thin and wispy, but it’s true. There’s no bombast or overkill to her singing, just sweet simplicity. Penny drove Dr. Horrible more than his need to be in the Evil League of Evil, more than his quest for power, even if he didn’t acknowledge it. And it’s not until the end, when she dies as a result of one of his malfunctioning contraptions (SPOILER ALERT), that Dr. Horrible truly becomes evil. He no longer can feel anything, because his heart has been ripped out.

I ached with Dr. Horrible when Penny died. It’s a tribute to Felicia Day’s presence and skill that her death in this silly little musical could be so affecting. Nerd tears fell the world over the day Act 3 was released, and Ms. Day became the new girl every unloved boy (and some unloved girls) would give their Macs to meet.

I recently watched Ms. Day’s ode to gamer nerds everwhere, The Guild, in its entirety. It’s a funny, and kindly mocking, slice-of-life examination of a World of Warcraft-esque guild and its members. Her character, Codex, is awkward, shy and unsure of herself…in other words, just like every nerd in the history of ever. But she’s also smart and dryly funny, and pretty darn cute to boot (anybody want a peanut?). Zaboo (Sandeep Parikh) represents all of us when he becomes smitten with her. Codex also represents another part of all nerds, the one that always longs just a little to be one of the cool kids (illustrated by her lust for the douche-y stuntman), but will keep plugging along when it doesn’t work out.

I hope Ms. Day continues to get work and be prolific. She is talented, and smart, and witty, and she’s one of us (gooble gobble gooble gobble). And we could do a lot worse than her as a representative.

You can find all episodes of The Guild at www.watchtheguild.com, or you can buy the DVDs on Amazon. Seriously, check that business out!

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Extraordinarily Ordinary - Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

**This is a reprint from Pop Kultr, the new blog to which I'm contributing. You should check it out. It's shiny.**

I’m a diehard fan of superheroes. While I don’t read a lot of the “capes” comics, I’m fascinated by the almost infinite power of Superman, the self-made status and limitless genius of Batman, the…uh…boobs of Wonder Woman. (Mental note: look up definition of “misogyny”). I long for the day when my brain decides to stop being lazy and taps into one of the MANY latent super powers I’m sure I contain. The day I can wave my hand and have my remote fly into it using only my mind will be the happiest day of my life. I will follow the remote pretty quickly with my phone so as to make an appointment with the cardiologist I’ll need when my new telekinetic lifestyle takes its toll.

The allure of super powers in the real world is a common one, and the primary stomping grounds of Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman. It deals largely with the newest world-conquering plot by its main antagonist, Doctor Impossible, and the disappearance of the world’s greatest superhero, the Superman analogue CoreFire. Doctor Impossible shares narration duties with Fatale, a cyborg and the newest member of the newest incarnation of the world’s greatest superhero team, the Champions. The two narrative threads tell the story from both the villain’s and hero’s perspective, and dovetail nicely at the end for the climactic battle.

Doctor Impossible is the smartest man in the world (he claims to have an IQ over 300), and he uses his intellect, along with a few minor powers gained from one of many lab accidents, to create vast, Rube Goldberg-ian devices with which he regularly attempts to take over the world. “Attempts” being the operative word. When the novel opens, the Doctor is in prison after the failure of his (I believe) 11th attempt at world domination, and he quickly breaks out to set in motion attempt #12. Impossible is, at heart, a nerd. He was the small kid who was too smart for his own good, who was either ignored or picked on, and who internalized every moment of pain and humiliation. Despite his multiple failures and arrests, none plague him so much as the one that should have made him a household name, but instead created CoreFire, the most powerful man in the world and the Doctor’s primary nemesis. Impossible’s ego makes itself known frequently in his passages and in the description of his past creations, but you get the sense that he’s really just trying to get the cool kids to pay attention to him, and he frequently muses as to whether he made the best choice in becoming a villian.

The other voice in the novel is one of the newest cool kids, the cyborg Fatale. Fatale was created by an independent company after a horrible traffic accident essentially destroyed half of her body. The company subsequently goes belly up, and so Fatale becomes a mercenary for the US Government so as to pay for the expensive maintenance her robotic parts require. Fatale joins the New Champions partly for the allure of working with the world’s greatest heroes, but mainly to keep herself fed and running properly. Fatale’s sections are infused with a sense of sadness. Despite the amazing things she can do, she’s still just a woman who lost her ordinary life in a horrific way, and longs for the days when she didn’t weigh 450 lbs. or when men would look at her as anything other than an oddity. Fatale is us, amazed at the wondrous beings around her, but confused and a little frightened by the extraordinary world in which she lives.

Grossman populates the books with a number of other “meta-humans” that keep the pace moving and also keep you interested in the variety of powers and abilities that exist within this world. There’s Blackwolf, the non-powered human who is this book’s version of Batman; Elphin, who claims to be a fairy; Feral, a half man-half tiger; and Damsel, who is half-alien, half-human, and one of the few heroes with inherited powers. There are numerous other minor characters mentioned in passing, but Grossman provides an index at the end of the book to keep track of who’s who and who has what powers and abilities.

Despite the presence of all these magnificent characters, Grossman keeps the book down to Earth by making most of the characters basically human in desires and limitations. Small details, like Blackwolf’s use of painkillers, or the home imprisonment and slow decline of Baron Ether, Doctor Impossible’s idol, make the book feel very real and grounded in a world we mostly understand. Grossman often references past heroic exploits as though they are common knowledge, immersing his readers in this world he’s created. And through it all is Doctor Impossible and Fatale, two (mostly) normal people gifted with amazing abilities. They are both searching for something incredibly normal: intimacy and connection. There’s a sad irony that they could each be the thing the other is looking for, but will never find because they stand on opposite sides of the law.

Ultimately, I think this is Grossman’s point. Super powers are incredible, and the things you can do with them delight the imagination. But in the end we’re all human, and all we want is someone like us to keep away the darkness. Grossman’s heroes are extraordinary, but the things that make them amazing are also the things that make them feel alone. What’s more ordinary than that?

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Pop goes your head

For those few of you who are interested, I'm now contributing to a new pop culture blog started by my friend Jess. I don't know how much I'll be adding to it, but I will post the occasional article. My first is a review of Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman. It's not my usual of original fiction or douchey whining about inner turmoil, but it's something!

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