53-word rejects

I like when artists are forced to confine their work to strict parameters. Ironically, I think there’s something freeing about stripping away unfettered freedom and seeing what you can do within an established template. As such, the 53-Word Story Contest has become something of a white whale for me. It’s a weekly competition in which writers are given a thematic prompt and a limit of 53 words, no more, no less. At the end of each week, one winner is published on the 53-Word Story site, with a chance of future publication in an anthology.

53 is not a lot of words, obviously, and spinning a satisfying narrative within that space is a heck of a task. I’ve submitted a number of times and have yet to win. I intend to keep plugging away. In the meantime, since the contest is on hiatus for the summer and there really aren’t many other venues for 53-word stories, I figured I’d post my rejects here, along with the prompts that inspired them. Some are better than others. Take a look at them if you’d like to see how I deal with tight parameters. (And try to seek out the great Patricia Ann McNair’s multiple winning entries if you’d like to see it done right.)

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Prompt: Write a 53-word story about waking up.
Changes
When Mr. Hoiberg assigned “The Metamorphosis” Haley realized her purpose. She stole her dad’s Ambien. She studied Zen concentration. She pored over books on occultism and entomology. Every morning she awoke from uneasy dreams and rushed to the mirror. And every morning she was crushed by the same reflection, so terribly, tediously human.

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Prompt: Write a 53-word story about the North and the South.
Downstream
You wade into the Mississippi, the chill of a Minnesota morning dappling your body with goose bumps. The cola-brown water envelops you, washing your detritus downstream. 1200 miles away I sit cross-legged on the New Orleans levee, remembering your touch as I patiently wait for the river to deliver a trace of you.

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Prompt: Write a 53-word story including the words “road” and “aspirin” in which someone is in danger.
Trip
The baggie opened midair, pills shattering into rainbow dust in the rearview mirror. Alan pulled over. The cruiser blared past, bound for some unknown crime up the road.

“Can you get high if you take enough aspirin?” Greg asked after a long pause.

“Fucking hope so,” Alan muttered. The sweats were starting already.

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Prompt: I don’t remember the prompt for this one.
Tuesday Morning
Susan shielded her eyes with her palm and squinted into the morning sun. The billboard over her bus stop read, in giant black letters, “I EXIST.” She glanced across the street. A small crowd peered up at an identical sign reading, “YOU EXIST.”

“I don’t need this kind of pressure today,” Susan muttered.

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Prompt: Write a 53-word story about someone going up.
High Ground
I hear him striding up behind me in the parking garage, baggie of fruit slices crinkling in his grip. Even his footsteps sound lean and lanky. I swear he smirks as I stop at the elevator and he lopes ahead to the stairs.

One day he’ll have a heart attack on those stairs.

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Prompt: Write a 53-word story in which someone is  breaking something in.
Past Tense
“How old?” The cashier nodded toward my son.

“Two last Thursday,” I smiled.

“Fun age. My daughter’s six.” He paused. “Was. She was six.”

“Oh. I…”

“No, I gotta get used to it. My daughter was. My daughter was. My daughter was.”

He walked away with my $5.57 in change. I didn’t follow.

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Prompt: Write a 53-word story in which a character stands up for something they believe in.
Veteran’s Day
All around the stadium they rose, old men in “NAVY” caps, boomers in pea-green jackets, young guys in Vikings t-shirts. On the sidelines players clasped helmets over hearts. “America the Beautiful” began to swell.

“Dad, veterans are supposed to stand up,” I whispered.

He stared straight ahead. “Sometimes sitting down is standing up.”

See how we are

I am afraid.

My wife works for a state agency that runs environmental tests for public safety. People sometimes get upset with her lab when test results don’t turn out the way they’d hoped, especially since some of them see her agency’s very existence as an example of government intrusion on personal freedom. On days when I work from home I bring our son down to visit her at lunch time. While they play, I often work on my laptop in the lobby of the State Revenue building across the street. There is a lot of foot traffic in that building, much of it irritated-looking people trying to resolve tax issues. There have been several lockdowns and evacuations in the complex since my wife has worked there, all of which have turned out to be false alarms.

I am afraid.

My son’s pre-school is on a busy intersection right downtown. His classroom has a large picture window facing out toward the street and a security door with a passcode that could be easily cracked. I work for a sizable corporation that has been struggling to adapt to the new economy. It is generally a pleasant work environment but uncertainty and tension bubble just below the surface.

I see a lot of live music. Most of the shows I see are in small, dark, crowded clubs. The bands play loud. People drink heavily. The exits could be blocked with very little effort. Our family goes out to restaurants two or three times a week. We go to grocery stores, malls, gymnastics classes, coffee shops, museums, art galleries. We spend countless hours in public spaces where people mill about and anyone could enter at any time.

I am afraid.

One night in late December I have a dream. I am waiting in line at a second-floor business, possibly a bank or a DMV. A place where the queue moves slowly and no one much wants to be there. I’m checking my phone when out of the corner of my eye I see a scowling woman unzip a duffel bag and pull out something long and thin and black. My stomach seizes and a collective gasp sweeps across the room. I glance behind me and see that I have a clear path to the exit. In a split second I decide I can do more good outside summoning help than I can inside as a hostage or god knows what. I bolt for the door and down the stairs before the woman notices.

Outside it is warm and humid. The sky is jet black, the stars obscured by the thrumming glow of the city. I turn on my phone and start to dial 911 when a cry from above makes me look up. My wife leans out of a second-floor window. She holds our son out at arm’s length. I choke, as I had no idea they were inside the building. I never would have run had I known. Before I can speak or even think, my wife thrusts the boy out into the night sky. I run to catch him but can’t get there in time. He lands on his backside on the dew-dampened lawn, miraculously unhurt if rather stunned. I race to his side and scoop him into my arms, my mind racing with half-ideas of how to rescue my wife.

Suddenly I hear someone else call my name. I look up and see one of my closest friends standing in another window holding his own young son. We lock eyes briefly before he too flings his arms outward and sends the boy soaring through the air. I hurriedly set my son down and sprint to catch the falling child, but again I am too late. The boy hits the sidewalk face down and does not move again. I stop cold in my tracks, gaping at the tiny form on the pavement. The wet thud of his impact is still reverberating in my ears when a staccato burst of sharp cracks from above splits the night.

I wake up panting, panicked, staring at my bedroom ceiling in near-paralysis.

I am afraid.

But I get up. And I go out. Because this is how we are. This is what we do.

How To Shop For Records At Goodwill

Originally posted on MadeLoud, April 29, 2011

Once upon a time, thrift stores were treasure troves for retro music lovers. The onset of cassettes and CDs in the ‘80s and ‘90s convinced a lot of people that their vinyl albums were worthless relics, and the record bins of the nation’s secondhand stores teemed with desirable titles retailing for a fraction of their musical value. Sure, the hardcore collectors kept the prices high for certain primo LPs, but by and large retailers could scarcely give the damn things away. These days, the situation is a bit different. As professional crate-diggers picked the shelves clean and internet reselling gave the public the idea that they could make a few bucks on their dusty vinyl, the thrift store cupboards grew increasingly bare.

That isn’t to say that budget-minded record shoppers should give up entirely on their local Goodwill. To the contrary, there’s still plenty to be gleaned from a trip to a thrift shop music aisle. You just have to think realistically and know what to look for. Let’s parse the pickings at your average Goodwill by taking a look at some of the most commonly occurring record categories.

Regional Favorites

One of the eternally endearing facets of Goodwill is its lack of homogenization. Just as the clothing racks are filled with giveaway shirts from area merchants and high school fundraisers, so too do the record racks abound with local flavor. This is an especially nice feature for traveling disc junkies, as what’s old hat in a particular region might be new and exotic to outsiders. Visitors to Minnesota can stock up on kick-ass polkas, Texas sojourners can grab a stack of Tejano standards, Tennessee tourists can gobble up forgotten country crooners, and so on.

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Nondescript Compilations

It appears that there was a period somewhere between 1960 and 1975 when every American was legally required to own several of these scattershot proto-mixtapes. They’re often tied in to some corporate promotion and usually sport nondescript titles like Super Sounds or Golden Memories. They’re the musical equivalent of those Reader’s Digest Condensed Books collections that have clogged rummage sale dollar bins since time immemorial – unchallenging, unremarkable and thoroughly undesirable. Unless you spot one with a specific song you’ve been looking for, don’t waste your time wading through this vanilla hokum.

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Genre Standbys

The Goodwill record bins offer curiosity-seekers a fantastic chance to bust some boundaries. Due largely to sketchy record label contracts, many artists from the ‘60s through the ‘80s saw their best-known tunes endlessly repackaged on cheesy Greatest Hits discs. These collections turn up on secondhand racks all the time. If you’ve been meaning to dig a little deeper into, say, classic country, this is a fine place to start. While zeitgeist-grabbers like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings might be hard to come by, ten bucks can get you a priceless primer full of artists like Charley Pride, Eddy Arnold, Tom T. Hall, Skeeter Davis, Kitty Wells and more. The same principle applies to classical, Easy Listening, mainstream jazz and a host of other genres.

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Church and Christmas Music

Even in the age of resurgent vinyl, certain genres find themselves left by the wayside. There was a solid audience for undistinguished renditions of classic hymns and Christmas carols long ago, but that target market generally hasn’t purchased new music in a many a year. If for some reason you feel the urge to drop the needle on a staid performance of “How Great Thou Art” or “Away in a Manger” sung by a random men’s choir, your local Goodwill more than likely has your hookup several times over.

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Occasional Gems

Like we said before, the days of finding super-rare, out-of-print treasures on the Goodwill shelves are pretty much over, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find some choice cuts every now and then if you’re willing to settle for sirloin rather than filet mignon. You probably won’t snag a spotless first edition of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, for instance, but a weathered copy of his Live at the London Palladium? Well worth the 49-cent investment. You’ll probably have to head to a real record store for The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, but the right Goodwill at the right time might yield Smiley Smile for a mere buck. Be forewarned, though: you won’t score anything quite so desirable on every visit. Patience is a virtue, here as everywhere.

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Just Plain Weirdness

Now we reach what’s possibly the number one selling point for music shopping at Goodwill: When all the records are less than a dollar, you can afford to do a little gambling. That’s an especially good thing considering the endlessly weird selection at most Goodwills. Take, for example, I Will Not Forget You, a mysterious Christian album whose cover features a terrifying, androgynous demon child nestling into the palm of a severed hand. That freaky scene might not be worth five bucks to you, but for 49 cents, how can you not welcome that into your home? The same goes for Deanna Edwards’ Peacebird, a vaguely religious, thoroughly ‘70s collection of uplifting pop ballads about death. Any album whose titles include “Teach Me to Die” and “Folks Don’t Kiss Old People Anymore” is worth a bit of pocket change.

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Barbra Streisand

There might be some Goodwill stores in America with no Streisand records on their shelves, but they’re few and far between. Barbra is to Goodwill what “Law & Order” reruns are to basic cable. Why is the Divine Miss S such a thrift store staple? Well, she was massively popular for an inexplicably long time, especially with folks who might be classified as casual music fans. Many of those people probably donated their scant record collections once their kids gave them CD players for Christmas. A significant portion of them probably also, well, died. In either case, their Streisand LPs joined their kin in the queasy limbo of resale dust-collection. At this point, their only hope for release from this purgatory is an ironic purchase by some stoned hipster or club DJ. A sad fate to be sure, but in the case of Barbra Streisand, the punishment might just fit the crime.

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Eight Of The Most Surprising Samples In Hip Hop History

Originally published on MadeLoud,  Aug 25, 2011.

 

Playing “spot the sample” has long been a favorite pastime for hip-hop fans. While it’s easy enough to pick out the endless parade of James Brown, Funkadelic and Meters samples, some producers make their audiences work a little harder. With the assistance of the invaluable whosampled.com, we’ve assembled a smattering of rap’s most surprising samples.

Del the Funkee Homosapien Samples The Monkees

Del hit it big on college radio in the early ‘90s, largely on the strength of the sardonic, infectious single “Mistadobalina.” His lyrical evisceration of the titular music industry sycophant was so thorough and personal that it’s hard to imagine “Bob Dobalina” being anything but Del’s own creation. Dedicated followers of ‘60s pop, however, already knew Bob well from the Monkees’ exceedingly strange filler track “Zilch.” “Zilch” isn’t much more than a minute-long cacophony of nonsense phrases, one of which is Peter Tork’s repeated intonation of “Mister Dobalina, Mister Bob Dobalina.” In its natural habitat it doesn’t seem much like a future hip-hop hook, but it’s hard to argue with an icon.

Xzibit Samples Barbra Streisand

One of the more surreal moments in recent Academy Awards history came when a visibly befuddled Barbra Streisand announced Eminem’s win for Best Original Song in 2003. The Academy could scarcely have selected a better embodiment of the bland old establishment to pass the torch off to Hollywood’s new age. Unhip though she may be, Streisand samples have turned up on tracks by everyone from RZA to Royce da 5’9”. Maybe the most fascinating repurposing comes from producer Thayod Ausar and the decidedly non-easy-listening Xzibit, whose 1996 “Paparazzi” samples not just any Barbra, but 1976’s Classical Barbra LP. Xzibit’s grim cautionary tale about the pitfalls of fame and fortune pairs surprisingly well with the lilting strings and ethereal vocal of “Pavane (Vocale).” Babs may not have been ready for hip-hop, but hip-hop appears to have been ready for her.

Master P Samples Tom Waits

Tom Waits’ distinctive percussion and impeccable hipster credentials would seem to make him a natural sample source for backpack rappers, but only a handful of artists have taken the bait (Atmosphere, De La Soul and 3rd Bass among them). Perhaps the unlikeliest MC to dip into the Waits well is hipster kryptonite Master P. The off-kilter swagger of Waits’ “Underground” propels “I Got the Dank,” a deep cut from P’s early LP The Ghettos Tryin to Kill Me! Channeling a macabre meditation on the lives of the dead into a prototypical weed and booze ballad may seem a little suspect, but of course Tom has a long history of lyrical debauchery himself (although his rhymes tend to run a tad deeper than “chronic sack, gonna fuck with the endo / You ain’t down with the mob you out the window”).

Devin the Dude Samples James Taylor

“Right Now” is a standout track in the Devin the Dude catalog for a number of reasons. One, it’s just a remarkably mellow groove. Two, it starts out as a goof about a stoned plane ride and morphs into a moving rumination on the fragility of life. Three, it accomplishes all this on the back of an acoustic guitar riff from one of James Taylor’s cheesiest chunks of Lite FM fodder. “Shower the People” might sound like the title of an R. Kelly B-side, but it’s really just Taylor incessantly encouraging us to shower our friends with love. Kudos to Devin for pushing the tune into some deeper territory.

Insane Clown Posse Samples Nipsey Russell

The catalog of Insane Clown Posse sample sources reads mostly as you’d expect: plenty of early gangsta rap, a bit of classic rock and a whole lot of cannibalizing their own songs. At least 1991’s uncharacteristically low-key “Life at Risk” goes a bit farther afield, calling up Nipsey Russell’s soulful performance of “What Would I Do If I Could Feel?” from 1978’s The Wiz. A legendary comedian baring his emotions as the Tin Man in a sociopolitical Wizard of Oz adaptation is a far cry from standard Insane Clown Posse fare. The sample never gets around to Nipsey’s vocal, but the song’s melancholy air is in full effect. The jazzy organ and piano riff add smoky flavor to an atypically thoughtful ICP track, albeit one that’s still littered with requisite amounts of murder and misogyny.

Bone Brothers Sample Bauhaus

At this stage of its existence, hip-hop has been mashed up with nearly every conceivable genre, from country to metal to show tunes. Goth, however, has never taken much of a foothold in the rap game, despite the cult popularity of horror-core acts like Tyler the Creator and early Gravediggaz. Given Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s penchant for dark themes and occultism, it makes some sense that spin-off group Bone Brothers would be among the few to sample goth godfathers Bauhaus. It’s still an iffy match on paper, but in practice a dreary guitar lick from “She’s in Parties” paints a moody landscape for the grim, fast-paced flows of “The Struggle.” Plus, could there be a more perfectly mismatched pair of Petes than Peter Murphy and Petey Pablo?

Wiz Khalifa samples Yoko Ono

Once reviled as little more than a coattail-riding harridan, Yoko Ono has recently gotten her much-deserved props for being a trailblazer of art rock. Hip-hop, not so much, but Wiz Khalifa’s super-chill “The Statement” gets some good mileage out of Ono’s weepy, classical-tinged “Beautiful Boys.” Given Yoko’s sometimes puzzling history of protecting her late husband’s art, it’s hard to imagine what she’d have to say about a deeply personal ode to her family being turned into an introspective weed anthem. If her Twitter account is any indication, though, it would probably be baffling but poetic.

Shaquille O’Neal samples Phil Collins

OK, so it’s not like sampling “In the Air Tonight” is especially noteworthy. Dozens of producers have fallen under the sway of those irresistible percussion licks over the past 25 years. Nevertheless, the odd triple feature of Phil Collins, Shaquille O’Neal and special guest Bobby Brown on 1996’s “Edge of Night” is bizarre enough to merit a mention. It would easily rank as Collins’ weirdest public threeway if Mike Tyson and Zach Galifinakis hadn’t come along 13 years later.

The Top Four Musical Comebacks of 2031

Robert Frost may have been correct that nothing gold can stay, but most of those gilded goods make their way back into circulation if you wait around long enough. That’s certainly the case in the music industry, where yesterday’s obsolete technology is today’s must-have hipster accessory, and half-remembered rockers resurrect 20-year old albums for lucrative summer tours. So which of today’s passé musical movements will get a second life in the 2030s? It’s impossible to predict, but that’s never stopped us from trying.

Compact Discs

Musical media never really die. They just hibernate and wait for nostalgia and hipsterism to run their courses. On the other side of the coin, even the hottest trend is just a temporary thing by definition. Sure, right now ideas like music clouds, 100% digital libraries and on-demand song services are intoxicatingly enticing. Once the novelty of it all wears off, though, all this space-age stuff will quickly become the new normal, and everybody knows that normal is boring.

As the mainstream embraces total musical mobility, the next generation of hipsters is going to fall in love with tangible objects. While the return of CDs probably won’t be as widespread as the vinyl record resurgence of the ‘00s, it will be at least comparable to the current cassette tape revival: a largely inferior technology resurrected by the formidable duo of nostalgia and irony. The utilitarian, portable nature of CDs makes them especially ripe for a comeback. The art school undergrads of 2032 will sport ostentatious Discmans on the train and host CD-only basement dance parties. It will likely be just as obnoxious as it sounds.

Radio

Commercial radio seems more and more redundant every day. These days most folks carry extensive music libraries in their pockets. There are dozens of online services that can tailor playlists to suit your exact personal preferences and introduce you to new artists who are right in your wheelhouse. With all of that at our disposal, the idea of sitting down to an hour of preprogrammed, corporate-mandated robo-playlists broken up by eight-minute blocks of screeching advertisements seems quaint at best, masochistic at worst. The Clear Channel model of radio appears destined to collapse under its own predictability in the very near future.

That doesn’t mean radio is done for, though. It just needs to return to its roots. Tom Petty summed up a generation’s worth of radio nostalgia when he sang about “the last DJ who plays what he wants to play and says what he wants to say.” When commercial radio is on the ropes in the coming years, look for a return of the idea of disc jockeying as a skilled position. Even in an era when everyone has the power to program a playlist while waiting for the bus, there’s something to be said for letting a true professional do the work. Look for the future of mainstream radio to take a cue from the college and independent stations that have been embarrassing it for the past couple of decades. Employing hosts with strong personalities, good taste and, most importantly, a little creative freedom just might ensure that broadcast radio is still a thing in 20 years.

Albums

Music writers have been penning obituaries for the full-length album pretty much since the day iTunes first went online. The long list of supposed killers includes the rise of ring-tone culture, the ease of buying a single MP3 online and the general shortening of our collective attention span. Somehow, albums continue to soldier on, but their omnipresence does seem to be on a precipitous decline. The full LP will never disappear completely, but the next generation of music buyers will likely no longer think of it as the default format for exploring an artist’s work.

Give it a decade or two, though, and we’ll see a return to prestige for the album. Anyone who’s listened to a “one-hit wonders weekend” on the local oldies station should be able to see why. There has always been a place for performers who can craft great singles. Produce enough of them and you’ll have no problem striking it rich. But if you don’t have at least one classic album under your belt, you’ll never command the respect of the critics, the industry or the historians. Cultural shift or none, sooner or later, the pop star of tomorrow will have to demonstrate some long-form skills or risk being derisively labeled a “singles artist.” Although it’s possible that those superficial labels will lose their power in the coming era. We all know what a well-adjusted, ego-free lot professional musicians are, right?

The Black Eyed Peas

If ever you’re bedeviled by the ubiquitous presence of an artist you truly loathe, it helps to remember that few things are more fragile than a pop culture cache. Today’s inescapable chart-topper is tomorrow’s county fair headliner and the next day’s Jay Leno punch line. There are exceptions, of course – did anyone think in 1998 that Britney Spears would still be a viable presence in American music thirteen years later? – but generally speaking the best way to kill off an earworm is to just wait a few months.

That should be a comfort to the myriad music fans who currently seethe at the very mention of The Black Eyed Peas. Yes, the band has had a string of imbecilic successes. Yes, Fergie and Will.I.Am have been elevated to positions of prominence that far outstrip their modest talents. Yes, “I Gotta Feeling” has a catchiness-to-annoyance ratio that could attract the attention of Amnesty International. All of that aside, the band’s mojo can’t last forever. We’ll be rid of them soon enough.

Except for their inevitable rediscovery by future generations of schlock merchants. Some of us remember when ABBA was just that cheesy bunch of Scandinavians who did that lame-ass “Dancing Queen” song. But shellac them with 20 years’ worth of camp value and ironic appreciation, and they become “the legendary hit-makers and Rock & Roll Hall of Famers who inspired “Mama Mia”!” Be sure to relish the inevitable Black Eyed Peas break-up while it lasts, music fans, because you won’t have long to wait before you’re watching Fergie pick up her Lifetime Achievement Grammy on the way to the Broadway opening of “Tonight’s Gonna Be a Good Good Night.”

David Fiske in 20 Polaroids

  1. One afternoon I called up my friend David. When he answered I began reading him Donald Barthelme’s short story “The School.” Once I reached the end of the story, I promptly hung up. We discussed the story the next day at work. No further explanation of the phone call was required.

 

  1. When I was living in Chicago and David in Massachusetts, he sent me a package containing, among other things, a Polaroid of himself sporting a pair of large, fake breasts under a tasteful white blouse. That picture hung on one of my kitchen cabinets for years afterward.

 

  1. Sunday mornings at the coffee shop were reliably slow, so David and I passed the time by cutting things out of the Sunday Times-Picayune and decorating the store with visual non-sequiturs. On each biscotti jar, for instance, we pasted a single panel from the comics section. My favorite was one of David’s selections, Curtis from Curtis gazing in mute horror as his father danced The Robot.

 

  1. One evening the power went out in our neighborhood of New Orleans. Myra and I weren’t sleepy yet, so we called David to see if the lights were on in his apartment. We spent the evening drinking bourbon, watching Cheaters and critiquing the published poetry of Thurston Moore. It turned out to be one of my favorite Wednesdays.

 

  1. My professors in the Fiction Writing department at Columbia College Chicago frequently stressed the importance of having a reliable “first reader” for one’s unpolished prose. I decided that David should be mine. For a couple of years I sent him everything I wrote that I was at all proud of. He wrote back promptly every time, usually with praise but sometimes with much-needed criticism. He once told me he thought he was falling in love with the teenage girl at the heart of my novel-in-progress. That was one of the best things anyone has ever said about my writing. I later named the main street in my fictional small town after him.

 

  1. On particularly maddening days at the coffee shop, David and I attempted to kill customers using only the power of our minds. We never mastered it.

 

  1. David had told me about his problems with sleepwalking, but I hadn’t witnessed it until one night when he was visiting me in Chicago. I woke up around 2 a.m. to the sound of David rummaging through my bedroom closet. When I asked what he was doing, he calmly reassured me, saying softly, “No, it’s OK. It’s me, Dave.” I eventually got him to leave the closet and head back to the couch. He remembered none of it in the morning.

 

  1. When David mentioned an upcoming trip to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, I remembered that my friend Matt, who lived there, had asked me for a mix CD. David agreed to make the delivery. He strolled stone-faced into the movie theater where Matt worked and handed him the unlabeled CD, then walked out without saying a word. Matt was completely baffled by the encounter until I called him and explained it all a few weeks later.

 

  1. On a sand bar somewhere on the Bogue Chitto River, David and I and our friends Roan and William squared off, charging at each other with inner tubes wedged around our waists. I don’t recall who won, but obviously there are no losers in a situation like that.

 

  1. David and I had an ongoing debate about men’s room etiquette. It began after he took one of the middle urinals in a four-urinal movie theater bathroom. A gentleman was already using the one on the far end, so I sidled in to the one alongside David. He held that I should have just waited so as to avoid awkwardness. My argument was that I would have left the standard courtesy gap had the other urinal not been occupied, but the laws of supply and demand ultimately trump social niceties.

 

  1. Some friends once invited Myra and me on a Honduras-to-Chicago road trip. On our way out of San Antonio, we somehow talked our hosts into making a detour through New Orleans so we could see our old friends Roan and Kristina. David was just getting back to the States after a trip to Egypt with his parents, so we assumed we’d miss him on this visit. As it turned out, David sped from Florida to New Orleans just so he could chat with us on a street corner for half an hour before we had to hit the road. Duly impressed, Myra and I hopped into our Scion the day after we got to Chicago and drove back down to New Orleans to surprise David with a return visit.

 

  1. Man and dogI collaborated with David on half of an absurdist play. We wrote it in the coffee shop’s log book during our down time. The only scene I remember involved a parade of clichéd American icons, including Marilyn Monroe riding Marlon Brando like a horse. David objected to me calling Marilyn Monroe a cliché. He really liked Marilyn Monroe.

 

  1. David was the first person I ever met who could match me NewsRadio quote for NewsRadio quote. If there’s a surer recipe for gaining my immediate respect, I don’t know it.

 

  1. When a music writing gig landed me an advance copy of Cat Power’s masterwork You Are Free, the first thing I did was drive to the coffee shop to show David. His envious, appreciative reaction was extremely validating. A month or so later David and Myra and I saw Cat Power play at the Howlin’ Wolf. It was one of the worst live performances any of us had seen. Myra fell asleep on her feet in the front row. I think David and I both learned something unfortunate about artistic heroes that night.

 

  1. There exists a photograph of David and me wearing a single, very large pair of men’s blue jeans, one of us in either leg.

 

  1. David and I regularly exchanged CDs, each trying to win the other one over to our personal favorite artists. I got him into Crooked Fingers, Bill Withers and Magnetic Fields. He got me into M. Ward, Mitch Hedberg and The Postal Service. I never convinced him about Lou Reed and he never convinced me about Bill Hicks.

 

  1. In David’s apartment after Katrina, he and I watched the debut of the New Orleans-set cop drama K-Ville. We decided that we would take a shot every time the show shoehorned in a gratuitous New Orleans stereotype. By the time Anthony Anderson got around to extolling the virtues of eating po’ boys for breakfast, we were pretty well in the bag.

 

  1. The night before we left New Orleans to move to Chicago, Myra and I had a bunch of our friends over for a last meal at Ninja Sushi and some drinks amidst our boxed-up worldly belongings. We doled out goodbyes at the end of the evening, with all the usual handshakes and hugs and half-teary well-wishes. When I came to David, he wrapped his arms around me and hugged me with all his might. At first I thought he was just being over the top, playing it for a laugh, but when he kept on squeezing I realized this was every inch a heartfelt, emotional farewell. I hugged him back hard, my heart splintering a little bit as I did.

 

  1. After David died last month, his parents sent me some things of his that they thought I’d appreciate. One of those items was a lovely, mahogany-toned lamp that had accompanied David on all of his far-flung travels. (In the decade or so that I knew him he’d lived in New Orleans, Massachusetts, Amsterdam and Chicago, and he and his parents had traveled to most corners of the globe.) The lamp is by my bedside now, on the nightstand behind the alarm clock, in a spot where I’ll be sure to see it every morning.

 

  1. There was a time when my next course of action would have been to send this list to David for his analysis. Even though we’d fallen out of that practice in recent years, I’ve been thinking I might want to start it up again. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but god damn it, what does? So long, Dave. I’d say I miss you, but that doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Welcome to the machines

Originally posted on Rob Duffer’s marvelous fatherhood blog Experiments in ManhoodAugust 14, 2011.

The machines arrive each morning before seven. Their cacophony of beeps, clanks and belches is the first thing I hear upon waking. In the next room, my son Selby hears them too. I imagine he feels a tiny ripple of anticipation every day as the cobwebs clear and the sounds begin to take shape in his head. At 19 months, patience is far from his greatest virtue, but in this case he seems to have made peace with waiting. He knows he’ll be with the machines soon.

Selby is a city kid. More than a year and a half into this fatherhood bit, I still can’t quite get my head around that. I grew up in the woods. Not on a farm or in some rural subdivision, but in the middle of the deep dark forest in the hilly country of Western Wisconsin. My family’s nearest neighbors lived nearly a mile away across a corn field. Our only bathroom was a wooden outhouse handcrafted by my father. Our rare visitors had to maneuver a quarter-mile of rutted driveway interrupted by a fast-flowing creek at the midway point.

My son, in contrast, can hear the crackling speaker of the Wendy’s drive-thru from his backyard. He negotiates city buses as easily as any grizzled urban warrior. And his favorite form of daily entertainment is watching the machines. We live half a block off of University Avenue, the future site of Saint Paul’s much-anticipated light rail line. Nearly every day, I take my son by the hand and walk him up to the corner to watch men in yellow helmets tear up a major metropolitan thoroughfare using equipment half the size of our house. A few years from now, they’ll have built a state of the art rapid transit system that stops just outside our door. My son is absolutely enthralled by this, and why shouldn’t he be?

Watching him watch things is one of my greatest joys. The focus he puts on these earth-movers and hole-diggers is so intense that I suspect he could operate one from memory if he only had the size and strength. I can recall being similarly rapt when I was a kid, but it was the relative nothingness of sumac groves and babbling brooks that held me in thrall. Selby drinks in what Petula Clark called “the rhythm of the traffic in the city,” unfazed by churning traffic and passing vagrants. These are just the ambient noise of his everyday existence. I love to see it, but it also makes me uneasy.

Even though I’ve lived in cities for years, I’ve think of myself as a country boy at heart. When you’re raised on grassy pastures, starry nights and unbroken solitude, it’s hard to throw it over completely for the city. My wife Myra is in a similar situation, coming from a sleepy town of barely 1,000 people. For us, the Big City was a destination, a far-off place full of wonder and danger. For the boy we’re raising, small towns and farmscapes will be the exotic outposts. Will he dread visits to his grandparents’ homes, where the nights are silent and there’s no Target right up the street? Will he dismiss country folk as backwards yokels? Will he gag melodramatically every time we drive past a manure-coated cornfield?

I surely hope not, but as with most things, only time will tell. Maybe someday Myra and I will relent in our determination to be city folk for life and trade in culture and convenience for small-town stability. But for now, all I can do is offer Selby my halting guidance through an urban jungle I can barely navigate myself. And keep watching the machines.

The Lesser Works of Janusz Kaminski

Toward the end of my grad school experience, I was approached about an assistant editorship with Reservoir, a new, student-written publication designed to showcase the vibrant community of Columbia College Chicago. The following year I was promoted to Managing Editor and given an opportunity to mold the magazine into something cool, quirky and unique to that singular university. In a classic cliche, Reservoir folded after its third year under pressure from uptight administrators. I’d moved on by then, but I was still mighty sad to see it go. Here’s a piece I originally published in Reservoir Magazine, February 21, 2007.

With the Academy Awards just around the corner, Reservoir would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the work of Columbia College’s Oscar-winningest alum. That would be on Janusz Kaminski, a 1987 graduate who has been Steven Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer since 1991. Kaminski won Best Cinematography Oscars for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” and his epic vision has colored everything from the dystopian prisonscapes of “Minority Report” to the slick office antics of “Jerry Maguire” to the lush river voyage of “The Adventures of Huck Finn.” Kaminski returns to the alma mater this May, when he receives an honorary doctorate of humane letters at Columbia’s commencement ceremony.

Not to diminish Kaminski’s achievements, but it’s easier to do great work when you’re given great material to work with. The true test of an artist’s ingenuity comes when he or she is tasked with sprucing up the subpar. Janusz Kaminski’s camera work has more than once been the only grace note in an otherwise forgettable production. Treat yourself to a showcase of Kaminski’s minor works as a reminder that even the best of us have bills — and dues — to pay.

“Grim Prairie Tales” (1990)
You don’t see a whole lot of Western/horror movies, and this flick is a pretty good illustration of why. It’s one of those no-budget scare anthologies with sort-of-famous actors collecting paychecks in none-too-demanding parts that sometimes turn up on shows like “Svengoolie” (See also: “Creepshow,” “Merlin’s Shop of Wonders,” “Tales from the Hood”). Here it’s former Oscar nominees James Earl Jones and Brad Dourif hamming it up as wayfaring Westerners swapping tales of moderate terror. Look for lots of flickering campfire shots from Kaminski.

“Pyrates” (1991)
This out-of-print Gen X obscurity is most notable as the first big-screen pairing of real-life spouses Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick. They play a star-crossed couple whose sexual encounters are so hot, they literally start fires each time they make love. No, seriously — that’s the actual plot. The early ’90s were a weirder time than they get credit for. This bizarre flick does have a bit of a cult following, probably due in part to Kaminski’s creative framing of those incendiary couplings.

“Little Giants” (1994)
Nowadays, a kiddie sports flick starring Ed O’Neill and Rick Moranis doesn’t sound that appealing, but in 1994? OK, it didn’t sound so great back then either. Perhaps the best thing to come out of “Little Giants” was Roger Ebert’s savagely vitriolic one-star review, in which he condemned the film as “a perfectly-honed retread of every other movie about how a team of losers wins the big game” that would make viewers “bitterly resent the fate that drew them into the theater.” For Kaminski’s part, he was saddled with the unenviable task of making guest star John Madden look photogenic.

“How to Make an American Quilt” (1995)
With a needlepoint-heavy plot and a cast including Maya Angelou, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Jean Simmons, Alfre Woodard and a slew of other esteemed women of the theater, this quintessential girls’ night movie seems to have been conceived with an eye toward endless repeats on the Lifetime network. The acting is uneven and the storyline frustratingly slight, but Kaminski’s eye is put to good use in lustrous shots of Americana. Unfortunately, even the most flattering camera angles can’t make Winona Ryder appear more expressive than your average block of wood.

“Cool As Ice” (1991)
That’s right — Kaminski is one of the lucky few who got a ringside seat for the ultimate early ’90s ego-driven train wreck. Intended as the launching pad for Vanilla Ice’s film career, this debacle instead hastened his journey toward becoming a national punch line. Still, imagine the thrill of being on the scene when the Ice Man first delivered immortal lines like “I’m gonna go across the street and, uh, schling a schlong” and “Drop that zero and get with the hero!” Awards be damned, it’s moments like those that make a career in the arts all worthwhile.

Remembering Bill Rose, a better man than most

“I’m not much for small talk.”

That’s the first thing I remember Bill Rose ever saying to me. He was my wife’s only living uncle, so of course I’d met him before, but this was the first time we’d been placed in intimate contact.  We were seated together at a kitchen table in suburban Houston, left to our own devices while my wife Myra helped her cousin Greg – Bill’s son – prepare dinner.

I suppose I could have interpreted Bill’s “small talk” comment as an insult, sort of a “Don’t even bother making the effort, junior,” but I took it in the spirit in which it was intended: a preemptive apology for the forthcoming lack of frivolous chit-chat. It was a relief, honestly. Bill was a clean-cut, 80-something WWII vet and former construction foreman from Chicago. I was a shaggy, 24-year-old New Orleanian barista with dreams of making it big as a fiction writer. I had been panicking about what common topics we could possibly have to discuss.

“That’s OK,” I said. “I’m really not much for small talk either.”

And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Within the next year, Myra and I would wind up living half a block from Bill and his wife Julie in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. When I was accepted into the Fiction Writing MFA program at Columbia College Chicago, Myra asked her Aunt Steph for advice on finding a good place to rent. Instead of passing us off to a rental agent, Steph lived up to her Polish-American focus on the family and had her long-vacant upstairs apartment renovated for us. Suddenly I was deep within the bosom of my in-laws, for better or for worse.

I attribute a lot of that “better” directly to Bill. Early on in our Chicago tenure, Myra established a weekly tradition of strolling up the block to spend a few hours commiserating with Bill and Julie. We’d sit in their living room, sip weak Folger’s coffee and chat while half-watching TV. We sat through an eclectic blend of programming – local news, Keeping Up Appearances, Dancing with the Stars, Cubs and Sox games (although Bill was a Cardinals fan) – but the defining show of our visits was Antiques Roadshow. Watching regular folks unearthing relics from the darkened crannies of American history proved to be a perfect conversation starter. While Julie regaled Myra with family stories, Bill and I maintained a running commentary, swapping opinions on the assorted antiques and hazy historical nuggets from our own experiences.

Our TV-bonding soon blossomed into a deeper connection. Bill was as quick-witted as anyone I knew, but years of physical labor had rendered him incapable of any activity more strenuous than a slow trudge around the block. I could and did roam about the city with impunity, but our sleepy little corner of the Northwest Side was populated almost entirely by old folks and families. Seeing as neither Bill nor I had much of an immediate peer group, we latched on to each other as not just uncle- and nephew-in-law, but as legitimate friends. We were also united by being non-Polish, non-Catholic men who married into a family that placed great stock in both of those attributes.

I suppose it should be an odd thing, making friends with a man nearly four times one’s own age, but it came easily and naturally with Bill. It helped that he was one of the most genuinely decent human beings I ever met. I’ve often heard people of my generation write off people of Bill’s generation as being stuck, through no real fault of their own, in antiquated mindsets where bigotry and Puritanism were just the accepted norm. While I’m sure that’s true in many cases, Bill was the very model of live-and-let-live tolerance. Whenever a provocative news story got emotions flaring in the living room, he remained conspicuously silent. He didn’t know anybody’s whole story except his own, he reasoned, so it was hardly his place to pass judgment on anyone else. The only people against whom I ever heard Bill say a negative word were Mayor Daley and Ronald Reagan, and c’mon – those are freebies if ever there were.

Eventually I came to realize that Myra and I were sort of Bill’s window to the world. As I said, he didn’t get out much, and that frustrated the hell out of him. His wife Julie was remarkably active for her age, regularly taking long walks around the neighborhood and attending yoga classes at the local rec center. He had a strong, loving relationship with his son Greg, but Greg lived in Texas and could only make it home five or six times a year. If he couldn’t get out to see the world, I figured it was the least we could do to bring some of the world to him.

I don’t want to say we had some kind of “Tuesdays with Morrie” thing going on. Bill was far too much of a taciturn old schooler for that kind of emotional bonding. We were more like hangout buddies. After a while I started dropping by to visit even if Myra was out of town. Bill would offer me a coffee or a beer (usually Old Style or Miller, and always in a can), he’d hand me the newest Chicago Sun-Times and we’d settle into our usual positions, he in the lounge chair he felt was a little too plush, me on the left edge of the uncomfortable davenport that had maintained its position since the ‘60s. I’d work the crossword puzzles while we chatted about all manner of things: the week’s non-events in our sleepy little corner of Chicago, Bill’s childhood in the fantastically named southern Illinois hamlet of Cave-in-Rock, the St. Louis heyday of Paul and Dizzy Dean and other ephemera. His recall was amazing. He seemed to have a near-photographic command over the details of not just his own life, but also of the world around him.

That acute awareness could be a curse as well as a blessing. One evening when Myra and Julie were cutting some pound cake in the kitchen, Bill turned to me and said with a chilling matter-of-factness, “Ira, it’s hell being old.” Bill was in most respects a simple, humble man, but he also had a lot of pride. His greatest fear was being a burden on those around him. He absolutely hated that the ravages of age had robbed him of many of his youthful abilities and he’d be damned if he was going to be forced into the role of doddering old man without a fight. He refused to eat in front of other people because he felt his ill-fitting dentures made the process too unsightly. He would not allow me to get away with mowing his lawn unless I accepted a 20-dollar bill for my efforts. He apologized profusely any time he had to ask for my help, even on the several occasions when Myra and I drove him to the hospital with various ailments.

Despite his protests, I always knew Bill and Julie appreciated having us nearby, and the feeling was more than mutual. That made our eventual decision to move away from Chicago all the more wrenching. We were going to miss the hell out of Myra’s family and all of our friends, certainly, but we knew they’d all be able to cope without us. We weren’t so sure about Bill and Julie.

The last thing I did on my last day in Chicago (Myra had moved up to Minneapolis a few weeks earlier to start her job while I finished out mine) was visit Bill and Julie. The conversation that night was grimly awkward. I tried to maintain my game face, talking brightly about how we’d be down to visit all the time and how everything was going to work out fine. Bill nodded along with my spiel, but he wasn’t buying it anymore than I was selling it. He and I sat down at the kitchen counter and shared a mostly silent meal of Polish sausage and steamed cabbage. We kept the small talk to a minimum just like we had at our first communal meal, but this time the reasons were different. I managed to hold it together through the goodnight routine, this time capped off with brief hugs from both Bill and Julie. I made it about a hundred feet up the sidewalk before I gave in to the tears. By the time I staggered back into my now-empty upstairs apartment, I was doubled over in full-body, soul-shaking sobs that wouldn’t subside for another hour.

Four years, one month and seven days later, Bill died. That was yesterday. It had been a long time coming. His health had been in varying stages of failing for most of the previous decade. Most everyone who knew him believed he was tired of fighting and ready to embrace some well-earned peace. In that respect, I’m relieved, even happy for him. In another respect, I’m devastated that I’ll never again sit down to drink weak coffee and watch Antiques Roadshow with one of the best friends I ever had.

Goodnight, Uncle Bill.

Goodbye, my dear, sweet friend.

The Boy Who Named the Trees

Here’s a little slice of my childhood. It was originally published in the Winter 2006 edition of No Touching, the creative nonfiction journal (currently on an extended hiatus) that I co-founded with the delightful Molly Each.

I am the boy who named the trees.

I did it when I was four or five, before I went off to kindergarten. Those were my peak verbalization years. I was an inquisitive kid with an expansive vocabulary, and I talked a lot to anybody who would listen. Unfortunately, there were not a lot of anybodys out in our neck of the woods. Dad went to work. Mom spent most of the day in the vegetable garden. She usually kept my brother Levi by her side, which didn’t make a lot of difference because he was too little to talk with anyway. My closest agemate lived half a mile away and I wouldn’t meet him until we were old enough for school. We had two dogs, but Phoebe was short-tempered and Gerda was incredibly stupid, even to a five year old. I tried making up some imaginary friends, but I didn’t quite get the idea that I had to make them do things in order for the relationship to blossom. I just sat back and waited for the imaginary people to entertain me and was sadly disappointed.

And so I talked to the trees. Years later, as a grown-up, I read an Annie Proulx story that ended with the line, “When you live a long way out you make your own fun.” I was good at that, making my own fun. I had learned from Sesame Street that everything has a name. I had also learned that in nature some things are alive and some things are not alive. Trees were alive. They were also immobile, which made them better candidates for lasting friendship than the various bugs and toads I caught. Yes, the trees would be my friends, and they would need to have names. And not just species names. I knew most of those – birch, spruce, cedar, etc. – thanks to my mom’s unflagging love of horticulture, but those names were so impersonal. They referred to all trees of the same type not only on our land, but all over the world. If I wanted these trees to be my friends, I needed to give them individual monikers to show them that I cared.

The first tree to get a name was Big Bart, the massive cottonwood between the shed and the house. Bart had to be first, because he was so obviously the captain of the trees. He was just the biggest tree you could hope for, at least in westernWisconsin. Sixty-odd feet tall, eight feet in diameter, rough grey bark, lofty branches that would make good sized trees themselves: if there was such a thing as tree porn, Big Bart would be a surefire centerfold. When Bart shed his cotton-esque seeds in the fall they coated the ground like an early September snowfall. He had a similarly impressive cousin out in the pasture, Big Bruce, but I never established the same rapport with wild trees as I had with the domesticated ones in our yard. I loved Bart, but it was that odd combination of love and fear usually reserved for benevolent authority figures, so we remained more acquaintances than friends.

Three-heads was much more benign. Three-heads was technically two, or possibly three, different box elder trees that had grown together at the base, with two distinct trunks sprouting off at obtuse angles. The larger trunk forked off again about six feet up, thus providing the third head. Box elders are generally sort of a nuisance tree, with their dull, ugly bark and those irritating, ground-littering seed pods we kids used to call helicopters, because of the way they twirled to the ground. Three-heads, however, was far from a nuisance. His visibility from both the house and garden made him the perfect playpen from my parents’ perspective. My dad hung my tire swing from one of Three-heads’ lower branches and I whiled away many an hour drifting back and forth in that swing with a stack of Chip N’ Dale comic books. When we were a bit older, Levi and I nailed an old ice cream bucket to Three-heads’ largest trunk and played one-on-one hoops with a Koosh ball. Three-heads was our own home entertainment system and, as such, the only box elder I ever graced with a name.

A little ways down the gentle slope from the house, near the fence line dividing the yard from the pasture, stood a grove of three walnut trees, rising tall and black and strong above their runtier brethren. Walnuts were another nuisance on the land. They cropped up everywhere and emitted toxins from their roots that killed off any more desirable would-be neighboring species. They cluttered the ground with their obnoxious fruit. In the spring, the big green walnuts made crossing the yard akin to walking across a golf driving range with longer grass. In late summer, the outer casings rotted away to an unpleasantly textured black slime that was impossible to get out of clothing. In the fall the outer shells were exposed and they became nasty, sharp-edged obstacles that would carve up a bare foot just like broken glass. Still, I admired the stately trio of walnuts enough to deem them nameworthy. I must have also deemed them somewhat comical, as I dubbed them Wilma, Fred and Barney (Apologies to Betty Rubble, but there were only three trees).

I was not on friendly terms with every tree in the yard. There were a few whose angry visages set me to whimpering. My chief adversary was Scarface, a tough, mid-sized walnut who lived along the north fence line separating us from Jim Kowitz’s cornfield. Scarface had been gnarled irreparably by several strands of barbed wire that bit into his trunk unforgivingly. The disfigurement was more than I could bear. I turned my head and hummed to myself every time I walked past, hoping to avoid eye contact with the horrid creature. In later years, I came to feel sorry for poor Scarface. I realized he was a misunderstood monster, like Frankenstein’s creature, and that the scars were not his fault at all. My mother, incidentally, has told me she was mildly concerned that I named a tree after a movie I should certainly never have heard of at that age. I have no idea where the name came from. Perhaps one of my cartoon shows did a parody, or maybe PBS ran the old Paul Muni movie one morning when I was unsupervised.

I do know where my other nemesis, Bruce Banner, got his handle, though exactly why I decided to name a twisty, scary oak tree after the Incredible Hulk’s alter ego is a mystery to me. Maybe it was because the tree looked relatively harmless in the summer months, its true nature cloaked by layers of leaves. Once the seasons changed, however, Bruce Banner was transformed into a frightening behemoth, all pointy limbs and severe angles. I’m not certain why this particular tree’s nudity affected me more than any other’s, but I suspect I drew a connection between Bruce Banner and those angry trees in The Wizard of Oz who threw apples at Dorothy. So much trauma stemming from that film.

My little brother swears to this day that I used to wander around the yard talking to the trees. This is simply not true. I’ll admit I regarded them as friends, but I knew full well that tree friends are different from human friends. We had a relationship based more on recognition than communication, and that worked just fine for both parties. That might sound odd, but I could point to any number of married couples who operate on the same principle.

I don’t want to read too much into it, but tree naming might have been a key contributor to my development as a storyteller. Even if I didn’t establish an actual narrative for each tree’s life, I was starting to build worlds of my own. I was toying with the early stages of personification and teaching myself untold lessons about human personality. The surprising power of that original vision is evident not only in the fact that I remember so many of my old friends in such vivid detail, but also that my parents to this day refer to all of “my” trees by my given names. While I appreciate the resonance, I have been embarrassed on more than one occasion when friends visiting from a more urban setting have inquired about the identity of this “Three-heads” my mother keeps referring to. I have learned that the most dignified approach is to simply smile politely and explain quietly that they’ll have to bear with my mother, as she’s gone a little bit crazy.

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