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Childhood mornings…

February 17, 2020 Leave a comment

As a kid growing up, I can still remember those early school mornings.

With 3 sisters and 2 brothers, it was barely organized chaos.

My Dad was an early riser, so nobody needed an alarm clock. He’d just start singing. And gradually we’d all come to life, in the order we were born. If Pop singing along to something on WARM radio’s Harry West show didn’t do the trick, he’d issue a few stern individual warnings, and if that didn’t work you’d got a cup of cold water in the face. It was as effective as a cattle-prod. He didn’t need this nuclear option much, but he could be trigger-happy, so you re-dozed at your peril. We had the kind of heat that made the pipes sound like somebody was hitting them with a hammer, so that was a welcome sound on cold winter mornings. You knew the radiators were pumping, and you could lay your school clothes on top of them for a few minutes, which made dressing a little easier.

We had one bathroom upstairs, and one in the basement that nobody really used. Mostly we showered the night before. If I needed a shower in the morning, I’d have to wake up before the house moved to jump the line…..and I could go into the basement and be alone with the hot water and my thoughts. You had to be careful not to sit down in there and fall asleep though…..because it was so small you’d be covering the drain with your butt and the water would flood over the top of the stall and soak the carpet. A tricky situation, this. Even small comforts were littered with land mines.

Breakfast consisted of some Cheerios with mounds of sugar poured on top of it (our way of getting around our Mom’s ban on “sugar cereals” like Fruit Loops or Captain Crunch). Every boy in our class wore sneakers to school (there was no rule against it) but my Mom thought sneakers in school were an abomination so I’d have to shove a pair in my book bag and change into them when I got around the corner and out of sight. Then I’d have to change back into my shoes before coming back home. It was never easy navigating the terrors of adolescence, that I can tell you.

ST MARY_CROP_cropAt one point, maybe when me and my brother were in 5th grade, being an altar boy became a thing. Just about every kid in the class volunteered, even the ones you knew were heathens or closet Presbyterians. Word was out that you could make $10 or more serving a funeral or a wedding….and that sure beat shoveling snow for old ladies or cutting somebody’s grass in the wretched heat for a few singles and a glass of watered down iced tea. You could pick your own partner (but since I had a twin it was just assumed….and that was that)…..so these friends would pair up with each other. You’d see their names in the bulletin scheduled for the M-W-F 7am weekday mass and everybody knew there was no way they were gonna show up because they hadn’t been to actual mass since they got their head dunked when they were born and nobody got paid for the regular masses anyway. But because my father was a serious Catholic he refused to allow us to miss, so eventually we always got assigned the early mass because we were the only ones who would show up. A valuable lesson for later life, this. 

He’d take us, and attend the mass himself. He was proud, you could tell. He knew his kids weren’t abandoning the priest up there to wash all the dishes and ring that bell himself like those other mercenaries.

(I can tell you there is nothing more depressing than pulling on unwashed ill-fitting community altar boy clothing from a large closet while it was still dark outside. But we showed up, lit and then extinguished the candles with great aplomb, and didn’t drop stuff the priest handed to us. It was a low bar. But disappoint my father? Never.)

We lasted maybe 2 years. By 8th grade you’ve outgrown the cassocks in the closet and start to look silly up there, like you’re wearing a short skirt. One of my last gigs was a stations of the cross thing…..but the young Priest was a huge NBA basketball fan and was desperate to make it out of there in time for tip-off. So instead of reading the (long, drawn out) canned prayers (and awaiting the canned responses) at each station, he just made up his own (no responses required) and practically dragged us along with him from place to place. He skipped one of the “Jesus fell” stations by winking and whispering to us “let’s not pile on, right boys?”

I think he was done in 20 minutes. Soon after he left the priesthood and married a nun. This gave me hope for the future. I hope he still has his priorities in order.

My Dad remained devoted to his Catholic faith his entire life. He pretended that all his kids went to weekly mass and we made that easy by never telling him otherwise. One day before he got sick we were in my car and Tom Lehrer’s “The Vatican Rag” was playing on the stereo and I thought “oh shit”….but let it go….

Get in line in that processional,
Step into that small confessional,
There, the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original.
If it is, try playin’ it safer,
Drink the wine and chew the wafer,
Two, four, six, eight,
Time to transubstantiate!

…and he laughed as hard as I’d ever heard him laugh and I knew he knew and it was fine. “Just make sure you’re all with me” he’d say. And I’d say “I’m going wherever you’re going….’cause you taught me everything I know…”

I don’t enjoy mornings now any more than I did then. But I miss being woken up by my Dad’s wobbly singing voice. I miss the Harry West Show on WARM radio….and the clanging pipes and the manually sweetened Cheerios. I miss the warmth of my childhood on the coldest days of the year. I miss my Mom and Dad and that house on North Webster Avenue, where dreams rarely came true but nobody thought less of you for having them.

In a bit..

–tf

Categories: Uncategorized

The bed in the kitchen….

February 13, 2020 1 comment

carbondale0-6bd216e55056a36_6bd21820-5056-a36a-07949c8d0b044e97It’s one of my earliest memories. My father gathering the 6 of us kids into the station wagon (my twin brother and I and my youngest sister wedged in the back-back with the fold up seats on top of the spare tires) on a Sunday afternoon. And then the 30 minute drive to Carbondale, where Dad grew up. My grandfather was there, sharing a house with his 3 spinster (that’s what they were called in those less delicate days) sisters. It was very snow-white-ish, as one was only slightly less miserable than the next. Even at my young age it wasn’t hard to imagine why they never married.

My grandfather was dying on those Sunday afternoons. Cancer grabbed him and wouldn’t let go, so eventually they moved his bed downstairs into the kitchen so we could spend some time with him. My Dad and his brother would take turns shaving him, attending to his needs. His sisters were grateful for the break I suspect, although you’d never know it because to them anything other than miserableness was a sign of weakness. They could cook like demons though, and I can still smell the roast beef and mashed potatoes, and the cakes and cookies and all that stuff that folks used to do on Sunday’s that nobody does anymore because we’re too busy lying around on our smart phones complaining that things aren’t like they used to be.

Each kid would get a silver dollar each week. That was my grandfather’s thing. He must have had a room filled with them. My sister was the most greedy, and as my grandfather was a colossal ball-buster, he’d always pretend to run out of coins when it was her turn. Then she’d cry and he’d laugh and his sisters would call him all kinds of evil and eventually he’d relent and she’d go away happy. To me and my brother he might do the disappearing coin in the ear trick, and we’d be incredulous every time. I can’t remember his face. The one in my head I know I got from photos. I just remember the bed….and the coins…..and the smells. And eventually we’d be allowed to escape the grown-ups and go upstairs and watch television. My Dad and his brother would crack open some Genny Cream Ales, and sit with their father and they’d all pretend that nothing at all was wrong, which is what you did when you were Irish.

I was too young. I had nothing to compare any of this too. True, I’d never known anybody who had a bed in their kitchen, but maybe that’s just what old people did. I never knew anybody who had died. I guess I figured it would always be like this. We’d spend our Sunday’s here and eat roast beef and collect silver dollars forever.

And then we arrived one week and the bed was gone. And there was no more silver dollars. I’m sure my father explained it all to us, but I don’t remember a thing. I don’t remember the wake or the funeral. I just remember feeling sad because what we’d had, we would not have anymore. The trips became fewer and fewer, and eventually stopped altogether. The spinsters died like dominoes. The house was sold. This was what happened when people died, and I didn’t like it one bit.

And then my Uncle Chick, who was married to my mother’s sister Jayne, all of a sudden he had a bed in the kitchen too. I can remember it against the far wall wedged underneath the window. And I can’t remember his face either now, but I knew that one day soon we’d come visit the house in Dalton and he’d be gone too, because that’s what happened to old people who had beds in their kitchens. And it came to pass. Just like I thought it would. And then suddenly I wasn’t a kid anymore.

And now I see how brave these men were. They knew they were dying, but refused to be hidden away. If the kitchen was where everybody was gonna gather to smoke and drink and eat and laugh and be a family, well then that’s where they were gonna be. Raging against the dying of the light while smelling the roast beef.

So drag this damn bed down the steps and set it up near the window so I can get some sun and make it close to the fridge because I want to be able to offer my guests some Genny Cream Ale for they’re likely to be parched after that long drive. And while they’re at it I’ll have one too. One for the road as it were. And when I die put my picture on the mantle….but make sure it’s one where I’m wearing my good suit. It’s not hard to spot because it’s the one I was buried in. I want to keep my eye on all of you, but I want to look good doing it. And don’t worry kid. If you were too young to remember my face, just know this. I’ll always remember yours.

In a bit..

–tf

Categories: Uncategorized

Writing is such a strange thing…

February 9, 2020 Leave a comment

Writing is such a strange thing.

writingA terror-filled time mostly spent staring at an empty space…as you re-fill your tank with the self-loathing and self-doubt you managed to jettison the last time you wrote something you were pleased with.

Oh, and you don’t make money at it either.

Now doesn’t that sound like fun?

I’m not sure why we do it. There are days when it can take me hours to write 100 acceptable words. Or days to write a decent verse. We start and stop. Start and get distracted by a piece of lint on the floor, or the jangling collar of the dog. There might be errands that we can talk ourselves into, or a car door slam that requires investigation. A mail delivery can torpedo an entire day.

And then some days…..it just flows. It’s rare, but it happens. At times like these I’m reminded of Lincoln’s quote of the Mississippi river after the Union won the battle of Vicksburg….””The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”

There’s a Lincoln quote for everything boys and girls. Trust me.

Even after years of doing this, I struggle with the basic math. Shelby Foote wrote his mammoth 3 volume history of the Civil War (speaking of Lincoln), 500 words at a time. In longhand. Five hundred words each day. That’s less than the front and back of a piece of loose-leaf paper. When you break it down that way, what seems impossible is just putting one foot in front of the other.

Stephen King churns out books at a rate of one or more a year. He writes 365 days a year, even on Christmas. But rarely for more than a few hours…..and he produces about 1000 words a day. Do the math. The average longish novel is about 90,000 words.

So, could I write a novel every year? No. But if I wrote 250 words a day for an entire year, guess what that equals? I can’t run a marathon….but give me enough time and I’ll eventually cover the same ground. It’s all a matter of how you look at things.

Of course it helps to be as good a writer as King, but I’m talking the mechanics of the craft right now. The actual ass-in-the-seat time. King is King because he’s better than most. But he also spends less time getting distracted by the lint on the floor. So he’s staring at an empty space a lot less than the rest of us mortals. He works harder. Foote mentioned that it took him 4 times longer to write his history of the Civil War than it took the combatants to actually fight it. But all those sheets of paper added up…..

Now on to quality.

Here’s where it gets dicey. Become some days the spigot opens and the words flow, and then you sit back later and realize you’ve been belching up shit all day long. I’ve had many days when I went to bed very content, knowing I’d written 2 songs! And then morning comes and I realize nobody is every gonna hear either one because they suck ass. Quantity is not quality.

But then again, a blank page is neither.

There’s a line I think. The best stuff almost always takes time. (There’s exceptions of course. Keith Richards wrote “Gimme Shelter” in 20 minutes. But he’s Keith Richards and we’re not. So….) But not too much time. There’s rescuing, and then there’s fruitless attempts at resuscitation. Sometimes words need to be put out of their misery. Write it. Look it over. Read it. Rewrite it. Look it over. Read it. Does it still suck? Then throw it away.  If the idea you have is a good one, you can generally carve something out of it that resists the urge to hit the delete button. Most bad songs and bad pieces of writing have fundamentally flawed premises to begin with. That is, the idea that kick started the process was dead on arrival.

And so onward I go. Words in my head all the time, but the kind that resist finding their way to paper. Even this insignificant little blog post (more words than a Shelby Foote day!) has dripped tortuously slow from my fingers. But it’s been worth it. You have to shake the tree as much as possible. You never know what might fall out of it.

“They can’t all be steak, kid.” That was the advice my father gave to a young newspaper columnist. It’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard.

There’s a second part to it though.

“But you still gotta eat.”

And once again….a Lincoln quote..

“Writing, the art of communicating thoughts to the mind through the eye, is the great invention of the world…enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space.”

So there.

In a bit..

–tf

Categories: Uncategorized

My earliest memory

February 4, 2020 1 comment

“What is your earliest memory as a child?”

Somebody asked me that recently. I hadn’t thought about this for a long time.

memorylaneI was three years old. A hospital hallway. I was on a gurney….being wheeled into surgery. My appendix had ruptured. My Mom was standing over me…..but eventually she stopped. Tears filled her eyes. And I kept moving. It dawned on me that wherever I was going, she wasn’t coming with me. I yelled for her, but she didn’t come. For the first time, I was alone.

They let me come home early (interestingly, I remember nothing of a lengthy convalescence). For Christmas. All my brothers and sisters were waiting for me. My Mom carried me into the house, with my face buried in her shoulder. And….nothing. I shut down. When she finally pried me off her…I sat with my hands around my knees on the steps, rocking back and forth, not saying anything. Resistant to all attempts to cheer me up. I don’t know why I remember this….so much that happened before and after is gone. But this remains. I’m told before all of this, I was a normal, somewhat confident and outgoing kid. But the kid who came home from the hospital was almost excruciatingly shy and insecure.

I could go full on psychoanalysis and say that moment in the hallway was some sort of trigger. A kid’s brain’s way of drawing a line in the sand and saying….”this is the way things are going to be from now on”, and re-wiring itself accordingly.

But of course it wasn’t the way things would be. My Mother wasn’t perfect, but she was damn close. She always had my back. For the rest of her life. But something ruptured that day. And my personality changed. Completely. In retrospect, it’s as scary now as it was then….because it was more perception than reality. But I think it’s these moments that we do remember. It’s my earliest memory for a reason.

Eventually, we’re granted almost total recall. From our teens on we remember the good, the bad, and the ugly. Before that, it’s snippets like what I’ve outlined above.

What my father called “bits and pieces”.

The kid who shit his pants in first grade. The time I accidentally tripped the 3rd grade nun during story-time, and how she lost her shit and smacked me in the head thinking I had done it on purpose. The kid who got our entire school banned from the Philadelphia Zoo because he reached into the bird enclosure and pulled the feathers from a peacock, causing it to go into shock and die. The thrill of walking down to Pagnotti’s drugstore with enough money in my pocket to buy a 16 oz pepsi and a bag of Jax. Being goaded into jumping over an uncovered manhole and falling in and slicing my head open, necessitating a parental rescue. (A neighborhood kid took it upon himself to spray red paint periodically from the hole to our house, telling all the other kids it was a trail of my blood). And I remember feeling safe on a warm summer night, knowing the comfort of darkness had arrived, with my Father playing sentinel on the front porch, armed with Vin Scully and the Dodger game on the radio. Another day….and I had survived. I can remember these nights, desperate for them to go on and on, determined to stay awake….but always fighting a losing battle. Sleep would win, and the sun would be waiting the next day….threatening me again. In retrospect I must have been a barrel of laughs to be around.

And then there was that day in church. I had made the mistake of singing louder than the other kids in class, so was picked, with 2 other boys, to sing a solo. The song as “We Three Kings”. I had the first verse. We had to sing it while walking up the aisle, and when my cue came I opened my mouth and….nothing. My mind shut down. The words were gone. The kid behind me had verse 2, and was kicking me in the back of the leg. My face had turned blood red. I felt like I was gonna faint. And then somebody….to this day I don’t know who, whispered loud enough for me to hear….the first few lines…

We three kings of orient are, 
Bearing gifts we traverse afar

(although I didn’t know until right now that it was “traverse” and just sang “traveled”)….and from these my brain became un-stuck. And with help from a patient organist who simply went ’round in a circle, I survived to sing another day.

Yet from that day on, I require the lyrics nearby….either on a music stand or taped to the stage monitor or scribbled on my arm. Even my own lyrics. Just the first few lines…and the rest will come.

Who knows eh? Once that line in the sand is drawn……maybe it can never be wiped away.

In a bit..

–tf

Categories: Uncategorized

Democracy had a nice run at least…

January 30, 2020 Leave a comment

 If a president did something that he believes will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.

–Alan Dershowitz 

statueI just want to write all of this down so I can remember what I was thinking when democracy was strangled to death. On live television. It’s been said that “democracy dies in darkness”. Well, that may be true. But it’s gasping for breath with all the lights on as well.

This is where we’re at. The initial argument was that the President did nothing wrong. That democrats made up impeachment charges and that there was no quid pro quo in Ukraine. All that’s gone now. John Bolton’s upcoming book destroyed that narrative.

So once there was no quid pro quo. It was a “perfect phone call”.

And now? Well….not so much.

“Quid pro quo doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if there was a quid pro quo or not.”

-Senator Ted Cruz

“Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a President from office.”

–Senator Marco Rubio

You could make this stuff up I suppose. But you no longer have to.

So they’ve got one more card.

“For the sake of argument, one could assume everything attributable to John Bolton is accurate and still the House case would fall well below the standards to remove a president from office,”

-South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham

So there you go.

Using this logic, a President could order the arrest (or assassination) of a political opponent, which would obviously assist in his getting re-elected, and quite legally argue that he did so for our own good. Because it is what he thinks is “best for the country”. Or he could decide that keeping blacks and Hispanics from voting would vastly help his re-election, and thus legally restrain them from casting a ballot.

This all sounds like really bad third-rate Orwell……but it’s happening. The President’s lawyer is standing up on the floor of the US Senate arguing for a dictatorship. And nobody seems to have the balls to stop it. The media seems paralyzed….cowed. Like not wanting to admit that somebody farted in the waiting room.

Look, I get it. This was maybe even fun a while. It was like a classroom erupting into chaos when the teacher left the room. Throwing spitballs and erasers at each other. Peeking at the grade book. Setting up the whoopee cushion. Fucking around with the status quo and all that. “Draining the swamp” even though….well….you know.

But this is what happens when the teacher who left the room falls down the stairs and breaks her leg.

It’s not funny anymore.

With this argument, the President comes out of this even more powerful. He has, essentially, unchecked powers. He has the mother of all excuses. For the upcoming 2020 election, the tiny-fingered gloves will come off. There’s nothing off the table now. Who’s to say that even if he loses the election, he doesn’t simply reject the outcome as not in the public’s best interest? Who’s gonna stop him? We’ve had various “adults in the room”. Even from the military. Each one has been ritually debased. House and Senate republicans don’t just drink his kool-aid….they bathe in the stuff. The ones who do speak out do so only after announcing they’re not gonna run for office anymore. Democrats just keep getting rolled. They’ve been unable to even slow him down. And through it all his poll numbers have remained consistent. Adoring crowds lap up his bile. He hasn’t lost a single supporter that I’m aware of. Call it a cult of personality. Whatever. Maybe he’s got Hoover-like files on everybody….and dangles this over their heads like Putin’s piss-tape hangs over his own. It has become the great political question of our time. How has such an casually cruel, wholly ignorant, corrupt, repugnant, friendless piece of human garbage risen this high and this unchecked for this long?

Are we just fucking a nation of imbeciles?

Whatever happened to the constitution?

At this point I expect at least 4 more years regardless of the election results. That’s where we are at boys and girls. Ironically, quite Putin-esque. Which was perhaps the goal all along.

Make no mistake. The damage has already been done. The shit is cake-dried to the walls, and even when he goes away, the stench will remain. History will not be kind to him, nor to those who enabled him. We’ll be left with a minefield of lies and brazen corruption that generations will have to navigate.

There will be attempts to re-write history as well. But the window is closing. It’s the last gasp of the old rich white men using fear and propaganda like a cudgel…..and even though they ain’t going quietly, they’ll soon be outnumbered.

Let’s hope what replaces them smells better.

In a bit..

–tf

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Bret Alexander

January 26, 2020 Leave a comment

It’s hard to write about friendship.

Sometimes it’s taken for granted while we’re in the midst of it.

Maybe it’s a guy thing. Dudes are notoriously reticent about stuff like this.

As we get older our circle of friends gets smaller. And then it tends to solidify. These are the ones we can rely on. The ones who will answer that call at 2am. The ones who talk you off the ledge. Or the ones who will join you on the ledge and say (to use the words of a certain songwriter I admire), “I don’t know how we’re gonna get through this one…but we will.”

For those of us who play music, these bonds mean everything. Music is a communal experience. We get by with a little help from our friends.

bret

Bret Alexander is my friend. I’m a better person for that. He needs a little help.

I started out a fan. I remember running out on my lunch hour at my job to get to Gallery of Sound to buy my copy of River Songs. We’re pretty tribal here in NEPA, and it just lifted me up knowing that these guys belonged to us. Before this, great rock and roll bands always seemed to come from somewhere else. But these guys had elbowed their way up to the bar, and they were setting up the entire house.

And years later….”Love and Rain” showed up. Those songs. My god. We Will was worthy enough for Marvin Gaye. Why wasn’t this band huge?

I won’t attempt to explain the vagaries of the music business.

Fast forward some years…..and I got to play a show with Bret. First time we’d met in person. It was a songwriter in-the-round gig. His solo mandolin version of “Fear of Falling” brought the house down. Trying to follow his songs, I felt like a dog thrown into a pool. I was dog-paddlin’.

But he was so generous. He listened. He exuded nothing but positive energy. I worked up the courage to suggest that we might collaborate someday. He could have very easily deflected….but he didn’t. He looked right at me and said….”man, I’d love that. Let’s do it. Soon. Call me. Here’s my number.”

I wasn’t expecting that.

Now what the fuck was I gonna do?

One thing you do when you work with Bret. You bring your A game. At the time I felt like a B student. So I woodsheded.

And when I felt ready I called. I went to his place. That legendary Dupont bunker, as well lit as a coal mine during a power outage. Space heater at my ankle. Apple whiskey in the corner just in case. Before we played a note of music, we sat and talked. And talked. And talked some more. About music (a shared affinity for Levon and Tragically Hip). About our families. Our fathers. Our mutual friends. We discovered we each had 2 daughters roughly the same age. We shared some parental…er…tales. It wasn’t just random common ground. This was “brother from another mother” stuff. Eventually we ran down a song. And then another. We talked about so much, but the music was something that didn’t require lots of words. It was more subtle. A gesture. A smile. A foot tapping on the concrete floor. I liked to work fast. He never tried to slow me down.

And when the take was done I’d wait for his verdict…..he’s stroke his beard and say…”I’d leave it alone”. And we would. We probably make our first record in less than 8 hours. Mostly live. Us sitting knee to knee. Like the stuff you’d hear on back porches. And we both knew when it was over that we were gonna make another one. And we did. And it was even better the second time around. Music flows out of him like a river. Sometimes I felt like I was being baptized.

I don’t think he realizes how much I’ve learned from him. How much I’ve nicked from him. How much I’ve absorbed. Just the way he carries himself. His impenetrable coolness. And how that coolness never, ever, made him unapproachable.

Try that sometimes and see if you can do it. You can’t. Because you’re not that fucking cool.

I’m not sure he realizes how much so many love him. How much I love him.

The special ones are the ones that make you feel special. The ones that lift you up. That’s Bret Alexander.

The one who wrote stunning lines like this…

that driver / he always calls me brother / but he don’t look like me
give me love give me love give me peace on earth / give me more than my money’s worth

Bret has a genetic kidney condition that requires a transplant. He never mentioned it to me during all the time we spent together. Because that’s just not his way.

He’s gonna get it in a few weeks, and he’s gonna be laid up for a while. And as he’s the hardest working man in show business (250+ shows a year), his friends are banding together to keep the meter filled while he gets stronger. He’d be the first in line to help any of us. I know this all makes him uncomfortable. But he deserves it. And that’s that.

And when he comes back……I’m heading down to that bunker again.

If you want to help come to the show in April, or feed the meter through the GoFundMe campaign here.

I wish you friends like mine.

In a bit..

–tf

Categories: Uncategorized

Invisible in the hallway…

January 22, 2020 1 comment

I can still remember. Those days.

Being a teen. Lost in crowds and hallways and only feeling safe in my room, or after a quickly slammed 6 pack paid for with money my Mom thought was for a post-game burger and fries.

Most of us had no confidants. We were on our own…….navigating the ups and downs and further-downs of adolescence, with only our acne and insecurity for company. Sleep was a refuge, the only time when we didn’t have to make up our own dreams. During sleep they came on their own….like the previews you aren’t expecting before the movie. So…..on the weekends we’d push on until mid-day. Pleasantly oblivious.

stressSchool was a 6+ hour battle royal intended to jump-start every neurosis we’d managed to keep in check during off hours. Filled with bullies and stoners and freaks and mindless jocks and girls who, if you caught their eye at all, would only giggle. Classes were a hodge-podge of things you didn’t care about mixed with things you could not retain despite constant attempts at rote memorization. If you had any type of gift at all that didn’t involve a ball of some kind, you felt like a freak and kept it to yourself. Even the teachers seemed bored, falling through the doors at the end of the day with the same 1000 yard stare you had. School was an endurance test.

I remember watching the movie “The Exorcist” in this kids’ basement when we were maybe 14…..and then walking home with this other guy, and neither of us able to admit to the other that we were terrified. Then we reached a long dark alley that we had to walk down, and at the same exact time we both took off on a dead sprint until we reached the lighted main road. We just started walking again and didn’t mention a thing. In retrospect this sorta summed up being a teenager for me. If you don’t talk about it, it never happened.

There was no how-to book. If you messed up being 13, you didn’t get a do-over. And if the girl you loved didn’t love you back, chances are that shit wasn’t gonna change when you were 14. Everything was life and death…..and there was no sense of time other than “forever”. You would be this awkward forever. Stuck with the big nose of jug ears forever. Afraid of that guy forever. A stuttering mess in front of that girl forever. Terrified of the devil and Max Von Sydow forever. And you would never, ever get laid.

You were taught, always, to conform. To respect authority even if you knew they were full of shit. If you disagreed, you were never right. Even if you found an alternate, more scenic route that still got you were they wanted you to go, you weren’t allowed to take it. The finish line was not the only thing provided to you.

You searched for ways to not feel this way. The drink or the joints or the pills that made it all go away for that hour or that weekend. The music that allowed you to get lost in a different part of your head, the part that screamed rebellion. That part that wasn’t scared of its own shadow. You found the books that would shape you….or the films that would inspire you. Or maybe the musical instrument that would help you tear down the wall.

It was a constant tug of war. Between wanting desperately to fit in, and being so tempted to finally say “fuck it” and break free. Being in that straitjacket, but secretly knowing how Houdini always managed to get out of it. What would happen if you finally stuck your head above the parapet? Somebody is gonna shoot, that’s what.

But that’s what it’s all about, and it takes the teen years to bring this into focus. Some never get past the crushing conformity, and the rules that aren’t written down anywhere but everybody is expected to know. They go off into the world with their conference championship trophies and their squeaky cheerleader voices and sing “Glory Days” when it plays on the jukebox at the same bar that winked at their first fake ID.

And some run for the hills and dodge the bullets and never look back, and have been causing the right kind of trouble ever sense.

I can’t imagine being my teen self now. With what’s out there. The haves and the have-nots and the trolls around every online corner, and the 100k a year debt for a degree that promises only that your resume will probably get read at least before they throw it away. Forty years ago you got the sense that the game wasn’t totally fair, but not that it was rigged.

I remember. The good parts and the bad parts. And the floating between that 2 that make up most of those years. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. You’re still invisible in the hallways.

Even with the passage of time, some of those same fears appear, like weeds in the cracks of a sidewalk.

In a bit..

–tf

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