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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Dead pan alley


The introvert’s curse.

My bio over there mentions something about karaoke. It’s not a joke. It’s something I may only do once every couple of years, but when I get up behind that mike, buckle your seat belts. If I’m not just up in front of a crowd of strangers and there are people in the audience who actually know me, the best I can tell is that they experience some form of social whiplash. The singing may not be that impressive (or then again, maybe it is), but it’s so totally not what they expected that it makes their heads spin.

At a recent out of town conference the entertainment one night was a DJ and karaoke. Keep in mind the client group was a crowd of mostly mid-50s local government officials enjoying a night out of town and access to free alcohol. And keep in mind they usually see me as a young attorney and instructor pontificating on such fascinating topics as records management, court costs or ethics reform laws. It’s what I get paid to do. A few of the people there had heard rumors that I could sing, but I don’t think any of them expected to hear me belt out a bluesy rendition of Marc Cohn’s Walkin’ in Memphis and later follow that up with a soulful version of the Eagles Desperado. I’m just too white.

One official later came up and said something along the lines of "I shoulda known. You can’t ever trust the deadpan types." Um.... thanks. I think. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been described that way. I remember a high school English teacher who was directing the school play talk about how I was correctly cast in my part as a fastidious psychologist because I was so "deadpan."
I don’t know if deadpan necessarily goes along with introversion or if in my case it somehow amplifies it. But, like it or not, apparently it is my reality. Throughout my life, I couldn’t count the number of times people have thought I was angry or upset or depressed or disgruntled or sick or tired because there was apparently this blank mask on my face. (If you can be disgruntled, is there an opposite state of being "gruntled"? Just asking.) At the time I may have been thoroughly content or amused or peaceful. Still, they for some reason sense pain or anger or animosity coming from me. I have this theory that my face is some kind of blank canvas and other people project their own inner feelings or insecurities onto it. Who knows? Maybe with this clean slate of mine I’ve been missing out on all sorts of opportunities in the field of high stakes gambling.

I enjoy the privacy all this affords me, but it has its down side as well. There are times I’m really hurting or down or depressed and I wish I had sleeves on which to wear my emotions. I’d love for others to be able to sense the storm inside and offer comfort when I’m in too much turmoil to be able to ask for help. And there are times I need to kick up my heels or blow off steam or let out a primal scream and it just doesn’t happen.

However, there’s something about speaking in groups or singing on a stage that serves as an outlet. As an introvert, I’m bottled up or withdrawn so much of the time, I think these public opportunities serve as a pressure regulator. I have a role to play as instructor or speaker or lounge singer and I can put myself into that role and blame whatever happens on the moment. I’ve got an excuse to lay it all on the table. When I teach classes, I’m sharp, witty and down right charming. Not so much if you approach me for small talk at a reception. And if you were in the pew in front of me in church, you would not necessarily be impressed with my voice. I think it’s a bit like a high performance sports car that doesn’t run so smoothly at highway speeds. But crank the RPMs up to the red line and I can growl out a Joe Cocker tune, rock out to American Woman, scream out some heavy metal classic or belt out some emotionally charged ballad that brings the house down.

An Aside: Feeling emotionally restless a month or so ago I tried going out to a karaoke bar here in town by myself one night after the kids were in bed and Lisa was busy with some project. I unfortunately picked this cheesy country joint in Printer’s Alley. I think most of the people there had 20 years on me. When I walked in this big black guy was doing an impressive rendition of Ray Charle’s Georgia. Then I think he kicked into Charlie Pride. I was flipping through the song list trying to decide between Billy Joel or Billy Idol when this woman got up and asked "Do y’all wanna hear a slow Tanya Tucker song or a fast Tanya Tucker song?" as if those were the only two forms of music to have originated during the 5,000 years of recorded human history. Realizing how far from water this fish had gotten I packed it up at that point and went back home still restless and unsatisfied, but now with side helpings of foolishness and futility.

I wonder if someday this inner passionate self will ever manage to live closer to the surface and interact with the people in my life on a regular basis. Maybe it’s not meant to be. A dozen or so years ago now, I went through a depressive episode for about a year. It was caused by a bad confluence of circumstances and went undiagnosed and untreated. Eventually, circumstances began to improve one by one and I crawled back out of the hole I’d sunk into. During that period, I wrote poetry continuously. I think most of it was probably pretty bad. I should dig some up sometime and see. But there was something about that period that felt like a birth. Whether I was a bit nuts at the time or going through a personal transformation, I really felt like there was this person inside (the poet), who’d been chained up for years and controlled by a domineering highly-functional intellectual. Mr. Poet was finally loose and going on a rampage and kicking brainiac’s butt.

I think I’m a good bit more integrated now. Less compartmentalized and combative with the various sides of my personality. Either Mr. Poet’s wild ride came to an end or he got locked back in his closet or he got old or domesticated or peaceful. I believe I can access that emotionality now but without all the angst. Still pretty dang introverted though. So it’s nice to have opportunities to cut loose in a controlled environment. I guess that’s part of what karaoke does for me. And public speaking. And this blog.

I’ve found a weird phenomena this thing has created in my life. I saw some out of town friends recently and realized most of the things I started to share as news they had already heard by reading my blog. Then at church, another reader came up and asked about something going on in my life that I’d mentioned on here in a post. We ran into some friends at a park a few weeks ago who commented on reading my blog and another friend once commented that he found it fascinating to read my thoughts and my wife's thoughts and see the differences and dynamics of our relationship. So my life and thoughts and concerns are seeping out into the real world from this place. It kind of catches you off guard for a minute when it happens and you're thinking "Crap. What have I written recently?" I guess there's nothing wrong with that. As far as I know, no one is being held hostage with a gun to their head and forced to read this stuff. Nobody has to comment or ask a question unless they want to. It's like sitting in a karaoke bar. If you've walked in there, you've got to expect to hear some baaaaaaaad singing. That's part of the deal.

I have this horrible reluctance to "impose" on people, so I rarely approach a friend and say "Something’s really troubling me. Can I talk to you?" At dinner parties or other social gatherings, I probably let my wife – the natural extrovert, take the lead. If I do try to throw myself into conversation, I probably can’t keep up the pace for long. I’ve become practiced at the art of slipping into the background and deflecting attention. It’s hard now to drop my shields. So maybe the way poetry helped me get in touch with a part of me years ago, blogging may help me get in touch with others in a deeper more meaningful way. Ain’t technology grand.

I'm considering where to go with this thing. Do I stick with posts about my personal life and family or branch out into social, political or spiritual commentary? The world I work in is a political place and too much honesty could be a liability. Likewise, I wouldn't want my parents or in-laws reading a lot of these ramblings. I don't want someone to be able to type my name in Google or Yahoo and find all this stuff. There is freedom in anonymity. But paradoxically, there is also freedom and safety in being open and vulnerable and not trying to protect yourself.
The weather is pouring in tonight. It was in the 70's here today with a gusty wind and a humid atmosphere. It's nearly 10:00 at night now and it's still in the mid-60's with a heavy rain. One state over to the west in Arkasas it's in the 30's with a wind chill in the 20's. They're predicting snow showers here by morning. Crazy.

This is the kind of weather that ought to make animals skittish and people a little nutty. Change is in the air.

For the sake of the kids, I hope we do get some nice snows this winter.

Soon to come I need to get a post up about the similarities between karaoke and blogging. I started drafting it a couple of weeks ago then set it aside. After that one you may note a shift in directions here, something along the lines of a prismatic splintering. I've been more reflective and inwardly focused till now. This place may get a little fictional. Maybe poetic. Maybe political. Let me know what you do or don't like. You, whoever you are out there, are at least as important to this process as I am.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Trying to catch a falling leaf


Learning how not to get the bends.

I get Thursday and Friday off from work on Thanksgiving week, so it turns into a 4-day weekend. The problem is, our family is usually required to cram in at least 3 different holiday events during that period and I end up feeling like I have less time of my own than in a weekend of the typical two-day variety. Although all my grandparents have been dead for over ten years, my extended families are still trying to maintain a tradition of gathering on Thanksgiving. So we usually have to get together at Lisa’s parents’ house, my parents’ house, my mom’s extended family and sometimes my dad’s extended family as well. It’s a bit much.

All these events are in and around the Nashville area, so we avoid excessively long car trips or overnight stays. Sometimes I wonder if that’s not more of a curse than a blessing. If our relatives were more dispersed, we might not be expected to make it to all these competing events. Trying to avoid scheduling conflicts is always a pain. One year Lisa and I had to eat a late Thanksgiving lunch with my family and an early dinner with hers on the same day. I think I nearly over-dosed on tryptophan that year.

There never seems to be much quality time. It’s too much running around, way too much food, a bunch of male relatives passed out on couches in front of big screen TV sets watching football games they aren’t interested in and, for couples like us, a lot of time chasing youngsters around making sure they don’t break anything in somebody else’s home. Naps get messed up. Bed times are thrown off. There are too many tempting sweets and there are always conversational minefields to navigate. One year it’s politics. Another it’s religion. Or maybe someone was overheard complaining about somebody else’s kid. We had the worst case scenario a couple of years ago when there was a rumor that one of the gay cousins might bring a partner to Thanksgiving dinner and there were nearly wholesale successions from my family. By the time it’s all over with I end up feeling frazzled and worn out and looking forward to returning to the safe shelter of my office.

In the midst of this entirely unnecessary but not uncommon traditional holiday stress, there were a couple of peaceful moments. The church we are attending has a tradition of gathering early on Thanksgiving for a breakfast. Everyone brings fruit to make fruit baskets for shut-ins and canned goods to donate to a food pantry for the less fortunate. There’s a brief worship service and a devotional. It was nice to have a few moments of gratitude and perspective before the wholesale festival of American excess officially kicked off.

Then on Saturday – the only event-free day of the weekend – we went hiking as a family. Just Lisa and I and the kids. The entire weekend was filled with glorious weather for late November, but we only got occasional opportunities to take advantage of it during all these family gatherings where everyone seemed more interested in talking about what nice weather we were having rather than actually experiencing it.

It was as if God broke out the good china for the Thanksgiving weekend. More often than not, it seems that’s the case in Nashville. Sure, sometimes it’s bitterly cold and rainy or even spitting snow, but I can recall many years when the November curtain parts over the Thanksgiving weekend and the in the midst of late autumn’s barrenness we get a reminder of spring days to come.

So Saturday we went to Beaman Park. It was the first time we’d been there. I messed up the directions which cost us an extra half hour or more in the car. I was sure the website had them wrong, but that wasn’t the case. I got to learn once again the subtle difference between admitting you were mistaken and admitting you were wrong.

The park is 1500 acres of undeveloped land that was formerly owned by a group of doctors as a private hunting preserve until they sold it to the city recently. The park is basically just a couple of hiking trails through some beautiful unspoiled land. We chose the two mile loop for our walk. It started out meandering by a stream then wound up and down a forested ridge. It was lovely as it was, but it made you wonder how breathtaking it would have been a few weeks ago when the turning leaves were still mostly on the trees.

When out hiking, I have a bad reputation for always rushing ahead. I don’t really consider myself a type A personality, but when it comes to hikes, I have a hard time not pushing on to the destination. Even in cases like this one where the end of the trail was just going to get us back to the place we started, I always want to see what’s around the next bend, over the next ridge. It’s like a continuous To-Do list. And I’ve been known to write down things I’ve already accomplished just so that I can check them off as finished.

This day we had the kids with us and I could feel the hills in my bad hip. It wasn’t as hard as usual to keep to a slow pace. Maybe that's a benefit of arthritis. Ben rode most of the way in a backpack carrier. He liked saying "Hi" to the trees. I tried to teach Olivia about trail markings. We stopped periodically and listened to the language of the brook or the message of the wind passing through those few dry leaves autumn had spared. At one point, I happened to be in front when we stopped. I turned around and looked back down the trail towards my little family which was scattered over a stretch of 30 or 40 feet of trail.

Ben was stunning. There he stood, stilled and full of wonderment. His two year old wispy blond hair wavy and tousled by the wind. He was clad in a little pair of hiking boots, jeans, a blue shirt and a black and red plaid coat with a suede collar. I swear he looked like the cover shot of Lands End for Toddlers. Lisa is the consummate bargain hunter when it comes to kids clothes and has this strange knack for remembering which yard sale or thrift shop was the source of every article and exactly how much she paid for it. This beautiful coat is an exception. She can’t recall where it came from or even if it’s a hand-me-down or a purchase. But he looks perfect in it.

She’s standing by him, holding his hand. She’s wearing jeans and a simple brown sweater, having succumbed to her innate brownness after experimenting with a more colorful phase. Likewise, her hair is pulled back in a headband, exposing the streak of grey in front that she is learning to wear as a badge of honor. She looks peaceful and unbothered for a change.

Olivia was closest to me. She stood there in the vulnerably slender form of a five year old. Her hair was crinkled from intentionally sleeping with braids in the night before. Her face and stance both show her unconscious defiance to the gravity of the world and the arrogance that comes from being very bright, very young and yet to experience the burden of failure.

Looking back at this sweeping vista of my family I thought "This is my life." These are the people who will affect me more than any other human beings on this planet. It wasn’t quite an epiphany, but it was a moment of thankfulness and timelessness as I could sense my future compressed into the finite years to come.

A short distance ahead there was an intersection of trails and some benches to rest upon. Waiting around there, I noticed an occasional stream of leaves falling from a nearby oak. Most every other tree had already shed its leaves but this one clung to a few remnants. I’d recently seen an episode of the kid’s cartoon Caillou where Caillou (a four year old boy) and his father and grandfather went on an autumn walk and tried to catch falling leaves before they hit the ground. I began darting about, making the occasional lunge for a leaf. It’s harder than you might think. Some spiral quickly to the ground giving you scarcely a chance to grab at them. Others soar like paper airplanes forcing you to chase them across distances trying to avoid smashing into tree trunks or tripping over a rock or root while you keep one eye on the leaf and the other on the ground. Olivia and Lisa wondered what on earth I was doing till I explained, then they all joined in for a few minutes of attempted leaf catch. I finally got one. I don’t think anyone else did. I expected Olivia to get frustrated and whiny when she didn’t succeed (Caillou sure did), but she didn’t make the first complaint. She’s changing, almost before our eyes.

We moved on and finished our hike, loaded up and drove back home. When we got there, all of us were reluctant even to go in the house. We spent most of the afternoon outdoors, running around in the yard, playing games or gathering sticks. I built a fire in the chiminea and we ate our dinner on the deck. It was one of those days you hated to see end. At the same time, you knew you would do it a disservice by striving to cling to it.

There are so many days in my life that I can’t recall anything about. Olivia asks me from time to time to tell her a story about when I was her age. I can only remember a few events from that time. I probably remember a handful of days out of each elementary school grade. If I tried I might be able to list half of the classes I took in college. Just a few birthdays stand out. There are girls I dated whose names I can’t even remember and I didn’t date that many women. That’s okay. I don’t spend much time living in the past. That doesn’t worry me. But sometimes I feel like I don’t spend that much time living in the present either. I’m too often looking ahead to the weekend, or a holiday, a new job, the completion of a project or the time when the kids sleep through the night and are out of diapers. It’s the next bend in the road, the next turn in the path.

I think for some people it’s easier to live in the moment. For me, there are just a few things in life that hold me to the present and serve as a magnetic force grounding me to my current reality. One is holding a peacefully sleeping child. I believe another is the practice of writing. I might be reflecting on memories or considering what the future holds, but I am doing it in this present moment. It’s akin to catching a falling leaf that only soars for a instant between withering on the tree and resting on the ground.