What did I hear in the woods?

cosmosbedroomThere is an old adage that we hear what we want to hear. I think it is a good adage. It speaks to the deep human propensity to make disturbed and muddy the clear, still waters of reality. But like much of the world, belief is a complicated force. Perhaps it is all in how we use it. Where would we be without the believers and the dreamers? I know my life would have much less meaning and fun without belief in the yet proven–in other words, faith.

When I was a child, I came across a film one day flipping through our limited selection of channels on TV: The Legend of Boggy Creek, a docuhorror about a bigfoot-like creature supposedly sited in Fouke, Arkansas throughout the 1940s and 1950s. It was both terrifying and fascinating. Perhaps it was the first horror movie I ever watched. It has long been one of my favorite genres. I was convinced that the movie was absolutely true–perhaps it was.

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poisonI’m grateful for medicine.

Without meds to help me regulate my moods (bipolar), I’m quite certain my life would be a series of disasters. But as all people dependent on medicine know, there is often a trade-off. There are side effects and there are dangers. There is no one more compliant with psychiatric medicine than I am, and that comes with a cost.

In the fall of 2017, I needed a med change–a regular occurrence in the treatment of Bipolar Affective Disorder. My doctor increased one drug and added a new one–something brand new on the market. It’s a drug you’ve seen in commercials a dozen times and I was hopeful that it would level me out–and it did. But as a person who was already struggling with anxiety, it began to get out of control soon after starting it. I never connected the two. The doctor then put me on an anxiety medicine to help with that.

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In a Twinkle

111215074920-santas-rielly-horizontal-large-galleryJuly has become a natural time for me to think about Christmas. I, as do many, absolutely adore the Christmas season, and I begin to long for it in the hot month of July for so many reasons. So why not?

I’m a believer.

When there is inadequate evidence to support something I want to believe–something which enriches my life in some way–I often choose to believe it anyway.  I’m good with Bigfoot, psychic powers, magic, aliens, ghosts, and God. Most adults believe in at least one of these. But what about Santa Claus?

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I’m Bruce Wayne

glass-of-apple-juice-on-placemat_mediumI’ve written extensively of my memories of Lonoke, Arkansas and Norman, Oklahoma, but my memory goes further back to Texas. In fact, my first memory is around one-and-a-half years old, and it involved Batman in a small way. We lived in a trailer home somewhere near Houston. One summer evening, my mother had some friends over for coffee. My twin and I were riding down the gravel drive of the trailer on little plastic scooters. No peddles, just powered by our sandaled feet. Mine was green and it was a nominally akin to a tractor.  My mother had cut the rubber head of a toy tom-tom drum into a mask just like Robin’s from Batman. I recall coming in from the humid night air to have her retie it for me a couple of times. This tells you how deep my roots with the Batman franchise grows.

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Lower-Middle Class Preppy

I grew up at a time when the brand of your clothes you wore was a major factor in you determining social status. Polo, Izod, Gant, OP, Jams, Guess, Reebok–it didn’t matter if the off-brand clothing item was identical; without the brand, it was absolute TRASH and you were better off not even trying.

I learned this in my days of middle school in Norman.  I moved from a small farm town in Arkansas where I was aware of name brands, but so many of us were poor and I think we were more forgiving about clothes.  In that town, Lee jeans were the standard. You looked for that genuine cowhide patch with “Lee” branded on it. They weren’t expensive. They didn’t promise any kind of status. We just liked them. But Lee was not cool in 1984 Norman. I was set straight very soon at Whittier Middle School.  In a panic, I begged my mom to buy me a couple pairs of Levis, but I had to wait.

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Halloween Mask Surprise

cyclopsIt’s a little early to think about Halloween, but this story is ultimately about growing up with an extraordinary father.

Eighth grade is a weird time for Halloween. Eight-graders are caught between childhood and adolescence. They want to enjoy all the fun of a childhood Halloween and also enjoy the teenage and adult age fun of parties. It was the last year I tried to trick-or-treat.  Over the summer, I’d become a six-foot-tall bass-baritone. I wondered if I could still pull it off one last time.  I blew what little money I had on a hobo mask. Yes, this was a day when dressing like a homeless person for Halloween was acceptable. The mask was replete with a tattered cigar protruding from a weather-worn, unshaven rubber face.

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10mm_280x@2xIn the mid-nineties, my wife and I decided to go see a couple of our favorite bands at the Zoo Amphitheater in Oklahoma City:  The Doobie Brothers and the Steve Miller Band; staples of the 70s and early 80s. Naturally, The Zoo Amphitheater derives its name from the Oklahoma City Zoo where it is located. It is Oklahoma City’s premier outdoor music venue, and mostly features older rock bands touring the country with the hits that made them the superstar giants of my youth.

I was newly married, and although we had our spats including one where a tub of Turtle Wax was hurled against our apartment wall with a great splat (by which of us I cannot remember), this was a wonderful time in our lives together; before kids and mortgages–just the two of us developing our style with each other which consisted of humble apartment living, healthy eating, card games, church family, singing in the choir, Franzia box wine, Roseanne and Nick and Night, and classic rock.

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Green Screen Dream

My grandfather, Daddy Boots, has been on my mind a lot lately.  I’ve written some about him in these posts.

Land Your Plane Tonight

A Tuba Named Boots:  The Audition
Today, a memory returned to me about something that happened very soon after his death.  Daddy Boots was a computer enthusiast.  You could call him an early adopter.  He bought a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer when I was a small boy. 1979? 80?  Not sure.  He was also a stock market enthusiast.  He retired early and he had money to invest.  Perhaps if he had put it in a mutual fund instead of playing the market he would have been a multi millionaire, but it wouldn’t have made him happy.

He loved to watch tickers and read journals and buy and sell stocks.  Perhaps it is what kept him alive so long after his wife’s death.  He was very clever, too.  He’d become so knowledgeable about the stock market and about computers, that he developed software based on his investment algorithms.  He used it to do his business every day, first thing, in slippers and ancient pajamas.

He took the time to show me.  He would put me on his lap and teach me how to navigate the operating system so that I could play the simple games which he taught me to load from floppy discs.  His computer room was up the stairs from the laundry room above the garage.  It was not connected at all to the rest of the house.  The best word to describe the room is “den”, not in the living  room sense of the word, but as in an animals den.  It had all the things that were important to him stashed away in it.  It had a strong smell which I had associated with the room, but when he moved to Norman and I visited his apartment I realized that it was him.  Not the room at all.  His smell is a vivid living thing in me.  Not just a memory.  If I choose, I can put it right into my nose as if he were here.

In a day where men and women his age are still struggling to use phones and email, he had already been using computers and modems and faxes and printers for 30 years or so.  I marvel at that to this day.  Perhaps I am a computer programmer today because of him, and perhaps I am a musician today because of him.

I remember during a visit to his and Granny’s home that he sat down on the couch with a clarinet case in hand.  He’d kept this clarinet since he was a very young man in high school.  He had taken it in to get it recorked and cleaned up. He played in dance bands in high school and when he enlisted, I believe he brought his clarinet with him.  He told a story about playing in the barracks at night with the window up, and how he’d been called in to see the commander of the camp to be recruited to play.   And once again, I marveled.  He could only squeak out a few notes in the living room, but at one time he had been  good enough to be a small time professional musician.  I liked to imagine how he must have sounded.  It was on a stage at a high school dance playing Moonlight Serenade that he first saw Dellalou Morris.  He fell in love with her on the spot and loved her till his dying breath.

All of my life, I loved him very much, but I only saw him once or twice a year.  I treasured those moments, but as an adult I did not know him very well at all until he moved to my town to live his last days.  I became much closer to him in those years.

A few days after he died, I had a dream.  I was in a dark room fill with TRS-80s or some such.  They were all “green screen” monitors like you may have seen in a bank or at an airline.  They are black screens with green words.  I could smell something very familiar that seemed to ride on the a low hum from all of the little fans in the computers keeping the heat down on the processors.  Then the hum changed.  Something was emerging from it, I could make out word:  “David”.  It was a distant voice, modulated in some way, perhaps by the technology it was being emitted from.  I came closer to one of the computers and a face emerged with old glasses, familiar bushy eyebrows,  and a striking nose all in the form of a green outline.  It was peering at me; alive

He didn’t say anything else, but a beautiful sound came forth.  It was a clarinet playing low and smooth.

When I woke, I pondered the dream.  I thought about that face and glasses and eyebrows and nose.  Without doubt, I concluded that it was Daddy Boots.  This was a Daddy Boots I hadn’t seen in a long time.  This man was at last content.  The death of his wife, my Grannie, froze him some way.  I’m not really sure that his mind ever left that year.  I knew him to be a man living with the ghosts of people long gone, the ghosts of bomber planes and flight jackets.  He was restless and he missed the one person who perhaps kept him living in the present:  Dellalou, his beautiful bride.

Maybe it was just a dream, but I like to think that if his soul continued on to a better place that this would be his heaven.   Living and breathing computers and playing clarinet for his wife to dance to. I can never be certain, but I like to think he was playing their song.

Land Your Plane Tonight

colbootsMy maternal grandfather, known to me as Daddy Boots, had moved to Norman from Texas to spend his last years among my family.  It was a blessing to me.  He got to know his great grandchildren, my children.  They will never forget him.  I saw him more in that period than I’d seen him in my whole life.  He was a grand man; a war hero, a pilot, a computer wiz, a stock market junkie.  His presence was larger than most.  He was tall and broad, and because of his hearing loss he was loud.  His voice was a steely tenor and his expressions were declamatory and boisterous.  He was a leg man; never missed a chance to watch the Rockettes.  He was a story teller, and we’d all heard his stories many times.    I loved him dearly.

When they found the skin cancer, it progressed rapidly, spreading to his brain.  He could no longer take care of himself and it wasn’t long before his mind became confused.  My parents put him into a a hospice care facility in Purcell.  No treatment could have prevented his death.  I visited him a few times.  The last time I visited him, he wept with joy.  He thought that I was his son, my uncle.  I did not contradict him because it made him so happy.  He held my hand, and touched my face and told me how much he loved me, how proud he was of me…or him.

The facility arranged for my parents and my aunt to be on a call list because they believed he would die very soon.  I asked to be on that list as well.  He had come to mean a lot to more to me than that cheery old man who used to put me on his lap and teach me operating system commands on his TRS-80 computer when I was a little boy.  He was something more real to me now.

I had been preparing for the night my mother would call.  I believed it would be at night. It seems like people are more prone to dying at night.  His wife, my Grannie, died at night.  I had prayed and meditated over it many times.  I wanted to be in a helpful state of mind for this.  It was 2:30 am, or thereabouts, when my mother called.  She said very little, nor did she need to.  She would swing by with my Aunt Money and my dad.

Money quietly chatted with me in the back seat as my father drove down I-35 in the quiet of night.  She sniffled as she explained that she had anxiously eaten an entire bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken knowing that tonight would be the night.  She was queasy, and she wished she hadn’t of eaten it, but I also knew that this, in part, was her way of lightening our moods a little bit.

The nursing facility was a quiet, cozy place at night. The lights were low and everyone was settled in.  A nurse met us at the door and spoke softly to us.  She explained that he would likely pass in an hour or so.  When we entered the room, my Aunt and Mother wept and spoke to him, although he was unconscious.  My memories are hazy.  But I can remember the emotions of the room like they had shape and color.   The sorrow, the anxiety, and the helplessness. We held hands in a circle while my dad prayed.  It steadied us.

Daddy Boots lay on his back and his breathing was labored and ragged and slow.  Money sat by him first.  She spoke softly and lovingly to him.  She called him Daddy.  She held his hand for as long as she could bear it.  Eventually, my mother took her place.  Daddy Boots was holding on fiercely.  She assured him that it was okay to let go, and that Mother would be waiting for him.  I wondered if that was hard to say, to tell the man who had raised you that it was okay to let go.

I felt a strong sense that I had a role to play, so  I sat in a chair on the wall the the nurse had brought in and began to breathe myself into a meditative state.  I was reaching as high up into the light as I could.  Soon, I felt lifted into a space of golden light and I began to pray.

“Lord, give me the words to help him let go.  Give me the touch and the mind to tune into where ever he is right now.”

My mother was pleading with him.  Weeping.  Patting his hand.

“Can I sit with him for a while?”  I asked quietly.  My voice sounded distant to me, but she heard me.

She kissed him and got up to stand with the rest.  I sat down and took his hand and the words began to form in my mind even as I spoke them.

“Colonel Boots,” I addressed him.  “The war is over.  Your orders are to land your plane tonight.  Mission accomplished. Job well done.”

As I spoke these words, his eyes opened just enough for me to see a soft glow emanating from them.  I felt a lightness coming over him.  If a soul could smile, it was smiling now.  I don’t know what he saw, but I like to think it was Dellalou, his wife, reaching out to him.

I stood up and looked to my dad who was standing at the foot of the bed.  His eyes sharpened as he looked at Daddy Boots’ body.  He looked back at me.  I cannot remember exactly what he said, but it was something like, “That’s it.  He’s gone.  I’ve never seen anything like that in my entire life. How did you do that?”

And of course, I hadn’t done that.  God did that, just as God has spoken through any of you when He needed to speak words that have some human flavor to them.  And perhaps God didn’t need any of us for this, but what I believe is this.  Daddy Boots loved us.  He loved his life, especially his life as a pilot.  God can’t make us let go.  It’s something we choose, even when we barely have a consciousness left to choose with.

We made a circle around his body and prayed together.  Prayed for a safe journey, peace.  We prayed our gratitude for all that he had done for us and meant to us.

I remember little after that.  But our souls were lifted.  All the anxieties were gone.  We knew that he was at peace now, and it comforted us.  I managed to sleep, but I doubt anyone else did.  I’m pretty sure they went back to my parents house and brewed a pot of coffee.  Before I fell back asleep, I prayed a simple prayer of gratitude for letting me be apart of that sacred moment, when the Colonel landed.

A Tuba Named Boots: The Audition

bootsBefore my grandfather died, he bought me a new tuba.  I was in a period in my life where I was stepping out beyond my comfort zone to to ask for what I wanted.  My wife had often said to me, “It never hurts to ask.”  But I had long since believed, and still believe, that it can hurt to ask.  It hurts a relationship what you put someone in the awkward position to have to say no.  I was also worried what the rest of my generation of family would think.  It was an extravagant request.  But I decided to take a chance.

Daddy Boots had moved to Norman to be close to my family.  I’m sure my parents had talked him into it.  He was living in a ghost house in a ghost town where he had built a family long ago.  His wife, my Granny, had died many years before.  He was living by himself in an old house that was gathering more and more dust.

I wrote him an email.  I told him that I had never owned my own tuba and I would never expect another Christmas present again.  To my surprise, he consented.  We worked out a budget and when it came time to get the horn out in Weatherford, we made a road trip out of it in his old Cadillac.  It will always be a special memory.  When he got through all of his old conversations that I had heard a dozen times, we actually got down to a real conversation about the present.  He wanted to know if I knew any Muslims.  What were they really like.  Were they really all that bad?  I assured him that my experience was that they were not bad at all.  My Muslim friends were just regular people.  I got the sense that he was in some way relieved to hear it.  I suppose it had been a concern for him since 9/11.  It was a memorable trip.  He died soon after.  I held his hand and spoke words of peace and release as he breathed his last breath.  Perhaps I’ll tell the story sometime.

I was thrilled because it had been ages since I’d played and I really missed it.  My aspiration was to play in an orchestra.  I’d been longing to do this again since high school.  I had no illusions about my playing.  I was not even close to being a professional.  I was setting my sights lower.  I just wanted to be a part of a community orchestra of some sort.

Enter the OU Civic Orchestra.  It’s an orchestra for both students and community members.  I thought Surely I can get into this orchestra if I practice hard enough.  I contacted the director and he said that he would need a tuba player in the spring.  The audition would be in January.  Good, I have a few months to prepare.  I looked at their website for the audition requirements:  Two two-octave scales to be played slurred on the ascending scale and articulated on the descending.  Plus one two-octave chromatic scale.  And finally, two short etudes or orchestral excerpts.

Surely, I thought, I can pull this off.  I’d practiced a fair share of scales and arpeggios in high school.  Heck, I even made 1st alternate in the all-state band.  I HAD THIS.  But when I sat down for the first time, I realized that I had NEVER in fact played a 2-octave scale, much less slurred.  This may give you some idea of my skill level.  It was far more difficult than I imagined.  I couldn’t bridge the gaps between low, middle, and high registers.  I’d been dancing around it all this time.

So what does one do when one has such a problem?  I proceeded immediately to YouTube.  What I learned is that I needed to adjust my emboucher (the way the lips meet the mouthpiece).  I needed to make a change.  After 20 years, I needed to make a change.  It was difficult at first.  I struggled for two months, trying to make the necessary adjustments.  But finally, I mastered it.  Wow, I actually grew as a tuba player! I was ready for this audition.

I was very nervous the day of the audition.  My daughter wanted to come with me and I was grateful for the company.  I was supposed to meet the director at the university near the music admin offices.  So while I was sitting  in the waiting area this kid walked by and kind of stared at me.  It was the director.  And I thought, how old am I when a grad student looks like a kid?  He left  me in a cramped office for a warmup.  The office was tiny, but they still managed to squeeze a baby grand piano in.   There was just enough room in the center of the room for me to lay down my tuba case and pull out my instrument.   I ran my scales.  My daughter sang along and made tuba player faces. She had heard my audition a hundred times.  My fingers were  fumbling and my palms were sweaty.  He stepped in.  We chatted for a moment.

Then he said, “Ok, so what to you have for me?”  And I was thinking 3 scales, 1 easy etude and another that I sometimes flub.  And I’d really rather not attempt the scales at all. 

“Just play whatever you want.  No big deal.”

So I picked the easy etude and played.  I played fairly well.

“Ok.  That’s just fine.  So our registration is tomorrow.  You’re the first tuba player who’s shown any interest who actually owns a tuba, so….”

So that was that.  All of the energy I had put into it.  All of my anxiety.  All that it took me to prepare this audition, and I could’ve played Mary Had a Lamb.  The results would have been the same: “Ok, that’s just fine.  So our registration is…”

You never really know how these things are going to turn out.  I was excited, though.  We were going to play Rimsky-Korsokov;  one of my favorite orchestral composers.  And I would play on my tuba, which I had named “Boots” after my grandfather.  Although he never got to hear me play it, I think of him when I sit the instrument in my lap, and once in awhile, I sense that he is nearby.