Fake Cigarette

s-l300I believe it’s accurate to say that I had a reputation for being straight-laced in high school.  If I showed up at your party (rare), and you were thinking of bringing out booze or some illicit substance, you might ask your friend,

“Do you know that guy?”

“Who? Oh, that Burns twin? David?”

“Will he be cool if I bring this out?”

“David? Uhhhhh…better wait until he’s gone.”

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Band President: The Beginning of a Lifelong Love Affair

tubafluteOnce in a while, my wife and I get asked how we met. We both love to tell it. It shares themes with many love stories–politics, prestige, perseverance, admiration, and hearts that went pitter-patter.

Our story begins with music. Jennifer and I both played instruments in the band at West Mid-High in Norman, Oklahoma. She played the flute and I played the tuba. She sat on the front row and me on the back row. Ninth grade passed without any interaction that I remember. Other, she was just one of the nameless gaggle of giggly flute players on the front row.

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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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School Cafeteria: A Fond Remembrance

Many of you will recall that the standard for school cafeteria back in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s was dramatically different than now.  Sure, we complained mercilessly about Salisbury steak and lima beans, but try eating at a school cafeteria now.

I first realized how good I had it as a child when I began working for an elementary school in Moore.  It was the food I remembered from childhood.  Not the nachos, chicken nuggets, pizza, and crappy shipped in food.  We’re talking big, scratch cinnamon rolls with a heavy dose of  buttery icing drizzled on top.  The kind where the center is so soft and moist that you just want to start in the middle and work your way out.

I was very skinny at that time, and the cafeteria ladies were determined to fatten me up, so they would make a special cinnamon roll for me that was about 30% larger than the ones the kids were eating.  Their yeast rolls were equally good.  It reminded me of my childhood cafeteria.  Green beans stewed with bacon.  Chicken fried steak smothered in cream gravy.  Steak fingers.  Chimichangas.  Apple sauce jello.

You may not remember apple sauce jello fondly.  First, let me remind you of what it is.  It was that Jello that wasn’t clear.  It was grainy and opaque because instead of being just water and gelatin and sugar, it was made with applesauce to give it some nutritional value.

I was a cafeteria survivalist.  I learned how to like the foods that the other kids did not like.  Applesauce Jello was one of those foods.  I looked forward to applesauce Jello days because I was the kid who would call across the table to you and say “You gonna eat that?”

I found that people also didn’t care for rolls, canned fruits, fish sticks, spice cake, and a few other odds and ends.  My stomach was a bottomless pit.  I could always eat more than my allotted share, and I hated to see food go to waste.

My twin and I recently shared a memory of the bad weather morning donut.  In elementary school, when the weather was too cold or rainy for us to stand around the schoolyard before class, we would be ushered into the cafeteria.  We were not permitted to talk.  Goodness knows why not.  But we were each given a donut and a carton of milk.

Pretty cool, right? Wrong.  This went way beyond “pretty cool”.  These donuts came to us warm in a little plastic package.  They were soaked with melted glaze and when washed down with cold whole milk (yes we had whole milk in those days, white, chocolate, and my favorite, strawberry), it was, to this day, one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten.  I’ve tried to replicate this with donuts in the microwave, but it’s never the same.  We only got them a few times that I remember.

The cafeteria was also a social experiment.  We had to sit in the order of the line that we marched to the cafeteria in.  The best you could do to sit by your best buddy or the cute girl, was to jockey for a position in line next to them, and it would only be your best buddy in the scope of your home class. So this meant that you would be sitting by people who you wouldn’t normal be sitting by.  People with cooties, people who’s head was shaven due to lice, kids who nobody played with on the playground.  Turns out that “cooties” originates as another word for head lice, but in those days it simply meant the make believe germs that boys could give to girls and girls could give to boys making them persona non grata.

One particular day, I got to sit across from one of the cute girls in my class.  She was very crushworthy.  I often had fantasies around a particular song with a particular girl, and every time I hear this song I think of her.  “I Keep Forgetting'” by Michael McDonald.  I liked the idea that we’d already had our passionate romance and she’d thrown me away.  I wasn’t in love with her.  Maybe I just liked the song a lot, and she happened to be in front of me when I was thinking of her.

Another female friend taught me something that I’ve never forgotten.  It’s not really rocket science, but I didn’t grow up in a house where we did this.  I noticed one day that she was dipping her fat, perfect yeast roll into her whipped potatoes and gravy.  I asked her if it was good, and she suggested I try it.  Once you’ve done this, there’s no going back!

I couldn’t say if the food we ate was healthier than the food kids are eating today, but it was made scratch by the hands of women with large moles on their cheeks and hairnets over their tightly bunned hair.  Kids today are so picky, I’m not sure they would even eat the food I ate as a kid, but we didn’t have a choice other than bringing  bologna, American cheese, and mustard on Wonder Bread with Cheetos, an apple (which was meant to be thrown away), a Ding Dong wrapped in foil, and a Coca Cola in a Star Wars lunchbox.

To be fair, if given the choice between Salisbury steak and Pizza Hut, which would you pick?

Full On Countertenor

I wrote this post a month ago and immediately took it down because, in some ways, it is a sad story.  I was worried that someone might feel bad for me or the reasons I made the decision that I made.  I want you to know that although there were regrets for awhile, I now don’t regret my decisions at all.  I wouldn’t change a thing.

A countertenor is a male singer equivalent to the female contralto or mezzo soprano.  He develops a strong falsetto to give him such a high range.  It became very popular in the 90s when I was studying music at OU.

Here’s David Daniel, perhaps the greatest living countertenor.

In studying tenor, I began to develop as a countertenor.  Given that I am actually a baritone, I used a reinforced falsetto to sing my high notes.  I sang in an early music ensemble singing with this kind of voice; half tenor half countertenor.  The director actually preferred my falsetto to the rest of my voice, and it certainly was easier for me to do.  I began singing more and more in the range until I finally went full out countertenor in a university concert.

Soon after, I went to see the director of graduate choral studies for some guidance on which way to go.  I wanted so badly to be a professional singer.  I asked him what my best shot was.  He said that my tenor singing was inconsistent, but that my countertenor singing was superb, and that if I really wanted a shot at a career, then countertenor would be his recommendation.

The attention I got as a countertenor was outweighing the attention I was getting at a tenor.  After I graduated, I started working full time at developing my countertenor voice.  When I felt good enough about it, I contacted two of the voice faculty to ask if I could sing for them.   I believe I sang “O Cessate di Piagarmi” or something else from the 24 Italian favs book.  I nailed it.  One of the teachers began pacing when I was done singing.  She was a highly exciting.   She walked to the door then turned around, took a lunging step,  and pointed at me.

“We have no time to lose!  The Peabody Conservatory auditions are next summer.  I believe we can get you in on a full ride if you’re willing to work!”

This is the the classical equivalent of saying “You’re gonna a be a star, kid!  A big star!”

She was in a full out tizzy.  In my recollection, it seemed like she was spinning and spinning around as she rambled.  She agreed to take me as a student and wanted me to begin immediately.

She and I had a history, and I was hoping that she was distracted enough to forget.  Two or three years before, when my wife was studying with her,  my wife had arranged for me to house sit for the professor.  I had some experience with it and didn’t hesitate to accept the offer.

She was living in a house out in the east of Norman.  Behind her backyard fence were quite a few acres of undeveloped land.  She had two dogs that were her most precious companions, and she made it a point to tell me not to let them out of the fence.  I took note.

I had a lovely stay.  It was a nice break from living at my parents house.  Although I was not much of a dog person at the time, I enjoyed their company, but a few days before the professor was to return from Baltimore, the one thing that was not supposed to happen happened.   The dogs somehow got out of the yard and ran away into the fields.  I searched as far as I could search, but with no luck.  I felt that I had no choice but to call her.  Maybe, I thought, it had happened before and she would be able to tell me what to do, but she could not.  She became very upset.  She wept as she told me that she was flying back to Norman immediately.

Naturally, the dogs returned the very next day before she even got home, but the damage was done.  I had broken a trust.  And I felt terrible about it.  She still paid me for my service, but she was very unhappy with me.  I gathered my stuff and went back to my parents’ house.

The next day, my dad got a call from the professor.  Holding the phone to his chest he asked me, “Did you take towels from the house you were sitting?”

I told him that no I hadn’t.

He put his ear back to the receiver and said, “No ma’am.  He says he didn’t.”  He raised his eyebrows and looked my direction as he listened to her talk.  After the call was over, he said,  “She is very angry.  She says you stole her only matching set and that she needs it for some company she will be having soon.”

The truth is, that I later found the towels in my laundry, but I was too proud to admit that I had them.  I didn’t appreciate the accusation that I had stolen something, especially something as silly as old towels.   I went to Walmart and bought a brand new set.  Her towels were thread bare, so I figured she would appreciate having new ones.  I brought them to the house and laid them on the front porch.  I was too timid to ring the doorbell.

And so, I really hoped that she had forgotten all of this.  She never mentioned it, and I never brought it up.

The lessons were excellent.  I developed quite well, despite my wife’s insistence that I sounded like an old lady!  Now that I was full on countertenor, I didn’t want to throw it off by singing tenor, even at church.  And this is when things got awkward.

I felt that my singing needed an explanation of sorts, so one Sunday when I was planning to sing a solo, I stood up during the joys and concerns and “came out” to the church as a countertenor.  I explained with a very dramatic demeanor exactly why I would be singing differently than before.  After the service, there were very many awkward conversations.  “So, what did you call this?  And this is how you’re always going to sing? Whatever makes you happy.”

Just this year, I was at a party with some of my church friends who witnessed this many years ago, and one of them described a recent encounter with a friend from that time.  He said that any time someone mentioned me, he thought of this event.   He thought it was the weirdest, most hilarious,  most dramatic display  he had ever witnessed at a church.  I laughed when I heard it because I had come to see it that way as well.

There were many other awkward moments like this.  Like the time I auditioned for Chanticleer , an all male classical singing group.  They wanted a scale, a classical piece, and a pop piece.  I sang “Hello” by Lionel Richie.  You don’t want to hear a countertenor sing this.  I still get ribbed for that.  I tried and tried to make it sound pop, but I suspect it sounded more like Climb Every Mountain.

After studying for awhile, my teacher had me sing for the opera director.  He offered me the lead role in Handel’s Julius Caesar.  This would be my testing ground.  I was very excited.  I felt that I was finally getting the attention I deserved.  While I was studying the role, a friend talked me into competing in a talent competition fundraising.  I knew what I had to do, it was a routine I’d done at a music camp at Calvin College the summer before my freshman year.  I would dress in drag and sing The Habanera from Carmen.

It was enormously successful. Comic, yes,  but I had never sung better.  Afterwards, I was hit on by a guy in the parking lot.  I took it as a compliment, but it fed into my paranoia that everyone would think that I was gay because of the way I was singing, never mind the fact that I was wearing heels. As far as I could tell, I was the only straight guy in the countertenor business.  The paranoia wasn’t on behalf of myself.  I really don’t care what people think about my sexuality.

Later, while visiting very dear friends, a gay couple, my wife showed the video.  They were blown away, but when I went into the kitchen to get a drink, I heard one of them say “Oh my God, if he wasn’t married to you I would swear he was gay!”

This really did not sit well with me, and perhaps not with my wife.  There are many gay men who are married to women, and it seems to be a very sad situation.  And although I am certain my wife would have supported me, I knew that there might eventually be rumors that I feared could greatly embarrass my her.   I didn’t sing Julius Caesar, and I never sang countertenor again.  Also,  I didn’t get the Chanticleer part, and even if I had, I had made up my mind that my place was at home being a father to my baby daughter, and soon after, a software engineer.

Occasionally, people ask me if I can still do it; sing countertenor.  The honest truth is that I can’t.  That part of my voice seems to have withered away.  Perhaps I could work it up again, but I probably never will.  I still have the Carmen recording.  I make an absolutely hideous drag queen, but my singing sure impressed the hell out of my daughter.

And that, my dears, is just one more brick in my complicated wall.

Girlfriend Bamboozle

I was the new kid in middle school.  My family had just moved to Norman, and I was just beginning my sixth grade year.  We moved on the Halloween of ’84, and were greeted warmly by members of our new church with trick or treating and a very odd and delicious meal of stuffed pumpkin.  It was stuffed with a rice and beef casserole. I still remember exactly how it smelled in our new house.

The middle school was new and peculiar to me.  The outside of the building was surrounded by what was described to me as a “berm” which is a grassy slope that reached nearly to the roof.  This was supposed to help control the indoor climate, but mainly it just gave kids an opportunity to get detention.  “Stay off the burm!!!” was a familiar refrain from outside duty teachers.  On the inside was an “open area” configuration.  There were very few classrooms.  Instead, there were mostly areas divided by makeshift walls and chalk boards.

Many things foreign to me.  There were new smells in the halls and in the cafeteria.  I was accustomed to delicious scratch cafeteria food, and now I had options such as pizza and nachos. Sharing the halls with the giant 8th graders.  And most importantly, the social culture was different.

In Lonoke, I was well known and well liked at school.  At least in 6th grade, it seemed to me that people were more kind to each other.  I don’t remember there being a significant division between working classes.  That may have changed with my friends as they were promoted to junior high and high school, but I was never there to find out.  There was affluence in Lonoke, but not to the level of Norman.   A preacher’s salary will not make a family affluent.

So, all of these changes both excited me and upset me.  I was excited to live in a town with a big swimming pool, a roller rink, a university, and lots of chain restaurants. Upset that  I was starting at the bottom socially.  And most importantly, I was gullible and naive, which made me an easy target.  Even in Lonoke, friends used to love to dupe me.  One friend talked me into believing that his father had found a black pearl large enough to need a truck to move it.  Also, I’ve always been girl crazy, even in 6th grade, which made me even more vulnerable.

One evening, a school night, our brick red telephone rang in the kitchen.  It was our family’s first push button phone and it was cradled on the wall.  My mother answered and called me into the kitchen because the call was for me, and it was a girl.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hi David.  Whatcha doing?” said a young girl’s voice.

“I’m just watching tv.  Who is this?”

“Um.  Do you want to go with me?”

I knew what “go with me” meant by then.  I don’t remember hearing it before Norman.  This is what kids said when they wanted to be boyfriend and girlfriend.  We really couldn’t say “go out with me” because we were too young to go on dates.

My eager mind went into accelerated mode.  This could mean a significant upgrade to my social status if I played my cards right and the girl was cute enough, and plus I’d never really had a girlfriend.  I was excited by my prospects.

“Maybe, ” I said.  “Who is this?”

She giggled and said, “You have to guess.  It starts with A!”

I began thinking about all of the girls’ names for A.  I don’t remember what my guesses were , but all of them were wrong.

“Ok, let’s try this.  Guess the second later in my name.”

It took us a minute or two, but I eventually solved it.  Let’s say her name was Ashley.  Triumph!

“Ok, so does that mean you’re my girlfriend.”

Once again, she giggled.  “Yup.  See you tomorrow!”  And she hung up.

I was both gleeful and apprehensive.  What if she were as unpopular as me?  What if I didn’t find her attractive?  She sounded cute enough.  I knew I was taking a risk.

I had gained a few friends in middle school by then.  They were on the fringes of the social strata as well; two poor kids, one of which had a badass parakeet at his house,  and an Iranian named Irash.  I joined Irash in the cafeteria and told him the whole story.

“Oh my gosh!  Do you know who that is?” he said with great animation.  Irash was an intense kid.  He told stories of Iran that would make you blood curdle.  He had witnessed atrocities and was passionately against the Ayatollah Khomeini.   “She is the most popular girl in the 6th grade!  Look!” He pointed her out in the line.

She was more than cute to me.  She was a true beauty.  In that moment, I was blind to the fact that she was way out of my league.  I tried to get her attention to invite her to sit with me, but she did not respond.  I thought perhaps she didn’t see me.  I figured I would catch her in the hall later, but already a shadow of doubt was growing in my mind.

I did find her in the hall after lunch.  As she was walking my way, I started waving.  This time I did catch her attention.  She gave me a very confused look and kept walking.  I knew then that she wasn’t actually my girlfriend at all.  I deduced that I had in fact been pranked.

I don’t remember if I felt angry or humiliated, but I do remember feeling very disappointed.  I also felt embarrassed for having fallen for the scam.  Although I wondered who might have done this, I knew that there was really no way of knowing.  But the perp did eventually reveal herself.

I was in a study hall constructing a paper football to play with later.  There was a table of giggling girls nearby.  One of them walked up to me, barely concealing her laughter.  She said, “David? Will you go with me?”

Then I knew.  This was the girl.  And I would not fall for it again.  I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I was polite and I let her know that I was on to her.  I didn’t take things too hard in those days.  I was becoming accustomed to the fact that 6th graders, especially at this middle school, were cruel.  This middle school has a bad reputation to this day.

As I’ve reflected on these events in my adult years, I’ve thought of things I might have said to possibly humiliate her the way she had tried humiliated me. I might have said loudly for her friends to hear”Sorry, I don’t date COWS,”  or perhaps something a little more profane.  But I’ve never really regretted being civil.

She never became a nice person in school, and eventually whatever popularity she had gained had waned.  And I did eventually have girlfriends.  Real girlfriends.  I did eventually bump up socially that year.  I gained new friends and walked away from old friends.  I suppose they found other new kids to befriend.  But I was no longer the new kid.  Perhaps it was cruel of me, but I was a rule follower, and social rules dictated that I should move on.  I made friends that I will be connected to for the rest of my life.  And when I married,  I married way out my league. She was the one taking the risk on my me.

Kewl: When Social Boundaries are Challenged

Middle school is a time of social sorting and strict social enforcement.  All of the carefree social fluidity of elementary school gives way.  Best friends find themselves on the other side of the fence from each other.  Those on top set the trends, the rules, and the membership.

But what happens when someone on the bottom does something undeniably cool?

In eighth grade, I played tuba in the band.  I was getting pretty serious about music at this point.  I was starting to explore the world of classical music records.  I discovered my parents’ collection of albums which included Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony.  Somehow I got the impression that the fourth movement was the basis for the Jaws theme.  It bore a striking resemblance to be sure.  I was getting into Tchaikovsky and Handel and Vivaldi thanks to the band, my parents’ records,  and my cassette recordings of the Canadian Brass.

I felt that the band room was my home turf.  In that room, I mattered.  I wasn’t terribly popular, but I was a good musician.  So when an English class was marched into the band room, probably to excuse the English teacher for something, I felt that my social status was a little higher than elsewhere in the school.  I also felt invaded.  The cool kids might  try to take over and set the social agenda.  And in a small way, they did…or at least they tried.

The band director rolled in a tv/video cart and plugged it in as we gathered around.  We were all hoping for something decent, although anything was better than doing homework.  We waited, silent and breathless for the announcement.

We thought of the band director as a bit of a grouch.  I still know him, and I see him differently.  He’s a New Yorker and that affects his sense of humor.  He’s actually really funny;  dead pan and sarcastic.  I believe that he had a sense of how excited we were and he played it perfectly; eyes subtly rolling, the anti-hero in this scenario.

I’ll be honest, I don’t exactly remember what the movie was because what happened when the title was announced was far more important.  Perhaps it was “Karate Kid” or “Back to the Future”.  Whatever it was, it was popular enough to warrant a positive and  truly amazing response.

When he announced the title, there was dead silence except for one kid.  He said something that caused everybody’s head to turn.  He had mastered something that very few kids in school had yet mastered because it was something so new and fresh.  Something that required nuance and linguistic skill.

“Kewl!” he said in a clear voice for everyone to here.  And he freaking NAILED it.  So much so that the coolest girl in eighth grade immediately said, “Oh my God, who said that?”

Before I continue, I must demonstrate how it is said.

And at that moment, a boy took a step forward to claim credit by doing the upwards nod with the eyebrows raised.  The “wassup” nod.   This kid was at the bottom of the bottom socially.  He was a trombone player and he had  a weird shaped head…and he was poor.   But he was clever, and I remember he was quite deviant.  He and one of the baritone players once shared with me their scheme to detonate a pipe bomb under the intersection of Berry and Boyd.  I was doubtful that they were serious, or that if they were serious that they could even pull it off.  But I do confess  I was concerned enough to mention it to my mother.  She just laughed.  She knew better.

So when the popular girl saw this kid, in his old army jacket and unkempt hair, her face fell and she simply said, “Oh”.

I  knew what this meant, and maybe everybody else did, too.  This kid had turned the social strata upside down for just a moment, and that was unacceptable. For one shining moment this kid, counted among the dregs of middle school society, had the audacity to be cool.  Perhaps the girl was even a little embarrassed.  Embarrassed that she had given someone who had deserved nothing, given his social standing, credit for something he had nonetheless earned through his very early mastery of a word that the cool kids were still fumbling to pull off.

In retrospect, she was a really sweet girl.  And certainly one of the prettiest.  And it occurs to me that she was just as stuck in the social web that I and the “kewl” kid was.  And although it’s true that the glory of this moment faded as we watched the movie,  it has never faded in my mind.  One of us got to be one of them, even if for a few seconds.  A case of mistaken identity.