Soda Quest: How one man’s search for self ended in Texas.

My favorite professor at George Mason University once challenged the class to write a piece about ourselves. The idea was to write something about becoming an adult–some thing that had happened to us since starting college that made us realize we were no longer children. Well, I was 30ish when I took this this class so I wrote it a little more tongue-in-cheek. Reading back now it doesn’t quick circle back to my thesis connecting my want of soda through leaving the church to turning into a skeptical indie kid, but I still like it so it’s getting posted. One additional note for those of you who didn’t attend GMU in the late 2000s–there were Chick-fil-a’s and McDonald’s restaurants both on and off campus. Those off served Dr. Pepper (and Coke) and the ones on only served Coke.

~~~~

When I was a child I was never allowed to have soda, and carbonated beverages became almost like a forbidden fruit. As I grew older and discarded my parents’ probable well meaning ban, I found myself in a unique situation: I had no beverage of choice! While my friends were drinking Coke or Pepsi, I found myself lost on a search for something with meaning. I did not have their ingrained prejudices leftover from parental leanings, I was a fresh, clean slate. I spent the better part of a decade searching for my self, and searching for the perfect beverage. Oddly enough, finding the first was much easier than the second: its end was almost 1,500 miles away.

Most people know that Mormons don’t smoke, drink or do just about anything else I would deem “fun”, but few know that the fun restrictions apply to their children as well: Mormons are not allowed to partake of caffeinated beverages. Translation: No soda. Had I known this little tidbit of information I would have put up a harder fight when my mother married a Mormon back in 1984. I was eight years old at the time, and thought that changing churches would affect my life very little, and besides, they had a Boy Scout troop! My mother tried to be sneaky and served Sprite to the family, as Sprite has no caffeine and thus was “acceptable.” Even at eight years old, I saw through that ruse. After six long years I vowed to win back my adolescent right to sugary sodas and to prove it, I left the church.

Thus began a search for self, and a decade long search for the perfect soda. In high school, I had a friend who introduced me to a weird mix of new-age paganism and Wicca. His mother was a high-priestess of some sort and a coven of “witches” met at their house most Saturdays. I would go and attend these meetings because I thought they were interesting in a lets-worship-the-devil-to-induce-a-parental-freak-out sort-of-way, but I was really much more interested in my friend’s older sister who had enormous… Wait, this paper is about soda, I should get back on topic. My friend’s sister drank New Coke, so I drank New Coke. I was an impressionable freshman, and I wanted to impress this beautiful older woman. For some reason showing up at her house every Saturday with her brand of soda in hand never did work though, and I think she scarred me against New Coke forever. Well, she and Max Headroom.

Through the rest of high school I drank Pepsi both in protest and because it was a bit of a status symbol. There was one soda machine in the building (by sheer chance, a Pepsi machine) in a teachers’ lounge off the cafeteria. With some sneaky maneuvering I was able to procure a copy of the school’s master key that gave me access to just about every room in the building, including the teachers’ lounge that housed the Pepsi machine. Other kids could bring soda to school, but mine was ice cold! Towards the end of my four years in high school, Pepsi released Crystal Pepsi and I loved it! I was about ready to commit for life, but much to my chagrin they stopped making it within a year! I was devastated. I consoled myself by saying “I never really liked Pepsi anyway, I’ll find something better.”

Having no single beverage to call my own, I began a period of my life wherein I thought life had no purpose, but I quickly found one and with it, a beverage to call my own. I got a job in a record store and discovered independent music. I found out how invigorating it was to hate Corporate America and The Man. I applied the early-90s punk ethic to everything I did: I went to indie movies, listened to indie music and drank soda from small mom-and-pop franchises. I tried Orange Crush, Jones Cola, local Root and Birch beers, Cheerwine, and even Faygo (which is terribly gross, by the way). None of them did anything for me. But after a few years of mindless wandering, everything changed. I met a guy who was born in Texas that would introduce me to something he called “the nectar of the gods”, something commonly known as Dr Pepper.

Dr Pepper had everything. It was fantastically sweet and had just a little bite. It had enough caffeine to keep me up on the night shift and had no sticky aftertaste like Coke and Pepsi. Dr Pepper had indie cred: right on the bottle it was marked “Manufactured by independent bottlers.” It had a swanky, retro, 70s slogan: “I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too?” Dr Pepper came from the south; it was a home grown phenomenon. As a proud Virginian, I embraced this modern southern tradition. My Texan friend and I would go out and enthusiastically embrace any establishment that we found that actually served Dr Pepper, which at the time was a grand feat. Even today, Dr Pepper is only sold in one place on George Mason’s campus: the convenience store in the Johnson Center. Obviously this is a case of The Man (Coke) trying to keep the people (Dr Pepper) down, as off campus both McDonalds and Chick-fil-a serve Dr Pepper.

As grateful as I was to have found Dr Pepper, I had no idea what was in store for me when I tasted it in its true form. A few years ago, a friend of mine joined the Air Force and was eventually stationed in Texas. He called me one day and said “Hey bro, have you ever had Dr Pepper made from sugar cane?” I was taken aback! I thought all soda companies had switched over to high fructose corn syrup back in the 80s, but apparently not! I quickly asked my Airman friend to ship me a case of the stuff and he was kind enough to send me three. A quick Google search later revealed that in fact there was one small bottler operating in Dublin, Texas, that still produced the original formula complete with the original pure cane sugar. It was slightly more expensive to produce and at the time they could legally only distribute it within 44 miles of the bottling plant.1) For more information on Dublin Dr Pepper please see http://www.dublindrpepper.com Once my “Dublin” Dr Pepper arrived, I was blown away by the taste. It was sugary, but not thick. It still had its bite, but it was a tad more refined. I was hooked for life.

Unfortunately, those three cases of “Dublin” Dr Pepper seemed to disappear before I knew it and for a few years, it seemed as thought I would never have access to it again. My Airman friend was transferred from Texas to Nevada, while I sat at home mourning my loss. A year ago, at the end of the spring semester, however, I found hope. A close friend was transferring to the University of Texas in San Antonio! When she planned her Christmas visit home, I mentioned that she should pick me up a case of the stuff. “Sure!” she replied, but when Christmas break came, she had forgotten. I was crushed! On the outside I shrugged it off as “no big deal” but inside secretly began planning a voyage to the Dr Pepper motherland. When my friend left for Texas in January, she made me a standing offer to “come out and visit”. I decided almost immediately that I would love to fly to Texas for spring break. We could tour the hipster bars of Austin, wander the desert at night listening to dub reggae, and make an afternoon trip out to the original Dr Pepper bottling plant in Dublin, Texas for a tour. Of course, I’d ship myself several cases and ration them accordingly.

In less than two weeks time, I will be in Texas completing my pilgrimage to the birthplace of Dr Pepper, and I find it strange how much my search for the perfect beverage tied into my search for my own identity. I had tried conforming by drinking each of the major players in the soda wars and was left dissatisfied. When I tried drinking the minor players I was left with a foul taste in my mouth. Once I finally found Dr Pepper, it fit perfectly within my scope of self with its non-conformist mindset and perfectly balanced taste. And just when I thought I had it all, Dr Pepper had one last surprise for me in its home state of Texas. As I look back over the last two decades of my life, it is apparent that I was a young man looking for something and finding Dr Pepper was an important part of the guiding force that helped me establish my place in the world.

Notes:

1.
 For more information on Dublin Dr Pepper please see http://www.dublindrpepper.com

Waxing on Vinyl

Another piece from 2008. It almost feels quaint a scant six years later, since everyone and their uncle has a few records laying around nowadays. At the moment I’m in the middle of prepping for a cross-country move from Northern Virginia to Seattle, Washington, I almost detest the eight forty pound boxes of records stacked up in my spare room… but I could never even begin to part with even a few.

~~~~~

When I was sixteen, my teenage dreams came true when I landed my first job at a record store called Waxie Maxie’s. The “wax” in the name, my new manager explained, referred to what they used to call vinyl records when he was a DJ in the seventies. “Who buys records anymore?” I chuckled to myself as he gave me the customary first day tour of the store, showing me all the sections while injecting witty commentary and stories of the bands he had met over the years.1) His most often repeated story was that he was only 13 the year his older brother went to Woodstock, but he snuck out against his mother’s wishes and went anyway—hitchhiking from Virginia to the festival with a bunch of hippies in a VW bus. Supposedly he’s in the Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music documentary film, but I haven’t been able to locate a copy to verify his claims.

I came to love working there. We could play anything we wanted in the store, and we would pride ourselves by picking the right obscure CD to play—Burt Bacharach’s The Look of Love2) A three disc box-set by the award winning songwriter including such classics as “Walk On By” and “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me,” as well as the title track. for that little old lady in the easy listening section, Juliana Hatfield’s Hey Babe3) Her first solo album after leaving the Blake Babies, but before her popularity skyrocketed when her hit single from the Reality Bites soundtrack, “Spin the Bottle,” hit the airwaves. My fragile teenage heart was later crushed when rumors spread that she was romantically linked to Evan Dando of the Lemonheads. I knew it had to be true when she played bass on their cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” for the college girl in flannel whose hair hadn’t been washed in weeks, Milt Jackson’s Cherry4) Cherry is the classic 1972 album that Jackson, perhaps the only great Jazz vibraphonist, recorded with saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. for the guy with the horn-rimmed glasses and the corduroy sport coat with patches on the elbows, or the Cranes’ Loved5) In 1992 Robert Smith of the Cure declared the Cranes his favorite band and took them as an opening act on their US tour. The Cranes’ harsh distorted guitars mixed with the female singer’s angelic voice didn’t go over well with US audiences; they were frequently booed throughout their entire set. for the kid in black with dyed hair and pale makeup—to get a particular customer to walk up to the counter and go “Wow, I really need to have whatever you’re playing!” Yes, I realize that’s a scene from High Fidelity6) Empire Records, the “other” record store movie from the 90s, is not nearly as accurate at portraying record store culture—though it was at least based on stories from the Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Both films are frequently quoted to me when my work experience inevitably comes up in conversation with strangers. and yes, every record store employee does it—some better than others. I took pride in personally selling more copies of the debut albums of both Korn7) At the time, they were truly innovative. Just don’t tell anyone I said that, ok? and Jeff Buckley8) Grace would also be Buckley’s last album—he died tragically in the Wolf River while recording demos for his sophomore effort. The man was a brilliant musician with the most amazingly soulful yet angelic voice ever recorded. If this essay inspires the reader to listen to any one album, Grace should be it. If nothing else, give his cover of Lenard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” a listen. You’ll thank me. than anyone else in the area (according to our local Sony Music rep). Though I must admit that I take no pride in admitting that at one point in my life I actually thought listening to Korn was a good idea…

I worked at Waxie Maxie’s for three years, and picked up an eclectic set of musical tastes from my fellow employees. A love of silky-smooth Motown and crisp jazz from our eccentric manager, a taste for the melodic noise of shoegaze bands like Medicine9) Medicine’s brief career highlights include playing one of the bands performing in the film The Crow (the first one) before their principal member decided he didn’t like their music anymore and forced their record company to take their CDs out of print. The band promptly broke up. and My Bloody Valentine from his gothed-out assistant, and an appreciation for the chewy bubble-gum-like pop goodness of groups like Hansen and Savage Garden10) I picked up Hansen’s first record because the Dust Brothers had produced it—they had also produced such diverse acts as the Beastie Boys and Beth Orton. I have no such excuse for owning Savage Garden, however… from the bubbly blonde cheerleader who worked Sundays with me. But what shaped my music-loving future more than anything else in those years was the first piece of “wax” that Waxie Maxie’s got in stock after decades of selling only CDs: Alice in Chains’ Jar of Flies.

I was looking forward to the album’s release as I already was a fan of the band, and was listening to their (now classic) Dirt non-stop since their song “Would?”11) “Would?” was also on the soundtrack to the “classic” 90s film Singles, the film’s popularity fueled the single’s success. had become a staple on WHFS the previous year. When I opened the boxes containing that week’s new releases I was enthralled by what was buried beneath the CDs: two copies of a double vinyl album containing both Jar of Flies and another earlier acoustic EP called Sap. I immediately set aside one of them for myself, and purchased it at the end of my shift.

Although I had bought the record as a bit of a novelty, once I opened the record I knew I had stumbled onto something amazing. We had already been playing the CD12) The promotional CD for Jar of Flies had little plastic flies inside the spine. It will now fetch several hundred dollars on eBay. Unfortunately for my bank account, I didn’t have the foresight to claim that promo CD as my own. earlier in the day at the store, so I had already heard the entire album a half-dozen times—but I wanted to listen to my new treasure. When I got home I lifted the cover on my roommate’s dusty turntable and gently slid the record onto the spindle. I carefully lifted the tone-arm and set the needle in the groove, then sat down on the living room floor to listen.

By sixty seconds in, I was hooked. The LP was a sonically superior experience compared to my earlier listens in the store: the opening guitar lick sounded warmer and fuller, the crack of the snare drum had immensely more bite, and the singer’s voice had tone and inflection that were not apparent before.

As I sat on the threadbare green carpet listening to the album, my attention turned to the cover in my hands. It was a gatefold double LP—the cover opens like a book, with one record in each side. The cover listed the first records’ sides as “A” and “B” and they contained the songs on Jar of Flies. Side “C” was Sap. “So side ‘D’ is blank then?” I thought to myself as I pulled it out to check. It wasn’t. Instead of a groove filled with songs, side “D” had the band’s logo etched into the vinyl’s surface, thus solidifying my new-found love for the format.13) Ok, I’ll fess up: maybe I just thought the etching was super-cool.

Most people think of records as antiques that sound terrible and are full of pops and skips. That may be true for a Duran Duran LP14) My copy of Seven and the Ragged Tiger certainly is. sitting unloved in a stack of Lawrence Welk and John Denver albums at a musty thrift store, but a record that has been cared for properly will sound better than any CD. While it is certainly true that records are more fragile, they also have higher fidelity and more nuance than their modern digital counterparts.

Compact discs exist in a world of ones and zeros. When a song is recorded in a studio, the music is set down to analog tape. Each note and beat recorded in exactly the same was our ears hear them. Once a song is mastered for a CD, however, all of those notes are converted into electronic signals that can be read by a laser from the CD’s surface. Each note is (theoretically) assigned a space in the digitized soundscape as either a one (the note exists at that point in time) or a zero (it doesn’t). Everything between is lost.

When a song is pressed to vinyl, however, it stays in its original analog form from the musicians note to the listener’s ear. On vinyl, all the droning harmonics of a cymbal crash stay intact. The wooshing thud of a bass drum hit sounds full and forceful, instead of the timid “thunk” heard in a digital recording. In the early days of CDs engineers attempted to compensate for this lack of fidelity by boosting the volume of the entire mix. This led to a phenomenon insiders call the “loudness war” wherein producers and engineers tried to out “loud” each other by pushing their mixes to new max volumes allowable by digital recording. But this war really only accomplished one thing: making CDs louder. Everything that was missing before is still missing, but today’s listeners don’t miss something they never knew they had—a sad state of affairs, in this musicphile’s opinion.

This tragedy of missing bits brings me to the newest format to enter the market: mp3 files. My roommate (and best friend of 15 years) was one of the first people to jump on the mp3 bandwagon. Way back in 1994 he was a total computer geek (well, he still is) and I remember him showing me a program he had found that let him record his CDs to his computer’s hard drive. It recorded them in real time, so processing one album took as long as it’s running length. I remember discussing with him the absurdity of the idea:

“Why would I want to be tethered to my computer when I listen to music? I can play a CD in a car or at a friend’s house.”

“But you don’t have a car.”

“That’s not the point! You can’t take your computer to a party just to play music.”

“I could…”

“Ok, you could but normal people won’t.”

“Maybe someone will invent a tiny little computer with headphones so I could listen to whatever I wanted at a party. They always play shitty music at parties.”

“What’s the point of going to a party if you’re listening to headphones and not talking to anyone?”

“Do I ever talk to anyone at parties?”

“Touché.”15) Yes, this conversation actually happened. Though we might not have been that witty off the cuff.

Well, I think we all know how that turned out. And I must be honest: I own an iPod. It’s a glorious piece of technology, and it is more convenient than lugging a computer to a party or fiddling with a massive CD wallet while stopped at a red light (or for the more adventurous soul, while taking a hair-pin turn). I also have an account on lala.com, where they allow a user to upload all of his or her mp3s and then stream to any computer with an internet connection via their web-browser. Ah, I love technology!

We know mp3s are convenient, but they also sound terrible.16) This is truly an understatement. Don’t let Steve Jobs fool you! What mp3s are missing is a massive amount of the song’s original audio spectrum. CD quality recordings in their natural format take up a massive amount of space. For example: an 8-gig iPod holds 8,000 songs in mp3 format but that same iPod would hold a scant 80 songs at full CD quality. To shrink the files to a more manageable size software engineers had to make cuts: everything outside of the range of “normal human hearing.” While humans can’t hear very deep bass or super high pitched sounds unaccompanied in a laboratory, they are perceptible as part of a larger whole. In mp3s, cymbals no longer only lack some harmonic overtones; they are stripped of enough frequencies to change the pitch of tuned crash symbols making them sound out of tune with the rest of the song! And an mp3 will never give good, thumping bass—which is why dance-floor DJs spin vinyl.

The rush of free (or nearly free) digital music has had a curious side-effect: CD sales are slumping, and sales of vinyl records have picked up in the last few years. Explaining lackluster CD sales is easy enough: mp3s are cheap and available to anyone with an internet connection. The reasons for vinyl’s resurgence in popularity, however, are harder to define. Old records can be found for a dollar or less at thrift stores and flea markets—certainly getting more for your entertainment dollar in this economy is a factor for some fans. New records typically come with a coupon code that can be used online to download mp3s of the album—thus giving the listener the full spectrum of sound on vinyl while solving the format’s portability problems with downloadable mp3s.

Vinyl’s biggest draw for many fans (myself included) is an attribute that mp3s lack completely: a physical presence. Mp3s have no cover or sleeve to open, no artwork to question the meaning of, no lyric sheet or liner notes to pore over, no physical medium to be translated by a machine into music. It’s almost as if they don’t exist at all, and because of this lack of being the music loses its power. Mp3s are bought in anonymity with a click of a mouse.17) Of course, records can be found online as well: insound.com stocks almost every vinyl album in print. Records are also beginning to appear in big box stores (I purchased Radiohead’s The Best Of at my local Best Buy), and mall stores (Hot Topic has a small section of punk and metal vinyl)—and record stores like Amoeba (whose location in Hollywood is the size of a Wal-Mart) are thriving. There is no clerk to give recommendations, no store to browse, and no bag to tuck under your arm as you walk back to the subway eager to get home and listen to your treasures.

That physicality and the experience of shopping in a well-stocked record store like the Philadelphia Record Exchange18) Just off South Street, in Philadelphia, duh! is the last piece of the puzzle of the vinyl resurgence. The store’s bins are arranged in a few, haphazard rows that look as though they have not been moved or re-adjusted in decades. The hardwood floors directly under the record bins still look almost new, the dark stain on the wood still practically scratch and blemish free. But the aisles between the bins have been worn down to the smooth, raw, color of fresh oak, the finish and shine worn away by decades of footfalls up and down the aisles.

In their basement is every record geek’s dream—the mother lode—an entire room about fifty feet long lined with the store’s “rock ‘n roll” records. The bins are overflowing with records, from true classics to utterly obscure albums from bands even I’ve never heard of—but I always find something to take home. On my first trip I found Stephen Still’s classic Manassas; the cover is a photo of the band posing in front of the historic train station in the city of the same name just a few miles from my house. I typically start at the “A” bin on the left wall and proceeded to leisurely browse the bins in order, flipping past every record in each row.

People who don’t buy a lot of music are usually perplexed by this ritual. Those of us that do, however, swear by it. I love the feel of the cardboard sleeves flipping by my fingers and blur of familiar album covers moving by at lightning speed, stopping only when something new and unfamiliar pops up. Glancing at every album is the only way to know I haven’t missed anything, and it’s a skill I’ve all but perfected over the 15 or so years I spent selling music. This ritual served as my only real way of tracking my inventory when I managed a small store in my early twenties, and it allowed me to memorize enough of the stock at Tower Records (where I more recently worked part time until they tragically went bankrupt) that I could find any disc in the store before other employees could even look it up in the computer. Such gifts also have a downside though: I once had a girlfriend who threatened to leave me after I spent forty minutes in the Sound Garden in Baltimore, and my roommate and I almost missed our flight home after spending about four hours at the aforementioned19) Aforementioned, that is, if you’re reading the footnotes. You are, aren’t you? Amoeba Records in Hollywood.

That gift has enabled me to find jewels of all genres over the years. From a long out-of-print Thelonious Monk LP20) Criss Cross to be specific. Though it was recently re-mastered and re-issued on vinyl—now I have to fight the urge to purchase it again. to Mötley Crüe’s Too Fast for Love21) Four guys with loud guitars in make-up and leather! I let people think I own it for “ironic hipness.” Shh… don’t tell. to all the obscure indie records I’ve bought over the years, every single purchase I’ve made in a record store carries with it fond memories of where I found them and the adventures I had searching for the stores they were hidden in. And every trip to a record store ends the same way: with my treasures tucked under my arm so I can take them home, gently set the needle in the groove, and sit down on my living room floor to begin the listening experience anew.

Notes:

1.
 His most often repeated story was that he was only 13 the year his older brother went to Woodstock, but he snuck out against his mother’s wishes and went anyway—hitchhiking from Virginia to the festival with a bunch of hippies in a VW bus. Supposedly he’s in the Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music documentary film, but I haven’t been able to locate a copy to verify his claims.
2.
 A three disc box-set by the award winning songwriter including such classics as “Walk On By” and “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me,” as well as the title track.
3.
 Her first solo album after leaving the Blake Babies, but before her popularity skyrocketed when her hit single from the Reality Bites soundtrack, “Spin the Bottle,” hit the airwaves. My fragile teenage heart was later crushed when rumors spread that she was romantically linked to Evan Dando of the Lemonheads. I knew it had to be true when she played bass on their cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.”
4.
 Cherry is the classic 1972 album that Jackson, perhaps the only great Jazz vibraphonist, recorded with saxophonist Stanley Turrentine.
5.
 In 1992 Robert Smith of the Cure declared the Cranes his favorite band and took them as an opening act on their US tour. The Cranes’ harsh distorted guitars mixed with the female singer’s angelic voice didn’t go over well with US audiences; they were frequently booed throughout their entire set.
6.
 Empire Records, the “other” record store movie from the 90s, is not nearly as accurate at portraying record store culture—though it was at least based on stories from the Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Both films are frequently quoted to me when my work experience inevitably comes up in conversation with strangers.
7.
 At the time, they were truly innovative. Just don’t tell anyone I said that, ok?
8.
 Grace would also be Buckley’s last album—he died tragically in the Wolf River while recording demos for his sophomore effort. The man was a brilliant musician with the most amazingly soulful yet angelic voice ever recorded. If this essay inspires the reader to listen to any one album, Grace should be it. If nothing else, give his cover of Lenard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” a listen. You’ll thank me.
9.
 Medicine’s brief career highlights include playing one of the bands performing in the film The Crow (the first one) before their principal member decided he didn’t like their music anymore and forced their record company to take their CDs out of print. The band promptly broke up.
10.
 I picked up Hansen’s first record because the Dust Brothers had produced it—they had also produced such diverse acts as the Beastie Boys and Beth Orton. I have no such excuse for owning Savage Garden, however…
11.
 “Would?” was also on the soundtrack to the “classic” 90s film Singles, the film’s popularity fueled the single’s success.
12.
 The promotional CD for Jar of Flies had little plastic flies inside the spine. It will now fetch several hundred dollars on eBay. Unfortunately for my bank account, I didn’t have the foresight to claim that promo CD as my own.
13.
 Ok, I’ll fess up: maybe I just thought the etching was super-cool.
14.
 My copy of Seven and the Ragged Tiger certainly is.
15.
 Yes, this conversation actually happened. Though we might not have been that witty off the cuff.
16.
 This is truly an understatement. Don’t let Steve Jobs fool you!
17.
 Of course, records can be found online as well: insound.com stocks almost every vinyl album in print. Records are also beginning to appear in big box stores (I purchased Radiohead’s The Best Of at my local Best Buy), and mall stores (Hot Topic has a small section of punk and metal vinyl)—and record stores like Amoeba (whose location in Hollywood is the size of a Wal-Mart) are thriving.
18.
 Just off South Street, in Philadelphia, duh!
19.
 Aforementioned, that is, if you’re reading the footnotes. You are, aren’t you?
20.
 Criss Cross to be specific. Though it was recently re-mastered and re-issued on vinyl—now I have to fight the urge to purchase it again.
21.
 Four guys with loud guitars in make-up and leather! I let people think I own it for “ironic hipness.” Shh… don’t tell.

Packing someone else’s life

Another writing assignment from 2008, written about sorting through my grandmother’s belongings after she passed several years earlier.

~~~~~

“Wow, your grandmother has a ton of books” Cheri said to me, as she pulled a handful down and placed them in a box. “She certainly did” I thought to myself. Did, in the past tense, because now they were technically my mother’s books. Someday, they’ll be my books, when my mother passes away. Strange, the thoughts one has when confronted by the harsh reality of death. Everyone understands death in the abstract: people go to the funeral and tell stories and celebrate the life of a loved one no longer with us. But death becomes very real when you have to pack up someone else’s life.

I never put a moment of thought into what happens to people’s things when they die. Sure, I knew the house would be sold off, and the money distributed to my grandmother’s seven children (most of which went to pay for college educations for my cousins). But the house, filled with her belongings, would need to be emptied before it could be sold.

The problem with packing up someone else’s life is that they’re not around to tell you what’s important. A file full of tax records and bank statements going back scores of years, postcards from places I’ve never been, a book of war bonds that were never redeemed. I found a box of maps, some dating back to the early 50s, before Eisenhower built his Interstate Highway System. In our modern world of Google maps and hand-held GPS units, most people would simply toss the maps away, but to me they signified history. A testament to what life was like, before I was born. I couldn’t throw them away – maybe one day I’ll use them to guide me across America without traversing a mile of interstate.

Each object I found and tenderly packed away triggered a memory. Usually not a memory about the item, but a memory of a story my grandmother had told me about it. As I boxed up a set of hand-made porcelain dolls in little glass cases wearing miniature kimonos, I heard my grandmother talking about being a young mother in Okinawa where my grandfather was stationed after the war. When I wrapped a silver pocket-watch in a soft towel for protection before it went into storage, I heard my grandmother reading the letter that had accompanied it into her possession from some long lost relative she had been corresponding with while researching our family tree. The watch had been given to my grandfather’s grandfather, an Irish immigrant, at his retirement ceremony when he left the police department in New York City.

Next to my grandmother’s jewelry box, I found a mason jar filled with half dollars. The jar perplexed me at first, but when I picked it up the memory of a warm summer day came rushing back. I remembered going to the bank with her while running errands and being puzzled when she asked the teller for three half dollars but prefaced the request with “make sure they’re all from this year, please.” She explained to me on the way home that one was for my brother who was born that April, and the other two were for two of my new cousins that were born that year. I didn’t understand the gesture as a child and promptly forgot about it. But now, thirty years later, when I pulled out the only coin minted in 1976 the weight of the cold metal in my hand felt strangely comforting. I stuck the coin in the pocket of my jeans and set the jar aside so that I could send the others to their new owners.

My grandmother never missed sending a card for a birthday or an anniversary, and I never understood how she could keep the dates straight (7 children and almost three dozen grandchildren amounts to about 50 cards a year) until I took down the calendar hanging next to her dresser. The dates seemed off, and when I looked at the cover I realized why: the calendar was from 1982. A closer examination revealed that she had written down every birthday and anniversary as they came, and simply added the new ones to the old calendar each year. It amused me to see that my mother and father’s wedding anniversary was scratched out in the same red ink that my mother and step-father’s anniversary was written in.

It saddens me to know that someday I’m going to be packing up my mother’s house, and even more so that someday (hopefully many years from now) my children will be packing up my house. What memories will they have of my things? Will they know the stories behind all the artifacts I have tucked away? What will they think when they find the box of cards, love letters, and pictures that I’ve saved over the years? Will they toss out the box of old maps, finally? Will they know the story behind the silver pocket-watch, wrapped in a soft towel in my top dresser drawer?

They will if I remember to tell them.

Analyzing Joyas Voladoras

This piece was written as an analytical exercise when I was in college, back in 2008. If you are not familiar with Joyas Voladoras, I highly recommend reading it at The American Scholar

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Brian Doyle has written, in Joyas Voladoras, a marvelously complicated piece of prose that is so perfectly compiled that it flows quite like poetry. Well, in the way that I would expect poetry to flow for people who enjoy reading it. Though, I probably shouldn’t admit that I don’t enjoy poetry in a writing assignment that is being turned in to an English professor, but I like living (and writing) dangerously.

And dangerous writing is apparently what Brian Doyle likes to do as well. Though, not in the Woodward / Bernstein model wherein the writer might be arrested for their writings but in the way that one writes something so complex that the ordinary reader might not get it – which is why the task of discerning his audience is so hard to do. Parts of this essay are strictly scientific, parts are wholly metaphorical, and parts read as though they are lines straight out of the diary of someone just crushed by the loss of a lover.

But it is within that complex framework of subject matter that Doyle finds his audience: he has a little bit in there for everyone. To the Joe Fridays among us there are lists of just-the-facts explaining how, why, and to what end the heart functions. But to the Romeos and Juliets among us the essay finds a somewhat straightforward metaphor for love in the heart. Doyle skillfully uses a scientific fact to draw the line directly between the body’s wet engine1) Full disclosure: Wet Engine is the name of one of Doyle’s books. As far as I can tell, he invented that metaphor. and its emotional one: “of the largest mammal who ever lived we know nearly nothing. But we know this: the animals with the largest hearts in the world generally travel in pairs, and their penetrating moaning cries… can be heard underwater for miles and miles.”

But Doyle’s style is what moved me most in this piece. When he is writing about the quick paced hummingbird’s heart, he writes in short sentences to elicit the feeling of the quickness of the hummingbird’s way of life. He also uses action-gerund words not separated by commas but by the word “and” to make the reader feel almost breathless as they read the passages, eschewing grammar for poetic feeling: “whirring and zooming and nectaring.” He uses the opposite effect when describing the heart of the blue whale, using long sentences and long list of more traditional words separated by commas to make the reader slow down and take every word in: “for next to nothing is known of the mating habits, travel patterns, diet, social life, language, social structure, diseases, spirituality, wars, stories, despairs, and arts of the blue whale.”

Doyle does not stop at poetic prose to make his reader feel the words, however. He uses parallel sentence structure to open the first two paragraphs of the essay, and returns to that device with the last two to make the essay somewhat circular, though the content certainly is not. He uses unfamiliar, almost archaic, words and structure to evoke a feeling of timelessness in places (“that which is sweet,” “harrowed heart,” “rickety forevermore”) but uses modern, made up words to evoke how the internet has changed our language to allow for just about any word to be used to get the point across (“nectaring,” “it is waaaaay bigger than your car”).

As a writer, I could not possibly seek to emulate Doyle’s style. I can, however, seek to emulate his work ethic. My copy of this essay has more words and phrases highlighted and underlined than not, and it seems as though Doyle has used every literary trick in the proverbial book, astounding for such a short piece. I read Joyas Voladoras five or six times over the past few days trying to wrap my head around everything that was going on. I fear I could easily write another two or three pages documenting all of the bits that moved me within these three pages. But, I will resign myself to trying to selectively pick across my own writings in the future and try to use, not the same techniques, but an entire myriad of words, structures, and techniques in my writings to make my work stand out. While I may never be able to type out prose that flows as elegantly as this piece does, I can certainly use Doyle’s piece as an inspiration.

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The preceding piece was original published on a livejournal account of mine that probably still exists.

Notes:

1.
 Full disclosure: Wet Engine is the name of one of Doyle’s books. As far as I can tell, he invented that metaphor.