Tragic Bike Stories Part I

I remember my first bike, a brown, stiff artifact of the World War II era, salvaged by my resourceful uncle, a NASA scientist, used and abused by my older cousins, before finally being handed down to me. At first I didn’t want to ride it. I was too self-conscious to suffer the embarrassment of pedaling down my quiet Oklahoma street, past the houses of my friends, and past the home of our small town’s biggest celebrity, an Olympic gymnast.

I was a late bloomer when it came to bike riding because I was hopelessly stuck. My parents didn’t want to shell out money for a new bike until I committed to learning to ride, but since I refused to ride the antique my uncle had given to me, I would never learn.

The brown bike collected dust in our shed until I finally sucked it up. I was eight—much too old for any training wheels—so I relied on my dad running alongside me, helping me balance. It didn’t take long before I was free from my dad’s balancing hands and flying down the street. I became addicted to riding, but I still didn’t have a new bike that I could ride without shame. So, I’d ride at twilight after all the other kids in the neighborhood had been called in for dinner, or sometimes right before a storm when no one else was outside.

One night I was pedaling down the street at full speed. On the horizon, clouds mushroomed quickly like only Oklahoma clouds do. I dodged lasers firing at me as I tried to race ahead of Darth Vader who was hot on my tail. The road was ending and the Death Star was in my sight. I took aim and fired my proton torpedoes. At the exact moment I imagined the explosion, a boom of thunder rattled the earth, the timing so perfect yet unexpected that I wobbled and fell over, skinning my elbow and leg on the pavement.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. You can’t relax and let your guard down after blowing up the Death Star…even when the force is with you.

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What the Guidelines Say

The guidelines say

who and how we may love

what we might say

what a woman should be

            all autonomy

unless she should desire to reject

the rigid role of dutiful wife and sell her appeal for a buck tucked under string

because the guidelines tell us exactly how we are to be free

and the guidelines say

how we should pray

and who we obey

and how it’s okay

to have our own way

as long as we stay

within God We Trust

and celebrate the holy day

of gingerbread men and candy canes

and the guidelines say

on whom we may prey

and whom to blame

when there’s sickness or disease

or murder or pain

and the guidelines say

how much a criminal should pay

and to whom he should write the check

and the guidelines say

we may tweak the guidelines

for those who are close

as long as no one knows.

Grill Euphoria

As one fire ascends the jagged horizon of wooden fence

the nightly creatures, red-faced and salivating, converge toward the glow

carrying torches and tridents and thick slabs of raw meat.

 

A phosphorescent glow radiates from the coal,

the first smell—bitter and dry—billows from the pit

embers dance,

at the first sizzle, conversations cease.

 

The men grin their wet teeth

as the aroma summons hunger, curiosity, and unwanted advice.

 

Then comes the boy—naïve, untrained, and premature—with barbeque sauce

in a squeezable bottle

 

He is admonished and shamed.

This is the day he learns:

Never disrupt grill euphoria.

grill_euphoria

 

Teetering

Every night it’s easy to escape

Through midnight tunnels

And return with the stretch of an eyelid

But to run away with mind and body

Takes a great deal of courage

To trade pain for loneliness

Which is not a good trade when there’s no

Hell worse than being alone

Unless you can’t bear the heat of the flame

Which is why we teeter on the window ledge

Or dance between gas and brake

Depending on the moment at hand

And whether the greater fight is hanging on

Or letting go

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The Death of an Artist

An Interview with Chance Casper (Part One)

“Your perceptions are in the angle of reflection that meets your eye.” – Chance Casper

chance guitar

Closing time.  Fargo’s arctic chill blasts through the bar’s propped doors.  Bright lights flood the room alerting the remaining stragglers that it’s time to go.  They trudge out into the snow.  I’ve come to Fargo to see an old friend play his last show. It is a different crowd and a different time here at The Cauldron, the hottest live music venue in Fargo if you believe their radio ads, but there aren’t any flashing cameras, or backstage groupies, or even a real backstage at this venue.  The only noise comes from a trickle of beer seeping out of a toppled bottle and falling from the table to the concrete floor with a sigh.  There’s a stench of alcohol and smoke advancing toward the stage, but it’s not going to arouse the drummer who’s passed out at his set, his head planted on a bongo.  Seated on a wobbly stool in front of the drummer, too sore to stir, is the man I’ve come to see.  Chance Casper.

Dried blood coats his leathery fingers.  His angel of pain lies facedown, unplugged at his feet, the snapped E-string wrapped around the neck.  He looks up and recognizes me.  His expression is both of embarrassment and relief that I held true to my promise to interview him after his last show.  I counted thirty-two people in attendance tonight, and I know this isn’t how he wanted to go out.

His last song of the night, appropriately titled This is Goodbye, would seem to be a fitting farewell between an artist and his followers at his final show, but it is unmistakably clear the lyrics are directed inward, the singer saying goodbye to the artist.

Musicians (and writers) talk frequently of writing only for themselves as if writing for an audience would be a massive sellout.  While it’s true that people can write simply for themselves as some sort of cathartic experience, art itself does not exist in a vacuum.  The whole point of art is to communicate something that can affect an audience in such a way that can be achieved only by the medium the artist has chosen.

Great art is religious in the way that it touches truth or achieves a sensation that resides a level below conscious awareness.  It doesn’t matter how much effort and craft went into the production of the art; if it doesn’t communicate its message, how can it be appreciated?  Was it even a worthwhile effort?  Art that gathers an audience of thirty-two might be interesting, but it will never be important.

This is Goodbye, despite its stubbornly simplistic groove and arrangement, is a complex yet forgettable song where the melody and lyrics have this very discussion about art.  Lyrically, the song is about looking back and reflecting on the journey that sacrificed happiness for a greater goal.  Melodically, the song is interesting because while it is in the key of G, the melody never touches that root note.  In the verse, which is patient and plodding, the phrase feels like it’s building to the G but gets hung up on F# before falling back down to the B.  In the chorus, the music intensifies, the intervals become more bold, and the melody once again battles all the way up to the F# before retreating once again without tasting the tonic G.  Finally, when the melody climbs and reaches the G in the dissonant bridge, it hits it not with a bang but with a whimper.  The payoff is anticlimactic, like an artist toiling for years before calling it an end in front of an audience of thirty-two.  This is Goodbye.

“A glorious plane crash ten years ago would have been a better end,” he tells me.

I laugh until I realize he’s actually serious.

Instrument cables slither across the stage under Chance’s gaze as Paul, the young bartender/stagehand, loops the cords around his shoulder.  “You think you can move?” Paul asks him.  “I need to get the barstool off the stage.  We’re closing.”

“Did you know this was my last show?” Chance asks the kid.

Paul shrugs.

“Well, can I have my paycheck?”

Paul pulls it out of his pocket and hands it over unceremoniously.

Chance unfolds it, sees the total and hands it back.  “No.  This isn’t right.  This is only two hundred.  The deal was for five.”

“We only had thirty-two tonight.  You promised you’d fill the place. We’re taking a loss as it is.”

“I can’t help it that the blizzard kept people away!”  Chance stands and confronts the tired kid.  “Don’t you know who I am?”

Paul takes the opportunity to snatch the stool and disappears quickly into the back.

“Look at me.  Fighting for pennies!”  He then offers to buy me dinner at a diner down the road.

We step outside and are hit with a choke-the-life-out-of-you cold that makes me feel like I’ve been face-planted into a snow cone.  It’s my first time in Fargo since the 90s and can’t say I really miss it.  But this is where Chance wanted to end it.  Concertgoers in Fargo are pretty savvy, and they depend on music in the worst way, since the wet chill can make life pretty harsh.  Maybe it’s this seasonal brutality that keeps people trapped here in this valley, but then again, even on those odd days when the weather clears and the wind forgets to blow, people just can’t tear themselves away from Fargo and its grid-ordered streets, stubbornly symmetrical buildings, and imported elms that line the curbs like obedient school kids.

The generic sign for the Woods’ End Diner burns its neon glow into the darkness.  I’m prepared for a long night.  Every night with Chance Casper is a long night.

“Why is it that genius is never recognized until we’re dead and the Mozarts of the world have to lie in pauper’s graves?” he wonders aloud.

I can never tell if his unabashed conceit is just part of his Chance Casper persona or if he’s just testing my reaction.

“The reward for greatness is never prompt,” I answer to placate his ego.  “But maybe someday they’ll have good things to say.”

He stops suddenly.  I try to do the same but I slide on the icy pavement and have to grab his arm to keep from falling.  I’m losing control of the interview.

He holds my arm to his chest like it’s a guitar and says, “They’ll say I could make rain with my voice and thunder with my guitar.  That my music dripped with an awareness of all that is pure and true, baptizing chaos.”  His voice is lyrical but raspy, like a radio song fighting through static.

I try to take back my arm, but he holds it tighter.

“You know, they have computers now that tell you what songs are good, what people will listen to.  I’m not shittin’ you.  They take stats of every hit and computers track the characteristics of these songs so they can tell you ahead of time whether your work is crap.”

It’s true.  The first company to do this successfully was Spain-based Polyphonic HMI and was followed by Music Xray.  Both use sophisticated algorithms that use data of past hits and analyzes beat, melody, and chord progressions to determine what songs will be hits and to allow record company execs decide which songs they’re really going to push.  It predicted the success of Nora Jones’ Come Away With Me when music critics had already written it off.  This is scary.  Computers are better at telling us what is good than we are.  I think of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball and wonder if art, like athletic potential, will be assessed by complex algorithms before it ever reaches human consideration.

“If you only look at the past to shape future behavior, you never go anywhere.  Just wait until this software is available to young musicians on their home computers.  They’ll just be writing songs that achieve the highest scores in the program as if artistic expression were some game.”  He winks at me.  “Maybe computers will decide whether your writing is worth a shit before letting people see it.”

As we arrive to the diner, he studies his reflection in the window.  His face has gotten a little chubby and he’s shaved the mane of hair before his receding hairline could conquer it first.

“I’m not so sure about this late night snack,” he says.  “Last thing I need is to look like I’ve got a taiko drum stuffed under my t-shirt.  Besides, who knows what kind of people are gonna be there.”  He gathers courage and pushes open the door.

(continued)

Superheroes

oak

“Whatever you do, no climbing any trees while I’m gone,” my mother had said before she left the house to go shopping.  The simple warning had slipped out of her mouth, fallen to the floor, wiggled through the carpet, squeezed behind the TV set, crawled up the wall, wafted over my head out the window, and caught up with me thirty minutes later as I was shimmying up the largest oak tree in my neighborhood.

Dressed in my Spiderman suit—which were really pajamas with sleeves that no longer reached my wrists and tattered bottoms that extended just beyond my knees—I stopped just as I reached a broad, upwardly expanding limb.  I watched in wonderment as Steven carefully eased himself away from the trunk, avoiding prickly branches as he neared the end of the limb.  His Superman suit fit him perfectly, and the falling sun cast a phosphorescent glow on the red cape tied neatly around his neck.

“I don’t think I’m supposed to be climbing trees,” I called out as I made the critical mistake of looking down.

Steven remained focused on the branch supporting his broad chest.  “You don’t have to.  I just want to see how high I can get.  I’m Superman, remember?”

I looked up.  We weren’t even halfway to the top, but we were higher than I had ever climbed.  I timidly followed my friend out onto the limb, hugging it securely and ignoring the pricks on my forearms and ankles.

I had a sinking feeling.  With our combined weight the branch bent until it was nearly horizontal.  But it didn’t break.  Steven sat upright and flung his cape proudly over his shoulder.  He watched with compassionate concern as my fragile frame inched closer to him.  A semi-circle grin rounded out my elated face, and I was beginning to maneuver myself upright, to sit beside greatness, when I heard the crack.  The geometry on my face reversed itself as I whipped my head around to see what had happened.  The limb remained securely attached to its trunk, but my reaction had been too abrupt, and I lost my balance.  The world flipped as I swung around the limb, my arms flailing but catching nothing but empty air.  My legs, though quivering, held strong, and I hung upside down staring at the hard ground that awaited my head.  I cried out in fear.

“Grab my hand,” said Steven.  I strained my neck to find his silhouette framed in a flare of sunlight.  Reaching out my arm, I swung it until I found his hand.  My fingers wrapped around his, and I sighed in relief as I began to be pulled upright.

What happened next was one of those rare unexplainables, like biting into a salad fork or poking an eye while putting on a t-shirt.  My feet suddenly lost their grip, and though I tried to hang on to Steven’s hand, I flew—miraculously feet first—toward the ground.  Impact sent a violent shock throughout my entire body.  Pain had no identity, but it overtook me.  I squeezed my eyes and rolled on the ground in anguish.  I needed my mother to absorb my pitiful groans.  Burying my head in the ground, I let the tears puddle beneath the bridge of my nose.  It was my own fault.  I couldn’t let Steven see this—my defeat.

Even as I suppressed my barking breaths, they lingered, orbiting around my head.  After what must have been almost a minute, I took a deep breath and held it, but the gasps continued.  I realized they weren’t my own.  I cautiously lifted my head, and my eyes climbed the tree and followed the limb to the red cape firmly in the grasp of prickly branches.  Dangling several feet below, his head in the noose of the cape, was Steven.  His strong fingers struggled to untie the knot around his neck.  His legs thrashed the air as raspy whimpers escaped his throat.  My tears hardened as I watched in horror.  I was going be in trouble if my mom found out where I’d been.


Months later, standing on the stage in front of my classmates, I accepted the wooden, shield-shaped plaque amidst the chorus of cheers.  My mom had taken off work to be there for that day, and my eyes teared when I saw her smiling proudly at me from the back of the auditorium.

I stood uncomfortably beside the principal of our school as he gave my little hand a firm shake.  He put his hand on my shoulder and spoke into the microphone.  “Steven Keller wanted to fly like Superman, and for a brief time he did.  He was a model student and this award, in his memory, is given to a student who best exhibits exemplary behavior.  You should be very proud, son.”  He handed me the award and pushed me forward to the front of the stage to accept the applause.

I didn’t know what “exemplary” meant at the time, but in my mind it was something horrid.  My refusal to speak since Steven’s accident had been mistaken for good behavior.  Exemplary behavior.

But to this day, every time I hear the word, I remember the scared little kid who ran home and cowered in his bedroom while his friend dangled from a tree.

I Confess. I Cheated.

cheat

You’re in school taking the most important and hardest class you’ll ever take.  There’s a lot of pressure because if you make an A you’ll be guaranteed a job.  A B might get you the job depending on how everyone else in the class does.  But you’re pretty confident because you’ve worked harder than your classmates.

First test you make a B.  A few of your classmates make Cs and Ds but the majority make As, and you wonder how they did that.  Soon, you hear that one of your classmates has a copy of all the semester’s tests, obtained perhaps by cleverly hacking into the professor’s computer.  The ones who are cheating ask if you’d like to come over and “study” with them for the next test.  You decline because you don’t want to be a cheater.

You study more than you did for the last test because you know you have to just to keep up.  You end up with a B plus.  They make As again.  They’re contacted by job recruiters.  You are not.  Even some of the ones who made Cs and Ds on the first test are now making As, moving you closer to the bottom of the pack.  You’d like to tell on them, but you have no proof.  Besides, that would really tick off the whole group, and they pretty much detest you anyway for your goody-two-shoes routine.

You do what you have to.  You join them.  You make your A.  You get the job.  You’re financially independent and so happy about that.  You get married and have kids, whose piano and tennis lessons you can pay for thanks to that good job.  Your family is happy.  No regrets.  You and your college buddies laugh about that class years later.

Now you’ve got this great job in a tight economy.  Again, you’re working your butt off, eating lunches at your desk, never taking sick days or personal days, yet the productivity of your co-workers is surpassing your own.  You know they’re cutting corners, backdating documents, shredding customer complaints and doing what they can to stay a step ahead of the curve.  One misstep and they could be fired.  They know that.  You know that.  At the same time, you know that management tacitly condones this behavior as long as they don’t make an obvious blunder that forces management’s hand.  You have a family and hate taking risks especially when it comes down to your livelihood.  However, you wonder that if you can’t keep up with the pack and their inflated numbers, you might lose your job.   You give up vacations, work on holidays, extend your work week to eighty hours just to do what your co-workers claim they do in a forty hour week.  You have your integrity.  You keep up this pace for twenty years, put your kids through college, watch them have families of their own, and finally you retire.

When you look back, you wonder what it would have been like to spend just a little more time with your kids?  You regret not spending more, because when it comes down to it, isn’t the family the most important thing?  You feel bitter at the rest of the world who seems happier than you with fewer wrinkles around the eyes.  They never faced the consequences of their misdeeds.  Or were they really misdeeds?  You wonder if making three follow up calls and fibbing on the required fourth would have made that much of a difference.

We face these kinds of tough decisions every day, sometimes without even considering the moral and ethical significance.  Cheating and getting ahead is the easy decision.  Choosing not to cheat is the tough one.  However, cheating does, after all, imply getting a competitive advantage.  What if you are at a competitive disadvantage if you don’t cheat because everybody else is?  It’s easy to justify it in our own heads when we are pursuing our goals to be successful and respected.

Let’s be honest.  What we all want is to be successful.  Society puts pressure on us to be successful.  In our culture, success is measured by the acquisition of things.  A businessman who nets one million dollars is more successful than one who nets a hundred thousand dollars.  No one asks to compare their bookkeeping or business practices.  An NBA superstar who has five championship rings is more successful than one who doesn’t have any.  Even successful parents are ones who produce successful children, children who are able to obtain a lot of things and money.  Sometimes we need to see ourselves as successful.

It’s time for me to come clean.  I am a Scrabble cheater when it comes to games played on my mobile device.  At first I just played against a friend at work against whom I racked up a record of twenty wins and no losses.  I branched out and began playing other players online.  I’d lose a few games here and there, but I was much more serious about the game than ninety-five percent of the other people that I played, so that in itself gave me an advantage.  There was one guy I liked to play.  We’d have close games but I’d win about eighty percent of the time.  Then his average score suddenly shot up by sixty points.  I’d been playing long enough to know the difference between making good use of the board and pulling insane words out of nowhere, and not just crazy two or three-letter goofy words like ZO and ZA that every Scrabble player with a hundred games under his belt begins to know.  These were words like ALUNITES or HODJAS or ORIGAN (no, not “origin” or “Oregon” but “origan”, in botany, another name for marjoram).  I didn’t want to directly accuse him of cheating but I sent him a message that said, “Are you a Muslim botanist and chemist?” to which he replied, “No.  Someone just played these words against me once, and I remembered them.”

Whatever.  I knew he was cheating.  It’s easy to hop onto the internet and use an anagram solver, and no one on the other side can ever prove it.  He started beating me.  It made me mad.  I watched my win/loss record fall below ninety percent, not that it really matters since no one but me ever looks at it.

So then, I started doing it, using the anagram solvers.  I started to beat him again.  And it felt good.   I didn’t feel guilty about it.  If that’s the way he wants to play, that’s the way I’ll play, I told myself.

The point of all this is not to suggest that cheating is the proper way to go but merely how easy it is to justify to ourselves that not only is cheating the better way but also the vital way.  There is an insane pressure placed on us from birth to succeed, and although many of us are brought up in the Christian tradition of humility and charity, we all know that piety and moral purity are not the main criteria society considers when labeling a person a success.

Since we are social beings, how others see us is so important to how we define and view ourselves.  We want others to like us and we naturally hide our flaws.

So now we come to Lance Armstrong.  Of course I had to watch his interview with Oprah.  I genuinely feel bad for him not because I sympathize with what he did but because I can only imagine how painful the fall from the top to the thorny pit of despair must be.  The truth is, we’ve all been in his situation.  You might say my Scrabble example is nothing like Lance Armstrong because there was nothing really at stake.  But really, that makes my actions even more preposterous.  The only thing at stake was my own vanity.

I’ve talked to some who might understand why he cheated, but cannot tolerate the way he viciously went after the people who accused him of cheating.  Anyone who has had an affair and is trying to hide it will scorch the earth before they reveal their lie.  It’s not noble or right.  It’s just a desperate attempt to stay above everything and scrape and claw at whatever might catch before the inevitable avalanche sends us tumbling down the mountain.  The deeper and more important the lie, the more people we are willing to hurt to protect it.  The way I see it, a man at his worst is usually no worse than most men.

To be clear, I’m not excusing Lance Armstrong’s behavior.  His titles should be stripped, a ban implemented, and his legend in the sport of racing tarnished.  But I don’t hate him either.  I’m just considering the reality that Lance Armstrong, like us all, is human.  Perhaps that is the biggest disappointment.

lance