This House, Those Dreams

  A project of late is to order memories, secure them, put them in some sort of firm chronology, and yes, write about them.I will admit to a sort of low grade middle aged crisis with this, in that I have been mostly complacent and in a blur for a few years now, but the sudden acceleration of mortality of those around me has shaken me from the stupor, and I realize that many things I used to have at easy command in my memory bank are slipping away.A few years ago, while co-chairing one of the largest music conferences in the country, people working closely with me commented on my “mind like a steel trap” as I had the entire map of hundreds of events, all the costs, all the details, right there for instant access. Names, amounts, sizes of each room, each stage, all there.In the personal realm, it was much the same.Everything was still new, still fresh- every detail of school life, every detail of growing up, everything about getting married, down to the level of where everyone sat and what everyone said.I had it all in the steel trap.

That trap eroded, and I am not sure when, or why, or how, but here we are.  It is now a leaky sieve that things go in- a few things stick, other things leak.

I call it, for lack of better term, the fours.  In our youngest days, we care about what happens in four minutes.  Then we grow older, and what happens in four days starts to matter, then four years, and so on- you get the picture.  The last in this list is important in that four years of college provide so much fodder for memories that are vivid- right at that stage when your frontal cortex is starting to really gel, well, that is right when you fall in love the first time, right when you can procreate for the first time, right when you learn to dismiss authority, in short, right when life really matters, that is when everything is a beautiful Technicolor, and you relish this wonderful reality and cling to every last thing.  And remember every last thing.  Those of you around my age who engage almost daily with your college friends on Facebook know exactly what I mean.

But as life sweeps along, days get longer, periods of time stretch out, and the blur sets in.  If you are not careful, you wake up one day and realize that 3-5 years have passed, especially when you see something as simple as an unreached goal, e.g. I will paint that window frame as it is chipping, some day.  And that day keeps slipping.  And then that unpainted window is a sudden, jarring reminder of the passage of time and an existential crisis that hits you as you herd your kids out the back door for school and you haven’t had coffee yet.

Suddenly you find yourself in a state of suspended time where everything returns to Technicolor.  You are sitting in a quiet hospice room with a loved one, looking out at the bird feeder and you see every movement of every bird, and each moment sears itself into your memory.  You read an email about a colleague, released due to budget cuts.  You see your son limping after a simple ankle twist on the playground and your life, your vision, all focuses with preternatural hyper reality.  And in those moments you also see the past in sharper focus, and you want everything to be aligned in perfect order, and you panic, maybe a lot, when the alignment is not as clear, when the moments are going away, or quite simply, gone.

What does that have to do with this photo?  Almost a year ago now, I visited the small PA town of my youth.  As I was taking pictures of the house where my family lived for many years, I gravitated to this porch.  One memory persistently called to me, and I wondered if by looking at that space, if I would regain something I lost.  Spoiler alert: I did not. On this porch, we had an old and beat up piece of furniture we referred to as a “davenport”.  I wanted to reengage with this spot as I thought it might carry some sort of spiritual or at least deeply personal significance in that when I was 14 or so, I found a copy of The Catcher in the Rye on a bookshelf in my oldest brother’s room, and for some reason, I picked it up, went out on that porch and sat down on that davenport, and for the first time in my life, I read an entire book in one sitting.  Incidentally, I know that the second book I read in one sitting was Bronstein’s Children by Jurek Becker, and I know the exact spot- the middle of the soccer field at Interlochen- where I sat on a Thursday afternoon and read it without pause.  I remember the class, the teacher, the essay I wrote about the book, the questions about it I stayed after class to ask the teacher, etc.  It is all vivid. I remember asking my parents to find me more books by that author in the pre internet days, and their efforts to track some down by driving to bookstores a couple hours away to ask in person if they knew of any, and the constant search in bookstores in NYC, Ann Arbor, and other spots when I was roaming about in college.  I miss those days when an author and a book could be a mystery that took years to unpack.  Google has taken away a certain amount of magic in our lives.

Anyway, I thought that if I stood near that porch and stared at it, I would suddenly be in touch with that 14 year old boy who fell down a well the first time he read Salinger and has struggled ever since to climb out.  I did not.  I also remembered the little boy who stood at the screen door at one of these doors when lightening hit nearby, and how he jumped and ran, scared out of his mind. (that same boy has been within 500 feet of lightening strikes three times in life, but I digress) I remembered my grandfather sitting on that porch smoking a pipe before dinner, and the brand of tobacco he used from a store in New Haven, CT, and only there as he was a man of habits, something that I now can claim for good or ill- (Owl Tobacco, and I can still see the orange and white canister it was stored in, sitting on a shelf in the butler’s pantry of that house) and so on.

I want to order memory, but it is a cloud we cannot grasp in our hands, a shifting world that will come to us in fragments, and in dreams.

And only in dreams.  

So where are you from?

I am not one for small talk. Weather is only moderately interesting, local politics
will always be the same, I do not watch TV, nobody will ever be happy with local
snow removal, gas prices suck, and while I care a little about the local sports team as
a fun diversion, I have no firmly held opinions about their future success. Most of
what we call civilized talk is a shadow puppet display that simply says, “I will
pretend nominal interest in you” while we try to move on to the next, or worse still,
the only things we have to say to each other are patently pathetic as we do not have
much else of merit or interest to say. Sometimes the shit-eating grin and manly
handshake is sincere, and that is even more frightening.

Put two people in close proximity in airplane seats and small talk seems to be
implied. If one of these happens to be a wannabe alpha male seated in business or
first class, a world that has been thrust on me simply because 1) I am huge and no
longer fit in regular airline seats and 2) my career has calmed down to a point I do
not fly much, so when I do, I can afford, some of the time, a fancy seat, well, then I
am stuck making small talk.

So imagine the corporate VP, the real estate investor, the shower curtain ring
salesman with an absurd amount of skymiles, the stereotype of the alpha who thinks
he belongs there, thinks he is something special (yes, always a male) and thinks that
he has something to prove. Imagine he sits next to me, and the opening salvo is “So
what do you do?”

I’m a flute professor.

I know better now than to say that. I usually put forth a fart cloud of obfuscation. If
my “don’t talk to me, I’m tired” vibe is not clear, I try to bob and weave and say
things about “non profit consulting” or another false path. It usually works.
But then the question about “where are you from” floats to the surface. Suddenly it’s
not an uncomfortable couple hours on a plane, it’s like every small talk effort at
every party, ever- from the getting to know you awkward college world to the even
more ridiculous world of adult cocktail parties decades later. It is a question I

Where am I from?

It’s complicated.

The simple answer is Yellow Springs, Ohio. I have lived here since 2006. Before
that, I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. I never imagined this would happen, but I have lived
most of my adult life in Ohio, and have lived here more than anywhere else.

But the question usually probes into your childhood. But -where are you FROM.
Where did you grow up? What is the formative world that launched you into the

In the present, most people assume I am from Michigan somehow. I live there in the
summer, my father lives there, and I suppose I pass as someone who could be from
Michigan, and my four years of boarding school in northern Michigan sort of seal the
deal. I don’t have any discernable accent, but I do slip into an “eh” at the end of a
sentence once in awhile, and the word “car” does come out of my nose on occasion,
so I could be from Michigan.

I usually allow for the water to be muddied like this. And when I was younger, I
made it even worse. People would ask, and I would intentionally mislead. I would
try to avoid the obvious. I was from New York, Michigan, or any number of places.

Just not the truth. Honesdale, Pennsylvania. The place I moved to when I was in
kindergarten. A place that I tried, for various reasons, to leave as soon as possible.
A place I did leave for high school and beyond. The home that I had as a kid, a place
that remains in my memory as home, yet a place that makes me mad, sort of happy,
sort of sad, and everything else all at once.

A place that I can still remember. A place where adults praised and tormented me in
equal amounts. A place where I was a preachers kid. A talented kid. Maybe a
troubled kid. A pressure cooker, in other words. A place where kids on the bus spit
on me. A place where I wanted to play baseball, but was so inept I was first cut from
a team and then sat on the bench, and where practices were an ongoing torment of
other kids teasing, bullying, and otherwise being terrible. The son of a local lawyer,
not incidentally, a member of my father’s church, who teased me every time I was
up for batting practice, saying I looked “constipated” in my stance.

The place I am from is real. Wonderful, and terrible all at once. There are
wonderful memories. But they are eclipsed by the rest.

I went back in 2005 when my father retired. That is an essay in itself. Then I went
back with my family in 2017. There is no revelation, no truth, no epiphany in these
visits. A look down a big black hole, and a bit of anger certainly.

What you see in the picture is the church. For 150 or so years, a mainline
Presbyterian church. Flawed, certainly, but familiar. Trained theologians at the
helm. In the last decade, it has been radicalized and turned into an evangelical
stronghold. Nary a seminarian, at least in the traditional sense, in sight. The past is
obliterated to make room for the radical, and yes, the stupid and mindless.

There is a beautiful contradiction in life. Here is one- Classical music is dead,
long live Classical music. Another- burn it all down, let it live again.

I have a lot more to say about where I am from. About clergy abuse. About bullying.
About the joy and agony of small towns.

I am a preachers kid from Honesdale, PA. That is where I am from. That is who I

There is more to come here.