Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bluegrass People

This weekend I will attend my university's homecoming festivities, but I will also participate in a homecoming of another sort. This second homecoming is a homecoming of individuals, most of whom I don't know, who have found beauty in grief and embraced it, if initially just to keep their feet. They are Bluegrass people and they were born homecoming weekend in October two years ago.

It was a Texas fall, different from a Texas summer in name and routine only. Things felt normal and static. This was my first homecoming as an alumni. I had started my first job and was tasting independence and security in delirious gulps. Life had just shifted to second gear and then my phone rang. My girlfriend and I had just pulled up to perhaps the only non-IHOP breakfast place in town. We were about to get out of my truck, having chosen to forego what would be a crowded church service and a chance to see my friend Kyle, to have breakfast with my thesis advisor and her husband. It was Whitney on the phone. Her voice shook tightly like a kid on a bike for the first time; determined to get through the sentence and scared she might not. "Kyle has been killed."



Drive home.



Drive back.




Gut-wrenching, head-draining, emotionally nuclear and profound sense of loss.



Beer and laughter.



Laughter and tears.


Constant reminders.


I have tried multiple times to write about Kyle - who he was; what he meant to me - but my efforts seem always to have fallen flat. I'm never sure where to focus. I always get two paragraphs in and then delete the whole thing. Words in type seem so finite and so incapable of capturing the impish, child-like sparkle that always danced in Kyle's eyes. And I'm not the only one. Kyle left a wife and three kids and thousands - no exaggeration - of people who all felt they had a unique and intimate relationship with him. And they were right.

It seems to miss the point to talk about the burden of memory when describing how utterly incapable I feel in trying to write about Kyle, but I do feel incapable. How can you be faithful to a memory that is shared by thousands? Again, people would say and have said, "You're missing the point. Write about your relationship with Kyle and don't focus on the rest of it." But that IS the point. Kyle gave a sliver of himself to everyone and somehow managed to make that sliver feel like the whole world. I have tried to write about that sliver - desperately so - but it seems too big for words and yet is still just a tiny part of Who He Was.

There are so many stories. Everyone has a version of the same story. Mine start with Kyle at a barbecue taking the time to form a relationship with a confused and angry college sophomore and then opening the eyes of that sophomore just by saying, "I don't know." The stories have titles: Kyle and The Bright New Shiny Passat. Kyle and the Finger in Church. Kyle Extends an Invitation to a Punk Rock Kid to See the Movie Gladiator. Huh-uh. Kyle Becomes a Superfan at an Intramural Soccer/Football/Softball Game. Kyle's a Dad. My Friend Kyle is Dead and the Collage of Memories I Have Seems Incomplete.

Another friend of mine, Mike, felt so incapable of putting Kyle to paper that he teamed up with yet a third friend, Dave, to write a book. The book is personal, painful, and beautiful and grasps at the idea that Kyle will probably always elude pen and paper. The closest the authors get - and it's close enough for me - is the realization that all of those tiny slivers of our friend, the whole world lost over and over again, can never be grieved or celebrated alone. Those who knew Kyle, and now those who know people who knew Kyle, are Bluegrass People. Like the early practitioners of Bluegrass music, the people Kyle's life touched now form a community marked by loss and the burden of grief. Just as Bluegrass music was originally participatory - a shared experience of a community's struggles - so too is the shared experience of Kyle's loss. I find my part difficult to write, but it's important that I participate.

This weekend at least two groups will worship together in defiance of Kyle's loss. One is the church he left behind and the other forms a much less obvious connection, perhaps even to some of its members. Throughout my friendship with Kyle, soccer was a vehicle. We played for the same formal team but at different times. We played together on multiple informal teams. We talked soccer. We joked soccer. We participated in the friendships and shared experiences of the same soccer context. This weekend I will play in an alumni soccer match with old friends and with guys I have never met. I will play with young men who lost the whole world when Kyle died and kids who have never heard his name. I will think of Kyle when I play and in so doing I will grieve his loss. And the loss will become a celebration and the soccer will become music.


From Kyle's last sermon:

"Live. And Live Well. BREATHE. Breathe in and Breathe deeply. Be PRESENT. Do not be past. Do not be future. Be now. On a crystal clear, breezy 70 degree day, roll down the windows and FEEL the wind against your skin. Feel the warmth of the sun.
If you run, then allow those first few breaths on a cool Autumn day to FREEZE your lungs and do not just be alarmed, be ALIVE. Get knee-deep in a novel and LOSE track of time.
If you bike, pedal HARD… and if you crash then crash well.
Feel the SATISFACTION of a job well done—a paper well-written, a project thoroughly completed, a play well-performed. If you must wipe the snot from your 3-year old’s nose, don’t be disgusted if the Kleenex didn’t catch it all… because soon he’ll be wiping his own.
If you’ve recently experienced loss, then GRIEVE. And Grieve well. At the table with friends and family, LAUGH. If you’re eating and laughing at the same time, then might as well laugh until you puke. And if you eat, then SMELL. The aromas are not impediments to your day. Steak on the grill, coffee beans freshly ground, cookies in the oven. And TASTE. Taste every ounce of flavor. Taste every ounce of friendship. Taste every ounce of Life. Because-it-is-most-definitely-a-Gift."

Saturday, October 20, 2007


Mazzy is a teenager. Actually, her first birthday was in July so I'm not quite sure where she stands in dog years, but she's already acting the moody, aloof part of a teenage girl. When it's just the two of us everything is cool, much like when my sister, clad in braces and over-sized flannel shirts, would, in the walls of our own home, hug my dad and smile rather than rolling her eyes and scowling like she did in public. Lounging on my couch with no one else around, Mazzy curls up by my feet and occasionally glances up from her canine half-sleep to stare at me contentedly before stretching, sighing, and curling back into the lima bean shape that marks her deepest state of relaxation.

But as soon as we're in public, I might as well be wearing a shirt that says "World's #1 Dad". On walks, Mazzy nods at other dogs and then looks at me as if to say, "Check out this guy. He's not really my owner, I'm just letting him walk me because I have to. It's part of my probation." It was bad enough when, after straddling a friend's dog's face, I thought she might be a tramp, but at least then she still acted like she couldn't live without me. Now she flashes ass to other dogs and then acts like I don't exist.

The culmination of Mazzy's descent into pubescence happened this weekend. I had been out of town on business for two weeks and Mazzy was staying with friends who own a young puppy and have a massive backyard. I pulled into their driveway late on Friday looking forward to having an Old Yeller moment. Mazzy was going to sprint to me, leap into my arms, and lick my face uncontrollably. Instead, after my friends opened the garage door and let Mazzy wander into the driveway, I was greeted by a look that said nothing more than, "Oh, it's you." There was no running, leaping, or licking. Mazzy gingerly sniffed at my shoes and jeans and then turned around and walked back into the garage as if to collect her things. The fun was very clearly over.

Today things are a little better. She has regained some of her goofiness and is lounging by my feet as I write this, but earlier when I sang and danced to "Train In Vain" by The Clash, a ridiculous display that usually riles Mazzy into a fit of playfulness, I swear she snorted at me and sauntered back into the living room. Pretty soon I'll catch her putting her paw down her throat and throwing all of her Science Diet up into the shaded corner of the backyard or sneaking under the fence to go run around with the neighborhood German Sheppard. I should have gotten a male dog.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Don't Crap Where You Eat Or, Why I Don't Eat at Wal-Mart

Yesterday I was in Super Wal-Mart using the bathroom. Just on principle I try to stay as far away as possible from Wal-Mart, but when a boy has got to go; a boy has got to go. When one is confined to a car for great lengths of time, one begins to figure out where one can use the facilities without all the sticky moral hindrance of thinking, "Well, I did use their urinal...I'll buy this Snicker's Bar and we'll be even." That way lies an empty wallet and a big ass.

Supermarkets work well for guiltless elimination, but they are often not that crowded - especially in the morning - so the restroom seeker cannot get lost in the crowd and therefore avoid detection. There's nothing worse than exiting a restroom to be examined by the penetrating eyes of a half dozen pimply-faced teenaged grocery jockeys who know you just used the crapper they have to clean and that you did so without the slightest intention of buying anything from their store. It's a breach of trust. Peeing and leaving is sort of the public restroom equivalent of a one night stand or a trip to the pound just to pet the dogs. Buying something is like cuddling and promising to call or actually adopting the puppy you've spent all day petting.

Best Buy is another great place for sweet relief, but it has its obstacles. Mainly, the restroom is in a different place in every store and is usually tucked away from plain sight. One's hurried hunting is an obvious giveaway to one's intent and attracts "Can I help yous" from every wise-to-you employee. Plus, if you get a sudden attack of guilt from dropping a deuce in the Best Buy bathroom with no intent to make a purchase, you're almost assured your crap will have cost you at least twenty dollars.

Starbucks also has it's pros and cons. Having formerly been in the employ of said establishment, I can tell you that every Starbucks employee is commanded to be unfailingly polite and non-combative to any potential customer. This includes vagrants who come in off the street and bathe in the sinks of the restrooms (which, for the restroom seeker, presents a different set of issues altogether). So, if anybody is going to make you feel bad, it's you. The downside to this is that most Starbucks have one solitary throne in each restroom. Coffee is a diuretic. Lines can form. If one is in need of some quality sit time, one can be assured that one's time will be interrupted by an impatient knock or ten. Also, one's personal bouquet does not typically mix well with the aroma of perfectly roasted coffee beans. Starbucks also commands its employees to not wear cologne or perfume as it might taint the aforementioned coffee bean aroma. Clealry, the odor of human waste would have made the list if they had thought of it. The potential for embarrassment is significant. Cozy, intimate, and artsy are not adjectives that typically mix well with verbs like strain, wipe, and flush.

Border's and Barnes & Noble present many of the same obstacles as does Starbucks, and bookish people can become judgemental in a hurry. Buying a magazine to appease them only adds to their anger. Not only are you the type of person who uses the restroom without making a purchase, but you're also the type of person who reads MAGAZINES! Classless. Plus, the Heartland is alarmingly devoid of bookstores and nature frequently seems to call in the void between two points, but they'll do in a pinch (pun intended).

University campuses are the Ivory Towers of the public world and of the public restroom world. There's nothing to buy and no one to offer you their help. I can still remember using the restroom in the English building at my university and having to wait for a stall while a road tripper had his Danish and coffee and read the morning newspaper. University restrooms are comfortable, clean, and, if you find the right building, almost always empty. Unfortunately, they're not as common as Super Wal-Marts, which leads me to the Grand Compromise...

But before I go on, I must say a few things, mostly about how much I hate Wal-Mart. One of my exes and I had a two part theory born of many forced weekend trips to the local Wal-Mart. 1). Any Wal-Mart in the United States on a Sunday afternoon is the most depressing place in the world equaled only by every other Wal-Mart in the United States on a Sunday afternoon. 2). The world would be a much, much, much, much, much, much, much better/more intelligent place if every Wal-Mart in the United States was consumed in a 100% percent fatal ball of God's fury on a Sunday afternoon. Elitist? Yes. True? Absolutely. As exhibit "A", I present the following: After using the bathroom of the Super Wal-Mart yesterday, I ventured over to the Halloween aisle in an effort to stretch my legs whereupon I observed a man with a real mullet purchasing a mullet wig. He was amused, obese, and seemingly completely oblivious to the fact that, for him, the purchase of a mullet wig was wholly unnecessary.

Thus, the Grand Compromise: I hate Wal-Mart, but it makes a pretty good place to take care of business. Because Wal-Mart sells everything from clothes to tires to paintball guns to onions, it is almost always packed to the gills with sweat pants clad Heartlanders seeking one of the billion things Sam Walton decided to stock on his shelves. The restroom seeker's nefarious intentions are literally cloaked by a wall of humanity that is undoubtedly responsible for much worse in-store infractions than using the restroom and leaving without buying anything. The restrooms are typically located near one of the entrances sandwiched between two of the separate businesses Wal-Mart tends to have operating behind its checkout counters. If a person were so inclined, a person could enter the belly of the beast, take care of business, and exit without even raising the eyebrow of the elderly and/or retarded greeter Wal-Mart pretends to responsibly employ. It's glorious and completely guilt-free.

Now that I work for the Man and am pretty confident I will not play much of a part in The Revolution, I like to think of using Wal-Mart bathrooms without buying anything as my own little act of resistance (insert "resistance" joke here). Sometimes, when I am feeling particularly subversive, I don't even flush. Hasta La Victoria Siempre!