[Careful observers of the upstate NY weather and/or my interpersonal relationships will recognize that this post was not written today – I forgot about it in the “drafts” folder for a week or so.]
photo by Than Luu
You know how when you were a kid and it rained and the ceiling leaked you would just put buckets under the leak? And would have to get up in the middle of the night and empty the buckets?
It’s so weird to me that things I naturally associate with childhood in general – walking a shopping cart home from the grocery store, fighting over fresh fruit because it was expensive and rare, hiding from a scary father – are only specific to my childhood. Perhaps everyone’s childhood memories are tender and a little sacred in their recollection, no matter how frightening or bizarre they are when seen through the dispassionate lens of rational thought.
Once I caught myself fondly remembering camping trip when a friend of my father’s, high on some drug or another, was bitten by a rattlesnake. Determined not to go to the hospital, he insisted on driving home and taking a shower, whereupon he passed out and was transported via ambulance to the emergency room. Being the kind of people that my father’s circle were, someone shot the snake (number one rule of my childhood: always take guns on camping trips. We always practiced shooting cans in the deep desert, and more than once I came to school with bruises on my forehead from the gun backfiring.). When it was later found out that the snake’s death had created little rattlesnake orphans, the same idiotic optimism that led my father’s friend to think he could calmly take a shower before having his snakebite treated led the remaining friends to think they could adopt the baby snakes.
And that’s the story of how I came to live and love an adorable pet rattlesnake, and since I still love snakes, doesn’t it make sense that I would remember such a horrible story with some fondness? Us children of strange childhoods have to take fond memories where we find them.
I named the rattler Constanza, because I was obsessed with the movie Amadeus at the time (every sentence I write about my childhood is weirder than the last – yes, I recognize this). In our slipshod household filled with cats and a dog and a constant parade of druggies, a rattlesnake wasn’t exactly the safest pet, but no one was ever bitten and no cats were ever eaten.
We kept Constanza in a big fish tank filled with rocks. The top was a piece of mesh cut from an old screen door held down with heavy books. Naturally, little Stanzi would escape every couple weeks, poking her amazingly strong head out of the crevice where the mesh met the cage and working her body up and out, books sliding to the floor.
One of the dominant emotions of my childhood was finding ways to ignore the fact that I was terrified out of my mind half the time, and perhaps that’s why the nagging knowledge that a rattlesnake could pop up next to my pillow at night didn’t freak me out too badly. In a few days she would be found and we would maneuver her back into her cage and my brother would go to the pet store and buy her a nice mouse and I would leave the house while she ate it.
I don’t remember how Constanza died and I don’t remember how or why we got our second rattlesnake, but his name was Cruncher (of course, my brother picked out the name). I remember bringing his shedded skins into school for show-and-tell, but maybe my brother was the one who did that, because I think I would have been too old for show-and-tell when we went through our period of snake ownership.
There are a great many things I don’t remember about my childhood, and for this I am grateful.
Today in 2008 it’s raining hard outside, and I’m walking around checking for leaks, remembering the monsoon seasons of my childhood – emptying buckets and bowls, watching the hard rain make steam on the hot sidewalks.
The first eighteen years of my life are becoming more bittersweet (instead of just bitter and blindly angry) as time passes and the fear and shame that I subsisted on subsides. My father was a drug dealer, we were poor, when I went away to college never to return, my father went to federal prison. Why not just be honest about it?
I’m thirty years old. I own a roof and if it has a leak I will call a roofer. This rain is the cleansing upstate New York rain, thousands of miles away from my hot childhood monsoons. I recite these facts to myself when it rains and I lie in bed and remember my childhood and try not to feel small and scared. I am far away from it in many ways, and distance translates to safety.
I am becoming more comfortable with talking and thinking about the whole sordid thing. I hope you don’t mind if I occasionally unload onto you, dearest internet. In college I was deeply ashamed of my past. My father was in prison every second of my college career, and he got out the week after I graduated. (I was so thankful he didn’t get out earlier and try to come to my graduation, because I had decided I would get a restraining order against him if he tried.). After college I was too busy to think about it. Now I am beginning the process of dragging it up and out of me, like Stanzi out of her cage. I’ve dealt with my anger at my father (it only flares up if he tries to contact me) and made peace with my mother, who has herself made her peace with the Stockholm Syndrome she suffered from while with my father. In fact, she’s written a heartbreaking novel (well, it broke mine, at any rate) about the period. I’m so happy my father went to prison – it got my mother out of her marriage. Today he is out and living somewhere far far from me, and she moved back to her hometown of Chicago, and we are all just letting the fallout settle.
I’m here in New York, watching the sun rise and the rain settle. It’s 6:30 am and I had to drive my sweetheart to the airport at 4 am. We didn’t sleep last night, since we usually don’t go to bed until 3 or so anyway. On the exhausting drive home in the dark and pouring rain, I listened to M. Ward’s album Post-War, and that is why I came home and turned on my computer instead of going straight to bed.
I wanted to write about the utter perfection of Matt Ward’s voice, and how Rachel Blumberg’s drumming makes me hold my breath because it’s so beautiful and spot on. I wanted to write about how amazing it was to drive slowly on the Thruway with the sun just beginning to come up through the thick rainclouds with M. Ward pouring out into the car, and me humming along and enjoying it all – the exhaustion, rain, the car, even the upcoming loneliness – all that life entails.
Matt was singing Daniel Johnston’s great lyrics: “God, it’s great to be alive / takes the skin right off my hide / to think I’ll have to give it all up someday…” and I felt just exactly like that.
But then I got all caught up thinking about holes in the ceiling and snakes and prison and fear, and now it’s light out and I haven’t slept in so long. The cats are arranged on a row right where my sweetheart would be sleeping if he wasn’t on a flight to Omaha – his eighth flight in fourteen days. The rain continues, Jacob flies away and comes back, and I’m growing up and getting over my childhood.
That’s not what I wanted to write about.
I wanted to write about how I’m always scared to listen to the new albums of artists I love, because I know how artists like to grow and change, when I want them to stay the same and keep putting out the same album again and again – more songs exactly like those others, please. Matt, can you just sing “Carolina” over and over again, and have that be your live show? Pretty please?
I was scared to listen to Post-War, but I shouldn’t have been. I should have trusted M. Ward. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should state that the fact that I have the honor of being thanked in the liner notes of this particular album did not contribute to me liking the album any more. In fact, I had nervously listened to it five times before I thought to read the liner notes. But I can’t say that it didn’t make me happy.).
He’s growing up, for sure, but in the best of all possible ways – adding new little tricks that turn his new albums into more perfect versions of the old ones. You can see him settling into himself on Post-War. I have an old, old, collection of M. Ward demos, and those songs are waiting to grow up and become as great as the ones on Post-War.
Elliott Smith did that trick, too (for that matter, so is Conor Oberst). His older songs are perfect in their simplicity, and his less older ones are perfect in their complexity. Let’s hope Matt has a lot more time to grow than Elliott did.
Anyway, a little bird tells me that there will be a new M. Ward album soon. I’m trying hard not to worry about it.
(PS: Whenever I need a little pick-me-up, I watch this great clip, partially because I love the song and partially because I get to watch the awesome and talented Rachel Blumberg – as well as everyone else, of course, but I have a weakness for watching lady drummers – do her thing, and partially because my BFF Than Luu is playing a truck wheel. Than had to change his pants right before the taping, because the pants he was wearing had a hole in the crotch. How do I know? I was right behind the stage when this was being taped, freezing and watching Mark Wahlberg talk on two cell phones at once in the stairwell.)