Growing Up With Chad Kroeger and Spider-man

It’s easy to latch on to the idea of being a 90’s kid – there’s just so much to admire about the decade. There’s this ideal image of the music and culture that makes it appealing to associate yourself with. While my friends and I were born in the 90s, a large amount of our adolescent lives that we could actually “participate with the culture” was the 2000s (the otts, the 00s, whatever you want to call it).

I’ve started reading Colin Meloy’s contribution to the 33 1/3 on The Replacement’s album “Let It Be,” which focuses primarily on Meloy’s experience with music through the awkward years of junior high. “Let It Be” essentially sound-tracked the big memories in his life – school dances, playing on the JV basketball team, not being sure where you belong, etc. It seems like such an appropriate album for a time of transition. This got me to thinking about what particular album I can recall tying with junior high. Even though I listened to my (still) favorite all time band Remy Zero constantly, it pains me to admit that my Junior High defining album was “Music From and Inspired By: Spider-Man.”

Let me iterate that again. The Spider-man soundtrack was like my version of The Replacements “Let It Be.”

These days, it’s really cool and trendy to hate on Nickelback (myself not exclude from this) but it can’t be dismissed that in 2002 Nickelback was a juggernaut and most people I knew at the time thought they were a solid band. As promotions started for the upcoming Spider-man movie, the music video for Chad Kroeger and Josey Scott’s “Hero” was on constant rotation in the morning on MTV and VH1.

“This song is beautiful,” I remember thinking. The rolling snare abruptly being stopped by the booming strum of Chad’s acoustic guitar gave me goosebumps. The imagery of Spider-man swinging through buildings while Chad and the band played on a rooftop felt so serene, like an oil painting or a student art film. Then the vocal’s kick in with the killer opening line.

“I’m so high I can hear heaven, oh but heaven, but heaven don’t hear me.”

Sold. Shut up and take my money, Mr. Kroeger. You’ve made my puberty filled heart melt.

In a routine trip to Fred Meyer I convinced my dad to buy me the soundtrack as we passed through the electronics section. This was the summer before seventh grade. In a month or so I’d be going to a new school where I was totally unknown. Though I was able to make a few friends, I still felt a bit disconnected from everyone else that year. I was able to find my “group” to hang out with a lunch but didn’t see much of my classmates outside of school. Every day on the bus ride home, I’d take my CD case and red disc-man with matching over-the-ear headphones out of my rolling backpack and find the black disc with the orange lettering. Sitting in the back, I’d crank up the music and look out the window or sometimes observe the high schoolers laughing and talking away.

I’d skip the first track usually (the original Spider-man cartoon theme) and go straight to “Hero.” I tried really hard to like the Sum 41 song “What We’re All About” but could never manage it.

On days I tried to make a move on my current crush (which typically involved trying to start some sort of conversation) and inevitably failed it was straight to track 16, “She Was My Girl” by Jerry Cantrell. I didn’t know who Cantrell was at the time, but I thought he captured my angst and longing so well.

“She was my girl. Used to be my world.”

God damn, Jerry, have you been observing my life or something?

When I was feeling particularly angsty (again, usually over girl issues) it was “Learn to Crawl” by Black Lab.

“Tell your pretty red haired babe to forget that I exist”

Black Lab snarling those words over a chunky, melodramatic post-grunge guitar riff made me feel like I was a bad-ass that no one should try and mess with. Beneath by blue and black Nike windbreaker and graphic t-shirt was the heart of real rocker. I began to love music in the obnoxious “oMyGod MuZiK iZ mAi LyFe!” sort of way – infatuation, but not quite yet true love.

At home I’d put the CD in my computer while I worked on my large creative pursuit: Monkey Man comic books. I had a whole franchise planned out in my head including multiple series, spin-offs, and inevitably a major movie deal. At the core, it’s hard to say if Money Man was a spoof of Spider-man or just a blatant ripoff (I mean, being bit by a radioactive monkey is TOTALLY different than being bit by a radioactive spider). I think I played it off as a joke to people, but secretly I imagined Monkey Man swinging through New York on his vine as the bridge of “Hero” trembled in the background.

“It isn’t the love of a hero, that’s what I feel it won’t do.”

Looking back, it’s hard for me to listen to the Spider-man soundtrack and take it seriously. Still, it’s hard for me to dismiss something so pivotal to my early teen years. I may not be jamming out to Black Lab and Nickelback these days but those songs served as a stepping stone to what I listen to now. Chad Kroeger rocking out on an acoustic guitar had a profound impact on impressionable, tiny, naive, middle school Dusty. So Colin Meloy wins this round of cooler middle school jams, but I feel we still have shared the same feelings listening to our respective albums and I don’t think there’s any shame in that. I’ll hold on to this soundtrack like the wings of the eagles, and watch as they all fly away.

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Callow Rats

A bowl of lukewarm, orange chili slops in front of me. I’m pretty sure they made it from a can or something. When I asked the cashier at the Insomnia Café, “Can I get a bowl of chili?” he looked at me as if it were the first time he’d ever heard the phrase in his life. Strange, it took them long enough to bring it.  I don’t remember this place from when I used to hang out around here. It’s just a block off of Callow, next to where “The House” church and café used to be before it went out of business — or whatever you call it when a church ceases to be. From the outside I assumed it was going to be some dingy place where the culture-craving youth hang out and talk about punk music, but to my surprise there are XBOX 360s and pool tables set up. Seems to be set up more to give kids something to do rather than complain. I feel like a total jackass sitting here in my peacoat, slacks, and tie.

I keep thinking about Callow Avenue. Elmo’s Adult Book Store, Dave’s Loans & Guns, the Artists for Freedom and Unity Gallery, La Poblanita Mexican Store, and just a few blocks over Noah’s Ark Restaurant. Come to think of it, why didn’t I go to Noah’s instead of this place? I’m sure the chili there is at least warm. Oh and of course there’s The Charleston. Supposedly it used to be an adult film theater (no, not highly intuitive dramas, the other kind of films adults like). Before that I think it was just a regular old movie theater. It’s hard to imagine either these days. The pale, dirty face of the building is not entirely welcoming. The bold and generic font bearing “The Charleston” seems so wholesome and respectable until you look down at the reader board right below it with the names of bands like “The Helen Killers” and “The Knife Hits.”

Near the end of my high school career, this became the only place to catch local shows. Typically they booked terrible hardcore bands with even worse names. If ever a decent band was playing, or if I knew of a friend playing a show, there was no doubt going to be a hardcore band attached to the lineup. The inside is dark. Most surfaces are painted with thick, eternally sticky black paint. A makeshift stage where the movie screen used to be stands on the far side of the room and a bar stares across from it on its own separate platform. Everything is written on or has graffiti layered on it. The bathrooms are a particular treat: green walls covered in band stickers and never stocked with soap or towels.

We used to play a game when we waited for the doors to open at shows. We’d stand in a circle, pretending to be engrossed in conversation, while secretly we counted how many people walked out of Elmo’s Adult Book Store. The numbers were always surprising, especially for so early in the day. None of them was ever looking up. It’s funny how Elmo’s has been around since I was a kid, riding in the car with my grandma playing slug-bug, yet I’ve seen at least 3 church related businesses start and fail there since I was a teen.

I think we — my friends and I — all had a love hate relationship with Callow Avenue. On one side, it was the one place to see shows. A luxury not so luxurious. On the other hand…. Elmo’s Adult Book Store, Dave’s Loans  Guns, the Artists for Freedom and Unity Gallery…etc. It represented everything about Kitsap County that we loathed. Now I’m back here and I feel more left out – like I got picked last for kickball or something – than at home. A lot of it has to do with my oh so in vogue Seattle wardrobe. I typically don’t dress like this. I’m actually in town for a wedding. But I know that everyone in the Insomnia Café doesn’t know that. I look like some prissy Seattleite who got lost after a ferry ride over. Or maybe a prince trying to see life as a pauper. Or maybe they don’t notice. But I do. Oh and to make things better, to pass time I’m making notes in a Moleskine. Wow. Really?

I look out the window and over towards Callow again. Did you know that “callow” means “immature or inexperienced?” Callow Ave does seem immature, but I can’t say it’s inexperienced.

I’m trying to distract myself from feeling out of place by reminding myself how shitty Callow Avenue is. I couldn’t wait to get away from here. To move to Seattle where there is always something to do and there’s culture and always great bands playing and hip girls with great taste in music who will teach me about bands like “My Bloody Valentine” and “The Smiths” and you have no restrictions and and most of all, nothing reminiscent of the bleak feeling that is Kitsap County. Three years later and I come back and feel like an outsider. And I don’t want to feel like an outsider. But there is no way in hell I want to live back here again.

I remember reading on The Charleston’s web site about a movement they were trying to create called “Callow Rats.” The owner described Callow as a place to get away from gossip, politics, parents, and things of that sort; he especially made a strong point about the parents part. He said that Callow isn’t just a place to get away, but a place to fit in. I’ve seen too many post-generation x trying to be gen-x movies to really take this seriously on a surface level. It just sounds too corny, even though I feel he’s sincere. But maybe I bought into this philosophy without knowing it. Am I that cheesy?

I think I’m callow. I haven’t had much life experience that isn’t tied to some sort of formal education. I still get chills when I watch the end scene of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Moving to Seattle and living without my parents felt like such a grown up thing to do. Instead of growing up, did I just morph into a Seattelite instead? Am I not a callow rat? Was I ever? Did I want to be? Do I want to be? It sounds awful lonely. But I feel lonely right now. I feel desperate and alone in a place that I think fondly of for times of being reckless and making fun of perverts leaving an adult book store. It doesn’t seem so funny anymore. Maybe just a little bit though.

This chili really isn’t very good. I don’t think being a Seattle prick has anything to do with the objective fact that this is not good chili. I’ll probably stop at the Starbucks by the ferry on the way home and get a vanilla chai lattee to get this taste out of my mouth. I’ll probably feel more at home in a franchised Starbucks than I do in this awkward Bremerton cafe. True Seattlites don’t really like Starbucks though; they’d much rather support a local owned and/or sustainable coffee shop. I think I care too much about these geographical labels. It’s time to put away this pretentious Moleskine and kill some vampires on this arcade game behind me. Callow rat or spawn of Seattle. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t care. I’m sure in a couple of weeks when I’m looking at the skyline from Gasworks Park, I’ll think to myself “this is home” and Callow will feel like nothing but a point of reference to show me how far I’ve come since then.

How about I just shut up. Those vampires aren’t going to just kill themselves off, now are they? I can afford a few minutes of being a callow youth.

Won’t Let Go

Photo by Dorothy Hyunh (http://www.dorothyhuynh.com/)

This post was written on August 14, around midnight, and published August 16.

I’ve avoided writing a blog about marriage or “life as an engaged person” post for a while. Most of the reason lies behind thinking that a lot of the posts I read like this are cheesy and (perhaps ashamedly) Kristin and I have both laughed at how strange some of them are (just kidding, no shame – they’re hilarious). So maybe I’ll end up in that “strangely comical lubby dubby blogger” realm if just for this post.

Right now I’m sitting alone in the apartment Kristin and I will share as our first home as a family. The living room is completely empty. I have two plates, two glasses, a bowl, and one of each type of silverware. My belongings, mostly clothes and records, are all collected in the bedroom. I haven’t really organized anything; I’m waiting until Kristin moves in so we can set things up together and make it our place.

It’s a surreal feeling, living like this. It’s peaceful and yet jarring. Everything feels like the calm before a storm, but instead of a storm it’s a whole new life waiting on the other side. When I can’t quite comprehend what I’m feeling and struggle to keep my thoughts straight I typically turn to music that I think captures it better than I think I’m able to.

I first heard “Won’t Let Go” when David Bazan played a snippet of it at The Triple Door during “The Song Show,” a series where CityArts interviews artists on stage between songs. Bazan’s been urged for a while now to write a conventional love song that doesn’t involve some sort of twisted scenario (not a lot of people bought his reasoning that “Please Baby Please” was a love song, a song where the narrator drunkenly pleads with his wife for a drink and later their daughter dies in a car accident – basically our generations “I Only Have Eyes For You”). Hearing just that little bit two years ago, I knew it was breathtaking. I thought the same thing when it was finally released on his album last year. But I don’t think I really “got it” until tonight.

As I work on the favors for our wedding, I have this song on repeat. The distant drums, the ethereal guitar twang, and Bazan’s aged soft growl are constantly buzzing in my ears. I can’t stop listening; I feel comforted. Basically in the song Bazan is calling his wife before getting on a plane, explaining that when she gets this message he’ll be on a plane thinking about her and his responsibilities to her – and that he won’t let go of her.

The premises sounds more like a Billy Joel, Peter Frampton, or, heck, even a Bruno Mars song – some generic safe musician. But it’s all about the execution of the story and who is telling it. The track bookends an album that starts with a chorus of “You’re a goddamn fool and I love you” and later details how we as people have lost our humanity. Not exactly “Baby I Love Your Way” now is it? Bazan’s had a rough road with faith that he’s shared publicly through his music and has also publicly mentioned its strain on his relationship with his family in interviews. To Bazan, this isn’t throw away napkin poetry but a thoughtful declaration.

“Who or what controls the fates of men I cannot say, but I keep arriving safely home to you. I humbly acknowledge that I won’t always get my way, but darling death would have to pry my fingers loose.”

What does it mean to love someone that you would literally fight off death, not for your own sake, but to not leave them alone? Darwin told us the animal kingdom is all about survival of the fittest, animals fighting for dominance and doing whatever it takes to get it. Bazan tells us his wife is worth more than pure alpha supremacy. What a novel concept, aye? This probably seems obvious and stupid but I think he touches at something even deeper – love is going against your human nature to give up everything for someone else. That’s beautiful.

It’s not just about avoiding death, it’s about allowing nothing to keep you from the one you love whether it is metaphysical or otherwise.  That’s an easy statement to make but a harder one to fully grasp – let alone follow through with.

In the over three years Kristin and I have been together, I’ve become closer to her than anyone in my life. In those years I’ve learned really for the first time what it means to sacrifice for someone you love. Not just little sacrifices, but knowing your capacity to do whatever you can to make sure they are safe and content. I can probably think of small things I’ve done for friends and family throughout my life that may constitute as “sacrifices,” but they’re not quite the same. Getting to this point has been the hardest thing I think I’ve done. There has been that pain in my stomach when I’ve felt like I cannot do enough only to gain the strength to move forward. I mean a physical hurt. There’s an actual ache when you want to raise someone up but you’re not sure how. And when you figure it out, it’s so much joy – not joy for your benefit but joy for the other person.

Of course, there is much more than just these aspects that go into love, but right now these are the specific ones on my mind. I’d need a novel to explore that, not a blog post.

I love Kristin more than I did the first time I told her I loved her. In twenty years I’m sure I’ll look back and say that I love her more than I did when I said it on my wedding day. Having a responsibility like this to someone else is challenging but the reward is tenfold. I cannot and will not let go of her, I could never afford to do that. Bazan and I could tag team beating the of shit out death because it’d take far more than that for me to stop trying – it’s impossible.

“I will not let go. I will not let go. I will not let go of you.”

Almost Famous (Or “Almost Interesting?”)

The “Real World” is on MTV – check your TV Guide, ya dingus!

Lately I’ve been trying to challenge myself by reading different music writings; typically biographies and some essay collections. It’s a good way for me to study my craft and find writers to look up to (as suggested by writing mentor, who just released a book today about K Records that I also plan on reading). It’s been great studying different writers’ styles and also getting in depth looks at some of my favorite artists (Jeff Buckley, Kurt Cobain, etc.).

Usually I’ll go back and read the foreward or author’s notes after I finish a book. A couple weeks ago when I finished David Browne’s book Dream Brother I was reading through his foreward and he mentioned something about how his own father died before the book was published. The weirdest thought hit me as I read that: This author is just some guy, some normal dude like all the other normal people I interact with every day and see at the grocery store comparing prices on produce.

I’m not exactly sure why that’s what came to mind first. It was a sweet sentiment to acknowledge his father and there really was nothing weird or unusual about it. I think it was that I had just finished reading this fantastical interweaving story about two father-and-son musical figures (Tim Buckley and Jeff Buckley) that both lived untimely but profound lives that seemed other earthly. Coming from that to an image of a real life guy who has a real life father with real life problems, it was almost unsettling. Selfishly, I think its because I saw myself in David Browne – and for some reason I saw that as a bad thing.

This all probably comes back to my initial inspiration for writing: Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous. After dwelling on the film over a couple of years, I though a career as a rock journalist would be the perfect profession. Touring with bands, free music, having crazy experiences with the artists, etc. As I’ve progressed in my education and experiences, I still think its the perfect career for me but much for the chance to tell the stories of the artists rather than the thrills of it all. But still, 17-18 year old Dusty crept in as I read Browne’s forward because his life didn’t seem like what I watched in Almost Famous, it seemed boring in comparison to the Buckley’s and I didn’t want to be doomed to the same fate. I didn’t want to be boring.

After a little while I sort of came to my senses. Brown was living my dream. He had the chance to craft a definitive, beautiful, winding tale of two astounding artists. He is not a rock star, but he is the unsung hero sharing the whole story and giving the rest of the world a wider perspective of where the music came from. To me, that is the ultimate goal. Writing a piece that can captivate people and leave them with something else they didn’t have before reading it. That idea is exciting to me, not boring.

In the end, I’d be happy to end up on the Browne spectrum of things rather than the Buckley end. Being a writer doesn’t mean I sit at home, drinking tea and writing while watching The View – it means going after the stories, taking risks, and putting yourself in the middle of the action. Well at least I think that’s probably part of it. Still figuring all this out. Being graduated from college doesn’t  actually mean I know what I’m talking about – I’ve got a lot to learn still. Until then, I’ll keep hitting the books. I know I’m heading down the right path and being content with that is what I need right now.

Oh, Look Who Graduated! [“hire me!” or some other witty grad-cap phrase]

Photo courtesy of my ultra high resolution camera phone, obviously

There are a couple of ways you’ve ended up here. Maybe you’re an avid follower of my blog (ha….ha….) or perhaps you scanned my cap at the Seattle Pacific University commencement ceremony on June 9. Wasn’t that so funny, how I had a qr code on my cap? What a clever lad I am!

In my educational pursuits, I’ve learned to adapt to this crazy thing called social media thing for work and recreation. I was thinking about the cliches of students having “hire me” written on their caps as a joke, and I thought it might be an interesting commentary to do it via QR code instead. With that said….hire me.

Ohhhhh don’t worry, I don’t really expect you too. Most of all I would love your support with my writing pursuits. This doesn’t mean money (but if you want to go into that topic, we can…), I mean just genuine, good ol’ fashioned American support of your fellow human being.

You see, before I got to SPU I decided I wanted to be a music journalist, open minded to the fact that it might change over time. I had never really tried journalistic writing but I’d seen Almost Famous enough to want to try. Within my first week of school I was assigned to cover a concert for SPU’s newspaper The Falcon. It was a small show at a cafe near campus with The Lonely Forest, Brier Rose, and Grant Geertsma. After interviewing Brier Rose, reexamining my notes, writing, and seeing the article in print – I knew I was hooked.

From there I’ve worked everything from the Features editor at The Falcon, interned as a blogger at KEXP.ORG, written for several local blogs and newspapers, and right now I’m working on an article for City Arts Magazine. I couldn’t have accomplished any of this without the support of my parents (who helped pay for tuition while I explored my education and less-than-financially-prosperous career choice), friends (who have also always encouraged me in my writing), professors and anyone who has ever read anything I’ve published.

I still have a long way to go. I have a lot more to learn. If my “writing career” was a novel, all of this would probably still be in the exposition. I have high hopes for whatever happens next. I am dedicated and love what I do.

So maybe this isn’t what you were hoping for when you scanned my cap. Sorry for the nostalgic rambling and shameless self promotion. I earnestly would love your support and feedback (I crave critiques!). If you know me, thanks for the impact you’ve made on my life – whoever you are I’m sure you’ve affected me in some way. If I don’t know you, I hope to get to know you soon or at least let you get to know me through my writing (is that selfish?)

To sum it all up: Thanks!

Sincerely,

Dusty Effin Henry

Here are some of the outlets I write for as well as articles I’ve written that I’m proud of:

Ballard-News Tribune Blog

http://blog.ballardnewstribune.com/

Letters to Musicians

http://letterstomusicians.wordpress.com/

“Welcome to the Monogamy Party” – Profile for Seattle Music Insider

http://seattlemusicinsider.com/?p=5337

“Not your average local band” – Profile of The Lonely Forest for The Falcon

http://www.thefalcononline.com/article.php?id=8085

“Votolato’s country introspection fills the night at Q Café” – Profile of Rocky Votolato for Queen Anne News

http://www.queenannenews.com/main.asp?SectionID=3&SubSectionID=3&ArticleID=30724

“Music, Faith Ideas Reflected by Songs” – Exploratory piece of local artists on faith in music for The Falcon

http://www.thefalcononline.com/article.php?id=7155

The Divorce, Smoke, and Other People’s Sweat

Photo courtesy of RazingCulture

(This is an excerpt from a larger work. I had to take out some parts because they would not make sense out of context. A lot of this is based on my own experiences and friends, but a lot of it is also fictionalized. I’ll let you be the judge of what is what.)

I had never been to a local show before. I’d gone to big concerts in Seattle multiple times and every time I felt like I was ‘so cool’ and ‘down with the music scene.’ I realize now that those Good Charlotte and Sum 41 concerts did not give me the street-cred I thought I had. But hey, at fifteen years old I wasn’t doing too badly. My friend Molly had more local music “cred” than I thought possible for one human to obtain. When she invited me to go to a show with her, I felt confident that I would fit in from my vast mosh pit and crowd surfing experience at those “hardcore” pop-punk shows.

Molly is one of the most curious and intriguing people I ever met in Kitsap County. She always stood out, mostly because she was either two steps ahead of the trends or because the trends formed themselves after her liking. Her hair was black and mangled with faded bleach streaks with hints of blue on her bangs, framing her makeup free face.  Two bright silver snakebite piercings on her lips caught your eye before anything else in her appearance. She was loud and obnoxious, but not in an annoying way. Her big personality made you want to listen to what she had to say. She seemed like the kind of girl who, even in high school, had more experienced insights on life than most people have in their lifetime. And because she was a couple years older than me, it made the illusion even more believable to me.

In retrospect, I can confidently say I never had romantic feelings for Molly; even though sometimes I thought I did. I more so looked up to her than had feelings for her. Getting the invitation from Molly made me feel like I had something to offer to this Kitsap music counter-culture. For lack of better words, it made me feel cool. The main reason Molly invited me was because she heard I was into this band Mary Jane Watson. I heard them at a battle of the bands at South Kitsap High School a couple months before and thought they were the most rad band ever. I even asked the lead singer to take a picture with me, not realizing that local bands were not celebrities (however, even to this day I will freak out when I see someone from a local band walking down the street).  Earning Molly’s respect and seeing Mary Jane Watson again were more than enough reasons to get me to go to the show.

I rummaged through my closet to find the shirt that would make me seem cool and fit in. Naturally, I chose my black Blink-182 shirt with red and white font, truly hardcore. God, I was such a dork and I didn’t even know it. I pulled a pair of loose fit blue jeans from my drawer and slipped them on. I was also trying my first attempt at growing out my hair this summer. At this point my hair was nearly covering all of my ears and my bangs were reaching a little bit past my eyebrows and touched my upper eyelids. As I’ve said before, I tried so hard.

Convincing my mom and step-dad to let me go was going to be the hard part. My mother tended to overprotective and my dad tended to agree with her when it was easier for him. They’d let me go to those bigger shows in Seattle, granted my dad attended a couple to make sure my friends and I were safe (did I mention yet how cool I was?), but I had doubts that they would be comfortable with a show like this. Luckily for me, my drunken godfather Joey was staying with us for the summer. He and my mother were best friends throughout high school, the years before, and the years after.

“Hell, Paula. The kid just wants to go see a concert. We did a lot crazier shit when we were his age. But I don’t have to remind you of that,” Joey said with the heavy smell of Bud Light on his breath.

“Fine,” my mother said, mostly I think to make sure Joey wouldn’t go into details. Joey gave me a sly wink, a tell that he’d give me the details about their teenage shenanigans later.

The only catch to my mom’s agreement was that she, my dad, and Joey would drive me there and walk to the venue to make sure it was okay and make sure I met up with Molly. I agreed, because I had no choice to if I wanted to go to the show. I knew I was going to feel stupid, but it would only last a few minutes and then they’d leave and I could enjoy my few hours of feeling cool.

—-

Joey and I rode in the backseat of my mom’s maroon ‘97 Volvo while my parents sat in the front reminding me to make sure my cell phone was on, telling me to be aware of my surroundings, not to drink anything someone passes me, and so on. Joey rolled his eyes and laughed, making quick remarks about how much my mom has changed. I mostly ignored what they were all saying and looked out the window, daydreaming of what the show would be like. There would be a huge stage, flashing lights, and only the cool kids from Kitsap would be there because they were the only ones who knew about it. We would laugh and also have thoughtful discussions about the music. I’d tell them about seeing Good Charlotte at the Paramount and they’d be jealous, but impressed. Molly’s friends would think I was awesome. They’d ask me to hang out some more. I would feel like I was part of the Kitsap music scene.

My parents continued to remind me to stay safe while I was in my daydream. They meant really well. Looking back, I did feel really loved by them even when they annoyed the crap out of me. As my mom was about to remind me of another safety tip, Joey grabbed my shoulder firmly and turned to look at me in the eye. He was completely sober.

“Just make sure you have fun,” Joey said, “Don’t worry about all that safety crap. You’re a smart kid. Make some bad choices. Take some risks. You can’t live your life in a shell.”

Right on cue my mom jumped in with frustration telling me not to listen to my godfather. Joey just laughed, seeming pretty proud of himself. I quietly laughed with him. He definitely had made a lot of mistakes in his life that caused him a lot of pain. I began to think that maybe there was a middle ground between his philosophy and my mom’s. Maybe tonight, I thought, would be the night I found that way of life in between.

We pulled up to Evergreen State Park in Bremerton at about 5 p.m. It was the perfect sunny day, like those July days they have in those teen-marketed upbeat movies. Thinking back, this was probably the best venue for my parents to see as a representation of local music. The venues I would hang out at later were much more…colorful. A church located in the park was allowing the bands to host a show in their sanctuary, another great selling point for my parents. I was so excited to immerse myself in all of this cultural goodness until I remembered that my family was going to be escorting me into the show.

Meandering down the sidewalk from the parking lot to the core of the festivities, I built up the anticipation in my mind. I kept praying for my car ride daydream to become true. Joey smiled, looking down on me from his six foot two inch stature. I think he sensed my excitement better than anyone that day. I felt like I was making him proud. Then we turned a corner, and I saw it; tons of teenagers hanging out in the grass outside the church laughing and talking in the afternoon sun. This was it. My hopes were being fulfilled.

I was more than anxious to break away from my parents and get ready to have a life changing experience. Quickly I grabbed my phone from my pocket and searched for Molly’s number. After two or three rings, she picked up only to tell me she and her friends were getting some snacks at 7/11 and would be back in fifteen or so minutes.

“Is she here?” my mom asked me.

“No, not yet. She’ll be here in like fifteen minutes though,” I said, “but it’s fine. I can just wait here for her. You guys don’t have to wait.”

“That’s fine, I don’t mind waiting. I want to make sure you guys meet up,” she said.

“Really Mom, I’ll be okay. I can take care of myself,” I said, defending myself.

“No. I want to make sure you guys find each other,” she said looking skeptical at the company I was going to be keeping tonight. At that point, there was no point even arguing. She was going to wait all night if she had to.

Not so fondly do I recall waiting those fifteen minutes outside the show. I simply wanted to feel cool, and having three 30something year olds hanging around you does not really convince people that you are a cool guy when you’re fifteen. My mom suggested we all go walk by the water while we waited. I made sure I walked at least 15 paces in front of them to distance myself them physically and socially. Teenagers can really be jerks to their parents when they’re trying to be accepted by their peers, but can you really blame them? No one else’s parents were at the show making sure they found their friends. This was definitely not the Good Charlotte concert crowd.

I could hear my dad and Joey laughing at me. They must have remembered what it was like. My mom joked with them too, she actually had a great sense of humor about her, but I could tell it was also hurting her a little bit that I was distancing myself from her. I looked everywhere except behind me. There isn’t a right word in the English dictionary to describe a teenager’s embarrassment other than ‘death’ itself. This was all wrong. My chances of being accepted were getting slimmer and slimmer. It felt like everyone was looking at my family and me.  Then I heard the voice that was simultaneously a relief and distress, given my situation.

“Hey Adam!” Molly yelled as she walked across the grass, leaving her group of friends standing in their semi-circle. Her snake bites gleamed brightly in the sun and complemented her Schoolyard Heroes camouflage t-shirt with a skull on it and green raggedy Converse shoes quite nicely. My mother, who strangely adored Molly, came rushing forward to greet her.

“Oh Molly! It’s so good to see you. How are you?” my mother said enthusiastically and quite loudly. Again, I wanted to die.

“Hey Mrs. Stuart! I am doing so awesome. It’s great to see you too. How have you been?” Molly said. She was surprisingly great at talking to other people’s parents.

“I’ve been good. Just dropping off Adam here for the show,” my mother said. She kept talking, but I tried tuning it out. I hadn’t even gotten one word in to Molly. I let them carry on with their formalities because that was the only thing I could do, that and stare at the ground in embarrassment.

“It was so good seeing you guys. Adam, you ready?” Molly said, freeing me.

“Yeah, sure,” I said in monotone, trying so hard not to sound too excited or too relieved.

I could tell by the way she looked at me that my mom wanted me to hug her goodbye. I didn’t. Like I said, teenagers can really be jerks to their parents when they’re trying to be accepted by their peers. It’s funny how those tiny forgettable moments where I’m a real asshole always stick out to me.

“Okay. Have fun. Goodbye Adam.  I love you,” my mother said.

“I love you too,” I mumbled quickly and turned and walked away. I had to at least say that, I couldn’t be that much of a jerk. I could hear Joey laughing as I walked away, probably bugging my mom about leaving me with hoodlums or joking about worse stuff they used to do. When my family was out of sight, Molly patted me on the back and started laughing.

“You are so adorable,” she said. “You were so embarrassed to be seen with your parents at the show.” Molly always had a way of talking to me like I was a little kid without coming across as condescending.

“Heh, yeah. Sorry about that. My family can be a bit much,” I sheepishly replied.

“Whatever man. Hah, you are just so cute. Don’t let it bug you. I’m so excited to take you to your first real show. Ah! It’s going to be so good,” she said.

“Well actually, I’ve been to a couple shows before,” I said but could not elaborate further, thank God, as we reached her friends.  Her three friends, two girls and a guy, were just finishing laughing at some joke or tidbit of conversation as Molly and I got there. Each wore a well-weathered pair of converse (each friend with a different color), had some sort of tattoo and smoked. I got nervous. At that exact moment I realized that I had no local music credibility and that I was some private Christian school dork who liked mainstream pop punk music.  I thought myself to be a miserable, corporate brainwashed existence compared to these people.

“Hey guys. This is my friend Adam. We go to school together,” Molly said.

“Yo,” the guy in the group said, “my name’s Dan.” Dan transferred his cigarette to his left hand and reached out with his right to shake my hand. His short dreadlocks were tide up in a ponytail on the back of his head that bobbed every time he made a quick movement. His dark brown skin stood out against his ironically acid washed jeans. It was his black Vendetta Red t-shirt that stuck out to me most at the time: a red arrow with red and black font. It was like my shirt, only it was more respectable in this setting. There were some lyrics tattooed on his right bicep that I didn’t recognize at the time. Later in life I would hear the words in the first verse of  “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel and recall it back to this moment.

“I’m Daphne,” said the girl wearing a yellow, frilly blouse and torn up blue jeans. She blew her last puff of smoke to the side before shaking my hand. She was very stunning in an unconventional sort of way. Her short black hair and thick-rimmed glasses fit her narrow face perfectly. She simply had the word ‘love’ tattooed above her clavicle.

“Hey Adam, my name’s Jessica,” the other girl said. Her brown hair flowed down past her shoulders. Her blue and black plaid shirt was adorned with several handmade pins of bands I had never heard of but would come to know well later, such as Valley of the Dinosaurs and Claymore. Both her left nostril and right eyebrow had a ring in them and her left forearm bore a picture of some sort of birdcage from a Kurt Vonegut novel (though I did not know what that was at the time either). I shook each of their hands and went through all of the formalities of introducing myself. They seemed to like me, well I mean; they didn’t seem to not like me at least.

Conversation turned quickly from introductions to Schoolyard Heroes. I sincerely appreciated them not quizzing me with forced superficial small talk and just accepted me as being part of the conversation. They all talked about how excited they were to see Schoolyard Heroes’ set. Dan talked about how he saw them play the night before at El Corazon in Seattle for their CD release show.

“It was life changing,” he said before taking a slow drag from his cigarette, “I swear to God, I’m going to marry Ryann Donnelly someday. She and I are meant to be, I just know it.” He had some of the most colorful language I had ever heard delivered with an elegant ease.

“Whatever, Dan. You didn’t even know about them until I introduced you to them a couple months ago,” Molly said, chuckling.

“What the hell does that have to do with anything? Love doesn’t care how long you’ve known the person,” he said, following sarcastically with “You just, you just feel it man.”

“You’re right,” Molly said, “If I were a man or if she were a man, I’d totally want to tap that ass too.”

I laughed two guffaws loudly before abruptly stopping myself. The group looked at me. I felt like I was caught naked stealing from the cookie jar. I thought I did something wrong.

“Come on man,” Daphne said, “don’t be afraid to laugh. That was some funny shit.”

Then we all laughed. This was all going so well. I didn’t feel like I had to try too hard to be accepted. I had stereotyped these people who followed the music scene as being off put by anyone else trying to get into their friend circle, but I was experiencing the opposite. I didn’t want to build up my expectations too much though; after all, it had only been a few minutes into meeting them. Maybe they would change their minds soon.

“Hey, have you guys heard anything about the first band?” Jessica said, “Mary Jane Watson I think is their name. I haven’t heard of them.” Molly nudged me and smirked.

“Yeah, I have,” I said. Molly nudged me harder, trying to keep me honest. “I really like them. They’re actually one of my favorite local bands.” The others nodded their heads when I said this, as if it had pleased them. I tried not to smirk but it was hard not to as Molly was beaming at me like a proud parent.

Daphne mentioned to the group that she had to use the bathroom and Molly and Jessica said she would go with her. I guess even cool local music scene girls travel to the bathroom in packs too. I thought to myself how funny that was as they left. Then I realized it was just Dan and I left alone together. I was always awkward in one-on-one situations with people I didn’t know too well. We stood there awkwardly in the grass until he suggested we sit down on some rocks by the water while we wait, so we did. There were a few more moments of silence as we sat there looking at the gleaming water with the only sound being the wind through the trees and Dan’s slow inhaling of his cigarette. Then Dan turned to me with wide eyes and a huge, excited smile on his face.

“Hey man, wanna see a trick?” he said. If I had learned anything from all of the safety advice my parents gave me anytime I went somewhere by myself, it was that if someone asks you a question like this you then you better say no and walk away. But hell, I wasn’t going to be that much of a square now was I? So I told him sure.

Dan smiled menacingly at me, He held out his lit, nearly finished cigarette butt up to the sky to build a dramatic effect. Opening his mouth wide, he took the small cigarette and set it on his tongue with the lit end facing out away from his throat. He then shut his mouth and looked at me blankly. I wasn’t sure what to do. I had no idea what was going on. Dan just kept staring at me. Finally he opened his mouth to reveal that the cigarette was no point the opposite direction from how he had set it before.

“Ta da!” he said with his tongue sticking out, lacking any vowel sounds in his exclamation. All I could do was awkwardly and timidly laugh while thinking to myself that this guy is clearly insane. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and lightly smashed against the side of the rock he was sitting on. I congratulated him on a trick well done and he dramatically replied with mocking sighs of gratitude. He then changed the subject abruptly.

“You don’t smoke, do you?” Dan said, “I can tell that you don’t.”

“Yeah, I don’t smoke,” I replied while trying my best to keep my cool. I felt like I had been spotted as the phony that I was.

“That’s cool, man. Wish I’d never started myself,” he said as he lit up another white and brown cylinder that sat lazily in his mouth, “but I gotta tell ya man. It’s hard to fit in at some of these shindigs if you don’t smoke. I personally think it’s bullshit, but if you don’t smoke or are not able to provide other people with smokes, some of these assholes will look down on you.”

Dan reached into his back pocket and pulled out a half empty pack of Marlboros and a neon yellow lighter and tossed them on my lap. I picked up the box slowly and briefly examined it.

“I don’t expect you to smoke any of them, really,” he said. “But if someone asks you for some smokes, you can get their respect by giving them one of those.”  At the time, I didn’t even think to question everything he was saying. I now realize that it was, as Dan said, mostly bullshit. He was just busting my chops. There was not some secret code with Kitsap music scene kids that you either had to smoke or be able to provide smokes. But I was young and oblivious, so I bought it. He pulled out another pack from his pocket and lit up another cigarette. I swear this guy had a part time job working as a chimney.

—-

After we had reunited with the girls, it was time to actually step inside the venue. Mary Jane Watson was going to be playing first. I tried to hide my giddy excitement from the others. I tried to hide the fact that not only was I excited to see Mary Jane Watson, but that I was also excited to be standing there with this group.

The room looked more like a glorified basement than anything else, which is what was most appealing about it. The floors were cement and the lighting was dim, except for the lights beaming down on the stage. The brown walls mirrored the brown wooden exterior we saw before walking in. The ceiling seemed low, but I think I could have only barely touched it if I jumped with my arm fully extended. We stood in the back. I really wanted to be in the very front but there was already a crowd there and I didn’t want to be the dork who drug Molly and her friends the front, or even worse be the one who goes up to the front all by himself. Just even a year later I wouldn’t really care and just go up front. You should always try and get a good spot for your favorite band. Always.

“Yeah, maybe I’ll try and start a mosh or something,” I said in a forced attempt at being casual to Molly. “Or crowd surf or something.”

Molly laughed her boisterous laugh after hearing this. Then she looked at my straight face and turned her guffaws into a sincere smile. She placed her hand on my shoulders and looked me in the eye.

“They’re really not that kind of band, Adam,” she said. “Oh you are just too cute. I am way too excited for you.”

The band got on to the stage to play. I admired the lead singer’s wood finished electric guitar and vibrato in his nasally, yet intriguing, voice. Guys in bands always had that certain vibe that made guys who weren’t in bands respect them. It is really hard to pinpoint what it is. They are just so easy to idolize. It’s hard to say what drew me to Mary Jane Watson specifically of all of the other Kitsap bands out there. They were the first one I fell in love with. They weren’t even the most successful or widely known. But they were based out of Port Orchard. It felt like it was the first great thing I had seen come out of that town, and it gave me hope. They were also my first real introduction to any sort of indie rock. I had been indoctrinating myself with “mainstream alternative rock” on 107.7 The End and now I was hearing something just slightly different, but it had a certain charm. Their lyrics were simple and the guitar riffs were catchy, not clunky.

I had memorized all of the songs they had up on their Myspace page. I downloaded them and listened to them regularly. So when they played “Farther Away” and “You’ll Never Know” I bobbed my head and mouthed the words to myself. Molly would later tell me I had the widest smile on the face during their entire set. She would call it adorable. I called it embarrassing.

Daphne and Jessica watched blankly and barely moved during the set. This made me think they weren’t enjoying themselves. After experiencing more shows later in life, I realized it was common for the hip kids to simply stand and appear emotionless. Dan walked out halfway through the second song. I wasn’t sure if it was because he didn’t like the band or if he needed another cigarette. Molly tapped her feet and swayed back and forth. I’m not sure if it was because she was enjoying the music or she didn’t want me to look weird. Either way, I was still thankful for it.

They only played for fifteen or twenty minutes. But afterward, I was so content. They threw out some copies of their demo into the crowd at the end of their set, but the discs didn’t make it past the first couple of rows. I regretted so much not being able to get one of the demos. But I rationalized with myself that it was probably the same songs I downloaded off of their Myspace. The four of us walked out at the end of the set and met up with Dan. He was leaned up against the outside wall of building smoking another cigarette. I swear his lungs must have been a tar pit.

They all didn’t have much of an interest in any of the bands until The Divorce was playing, but that wouldn’t be for another hour. We sat in a circle in the grass outside. The sun was still out and we could faintly hear Elite Stranger sound checking inside the venue. For a few minutes we didn’t really say anything to each other. I leaned back and kept myself up with my hands on the ground behind me. I quietly enjoyed the feeling of warmth on my skin from the sun and tried to ignore the sickness in my stomach from all of Dan’s smoke. He passed the cigarette to Daphne who took a puff and then handed it over to Jessica, who took and savored several drags and let the smoke waft through her brown hair.

“You wanna try, Adam?” Jessica said to me, holding out the cigarette toward me. I struggled to figure out what I should do. I really didn’t want to try it, but I more so didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of the whole group. Telling Dan alone that I didn’t smoke was one thing…then I remembered.

“No thanks,” I said, “I have my own.” I pulled the half used pack of Marlboro’s Dan gave me earlier and showed them to Jessica and the group. I slyly glanced over at Dan and saw he was looking off into the distance, smiling slightly.

“Very cool,” Jessica said. Daphne also nodded in approval. Molly simply rolled her eyes. She obviously knew they weren’t mine. She probably made the connection that Dan gave them to me. I felt like I was disappointing her somehow. Dan reached across the circle and took his cigarette back to finish it off.

When conversation finally picked up, I still didn’t say very much. It always has taken me awhile of knowing a group of people before I could be completely myself around them. They talked a lot about bands and shows they went to in Seattle. I did not recognize any of the names they were mentioning. More and more I was glad that I did not bring up the Good Charlotte concert to them. They picked their words so deliberately and spoke so passionately about local music. It was hard for me to keep up, but it was riveting.

“God, Kane Hodder. I just don’t know,” Dan said, “I mean, I like them. But do you really think they have mainstream appeal? Sure, they have some catchy parts in their songs but over all they are just too aggressive to be accepted by a national audience.”

“Yeah well what about Vendetta Red? They’re grouped together with Kane Hodder and they seem to be doing pretty well.” Daphne said as she ran her fingers through her short black hair. “ ‘Shatterday’ got a lot of notice.”

“Come on Daphne. You really think Kane Hodder and VR are that similar?” Dan said laughing, “Kane Hodder has some straight-up devil screaming in it. I love Vendetta Red to death, but they are not nearly as vicious. But I will consent that they are better.”

“You are just so blinded by your bias,” Jessica chimed in, pointing at Dan’s Vendetta Red shirt.

“Yeah well Dan’s never really been one to hide his bias,” Molly said, “and he’s just a world class jackass.” She playfully punched his arm. I watched as he swore and tried to refute her, but paid attention mostly to how he seemed ecstatic that she would pay that much attention to him. I just smiled and laughed at the debate that was going on. I really had no idea what they were talking about which meant I really had nothing to add to the conversation. Molly leaned over to me, got close to my ear and whispered to me.

“Hey,” she said, “I’m really glad you’re here. I’m sorry if you feel left out at all. But I’m sure that someday you’re going to know more about this than all of us.”

“I really doubt that,” I whispered back. “I’m glad just to be here. I’m excited to see the rest of the bands.”

“I think you will. Just give it time.”

“Hey Molly?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you think we can get up close for Schoolyard Heroes? I know I haven’t listened to them a lot, but I think it’d be cool to be that close to such a big local band.”

She smiled again, snakebites gripping to her lower lips.

“Of course we’ll be up front. I always go up front for my favorite bands,” she said.

—-

We gathered back inside, along with most everyone else, to get ready and see The Divorce. I hadn’t heard much about them before the show. I did most of my research about Schoolyard Heroes before going to the show and not so much about the other bands. I just assumed they were some dark, looming, hardcore band or something. Oh what I get for assuming things.

Dan stood next to me on my right side, grabbed my shoulder firmly with his hand and made me look him in the eye.

“This band is the band that will make you love local music,” he said. “If they don’t, then maybe you’re just in the wrong scene. These guys are brilliant.”

I nodded slowly. Suddenly I felt there was a bunch of pressure on me and all I was doing was watching some local band perform in a church basement. I stared intently at the stage and observed the band as they got ready to perform. What struck me most was that the lead singer was wearing a sweater vest over a dress shirt and tie. That didn’t seem very death metal to me.

“Don’t let Dan try and intimidate you,” Molly said, “But seriously. These guys are the greatest. Oh my God, I’m so goddamn excited.”

I was beginning to get anxious. I was worried they were going to be building this band only up and then I might not like them and be disappointed. But if they same people who were stoic for Mary Jane Watson were now animated and vocal for this group, I thought there must have been something redeemable about The Divorce.

As the synthesizer came through the speakers, I was caught off guard. Then the bright and jangling electric guitar came in, sounding incredibly optimistic. Then the crooning vocals. Everything was so catchy. It was everything I was not prepared to hear. It was good. It was excellent. I was totally enamored. When he got to the chorus, everyone in the crowd was jumping up and down and pumping their fists in the air to the anthem. The lyrics wrapped themselves around my mind and I couldn’t put them away.

“We can’t say no, because they answer is yes.

And we don’t know the question yet.

We’ll never learn our lesson with

Without a little suspension of

Of our disbelief”

Later I would find out the song was called “Yes.” Everything about it seemed so perfect for where I was. I had to say yes to these opportunities that I was getting today. Even if I didn’t know what I was saying yes to, I needed to just go for it. In that moment, those lyrics seemed more inspiring than any scripture or philosophy I had ever heard or read in my life. I couldn’t help but to dance along with everyone. Of course Molly was dancing, and so were her friends. Molly grabbed me by the arm and brought me with her into the crowd to get closer to the stage.

Smells of sweat and fading deodorant filled my nostrils, but in a strange way that almost made the moment even better. Molly pulled me through the small sea of elbows and shoulder till we were just a couple people away from the front of the stage. I danced my honest, dweeby, white-boy dance with all my heart. I didn’t care about whether or not what I was doing was embarrassing. I was just enjoying myself and enjoying this music.

The song finally had to come to an end and we all cheered loudly. There’s such a sense of community in a crowd of people hearing a band they all love. Molly looked back at me, grinning wide with her face glowing red with exhaustion. I didn’t have to say anything to let her know I was happy. I just smiled back and wiped the sweat off of my forehead. The band went on to play some of their more raucous songs, playing “The Man Moan” next. I was hooked in. I couldn’t be unplugged from the moment. I didn’t even feel like a loser head banging. I was so proud of having my some-what longer hair in that moment as strangers next to me said “yeah!” and “alright!” when they saw me. It was a badge of honor.

The band started up playing “Call the Police” and Molly freaked out.

“Yes! This is my favorite song,” she yelled. “Hell yeah.” She shook her hair back and forth every time the drums got into a good groove and yelled the lyrics with no shame, screaming, “I’d rather be alone tonight, already slept through the daylight.” Somewhere amongst the chaos she and I got separated in the small crowd and I couldn’t spot her snakebites or blue bangs in the crowd. But it was fine; I knew she was having fun.

As the bass line thumped, I stood there in amazement of the lead singer’s vampire like demeanor. I made sure to etch this moment in my mind and kept it as a constant point of judging the rest of local music I experienced from then on. I looked to my left and watched as even Dan moved his lanky body to the alternative anthem. Seeing even the coolest of people let loose in this moment reminded me that it was okay to love music in your own way.

—–

Soaked in other people’s sweat, we all went back outside and sat back on the grass. The same kids who had a mouthful to say about everything in the local scene were all out of breath saying the same thing: “That was great.” I smiled and nodded my head and looked up at the sky. It felt like one of those cheesy yet beautiful moments from one of those 90s Generation X coming of age films. I felt alive. I wanted to make music. I wanted to do this everyday. For the first time in my life, I felt cool. There was a whole different world right where I was living that I never ventured into.

“Better than that Blink 182 show, aye Adam?” Molly whispered to me, grinning wide bringing her snakebites closer and closer to her cheekbones.

“Yeah,” I whispered back, “It really was.”

A Lone Star State

It’s 2 a.m. and my grandpa and I are standing at a dead end, looking out at the Gulf of Mexico. We have to get up at 5:30 a.m., but I don’t want to ruin this moment that I know my grandpa has orchestrated to be “profound.” He got so excited when we arrived in Galveston that he insisted on giving me a night drive tour of the town where he grew up. I feel like I could fall asleep right where I stand.  The wind feels light but sounds harsh as it sweeps over the water.

“I always was a wayward son,” my grandpa tells me. He has a habit of trying to force moments to be emotional and deep, like scenes from a movie, but I know he’s being sincere. He tells me that he’s alone here, his younger brother and parents have passed away, and confides in me that he wished he’d never left. That’s a lot to take in for someone whose sheer existence is due to my grandpa leaving Texas and moving to the Pacific Northwest. He looks down at some rocks by the water and tells me about when he and his brother J.L. would come there and go fishing. He recreates the dialogue out loud.

“Did you bring the fishing poles, J.L.”

“No, Butch. I forgot them at home.”

“That’s okay, I brought my net.”

One thing I can say about my grandpa, he’s one of the best storytellers I’ve ever met. He puts his whole body into the story. Arms sweeping in the air, motioning to imaginary people. Distinct voices and speech patterns for every character. Loud. Very loud. A lot of the time I doubt how true his stories are, but he tells them so well that I don’t want to interrupt.  

I’ve never been to the south, let alone Texas. After my grandpa’s cousin Johanna died, they decided it was time to have a proper family reunion that wasn’t at a funeral or a wedding. Before we left, my grandpa tried to give me some warnings and advice. I’m not sure if he was concerned for my safety or his pride. Maybe both. But I got a kick out of it either way.

“Whatever you do, don’t mention you voted for Obama,” he said. “They will literally strangle you.” I laughed, but he assured me he was serious. My grandpa hates my political stance. So much so that he’s never really asked me what my political stance is. He found out I voted for Obama from my mother one day (even though I swore her to secrecy not tell him) and since then he’s been trying to reeducate me with conservative values.

Texas smells like oil. It’s not an overwhelming smell, you forget it’s there after a while, but there is always that faint stench of refined petroleum in the air, at least in Houston. It was one of the first things my grandpa pointed out to me when get off the plane. We got into our rental car and headed off toward Galveston. I turn on the radio and a rap album called “Stuntin’ for a Stunna” starts playing. I eject it from the player and my grandpa tells me to throw it out the window like a Frisbee. He’s getting more Texan than usual by the second.

This brings us to now. 2 a.m. at the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually my grandpa realizes I’m tired and that we’re getting up in just a few hours to go fishing, so we head to the hotel.

The FM radio alarm clock blares at 5:30 in the morning. I force myself not to make any complaint about how early it is or how tired I am. Yawns, however, are inevitable. We get packed up and head out to the car. The sky looks the same as it did at the Gulf. Dark. We drive over the Galveston Causeway and meet up with my grandpa’s cousin A.D., the patriarch of the family, and his son David.

David is one of the specific family members my grandpa told me to not tell about my Obama-voting-habit. We’d be staying with David for the rest of the trip, so I was told to be polite and let him say whatever he wanted (even my grandpa admitted that David can be hardheaded and opinionated). We’re a few minutes late, so introductions are quick. They’re eager to get on the boat. A.D. mentions that the last time he saw me I was about “this tall” – stretching his arm to about half off his height. He said the same thing when I saw him last year.

We get on David’s white, well-kept but well-worn fishing boat and ride out toward the peninsula. Everything looks black. We travel at 35 miles per hour while they look out to make sure we don’t hit an island or a reef. I worry. They seem over confident for something they tell me is so dangerous. The political talk starts early. Who is awake enough to be mad at the government at six in the morning? I’m barely conscious enough to care. I hope I’m not this bitter when I’m middle-aged or senior-aged or any-age. They have something to say about everything and how bad it is. They are so upset about how things are going. Ranting and building on top of each other’s rants. Then every once and a while they’ll stop and say “man, look at that sky; it’s beautiful.” I’m not saying it’s not a wonderful view, it’s amazing to see Venus rise with the sun against the silhouette of a lighthouse, but I don’t understand how they can go from hating the world to being enthralled with the beauty of nature the next moment.

The day of fishing is pretty uneventful, but long. Early on, I managed to hook a large fish. It’s the biggest bite anyone gets all day. Being very inexperienced with fishing, I had all three of them yelling at me on what I should do. David tries to help me by adjusting the drag. He adjusts it too tight. Five or six minutes of fighting my Moby Dick are ended by the snapping of my line. I’m a little disappointed, sure, but it seems like my family is taking it way worse than I am. For the rest of the trip, most of the conversation centers on how great it would have been if I had caught that fish. They speculate it was probably fifteen to twenty pounds. They talk about how great it would have been if I got a picture taken with it to show my friends back home and brag about it. Personally, I’m just proud of myself for even hooking a fish like that and fighting with it for that long. But the conversation did turn from time to time. David asks me what I’m studying. I say journalism. Instantly my grandpa chimes in, “he’s going to be the next Rush Limbaugh.” David says “that’d be good.” This is not true. David then asks me if I’m a conservative. My grandpa is quick to respond “No, he’s a liberal.” This is not true. They make some crack about using me if they run out of bait. We go back to fishing.

I find that other than my big hook early in the day, I’m not a good fisherman. But I was also very inexperienced. As I struggled doing a proper cast over and over again, my grandpa got annoyed. He would interrupt and try and move in, saying, “Damnit, just let me do it.” My grandpa can be very impatient. I know he’s proud of me in what I do, but when it comes to teaching he gets a bit flustered and embarrassed when I can’t do it right. A.D. stops him almost every time.

“He’s gotta learn, Butch,” A.D. says. My grandpa huffs and goes back to his pole. A.D. pulls me to the side and slowly goes over with me what I’m doing wrong. Everyone jokes about how he is “the godfather” of the family, a call back to our Sicilian heritage. Though I’ve heard stories about how he can be short tempered and stubborn too, today he is being the most patient and understanding with me. In that moment I really appreciated that and I’m thankful that of all the cousins he is the “patriarch.”

After eight hours, we head back. My grandpa is very rushed. He keeps talking about how pressed for time we are. He wants to give me as much family history as possible. This becomes the focus for the next couple days. Visiting the homes of people I never knew (or barely knew) and seeing them now housing people my grandpa doesn’t even know. We watch them all from the comfort of our air-conditioned sedan. It must be weird to look at the house you grew up and know that you couldn’t walk in and go to your room without the permission of a stranger.

A nightly ritual becomes sitting either on David’s porch or living room and discussing politics. Well, more so them discussing politics and me being quite, biting my tongue; my grandpa told me before to let David say what he wants in his house. I can honestly say, I have never been more offended in my life. I’m pretty sure that most of what I heard was them trying to outdo one another with “how conservative they are,” but there had to be some honesty in what they said. Racism, sexism and prejudice still have a place in Texas and it makes me sick. I agree with nothing they say. I don’t even want to repeat what I heard. It’s hard when you love your family so much but you hate the views and most of the values they are portraying.

As they kept lecturing me about my youth and views, I finally get the courage to correct my grandpa and tell them I’m not liberal, but a moderate. They seem to respect that, at least more than being a “liberal.” David asks me a question about homosexuality, I respond and my grandpa tries to quickly defend my culture and upbringing but to both of our surprise my answer seems to get approval. It makes me wonder if I should chime in more. Maybe if I spoke out and called them out on their views then they could maybe change. But I don’t speak up. The risk is too high and I am not brave enough. In between their hateful comments they mention how beautiful the sky is or how good this certain brand of ice cream is. Am I the only person confused by this?

We visit three cemeteries. Two of the cemeteries are for my grandpa’s grandparents. The third hosted his mom, dad, and brother. We parked our car on the side of the road and I followed my grandpa as he walked straight to his family’s plot, never doubting a step. A large square stone stands prominent above the rest with the name SIMMONS etched boldly at the top. On the back is the name of my great-Uncle J.L. On the front are each of his parents’ names and an empty spot next to them. This is where my grandpa is going to be buried someday. A plot with no name, waiting for him. Someday I’ll come here and see my grandpa’s name etched on this stone. I feel sick. How must he feel? He starts talking to the graves.

“Mom, Dad. This is my grandson Dusty.”

“Wake up, J.L.! Dusty’s here!”

I feel uncomfortable, but I know it must be cathartic for him. I see his eyes tear up. He’s all alone. In a sense, he’s become an orphan. My grandpa is such a proud and boisterous man that I’ve never really thought of him as being sad. The only times I’ve seen him cry is when we had to put down our family dog, Bubba, when I was 10 years old and when my Uncle J.L. died. Uncle J.L. was a good man. He always looked up to my grandpa, even though my grandpa has a habit of acting unimpressed with anything unless it directly appeals to his interests. We get back in the car and my grandpa asks me to put in his U.S. Navy Bluegrass Band cd. He says it always raises his spirits.

The reunion itself is rather uneventful. I mostly wander silently. I never know what to do around large groups of people I don’t know. Some highlights include an amazing Italian buffet and a relative asking me if I’ve ever been to a donkey show. Mostly it’s just another reminder that I don’t have anything in common with the people down here. In my family, I am an outsider. They talk, think, act, walk, and probably even breathe differently than me.

I fill in the missing pieces of our portion of the giant family tree while my grandpa mingles with the relatives. I silently curse my introverted demeanor. I know he expects me to be able to just start up a conversation with anyone because, “hell,” he would say, “they’re all your family!” These people are strangers to me. When I did talk to people, there wasn’t much to say.

I join my grandpa in a conversation with his cousins about last names. We all are descendants from Domenic Mancuso and his wife whom no one can seem to remember her name. My grandpa’s last name is Simmons. He and his brothers only had daughters, making him the last in his Simmons line. He gives me crap for carrying my grandmother’s last name – a product of him never officially marrying her and my biological father not being present in my life. If he had married my grandma or “adopted” my mom then I would be a Simmons too. They all laugh it off as I become the brunt of the joke. Suddenly I feel much more pride in my “Henry” name.

The reunion begins to dwindle and only a few people are left before my grandpa and I leave. I hear him mention to a cousin that he’ll probably think about these moments on the flight home and cry. I’m still unsure what to think about any of this and end up more confused about my heritage than before I got to Texas.

As our flight begins to take off, I think about how alone I am in this part of my family. I think about how alone my grandpa is. I think of how we have this one similarity though I have very little in common with him anymore. But then I look out the window. Orange and blue clashing with the clouds. And in this moment, all I can think of is “man, look at that sky.”