Monday, September 14, 2009

Can Anyone Tell Me Where The Time's Gone?

Before I knew it, the weekend was over. My birthday, celebrated in the evening with a party that I had secretly hoped my wife wouldn't throw, was on Friday. I didn't tell her that I wished not to celebrate it, partially because when I say things like that she begins to look at me with some sort of vague, grave concern, as if not wishing to celebrate one's birthday is a clear sign that one is anything but alright, but mostly because she seemed too eager to do something for me, to show me some high degree of consideration and affection, for me to tell her that she had better not. What I told myself, at least, was that I had too much deference to her desire to be a good wife to tell her that I would rather be left alone. I had a bathroom to repair, after all, and there wasn't much hope of getting that done with a party happening on Friday, since we were already engaged for another on Saturday, and then the softball tournament on Sunday. No, I would never finish the bathroom with a party. Besides, it's only my birthday. There's nothing terribly special about birthdays, least of all my own. Birthdays can easily be forgotten, and in my family, they often are. I have no problem with this, nor have I since I turned twelve, which was, for the record, thirteen years ago. If I received no phone calls, no emails, no visits, and no cards, and if the day began, proceeded, and ended with the same utter lack of ceremony as every other day, I should have had no cause for complaint. But then my mother called, and said that my brother was going to be in town from New Orleans, and wouldn't it be nice to have a brunch on Sunday for my birthday to get the whole family together, et cetera, et cetera, and in spite of myself I assented. As soon as I hung up the phone, I thought of calling her back and asking that it not be a birthday party per se, with cake and hand-made cards from all of my nieces and nephews, and instead it could just be a chance to have brunch together as a family, and see Neil, whom we haven't seen since my wedding last summer, but I didn't. When I say things like that she begins to look at me with some sort of vague, grave concern, as if not wishing to celebrate one's birthday is a clear sign that one is anything but alright. A birthday party is nothing less and nothing more than a large group of people going out of their way to be kind to me, and I can't stand being fussed over. Besides, there's the bathroom to think of...

Having aired the secret of my humbuggery to whomsoever cares to read it, I can now tell you how glad I am now to have been so utterly disappointed. As I write this, The Bathroom is still a shambles. The base of the wall around the tub has been torn out, and the tub itself is full of debris. There is a thin layer of plaster dust on everything, which would have been a thick layer of dust had I not gone over every surface with a broom and a wet cloth, in a bid to keep my wife from killing me, and I won't know until I get home tonight whether or not it has worked. I covered up the project during Friday night's party simply by closing the shower curtain, only opening it once to solicit advice on the enterprise from my almost sickeningly competent sister, who was in attendance. (Naturally, she had some to offer.) The party was delightful. It featured, in different rooms, simultaneous games of Flip Cup and Settlers of Catan. I often don't remember that I have a lot of friends, until a group of them happens to all be at my home at the same time. It's startling, really, that I know so many truly engaging and interesting people, and that they have nothing better to do on a Friday night than to visit me, though to be fair, they may have come because Lindsey is such a wonderful hostess. I experienced a kind of melancholy joy to think that the time in my life for such parties is fading; mingled among the twenty-somethings still mostly indistinguishable from the friends of my teenaged years was a conspicuous number of infants. Multiple family members called to wish me well. You'd think I'd just won an election, or at least that I had, in some way, suddenly become monumentally successful. It was embarrassing, really.

Saturday night's party was a classier affair, a dinner party hosted by Laura, at which my brother Collin recited from memory all 2,684 lines of G.K. Chesterton's epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse. I knew that Collin had memorized the thing a while back, that it was written by Chesterton, and that it was long, but that was pretty much all I knew. I really didn't know what to expect when the invitation came in the mail. I accepted immediately, of course; if only for the people involved, the evening promised to be engaging. Besides, my brother had put forth the effort to memorize the ballad; it seemed the least I could do to listen to it. Lindsey and I went to the Saturday evening mass, and arrived at the party just as Collin was giving his audience a brief introduction to the poem. The living room of the house was arranged like a small theatre, with four or five tight rows of chairs facing Collin, standing in front of the hearth. Lindsey and I looked apologetically at the dozen or so faces which inevitably met ours as we ducked into the only two empty chairs in the room, front and center. I quickly noticed that I was shamefully under-dressed. After a dedicatory preamble addressed to the author's wife, itself taking some three minutes or so, Collin began the poem in earnest. The invitation had advertised a recitation, a claim which I suppose was supported by the facts, technically speaking, but which I'm afraid I must maintain is somehow (I'm not quite sure how) fundamentally untrue. Collin didn't recite a poem about some ancient battle between Britons and Vikings; he conjured up the opposing armies out of thin air and sent them once again to decide the fate of Christendom at the points of a thousand spears, having transformed the small room in which we sat into a misty plain on a distant isle, rising out of endless seas on a far younger earth. I stared at the floor, entranced, for some three or four hours (I don't know how long), as if watching the contest unfold. Only if I looked up and saw the familiar features of my brother standing at the familiar hearth was the spell broken, until I once again shut my eyes, or cast them back to the floor. I can say little about the experience now, save that it is exactly how epic poems were meant to be experienced. It was great.

Sunday we awoke and trekked (by which I mean we took our car) out to the Ancestral Manse for the birthday brunch. Having already unnecessarily and thoroughly celebrated my birthday on Friday (see above), the brunch felt like overkill, but I suppose that most of the principal participants were different for the two parties. Neil didn't show up until fairly late in the party, so I didn't actually get to see much of him, but the food was good and the company was good, and I did get the requisite handful of cute hand-made cards from toddlers. (Though my godfather informed me that one of my cards was actually a copy of one he'd received from one of his grandchildren on his own birthday, and not, as I had thought, an original.) Following brunch, and a startlingly short stop off at home, we headed out to Saline for The Softball Tournament To End All Softball Tournaments Until Next Year's Softball Tournament. It was, without a doubt, the best softball tournament in which I've participated since last year's softball tournament. Our team didn't win, but I got to play multiple infield positions instead of my usual Right Field (two facts which I choose to believe are unrelated to one another), and it was a good time all-around. After the games a bunch of us went to nurse our wounds (or something) at the local T.G.I. Ruby Chilibee's, and Neil stopped out to join us, so I got more time to hang out with him, before finally heading home to a soft bed and a half-demolished bathroom.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A Morning (With Apologies to Willa Cather)

For several weeks after my sleigh-ride, we heard nothing from the Shimerdas. My sore throat kept me indoors, and grandmother had a cold which made the housework heavy for her. BING! Good morning sir, how are you today? A regular coffee, yessir. Our mildest roast? That'd be the Peruvian, right over here. I think you'll like it. Oh, yeah. I have to be here at six thirty to have the place ready to open. No, I don't mind it too much. Yeah, thanks for coming in. Have a great day. BING! "All but the crazy boy," Jake put in. "He never wears the coat. Krajiek says he's turrible strong and can stand anything..." BING! Hi there! What can I get you? Medium Spanish, coming right up. Two percent milk alright? Yeah, good game. I was encouraged by what I saw, though to be honest with you I'm still not sure about the quarterback situation. Yeah, that was nice to see. Yeah, that's a load of hooey, if you ask me, not that you did. It's nothing that every other college hasn't been doing. Exactly, yeah. Hey, thanks. Have a good one! BING! The old man was sitting on a stump behind the stove, crouching over as if he were trying to hide from us. Yulka was on the floor at his feet, her kitten in her lap. She peeped out at me and smiled, but, glancing up at her mother, hid again. It's quiet. Get up. Change the CD. Nina Simone. "This song is called Mississippi goddamn, and I mean every word of it," she says, seemingly exuberant in her ability to express her anger. The live recording is some weird mix of raw and virtuosic, like a group of expert musicians who've never played together before. They probably had, though. I have to remind myself that the music is happening in the past, well before my birth, I guess, even if I'm experiencing it for the first time now. Recorded music is magic. It's alchemy and necromancy, art and technology. It's wonderful. Damn, it's slow today. Grandmother went on talking in her polite Virginia way, not admitting their stark need or her own remissness, until Jake arrived with the hamper, as if in direct answer to Mrs. Shimerda's reproaches. Then the poor woman broke down. She dropped on the floor beside her crazy son, hid her face on her knees, and sat crying bitterly. BING! Good morning! How's it going today? Having the usual? Whoa, mixing it up today! Large mocha, coming right up. You want whipped cream on that? Righto. What's that? Sorry, this thing is loud. Oh, yeah. Good game. I'm still holding my breath for the Notre Dame game, though. Yeah. Here you are, one large mocha. Thanks for coming in, take it easy! BING! Grandmother drew back. "You mean they sleep in there--your girls?" He bowed his head. Tony slipped under his arm. "It is very cold on the floor, and this is warm like the badger hole. I like for sleep there," she insisted eagerly. BING! Hi, how are you today? Just a regular coffee? We can do that. It's right over here, I'd recommend the house coffee. It's a dark Italian roast, I think you'll like it. Thanks, have a good one! BING! By the time they paid Krajiek for the land, and bought his horses and oxen and some old farm machinery, they had very little money left. He wished grandmother to know, however, that he still had some money. Get up. Re-brew the house, wipe the counter, rearrange the muffins. Running low on medium cups on top of the machine, should get those... BING! Hi there! How are you today? All the way home grandmother and Jake talked about how easily good Christian people could forget they were their brothers' keepers.