Fourteen scattered memories, in no particular order, written at whim on the occasion of my birthday on the fourteenth of September.
1. Every summer, on their way down to or up from Texas, Grandma Helen and Grandpa Cliff stayed with us in Madison for a few days. Knowing they’d be there when I got home from school added an extra buzz to the day they arrived. I’d run the four blocks from school, which suddenly in my anticipation seemed so much longer than usual. Grandma would have Bugle chips and bags of cookies and homemade mounds bars. Mornings were different when they stayed with us because of the coffee; it was usually rare because only Dad drank it, but when Cliff and Helen were visiting it was brewed every morning and accompanied Cliff’s newspaper and crossword.
2. We vacationed in Florida one winter after Grandma LaVonne died. It was, as far as I can recall, my first Christmas without snow, without cold, and without everything that constituted the Christmas season. Except for It’s a Wonderful Life. Mom and dad insisted we still watch it on Christmas Eve as usual, because we had to. Dad even called the hotel to make sure they had a VCR.
3. Summer of 2012 I was in grad school and worked as a graduate assistant in residence life. One weekend an epic power outage left us campus-dwelling staff, including the student workers, without electricity or air conditioning. I and the other hall directors used our iPhone group chat to share updates, coordinate actions, and vent against ComEd and the school administration. Some of us flocked to the packed public library to charge our devices and await the impending darkness. For dinner that first night I heated a can of soup by rigging a stove grill above a candle. The next day, still unsure when the power would be restored, I showered in one of residence hall’s communal bathrooms that still had power, and prepared for another stuffy night. The power returned at 9pm.
4. My roommate freshman year had a summer job that got him up very early, so most mornings when I woke up around 7 a.m., he’d already be fully dressed, lying on his fully made bed and watching TV. Sometimes it was the Strongman competition or Saved By the Bell, but usually it was Dawson’s Creek. Soon enough that theme song became my alarm clock.
5. At summer camp we had 24 hours off between Saturday afternoon—after the kids left and we cleaned everything up—and Sunday afternoon when the new group arrived. One Saturday I drove all the way across Madison with a fellow camp counselor to see the movie Once at Westgate Cinema. We were so enamored with it that when we returned to camp I tickled out “Falling Slowly” on the piano and we sang the duet.
6. Along with Westgate Cinema, in high school I frequented the old Hilldale Theatre on Midvale to see the smaller, independent films Marcus Cinema didn’t show. Going to a showing of Brick with some friends, I didn’t realize when I walked up to the ticket counter that my box of Sour Patch Kids was still in my hand rather than stashed away in my pocket. “You can’t bring those in,” the guy said. I tried to convince him otherwise, but he wasn’t having it. So I grumpily returned to my car, put the box in the glove department, and texted my on-the-way friends to grab it from my car when they arrived and sneak it in for me. Mission accomplished, and Brick blew our minds.
7. One night at camp the middle-schoolers decided they want to sleep outside. They started bringing their bunk mattresses out but then Rich, a camp supervisor, said no, if they were going to sleep outside they had to own it and not use mattresses, only their sleeping bags and a pillow. So they did, and another counselor and I stayed out with them. As they settled in I ruminated aloud on the beautiful starry sky above us, about how vast and inscrutable the universe seemed. They’d quieted and begun to doze when Rich, in a typical bout of wild whimsy, came screaming by our quiet flock of preteens in the camp’s golf cart, honking and flashing his lights, just cuz. It took a lot longer to get the boys to sleep again—which we pointed out to Rich repeatedly the next day—but sleep they eventually did. I awoke with the early summer dawn and, with the other counselor standing guard over the sleepers, walked to the camp’s tranquil lakeshore to watch the sun rise through the distant treeline.
8. Senior year of high school my band played a gig at my high school. I was working that evening at my Copps cashier job and realized only once I got to work that I was scheduled to work past the time the gig was supposed to start. I panicked, but realized fate was on my side: the nice manager was working that night. I asked if I could cut out early, and she said we’d have to see how busy it was later. The time came and it wasn’t slow, but she said I could go. As I dashed out of the store I saw her bagging the groceries at her own station and realized she’d be short-staffed the rest of the night but still let me go. My feelings of gratitude quickly dissolved into a vat of anxiety as I hopped into my Toyota Corolla and gunned the drive to my high school, which was luckily short and not monitored by police. I bolted inside and saw my bandmates standing on stage waiting to play, their instruments in hand and my drum kit waiting for me. Out of breath I picked up my sticks, slid onto my throne, and clicked off our first song.
9. After I returned from Colombia I was a month away from zeroing out my checking and savings accounts when I got a call from the Butera grocery store across the street offering me a cashier job. I said yes because I had to. It wasn’t bad except for it being a cashier job. But four and a half years after getting that lucky break from Copps I got another one from Butera: on February 6, 2011, I was scheduled from 12 to 5pm, instead of the usual 12 to 7pm. This was important because on February 6, 2011, the Packers were playing in Super Bowl XLV at 5:30pm. I was able to dash home, change into my yellow Donald Driver jersey, and get a ride from friends to the Super Bowl party where I’d get to witness for the second time the Packers bring the Lombardi home.
10. I was angry about something—probably my parents, as is common for middle-schoolers. I was also in a yo-yo phase, so I was holding the end of an unwound yo-yo when in my anger I slammed the door to my room and impulsively decided to use the object in my hand as an outlet for my adolescent rage. My idea was to whip it over my head and down onto my bed like a sledgehammer, but at the vertex of its arc the yo-yo crashed into one of the opaque glass lightbulb shades on the overhead fan. The bulb remained intact, but to this day it’s missing its cover. Deciding that whatever animus existed between my parents and me would be exacerbated by this, I never told them what had happened.
11. One night at Copps grocery store, I was working the register when a little before 9pm a classmate from high school bolted through the automatic sliding doors. In Wisconsin liquor sales end at 9—the register wouldn’t even allow you to scan liquor of any kind once the clock struck 9—so it was common to have a small rush around this time. My classmate hustled past me and with a smile said, “I’m gonna get liquor, OK?” Thinking I misheard him, I casually nodded as he disappeared behind the corner. He quickly reemerged at my register with a 24-pack of whatever cheap swill high schoolers drink and pulled out his fake ID. Suddenly realizing he was serious, I said, “Dude, I can’t sell this to you.” I could have. It was slow; my manager was at the other end of the registers in the only other open lane. But either out of principle or not wanting to be taken for a schmuck just because this kid was in the cool crowd and I was in band, I reiterated: “I know who you are. I can’t sell you this.” He was more shocked than angry I think, surprised a peer wasn’t playing along. “You’re sure…” he followed. “Yeah, sorry man,” I replied. And he walked out. I wondered who was waiting for him in the car, whose night I just ruined because they wouldn’t have time to get to another store before liquor sales ended. But now I think I did them a favor. A night without Keystone Light is a good night indeed.
12. New Year’s Eve, 2011. I was living on campus for graduate school, but didn’t have a girlfriend so I didn’t have plans. Luckily my on-campus friends Tone and Brian didn’t have plans either, so we decided to drive around awhile and listen to the radio. When “I Don’t Want to Miss A Thing” came on, Tone asked if it made me think of anyone special, and I said I had someone in mind. (My future wife.) Deciding we should have a comfort night, we stopped to get Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream and Late Night Snack and a Redbox before returning to campus. We got into our pajamas and watched the horrible Horrible Bosses while eating ice cream. I left at 11pm and went to sleep.
13. On a bright and warm weekday September morning, I had Whiskeytown National Recreation Area to myself, or so it seemed. Newly unemployed, I’d flown to Redding to visit friends, see some mountains, and find whatever else I was looking for on what ended up being a much-needed salubrious stay. I didn’t see a soul as a drove my rental to the Brandy Creek Falls trailhead and parked. On the solo hike to the falls (which I wrote about here), I found silence. I found vistas that I photographed once but no more. At the falls I found a rock to sit on astride the stream. I read, dozed a bit, let the water’s whooshing chorus drown everything else out, and then I walked back.
14. Meeting Henry Winkler.