July 28, 1979: The Long Way Home (Revisited)

serf1

If I ever need to check myself and consider what a privileged life I’ve led, I simply need to recall that moving across town in the summer of ’79 was a traumatic event. True, it was about four miles door to door from old house to new house. Also true, since nine year olds can’t drive, four miles may as well be four hundred. More truth: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a neighborhood that even Norman Rockwell could not have painted. (Which is just as well, because I’ve always found Norman Rockwell kind of creepy. Put another way, cats like Jackson Pollock make more sense to me as I grow older, and Stormin’ Norman, besides being predictable, bland and boring, also seems, in retrospect, to reinforce the cliches he often embraced in his crackerjack portraits of cracker America.) A more straightforward way of putting it would be to simply state that there were a ton of kids in my neighborhood. It was early ’70s planned community paradise: no matter what was actually going on inside the individual houses, the collective population of kids ensured healthy representation in any game of kickball, baseball, soccer or the obligatory summer ritual of ding dong ditch. (For anyone too young to actually know what that last one means, rest assured the game had everything to do with dinging and ditching, and nothing to do with our dongs.)

All of this is to say that I grew up, like many kids in Reston, surrounded by boys and girls of or around my age. It wasn’t because it was perfect (it wasn’t) or that there was no turmoil (there was), it was because of the make-it-up-as-you-go sensibility that prevailed in this town (in this country?) during the early to late ’70s presented a fairly ideal petri dish for a distinctly suburban kind of acculturation.

plaza

(Put still another way: no matter what decade or what neighborhood one grows up in, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have a good foundation you have a significant, and unfair strike against you from the start.)

More about Reston another time, but a few brief words about our awkward Utopia are in order. Lest anyone, understandably, think this was some type of Stepford Wives experiment or that my depiction is merely the Byzantine nostalgia of a Proust freak, let me establish some street cred with two words: Burger Chef. Our town was not yet cool enough to have a McDonalds (in hindsight, I realize our town was too cool to have a McDonalds); we made due with the chain who invented the Happy Meal, originally known as the Fun Meal. You better recognize.

It was also, of course, a town in transition: it grew as we grew up (it’s still growing today, as are we). For those of us who did not stray far, it seems fair to suggest that some of the affection we feel is inextricably connected to watching things change (the town, ourselves). All towns transform, age and renew, but Reston seemed to exist as the touchstone of modernity even as it was designed to be self-consciously retro (three words: Lake Anne Plaza). In this regard, the evolution from quaint (one street light in the early ’70s) to cutting edge (the Metropolis also known as Reston Towncenter) was personal: it all went down on our watch. For me, it is significant on a variety of levels that I can head west on the W&OD trail and, in less than half an hour, be engulfed in a soundproof canopy of green and feel like it’s early part of a new century (circa 1909). I also like living in the shadow of the old Virgina Gentleman distillery, and I felt like I could hear history whisper every time I walked my dog past that place.

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

What else? Trying to recapture childhood and the indelible and often inexpressible ways it affects you is like remembering what it felt like to hold a firefly: as an adult, you understand the science that makes it glow but as a kid it really is magic (I’m still enthralled not necessarily because I retain my formative capacity for wonder, but because I actually don’t understand the science that makes it glow…). I attempted, several years ago, to recollect that time and mentality, after revisiting it with a five year old (my niece) and wondering what that broken in neighborhood looked like to younger eyes (hers and mine). That poem, called Old School (a title I defend since I wrote it before the excellent film of the same name was released) is below.

But getting back to summer ’79. As devastated as I was to leave my boys behind (especially my oldest friend Mark Seferian, with whom I appear at the top and bottom of this page–pictures taken on the day we revisited our old stomping grounds), I was also pretty excited about the new Kiss album (an album I still endorse, mostly for moments like this and this). I was giving up 7-Eleven but gaining a High’s which was effectively trading the all-star Cola Slurpee for a player to be named later: in this case the revelatory Slush Puppie (the highlight of August ’79 was discovering that the woman behind the counter would allow you to mix and match flavors, leading to early chemistry experiments like the grape/lime or the inimitably perfect raspberry/cherry). The other high point of that formative summer was the glory of NASL which many of us did not realize was already in the early stages of its semi-tragic (if self-inflicted) death spiral. Let me recap the calculus of birthday party apotheosis, circa mid-to-late ’70s: Farrell’s, seeing movies like this and going to RFK to see a Dips game.

Summer of 79 redux:

album-Kiss-DynastydipsSlush_Puppie

 

 

 

 

 

It was a pretty great time, musically, as well. Of course there was plenty of crap, like there always is, but there were some magical moments as well. And don’t think I’m going to sleep on this one or especially this one. And this one had particular resonance, especially for a nine year old who was a tad too sensitive for his own good. And to put some things in perspective (too much fuckin’ perspective, to quote Spinal Tap), can we talk about how long ago 30 years actually was, in regards to fashion, music, and culture? If a picture can say a thousand words, a song can say a million; and a video of the song (especially a video performed on a TV special) is capable of limitless expression. In other words, this was the number one hit thirty years ago today (and more on Donna Summer, HERE):

From Forest Edge to Terraset; from Tall Oaks to Newbridge; from the Green Arrows to the Whitecaps; from Carter Lake to Lake Audobon. Anyone but a kid about to enter fourth grade would have been thrilled with these upgrades. At the time, it felt like my parents were plucking me out of recess and placing me in detention. Moving into a new development on a new side of town, with no prospects of neighbors for several months (actual friends my age? Forget about it) was almost unendurable. The five weeks before school started were the closest I ever came to purgatory. And I laugh at how amusing that sounds, today: five weeks? I feel like I could take a nap that lasts that long, but back then, you didn’t live by weeks or days or even hours: you lived by moments. And nothing made time pass faster than playing with people your own age. Having fun. Being active and involved: no time for thinking.

Remember: this was an era way before Internet and iTunes; before video games and cable TV. For this I am forever grateful. Coincidence or not, this was right around the time I became a voracious reader, and my imagination began to come alive. I had always drawn (do kids over the age of five even draw anymore, or do they reach right for the joystick and the iToy?): first monsters and then soccer players and eventually the members of Kiss. Around this time I started to put little stories alongside those pictures. And I kept reading. Within a year I was keeping my first journal, and that was that. I was on my way (still not sure where I was headed, or where I’m going, but I’m sure I’ll let myself know when I get there). Some of this, undoubtedly, had to do with my age and not my environment. But there is little question that during an exceptionally formative period in my development I learned how to tolerate, and eventually enjoy, my own company. The best way, I found, to accomplish this was to surround oneself with kindred souls. Hence, the books, the music and the cultivation of a creative ambition. Habits I had to learn, then, saved me from the not-so-quiet desperation of a happy and healthy nine year old suddenly shifted to neutral. Looking back, I understand and appreciate the ways they shaped my sensibility over the years, delivering me from an altogether different sort of despair.

********

Old School

 

This is old school, I say

to my niece who, at five years old, is now

the same age her uncle was when his parents

transported him to this place—new then, old now.

 

Old school, she repeats, repeating things

I say because I’m older, because I’m still

interesting, because I am…old school.

Even I can see that.

 

You Can’t Go Home Again,

someone once wrote and he was wrong.

 

Of course you can; all you have to do is never leave.

Leaving it behind does not mean it leaves you.

(And certainly I can’t be the only grown child

who returns often—in dreams, in memories and yes,

in my mind, I must confess: earnestly, ardently, often—

to the old streets that I came to outgrow,

the way we outgrow games and bikes and friends,

exchanging them for jobs and cars and co-workers.)

 

You can always go home, and you need to go home.

It’s only when you want to go home that you should

start asking yourself some serious questions.

 

“Did you play kick the can?” my niece does not ask.

She also doesn’t ask if I ever played

Red Rover Come Over or Smear the Queer.

Those games got neglected, or else we learned

to play them in ways not measured in bravado & bruises.

And I wonder if we are better off:

Growth granting us the eventual awareness that everyone is

queer and no enjoys being…over.

 

I put away childish things each time I think

about them, storing them safely inside my heart

where grown-up games can’t make them say Uncle.

 

“Uncle, did you play?” she doesn’t say.

(She doesn’t know everything, but she knows

enough to understand her uncle was never young,

the way she is and the way she’ll always be, and

far be it from me to tell her otherwise.)

 

Question: Can you play?

Remember when that’s all we used to say?

Summers summarized in a phrase we learned

eventually to overlook.

 

This uneven field (Field of Dreams, I’ll never say)

was our Fenway and with tennis ball and wooden bat

we righted the wrongs of an evil world, where

Yaz never struck out, Bucky Dent was a blip,

and the Curse of the Bambino played off-Broadway

those days, that ceaseless, sweltering summer in 1978.

 

(Summer, seventies, Schlitz—not malt liquor, my friend,

this was strictly old school—no bull. I remember

block parties, warm beer, burnt marshmallows, mosquitoes

and putrid bug repellent that didn’t kill anything

but made us stronger (Don’t let the bed bugs bite, I’ll never say.)

I had no idea how little I knew but I knew this much:

If there was a beer besides Schlitz or Bud I was unaware;

That’s all adults drank back in the bad old days.

 

Play ball! no one needed to say because we played ball

anyway: ball was our business and business was good.

 

Get it! The ball would invariably make a break for it

ending up in the gutter (we called it sewer but, of course,

We were old school). Without a second thought

we pried off the manhole cover and dashed down into semi-darkness.

 

We never thought twice about it—we were young.

The game must go on! no one needed to say, we knew.

(I look now, and think: I wouldn’t go into that hole

for all the allowance money I never earned.

I know there are rats and who knows what else

down there: the things our parents never realized

they should warn us about.)

 

We never worried about the things that weren’t

waiting for us, down there in the darkness.

 

“What are they doing?” I don’t ask aloud, noticing,

just in time, before I can call attention to it,

two cats in coitus, doing what they do when they’re young & free.

That’s something I’ve never seen and as I worry about

my niece asking me to explain I understand: I’m old now.

 

Old school, I cannot say (to myself I say this).

That’s how it happens.

This would never have happened, then.

 

(I didn’t know much, but I knew this: cats

did not fornicate and kids fought only with fists.)

 

But this is what happens when you go away.

Back then, in our close and cloistered community

even the cats had discretion (they were old school).

 

Or maybe they were mortified, because

bent over with booze or barbiturates they were

silently screeching behind closed doors,

all of us, unknowingly, out in the light

winning the World Series, while wicked women

garrisoned themselves in dark alleys, behind

the anodyne of automatic garage doors.

 

It’s quiet, now. Our mothers were so quiet, then.

Please allow them to have been happy,

in our memories if not in their actual lives.

 

I don’t remember, but have a feeling that if

I think hard enough, I will recall things

never said and therefore never forgotten.

 

I drink in the past and am reminded of youth,

which tastes unlike anything other than

what it is: freedom.

 

Cold, sour Schlitz (of course I took a taste),

with those sharp & awkward silver ring-tabs

we pulled off for the privilege of first sip.

 

That is old school, I don’t tell my niece.

It’s only when you’re older that beer tastes

like freedom, but it’s a borrowed brilliance,

a manufactured feeling, just like in school

it’s cheating if the answer’s already in your lap.

 

The things they can’t package or make you pay for:

That they never tell you about until you’re old enough

to know better: that’s what freedom is.

 

Curiosity killed the cat,

someone once said and they were right.

 

But something’s going to get all of us

eventually, whether we ask for it or understand it.

 

The cats are gone, maybe they’ve gone home

(they can always go home), back to their families and

those heavy silences and the salvation of routine.

 

(Do they still have strict rules about no TV,

and everyone present around the table when

dinner’s on the table at six-thirty sharp?

I certainly hope so, for their sakes.)

 

Or maybe they’re getting down to business—

dirty deeds and dirty work go hand in hand—

Down in the darkness, doing their thankless task,

keeping the sewers safe from rats & reality.

 

Curious or content, we know enough to take

whatever it is that life offers up.

 

We went into those sewers the way we went into the world:

Unafraid, unencumbered and above all,

unconcerned about so many things

older people were kind enough to never…say.

 

“Old school!” my niece repeats, curious.

Smiling, she does not comprehend at all.

Old school, I don’t say, reticent

because I do remember it (all).

 

If curiosity doesn’t kill us, contentment gets there quicker.

 

How did we go down there, then?

How do we go out there, now?

3-20-02

Share

July 28, 1979: The Long Way Home (Revisited)

serf1

If I ever need to check myself and consider what a privileged life I’ve led, I simply need to recall that moving across town in the summer of ’79 was a traumatic event. True, it was about four miles door to door from old house to new house. Also true, since nine year olds can’t drive, four miles may as well be four hundred. More truth: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a neighborhood that even Norman Rockwell could not have painted. (Which is just as well, because I’ve always found Norman Rockwell kind of creepy. Put another way, cats like Jackson Pollock make more sense to me as I grow older, and Stormin’ Norman, besides being predictable, bland and boring, also seems, in retrospect, to reinforce the cliches he often embraced in his crackerjack portraits of cracker America.) A more straightforward way of putting it would be to simply state that there were a ton of kids in my neighborhood. It was early ’70s planned community paradise: no matter what was actually going on inside the individual houses, the collective population of kids ensured healthy representation in any game of kickball, baseball, soccer or the obligatory summer ritual of ding dong ditch. (For anyone too young to actually know what that last one means, rest assured the game had everything to do with dinging and ditching, and nothing to do with our dongs.)

All of this is to say that I grew up, like many kids in Reston, surrounded by boys and girls of or around my age. It wasn’t because it was perfect (it wasn’t) or that there was no turmoil (there was), it was because of the make-it-up-as-you-go sensibility that prevailed in this town (in this country?) during the early to late ’70s presented a fairly ideal petri dish for a distinctly suburban kind of acculturation.

plaza

(Put still another way: no matter what decade or what neighborhood one grows up in, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have a good foundation you have a significant, and unfair strike against you from the start.)

More about Reston another time, but a few brief words about our awkward Utopia are in order. Lest anyone, understandably, think this was some type of Stepford Wives experiment or that my depiction is merely the Byzantine nostalgia of a Proust freak, let me establish some street cred with two words: Burger Chef. Our town was not yet cool enough to have a McDonalds (in hindsight, I realize our town was too cool to have a McDonalds); we made due with the chain who invented the Happy Meal, originally known as the Fun Meal. You better recognize.

It was also, of course, a town in transition: it grew as we grew up (it’s still growing today, as are we). For those of us who did not stray far, it seems fair to suggest that some of the affection we feel is inextricably connected to watching things change (the town, ourselves). All towns transform, age and renew, but Reston seemed to exist as the touchstone of modernity even as it was designed to be self-consciously retro (three words: Lake Anne Plaza). In this regard, the evolution from quaint (one street light in the early ’70s) to cutting edge (the Metropolis also known as Reston Towncenter) was personal: it all went down on our watch. For me, it is significant on a variety of levels that I can head west on the W&OD trail and, in less than half an hour, be engulfed in a soundproof canopy of green and feel like it’s early part of a new century (circa 1909). I also like living in the shadow of the old Virgina Gentleman distillery, and I felt like I could hear history whisper every time I walked my dog past that place.

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

What else? Trying to recapture childhood and the indelible and often inexpressible ways it affects you is like remembering what it felt like to hold a firefly: as an adult, you understand the science that makes it glow but as a kid it really is magic (I’m still enthralled not necessarily because I retain my formative capacity for wonder, but because I actually don’t understand the science that makes it glow…). I attempted, several years ago, to recollect that time and mentality, after revisiting it with a five year old (my niece) and wondering what that broken in neighborhood looked like to younger eyes (hers and mine). That poem, called Old School (a title I defend since I wrote it before the excellent film of the same name was released) is below.

But getting back to summer ’79. As devastated as I was to leave my boys behind (especially my oldest friend Mark Seferian, with whom I appear at the top and bottom of this page–pictures taken on the day we revisited our old stomping grounds), I was also pretty excited about the new Kiss album (an album I still endorse, mostly for moments like this and this). I was giving up 7-Eleven but gaining a High’s which was effectively trading the all-star Cola Slurpee for a player to be named later: in this case the revelatory Slush Puppie (the highlight of August ’79 was discovering that the woman behind the counter would allow you to mix and match flavors, leading to early chemistry experiments like the grape/lime or the inimitably perfect raspberry/cherry). The other high point of that formative summer was the glory of NASL which many of us did not realize was already in the early stages of its semi-tragic (if self-inflicted) death spiral. Let me recap the calculus of birthday party apotheosis, circa mid-to-late ’70s: Farrell’s, seeing movies like this and going to RFK to see a Dips game.

Summer of 79 redux:

album-Kiss-DynastydipsSlush_Puppie

 

 

 

 

 

It was a pretty great time, musically, as well. Of course there was plenty of crap, like there always is, but there were some magical moments as well. And don’t think I’m going to sleep on this one or especially this one. And this one had particular resonance, especially for a nine year old who was a tad too sensitive for his own good. And to put some things in perspective (too much fuckin’ perspective, to quote Spinal Tap), can we talk about how long ago 30 years actually was, in regards to fashion, music, and culture? If a picture can say a thousand words, a song can say a million; and a video of the song (especially a video performed on a TV special) is capable of limitless expression. In other words, this was the number one hit thirty years ago today (and more on Donna Summer, HERE):

From Forest Edge to Terraset; from Tall Oaks to Newbridge; from the Green Arrows to the Whitecaps; from Carter Lake to Lake Audobon. Anyone but a kid about to enter fourth grade would have been thrilled with these upgrades. At the time, it felt like my parents were plucking me out of recess and placing me in detention. Moving into a new development on a new side of town, with no prospects of neighbors for several months (actual friends my age? Forget about it) was almost unendurable. The five weeks before school started were the closest I ever came to purgatory. And I laugh at how amusing that sounds, today: five weeks? I feel like I could take a nap that lasts that long, but back then, you didn’t live by weeks or days or even hours: you lived by moments. And nothing made time pass faster than playing with people your own age. Having fun. Being active and involved: no time for thinking.

Remember: this was an era way before Internet and iTunes; before video games and cable TV. For this I am forever grateful. Coincidence or not, this was right around the time I became a voracious reader, and my imagination began to come alive. I had always drawn (do kids over the age of five even draw anymore, or do they reach right for the joystick and the iToy?): first monsters and then soccer players and eventually the members of Kiss. Around this time I started to put little stories alongside those pictures. And I kept reading. Within a year I was keeping my first journal, and that was that. I was on my way (still not sure where I was headed, or where I’m going, but I’m sure I’ll let myself know when I get there). Some of this, undoubtedly, had to do with my age and not my environment. But there is little question that during an exceptionally formative period in my development I learned how to tolerate, and eventually enjoy, my own company. The best way, I found, to accomplish this was to surround oneself with kindred souls. Hence, the books, the music and the cultivation of a creative ambition. Habits I had to learn, then, saved me from the not-so-quiet desperation of a happy and healthy nine year old suddenly shifted to neutral. Looking back, I understand and appreciate the ways they shaped my sensibility over the years, delivering me from an altogether different sort of despair.

********

Old School

 

This is old school, I say

to my niece who, at five years old, is now

the same age her uncle was when his parents

transported him to this place—new then, old now.

 

Old school, she repeats, repeating things

I say because I’m older, because I’m still

interesting, because I am…old school.

Even I can see that.

 

You Can’t Go Home Again,

someone once wrote and he was wrong.

 

Of course you can; all you have to do is never leave.

Leaving it behind does not mean it leaves you.

(And certainly I can’t be the only grown child

who returns often—in dreams, in memories and yes,

in my mind, I must confess: earnestly, ardently, often—

to the old streets that I came to outgrow,

the way we outgrow games and bikes and friends,

exchanging them for jobs and cars and co-workers.)

 

You can always go home, and you need to go home.

It’s only when you want to go home that you should

start asking yourself some serious questions.

 

“Did you play kick the can?” my niece does not ask.

She also doesn’t ask if I ever played

Red Rover Come Over or Smear the Queer.

Those games got neglected, or else we learned

to play them in ways not measured in bravado & bruises.

And I wonder if we are better off:

Growth granting us the eventual awareness that everyone is

queer and no enjoys being…over.

 

I put away childish things each time I think

about them, storing them safely inside my heart

where grown-up games can’t make them say Uncle.

 

“Uncle, did you play?” she doesn’t say.

(She doesn’t know everything, but she knows

enough to understand her uncle was never young,

the way she is and the way she’ll always be, and

far be it from me to tell her otherwise.)

 

Question: Can you play?

Remember when that’s all we used to say?

Summers summarized in a phrase we learned

eventually to overlook.

 

This uneven field (Field of Dreams, I’ll never say)

was our Fenway and with tennis ball and wooden bat

we righted the wrongs of an evil world, where

Yaz never struck out, Bucky Dent was a blip,

and the Curse of the Bambino played off-Broadway

those days, that ceaseless, sweltering summer in 1978.

 

(Summer, seventies, Schlitz—not malt liquor, my friend,

this was strictly old school—no bull. I remember

block parties, warm beer, burnt marshmallows, mosquitoes

and putrid bug repellent that didn’t kill anything

but made us stronger (Don’t let the bed bugs bite, I’ll never say.)

I had no idea how little I knew but I knew this much:

If there was a beer besides Schlitz or Bud I was unaware;

That’s all adults drank back in the bad old days.

 

Play ball! no one needed to say because we played ball

anyway: ball was our business and business was good.

 

Get it! The ball would invariably make a break for it

ending up in the gutter (we called it sewer but, of course,

We were old school). Without a second thought

we pried off the manhole cover and dashed down into semi-darkness.

 

We never thought twice about it—we were young.

The game must go on! no one needed to say, we knew.

(I look now, and think: I wouldn’t go into that hole

for all the allowance money I never earned.

I know there are rats and who knows what else

down there: the things our parents never realized

they should warn us about.)

 

We never worried about the things that weren’t

waiting for us, down there in the darkness.

 

“What are they doing?” I don’t ask aloud, noticing,

just in time, before I can call attention to it,

two cats in coitus, doing what they do when they’re young & free.

That’s something I’ve never seen and as I worry about

my niece asking me to explain I understand: I’m old now.

 

Old school, I cannot say (to myself I say this).

That’s how it happens.

This would never have happened, then.

 

(I didn’t know much, but I knew this: cats

did not fornicate and kids fought only with fists.)

 

But this is what happens when you go away.

Back then, in our close and cloistered community

even the cats had discretion (they were old school).

 

Or maybe they were mortified, because

bent over with booze or barbiturates they were

silently screeching behind closed doors,

all of us, unknowingly, out in the light

winning the World Series, while wicked women

garrisoned themselves in dark alleys, behind

the anodyne of automatic garage doors.

 

It’s quiet, now. Our mothers were so quiet, then.

Please allow them to have been happy,

in our memories if not in their actual lives.

 

I don’t remember, but have a feeling that if

I think hard enough, I will recall things

never said and therefore never forgotten.

 

I drink in the past and am reminded of youth,

which tastes unlike anything other than

what it is: freedom.

 

Cold, sour Schlitz (of course I took a taste),

with those sharp & awkward silver ring-tabs

we pulled off for the privilege of first sip.

 

That is old school, I don’t tell my niece.

It’s only when you’re older that beer tastes

like freedom, but it’s a borrowed brilliance,

a manufactured feeling, just like in school

it’s cheating if the answer’s already in your lap.

 

The things they can’t package or make you pay for:

That they never tell you about until you’re old enough

to know better: that’s what freedom is.

 

Curiosity killed the cat,

someone once said and they were right.

 

But something’s going to get all of us

eventually, whether we ask for it or understand it.

 

The cats are gone, maybe they’ve gone home

(they can always go home), back to their families and

those heavy silences and the salvation of routine.

 

(Do they still have strict rules about no TV,

and everyone present around the table when

dinner’s on the table at six-thirty sharp?

I certainly hope so, for their sakes.)

 

Or maybe they’re getting down to business—

dirty deeds and dirty work go hand in hand—

Down in the darkness, doing their thankless task,

keeping the sewers safe from rats & reality.

 

Curious or content, we know enough to take

whatever it is that life offers up.

 

We went into those sewers the way we went into the world:

Unafraid, unencumbered and above all,

unconcerned about so many things

older people were kind enough to never…say.

 

“Old school!” my niece repeats, curious.

Smiling, she does not comprehend at all.

Old school, I don’t say, reticent

because I do remember it (all).

 

If curiosity doesn’t kill us, contentment gets there quicker.

 

How did we go down there, then?

How do we go out there, now?

3-20-02

serf

Share

July 28, 1979: The Long Way Home (Revisited)

serf

If I ever need to check myself and consider what a privileged life I’ve led, I simply need to recall that moving across town in the summer of ’79 was a traumatic event. True, it was about four miles door to door from old house to new house. Also true, since nine year olds can’t drive, four miles may as well be four hundred. More truth: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a neighborhood that even Norman Rockwell could not have painted. (Which is just as well, because I’ve always found Norman Rockwell kind of creepy. Put another way, cats like Jackson Pollock make more sense to me as I grow older, and Stormin’ Norman, besides being predictable, bland and boring, also seems, in retrospect, to reinforce the cliches he often embraced in his crackerjack portraits of cracker America.) A more straightforward way of putting it would be to simply state that there were a ton of kids in my neighborhood. It was early ’70s planned community paradise: no matter what was actually going on inside the individual houses, the collective population of kids ensured healthy representation in any game of kickball, baseball, soccer or the obligatory summer ritual of ding dong ditch. (For anyone too young to actually know what that last one means, rest assured the game had everything to do with dinging and ditching, and nothing to do with our dongs.)

All of this is to say that I grew up, like many kids in Reston, surrounded by boys and girls of or around my age. It wasn’t because it was perfect (it wasn’t) or that there was no turmoil (there was), it was because of the make-it-up-as-you-go sensibility that prevailed in this town (in this country?) during the early to late ’70s presented a fairly ideal petri dish for a distinctly suburban kind of acculturation.

plaza

(Put still another way: no matter what decade or what neighborhood one grows up in, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have a good foundation you have a significant, and unfair strike against you from the start.)

More about Reston another time, but a few brief words about our awkward Utopia are in order. Lest anyone, understandably, think this was some type of Stepford Wives experiment or that my depiction is merely the Byzantine nostalgia of a Proust freak, let me establish some street cred with two words: Burger Chef. Our town was not yet cool enough to have a McDonalds (in hindsight, I realize our town was too cool to have a McDonalds); we made due with the chain who invented the Happy Meal, originally known as the Fun Meal. You better recognize.

It was also, of course, a town in transition: it grew as we grew up (it’s still growing today, as are we). For those of us who did not stray far, it seems fair to suggest that some of the affection we feel is inextricably connected to watching things change (the town, ourselves). All towns transform, age and renew, but Reston seemed to exist as the touchstone of modernity even as it was designed to be self-consciously retro (three words: Lake Anne Plaza). In this regard, the evolution from quaint (one street light in the early ’70s) to cutting edge (the Metropolis also known as Reston Towncenter) was personal: it all went down on our watch. For me, it is significant on a variety of levels that I can head west on the W&OD trail and, in less than half an hour, be engulfed in a soundproof canopy of green and feel like it’s early part of a new century (circa 1909). I also like living in the shadow of the old Virgina Gentleman distillery, and I felt like I could hear history whisper every time I walked my dog past that place.

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

What else? Trying to recapture childhood and the indelible and often inexpressible ways it affects you is like remembering what it felt like to hold a firefly: as an adult, you understand the science that makes it glow but as a kid it really is magic (I’m still enthralled not necessarily because I retain my formative capacity for wonder, but because I actually don’t understand the science that makes it glow…). I attempted, several years ago, to recollect that time and mentality, after revisiting it with a five year old (my niece) and wondering what that broken in neighborhood looked like to younger eyes (hers and mine). That poem, called Old School (a title I defend since I wrote it before the excellent film of the same name was released) is below.

But getting back to summer ’79. As devastated as I was to leave my boys behind (especially my oldest friend Mark Seferian, with whom I appear at the top and bottom of this page–pictures taken on the day we revisited our old stomping grounds), I was also pretty excited about the new Kiss album (an album I still endorse, mostly for moments like this and this). I was giving up 7-Eleven but gaining a High’s which was effectively trading the all-star Cola Slurpee for a player to be named later: in this case the revelatory Slush Puppie (the highlight of August ’79 was discovering that the woman behind the counter would allow you to mix and match flavors, leading to early chemistry experiments like the grape/lime or the inimitably perfect raspberry/cherry). The other high point of that formative summer was the glory of NASL which many of us did not realize was already in the early stages of its semi-tragic (if self-inflicted) death spiral. Let me recap the calculus of birthday party apotheosis, circa mid-to-late ’70s: Farrell’s, seeing movies like this and going to RFK to see a Dips game.

Summer of 79 redux:

album-Kiss-DynastydipsSlush_Puppie

 

 

 

 

 

It was a pretty great time, musically, as well. Of course there was plenty of crap, like there always is, but there were some magical moments as well. And don’t think I’m going to sleep on this one or especially this one. And this one had particular resonance, especially for a nine year old who was a tad too sensitive for his own good. And to put some things in perspective (too much fuckin’ perspective, to quote Spinal Tap), can we talk about how long ago 30 years actually was, in regards to fashion, music, and culture? If a picture can say a thousand words, a song can say a million; and a video of the song (especially a video performed on a TV special) is capable of limitless expression. In other words, this was the number one hit thirty years ago today (and more on Donna Summer, HERE):

From Forest Edge to Terraset; from Tall Oaks to Newbridge; from the Green Arrows to the Whitecaps; from Carter Lake to Lake Audobon. Anyone but a kid about to enter fourth grade would have been thrilled with these upgrades. At the time, it felt like my parents were plucking me out of recess and placing me in detention. Moving into a new development on a new side of town, with no prospects of neighbors for several months (actual friends my age? Forget about it) was almost unendurable. The five weeks before school started were the closest I ever came to purgatory. And I laugh at how amusing that sounds, today: five weeks? I feel like I could take a nap that lasts that long, but back then, you didn’t live by weeks or days or even hours: you lived by moments. And nothing made time pass faster than playing with people your own age. Having fun. Being active and involved: no time for thinking.

Remember: this was an era way before Internet and iTunes; before video games and cable TV. For this I am forever grateful. Coincidence or not, this was right around the time I became a voracious reader, and my imagination began to come alive. I had always drawn (do kids over the age of five even draw anymore, or do they reach right for the joystick and the iToy?): first monsters and then soccer players and eventually the members of Kiss. Around this time I started to put little stories alongside those pictures. And I kept reading. Within a year I was keeping my first journal, and that was that. I was on my way (still not sure where I was headed, or where I’m going, but I’m sure I’ll let myself know when I get there). Some of this, undoubtedly, had to do with my age and not my environment. But there is little question that during an exceptionally formative period in my development I learned how to tolerate, and eventually enjoy, my own company. The best way, I found, to accomplish this was to surround oneself with kindred souls. Hence, the books, the music and the cultivation of a creative ambition. Habits I had to learn, then, saved me from the not-so-quiet desperation of a happy and healthy nine year old suddenly shifted to neutral. Looking back, I understand and appreciate the ways they shaped my sensibility over the years, delivering me from an altogether different sort of despair.

********

Old School

This is old school, I say
To my niece who, at five years old, is now
The same age her uncle was when his parents
Transported him to this place—new then, old now.
Old school, she repeats, repeating things
I say because I am older, because I am
Still interesting, because I am…old school.
Even I can see that.

You Can’t Go Home Again, someone once wrote
And he was wrong.
Of course you can—all you have to do is never leave—
Leaving it behind does not mean it leaves you.
(And certainly I can’t be the only grown child
who returns often—in dreams, in memories and yes,
in my mind, I must confess: earnestly, ardently, often—
to the old streets that I came to outgrow
the way we outgrow games and bikes and friends
and exchange them for jobs and cars and co-workers).

You can always go home, and you need to go home,
It is only when you want to go home that you should
Start asking yourself some serious questions.

“Did you play kick the can?” my niece does not ask.
Nor does she ask if I ever played
Red Rover Come Over or Smear the Queer.
Those games got outgrown, or else we learned
To play them in ways not measured in bravado & bruises.
And I wonder if we are better off:
Growth granting us the eventual awareness that everyone is
Queer and no enjoys being…

I put away childish things each time I think
About them, storing them safely inside my heart
Where grown-up games can’t make them say Uncle.

“Uncle, did you play?” she does not say.
(She does not know everything but she knows
enough to understand that her uncle was never young
the way she is and the way she’ll always be and
far be it from me to tell her any differently).
Question: Can you play?
Remember when that’s all we used to say—
Summers summarized in a phrase we learned
Eventually to outgrow.

This uneven field (Field of Dreams, I’ll never say)
Was our Fenway and with tennis ball and wooden bat
We righted the wrongs of an evil world, where
Yaz never struck out, Bucky Dent was a blip
And the Curse of the Bambino played off-Broadway
Those days, that ceaseless, sweltering summer in 1978.
(Summer, seventies, Schlitz—not malt liquor, my friend,
this was strictly old school—no bull. I remember
block parties, warm beer, burnt marshmallows, mosquitoes
and putrid bug repellent that didn’t kill anything
but made us stronger (Don’t let the bed bugs bite, I’ll never say).
I had no idea how much I did not know but
I knew this much: if there was a beer besides Schlitz or
Bud I was unaware of it—that’s all
The adults drank back in the bad old days.

Play ball! no one needed to say because we played ball
Anyway—ball was our business and business was good,
Get it: the ball would invariably make a break for it
Ending up in the gutter (we called it sewer but, of course,
We were old school). Without a second thought
We pried off the manhole cover and dashed down into semi-darkness.
We never thought twice about it—we were young.
The game must go on! no one needed to say, we knew.
(I look now, and think: I would not go
into that hole for all the allowance money I never earned—
I know there are rats and who knows what else
Down there: the things our parents never realized
They should warn us about).
We never worried about the things that were not
Waiting for us, down there in the darkness.

“What are they doing?” I do not ask aloud,
Noticing—just in time, before I can call attention to it—
Two cats in coitus, doing what they do when they are young & free.
That’s something I’ve never seen and as I worry about
My niece asking me about it I understand: I’m old now.
Old school, I cannot say (to myself I say this).
That’s how it happens.
This would never have happened, then—
(I did not know much, but I knew this:
cats did not fornicate and kids fought only with fists).
But this is what happens when you go away.
Back then, in our close and cloistered community
Even the cats had discretion (they were old school)
Or maybe they were mortified, because
Bent over with booze or barbiturates they were
Silently screeching behind closed doors—
All of us, unknowingly, out in the light
Winning the World Series, while wicked women
Garrisoned themselves in dark alleys, behind
The anodyne of automatic garage doors.
It is quiet, now. Our mothers were so quiet, then.
Please allow them to have been happy,
In our memories if not in their actual lives.

I don’t remember but I have a feeling
That if I think hard enough I will recall
The things that were never said and therefore never forgotten.

I drink in the past and am reminded of youth,
Which tastes unlike anything other than what it is: freedom.

Cold, sour Schlitz (of course I took a taste)
With those incredibly awkward silver ring-tabs
We pulled off for the privilege of first sip.
That is old school, I do not tell my niece.
It’s only when you’re older that beer tastes
Like freedom, but it’s a borrowed brilliance,
A manufactured feeling, just like in class
How it’s cheating if the answer is already in your lap.
It’s the things they can’t package or make you pay for:
Those things that they never tell you about until you are old enough
To know better: that is what freedom is.

Curiosity killed the cat, someone once said and
Maybe they were right.
But something is going to get all of us
Eventually, whether we ask for it or understand it.

The cats are gone, maybe they have gone home
(they can always go home), back to their families—
The heavy silences and signified banality of routine
(do they still have strict rules about no TV
and everyone present around the table when
dinner is served at six-thirty sharp?
I certainly hope so, for their sakes).
Or maybe they are getting down to business—
Dirty deeds and dirty work go hand in hand—
Down in the darkness, doing their thankless task,
Keeping the sewers safe from rats and reality.
Curious or content, we know enough to take
Whatever it is that life decrees.

We went into the sewers the way we went into the world:
Unafraid, unwavering, unencumbered and
Above all: unconcerned about all those things
Older people were kind enough to never…

“Old school!” my niece repeats, curious
because she does not comprehend at all.
Old school, I do not say, reticent
Because I do remember it (all).
If curiosity doesn’t kill us, contentment gets there quicker.

How did we go down there, then?
How do we go out there, now?

3-20-02

serf

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Robert E. Simon, 100 Years Young

res

Robert E. Simon, the man who named the town I live in (R.E.S.ton, get it?) turned 100 last week.

As in: one hundred. A century. Born in 1914 (quick trivia: President Wilson was kicking it when Mr. Simon entered our world. Think about that.)

Here is a nice feature (and quick video) from last week’s Washington Post.

It was a pleasure and honor to be there, in person, at Lake Anne Plaza on Saturday.

He was serenaded, celebrated, and while President Obama could not attend, he did send a personal letter which was read to the crowd. As you can see, above, Mr. Simon still is active, alert and awesome as ever. He may have another ten years in him. He may have another century; I certainly wouldn’t put it past him.

It was an honor and pleasure to have him make a special appearance at the release party for my memoir, at Lake Anne Plaza, this past September. If ever a picture spoke a million words, it’s this one:

seansimon

Here he is, in 2006, on the balcony outside his penthouse suite at Heron House, which overlooks Lake Anne (one of several man-made lakes in Reston) on Lake Anne Plaza, the first of many “village centers”. (Old school street cred question number one: Do you remember Hunters Woods Plaza? Old school street cred question number two: Do you miss it? The second question is rhetorical, otherwise you are not old school.)

(For a history of Reston, check this out. For a less official history –or love letter– from a kid who grew up and has lived most of his life here, check this out.)

RES1

Who took this picture, you may be asking yourself.

I did.

And how did I happen to have the opportunity to be kicking it with Robert Simon, you are perfectly entitled to inquire.

Well…long story short is that I wrote a novel that takes place in a town never named but bearing a more-than-passing resemblance to Reston. In a sense, the town is the central character; it’s the typical coming-of-age novel, and a young-ish dude (who bears a more-than-passing resemblance to the author) –as well as the town– are confronting the inevitable interstices of time and memory. It’s equal parts earnest, yearning and pretentious. Typical first novel. Anyway, my goal was to have the man who created this town (this character) see some relevant sections before one of us died (or it got published). Since it looked –and looks– like one of us will die before it ever does get published, I took matters into my own hands and did the courageous thing: I left it outside his door. Imagine my surprise when he called me and told me he loved it, and wanted to meet.

We eventually got together for lunch (I was hoping to do drinks and dinner), and of course we patronized one of the restaurants at the plaza. When I arrived, a few minutes after noon, he was already seated and had a glass of white wine in front of him. I’m a stickler for time, he said. (Takeaway: if this had been a job interview I would not have gotten the job.)

What followed was a fascinating, humbling hour where I was content to ask questions and listen to whatever he cared to tell me. (Some of the things are echoed in this nice, brief interview with him, here. There’s another one here.)

I was struck –and impressed– with his candor and disdain he still felt for the people who (he felt) screwed up his vision. For instance: the Reston Towncenter was always part of the plan, but it was supposed to extend from where the Target is to where the Home Depot is (think about that!) and he remains disappointed that we resorted to strip malls instead of plazas, which integrate housing and commerce. He also remains a little bitter about the way he was forced out and unable to execute full control over his evolving vision (see history in link above). Between the glass of vino and the righteous indignation, it was easy to see how he had managed to make it well into his 90s. And that was eight years ago!

In any event, it was quite gratifying to be able to convey to him how much it meant to me to grow up in a planned community that had soul and saved trees. That had bikepaths and encouraged cultural diversity. That expanded but never turned former farmland into a concrete clusterfuck. I told him I was speaking for dozens, probably thousands of other kids fortunate enough to grow up in the town he created.

(I scored my first soccer goal at Wainwright fields and still play basketball at Lake Anne Elementary –about 100 yards away. I learned how to ride a bike on Scandia Circle and learned how to navigate a stick-shift on Wiehle Drive. I caught my first fish in Carter Pond and skinny-dipped in Lake Audobon. I waited tables on Lake Anne Plaza and waited tables at Reston Towncenter. I rode my bike on the W&OD trail to Penguin Feathers and ride my bike on the W&OD trail past the still-verdant landscape between Reston and Vienna. I bought pop rocks at the 7-Eleven and bought my first beers at the 7-Eleven. I bought my first property and will never sell it. The place I called home is still the place I call home.)

There was a lot more I could have said and a lot more I wanted to hear.

What else could I have said; what more did I need to hear?

(I never thought I’d have another chance, so it was that much sweeter, and personally gratifying, to buy him a drink at my reading, and have an extended conversation with him. I know many of my friends, also in attendance, were thrilled to have him appear and have the opportunity to watch him hold court and tell tales.)

I dine at Lake Anne Plaza often, and it’s not uncommon to see him walking around, keeping active and overseeing the plaza he designed over fifty years ago. I hope to see him patrolling the grounds for many more years!

Happy birthday Mr. Simon. Happy birthday, Reston.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, memories and recollections of all-things Reston, whether you are an old-timer or have only recently moved in/near this great town.

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July 28, 1979: The Long Way Home (Revisited)

If I ever need to check myself and consider what a privileged life I’ve led, I simply need to recall that moving across town in the summer of ’79 was a traumatic event. True, it was about four miles door to door from old house to new house. Also true, since nine year olds can’t drive, four miles may as well be four hundred. More truth: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a neighborhood that even Norman Rockwell could not have painted. (Which is just as well, because I’ve always found Norman Rockwell kind of creepy. Put another way, cats like Jackson Pollock make more sense to me as I grow older, and Stormin’ Norman, besides being predictable, bland and boring, also seems, in retrospect, to reinforce the cliches he often embraced in his crackerjack portraits of cracker America.) A more straightforward way of putting it would be to simply state that there were a ton of kids in my neighborhood. It was early ’70s planned community paradise: no matter what was actually going on inside the individual houses, the collective population of kids ensured healthy representation in any game of kickball, baseball, soccer or the obligatory summer ritual of ding dong ditch. (For anyone too young to actually know what that last one means, rest assured the game had everything to do with dinging and ditching, and nothing to do with our dongs.)

All of this is to say that I grew up, like many kids in Reston, surrounded by boys and girls of or around my age. It wasn’t because it was perfect (it wasn’t) or that there was no turmoil (there was), it was because of the make-it-up-as-you-go sensibility that prevailed in this town (in this country?) during the early to late ’70s presented a fairly ideal petri dish for a distinctly suburban kind of acculturation.

plaza

(Put still another way: no matter what decade or what neighborhood one grows up in, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have a good foundation you have a significant, and unfair strike against you from the start.)

More about Reston another time, but a few brief words about our awkward Utopia are in order. Lest anyone, understandably, think this was some type of Stepford Wives experiment or that my depiction is merely the Byzantine nostalgia of a Proust freak, let me establish some street cred with two words: Burger Chef. Our town was not yet cool enough to have a McDonalds (in hindsight, I realize our town was too cool to have a McDonalds); we made due with the chain who invented the Happy Meal, originally known as the Fun Meal. You better recognize.

It was also, of course, a town in transition: it grew as we grew up (it’s still growing today, as are we). For those of us who did not stray far, it seems fair to suggest that some of the affection we feel is inextricably connected to watching things change (the town, ourselves). All towns transform, age and renew, but Reston seemed to exist as the touchstone of modernity even as it was designed to be self-consciously retro (three words: Lake Anne Plaza). In this regard, the evolution from quaint (one street light in the early ’70s) to cutting edge (the Metropolis also known as Reston Towncenter) was personal: it all went down on our watch. For me, it is significant on a variety of levels that I can head west on the W&OD trail and, in less than half an hour, be engulfed in a soundproof canopy of green and feel like it’s early part of a new century (circa 1909). I also like living in the shadow of the old Virgina Gentleman distillery, and I felt like I could hear history whisper every time I walked my dog past that place.

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

What else? Trying to recapture childhood and the indelible and often inexpressible ways it affects you is like remembering what it felt like to hold a firefly: as an adult, you understand the science that makes it glow but as a kid it really is magic (I’m still enthralled not necessarily because I retain my formative capacity for wonder, but because I actually don’t understand the science that makes it glow…). I attempted, several years ago, to recollect that time and mentality, after revisiting it with a five year old (my niece) and wondering what that broken in neighborhood looked like to younger eyes (hers and mine). That poem, called Old School (a title I defend since I wrote it before the excellent film of the same name was released) is below.

But getting back to summer ’79. As devastated as I was to leave my boys behind (especially my oldest friend Mark Seferian, with whom I appear at the top and bottom of this page–pictures taken on the day we revisited our old stomping grounds), I was also pretty excited about the new Kiss album (an album I still endorse, mostly for moments like this and this). I was giving up 7-Eleven but gaining a High’s which was effectively trading the all-star Cola Slurpee for a player to be named later: in this case the revelatory Slush Puppie (the highlight of August ’79 was discovering that the woman behind the counter would allow you to mix and match flavors, leading to early chemistry experiments like the grape/lime or the inimitably perfect raspberry/cherry). The other high point of that formative summer was the glory of NASL which many of us did not realize was already in the early stages of its semi-tragic (if self-inflicted) death spiral. Let me recap the calculus of birthday party apotheosis, circa mid-to-late ’70s: Farrell’s, seeing movies like this and going to RFK to see a Dips game.

Summer of 79 redux:

album-Kiss-DynastydipsSlush_Puppie

 

 

 

 

 

It was a pretty great time, musically, as well. Of course there was plenty of crap, like there always is, but there were some magical moments as well. And don’t think I’m going to sleep on this one or especially this one. And this one had particular resonance, especially for a nine year old who was a tad too sensitive for his own good. And to put some things in perspective (too much fuckin’ perspective, to quote Spinal Tap), can we talk about how long ago 30 years actually was, in regards to fashion, music, and culture? If a picture can say a thousand words, a song can say a million; and a video of the song (especially a video performed on a TV special) is capable of limitless expression. In other words, this was the number one hit thirty years ago today (and more on Donna Summer, HERE):

From Forest Edge to Terraset; from Tall Oaks to Newbridge; from the Green Arrows to the Whitecaps; from Carter Lake to Lake Audobon. Anyone but a kid about to enter fourth grade would have been thrilled with these upgrades. At the time, it felt like my parents were plucking me out of recess and placing me in detention. Moving into a new development on a new side of town, with no prospects of neighbors for several months (actual friends my age? Forget about it) was almost unendurable. The five weeks before school started were the closest I ever came to purgatory. And I laugh at how amusing that sounds, today: five weeks? I feel like I could take a nap that lasts that long, but back then, you didn’t live by weeks or days or even hours: you lived by moments. And nothing made time pass faster than playing with people your own age. Having fun. Being active and involved: no time for thinking.

Remember: this was an era way before Internet and iTunes; before video games and cable TV. For this I am forever grateful. Coincidence or not, this was right around the time I became a voracious reader, and my imagination began to come alive. I had always drawn (do kids over the age of five even draw anymore, or do they reach right for the joystick and the iToy?): first monsters and then soccer players and eventually the members of Kiss. Around this time I started to put little stories alongside those pictures. And I kept reading. Within a year I was keeping my first journal, and that was that. I was on my way (still not sure where I was headed, or where I’m going, but I’m sure I’ll let myself know when I get there). Some of this, undoubtedly, had to do with my age and not my environment. But there is little question that during an exceptionally formative period in my development I learned how to tolerate, and eventually enjoy, my own company. The best way, I found, to accomplish this was to surround oneself with kindred souls. Hence, the books, the music and the cultivation of a creative ambition. Habits I had to learn, then, saved me from the not-so-quiet desperation of a happy and healthy nine year old suddenly shifted to neutral. Looking back, I understand and appreciate the ways they shaped my sensibility over the years, delivering me from an altogether different sort of despair.

********

Old School

This is old school, I say
To my niece who, at five years old, is now
The same age her uncle was when his parents
Transported him to this place—new then, old now.
Old school, she repeats, repeating things
I say because I am older, because I am
Still interesting, because I am…old school.
Even I can see that.

You Can’t Go Home Again, someone once wrote
And he was wrong.
Of course you can—all you have to do is never leave—
Leaving it behind does not mean it leaves you.
(And certainly I can’t be the only grown child
who returns often—in dreams, in memories and yes,
in my mind, I must confess: earnestly, ardently, often—
to the old streets that I came to outgrow
the way we outgrow games and bikes and friends
and exchange them for jobs and cars and co-workers).

You can always go home, and you need to go home,
It is only when you want to go home that you should
Start asking yourself some serious questions.

“Did you play kick the can?” my niece does not ask.
Nor does she ask if I ever played
Red Rover Come Over or Smear the Queer.
Those games got outgrown, or else we learned
To play them in ways not measured in bravado & bruises.
And I wonder if we are better off:
Growth granting us the eventual awareness that everyone is
Queer and no enjoys being…

I put away childish things each time I think
About them, storing them safely inside my heart
Where grown-up games can’t make them say Uncle.

“Uncle, did you play?” she does not say.
(She does not know everything but she knows
enough to understand that her uncle was never young
the way she is and the way she’ll always be and
far be it from me to tell her any differently).
Question: Can you play?
Remember when that’s all we used to say—
Summers summarized in a phrase we learned
Eventually to outgrow.

This uneven field (Field of Dreams, I’ll never say)
Was our Fenway and with tennis ball and wooden bat
We righted the wrongs of an evil world, where
Yaz never struck out, Bucky Dent was a blip
And the Curse of the Bambino played off-Broadway
Those days, that ceaseless, sweltering summer in 1978.
(Summer, seventies, Schlitz—not malt liquor, my friend,
this was strictly old school—no bull. I remember
block parties, warm beer, burnt marshmallows, mosquitoes
and putrid bug repellent that didn’t kill anything
but made us stronger (Don’t let the bed bugs bite, I’ll never say).
I had no idea how much I did not know but
I knew this much: if there was a beer besides Schlitz or
Bud I was unaware of it—that’s all
The adults drank back in the bad old days.

Play ball! no one needed to say because we played ball
Anyway—ball was our business and business was good,
Get it: the ball would invariably make a break for it
Ending up in the gutter (we called it sewer but, of course,
We were old school). Without a second thought
We pried off the manhole cover and dashed down into semi-darkness.
We never thought twice about it—we were young.
The game must go on! no one needed to say, we knew.
(I look now, and think: I would not go
into that hole for all the allowance money I never earned—
I know there are rats and who knows what else
Down there: the things our parents never realized
They should warn us about).
We never worried about the things that were not
Waiting for us, down there in the darkness.

“What are they doing?” I do not ask aloud,
Noticing—just in time, before I can call attention to it—
Two cats in coitus, doing what they do when they are young & free.
That’s something I’ve never seen and as I worry about
My niece asking me about it I understand: I’m old now.
Old school, I cannot say (to myself I say this).
That’s how it happens.
This would never have happened, then—
(I did not know much, but I knew this:
cats did not fornicate and kids fought only with fists).
But this is what happens when you go away.
Back then, in our close and cloistered community
Even the cats had discretion (they were old school)
Or maybe they were mortified, because
Bent over with booze or barbiturates they were
Silently screeching behind closed doors—
All of us, unknowingly, out in the light
Winning the World Series, while wicked women
Garrisoned themselves in dark alleys, behind
The anodyne of automatic garage doors.
It is quiet, now. Our mothers were so quiet, then.
Please allow them to have been happy,
In our memories if not in their actual lives.

I don’t remember but I have a feeling
That if I think hard enough I will recall
The things that were never said and therefore never forgotten.

I drink in the past and am reminded of youth,
Which tastes unlike anything other than what it is: freedom.

Cold, sour Schlitz (of course I took a taste)
With those incredibly awkward silver ring-tabs
We pulled off for the privilege of first sip.
That is old school, I do not tell my niece.
It’s only when you’re older that beer tastes
Like freedom, but it’s a borrowed brilliance,
A manufactured feeling, just like in class
How it’s cheating if the answer is already in your lap.
It’s the things they can’t package or make you pay for:
Those things that they never tell you about until you are old enough
To know better: that is what freedom is.

Curiosity killed the cat, someone once said and
Maybe they were right.
But something is going to get all of us
Eventually, whether we ask for it or understand it.

The cats are gone, maybe they have gone home
(they can always go home), back to their families—
The heavy silences and signified banality of routine
(do they still have strict rules about no TV
and everyone present around the table when
dinner is served at six-thirty sharp?
I certainly hope so, for their sakes).
Or maybe they are getting down to business—
Dirty deeds and dirty work go hand in hand—
Down in the darkness, doing their thankless task,
Keeping the sewers safe from rats and reality.
Curious or content, we know enough to take
Whatever it is that life decrees.

We went into the sewers the way we went into the world:
Unafraid, unwavering, unencumbered and
Above all: unconcerned about all those things
Older people were kind enough to never…

“Old school!” my niece repeats, curious
because she does not comprehend at all.
Old school, I do not say, reticent
Because I do remember it (all).
If curiosity doesn’t kill us, contentment gets there quicker.

How did we go down there, then?
How do we go out there, now?

3-20-02

serf

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Robert E. Simon, 98 Years Young

Robert E. Simon, the man who named the town I live in (R.E.S.ton, get it?) turns 98 today.

Here he is, in 2006, on the balcony outside his penthouse suite at Heron House, which overlooks Lake Anne (one of several man-made lakes in Reston) on Lake Anne Plaza, the first of many “village centers”. (Old school street cred question number one: Do you remember Hunters Woods Plaza? Old school street cred question number two: Do you miss it? The second question is rhetorical, otherwise you are not old school.)

(For a history of Reston, check this out. For a less official history –or love letter– from a kid who grew up and has lived most of his life here, check this out.)

Who took this picture, you may be asking yourself.

I did.

And how did I happen to have the opportunity to be kicking it with Robert Simon, you are perfectly entitled to inquire.

Well…long story short is that I wrote a novel that takes place in a town never named but bearing a more-than-passing resemblance to Reston. In a sense, the town is the central character; it’s the typical coming-of-age novel, and a young-ish dude (who bears a more-than-passing resemblance to the author) –as well as the town– are confronting the inevitable interstices of time and memory. It’s equal parts earnest, yearning and pretentious. Typical first novel. Anyway, my goal was to have the man who created this town (this character) see some relevant sections before one of us died (or it got published). Since it looked –and looks– like one of us will die before it ever does get published, I took matters into my own hands and did the courageous thing: I left it outside his door. Imagine my surprise when he called me and told me he loved it, and wanted to meet.

We eventually got together for lunch (I was hoping to do drinks and dinner), and of course we patronized one of the restaurants at the plaza. When I arrived, a few minutes after noon, he was already seated and had a glass of white wine in front of him. I’m a stickler for time, he said. (Takeaway: if this had been a job interview I would not have gotten the job.)

What followed was a fascinating, humbling hour where I was content to ask questions and listen to whatever he cared to tell me. (Some of the things are echoed in this nice, brief intereview with him, here. There’s another one here.)

I was struck –and impressed– with his candor and disdain he still felt for the people who (he felt) screwed up his vision. For instance: the Reston Towncenter was always part of the plan, but it was supposed to extend from where the Target is to where the Home Depot is (think about that!) and he remains disappointed that we resorted to strip malls instead of plazas, which integrate housing and commerce. He also remains a little bitter about the way he was forced out and unable to execute full control over his evolving vision (see history in link above). Between the glass of vino and the righteous indignation, it was easy to see how he had managed to make it well into his 90s. And that was six years ago!

In any event, it was quite gratifying to be able to convey to him how much it meant to me to grow up in a planned community that had soul and saved trees. That had bikepaths and encouraged cultural diversity. That expanded but never turned former farmland into a concrete clusterfuck. I told him I was speaking for dozens, probably thousands of other kids fortunate enough to grow up in the town he created.

(I scored my first soccer goal at Wainwright fields and still play basketball at Lake Anne Elementary –about 100 yards away. I learned how to ride a bike on Scandia Circle and learned how to navigate a stick-shift on Wiehle Drive. I caught my first fish in Carter Pond and skinny-dipped in Lake Audobon. I waited tables on Lake Anne Plaza and waited tables at Reston Towncenter. I rode my bike on the W&OD trail to Penguin Feathers and ride my bike on the W&OD trail past the still-verdant landscape between Reston and Vienna. I bought pop rocks at the 7-Eleven and bought my first beers at the 7-Eleven. I bought my first property and will never sell it. The place I called home is still the place I call home.)

There was a lot more I could have said and a lot more I wanted to hear.

What else could I have said; what more did I need to hear?

See you on the plaza at noon, this Saturday.

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With You There To Help Me: Cheerio To An Old Teacher

Shortly after 2011 began, I noted the unhappy occasion of Gerry Rafferty’s passing and did my best to articulate (and celebrate) what his work meant to me (original post here).

In the course of my tribute, I also gave a long distance shout out to a man I have always –and will always– associate with Rafferty’s great album City To City. That man, Iain Caddell, was my History teacher my freshman year at South Lakes High School in Reston, Virginia. Here is what I wrote:

Against all probability, I once had a teacher (very appropriately, from Scotland, which is where Rafferty was from) who knew the dude who drew and designed it. In fact, quick shout out for Iain Caddell, my ninth grade History teacher who ended up, of all places, in Reston, VA for the 1984/85 school year. It took many of us a while to adjust to his accent, his long hair and beard (we were too ignorant, too American to understand how bad-ass he was, how real he was keeping it), and especially his ardent wish that teachers could practice corporal punishment in the states with impunity. Of course they could not, and he resented that fact as we celebrated it. A good kick in the arse from this diminutive Scotsman would have been just what the doctor ordered for most of us, myself at the front of the line. But as so often happens, it was something random but genuine that brought us together: music.

When he discovered that I had a better-than-passing acquaintance with Jethro Tull, it was on. We then bonded and began talking, after class, about music and we even exchanged cassette copies of favorite albums. Quaint, no? Little did I perceive, then, that this man, who had ridden in the back of buses with the actual bands as they toured tiny venues throughout the UK, was already lamenting the passing of an era, musically (and, I reckon, culturally) and hoped I was one of the few snot-nosed spoiled rotten American morons who might keep that flame burning as the world collapsed around us, culturally speaking. I’d like to think I lived up to his aspirations, and if our Scots-Irish God is smiling down at us, please someone, somewhere have an idea where Mr. Caddell is today so I might remind him that he was an inspiration on more than one level.

The Internet, being what it is, finds me at once humbled, grateful and deeply saddened to receive the unwelcome tidings that Mr. Caddell has passed away. I received a comment (to the Rafferty post), presumably from someone who was looking for information about him, and this person kindly informed me of the sad news. From what I’ve gathered, the cause of death was complications from a sudden, unexpected stroke. Of course, strokes are seldom expected, but Mr. Caddell was a young man and apparently in fine health, which makes this news doubly sad.

When I read the message I thought, maybe it’s a different man (isn’t this what we always think, or hope, when we receive news we don’t want and can’t immediately confirm?). But I clicked on the link included in the message, which led me to a Facebook tribute page, and there was no doubt: this is the man I once knew.

I’m glad, and not surprised, to see he was still rocking the long hair, and the beard. Of course, when I had him as a teacher, that hair was jet black. (Of course, when I had him as a teacher, I still had hair.) There was a level of irony in the fact that we bonded over Jethro Tull, because his name was Ian (like Ian Anderson) and, well, he looked more than a little like the frontman of that great band.

I’m delighted to learn he was active in a band, Barnstorm, which does not surprise me, since he was such a keen music enthusiast. (A link to their MySpace page, with a solemn tribute from his bandmates, is here.)

So, what does a former student and fellow human being –who connected with him about matters of music and history– make of this, other than the obvious (the obvious being: there is no way to lessen the blow of an untimely passing like this and no reason to rationalize this grim reminder of how horribly quick our time on this planet always is)?

Well, I will consider the same things I always think when someone who impacted my life passes on. I will think: be grateful that they were here at all, be humble that you had an opportunity to learn from them. Be happy that you are alive. Be eager to keep his memory alive, in words (easy) and especially in deeds (trickier). We have learned little, I reckon, if we let sorrow or regret overwhelm or consume us. We deepen the meaning of the departed as well as our own capacity for evolution if we can do more with the time we still have. I think the death of an admired person can –and should– serve as both an occasion for respect and humility, but also as a rallying cry. We all will die, some of us sooner than we’d like; but the only way it’s possible to defeat death is to keep our loved ones in our lives.

I notice, over the course of the past couple of years, I’ve been obliged to remember the lives of departed artists and it is never a pleasant experience. In a lower moment I may even be tempted to acknowledge the morbidity of this repeated exercise (also knowing that as I get older the artists I admire are also getting older and these occasions will only become more frequent going forward). Then, no matter how dejected I may feel –and the news of Mr. Caddell’s death has set me back in a profound way for the last 24 hours, perhaps in part because Clarence Clemons just died, also the victim of a stroke, and yesterday was Father’s Day– I consider the most important part: I should be celebrating them because their lives were well worth celebrating, and they made sufficient impact on me (and the world) that I was happy to do my humble part to express that gratitude.

Let’s face it: is there any more telling evidence of a life lived well than that it is remembered? Iain Caddell made his mark, and I feel secure in saying he touched the lives of many, many people. He should have had more time to enjoy this world and spread his love, but he made the most of the time he was given. It is something anyone should aspire to and I understand, today: even in death, he continues to guide and inspire me.

Cheerio, then, to a unique and unforgettable human being.

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July 28, 1979: The Long Way Home

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If I ever need to check myself and consider what a privileged life I’ve led, I simply need to recall that moving across town in the summer of ’79 was a traumatic event. True, it was about four miles door to door from old house to new house. Also true, since nine year olds can’t drive, four miles may as well be four hundred. More truth: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a neighborhood that even Norman Rockwell could not have painted. (Which is just as well, because I’ve always found Norman Rockwell kind of creepy. Put another way, cats like Jackson Pollock make more sense to me as I grow older, and Stormin’ Norman, besides being predictable, bland and boring, also seems, in retrospect, to reinforce the cliches he often embraced in his crackerjack portraits of cracker America.) A more straightforward way of putting it would be to simply state that there were a ton of kids in my neighborhood. It was early ’70s planned community paradise: no matter what was actually going on inside the individual houses, the collective population of kids ensured healthy representation in any game of kickball, baseball, soccer or the obligatory summer ritual of ding dong ditch. (For anyone too young to actually know what that last one means, rest assured the game had everything to do with dinging and ditching, and nothing to do with our dongs.)

All of this is to say that I grew up, like many kids in Reston, surrounded by boys and girls of or around my age. It wasn’t because it was perfect (it wasn’t) or that there was no turmoil (there was), it was because of the make-it-up-as-you-go sensibility that prevailed in this town (in this country?) during the early to late ’70s presented a fairly ideal petri dish for a distinctly suburban kind of acculturation.

plaza

(Put still another way: no matter what decade or what neighborhood one grows up in, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have a good foundation you have a significant, and unfair strike against you from the start.)

More about Reston another time, but a few brief words about our awkward Utopia are in order. Lest anyone, understandably, think this was some type of Stepford Wives experiment or that my depiction is merely the Byzantine nostalgia of a Proust freak, let me establish some street cred with two words: Burger Chef. Our town was not yet cool enough to have a McDonalds (in hindsight, I realize our town was too cool to have a McDonalds); we made due with the chain who invented the Happy Meal, originally known as the Fun Meal. You better recognize.

It was also, of course, a town in transition: it grew as we grew up (it’s still growing today, as are we). For those of us who did not stray far, it seems fair to suggest that some of the affection we feel is inextricably connected to watching things change (the town, ourselves). All towns transform, age and renew, but Reston seemed to exist as the touchstone of modernity even as it was designed to be self-consciously retro (three words: Lake Anne Plaza). In this regard, the evolution from quaint (one street light in the early ’70s) to cutting edge (the Metropolis also known as Reston Towncenter) was personal: it all went down on our watch. For me, it is significant on a variety of levels that I can head west on the W&OD trail and, in less than half an hour, be engulfed in a soundproof canopy of green and feel like it’s early part of a new century (circa 1909). I also like living in the shadow of the old Virgina Gentleman distillery, and I felt like I could hear history whisper every time I walked my dog past that place.

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

What else? Trying to recapture childhood and the indelible and often inexpressible ways it affects you is like remembering what it felt like to hold a firefly: as an adult, you understand the science that makes it glow but as a kid it really is magic (I’m still enthralled not necessarily because I retain my formative capacity for wonder, but because I actually don’t understand the science that makes it glow…). I attempted, several years ago, to recollect that time and mentality, after revisiting it with a five year old (my niece) and wondering what that broken in neighborhood looked like to younger eyes (hers and mine). That poem, called Old School (a title I defend since I wrote it before the excellent film of the same name was released) is below.

But getting back to summer ’79. As devastated as I was to leave my boys behind (especially my oldest friend Mark Seferian, with whom I appear at the top and bottom of this page–pictures taken on the day we revisited our old stomping grounds), I was also pretty excited about the new Kiss album (an album I still endorse, mostly for moments like this and this and this). I was giving up 7-Eleven but gaining a High’s which was effectively trading the all-star Cola Slurpee for a player to be named later: in this case the revelatory Slush Puppie (the highlight of August ’79 was discovering that the woman behind the counter would allow you to mix and match flavors, leading to early chemistry experiments like the grape/lime or the inimitably perfect raspberry/cherry). The other high point of that formative summer was the glory of NASL which many of us did not realize was already in the early stages of its semi-tragic (if self-inflicted) death spiral. Let me recap the calculus of birthday party apotheosis, circa mid-to-late ’70s: Farrell’s, seeing movies like this and going to RFK to see a Dips game.

Summer of 79 redux:

album-Kiss-DynastydipsSlush_Puppie

 

 

 

 

 

It was a pretty great time, musically, as well. Of course there was plenty of crap, like there always is, but there were some magical moments as well. And don’t think I’m going to sleep on this one or especially this one. And this one had particular resonance, especially for a nine year old who was a tad too sensitive for his own good. And to put some things in perspective (too much fuckin’ perspective, to quote Spinal Tap), can we talk about how long ago 30 years actually was, in regards to fashion, music, and culture? If a picture can say a thousand words, a song can say a million; and a video of the song (especially a video performed on a TV special) is capable of limitless expression. In other words,  this was the number one hit thirty years ago today:

From Forest Edge to Terraset; from Tall Oaks to Newbridge; from the Green Arrows to the Whitecaps; from Carter Lake to Lake Audobon. Anyone but a kid about to enter fourth grade would have been thrilled with these upgrades. At the time, it felt like my parents were plucking me out of recess and placing me in detention. Moving into a new development on a new side of town, with no prospects of neighbors for several months (actual friends my age? Forget about it) was almost unendurable. The five weeks before school started were the closest I ever came to purgatory. And I laugh at how amusing that sounds, today: five weeks? I feel like I could take a nap that lasts that long, but back then, you didn’t live by weeks or days or even hours: you lived by moments. And nothing made time pass faster than playing with people your own age. Having fun. Being active and involved: no time for thinking.

Remember: this was an era way before Internet and iTunes; before video games and cable TV. For this I am forever grateful. Coincidence or not, this was right around the time I became a voracious reader, and my imagination began to come alive. I had always drawn (do kids over the age of five even draw anymore, or do they reach right for the joystick and the iToy?): first monsters and then soccer players and eventually the members of Kiss. Around this time I started to put little stories alongside those pictures. And I kept reading. Within a year I was keeping my first journal, and that was that. I was on my way (still not sure where I was headed, or where I’m going, but I’m sure I’ll let myself know when I get there). Some of this, undoubtedly, had to do with my age and not my environment. But there is little question that during an exceptionally formative period in my development I learned how to tolerate, and eventually enjoy, my own company. The best way, I found, to accomplish this was to surround oneself with kindred souls. Hence, the books, the music and the cultivation of a creative ambition. Habits I had to learn, then, saved me from the not-so-quiet desperation of a happy and healthy nine year old suddenly shifted to neutral. Looking back, I understand and appreciate the ways they shaped my sensibility over the years, delivering me from an altogether different sort of despair. 

******** 

Old School

This is old school, I say
To my niece who, at five years old, is now
The same age her uncle was when his parents
Transported him to this place—new then, old now.
Old school, she repeats, repeating things
I say because I am older, because I am
Still interesting, because I am…old school.
Even I can see that.

You Can’t Go Home Again, someone once wrote
And he was wrong.
Of course you can—all you have to do is never leave—
Leaving it behind does not mean it leaves you.
(And certainly I can’t be the only grown child
who returns often—in dreams, in memories and yes,
in my mind, I must confess: earnestly, ardently, often—
to the old streets that I came to outgrow
the way we outgrow games and bikes and friends
and exchange them for jobs and cars and co-workers).

You can always go home, and you need to go home,
It is only when you want to go home that you should
Start asking yourself some serious questions.

“Did you play kick the can?” my niece does not ask.
Nor does she ask if I ever played
Red Rover Come Over or Smear the Queer.
Those games got outgrown, or else we learned
To play them in ways not measured in bravado & bruises.
And I wonder if we are better off:
Growth granting us the eventual awareness that everyone is
Queer and no enjoys being…

I put away childish things each time I think
About them, storing them safely inside my heart
Where grown-up games can’t make them say Uncle.

“Uncle, did you play?” she does not say.
(She does not know everything but she knows
enough to understand that her uncle was never young
the way she is and the way she’ll always be and
far be it from me to tell her any differently).
Question: Can you play?
Remember when that’s all we used to say—
Summers summarized in a phrase we learned
Eventually to outgrow.

This uneven field (Field of Dreams, I’ll never say)
Was our Fenway and with tennis ball and wooden bat
We righted the wrongs of an evil world, where
Yaz never struck out, Bucky Dent was a blip
And the Curse of the Bambino played off-Broadway
Those days, that ceaseless, sweltering summer in 1978.
(Summer, seventies, Schlitz—not malt liquor, my friend,
this was strictly old school—no bull. I remember
block parties, warm beer, burnt marshmallows, mosquitoes
and putrid bug repellent that didn’t kill anything
but made us stronger (Don’t let the bed bugs bite, I’ll never say).
I had no idea how much I did not know but
I knew this much: if there was a beer besides Schlitz or
Bud I was unaware of it—that’s all
The adults drank back in the bad old days.

Play ball! no one needed to say because we played ball
Anyway—ball was our business and business was good,
Get it: the ball would invariably make a break for it
Ending up in the gutter (we called it sewer but, of course,
We were old school). Without a second thought
We pried off the manhole cover and dashed down into semi-darkness.
We never thought twice about it—we were young.
The game must go on! no one needed to say, we knew.
(I look now, and think: I would not go
into that hole for all the allowance money I never earned—
I know there are rats and who knows what else
Down there: the things our parents never realized
They should warn us about).
We never worried about the things that were not
Waiting for us, down there in the darkness.

“What are they doing?” I do not ask aloud,
Noticing—just in time, before I can call attention to it—
Two cats in coitus, doing what they do when they are young & free.
That’s something I’ve never seen and as I worry about
My niece asking me about it I understand: I’m old now.
Old school, I cannot say (to myself I say this).
That’s how it happens.
This would never have happened, then—
(I did not know much, but I knew this:
cats did not fornicate and kids fought only with fists).
But this is what happens when you go away.
Back then, in our close and cloistered community
Even the cats had discretion (they were old school)
Or maybe they were mortified, because
Bent over with booze or barbiturates they were
Silently screeching behind closed doors—
All of us, unknowingly, out in the light
Winning the World Series, while wicked women
Garrisoned themselves in dark alleys, behind
The anodyne of automatic garage doors.
It is quiet, now. Our mothers were so quiet, then.
Please allow them to have been happy,
In our memories if not in their actual lives.

I don’t remember but I have a feeling
That if I think hard enough I will recall
The things that were never said and therefore never forgotten.

I drink in the past and am reminded of youth,
Which tastes unlike anything other than what it is: freedom.

Cold, sour Schlitz (of course I took a taste)
With those incredibly awkward silver ring-tabs
We pulled off for the privilege of first sip.
That is old school, I do not tell my niece.
It’s only when you’re older that beer tastes
Like freedom, but it’s a borrowed brilliance,
A manufactured feeling, just like in class
How it’s cheating if the answer is already in your lap.
It’s the things they can’t package or make you pay for:
Those things that they never tell you about until you are old enough
To know better: that is what freedom is.

Curiosity killed the cat, someone once said and
Maybe they were right.
But something is going to get all of us
Eventually, whether we ask for it or understand it.

The cats are gone, maybe they have gone home
(they can always go home), back to their families—
The heavy silences and signified banality of routine
(do they still have strict rules about no TV
and everyone present around the table when
dinner is served at six-thirty sharp?
I certainly hope so, for their sakes).
Or maybe they are getting down to business—
Dirty deeds and dirty work go hand in hand—
Down in the darkness, doing their thankless task,
Keeping the sewers safe from rats and reality.
Curious or content, we know enough to take
Whatever it is that life decrees.

We went into the sewers the way we went into the world:
Unafraid, unwavering, unencumbered and
Above all: unconcerned about all those things
Older people were kind enough to never…

“Old school!” my niece repeats, curious
because she does not comprehend at all.
Old school, I do not say, reticent
Because I do remember it (all).
If curiosity doesn’t kill us, contentment gets there quicker.

How did we go down there, then?
How do we go out there, now?

3-20-02

 serf

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