Something Old

I Can See Better Through the Fog is a storytelling podcast series in the vein of This American Life and the Moth. It tells the ongoing story of an echo boomer’s quarter life crises, featuring life, love, music, and San Francisco. Press the play button below to hear an audio recording of this latest entry or listen to it on iTunes. If it doesn’t work, you may need the latest version of flash software. (click here to download). Another troubleshooting tip would be to go directly to the soundcloud website. Sit back and let your ears do the work. The text version of this entry is provided beneath the list of selected tracks.

Runtime: 10 minutes and 3 seconds.

Selected tracks: Regina Spektor “Small Town Moon”, David Byrne & St. Vincent “Who” and Beach House “Myth”

The dry cleaning dangling from my right hand grazed the glass front door of my father’s midtown house-turned-duplex. I turned the key then pushed the door open with my left shoulder. Despite the solstice not being for another two weeks, Sacramento’s summer waited for me in my father’s lower unit. His place was silent, save for the pre-summer wind whistling through the window crevices. My dad was away for the afternoon at a recently deceased colleague’s memorial.

As I walked into the dining room I noticed opened moving boxes on the table. Strewn out beside them were heaps of photographs. Some small, some large. Some were even panoramic. They were a mixture of color and black and white prints. I draped my dry cleaning over a chair. The plastic coating over it purred softly as it came to rest. I sat down, looking over the scattered piles of captured memories.

At first it appeared my father was preparing for my best friend from childhood’s wedding. That was in fact why I was in town for the weekend, Frances’s wedding. On the top of the many piles of pictures was one of me, Frances, and Mitch, her high school sweetheart, and now her husband to be. In the 8×8 color print we stood together outside my childhood suburban home, dressed for junior prom. Our legs were kicked up to the right in unison. We were posed in the can-can dance position. Smiles were spread across our faces. Behind my own was a nervousness more complicated than the picture could possibly show.

I went with a beautiful girl who was a year ahead of me in school. She was my co-anchor on the daily morning announcements. Her intensely curly, blonde highlighted hair, sparkling green eyes, and bubbly personality appealed to droves of other boys. I asked her because I enjoyed being around her infectious positive energy and it seemed the easiest “yes” to get from anyone. She was a friend beyond anything else. Our prom together was enjoyable, but I kept it even tamer than a G rating. I didn’t even to attempt to kiss her at the end of the night. Part of that was a fear of rejection and the other part being a stronger interest in the boys. But at that point, I hadn’t given much thought to dating guys. Asking them to the prom seemed out of the question.

I began flipping through the black and white pictures eventually coming to one of my grandmother in her wedding dress. Her posture was better than I had ever known. Perhaps she was past 5 foot at her wedding. I’ve known her only in her below 5 foot days. She’s seemingly shrunk in height, but not personality, each passing year.

Noticing many pictures of my deceased grandfather, I remembered my father had organized a memorial hike for him in a few weeks time. Maybe this was why he took all the pictures out. To find one to bring to the hike. I stumbled across a picture of my grandfather at my Uncle Steve’s bar mitzvah. He stared stoically into the camera. A tallit was draped over his shoulders and a yamaka rested on his head. His facial expression dictated: “I really don’t know why you have to take this picture, but if you must, go ahead, I’ll play along.” It’s the sort of attitude you want subjects to have in a photograph. A sort of truth comes out when people are just able to be themselves despite the camera’s gaze. So often moments captured on film fail to give a true depiction of a person or time because people adjust themselves to what they think the camera wants: a smile, a weird face, a respectable posture. Once the camera’s off them, they return to their natural state.

Dogs, however, are naturals when it comes to being photographed. They don’t know any better. I flipped through some pictures of Buddy, our old golden retriever. In one photo, he lay in the grass, soaking in the sun. However, in many of the pictures he refuses to face the camera, not knowing what my dad wanted from him. So maybe dogs are not always the most photogenic creatures, but they still know how to properly ignore the camera.

I moved back over to the black and white pictures. I then came across a photograph I had wondered if was in existence: my grandparents’ house as it was being built by my grandfather. I gripped the picture and sat back in my chair, staring at the wooden skeleton. The design was unmistakeable: steep sloping driveway, pointed roof to the left, and a long, ranch style frame to the right. In the distance were the tree laden hills of Marin County. In the 4×4 print the carpenters atop the tiny forest of wooden beams were barely visible.

Setting the picture back down on the table, tears started to form. It was my father’s home. It was my grandfather, the renaissance man, doing the work he loved and was revered for. It was the home I used for months before finding a place to live in San Francisco. It was the home my grandmother had to rent out because she couldn’t live there any longer without full time care. Time stood still as I continued to stare at the picture. I’d known this house in its finished form all my life. It’s the only way I knew it. Which left me taking it for granted, believing it eternally existed. The memory captured in the picture had become immortal. Yet, it was also a stinging reminder that all things in life, and life itself, have a beginning and end.

My dad walked in just as I was moving onto more current photos. “How was the memorial?” I asked him. “Hard,” he responded. “I knew Carol for a very long time. She was a really great person. Wish I had known her better.” He went to the kitchen. His keys jingled as he set them down on the counter.

“Are all these pictures out because you’re picking one to give Frances and Mitch tonight at the wedding, or for grandpa’s memorial hike?” My dad walked back into the dining room with a glass of pineapple juice. “Actually, it’s for your Aunt Shirley’s memorial.” I felt ashamed to have forgotten the most recent in the family’s long list of passings. “Oh, right,” I said somberly. “So you went to Jeremy’s graduation last week.” I reminded him of his nephew’s graduation. “And a memorial earlier and a wedding later today. How does it feel to be involved in such different types of ceremonies?”

My dad gave out a long sigh as he leaned on a chair. “They’re all celebrations of life really. Youthful achievements, unions, and honoring the entire arc of a person’s life. They just celebrate different blocks of life.” My dad shrugged, not knowing what else to say. I nodded in understanding, agreement, and satisfaction over the content and brevity of his answer. He took a sip from his glass and looked thoughtfully out the window at the trees blowing in the wind. With that I peeled back the protective plastic sheet covering my dry cleaning and began to get ready for Frances and Mitch’s wedding.

De Tales

I Can See Better Through the Fog is a storytelling podcast series in the vein of This American Life and the Moth. It tells the ongoing story of an echo boomer’s quarter life crises, featuring life, art, love, and San Francisco. Press the play button below to hear an audio recording of this latest entry. If it doesn’t work, you may need the latest version of flash software. (click here to download). Another troubleshooting tip would be to go directly to the soundcloud website. Sit back and let your ears do the work. The text version of this entry is provided beneath the list of selected tracks.

Runtime: 7 minutes and 3 seconds.

Selected tracks: The Strokes “Machu Picchu” and The Talking Heads “The Book I Read”

Mr. Allen massaged the torn paper towel until it was flat atop his stool. He then dipped a butter knife into a jar of strawberry jam. Gripping the jellied knife, he moved his hand toward the flat paper towel. His class looked on in anguish. They sat on the rug facing their teacher. Many of the kids yelled out, trying to correct Mr. Allen’s actions. He continued bringing the jellied knife closer to the fresh paper towel. Until… Spreading the strawberry jam, he moistening the once dry paper towel. His entire class groaned in disapproval. “But that’s what the directions told me to do,” Mr. Allen shrugged his shoulders and threw up his hands. He wore a smug smile across his bearded face. “I guess this is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, because I followed all the directions.” He placed a piece of bread on the jellied paper towel, drew it up toward his mouth and prepared to take a bite.

The PB & J sandwich making activity was a lesson in following multi-step instructions. Standardized district wide testing was coming in a week. Mr. Allen was prepping his students for questions involving multiple directions. He asked his kids to write down, step by step, how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He then followed their directions. “I’m gonna be soooo hungry during lunch.” I chuckled as I sat on a chair behind the kids.

After I left behind a career in filmmaking, I began volunteering at elementary schools. It’s served as my exploratory phase into the field of education. Working with Mr. Allen has been different than all of my other experiences in the classroom. Before his class, I was accustomed to giving individual attention to small groups of kids. The majority of my learning in his class has been observational, rather than hands on. He plans a perfectly scheduled and balanced curriculum. And his lessons tend to require, and receive, full, uninterrupted attention. Mr. Allen uses teaching as his creative outlet. He does not just teach, he performs. And, it seems, he does not just rest on his improv, but continuously brings great material to class each day. Many times it feels like I’m watching Paul Rudd perform monologues written by Woody Allen, only aimed at children.

“None of these instructions you guys wrote down actually help me make my sandwich,” Mr. Allen continued. “What’s missing from all of your instructions?” He called on a girl with a fidgety, outstretched arm. She answered. “More details.” Mr. Allen walked over to the white board and wrote “details” in green. “Exactly. Suspend your belief for a second guys. What if I didn’t know how to make PB & J? Think for a second. Don’t skip,” he paused and held the peanut butter up, covering the PY on the Skippy label, “over any detail.” He wagged his pointer finger in a “no” gesture.

When Mr. Allen finished his lesson, I got a chance to sit and read with one of the kids. A girl named Mary, who spoke Spanish as a first language, needed to practice both reading comprehension and the pronunciation of her Ys, Js, and TH’s. I listened to her read Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Whenever she came across a word with a TH, she’d pronounce it as if it were a D. “Brodder. Brodder.” I corrected her each time, then had her repeat the sound and then the word. “Brother. Brother. Brudder. Brother. Bru THhhher. Beh ru THer. Th. Th. Th. Er.” Despite her stumbles, she got through a respectable number of pages with my help.

Creating a bridge between Mary’s synapses was both engaging and ephemeral. I lost myself in the activity, much like I had in all phases of film production, from pre to post. Producing and sharing my ideas and stories with a mixture of moving pictures, words, and music brought such vibrancy, purpose, and community to my life. Since I gave up film, I’ve felt a creative void. In Mr. Allen’s class I’ve noticed myself longing for more one on one tutoring opportunities, like the one I had with Mary. Despite this, something vital, is apparent in Mr. Allen’s classroom. There are other options to spur and release creativity.

The lunch bell rang which signalled the end to my day. Mr. Allen excused his students. He then tossed the dirtied paper towel from earlier into a trash bin, with the residue of his lesson permanently absorbed.