Thursday, January 29, 2009

Key to Success

I measure my life by how many keys I have on my ring. I hate keys.

Keys remind me every day that people steal, and that I need to lock up my stuff. My hands full as usual, I curse while I fumble to get out of my house, to get in my garage, to unlock my trunk, unlock my car. I curse the guy who stole my daughter's bicycle and made her cry—not because she lost her bike, but because she was afraid I'd be mad at her. Because she ached from the inside out for an hour while she worked up the courage to tell me. I hate him for that.

Besides my usual fat double-ring of keys, I have a set of "summer keys." It's the lightest possible, minimalist set. Car, house. I use it when I go jogging or Frisbeeing or whatever, because my mighty regular set pulls down my shorts sure as an anchor.

It isn't entirely the fault of the heavy keys. These days I am shaped less like Big Man on Campus and more like Big Bird. This is why old men have their pants hiked up to their nipples. It's not a fashion choice. It's just that it's the first point at which their body tapers in enough for anything to hang on to.

When my key wad gets too big, I begin to examine my life to see why it has become so complicated. But in spite of the mass of keys, in spite of the Jingle Bells song I make when I walk, I can't part with any of them. I need them just to manage my bar: front door, back door, storage room, apartment door, safe, etc., sheesh.

With Mick's Music & Bar itself coming to its final lock-up, I expected to have moments of mixed emotions, second thoughts, sentimental memories, and such. To my surprise, every day seemed pretty much like a regular work day. Even though we had "last day open!" twice, thanks to the buyer's shady funding, I didn't really get that feeling. I can only guess it's because I've worked there so long it just feels second nature, and my body won't accept that anything is changing.

We closed on the sale yesterday. Afterwards, I stopped in the bar to help one of the new guys get oriented. Afterwards, as I was leaving, it occurred to me that I should turn in my keys. I slowly unthreaded my "work" ring from my "life" ring—yes, I have a system for everything—and suddenly my softball-sized shrine shrunk down to just a few simple, lightweight keys. I felt naked. And like the naked, liberated.

I walked slowly through the front door, and out of habit called back, "Do you want me to lock you in?" realizing before I even finished asking that I no longer could. I couldn't come and go as I pleased. It wasn't my door anymore.

That's when that feeling finally hit me.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Poll Position

When I was a kid I marched up and down the sidewalk in front of my house carrying a "Richard Nixon for President" sign. I didn't really know who he was—I was nine—but I knew there was an election, and I found the sign in the alley, and I liked marching around. I had some doubt because I thought his opponent might be born for public service because his name was McGovern. But on the other hand, Nixon's running mate was Spiro Agnew, a name which is an anagram of "Gains Power." Besides, one of my favorite toys was a Spirograph.

A lot of public officials get elected thanks to such associations. For a while there just being named Kennedy got you a good government job. Back then no one even asked if you could keep your car out of the river.

But the times, they are a-changin'. Caroline Kennedy, as poised and elegant and toothy-beautiful as her father John, was startled when someone asked why she deserved Clinton's vacated Senate seat. She smiled and said, "Kennedy?" But it wasn't enough.

Nobody was ready for that. Unrelated Kennedys across the country were aghast at the implication: they might actually have to be For Something. This could even spread to the Cavanaughs.

As I write this, Barack Obama has been President of the United States for ten minutes. But one thing he has done already is show a whole lot of people that they matter. We saw our vote create a change. We got out of our La-Z-Boys, and it made a difference. Holy cow, the system works? Who knew.

And now that we're getting what we want, we have to think about what we want. We'll discover we actually care.

I still love Spirograph, but I'll think twice before waving an Agnew sign.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Paper Training

Little Jack Horner sat in a corner
Eating his Christmas pie
He stuck in his thumb, pulled out a plum
And said, "What a good boy am I!"

After reading that, I headed for the kitchen, my size 3 Keds squeaking on the linoleum, and stuck my thumb directly into a freshly baked pie. I pulled out my thumb, and the golden, steaming crust broke open like a volcano. It was an apple pie, as it turned out. For a brief moment I pondered having never actually seen a plum pie. The only thing stuck to my thumb now was boiling hot, sticky apple syrup. I forgot about plums, screamed, and did the hot thumb dance. Mom looked over her shoulder and, without any mention whatsoever regarding what a good boy was I, whacked me with a newspaper.

I love the newspaper, which is surprising considering my upbringing. I read it cover-to-cover every day. My parents did too, especially on Sunday, the special sections strewn about on our big dining table like assorted chocolates, anchored by steaming cups of coffee.

I never saw my parents roll the newspapers back up into weapons. Perhaps there were fifty of them hidden strategically about the house, or maybe my parents kept one in a holster strapped to their thigh. When our family dog got sick and started to barf, preceded by that surprisingly goose-like honk…honk…honk…, Dad yelled "No!" and swatted her on the flank with a newspaper produced from thin air, as if it had been resting like a loaded mousetrap under his trigger finger. When I feel like I might throw up, I need someone to pet my back and softly repeat, "Poor baby." I don't need to be told not to do it, because barfing is self-punishing. To be swatted mid-puke would be an awful indignity.

I got a puppy and a little sister at about the same time, although I think it was a coincidence. When the time came for potty training, the puppy got the newspaper like a Steve Gadd drum solo, but Jodi didn't get swatted once. Maybe, like me, she learned by watching. You can learn a lot from a newspaper. I think that's why they say it smarts.

Newspapers don't really hurt that much, but the noise is such a crisp crack that you think it should have hurt, so you cry just in case. Smarting on my behind and in my head, betrayed by my Little Golden Book of Nursery Rhymes, which had been planted on me by my very own mother, who was now putting her smoking newspaper back into its holster, I protested.

"I only did it because Jack did it first!"

I always forget: Jack is my Dad's name too.

Whack!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Driving Lessons

I was supposed to have closed Mick's Music & Bar by now. Sold it. Run off to Canún, joined the circus or something. That's all still in the plan, but there has been a postponement. It's like having a lovely classic car for sale, and you sell it, but the new owner doesn't pick it up for a few weeks, and you still have it, and do you drive it?

Well, heck yeah.

So we decided to host some special shows, because it's what we love. They'll pop up like daisies while we take the old girl for one more spin.

Rachel had a classic car when she was sixteen. She was a waitress and I was a 14-year-old busboy at the same Fancy Restaurant in Western Nebraska, so fancy you'd wear your good boots and take off your hat. Rachel often gave me a ride home, and I'd beg her to let me drive, turning the five-minute lift into a half-hour adventure, growling loosely over gravel roads. Her car had a horn that was a chrome bar curved inside the steering wheel like a big honking smile. The manual shifter looked like an oversized turn signal attached to the steering column, skinny as my arms. The silver grill matched my smile: wide and crooked.

We'd often stop to talk, at one of the sand pit lakes or an abandoned parking lot. One night she decided to teach me how to kiss. We puckered up tight as a fist, and just as I was getting used to the idea of mouths touching, she stuck out her tongue. It was as startling as having a mouse poke its head out of your cannoli. Sexy as a Pla-Doh factory. For a long time I didn't feel the desire to practice again.

But if nothing else, she taught me how to drive. At fifteen my dad thought I was a prodigious student driver, and I let him because it felt better than him thinking I was a sneak. Maybe he was just proud of me for being able to keep a secret. Regardless, fifteen minutes after I turned 16 I had my driver's license, and I never saw Rachel again.

I think she moved or something. People come and go when you're a kid. I remember her scratchy polyester waitress uniform as well as my too-loose, too-short bus-boy vest, with its pocket full of crouton crumbs. I remember the musty smell of her old car, the skinny-hard feel of the battleship-gray steering wheel, and the squeak of the bench seat as you crept across to the other side. Windows on old cars fog more.

I like the way the windows at Mick's fog in the winter, when it's full of nice warm people. We're going to take her for a few more spins while we can. Clink some glasses. We might have a show, we might not, but we'll be there for a few more nights anyway, just having fun until things change again and everybody moves on.