Lewis Mock teased the crowd with a bit of Hendrix-style “Star Spangled Banner” on his red Gibson guitar, before pouncing on the riff of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” Bill Warshaw set the tempo on the high hat of his DW drum set. Chris Cave joined the groove on his Nord Electro 4 keyboard as Bill drummed that steady beat we all knew and loved. And last, but not least, Jonathon Jambor jumped in on his Fender bass. Had we gone back in time? Was it 1969? Had we stepped behind a magic curtain in order to watch Birth, the band we loved during our adolescent years, perform live in Dodge City, Kansas? No! We weren’t in some Dorothy-induced-dream sequence; we were watching Birth perform live at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kansas, for the 2018 Kansas Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony (KMHoF). Birth friends and family members were ready to rock.
Lewis, Bill, Chris, and Jonathon showed their passion for playing rock and roll music at an early age in Dodge City, Kansas. Their moms were best friends, they lived near each other, and they all shared a deep love of music. Birth began playing gigs in 1966/1967. Dodge City is known for its history, infamy, and its hazy-filtered stories depicted on television (Gunsmoke), movies (Dodge City, circa 1939 with Errol Flynn), and countless fictional tales. Tom Clavin’s excellent book Dodge City details the town from an historical perspective, and Robert Rebein’s books Headlights on the Prairie and Dragging Wyatt Earp provide an insider’s look as to what it was like growing up in Dodge City during the seventies and eighties. For most people around my age growing up in the fifties, sixties, and seventies in Dodge City, dragging Wyatt Earp was a rite of passage. The hotter and faster the car, the better for driving down the famously-named boulevard. But there was more to life than boyfriends, fast cars, and living in a town where Boot Hill was a major tourist attraction: Music roared from our car stereos and radios as we cruised the streets of Dodge City. In dance halls and church basements, we discovered things about ourselves that our imaginations were just beginning to intuit as we listened to live music.
Hometown bands such as Friar Tuck and The Monks (KMHoF Class of 2008) and Birth rocked our world at various venues in town, and our parents were allowed some peace and quiet (“Turn down that stereo!”) while we moved and grooved to live music. Although home stereos, car radios, or 8-track tape players provided reliable ways for listening to our favorite music, there was something magical about listening to a live band play music. Plus, if a boy asked a girl to dance, well, that was the coolest thing ever. Otherwise, we stood in place, clapped along to the beat, and sang along to the lyrics to the songs we knew and loved. Birth made those songs live and breathe.
According to Chris Cave, Birth was “always a cover band. We played songs that people knew. We bought records at Ben Franklin and at Eckles Record Department. We played songs we liked. We wanted to get people singing and dancing and just engaging with us and each other. Music was a door to the world beyond Dodge City during those times.” Not only did Birth provide a door into possibilities for life elsewhere, for those of us who loved listening to Birth, we did our chores and homework, and followed house rules just so our parents would give us a ride to listen to Birth play music. We wanted to be with our friends, and we wanted to hear rock and roll music.
In Daniel J. Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain On Music, he suggests that “when we are young, and in search of our identity, we form bonds or social groups with people whom we want to be like, or whom we believe we have something in common with. As a way of externalizing the bond, we dress alike, share activities, and listen to the same music…This ties us into the evolutionary idea of music as a vehicle for social bonding and societal cohesion” (231). My friends and I knew that if we showed up somewhere Birth was playing the songs we loved that we would be surrounded by like-minded people. We could dance to the beat, sing along to the songs, and for an hour or two, experience the joy of being with people who mattered to us. As Charles Fernyhough reminds us in Pieces of Light, “Songful memories show how closely the making of autobiographical memories is linked to our sensory and emotional experience of the world” (55). We didn’t know it then, but we were creating memories that we would be able to relive much later in life.
As years passed and people left Dodge City and went their separate ways, Birth continued to play gigs, although I was never able to attend one prior to my high school reunion in 2013. During our reunion weekend, we reconnected with old friends, and we enjoyed the fabulous music of Birth as they rocked the Dodge House on a Saturday night. (Please read “Reunion” from October 2013 on this blog for more of that story.) Almost five years had passed since I had last seen Birth perform live, so I was very excited about hearing them play again.
On Friday night in Lawrence, Kansas, the DoubleTree Inn provided the venue for an acoustic performance by Birth. Other bands played before Birth, and we cheered those bands on as we chatted with old friends. When Birth finally took the stage, floor space in front of a pool table, fan mania erupted. It was if we were back in junior high, only we were all much older and hopefully wiser. We still knew the words to the songs, we could still dance, and no one can out hoot and holler a group of Dodge City fans when they are in the zone. According to Chris Cave, Birth “winged it throughout the entire acoustic jam. Lewis would not tell us in advance what songs we were going to play, but he drove that bastard home. It turned out to be one of the peak experiences I’ve ever had playing with Birth. Playing acoustically was something we had never done before, and it actually inspired us to think about what it really means to be Birth.” Lewis said that for Friday night’s gig, they “didn’t have a plan. I just played whatever came to mind. For the first song, I told Chris I was going to play in the key of E, so he could have the correct harmonica. I thought of ‘Get Back.’ They guys had no idea what I was going to play.” Well, for the Birth fans in the audience, we felt as if we were watching the well-oiled machine we knew and loved.
To close out the evening, Lewis led the band into an old Beatles song, “Blackbird,” and when he sang “you were always waiting for this moment to arise,” I felt a shiver of the past run through my veins. Paul McCartney’s inspiration for the song he wrote in 1968 was the civil rights movement and what was happening in Little Rock at the time. As Lewis sang the song, I flashed back to the turbulent times of the sixties when we watched the evening news with our parents and wondered what was going to happen next. Would we grow up in a world so full of despair and war? What would our future hold? Music seemed to be the key to whatever would happen in our lives, and protest songs and love songs both had a place in our music repertoire. We learned to get through our days with music as our main medicine.
After Birth played the final notes of “Blackbird,” and finished their acoustic set, my friend Gretchen and I returned to our hotel. After a night of sleep, and then running around Lawrence on Saturday morning, we headed to Free State Brewing next to Liberty Hall for the Birth “Meet and Greet.” The room was packed. We mingled, laughed, and cheered the members of Birth on, promising to be out in full force for the induction ceremony. We did not let them down. We headed to Liberty Hall and positioned ourselves close to the dance floor. Where else?
When Kathy Quinn from Fox 4 News in Kansas City introduced the band before Lewis Mock’s induction speech, we were thrilled at seeing our hometown band up on stage under the big lights receiving this great recognition. When Birth took the stage again a bit later for their thirty-minute set, the “sea of birth” as Erin Mock, Lewis Mock’s daughter referred to us, we moved and swayed as if we were ocean waves rolling into shore. How appropriate that Birth would begin their set with “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple. Fernyhough says that “A song that might have been heard many hundreds of times can nevertheless send the listener back in time to its first hearing” (54). Oh, I stepped through that time machine, and it was 1972. Damn, it was good to be alive, and here I was with some of the same friends I had back then. Dancing. Singing. In the music zone.
Since the band only had a thirty-minute time slot, they had to be tight. According to Bill Warshaw, they could see the clock timing down from the stage, and they “used the whole thirty minutes.” The band played Spirit’s “1984,” the Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash,” (where we were literally jumping), Free’s “All Right Now,” Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen,” the Beatles “You Can’t Do That,” Cream’s “Crossroads,” and Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” before ripping into “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf. We had this. As one Birth fan told Lewis, “Birth was the soundtrack of my life.”
As the members of Birth left the stage, I felt as if had run a half marathon again. I was both exhausted and exhilarated. Some of us took a short break from the action even though there was much more music by other inductees to follow. I had to go outside to breathe in some fresh Kansas air. I knew that I had witnessed and been part of something truly wonderful. Not only was I lucky enough to be in the company of such great music fans, but I was thrilled for the members of Birth and the recognition they so richly deserved for their musicianship, their love of entertaining, and their heartfelt desire to connect to their fans.
For the fans, we headed our separate ways the next day, with our promises to get together soon, and to stay in touch. For the members of Birth, parting was also bittersweet. Chris Cave said that “The moment was book-ended: from the moment I started practicing at home for this event, to the Sunday morning that we travelled home and had a brief hug and goodbye at breakfast. That was a moment! And a tough one at that.” I can only imagine. I did suggest to Bill Warshaw that the band should get a bus and go out on tour. After all, why break up such a good thing? Friends? Family? Great music? That Dodge City blood running through our veins? He said, “Sure, and we’ll get Tara Hufford to paint the bus in a hippie theme.” Sounds good to me. Birth fans will be ready to roll. I have my red dancing shoes ready to go.
What does it mean to you to be an inductee into the KMHoF?
Lewis: To be voted in, put on the ballot, be inducted, and to have so many people show up blew my mind. It was overwhelming and beautiful.
Bill: I guess to be there with all of that other real talent like Kansas, Melissa Etheridge, and Mike Finnigan (to name a few) is just plain humbling.
Jonathon: I admit this event was completely off my radar. As Lewis said in his acceptance speech, Birth was really all about sharing the music we loved with our friends. We didn’t do it for the money or notoriety—or even to bug grownups. We weren’t trying to change the world or make any kind of statement. We just loved playing those songs for all of you. And the $1 at the door thing? We just did it because that’s what you did at a concert. Heck, we would have done it for nothing. What will we do with this accolade? Personally, I will ask for an additional fifty bucks when we offer to play for next year’s prom at Minneola.
Chris: It’s such an honor. It strikes me as phenomenal the way we came in. Other bands have CDs, posters, promo photos, a website, Facebook page, YouTube videos, etc., and we didn’t have any of that. We never did this for fame and fortune. They (KMHoF) opened doors for us. They didn’t even know if we could perform, but we promised them we could! They took us at our word and couldn’t deny the amazing support of our fans, from the overwhelming number of votes we got from our Fanbase. Friends and families helped us gain access into the KMHoF. As Lewis says, it was as close to the Grammys as he, or any of us, was going to get.”
What moment during the induction ceremony stands out as “the” moment?
Chris: The whole thing was a moment.
Jonathon: Well, to begin with, my musical tastes have changed a lot. I still like music from the 60s, but not of the 1960s, but rather that of the 1560s. I am much more into hymnody than popular music these days. I would have to say that the most touching part of the weekend wasn’t the induction ceremony itself, but seeing so many old friends there: It was very touching.
Bill: One memorable moment for me was on Friday when we rehearsed at Stan Herd’s studio, and his friend Stanley Sheldon showed up. Sheldon was the bass player for Tommy Bolin and Peter Frampton on the Comes Alive album. He is currently touring with Grand Funk Railroad. Needless to say that I was a little nervous when he showed up.
Lewis: The minute I played the first chord on my guitar for the first song. I thought are we really freaking doing this? I looked at the guys and wondered how did we get here? All of my life I have dreamed of playing on the stage at Liberty Hall. I went to high school in Lawrence and graduated from Lawrence High School. I also went to KU for a while, and I saw so many shows there. I grew up as a kid in Dodge listening to KOMA radio out of Oklahoma City, and they were always advertising the ‘Red Dog Inn’ (now called ‘Liberty Hall’) in Lawrence where The Fabulous Flippers played as well as the Roaring Red Dogs and many other of the great Mid-Continent Bands. As a kid, my mom worked with The Fabulous Flippers, and I worshipped them. I always dreamed of playing music on that stage, and now I have. It was a dream come true.
First of all, no matter how many people have joked about it over the years, Gregg Allman did not write “Melissa” about me. In my bluesy, sultry-voiced, still-developing-mind, I imagined that if he had only known me, he would most certainly have written the song about me. Having one’s name associated with a highly popular song is sort of like telling people you are from Kansas. You wait for the chuckle and the inevitable comeback: “Did you know Dorothy?” from the The Wizard of Oz. Or better yet, was I actually Dorothy in disguise? Hilarious! As the character Cher would have said in Clueless, “As if!” I decided I should stop wearing pigtails for the rest of my life, and that my gingham dress had to go. I haven’t quite given up the red shoes yet. I do believe that if I create the right playlist for myself, I can become anyone I want to be. After all, we have had the power all along to let music guide us down whatever long and winding road we choose to take.
Even if I had stumbled across a yellow brick road, I can’t imagine life as a gal named Dorothy. What must she go through to have a name so associated with a fictional character? I have loved my name all of my life, and I thanked my mother a few times during my terrible teens for bestowing it on me. According to my mother, I was named after a relative who was born in the 1800s. It was as if my mother had been waiting all of her life to name someone Melissa. Luckily, I came into her life before our dog Stinker. I doubt if even Gregg Allman could have come up with lyrics for that name.
According to Gregg Allman’s memoir, he was searching for a name to use in a song he was working on, and he heard a woman calling for “Melissa” in a grocery store. In my young and very fertile imagination, I imagined it was me. One problem though: I had never been to Florida, which is where Allman was when he heard a woman calling for a young girl in a grocery store.
When I was in high school, my head inflated with a music-filtered ego, I imagined a cute teenaged boy with long dark hair and deep brown eyes, essentially George Harrison’s look-alike, strumming his guitar, and singing to me. The room would be dark. He would stare into my eyes. After he was through, he would lean forward and tell me how beautiful I was. That actually happened to me once at a party, only at the end of the song, the young guitar player asked if I liked the way he played the song. I said yes, and then we stared at each other, clueless as to what was supposed to happen next. Unfortunately, romantic fantasies do not always end well.
My love affair with the late Tom Petty’s music grew out of listening to his songs and realizing how perfect some of them were for my running playlist. In the 80s, I used a Sony Walkman with cassettes in them and in the 90s, I had a portable CD player to listen to tunes. Listening to the same CD for a six-mile run made me slightly crazy. Around 2010, I received an Apple iPod Nano that turned my life around. Playlists! A device I could stick in my pocket! Of course, Apple has now discontinued the iPod Nano, and, naturally, I dropped mine the other day. The face cracked, but it still works. Kind of like me. I’m not ready to switch to my phone for a playlist or whatever new thing Apple is selling for my playlist, because it won’t fit into the pocket of my workout pants. As Tom Petty sings, “I Won’t Back Down” until I don’t have a choice. I’m very stubborn, and I thank my late father for that distinctive trait.
I have only recently returned to walking on the roads with a definite pep to my step since my surgery in April to fix an acetabular labral tear in my right leg. My surgeon wants me to hold off on running until April 2018. I am being very patient and listening to my doctor on this one. I recently graduated from physical therapy, and I will miss those weekly trips to Traverse City where I drove the back roads and enjoyed checking out the animals at the beefalo farm on Fletcher Road, slowing down while passing the sheep farm on Boardman Road, and avoiding deer making bad decisions all along the way. In the past six months, I have seen eagles, hawks, and a sheriff stopping speeders in front of me (whew!) on a routine basis. My music playlists have all been extremely helpful in getting me pumped up for physical therapy. As the Allman Brothers sing, “I’m just looking for some good clean fun.” And there is no place like the physical therapist’s fun house to experience that good-time feeling.
On Labor Day weekend, I listened to Tom Petty’s song “U Get Me High” on my playlist as I walked the 5K along Lake Superior in Marquette, Michigan, during the weekend’s races. My son ran the half-marathon, and he had been competing in road races all year. This was the first race I was able to participate in since November of 2016. I had asked my physical therapist, Josh, to write a note giving me permission, so that my family would believe that I had healed enough to walk in a road race. Yes, walk, not run. I was thrilled to be out in the rain and wind, inhaling the air and being part of a group of people who loved road races. I wondered what some of their stories were as I walked along, singing to the songs on my playlist. After the race was over, I enjoyed a beer with my son and husband at Blackrocks Brewery, and I could not erase the happy grin on my face as we sat in the bar. I am now gearing up to walk the Turkey Trot in Traverse City on Thanksgiving Day. I walked in the Turkey Trot last year, but I was in a lot of pain. Did I mention that I am stubborn, and I should not have been participating? This year, I am ready to walk pain-free. I no longer need a note from my physical therapist.
During all of my travels over the years, either walking on the road or driving, I have realized that depending on radio stations, including the multiple offerings on Sirius, or listening to my CDs does not always fit my mood. My trusty little iPod with its randomly named playlists (Walking, Training, Marquette) works perfectly in the car or when I am out walking on the road. When my friend Susan and I took a road trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula this summer, I created a playlist with songs I knew would remind us of our high school days, and other songs I knew would make us feel the happiness groove as we worked our way along Lake Superior’s shoreline taking photos and collecting rocks. Although my right leg was far from healed, I could move around enough to get where I needed to go. Music and great friends have always been my inspiration to move.
I know that as time moves forward, my leg will continue to heal, and I will participate in more road races. As far as my photography goes, I can now bend low enough to the ground to shoot photos I could not take for a long time. I can also climb steps now, so that will open up another vantage point for me. When my husband and I were at Tahquamenon Falls a few months ago, I ventured down the 94 steps to the brink of the falls to shoot photos, and then climbed back up. My heart was racing, but I don’t know if it is because I was woefully out of shape, or had a super adrenalin rush. After all, as Tom Petty sings: “It was a beautiful day. The sun beat down. I had the radio on. I was driving…runnin’ down a dream.” It might have been a small goal, but in my last three visits to Tahquamenon Falls, I had only stared at those steps as if they were lined with rattlesnakes. Someday, I kept reminding myself. That day arrived.
In Gregg Allman’s last CD, he covers an old Willie Dixon song with great poignancy. Gregg passed away on May 27th this year. The lyrics to the song are words I wish we could all live by: “I live the life I love, and I love the life I live.” Life is full of challenges, and some days are really, really tough. The death of someone you love, cancer, a brain tumor, and a broken heart are just a few of the things that can knock us down. Music, even if we have to seek it out, can lift us up again. I hope your playlists inspire you as much as mine do, and I hope you never hesitate to update your playlist if it isn’t helping you get your groove on.
With the drop of the needle on a brand new turntable my son bought me for Christmas, “Where Did Our Love Go?” by the Supremes blasted from the shoebox-sized speakers on my desk. Static, crackling noises, and the occasional skip over a story-there-somewhere scratch in the vinyl all contributed to a 33-rpm rewind into the past. I danced and sang as if no time had passed since my parents had given me my first two rock-n-roll albums in 1965. I soon followed the Supremes with the Beatles IV album. My husband and son seemed to fade into view as I reverted to my ten-year old self. Musical nostalgia worked its magic fingers into my heart and soul.
When I was young, my parents played music in our living room on a stereo that was as long as a bathtub, but not as wide. One of the first albums my parents bought specifically for me to play on the living room stereo was Burl Ives Sings Little White Duck. Am I fascinated today with ducks and all things feathery because of this? Is Burl Ives responsible for my obsession with listening to a song repeatedly until I am sick of it? I still have the album. I’m resisting the urge to play it right now on my new turntable.
Matt’s gift to me triggered memories that I had long forgotten. Daniel Levitin in The World in Six Songs, suggests that “music triggers memories long ago buried, and this seems especially true of popular love songs” (278). While growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, my mom, dad, and I listened to music on the stereo and in the car. Radio station KGNO catered to my parents’ crowd, but I loved listening to KEDD, “The Rock of Dodge City,” on the AM radio dial. On television, we watched The Lawrence Welk Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, Hee Haw, Shindig, The Monkees, and any show we could find that focused on music. I learned the ways of love by listening to music in my home and car. Music created a different version of an idealized fairytale romance than books did, well, at least the books I was reading. Is there anything more romantic than listening to George Harrison sing “Something” as you sit in your bedroom and contemplate life? If the bedroom walls in the house I grew up in could talk, they would tell you about a dreamy-eyed teenager who spent an enormous amount of time imagining her life, framed in a song.
I could also dream on the dance floor when I ventured out to listen to Dodge City bands live. Friar Tuck and the Monks at the National Guard Armory! Birth live and on-stage at the Warehouse! Their covers of popular dance songs, and especially love songs I was sure were being sung to and for me, further sent me spiraling upwards to the land of all things musical, and downward into an avoidance of anything called homework. Whenever I hear a song from my past, a story always seems to mirror the lyric of the song.
If “memory wants to be true to the way things are, but it also wants to tell a story that suits the teller” (162), according to Charles Fernyhough in Pieces of Light, then some of my stories seem a bit confusing to me now. Why was I so obsessed with Grace Slick? As soon as I got home from school during the week, and long before my parents would arrive home from work, I would rush to the stereo, insert a spider (45-rpm adapter) into the record, slide the record down upon the spindle, let the music begin to play, and then sing and dance. Yes, I was that weirdo. I played “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” while I worked on my best Grace Slick impersonation. Was it just her voice that compelled my fascination with those songs, or the forbidden desire for an altered state of mind? Or did I just want a very cool boyfriend who could play a rocking guitar? The story I would tell today that would suit my older and wiser self is that I loved the freedom of belting out a song about love in my house, and singing “White Rabbit” made me feel very cool and dangerous at the time. When my parents were home, I played music in my room, and in our small 1940s farmhouse with paper-thin walls, I started to believe my name was “Turn it down.” When I sang with my mother in the kitchen, we were as loud as we wanted to be.
My mother and I both loved to sing, and she taught me the art of making up silly songs in the kitchen while doing dishes or eating fried carrots as fast as she could make them. My father would sit in the living room, a mere twenty feet away, smoke his cigar and drink a Coors beer after a hard day’s work. I think he enjoyed hearing us as we became giddy with laughter at our nonsensical verse. We could really cut a rug in that tiny kitchen.
When my son was growing up, I realized that music was another way in which we could spend time together. I liked playing with cars and Legos, but music had a way of working its way into our lives every day. We played music constantly in our house, and Sesame Street worked its way into our daily lives. I can sing “C is for Cookie” and “Rubber Duckie” to this day, and my son is 35 years old. I also started making up songs just for my son. I still make up instant songs, and I wrote songs for the workplace band I used to be in.
Over the holidays, we were visiting the neighbors and their extended family, and my 88-years-young neighbor mentioned a song I wrote, “Radio.” I had performed the song with the band, The Cremains of the 10th Circle, when they visited my home a few summers ago. She and some of her family members, friends, and neighbors, had attended our basement rock-and-roll party. Perhaps this was my Grammy-award-winning moment. Someone remembered a song I wrote and performed. Hold the applause, and pass me a beer!
Rod Stewart sings that “Every Picture Tells a Story,” and I believe that every song I love has a unique story hiding behind the lyrics if I am willing to pay attention to it. My memories of the first time I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan’s song “Texas Flood” are a bit muddled though. Even though I cannot remember what radio station I heard it on, or where I was at the time, I remember thinking that I had just fallen in love with a song, a guitarist, and singer. I could not get enough of that song. Is there a difference in our memory-making process when we are older as far as falling in love with a song? I wonder.
I still love the Beatles and the Supremes, and I easily time-travel to that space and time when I could dance and sing in my house and feel nothing but love and joy surrounding me. Yes, there were many, many nights I listened to songs of heartbreak in my room as I grew up and teenage boys messed with my heart, but I also played songs that forced me to get up and dance.
When I was with my cousins in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last September, Sybil played “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars on her phone for us. I have the song on my running playlist, so I knew the song well. We all began to do some sort of version of dancing. We had it. We owned it. And now whenever I hear that song, I am safe in the arms of music nostalgia. How will I tell this story ten years from now?
For the moment I think about my mother, and how she would have joined us jitterbugging our way around my cousin Audrey’s house that day. I am fortunate that my parents, especially my mother, loved music so much that it was a necessity, like bread and water, in our daily lives. So even though the Supremes “Where Did Our Love Go?” and the Beatles “Words of Love” may have opened my eyes to the ways of love, I believe that songs I have yet to hear will be teaching me many more things as I dance and sing my way into the unknown.
I can’t believe it has been eight years since my mother died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Because Alzheimer’s strips away memory and function at such a slow rate, it seems as if my mother died long before her body took its last breath. It’s as if one day she was kissing my cheek, and the next day, she entered into a long sleep as her body started to shut down. With every labored breath she took, I tried to remember everything my mother had taught me about facing the tough times. We had a joke we would say to each other when we needed to get to the point, but there were hundreds of side stories that would try and jump into the mix. Instead of saying that’s another story, one of us would say, “That’s a whole nother story,” Our language. Our stories.
I still feel my mother’s presence every day, especially when something wonderfully unexpected happens: A red cardinal at the bird feeder when I’m preparing to submit writing to a literary journal. A burst of sunshine through the clouds when I am feeling sad. A handwritten card from someone. I still have all the cards and letters my mother wrote to me after I moved away from home.
A whole nother thing I learned about myself after my mother died was that I would often ask myself what my mother would do in a particularly stressful situation. She constantly told me to “kill” someone “with kindness” if someone happened to be causing me pain. That can be a very difficult thing to do. I have not always been successful. I am working on not reacting negatively when someone does something unkind to me, and I am focusing more on the good things that happen to me and cherishing the moment. These good things seem to be happening more often now, and when I least expect it.
After six weeks of painful physical therapy, I decided it was time to test my body in a road race. Because my son was signed up to run the St. Patrick’s Day road race in Bay City, Michigan, I decided I would attempt the 5k walk. I hadn’t run since January 23rd, so I promised my physical therapist that I would walk slowly. My husband and son both doubted that I knew what “slow” meant. They were right.
I felt good at the starting line. I was surrounded by people anxious to get going in the thirty degree temperature. I put my earbuds in and started my playlist. I waited for the race to begin and the crush of bodies to move forward. As soon as I could, I passed a bunch of people and began walking. I tried to go slow, but my body seemed to be dictating my pace.
With a little over a mile to go, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. Becky, as I would soon find out, indicated that she liked my pace, and she wanted to walk with me. I knew I was going at a pretty good clip, and I had just strategically passed through a group of walkers blocking my route, so I didn’t have to slow down. I was in the groove.
As Becky and I continued at our fast pace, we began to chat a bit. I pulled out my left earbud, so I could hear her better, and we really cranked up our pace. I explained that I had recently finished PT, so I wasn’t sure how I would do. Becky was a great motivator. It was one of those moments where I felt as if my mother was keeping watch over me, and somehow picked Becky out of the crowd to cheer me on.
We ended up finishing the race fairly close together. Becky had a better kick at the end and finished just ahead of me. We were passing quite a lot of people as we headed towards the finish line, and I felt pretty good about that. Becky and I chatted briefly after the race, and I headed off to find my son.
Matt had run a good race at a sub-seven minute mile. He was 11th in his very competitive age group. As Matt drove back to Midland, I checked the results on my phone. I was shocked. I was second in my age group. Although the fastest walker in my age group had a 12:11 pace, my 13:31 pace was a keeper. Becky also finished second in her much younger age group. Despite my husband’s reminder that I had promised to walk slow, I told him that once Becky showed up, I felt as if I was meant to walk at that pace for the race. Some things are just meant to happen.
On the day before the anniversary of my mother’s death, my friend Darcy sent me a link to a poem about a woman dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s. Beth Copeland’s poem is about erasure, and I thought of my own mother’s memories being slowly erased as we moved through her illness. I missed her laugh and her moments of “whole nother stories” that we would no longer share. I wish I had written more of those stories down. They seem lost somewhere in my own memories, but sometimes one of those stories will find its way into an unexpected moment.
I thought about the moment during the road race when Becky and I were nearing the finish line. I could hear Becky saying “we’ve got this” in my left ear, but the earbud in my right ear suddenly seemed to ring out louder. Chris Stapleton’s “Parachute” blasted through the sounds of the race, well-wishers, and music playing somewhere nearby. “Baby, I will be your parachute,” seemed to take on even more meaning. As I marched my way towards the finish line, I looked up into the beautiful blue sky, and I thought that if only my mother was still alive, I would have lots of stories to tell her. The one about my promise to walk slowly. The one about a stranger showing kindness to me. The one about drinking a beer with my son at lunch after the race. Or the one about my long drive home and the fact that I could not wipe the smile off of my face. But that’s a whole nother story.
Perhaps the hot summer sun festered an old love-sick sore in his mouth. He leaned against his seal coating squeegee as if it were an extension of his self-esteem. He grinned at me as he smoothed out the driveway he worked on, the smell of seal coating oozing through the humid air like burning tires. “Good morning. Beautiful weather.” I agreed and smiled as I continued on my morning run. As the road curved to the right, I glanced towards the left. “I fancy doing me some of that,” he said as he pointed towards me. His face morphed into a venomous leer, and his inference was quite clear. His young coworker looked horrified and quickly lowered his head. Mr. Fancy That seemed quite pleased with himself as if this line had worked somewhere for him before. His smiled reeked of delusionary charm.” I quickened my pace as I ran the last mile home. The theme song from Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone started playing in my head like an unwanted earworm.
Cue the music. Hasn’t everyone had a Twilight Zone moment? Imagine Rod Serling’s serious voice delivering the unwelcome news. Over the years, I have heard plenty of strange comments while out running or during random conversations with people. Really? Did that person mean to insult me with that compliment? Did you mean to suggest that I am older than dirt? When someone tells me I look good for my age, should I say thank you? A student in one of my creative writing classes one year had described a character as “old” in her one of her short stories. I made the mistake of asking how old the character was in front of the class. The student pointed at me and said, “Your age.” Well, thank you so much. It was certainly a TZM (twilight zone moment) for me, but I think the rest of the students in the class thought it was the most hilarious thing they had ever heard. Running the roads or teaching classes aren’t the only places I have experienced a TZM.
A woman I barely know came up to me at the end of church one Sunday and said she wanted me to “sing a duet with [her] much-younger boyfriend.” She asked me if I was married, and I quickly flashed some major sparkle at her. She said she needed to check, because she didn’t want me to steal her man away from her. This woman is 86 years old. She said her boyfriend had a really long beard as if I might find him to be irresistible. I’m thinking: ZZ Top? Would he be “A Sharp Dressed Man”? Chris Stapleton? Would he be my “Parachute”? I knocked that vision out of my head and thought about my husband: He reminds me of a young Sam Elliot, mustache and all. I fancy that.
I wondered about this sudden sexual power I had. Okay, so it was only twice in the past six months, but I still wondered what sort of message I was sending. I sweat when I run, and my running clothes are actually pretty boring. When I go to church, I wear jeans and a nice sweater or shirt. Being prematurely accused of stealing someone else’s man before I had even met him seemed a verifiable TZM. I thought of Mickey Gilley’s song “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time?” This Baker Knight penned song was a number one hit in 1976. In 2016, the lyrics took on a whole new meaning.
Suppose closing time is really just a metaphor for aging. Epiphany! I must be getting more desirable the older I get. I was on board with this notion. I now had a reason to live. I now had something to look forward to. I wasn’t getting older; I was getting prettier.
For most of my life, I was referred to as cute. Not beautiful. Not gorgeous. Not pretty. Cute and funny. These are just the words a teenage girl wants to hear as she watches all of her friends get selected for homecoming court or prom queen. At church camp one year, I had the misfortune of being referred to as a cute puppy. Imagine the hit my self-esteem took on that one. I was thirteen at the time. Luckily the puppy stage was short-lived, and in high school, my nickname was Missy. When I moved to California, I informed everyone that I wanted to be called Melissa. After all, it is my name.
I don’t really consider myself cute anymore. I’m too old for that. I’m tolerable. I don’t break mirrors when I look into them. I try not to look horrible in public. I try not to scare my husband in the morning. According to most of the women’s magazines I occasionally read, I don’t even really exist. It seems that once women reach their fifties, well, the advice columns drop right off. I have no idea what to wear anymore without Glamour magazine telling me what’s a “do” or a “don’t.” I do know that women past thirty should never, never, ever, ever wear a skirt that hits above the knees. Apparently, thirty is when “Ugly Knees Syndrome (UKS)” kicks in. I bet each one of you out there has been offended by a woman’s ugly knees at some point. I have also been reading articles about “crepey” skin. When I first saw the word, I thought it was a typo for creepy, but, no, crepey means basically old skin. Cher does not have crepey skin despite being almost 70 years old. Apparently there are ways around this unfortunate development with our skin as we age, but I have decided to stick with the face I was born with. And I am not going to go hide in a coffin until I die.
I am basically happy with myself right now, and my husband seems content with me even if I haven’t washed my hair for three days, put on makeup for a week straight, or bothered to put on a shirt that doesn’t have the name of a road race on it. And for me, he is my sharp dressed man even in his blue jeans and t-shirt. He’s been my parachute for a long, long time.
I guess when those occasional Twilight Zone Moments happen, I will remind myself that I am obviously getting prettier at closing time and that my puppy dog days are over. However, as I slip closer and closer to the twilight years, I plan on singing songs, running or walking, and showing off my ugly knees, crepey skin, and all of the other things that will happen to my body right before closing time.
Clarapy: Clarity + therapy. During a phone conversation with my friend Darcy one day, one in which I was extremely stressed out, I tried to thank her for giving me clarity and free therapy. In a fortuitous slip of the tongue, I uttered “clarapy.” Since I have invented a new word, I guess I have to define it now that it is part of my daily lexicon. As Ray Charles, Humble Pie, and others have attested to in song, “I don’t need no doctor.” They insist they need their “baby,” but what I think they really needed was some clarapy.
Clarity: Lucidity. Understanding. Therapy: Treatment for some sort of disorder whether physical or mental. When I can’t figure out things for myself, I reach out to my friends. True friends. The kind of friends that put up with my crazy. In my case, they understand that there is a 100% chance I will swear, and they still answer my phone calls. I know, in turn, my friends will almost certainly need some clarapy from me during stressful events in their lives. I will listen for as long as they need to talk.
Since a falling out with one of my closest friends almost three years ago, I have been examining friendship relationships more than ever. I learned a lot from books about friendship and my own fractured friendship. True friendship involves a willingness to put up with each other’s junk. The crazy stuff. The “I-can’t-believe-you-did-that” moments. And, in turn, I must put up with their crazy. Clarapy is part of the deal.
In late January, my husband and I went to Florida. His mother was having some health issues, but under our care, she seemed to be improving. We went ahead with our previously made plans. I had agreed to power walk the Melbourne Music Half Marathon with my friend Pat. Despite the fact that I had zero training for a half-marathon, unless you count endless workouts on my elliptical trainer in Michigan, I agreed to give it a try. After all, I had run four half marathons in the past, so I figured I could pull off power walking one without any problem. After all, I had nine days in Florida to train before the race.
Around mile ten on race day, after Pat and I had maintained an under 14 minute-per-mile-pace for the entire race, I realized I had blisters the size of silver dollars on the bottoms of both feet. I also discovered that I had forgotten to put anti-chafing balm on my right arm. Where my arm had rubbed against my tank top, I had a blister/bruise the size of Lake Okeechobee. At mile twelve, Pat and I clocked a 13:29 mile. At the end of the race, I showed Pat my blisters and bruises while I gulped down pizza and beer. She asked why I had never complained during the race. I wondered about that for days and days afterwards while I nursed my sore body back to health. When my mother-in-law’s health suddenly took a dramatic turn and ended up in the hospital, I thought about this more and more.
After a particularly stressful day, I sat outside in the warm Florida sunshine as the sun began to set. A woman across the street rode her three-wheeled bicycle, circling a parking lot. Around and around she went as a small terrier rode in a white basket on the front of her bicycle. For some reason, I felt insanely jealous of this woman. I wanted her bicycle and her dog. What was wrong with me? Logically, I knew I wanted my mother-in-law to heal quickly. I wanted to ease my husband’s pain and stress. After watching me cope with my mother’s Alzheimer’s and my father’s dementia and cancer, a period of about six very stressful years, my husband understood all too clearly the crazy that comes with caring for an elderly parent. It can be the loneliest feeling in the world. I needed to be strong for him. How could I provide clarapy for my husband when all I wanted was to steal a woman’s bicycle and her dog?
Typically, a good run or a power walk works sufficiently for waking up those feel-good endorphins and prevents me from committing a crime. Despite the fact that the hot weather in Florida was the extreme opposite of Michigan’s frozen-lakes-in-winter syndrome with temperatures and wind chills in the negative thirties, I was miserable, but I wasn’t sure what would untangle the threads of craziness circling through my amygdala. I gave a little spin on Pure Prairie League’s song “Amie,” and sang, “Amy G, what you wanna do?” The answer seemed obvious: clarapy. I sent out a few text messages, and that’s when my friends began to offer up their own special brands of medicine.
Phone calls. Emails. Cards. Friends driving across the state of Florida to hang out with us and search for manatees. Eventually, my mother-in-law was in a rehab facility, and we were invited up the coast to stay with friends for several days. We were still just a short car ride away from my mother-in-law. In addition, I had long phone conversations with several Michigan friends where I ranted and raved about all sorts of things, and my friends did not hang up. Instead, my friends provided insights from their own similar situations, words of wisdom, or simply found ways to make me laugh. My friends might not wear capes or have x-ray vision, but they certainly have the power to heal what’s ailing me when exercise isn’t enough.
How was I able to finish the half-marathon when my body hurt so much? I could have stopped, slowed down, or started whining (or swearing which would be much more likely), but I did not want to let Pat down, nor did I want to let myself down. I knew I could do it. “Mind over matter” as my mother used to say. I knew my body would heal later. Why is dealing with a sick parent or child much more difficult? Why do emotions overtake our heart strings and play us like an out-of-tune harpsichord? When my mother-in-law was in the hospital, a woman in the next room kept loudly moaning that she was sorry. She didn’t mean to be bad. She wanted help. I began reliving my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and had to spend time in the chapel just to get my game face on for my husband and mother-in-law. I began to rely more and more on my friends’ gifts of clarapy.
And it is true. Friends are gifts to us. Over the past few years, I have been lucky enough to spend more time with my friends and my cousins. I have learned so much from them every moment we have been together. Many of them have seen me at my absolute worst: the death of my daughter, my mother’s illness, my brain tumor, the death of my dog, and the last few horrible months of my father’s life. These are the things that define me and have made me temporarily crazy.
After each sadness and heartbreak, the fogginess in my brain would begin to lift as my friends and cousins gave the gift of clarapy in their own ways. Those moments are stored in my memory so that I can pull them up at a moment’s notice as if I am opening the pages of an old picture book: Running in the Flint Hills with my cousin Sybil as an eagle soared overhead. After the death of my daughter, receiving almost daily phone calls or visits from my friend Vicki who listened to me talk. Or not. Hugging my friend Darcy at the end of my first road race after Gamma Knife surgery for my brain tumor. Receiving feedback on my writing from my friend Chris as I struggled with language and writing after the effects of radiation and medication. Watching manatees floating in warm waters with my husband and friends Peggy and John in Florida as we worried about my mother-in-law. Intentionally crossing the finish line in step with Pat at the end of a half marathon. The list goes on and on.
I am back in Michigan now running on the roads I find such comfort in. My mother-in-law continues to heal in our home. I try to make my husband laugh as often as possible. I have been working on my clarapy game with him and my friends. I will do everything in my power to give them what they need. It might be as simple as listening or running a race together. Perhaps sitting on a beach somewhere and watching the world go by in silence might be the order of the day. Or perhaps it will be in a way I have not yet imagined. I am ready. My blisters and bruises have healed for now. My heart strings are in tune. I am still thinking about the dog and the bicycle.
I’ve got the elliptical trainer blues, baby. This winter weather is so unkind.
I’ve got the elliptical trainer blues, baby. This winter weather is so unkind.
I can’t run on icy roads, and dangerous wind chills are freezing my mind.
I haven’t been able to run outside for over a week. Is this any way to start a new year’s resolution to run more and become more fit? The last time my running shoes hit the pavement—wait, the icy, snowy, dangerous roads, I practically had to crawl up a hill that I had managed to slip-slide down ten minutes earlier. What fresh hell was this? After the men in the DTE Energy truck shook their heads at me as they tried to avoid running over me on Killer Hill, I wondered if I should do the unthinkable: work out inside. This was the beginning of my winter madness—thus far—in my basement torture chamber, home of my elliptical trainer.
The elliptical trainer is new and somewhat beautiful, well, if you are into workout equipment. Our ten-year-old treadmill started spewing plastic parts and trying to strangle our feet by feeding the band into the motor. I decided to switch from a treadmill to an elliptical trainer, because I had a vague memory of working out on an elliptical trainer at a gym I went to a long time ago. Perhaps a new style of workout was just what I needed. ET would be my comrade in arms.
ET’s perfect face consists of a shiny screen with pre-set workouts of various resistances and speeds. Its arms move, whether or not you are holding on to them, and they are oh-so fit. No chicken wings for this wily girl. ET’s legs are sturdy—sort of like a hockey player’s legs. Although ET’s feet are enormous so that even a small elephant could go toe-to-toe and slow dance, it has a smooth glide to it. I feel as if I am cross-country skiing on it or replicating the sixties dance the monkey. I tried watching television as I became acquainted with ET. I soon found out that trying to navigate the remote with my right hand while ET kept throwing quick right jabs at my face just wasn’t going to work out. Come on woman, I said to myself, use your iPod! Pretend you are out running the roads and feeling happy. The moment I heard Miranda Lambert’s “Gravity is a Bitch” from my playlist, I felt as if I had been reborn.
Yes, ET allows you to stride, work your muscles, swear, sweat, and do it all to a beat, but it is not running. I want to break up with ET, but Mother Nature keeps flipping me off. Doesn’t she understand how much I miss not bonding with her? Doesn’t she miss my interaction with rude drivers on the road? I’m almost positive my husband misses hearing my ten-minute soliloquies about my daily running experiences. After I work out on ET, I trudge upstairs, look longingly outside as if missing a long-lost lover, and curse the snow and ice. The chickadees, blue jays, nuthatches, cardinals, and woodpeckers seem to sigh along with me as they shoot back and forth between the snow-covered pine trees before dipping down into the various birdfeeders in our yard. The deer tracks in the yard remind me that something is moving around outside at night. My tracks from snow shoeing several days earlier have all but disappeared.
One of my goals for the New Year, dare I say resolution and incur the wrath of those who say the word resolution is de rigueur, is to whine less about things I cannot control and do something about it instead. Well, dang! I also decided to swear less this year, but I blew that one about a minute after I announced it to the family. Should I create a new goal/resolution? Are goals and resolutions merely a lost cause for me in 2015? Absolutely not. I will continue to bond with ET until the dangerous wind chills die down, and the roads are somewhat safe. Although the sides of the roads are a little narrower now with all of the snow that has fallen, I will soon be out there waving at the snow plow drivers as I jump out of their way and give the peace sign to drivers who refuse to move over. My blues will evaporate the minute I hit the road in my hat, gloves, and several layers of clothing. I will breathe the rapturous fresh air. For the time being though, I think ET is in the mood for a little J.J. Cale: “They call me the breeze. I keep blowing down the road.”