Monday, December 30, 2013


Twenty-two years ago I stepped inside a classroom at a university that I hadn't had the intention of attending. Shy, insecure, and uncertain as to who I was or wanted to be, I was counting the days until I had enough cash saved to disappear back to South America. Experience had taught me that foreign languages and cultures served to bridge social gaps for me; they hid insecurities and squelched inhibitions that had plagued me since childhood. I had been more comfortable in South America than I ever had in the States, a comfort that was drawing me back there. Besides, I felt pre-destined to marry a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, something of which there was no shortage below the equator.

There I sat in class, mourning my latitude, when in walked a young blonde coed. She was happy, she was confident, and she was late; I hated her before her butt was hidden from my view. I was at once convinced that she had been sent by God to mock me. 

I didn't spend a lot of time in that class, but when I did attend she wasn't there. We passed each other a couple of times on campus, and each time she was too busy with being popular to pay me any attention, while I did my best to look straight ahead, indifferent to her cheerleader good looks and ill-deserved social status. I was angry at her without even knowing her name, because for me she represented everything wrong with high school, everything I was hoping to leave behind come the end of summer.

The school year ended, and I spent most of my waking hours working with my two younger brothers at a frozen yogurt stand down on the boardwalk. I hated the meat market atmosphere of the beach as much as my brothers did, and we entertained ourselves by poking fun at the customers, most of them ordering their yogurt with "wicked" harsh accents and no concept of tipping. The girls dressed, spoke, and acted like daytime hookers, while the boys wore long denim shorts and baseball caps twisted sideways, walking bare-chested in the streets with live snakes around their necks.

I carried a portable typewriter with me in those days, thinking that I might at any moment begin to peck out a short story or a novella worth the time and effort that it would take me to finish it. I worked the rainy days alone, since no one seemed to want to eat frozen yogurt under the grey summer skies of New Hampshire.

It wasn't raining that night, but I was alone anyway. I sat at the counter, ticking away on that portable typewriter, but it wasn't a story I was writing. It was a letter to a dark-haired, dark-eyed, beautiful Latin girl whose face I couldn't pry loose from my memory. I was promising to pay South America a visit at the end of summer, a visit that I hoped would turn into a residency.

"Hi!" The sound of her voice startled me, then rippled through every one of my senses.

I looked up to see that young blonde coed with cheerleader good looks and ill-deserved popularity standing on the customer side of the counter. She was wearing a red tee shirt that brought out the pink in her cheeks.

My mouth followed suit with my eyes, widening in surprise mixed with fear. It took me a moment to respond, and a conversation that I don't fully recall ensued. I don't recall what we talked about, other than the fact that it was a short, sweet, and light conversation. I do remember that as she spoke she smiled, and that I couldn't help but marvel at her kindness. She was not the least bit frightening.

A few nights later, however, I saw her with another man. A man wearing blue jeans, loafers, and a white belt. A white belt on a date. At the beach.

"Matthew, if she'll go out with him, she'll definitely go out with you!" My brothers encouraged.

She sauntered over to the yogurt stand in the middle of her date, leaving Mr. White Belt across the boardwalk at the Taco Hut, where I hoped he was ordering something spicy and disastrous. I held my breath and lost my cool as she walked over.

"Hey, how's your date going?" I asked in a blur of words, each one of them dipped in the hot salsa of mockery.

"Look, I had nothing else to do tonight," she said, and made to walk away.

I took a step back, feeling stupid, my future in South America looking that much more certain.

But she wasn't finished. She spun around and came halfway over the counter, her face as close to mine as the laws of space, time, matter, and physics would allow.

"Besides," she said in a loud voice, "no one else asked me!" Her face was alight with that disarming smile, and her normally pink cheeks flushed red.

Ever the numb and the void when it came to witty retorts to words spoken by pretty girls, I stood there and watched as she turned around and made her way back to Mr. White Belt.

"Matthew..." my brothers chimed together, their own mouths open in disbelief.

"You think?" I mewed, doubt backfilling the space she had left behind.

"Think? I know!" Jared almost shouted. (God bless that kid.)

It took some time, a lot of courage, and a little sister physically pushing me down the boardwalk to the little shop where the blonde with cheerleader good looks worked, but I did eventually ask Elizabeth out on a date.

We went to the aquarium in Boston. She drove her dad's minivan, keeping her right hand on the wheel and her left foot on the dash. The rip in her jeans let the soft skin of her knee show through.

Less than a year after I hated her, I married her. Forever.

Today makes twenty-one years. Blackjack. The house odds were stacked against us, and there were times when we both wanted to walk away, and time when we both wanted to run. But we didn't.

The rest is our history. It's rocky, sharp, and fevered, but also funny, romantic, passionate, and crazy. I'll write it all down one day when the kids are older and can understand what love is, and can forgive their parents for everything they did to each other. And then love them even more for sticking it out.

Maybe I'll use a portable typewriter.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hand Me Ups and Downs

Headline: "Severed hand kept alive on man's ankle"

While I am fascinated, impressed, and even frightened by this news story, I can't help but think of the everyday applications. Let's start with how much easier it would be to scratch your foot if your hand was already down there, and then we’ll move on to the obvious places that need discreet attention at inopportune moments throughout the day. I am pretty certain that if there were a hand growing out of your face, no one would notice should you pick your nose, because they would be distracted by the fact that there is a hand growing out of your face. This leads of course, to the butt; a strategically located hand would allow covert scratching at any time, say for example, in church, while receiving an award, standing in a wedding reception line, or being arrested on network television.

I could go there, and I will: an extra hand grafted to the groin. Think about it: men around the world would finally be able to slump on the couch and watch football without their wives telling them to pull their hand out of their pants. But honey, if you want my hand out of my pants, I’m going to have to take my pants off!

Additional areas of life that would change dramatically, where having extra hands grafted onto the body become an elective surgery (eventually covered by Obamacare, of course).

Sex! (I leave the rest of that one up to your own imagination/perversion, only because my thoughts are too many to insert here.)

Not only would this change the way we scratch and screw, but it would also affect the way we play sports. Goalkeepers would choose to have hands grafted onto their shoulders, waists, and thighs to increase their stopping ability. Wide receivers playing American football would attach hands to their hands, increasing their chances at catching and hanging on to the ball, while running backs would move their hands down to their groin area, preventing defensive players from stripping the ball away (because no one wants to be seen groping another man’s privates out on the gridiron). Fencing, with the addition of extra foils (and the potential for blood), would become the most watched sport during the Summer Olympics, while wrestling would be banned for the disturbing and non-consensual holds that would occur out on the mat.

The guy from Cheap Trick would finally be able to play that double-necked guitar he has been carrying around all these years.

The criminal system would spawn the stuff of Kafka stories, as judges would begin to sentence criminals to hand-relocation surgeries. Thieves would have their hands put high up on their shoulder blades, rendering them all but useless in the practice of their craft. Empty the cash register and stuff the money into my fanny-pack or I’ll shoot in your general direction! Those found guilty of assault would be sentenced to have their hands attached to the sides of their head, making the throwing of a decent punch impossible, and if stubborn or angry enough to try, they would only cause themselves serious neck injuries. Anyone found guilty of a sex crime would have their hands grafted to their buttocks, which would seem like a reward for a few minutes, until their hands fell asleep and the realization that they will be sitting on numb, sensory-deprived hands for the rest of their lives set in.

Bi-Polar parenting would enter a new phase, as crazy parents would begin to spank and hug their children at the same time. This may be offset, however, by the fact that parents would be able to document their children’s lives in HD while actually participating in them at the same time.

Political speeches would be outlawed as a safety precaution, after several Howard Dean “yaw!” like moments ended in concussion. Politicians would also find it easier to plunder taxpayers, however, not just because they would be able to shake constituents hands while simultaneously pick-pocketing them, but because they would be able to cross their extra fingers behind their backs while promising lower taxes and financial security if voted into office. Bill Clinton’s extra hand would wipe away a single tear that threatens to drop down to his bottom (and bitten) lip as he shakes his head and wonders at what it would have been like to serve as both full-time President and pervert at the same time, Barbara Bush would come home to the ranch after shopping and find George in the living room, waving an extra pair of “thumbs up” high into the air, a paper banner with the words “Mission Accomplished” scrawled across it in crayon hanging above him.

Clapping would have to be banned due to the high number of burst eardrums at concerts, theaters, and elementary school plays.

Clothing designers would enjoy an influx of business for the first several months of hand-grafting, due to the demand for extra-hand accommodating fashions, but in time the stress of constant work under such demanding conditions would send them spiraling into depression. Worldwide charitable donations would flood in, providing each designer with an extra hand that would pat them on the back and bolster their self-worth enough to get them designing again.

All in all, the world would be a better place with extra hands. There would be so many hands, enough to make light work of the world’s issues. Homelessness would end (more hands for building), hunger would become a distant memory (so many hands for planting crops), and confident high-tens would replace awkward, limp, clammy handshakes between world leaders, essentially ending war.

Of course, we will have to be careful. With extra hands will come extra responsibility; just because we can does not mean that we should play with our phones while driving But Officer, I had two hands on the wheel!

Until, of course, the day comes that science Apple develops the iGraft, giving us four eyes; two for driving and two for texting.

Monday, December 16, 2013

It Amazes Me

I saw an online article about John Denver's upcoming birthday (it would have been his 70th) and a dam burst somewhere inside of me, setting free a torrent of memories. This piece will be written without respect for continuity, because that's the way memories flow.

It amazes me.

My first memories of music are of John Denver’s “Back Home Again.” I was only four years old, but I remember. Mom would slide the album out of its sleeve, drop it on to the turntable, and slip the massive headphones over my ears as the music began. The rhythmic strumming of the title track would transport me to the cab of a big rig out on the open road, where I would ride alongside its driver, eager as he was to get back home to his wife, the light in her eyes, and supper on the stove. A montage of love and family would dance through my head as John sang of what it meant to return to the one you loved in the place you called home.

“Back Home Again” took me home, but “On The Road” drove me back out onto that lonesome highway, with my own father at the wheel of an old Mercury V8. It was just the two of us against the world, following the open road, searching for imagined love in the shape of a girl at a truck cafĂ©. In a family of nine there were few moments that I spent alone in the car with my father, so I had to rely on John to provide me the setting for what I believed would be the greatest road trip I’d never take.

“Grandma’s Feather Bed” was always a fun break from sentiment, with its silly suggestion that it took the feathers of forty ‘leven geese to make it, and that it would hold eight kids, four hound dogs, and a piggy stolen from the shed. The images of laughing cousins, dozing beside the fireplace, and waking up in a giant heavenly bed still linger with me today.

My name is Matthew, and so is one of my favorite John Denver songs. It never fails to evoke memories that I have never lived, paint my mind’s canvas with landscapes that must be experienced, and promise reward in a lifestyle full of challenges that few can fathom. To be like Matthew would be to live a life worthy of a standing-room-only funeral. My father quoted the song when speaking to an audience about me when I was about to leave home for the first time at the age of nineteen. About to serve a two year mission in Paraguay, I was unsure of myself, frightened by all the uncertainty that lay ahead. To hear my dad say that I was made of joy was a rare moment in my life; hearing him suggest that I was something he could be proud of is something I have not forgotten. Indeed, the thought of it carried me through some rough moments over the following two years as I served others, and I was able to find joy in some of my darkest hours in a foreign land.

But the memories don’t end with the songs from “Back Home Again.”

The album “Poems, Prayers, and Promises” can be credited in great part for my propensity to think deeply at a constant clip, more often than not to a fault. As a young boy I hadn’t yet experienced most of what John was singing about, and so my mind was forced to stretch itself in order to grasp how sweet it is to love someone, to the point that their tears belong to you. My maternal grandmother was a member of the Blackfoot tribe, and so dancing about the house to the wild, angry cries of “Wooden Indian” meant something more to me than I could possibly understand at the time, but listening to it I knew that some great injustice had been done to her people. The mournful tones of “Junk” suggested that my father was not so misguided in his passion for antiques, and while we never owned a parachute or a sleeping bag for two, the belief that memories lived within the pieces he collected was not lost to me.

For many years and over many circumstances I considered my three brothers to be prodigal sons of the family, but the words of “Gospel Changes” have since suggested to me that as a firm believer in a higher power I should have been a better example of unconditional love. I hate to think it, but I know that had I been, my little brother might not have taken his life.

We all have heroes, and one of mine was a man named Pete. He taught me how to fire a muzzleloader, the art of a great campfire story, and what it meant to be a good man in spite of shortcomings. We lived in Connecticut, but his heart had never left his family’s farm down in West Virginia. I remember his eyes filling with tears and light whenever he spoke of that little plot of heavenly land. In the cassette player of his Jeep was a tape with “Take Me Home, Country Roads” recorded over and over again on both sides. I don’t recall any other song ever playing through those speakers, and to hear it now dredges up miles of memories that make me smile. I had the chance to drive through West Virginia last year, and in Pete’s memory I played the obligatory song on a loop as I passed through towns where time runs backwards in a good way.

The playlist of songs and the memories and moments they evoke continues…

My father was never a seamstress; he preferred hammer and nails over needle and thread. But I still have the shirt that he gifted to me one Christmas when I was a young boy with dreams of being like John Denver. The shirt looked just like John’s from the cover of “Spirit.” Dad probably pricked his fingers to the point of severe blood loss while embroidering the sunshine onto the shoulder of that little blue button-down shirt. It wasn’t quite finished, but I didn’t care, in my eyes it was perfect. I wore it for our family photos the following summer, and again when I was John Denver for Halloween. It took Dad more than a decade to finish sewing on that sunshine, but when he finally did, he wrapped it and gave it to me for Christmas all over again. Sunshine on my shoulder does indeed make me happy, and then again sometimes it makes me cry.

You know, I’ve always wondered just what a Berkley Woman is, and whether or not there would be hunger in my stare should I see one…

My maternal grandmother may have been a Native American, but that didn’t stop her from marrying a cowboy. My grandfather was the first in my short list of heroes. He slept with a six-shooter under his pillow until he died, wore a cowboy hat with authority, and understood what it meant to be a man. When I take his shotgun up into the mountains behind our home I can’t help but think of him, and in those moments I want nothing more than to be a cowboy, to ride the range, see the high country, and lay down my sundown in some starry field. All of these thoughts play out in my mind accompanied by John’s music, and his lyrics make me believe that my dream is not so impossible after all. Hell, I already live in a rodeo town on the side of a mountain, so the stretch to becoming a cowboy is not that far.

Yes, I live in the mountains nowadays, having left most of yesterday behind me. Every breath at altitude brings the high that John knew and sang about so well. My hope is that my children will look back and remember with fondness the paradise that we moved to when they were young, the place where eagles lived in rocky cathedrals, where they were free to shoot at empty pop bottles with their pistols, and where the days are all filled with an easy country charm. One of the greatest advantages to living in the west is that you can almost always see where you are going, even if you don’t always know where you are headed. Here in the mountains I have enjoyed the blessing of listening to God’s casual reply to my many questions, and I can’t see myself living or dying anywhere else. John’s music means that much more to me now, because I can drive through our valley and see his lyrics living all around me.

I moved to this paradise with my very own Darcy Farrow, whose voice truly is as sweet as sugar candy (most of the time). We have been married almost 21 years, pushing through a share of troubles and strife that are ours alone to know. Not long after our courtship began, Elizabeth discovered that I loved and still listened to John Denver. She later confessed that this fact further solidified her belief that I was the one for her. It does not embarrass me to say that she is my personification of Annie’s Song, and that the barely audible, comfortable sigh of contentment heard after the first line is reminiscent of the way I feel when I think of spending forever with her. I fear that should she leave this life before I do, I will be buried with her on that terrible day, because life without her is something in which I have no interest. I don’t have to experience it to know that it’s a hard life living when you’re lonely.

I started listening to John when I was just two feet high, and today I listen to him standing six feet tall. When I was five, my parents took me to see him perform. Mom still says it was the longest I have ever sat totally still, and that she marveled at how fixated I was on John as he sang songs that I had only heard amid the crackle of my father’s turntable. John’s music truly does make pictures, and for me it will always tells stories. Not one of his songs fail to transport me back through time, to moments when life looked more like a long and comfortable drive down a familiar country road than a four-lane highway congested by the heartbreak, responsibilities, and trappings of adult life.

As a child I would listen to John’s rendition of “It Amazes Me” over and over again. As the song climbed higher, louder, and faster, I would drop to all fours and buck across the living room like a wild bronco, much to the delight of my family. I have never ridden a real bronco, but that hasn't kept me free from the occasional bucking. The music to which I live my life has at times built itself into crescendos of wild wondering and untamed circumstance, and I find that I’ve gotten lost on my way, shouting “where can I hide?”

In moments such as those, I sometimes think that maybe that little boy in the sunshine-shouldered shirt turned out to be a little like John Denver after all.

In “Around and Around,” John confessed to hoping that once he was gone, others would think of him in moments when they were happy and smiling, and that the thought of him would comfort them in moments when they were crying.

I do, and it does.

Thanks John.