Foreign

It was February 1999. I was visiting my cousins in Glennallen, Alaska during mid-winter break of my senior year. They competed in the State Final for hockey that week, and I got to see the defense duo of S. and S. Givens (numbers 1 and 11) help take the Panthers to a win. I learned how to play Myst. I was introduced to Mr. Bean, and the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” was forever changed to something that sometimes induces chuckling during worship services. I told my 12-year-old cousin that someday he’d be able to look over his brothers’ heads when he stood behind them in front of the bathroom mirror and they’d stop teasing him then (I was right).

And we went to a concert at the high school of a band from Palmer/Wasilla called Foreign. I LOVED them. Their music had alternative rock influences with the fun of ska, and it was all delightful. I bought an album that night and it became the soundtrack of my year.

I took it to college and started introducing people to it–I played it at nearly every open dorm. I used a snippet of the hidden track that was a singing answering machine message as my voicemail recording for much of my freshman year. I took it with me that summer to the Bible Conference where I worked and shared it around there–trying to explain to people that when I said I loved the band Foreign, I was not talking about Foreigner. My sophomore year, a girl from Alaska came as a freshman. I asked her if she’d ever heard of Foreign and she was a fan. We geeked out together for a bit, and then listened to the music.

Fast forward seventeen and a half years to this morning in Nashville.I was going to do breakfast with some friends still around after Hutchmoot. We were debating our restaurant choice, and as we stood on the sidewalk in front of our choices, another guy from Hutchmoot, Casey, came walking up the street. He was looking for a quiet morning and so didn’t plan to join us, but he stopped to chat for a few minutes. I’d met Casey the first day, but hadn’t talked long. Later, I ran into Pete, who I’d met in previous years, but never really had a long conversation with. This year, we remedied that lack and got to know each other a little. He said he’d grown up in Alaska, and I mentioned I’d lived there. We found a few commonalities, and Pete also mentioned that Casey was a friend he grew up with.

I didn’t see Casey again all weekend until this morning, so as we chatted I mentioned that Pete had told me they grew up in Alaska. I said I’d lived in Glennallen and Casey recalled he knew the place.

“I was in a band when I was in high school, and we played out there.”

I blinked at him a moment, the gears of memory clicking into place. He looked about my age.

“What band?” I asked.

With a little hesitation in his voice, Casey answered, “Foreign.”

My friend Jason was standing nearby, and he stated later that my squeal was supersonic. I’m going to blame the sudden loss of noise as I expressed myself to the fact that my voice is a bit hoarse from all the talking this weekend.

My friend Lisa Eldred caught the moment.

My friend Lisa Eldred caught the moment.

I’m typically pretty chill when it comes to meeting minor celebrities (I’ve never met any major ones, so I have no data there). Just a few hours after this encounter I practically ignored Danny Gokey next to me in a coffee shop.

But I actually asked Casey if I could hug him. I was so excited. I told him all about it.

“I haven’t felt this famous since high school,” he said. Then he asked which album I got. I said it was the one with the globe on the front. And he said this: “So you don’t even have the second one.”

SECOND ONE. They came out with two albums. I only have one. And now I know guys from the band who can hook me up with the one I didn’t know about.

And yeah, I said “guys.” Because after he told me about the second album, Casey said that they made it right before they broke up. I asked if he’d kept in touch with them. “Yeah, definitely,” he said. He mentioned one of the guys is still a close friend who now lives overseas, and another still lives in Alaska. “And Pete, of course,” he said.

“Wait, what?! Pete was in the band, too?” I asked.

Oh, yes. He was.

I got home a couple of hours ago and pulled out the album again. I haven’t listened to it in years, but I still know all the words. I was singing aloud to the cats just a few moments ago. It’s still a good album, and I still love it. And Casey tells me the second one was way better.

The Stalker Robin

I was trying to do some organizing and purging of digital files this evening. A friend mentioned on Facebook yesterday how full of junk her digital files were, and commented, “I don’t think I would have let them get so messy if they were physical and I could see them.” I’m in the same boat. I do tend to collect papers, but every once in a while I hold a purge. I take the piles and I go through them sheet by sheet, filing the necessary ones, recycling the rest. It’s a good rhythm.

My most successful purge to date was the spring before I moved to Alaska. My parents were studying in London for five weeks and I had their house to myself. They had cable and rerun episodes of Clean Sweep made an incredibly inspiring background for purging and organizing projects. So I brought the piles of my world down to the family room, turned that on in the background and worked at sorting my life to that point into a manageable size and system.

One morning, I woke and made my way downstairs to a rhythmic thumping in the family room. Confused, I peeked around the corner as I got to the kitchen and looked into the family room. There, beyond my piles of papers spread across the floor, standing on the firewood stand outside and launching himself repeatedly at the window, smashing against it, then landing back on the firewood stand, was a robin.

His rusty frontispiece was tufty and ruffled. His feathers didn’t lie smoothly. Everything about his appearance pointed to him being slightly undone. The fact that he was running into the window at twenty second intervals only confirmed the matter.

Thinking the bird must be seeing his reflection in the window, due to the dimmer interior of the house, I walked over and kindly lowered the window shade for him, hoping that would cut the glare enough to set him right. I glanced at the window on the far side of the fireplace. Best to lower that one, too.

Half an hour later, settled with my breakfast and my coffee, I looked up to notice that when I’d lowered the second shade, it had not gone fully down to the sill. In the triangle of window at the bottom of the crooked shade stood the robin, ducking his head down to peak in and cocking it to one side, eyeing me.

Photo by David Wenning

Photo by David Wenning

I crossed the room, closed the shade, and then closed the shade to the window on the back of the family room. An hour later, the robin had made his way around to the doorwall, where he stood on the ledge, tilting his head and staring.

That morning began a month-long fascination the bird had with me. He would stand on the window sills and stare in every day. He would sit in the back yard and watch my movements through the doorwall. He would come to the front door, stand on the porch, and tap-tap-tap on the metal kick plate. When I went to the door, thinking someone had knocked, he quickly flew back, landed in the pin oak tree about fifteen feet from the door, settled his unkempt feathers, and cocked his head in my direction.

When my parents returned I told them of the stalker robin. Sure enough, their first morning home he made his appearance at the front door. Tap-tap-tap.

I left for Alaska soon after, and about halfway through my first summer up there, I got a note from Mom. “Your robin has been hanging around all summer, though we didn’t see him much this week.”

That afternoon, a robin ran into my open apartment window.

He landed on the ground, dazed, but generally unhurt. As I watched him right himself, I noted his rusty front and raggedy feathers. He cocked his head at me once before taking off once more.

I never saw him again, but a week later the stalker robin appeared back in my parents’ yard.

Time Differences and Squirrel Sacrifice

My sister Jessie just FaceTimed me from Singapore. She’d just gotten off with Mom and Dad, currently in Hawaii. “It’s strange,” she said. “They’re six hours ahead of us, but a day behind.”

I recall that strange feeling. For the vast majority of my life I have lived in the Eastern Time Zone. Therefore most of Asia is twelve or thirteen hours different (depending on location and whether we’re on Daylight Savings Time or not). I’ve spend a lot of life interacting with Asia. I understand that twelve-hour time difference pretty well.

And then I moved to Alaska. Four hours behind Eastern. And my brain was so confused that I made a chart: If it’s this time in Alaska, then it’s this time in Michigan, and this time in Macau (where Jessie lived at the time).

But the time difference with Asia wasn’t my only problem. I had trouble getting my head around the four hour change to the East Coast, too. I became the person that people called when they were driving late at night—for me, it was only 8:00 or 9:00 p.m.

I was looking through old files today and found an AOL Instant Messenger conversation with my friend Natey (Supertenor38) that I’d saved which started off on that very topic.

Supertenor38: hey, how’s Alaska?
QuoteUnquote: hot!
QuoteUnquote: this week, that is.
Supertenor38: what’s it like to not be awake at 1am?
Supertenor38: that always gets me
Supertenor38: im like, why is she on so late?
QuoteUnquote: lol
Supertenor38: then im like, oh yeah, its not so late there
QuoteUnquote: I’ve just become a night owl…
QuoteUnquote: not so late
Supertenor38: yes, im sure
QuoteUnquote: only 9
Supertenor38: yeah
Supertenor38: i can subtract
Supertenor38: and add too
Supertenor38: every now and then
Supertenor38: 😉
QuoteUnquote: I wasn’t sure you knew how many…

Evidently, time was not my only confusion in that conversation. I also had his birthdate wrong.

With Paul and Natey at George and Jamie's wedding (10 years ago this week!)

With Paul and Natey at George and Jamie’s wedding (10 years ago this week!)

QuoteUnquote: How are you?
Supertenor38: i’m alright
Supertenor38: a year older, but none the worse for wear
QuoteUnquote: hey, I beat you there by 2 months, you know.
QuoteUnquote: It’s not that bad a place.
QuoteUnquote: I’ve had a little bit of fun since I turned 24
QuoteUnquote: just a little
Supertenor38: yeah, i havent
QuoteUnquote: that’s sad
Supertenor38: but then, ive only been 24 for like an hour and a half
QuoteUnquote: darn…do I have the wrong date in my head again?
QuoteUnquote: the 11th?
QuoteUnquote: I was thinking the 8th.
Supertenor38: nope, that’s jonny
Supertenor38: april 8th
QuoteUnquote: I always do that…
QuoteUnquote: I don’t know why.
Supertenor38: but its ok, it was the sentiment that was important
Supertenor38: and for that i thank you
QuoteUnquote: Thanks.
QuoteUnquote: or, Your Welcome
QuoteUnquote: take your pick
QuoteUnquote: that means I didn’t slice open my finger on your birthday, which makes the day suddenly much less eventful.
QuoteUnquote: very disappointing.
Supertenor38: sorry about that
Supertenor38: you need to do something today to make my birthday special
QuoteUnquote: break my neck?
Supertenor38: no, dont do that
Supertenor38: too extreme
Supertenor38: but you’re thinking, and i like that
QuoteUnquote: I’m trying to live a life of adventure here…c’mon!
Supertenor38: well, breaking your neck could result in death, and that would make all of us sad
QuoteUnquote: oh, that…
QuoteUnquote: okay, I’ll try to go for something not involving blood, stitches or dismemberment.
QuoteUnquote: or death
QuoteUnquote: my own, that is…maybe I’ll sacrifice a squirrel
Supertenor38: ummm….i think i would have to disown you as a friend
Supertenor38: that crosses the whole “weirdness” boundary line
QuoteUnquote: I am in an odd mood tonight…
Supertenor38: clearly
QuoteUnquote: so anyway…
Supertenor38: yes anyways
QuoteUnquote: I probably won’t sacrifice a squirrel
Supertenor38: oh ok
Supertenor38: i’m surprised to find that im actually a little disappointed. i mean, its weird and all, but talk about a great conversation starter
Supertenor38: “….so i have this friend, who sacrificed a squirrel once….”
QuoteUnquote: for a birthday celebration, no less
Supertenor38: yeppers
QuoteUnquote: I think it could work…
QuoteUnquote: maybe you can just use the story, and pretend it happened.
Supertenor38: oh no question
Supertenor38: it’s just one of those stories that you can’t help but listen to

I saw three of those kamikaze squirrels dead in the road this morning. It’s a little late for Natey’s birthday present this year, but I guess it will have to do.

A Favorite View

There’s a spot along the North Carolina/Tennessee border where the mountains grow more angular, as if they’ve sucked in their breath. Their spines arch across the sky and all their rib bones show under their skin of trees.

I’ve decided it’s my favorite view on the drive to Nashville. Evidently I’ve driven that route enough times to feel like a “regular” on it. When I’m a regular, I choose a favorite view.

Winter view

Winter view

Summer view

Summer view

My favorite view on the Glenn Highway in Alaska was just after you get through the mountains and enter the Copper River Basin. To the south is a valley full of trees and rising from the far side are the Chugach Mountains. The sea side of the Chugach range has ski resorts and ocean views, but it’s the “back” side that I always loved.

Once, when I had a van full of visiting prospective students, we stopped at a pull out on the bluff to take photos of the valley. As the van rolled to a stop near the edge, a bald eagle took off from just out of view over the side—no more than ten feet from us. Its wingspan must have been six feet at least. The huge bird did not go far. It perched itself in a rickety black spruce nearby and stared at us inscrutably.

I glanced back at the students in the van. Wide-eyed, they stared back at the raptor.

I hated to break the majesty of the moment. “Um, so, guys…just so you know,” I said, “there may be a carcass right off the edge there.”

They blinked back to reality as I gestured to the eagle, pointing out the red smears on his white plumage. Yes, he’d just been feeding.

We stepped out of the van, a tad more trepidatious than typically. Sure enough, just off the edge, below our line of sight from inside the van, was the massacred carcass of a moose. I have no idea how she met her end, but the animals certainly demolished her flesh once she had.

‘Twas a bit of a turn off on the view for the first-timers among us. It’s hard to take in the lovely planes of the mountain sides and the snow-tipped spruce scattered across the valley floor with a mangled corpse before you and your nation’s symbol of power and grandeur eyeing you with ire for interrupting his snack.

Seasons

I drove into the North Carolina mountains today and watched the beginning of autumn as I did so. Green maples tipped with red, birches shading to gold. The speckles of the light shining through the green canopy. Here and there and evergreen staying strong, Remaining what it was. Forever.

Seasons

When I was in college, we took a trip to the Poconos to go camping. It was April and we left after watching the storm roll in across from the west it shined everything new and in the glowingly sunset, We took off glad the rain had it say.

As we drove up the highway I watched the greens in the woods. Penn’s woods. It was the bright green of spring, the pale color of green tea. In the spring, the tulip trees have leaves smaller than my palm, but I knew that in the summer those leaves would grow to be bigger than my hand. In the spring, you can pop a tulip tree leaf, capturing pocket of air smacking it through the membrane, crack. But tulip tree leaves in the summer are far too strong for such things. Far too green.

I think of the black spruce in Alaska, those “evergreens.” Except most of the year they don’t seem green at all. Against the contrast of the white snow they fully live up to their name and the monochromatic winter is halted only by the sky. But in the fall they are evergreen. Against the bright golden yellow of the aspen trees, all the highlights of the needles come forth and for a glorious two weeks—a season—you see the contrast of the green and the gold and the blue and the brown.

I’ll take the seasons. I’ll enjoy the speckles of gold in the green of the trees. The flash red here in there as autumn begins to take its hold. I’ll glory in the sight of the sky through the canopy of the woods in the deep of the winter when the branches are bare. I’ll revel in the pale green spring—the flowers, the brightness. And summer, even summer I’ll take. I hope it will be like Michigan in June. Though in North Carolina I’m more likely to get the heat of a southern August. Even so I’ll take summer because its presence reminds me of all the other seasons that I will get to see.

After all, I live in a place where there are seasons.

 

The Wave

When I lived in Alaska, I learned quickly that one of the go-to rules of driving was the wave to the sign holder as you followed the pilot car past them into the construction zone–particularly if you were the first or second car. Nothing more than a raised hand was needed, but after sitting for 15 minutes just feet away from that individual, it was an important social custom to follow.

One time, when I was  the first  car in line at a construction zone on the way in to Anchorage, I had my cousin Luke in the passenger seat with me. The pilot car showed up, pulled off to the side to let the trail of vehicles following him go by, and then made a U-turn to lead us into the breach.

I drove a stick shift. This particular construction zone was in the mountains, and we were stopped on a slight incline. I needed some concentration–and both hands and feet–to get my little Saturn going in the trail of the pilot car.

The car moved forward, and with my left hand I managed the steering wheel and with my right hand I shifted from first to second. And as the seconds passed I realized that I would not have a hand available for the obligatory wave at the proper time. I began to think about trying to split my attention between navigating the frost-heave riddled pavement before me and attempting to catch the sign holder’s eye for a chin raise.  It would be less than satisfactory, but all I could do. Then, Luke’s hand reached across my line of sight and proffered a wave to the woman leaning against the “SLOW” sign. She waved back, smiling, and I was able to drive on, guiltless of breaking societal norms.

“Thanks!” I exclaimed.
“No problem,” said Luke. “You handle the driving, I’ll handle the PR.”

***

I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina just a few months ago. And I’ve found myself a route to work that winds along a small road and then through a neighborhood–avoiding the traffic at major intersections.

In my wanderings along these side roads, I’ve learned quickly that Charlotte has its own obligatory wave. Retired men walk their dogs along the edges of the quieter roads. And as I go by, they raise a hand in acknowledgement. I get smiles of affirmation when I raise a hand in return. I get stiff, miffed expressions when I don’t.

I’ve started raising my hand. Without a cousin the car, I have to handle my own PR.

Just yesterday I passed an eight or nine-year-old boy walking his dog along the side of the road. I approached slowly, uncertain of the etiquette with one so young.

The larval form seems to have picked up the societal norms from the mature of the species. As I swung ’round the corner, my hands both engaged on the steering wheel, I saw a small hand in my peripheral vision, raising in the standard wave typical of the older men.

I freed one hand and let the other guide the wheel back to it’s straightened position. I lifted my hand in return.

After all, one should always keep up the PR.