Nonfiction

Pool Drinks and the Eternal Hum of Words and Music

Remembering Doug Cravens
March 8, 1947 – June 15, 2015

43-rita

Margarita made with “The Number.”

“What’re you reading?” The bartender nodded at the anthology on the bar.

I told her about the collection of stories and songs by Nashville artists I had with me, and that led to talk about short fiction and a local writer whose work she enjoyed. Then she mentioned she really liked Kurt Vonnegut. When I told her I was a fan as well, she showed me three arm tattoos based on Vonnegut drawings: Kilgore Trout, the infamous asterisk, and a tombstone with the epitaph “Life is no way to treat an animal.” I told her how I had recently chalked “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt” on a midnight sidewalk.

After a few minutes, our conversation fragmented as the bar grew more frenetic. The room heated up as it filled to capacity with drinkers and diners looking for a seat. A college student in a summer dress sang “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” behind the chatter of food and drink orders. As the scene around me ramped up to a dinner hour dance of customers and staff, I reflected on the day.

A few hours earlier I had learned Doug Cravens—the father of my longtime friend and brother, Brian—had passed away the day before. Doug was more than just a friend’s father; he was family to me. Many of my best memories from the last two decades are scenes with the extended family I came to know through Brian, and Doug is right there in every single one. He always welcomed me, along with the rest of the family, into his life and home with open arms, a top shelf drink, and conversation.

Those conversations are some of my favorite memories. No time or place was wrong for digging into a topic. There was the night in Las Vegas, during Brian’s bachelor party, when Doug and I discussed the interior design of a club while dancers in various states of undress swayed and grinded on retro-cushy chairs around us. At any party, in the middle of the room or off to the side, he could engage you in an exchange that made you forget you needed to refill your drink. Any topic was fair game, but I had favorites.

I loved Doug’s passion for mixology, which he shared with Brian. On more than one occasion I survived the hell-breath of Mesa in summer only because pretty, delicious drinks were floated to me as I submerged everything but my desert-broiled face and head into the refuge of pool water. Doug and Brian collaborated and concocted those drinks with the focus and drive of alchemists. A variation on Hemingway’s mojito, a parade of rum and coconut drinks I can’t name now—they all came to me like nectar from heaven on a blue serving floatie set adrift from the shallow end.

Doug also loved to talk music, especially Brian’s. I saw the promoter, advocate, fan, and voice of reason and enthusiasm he was when it came to all of Brian’s creative pursuits. It was powerful and inspiring to behold, especially as someone who has never known a father. I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of Brian’s music, and to share mine in that realm, and Doug extended his passion and support to my efforts as well.

Another popular topic was literature. An avid reader, Doug was always ready to talk authors and recommend favorite works. He even made a reading list for me. It only takes one walk into his library to realize the love he had for the written word. It’s a room with walls made of books—a beautiful thing. Doug didn’t only read famous authors. He took the time to read some of my work and was always encouraging, up to the last time I saw him. He made me feel like I had something to say.

But I associate one author with Doug more than others. Some of the first book conversations we had years ago were about Kurt Vonnegut. Remembering other exchanges through the years, I don’t think Doug remained as much a fan as I have. But those early discussions aligned with a moment in time and space when my soul and mind were ready for a Vonnegut phase. Those conversations made me want to read more of Vonnegut’s work. And they made me want to write.

Sometimes it takes a while for me to catch up to the messages the universe drops for me here and there, the moments that align symbolically and significantly. I suppose I’m unstuck in time at times. But the Vonnegut tattoo bar moment came together for me before my first bite of hot chicken that night.

It was a nod from the ether, an opportunity for quiet reflection at a noisy restaurant bar. A fleeting, literary memorial for a man who lived life as passionately as any character in the novels lining his library walls. It was a cosmic pool drink floated to me from the other side, where I’m certain books hang from trees which hum with the music of all our scenes, past and future.

Support for Jamie Givens

Jamie_FundraiserAs my dear friend and fellow poet, Jamie Givens, continues her journey with breast cancer, several supportive efforts have been initiated by the many people whose lives her spirit has touched. Some of you may be aware, but Jamie owns a licensed massage therapy practice and, while she continues to work, maintaining such a business will only become more challenging through the months ahead with surgery and continuing treatment. With that in mind, anything you can do to help out is greatly appreciated.

I’ve included an email below from another of Jamie’s friends, Anke Nowicki, outlining several options for providing assistance during this time. Also, a benefit concert has been organized by Kent Blazy. The show is from 6 to 8 PM on December 6th at Douglas Corner. Please see the flyer at the right. Do you have an idea not listed here? Please let us know.

Thank you in advance for anything you’re able to do to help our friend through this challenging time and much appreciation to those who have already provided support. Thank you to Anke for all of her efforts and for organizing and sending this email.

***

Dear Friends,

We are so often profoundly touched by the unexpected challenges life brings us and those we care about. Many of us have been blessed to have Jamie Givens, a vibrant, talented, and compassionate woman in our lives, who now faces such an experience. Many of you have also expressed a desire to be supportive during this very challenging time for Jamie. There are many ways to contribute to the web of care and love that is weaving itself together.

A bank account has been set up, and donations for Jamie can be deposited at any Sun Trust branch. Simply ask the teller to look up the account. They can also be mailed to the following bank address, in care of:

Rhonda Rutherford
Sun Trust Bank
4604 Charlotte Pike
Nashville, TN 37209

In the event that you encounter a problem, you could contact Rhonda Rutherford, the bank officer that set the account up, at 615-279-4033. You could also contact Holly Waldrop, who helped Jamie with this project, by e-mailing her at: daltrainer@juno.com.

What is most needed at this time is a core group of friends that would be willing to pledge a monthly amount for the next 6 months to cover the most critical expenses, and allow Jamie a deeper ability to relax and focus on her healing. If you are interested in pledging, please let me know as soon as possible by responding to this e-mail:

anke@ankenowicki.com/615-500-7637.

Some friends have put their heads together and come up with some other suggestions below:

A. Jamie gets a weekly food delivery from an amazing organization called The Heimerdinger Foundation. Food is donated from local farms, farmers markets, and grocery stores. Under the guidance of adult mentor chefs, teens volunteer in the kitchen and prepare beautiful, delicious, and nourishing meals for people dealing with serious illness. You could call this organization and talk to them about taking on some of her weekly food delivery fees.

Contact for Meals 2 Heal Program: 615-241-0246

B. Jamie is doing a lot of juicing these days. You might consider Gift Certificates for grocery stores (Publics, Whole Foods, Kroger, The Turnip Truck). You can call in a gift card at The Turnip Truck and Jamie can pick it up:

615- 650-3600 for 970 Woodland Street location… or…  615-248-2000 for 321 12th Avenue location.

C. Gift cards for gas. Gift Cards could be sent to Jamie directly:

Jamie Givens
521 Belle Pointe Court
Nashville, TN 37221

Jamie’s friends include a very creative community. The poetry community is already selling T-Shirts and the proceeds will be donated to her.

Contact Chance Chambers at chance451@gmail.com/615-480-0971 or MAP (Michael Alan Pierce) at 615-593-3355.

If anyone else has any suggestions about fund raising, perhaps through a benefit performance, please let me know. Those of us in the therapeutic community could consider asking a client to make their check out to Jamie instead, as a way for us to contribute.
All your ideas and efforts are deeply appreciated. Thank you all for every act of compassionate giving.

Love and Blessings,
Anke

Anke Nowicki and Light Partners
www.ankenowicki.com
anke@ankenowicki.com
615-500-7637

A Pretty Good Day

1 May 1967

My Dearest Darling,

Will write you again today to tell you I love you and miss you so much that it hurts. I hope this finds you alright. As for me I am doing ok.

I went on MEDCAP this morning. That is where doctors go into a village and treat the sick. I went along as guard. I really enjoyed it. The kids are all hustlers. They either want to shine your shoes or sell you something. They had some real pretty things for women and I am going to get you some of these things before I come home. I would get them now, but, darling you don’t know the trouble it is to send things home over here. You have to wait in line for so long that it is awful.

I am going to send you the $100.00 the 5th of this month. I will send it by money order. Pat, may have your allotment increased by $100.00 for it is a bitch to get a money order every month. I will let you know more about it if I decide to do it.

How is your father and mother and the kids doing? Tell them I said hello and I wish I could see all of them.

Pat, I am writing this letter with a towel spread across the paper where my hand lays for it is so hot that I am sitting here with sweat dropping off of me. If I didn’t use the towel, the paper would be soaking wet. I never seen anything like this country and its weather.

Well, Darling every time a new month comes in that means we are getting close to being together. I can hardly wait till that day.

How is my Lobo doing? Give him a little loving for me and don’t be too rough on him for he is a pretty good dog.

Has it begun to get warm there yet? I wish I was there so we could grill hamburgers and steaks like we used to do. Someday we will do these things again.

Baby, I swear every time I start writing I can’t think of anything to write. It happens every time.

In the village this morning, I just had one shoe on and I got it shined twice. I also bought me a switch-blade knife for three dollars. It is a fairly good knife. This one little boy came up to me and shined my boot and then he sat down by me and said, “I like you. You’re my friend.” He put his arm around me and just kept sitting by me. Course I was watching for Charlie for today was a big communist holiday and they expected us to get sniper fire but we didn’t. This one kid that I said I was his friend was nine years old and Pat, I swear his size was about that of a four or five year old in the states. This one little boy that I bought my knife from he was sure enough a hustler for whatever you wanted he could get it for you in about ten minutes. He was a sharp operator. After I bought the knife from him he brought me a Coca-Cola. I would enjoy it over here a lot more if we went into more often and try to help the people for if you could see them you would say they sure needed help.

Well, Darling I am going to close for I have run out of things to say; like I said before it is so hot I can’t concentrate on anything. Remember I love you and miss you so much. I will always love you and I am just living for the day that I get home to you and my son. Bye for now and I love you very, very much. I love you.

Love you always,

Your husband,
Jim

James Wayne Chambers
December 26, 1942 – September 17, 1967
Casualty Country: South Vietnam
Casualty Province: Binh Duong


Ten Years

As dawn surrendered to full luminous morning, I dreamed I saw photographs of my father’s body taken after a rifle-propelled grenade found him and a nineteen-year-old private first class in the Ho Bo Woods near Cu Chi, Vietnam. The images, even in the ethereal setting of a dream, rattled me. But I didn’t look away; I wanted to see them.

When I finally rolled out of bed and stumbled into my hallway, I wondered: why this dream; why now? Then I remembered the date.

Ten years ago today, I learned who I would call first when the world ends.

I made another call to friends visiting from France to suggest they stay inside. I wasn’t sure how some people would react to heavy accents that day.

At work, I watched everything unfold and collapse online and on a conference room television while a dear friend lay in a coma, her hospital room television likely on and looping the same scenes.

Ten years ago today, the smoke and smell didn’t make it to my sky, blue and empty and so quiet with no distraction from the endless news chatter and whisper-wind of nearly three thousand souls departed.

For almost ten years I’ve not watched the footage of that day. I’ve turned away from the images. I’ve changed the channel from documentaries. On anniversaries, I haven’t watched the videos posted in news stories.

Today, a decade later, on the anniversary of the personal apocalypses of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, friends and lovers who had to say or pray goodbye to someone suddenly, I was delivered a reminder that sometimes we must look squarely and steadily at the consequences of the human capacity for hate and brutality. We must never look away completely from the images of war, death and destruction that have for so long, too long, stained the thread of human existence. We must keep our eyes open to the pain and loss that are everyday truths for so many in this world, that became a sudden reality for nearly three thousand souls on an early autumn day ten years ago.

When we look away, we forget. When we forget, nothing changes.

“It is my conviction that there is no way to peace – peace is the way.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh

One Wedding and Three Bottles of Sake – or – How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Write a Sex Scene

Tuxedo shirt half-tucked, jacket still on, tie loosened and collar open, bottle of Crown grasped around the neck and at my hip. That’s how I crossed the hotel lobby and that’s how my friends’ wedding weekend began to end for me.

“You look like a villain, the Penguin or something,” commented Brian, another friend in the wedding party.

His observation may have proven to be somewhat prophetic. I would soon journey into personal realms uncharted, or at least step just across the border.

The wedding was beautiful and unique, creatively and lovingly planned by the bride and groom as a representation of themselves and their friends. Baseball motif, a theme song for each member of the wedding party. My friends pulled off an original, sincere occasion they’ll cherish as they grow old together.

As is the nature of these events, family and friends were grown beyond the immediate trees of the bride and groom. Lives were connected and paths crossed.

One of my connections and new friends from the weekend is writer J. Travis Grundon. Travis, whose work includes bold, edgy and sometimes horror-themed fiction, has been a contributor and editor for multiple anthologies.

As we travelled the matrimony periphery of the weekend, Travis and I discussed our writing. He mentioned an anthology he had in the works, a collection of transgressive fiction entitled Fracas: A Collection of Short Friction. I wasn’t familiar with transgressive fiction. Travis explained to me that the genre casts characters who often act contrary, sometimes to the extreme, to social norms and deals with extreme, at times taboo, topics. Then he mentioned he was still looking for stories for the collection and invited me to submit something. I appreciated the suggestion, but wondered if I actually had anything that would be a good fit.

A couple of weeks passed and I settled into the thought that I likely had nothing that would work in Travis’ anthology. Then something funny happened on the way to another weekend of sake-buzzed Facebook status updates.

On a Thursday, I noticed a Facebook post that a story by the recent groom, Todd Theroff, would be appearing in Fracas. Then there was a comment by Todd that he had heard I was going to have a story in the collection. Next, Travis’ sent me a text asking if I would be submitting something. By now, it was Saturday.

“How long do I have?” I asked.

“Three days.”

“I’ll do my best.”

I packed up my laptop and headed to one of my favorite sake serving bars. With the Hakutsuru Draft poured, I gathered up a few random, rogue paragraphs, collected overheard bits of conversation and tried to sink into places of my consciousness opened by the sake and general contemplation. It had to be different than my other writing. It had to push the envelope, at least for me.

I’m not exactly a prude. I’m definitely no saint. My optimism is tempered with caution and realism. I like my art, music and film flavored with a bit of darkness. Still, I knew I needed to go at least a little further for this piece.

Three bottles of sake later, I had a solid start on something a little different for me. I also had a direction for the rest of the story. The next two days, around sleep and work on Monday, I finished a first draft to submit to Travis. A first draft that included the first sex scene I’ve ever written. Sort of.

I qualify that last declaration because my first sex scene is pretty tame by today’s standards. But, fact is, believe or not, I had never really gone there in my writing. With the impetus to get together something to submit for the collection, I opened myself up to ideas and scenes outside of my usual writing box. I stretched a bit in my writing. For that, and including me in Fracas, I have Travis to thank.

I have a feeling that, in the context of the finished anthology, my story will seem like Jimmy Olsen stumbled onto the street where Charles Bukowski lives in an apartment over William Burroughs’ garage. Just the same, I’m excited to be included and am very much looking forward to sharing pages with several talented writers creative and courageous enough to write beyond the many still existing social boundaries, challenging us all to examine, from different angles and on multiple levels, our lives, our world and ourselves.

Like Flowers – Remembering Seyde

I would like to call myself a writer. I would like to say that I write. But sometimes, when something comes along in life that carries the emotional gravity that you would expect to start the words flowing, nothing comes but emptiness. It’s as if all that’s inside – the part that hurts, rejoices, responds and flees – has been carved out like the meat of a fruit. All that’s left is a numb, tired rind.

That’s how it was as today approached. Today – the one-year anniversary of my young friend Seyde’s death. I wanted to create something to remember her on this day. But as the day drew near, I had no inspired words, not even brief ramblings welling up inside as they sometimes do. But I did have the memories. So many cherished ones of the brief time I was blessed to know her. Then there were the memories of that day and the time that followed, when we all tried to process, with no real success, how such a light could be lost in this world.

I was sitting down to lunch when I got the phone call. In retrospect, this was probably a somewhat fitting tribute to my relatively new friendship with Seyde.

I have a great passion for food, both eating it and talking about it. The chances of calling me or encountering me in any way when I’m not eating are fairly slim. It was a restaurant – Ken’s Sushi – where I first met Seyde and it was on the occasion of many a dinner there that we would coincidentally see each other. More than once our conversation turned to cuisine. I remember her declaration on one of those nights that she was going to introduce me to a restaurant that served real Thai food. We never made it there.

Our food moments reached beyond the neon sign of Ken’s. Seyde once “liked” that I “find comfort in kimchi” on Facebook. When I posted a picture of a cicada that I had eaten at a party, many of my friends were very open with their disapproval of my non-traditionally western snacking. Seyde, who had also been at the party, chimed in with “It was good huh, Chance?”

That last one was a display of Seyde’s instinct to protect, to support – one of her many luminous traits that came naturally to her. This was the same warm spirit that so easily made new friends feel like old ones, which made me always feel invited, whether it was out dancing with everyone, over to a table to meet a new friend or to see her art at a showing.

It was next to a piece of her art that I first saw Seyde’s full name: Hasaya Criseyde Chansuthus. I’ve always thought it read like the name of a flower. The work she had on display at the art show that night was mixed media incorporating stained glass arranged in a way that made me think of flowers.

These are the things that stay behind when a person leaves us. Memories, notes, photographs, things made by the hands of our friend, our loved one. The physical, the abstract and where both intersect are how we hold on to the one we’ve lost, and maybe in some ways how we learn to let go. I’m not sure what exactly comes next – an afterlife, another life, a queue where our souls wait for an infinite number of next chapters. Maybe it’s a composite existence of all that we’ve know within ourselves and around us – all the memories, emotions, colors, shapes, faces, expressions, gestures – everything that ever made us feel anything at all swirling and living in a realm where we can taste, touch and experience those beautiful moments of our life eternally.

If I’m deemed worthy at the end of my corporeal days, perhaps I’ll have the chance to sit with Seyde at a café table, over the best khao soi, panang noodles or other dish that I’ve haven’t even experienced yet. Maybe Mom and my grandmother will join us under skies stained with clouds like colored glass. I’ll introduce Seyde and she’ll start to tell a story about a night when I was very drunk until I shoot her a glance that makes her smile and skip the story. Mom tends to worry. I’ll look around and see all the loving faces of our friends and families and we’ll all talk about food and music and how we danced our different dances in our different times and whenever we speak each other’s names, the words will come out sounding like names of flowers.

It’s starting to rain as I look up from the monitor and my vision of the hereafter. This New Year’s Eve, the first anniversary of our goodbye to Seyde, brought a rogue summer wind that tricked me into wearing short sleeves and writing on the patio of this coffee shop. I’ve watched customers dressed for later New Year’s revelry come and go for a while now. Winter is taking the day back as the rain cools the city and makes me consider hot tea over the water I’m drinking.

Last night, Ken of Ken’s told me about a tea made with flowers that blossom in the hot water of the teapot. I can picture their petals opening inside the hollow belly of the pot, filling the emptiness there with the memory of their once earthly connection and the beauty, fragrance and hope that they still bring.

A Loud Sunday in September

9.17.1967

From a cloud of white smoke, a slim, dark-haired Englishman in his mod-rocker uniform of skinny white slacks, white boots and a golden jacket over a ruffle-cuffed white shirt emerged a bit dazed and sporting a new giant cowlick atop his coif. After regaining his bearings, he played through the planned parody of his band’s modus operandi of stage destruction by seizing the acoustic guitar from around the television co-host’s neck and smashing it on the stage, as he had with complete conviction to his own instrument moments earlier. By now, the drummer had left the drum platform and was prostrate on the stage in a theatrical continuation of the bombastic event that had just taken place.

Though these pyrotechnics were a planned part of The Who’s performance of “My Generation” on the Smother Brothers Comedy Hour, the truth that the intensity of the blast was unexpected can be seen in the reaction of those on stage. Roger Daltrey turns away with the posture of someone shielding himself from a grenade blast. When Tommy Smothers returns to the stage wearing the sacrificial prop guitar, he looks a little confused and it’s a moment before he and Pete Townshend are back in synch with their ax-busting moment. Only bassist John Entwistle looks like nothing really happened.

The detonation that was more akin to an industrial accident than performance art could be blamed on Keith Moon’s eternal dedication to the dramatic, reckless moment. After a disappointing blast during rehearsal, he triple-packed the kick drum with extra explosive charges.

In their amp-spearing, eardrum-splitting American television debut, The Who created musical theater that resembled combat, in some ways lending continuity to the programming of the day. The scene on the screen in living rooms from state to state that Sunday night was one of debris, fallen and shell-shocked young men, a post-blast moment that’s likely the beginning of a lifetime of ear-ringing madness. It’s even been said that Keith Moon ended up with cymbal shrapnel in his arm.

***

Dust and smoke started to fall away among trees and grass, not nearly as visible now that the flash was over. The sound of nearby helicopters and other explosions continued behind the silence that enveloped the brush from where no one emerged. Minutes earlier, quiet breaths and subdued whispers had mingled with the rustling of branches and leaves. Then came a pinpoint moment in time when everything changed, when the night ripped open in a hot white flash of yesterday and tomorrow exploding, then contracting, into the microscopic crack in forever that was the now for two souls.

Private First Class Benny Carr. Nineteen years old from Corbin, Kentucky.

Sergeant James Chambers. Twenty-four years old from Union City, Tennessee.

Both were part of the U. S. Army’s 14th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division stationed in Cu Chi, Vietnam. When the rifle-propelled grenade found them, they were manning a listening post in the Ho Bo Woods. I know almost nothing about Private Carr. As for Sergeant Chambers, I know as much as a son can having never met his father.

Drafted in 1966, my father landed in Vietnam during the spring of ’67. By the time autumn arrived, he knew he was expecting a child. In his letters to my mother and other family, he often mentions the baby. He tells my mom to be careful; asks my grandparents to look after her until he returns. He calls me by name.

When my father did return, it was with an Army escort that Mom released to spend time with his own family instead of remaining for Dad’s funeral. I would later find out that, once state-side, he came home via train. As a child I would love trains, even want to be an engineer.

My mother and I actually took a train once to visit family in another state. This was during my childhood railroad phase, so I was nearly euphoric when we boarded. Our journey took a dark turn, however, when I somehow managed to injure my finger on the metal arm of my seat. It was an upsetting few moments, but I was okay after a porter patched me up with a Band-Aid.

That’s what I remember most about the train.

***

My thoughts started to settle and my body relaxed as I sipped the whiskey sour. It was my last night in Saigon and I was toasting a solitary farewell on the roof of the Rex Hotel. A band played “The Sound of Silence” while, on the streets below, a thousand motorcycles honked and swerved around buses, cars and pedestrians. I leaned back in my chair, listening to a song first popular when American military officers and journalists filled the bar. Over their drinks they watched the flashes of distant artillery fire. Over mine, I watched a Filipino band pull off a dead-on rendition of an American pop standard. As I left the bar, a lady with 1980’s spiked hair laughed, got up and invited me to sit next to her girlfriend. I declined, walked out onto a small balcony near the entrance of the restaurant and looked down at the calliope street scene.

I breathed in the air of a city whose name invites ghosts for so many. Sometimes I think that maybe the souls of those who have gone before us return to the place they died. If that’s the case, my father might have been on that balcony, listening with me to the streets that were anything but silent.

That night in Saigon, I didn’t think so much about the September Sunday forty years earlier when my father was in those woods. I didn’t try to construct his and Private Carr’s last moment. Instead, I felt a calm that contrasted sharply with the busy streets and neon lights, the electric sounds of a bustling city. In that moment, I knew peace.

There is a Buddhist belief that a soul wanders among familiar places and people – home, family and friends – for a few days before moving on. With that thought, I imagine my father visiting my mother a few hours after he died, which would have been the night of the same day because of the time difference. Maybe she was watching television, maybe even The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Perhaps my father’s ghost flinched a bit when Moon’s drum exploded. Maybe he noticed that Mom started a little, too, not realizing she did so because the blast, for some reason, reminded her of the sudden, fleeting sharp pains she had felt earlier in the day. I imagine my father shaking his head at the thought that anyone would want to emulate the sights and sounds of war on a stage, in a song, and then smiling because those loud Englishmen tearing up the stage were actually entertaining and it was a pretty good song, before they blew everything the hell up.