Where My Head Lately Is

The present ache is not physical, but metaphysical perhaps, meaning that the symptoms are likelier to be furrowed brows and drawn-out silences than anything requiring Ibuprofen. It seems to come, this ache, from an overabundance of existence. Do you know what it means for existence to feel like a burden? Not in a depressive way (though it can go there), but in an overwhelming way—a feeling that’s not really an emotion, yet is still big to the point of restlessness, when all you can do is stare into nondescript places and try not to embarrass yourself by spazzing out in public.

So I drive and stare straight ahead as if wearing blinders, aware of the gray-brown treescape falling away on both sides, but not needing to look at it. All is a soothing, comforting gray. Even the noises are gray. More and more, these days, I want to leave the radio off. Coasting down I-65, I feel, oftener with age, a compulsion to quietness—a need to listen to the road sounds: tires at high speed; the double-knock of wheels over changing pavements; the motor’s quiet roar and the thin, dry clicking of my vents on low. Rounding a curve or banging through a pothole, a loose thing in the back loses footing and topples against the inside of the car, sounding like an animal trapped and pawing for escape.

When I listen like this, I think I’m getting closer to the texture of existence—the part we lose from being on auto-pilot; the part we drown in music or conversation. Listening when there’s not much to listen to: this is a valid way to center oneself. And I’m the type that needs frequent centering.

My Exposed Root

Coming of age in northwest Tennessee means I will always have a root exposed to those mown cornfields along Highway 22, as you approach Reelfoot Lake—a root sensitive to the bite of a January ice storm, and to the yellowed-out severity of a meager existence among the bluffs (an existence I only imagined, yet it seemed ripe material for stories), overrun with the ghosts of Chickasaw Indians; a root sensitive to endless backroad roaming, often under cover of night, when the mystery was thickest—when the taste in our mouths and the fire in our brains urged us into country cemeteries in hopes of communing with the dead (which we almost convinced ourselves happened); a root bare, like the bald knobs of cypresses, where unspeakable ice sculptures materialize from the winds whipping off the lake; a root exposed to the midnight sounds of unseen, distant animals—coyote laughter drifting across bean fields and who-knows-what splashing in black water.

I cannot deny the imprint of those experiences, coming, as they did, when my young adulthood was forming. There’s a voice in the rural solitudes of northwest Tennessee that speaks only to me, and I don’t need to be there to hear it.

Phases

It seems like most people go through phases—periods in life when you’re really into something and then you’re not. I’ve had many, and I was thinking about them this morning and decided to make a list.

Annotated List of Phases:
(in mostly chronological order)

1. Monster trucks

They were big, loud, flashy, and powerful. What’s not for a little boy to love? My friend Bobby and I once begged my dad to take us to a truck pull, and when he finally agreed, we celebrated like we’d just won the lottery.

2. Karate

Inspired by the original Karate Kid, I made it all the way to . . . green belt. So it was short-lived. (I had no idea that crane technique wasn’t legit.)

3. WWF Pro Wrestling (and sometimes NWA Pro Wrestling)

My friend Jonathan and I would binge-watch past series of Wrestlemania on VHS. And my friend Matt and I spent a lot of time playing with these rubber wrestlers:

—highlight: seeing the Road Warriors wrestle when the NWA came to Jackson, TN.

4. BMX

Fun, but soon replaced by #5.

5. Skateboarding*

This one really resonated. It was when I first became aware of subcultures—those little enclaves of activity outside the mainstream. I was in the sixth grade, and I realized skaters were my kind of people.

6. Hair bands

And the crushes that went with them.

7. Rap

Anything at all that can be traced back to Dr. Dre still turns me up.

8. Basketball

Michael Jordan was active and winning championships with the Bulls, so it was a good time to be a fan. I played a lot with my friends, but it all went sour when I didn’t make the team in tenth grade. Even now, I get jealous when I see a really tall male.

9. Grunge/alternative rock*

It was a glorious thing to be in high school when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit. It was the perfect intersection of adolescent angst and early-90s apathy; a generation of teenagers pretending to be dead inside. It was great!

—my uniform: flannel shirts, ripped jeans, and green Doc Martens; also, a general shagginess
—sub-phase: reggae (complete with a Bob Marley sticker on my Honda Accord)
—sub-phase: The Doors (who hasn’t communed with the spirit of Jim Morrison?)

10. Painting*

I had always drawn pictures, but in 11th grade I began to realize that art was about way more than just pencil drawings of random things. It was (and is) a way of living, one that grew exponentially more important in college. However, the various painting phases of my artistic life apparently have their limits.

11. Hunting/fishing

My dad took me hunting and fishing several times when I was little, and at the end of undergraduate school, I found myself wanting to do it again (plus it lined up with a sub-phase: obsession with the movie Legends of the Fall, in which Tristan is a hunter). Yet I was never a successful outdoorsman, and I think it’s because, at my core, I’m not the hunting/fishing type; this phase was more about being in the woods or on a lake with my dad and brother.

12. Being in a band*

I’ve been in three bands (four if you count the rap group in junior high). Each was fun in its own way. The most special, though, was the one I moved to Nashville with, because we were really trying to do something with it, artistically speaking—trying to “make it.” Oh well, oh well.

13. Golf

It’s amazing how one good golf shot will make you forget a hundred bad ones. Eventually, though, you get tired of spending money on something that makes you angry.

14. LEGO

One of the triumphs of fatherhood is that now I have a justification for playing with LEGOs. This phase is ongoing.

*The asterisks denote a recurring phase.

Looks like my list will end here. I’ve had more interests than these, but many of them lasted hardly long enough to be considered phases. Also, things have grown out of certain phases that have evolved into something bigger—something more aptly called a lifestyle, like writing, which I trace back to my painting days, falling, as it does, under that greater realization of what it means to be an artist. Further still, some things are too monumental to be thought of as a phase, even though their relative duration was short, like graduate school. And finally, as I noted with asterisks, some phases never truly leave. In fact, there’s a skateboard in the back of my car right now.

What are your phases? Make a list!