five thousand

It’s probably different from my ancestors. The fireplace is a wooden-wick candle on the coffee table and the radio is a laptop streaming the audio feed while I check football scores, but tonight I’m listening to the 5000th consecutive weekly performance of the Grand Ole Opry, going back to November 1925 when the WSM Barn Dance tried to draw a few listeners with an old champion fiddler and some Vanderbilt string band players renamed “The Gully Jumpers”.

Ever since the Ken Burns miniseries two years ago – the first two or three episodes of which have become recurring comfort viewing – I’ve put Willie’s Roadhouse on the first set of presets. I’ve set up a monthly support for Bluegrass Country out of the old patch on WAMU and begun listening to replays of the same old Eddie Stubbs shows I heard riding around northern Virginia twenty-some years ago. I play Boot Liquor on my SomaFM app which I never did before. And I’ve bought a Woodrow stick dulcimer and taught myself a dozen songs.

This music is a connection. To my past life in DC, to my past life in Nashville, to the Country Boy Eddie show on early mornings on channel 6 and the days when the very special grown-up parties were the ones where someone had brought banjos and guitars and would pick and grin live just like they did on Hee Haw.

There are not many things I have successfully fished out of the black hole of the past and hung onto successfully. But this is one. Saturday night, Music City USA, the Air Castle of the South, AM 650 WSM, the Graaaaand Oooooole Opryyyyyyyy.

Like Judge Hay said: Let ’em go, boys.


I wish I could remember exactly how it was stated, but at one point in the excellent Only Murders In The Building, someone made reference to “your original wound, the one you keep trying to fix every time over and over.” In my case, it’s pretty clear that wound is belonging. To be received and included by your peers – a condition that seems to be the most reliable metric for when I have been happiest in my life.

And that first wound – twenty years of damage – has been ripped wide open for the last five years. The forces currently ruining the country and holding it to ransom, from holy rollers to privileged private business owners to middle aged redneck white women to literal open and unabashed white supremacists, are the very ones that made life in Alabama a constant low grade misery from the time I started first grade until I decamped for Vanderbilt – and then persisted from a distance until I ripped up my life by the roots and fled to DC. So I guess at some level, Alabama chased me down, and at a time when events had combined to lock me out. The pandemic made it impossible to meet in person, virtual socializing went by the boards quickly, and so many of the things I had used for group identity went south on me – sports fandoms, work (where I have resolutely been The Help for almost a decade), and – most recently – the patriarch and matriarch of the family I chose. A lot of the good things in my life went away in the last five years, and it’s hard not to think of the Indiana Jones line about the age when life stops giving you things and starts taking them away.

If it feels like I’ve been cocooning more than ever in the last two years, it’s because I have. Things being how they are, the trick is trying to find a means of escape that lets you actually tap out. I remember early in 2017 waking to wonder what fresh hell the day would bring and suddenly thinking “nothing you don’t let in” – and the trick has been to keep the black cloud at the door and not allow it over the threshold for a few hours a week, whether by the cunning use of streaming bluegrass and Irish music or British podcasts and television or history books or Disney+ or whatever will let me not think about it for a while. It’s been necessary for quite a while now, even after the events of last November – and especially in 2021 when it quickly became apparent that the fever isn’t breaking.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel, if only a dim one. Settling our housing situation and establishing some new patterns and practices for keeping body and soul together will go a long way toward getting my feet back under me. A new job? A new career altogether? Probably too much to hope for, although the professionals are on hold for me to consult in trying to obtain those. And hanging out there somewhere – travel, again, the promise of going further than the West Coast and seeing friends and family in person, of needing the unlocked phone and a photo sharing app, of finally putting boot heels to cobbles in another place.

The problem is that good things may come to those who wait, but the bad shit always arrives in a timely fashion. Not great for the healing process. But after almost fifty years, I’m running out of patience.

sixteen years and moving

2005 was a whirlwind year. I got married, I got on staff at Apple, and we went house-hunting. We had a deal for a place in Santa Clara that fell through because of complexities in financing – it was a hunch, on my part, and one I absolutely insisted on following. Which actually worked out for the best, because in November, we found another place. We made an offer, it was accepted – I found out in the middle of the Company Store at Apple – and after seventeen days at most of escrow, we took possession of the house that has been our home address ever since. That first night, we slept in sleeping bags on what today is technically the dining room, and for a week and a half until the DSL was hooked up, we survived thanks to the good graces of a neighbor whose open wifi access point was called “MrSheep.” Thank you, MrSheep, wherever you are.

And now we are moving – only a few miles, to my wife’s childhood home. It’s not going to be that big a change, with one vital exception: the loss of ready access to public transit, and thereby the loss of ready access to downtown Mountain View, downtown San Jose, and – ultimately – downtown San Francisco. It increases the odds that pub night will be something that happens at home, rather than, you know, in a pub. It means that going most anywhere means driving. And to be fair, these are all conditions that have obtained for the last year and a half, almost – there were enormous stretches when the light rail wasn’t even running, and when it was, it’s not like I could go drink in a pub or go for a stroll around a city that was half shut up against the plague.

Most of my memories of the house itself are of the last year and a half, honestly, ever since the office stopped being the overflow shit-collector for the rest of the house and became my regular daily workspace. Before long I had also turned it into my Sunday night space, with string lights on the shelving and videos of pub ambiance on the iMac, or other soothing backdrops from time to time depending. It broke the pattern established when pub night meant the lower living room and a possible book and shoe shining to go with my two or three pints (almost always two now, and American-sized). It calls to mind the old storage room off our garage, with its worktable and tools for fly-tying or leather-stamping, the place where my father would occasionally retreat and answer the inquiry “whatcha doin?” with “Piddling.”

My other “piddle”, such as it is, has been to finally embrace the walkability of the area. I could go down to the deli, to the coffee shop, get a haircut or a Mexican breakfast or whatever one can get from 7-Eleven (in my case, Coke Zero in 64-ounce fountain servings until they took it off the fountain last spring, and probably for the best). Or I can walk around the expanded neighborhood, with allegedly triple the housing capacity of when we first moved here, and the promise of a little league field before long. I always thought that would become my minor league ball, that I’d drag a lawn chair and a cooler down there and holler “give him somethin’ simular” the way the old guys did at baseball games when my youngest cousin was playing. 

I never got to know any of the neighbors, save for a nice young couple at the end of our street, much younger than us with (eventually) two little girls. Apparently kids or pets go a long way toward meeting people around here. We had one beautifully quiet neighbor on the one side who was highly reclusive, probably an original owner in this development, and a couple renting on the other side whose house would show up on map applications as the home of a couple different tech startups. Be that as it may. Lately, every garage that once had a Prius in 2006 now has a Tesla (or two) instead, and their drivers are rather more asshole (especially at speed in alleyways) than the Prius drivers were. Be that as it may – after all, Tesla is the Bay Area’s BMW as much as the BMW 3 series is the Bay Area’s Camry.

I used to walk around our development a lot more. Always at night. It was quiet, except for the distance roar of the Caltrain and the occasional clang-and-buzz of the light rail. It felt like the days long long ago when I would walk at night around campus, shying away from any other human presence, just alone with the stars. More than once here I wondered whether it would be possible to hollow out a space behind the shrubbery next to the hillside and camp out overnight, before conceding that my snoring would probably bring Animal Control on the dead run. And it occurred to me that during the depths of the pandemic, my imagination would run toward places I had walked before, and in my mind I was always there at night and alone. My old church growing up. My dad’s school. Hell, even around Black Spire Outpost. I don’t know that my neighborhood walks ever had me imagining a larger world, although this time last year, they were soundtracked with the earliest sounds of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers. Maybe it’s the same impulse that makes me prefer to drive down 101 toward San Luis Obispo at dusk, letting it get dark around Gonzales.

Other than that, my memories of this place are mostly of people. I moved here long ago enough that the same Saturn I drove my senior year of undergrad was parked in the garage. We used to entertain more in the era of the Castro Street Dining Consortium, when we had half a dozen local friends of recent making and my wife’s army of Cal compatriots. There was a famously alcohol-soaked 37th birthday party for me that was meant to mimic the “parents are gone, have everyone over and turn up” party I never threw or attended (which was as much a catastrophe as it would have been in 1989). There were holiday gatherings, occasionally punctuated with people who flew in from the other side of the country or even the world. There were a couple of cookouts by the pool, with its grill and hot tub that we didn’t have to maintain or pay for (and which were unavailable for the last year and a half, which sort of softens the blow a little). We had housemates on three separate occasions, someone else to watch Celtic FC or Newcastle United or NFL Red Zone, enough people to make it worth cooking dinner and mixing cocktails. And the HOA’s frequent recent protestations to the contrary, not one of them ever got towed for parking on the street.

But all of those local friends or housemates, bar one, have long since moved away. Some over the hill to Santa Cruz county, some to Seattle, some to Texas or Tennessee or Louisiana, some even to Europe. And the pandemic has brought home the fact, hard and fast, that we are more or less the last ones standing from this era of my life, and it’s just as well we move now. And while we will be pressed for space with the accumulated detritus of sixteen years, we’ll have friends living with us, just as we’ve had in the best times in this house. And I’ll have a yard, with a fire pit or two and a Weber grill and a couple of Adirondack chairs and a back porch with an overhang. I’ll recline in a zero-G chair, back to the wall, stack up the storage on either side to form my nook and look out as (hopefully) the winter rain falls in the night as RTE’s Irish-language service plays through my earbuds. And I’ll be right back where I was seventeen years ago, hoping for the same two things: a new VW in the driveway and a new staff job somewhere.

Home is where you make it. The house is just a place to store your shit.