Scenes from St. George’s, Part II: Scorekeeping, the Sandhills, and a Would Be Yearbook Heart

Author’s Note: This is the second installment of scenes from St. George’s. The first installment contains a little more context about this series. Joan Dideon says that a writer is always selling somebody out. I’m not sure I agree with this exactly, but I have taken the liberty of using some real names and some realish initials. These scenes are written with love, however if I do seem to be selling anyone out I guess I feel like the statute of limitations has pretty much expired.

Gary Leinhart and My Father Forget How to Count

Gary Leinhart was another one of our middle school teachers and he also coached boys basketball for a time. He was no Mr. Dreyer, however he was a decent teacher and pretty well liked. He was not a great basketball coach, but he did like to play a little himself. I guess Gary was in his early to mid-thirties around this time but I’m not really sure.

A few miscellaneous things about Gary:

i) he was minus a finger, I think a pinky, from an accident with a saw one time, but you never really noticed it. I guess you don’t really need your pinkies all that much.

ii) he once made a citizens arrest with his friend who was also a teacher at SGS.

iii) After SGS I believe he moved to Alaska.

Now when Gary first came to the school he and my father (who I think was still teaching in the middle school at that time) seemed to get along fine. In fact, my father and I played in Gary’s fantasy baseball league where I was assigned to be the commissioner. Fantasy baseball is impossible at the best of times, and pre-internet it was super impossible, so the league was short-lived. Nonetheless, things were fine there for a while.

As I mentioned above, Gary was the high school boys basketball coach, and my father coached the girls. At some point there must have been some issues, because Gary and my father started to seriously dislike each other. I don’t know what was going on actually, but I’m guessing it was basketball related. Like I said, Gary was a good, if easy-going, teacher, maybe just a bit lazy. My classmate L.W. recently reminded me of some story involving Gary, an air raid siren, and J.T., but I don’t really remember this. The point is, Gary seemed to me be a pretty good guy, except on the basketball floor where he became hyper-competitive.

Around this time I was the lead scorekeeper for the high school basketball games. This involved running the game clock and the shot clocks and keeping the game score correct on the score board. It was a pretty involved job, and I loved it. I threw myself into being every day and in every way the best scorekeeper I could be, and it was a pretty big responsibility for a young fellow. J.T. was my assistant; I think he did the shot clocks. Our school played in a league with schools from all over Eastern Washington, and there were a few schools up near the Canadian border that were a bit rough. Their fans, parents of players mostly and some others, would drive down and there was a visitor section and a home section, as with most gyms. One day some dude from up north must have come to the game a little lit, or a lot lit, and after the game (which SGS won at the last second) he came charging over to the scorers’ table. He started accusing me of cheating by giving the home team extra seconds at the end of the game (e.g. not starting the clock when the ball was inbounded). I had done no such thing; and he was drunk, which I helpfully pointed out to him. I think he wanted to punch my lights out, and probably some adults had to intervene.

In any case, I was a good scorekeeper and one day my father and Gary Leinhart were playing basketball against each other with mixed teams of other teachers and students. They had chosen teams I guess and the teams were pretty balanced. My father has never been a great basketball player, but once upon a time he could play a little, and Gary was also decent. The students were all on the basketball team so the game should have been close. And it was. I should know because I was keeping score. However for what was essentially an intramural game we were not using the scoreboard, and I think I was just using a piece of paper or keeping score in my head. The game began, and both teams started scoring. As I recall, the score was 14-12 in favor of my father’s team when the trouble started. Gary’s team scored a basket and he took it on himself to try and usurp my position.

“12-0 us,” he called.

Now this was completely ridiculous because it was a two point lead for my father’s team, not a 12 point lead for Gary Leinhart’s. Before I could correct the score, my father yelled back:

“It’s not 12-0. It’s 15-2 us!”

This was equally ridiculous. As I have made clear, the score was 14-12. As any pick-up basketball player will know, it’s totally possible to lose track of the score of a game as you are playing and miss a basket here and there. This is why, as a matter of fact, there are scorekeepers to begin with. So I did my best:

“Hey guys,” I called, “the score is 14-12 red team.”

“There’s no way they have 14,” said Gary.

“There’s no way we are only up by two,” said my father.

“Yeah, the score is 14-12.”

But unfortunately my efforts to settle the matter were for naught. Gary and my father started screaming at each other and fighting about the score like little children. This was awkward and after a bit people just sort of checked out of the game space and the game ground to a halt, never to be re-started. I guess there was no way to bridge the collective 25 point gap in score perception.

Looking back at this incident, it still boggles my mind. I’ve played quite a bit of pick-up, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this. I wonder what the core issue was.

The Sandhill and Points West

Back in the day SGS had something called “the Sandhill.” There were actually two Sandhills, which were predictably called “the Little Sandhill” and “the Big Sandhill.” These were conjoint, and located behind the baseball field at the back end of the school property.

The Sandhills, especially the big one, were super tough to climb, but they were both great for jumping off. With a running start, one could fly twenty or thirty feet in the air off the Little Sandhill and land safely near the bottom. When I was first at the school the Big Sandhill actually had a rope swing attached to a tree at the top, and you could run, grab the rope swing, and fly way out in the air. This was a much larger fall than jumping off the Little Sandhill, but it was basically safe. It was also a blast.

In addition to the Sandhill swing, the school had another swing which swung over the Little Spokane river. This is the river that the fabulist John Innes claims I used to throw people in. In any case, the river swing survived longer than the Sandhill swing, because a few years after I first got there the school took the Sandhill swing down. Too dangerous. This was basically a terrible decision and was probably made by someone who had never been on a swing in their life. School bureaucracy sucks.

So although many of my future classmates at the school never got to experience the glories of the Sandhill swing, there was plenty more to explore back in the woods up behind the Sandhill to the west. Several hundred meters back there was a set of rocks which had little climbing routes naturally built into them. These were not hardcore rock climbs by any means, but they were sufficiently testing for us students and generally pretty good action. Our school had a cross-country team, and the cross-country course turned around just before these rocks. One day a female student who was a few years my senior was running the course by herself and came across a guy on a bicycle completely nude just chilling by the rocks. She came back and reported the situation. What did you do, she was asked? I just turned around and kept running, she replied. Smart move.

There was all kinds of action, both good and bad, up in those hills. My friend J.T. and others whom I will not name would go up into the hills and start fires. Now I understand that young boys like to start fires—it’s an age old pastime—but I was not that into fires. First, they seemed dangerous, and second, more importantly, they just seemed unnecessary. I was in the minority on this point though; fires were set.

One day I went climbing on the rocks with my friend Kelly and his half-brother who was a few years older. Kelly’s father is Art Rudd, and he had had two children with his first wife over in Seattle or something before moving out and coming to Spokane. Kelly’s older brother was interesting and I got the feeling like he had already seen a lot in his life. Art Rudd was a dentist, and was in fact my dentist. Art Rudd was a garrulous individual and also tried to talk to you when you were in the dentist chair as if you could just chat right back. Overall, Art Rudd was an OK dentist I guess, but I also think he was running a scam. And this scam is not, I think, unique to Art Rudd. I think this scam is widespread, insidious, and bad.

I didn’t have serious dental issues, but I did seem to go to the dentist a lot, which may have been its own scam, however when I was twelve or thirteen Art Rudd suddenly started talking my mother into the concept of me getting braces. Now braces may be important for some certain people with teeth that are like seriously out of alignment, however that was not the case with me. My teeth were totally fine. Nonetheless, the braces conversation was initiated, and kept up, until my mother caved and I was referred to an “orthodontist” friend of Art Rudd’s. “Orthodontists,” I believe, are all basically scammers, and I am totally sure that Art Rudd was getting kick backs there from this “orthodontist.”

I went to see the “orthodontist,” who was a portly and cheerful fellow (he ought to be with all his braces money), and he said sure enough looks like you need some braces. Now I was attuned enough to BS even then to know that this dude was full of it. But I was stuck on a train I couldn’t get off of. I ended up getting braces, which did nothing, and then they came off. Scam, all the way.

Anyway, that’s beside the point. The point is, the Sandhills were awesome and whoever took down that swing is an asshole.

I Fail to Draw a Heart in R.s Yearbook

I wrote in the second scene of this series about drawing a solid sun for N.C. when I was in the lower school. What I didn’t mention is that there were actually two lower schools—the one up on the hill for Grades 1-3 and another one down by the river for Grades 4-6. When I was attending the second lower school a new girl joined our class. She was called R. Now I didn’t have a crush on R. of anything like the intensity of my crush on N.C., however I did kind of like her, and at the end of 6th grade when students were writing in each other’s yearbooks, I resolved to make my big move. I would sign her yearbook, I thought, and draw a nice little heart as well. My successful sun drawing was in the books and everything, and I thought the heart would be easy.

Sure enough, R. asked me to write something in her yearbook, so I wrote something anodyne, and then went in for the heart move. I had practiced this in my head several times, because when you get nervous sometimes you mess stuff up and I didn’t want to choke and draw a bad heart. So I took a deep breath, and went for it. And I couldn’t get close. What came out looked nothing like a heart, nothing like a sun, it looked in fact like some kind of undefinable blob. This was bad, and I had precious little time to salvage the situation. In fact, I had no time, because R. must have seen the heart coming, and she asked “what’s that?” in a fake innocent voice that made it clear to me that she knew exactly what was going on.

“Nothing,” I replied. “Just drawing something.”

I tried to improve the heart to no avail, and then scratched it out and tried again. No luck. If anything the second heart was worse than the first. I had no idea how to draw a heart, had no idea at all what one was even supposed to look like. Suddenly, I was the Steve Sax of heart rendering.

“Never mind,” I said finally. “Just read my message.” My message was not the point though—it was the heart that tied the whole presentation together. And I had blown it, badly.

Thinking back on it, it was probably inevitable that I would choke on the heart for R. I mean, this was the last day of lower school and here I was attempting a heart for a girl other than N.C. I was a faithless individual, a turncoat, and the heart was never going to materialize as my own heart was still back up on the hill with N.C. in Science class. And, come to think of it, it still is.

to be continued…

I Have a Crush on Katie Park From Bad Moves

I love live music. More than that, I love live music fans, and music fans in general. This piece is basically about being a music fan, and was inspired when I saw the band Bad Moves open for The Hold Steady in 2018 at the Brooklyn Bowl. They were touring on the back of their first full length, Tell No One. While at the Bad Moves/ Hold Steady show a music geek introduced me to a band called Swearin’. Swearin’ has been around a little longer than Bad Moves, and in 2018 had released Fall Into the Sun. The two bands don’t really sound all that much alike (Bad Moves is basically “Power Pop” and Swearin’ is basically “Indie”) but they write somewhat similarly about matters of love and friendship.

Let’s play a game that we live in a world where a record by a band like Bad Moves or Swearin’ would produce radio hits. I want to live in that world. Or maybe I don’t; maybe it’s better for everyone that bands like these stay a little more on the DL. Let’s first take a look at Fall Into the Sun. (Swearin’s frontwoman is Allison Crutchfield, and the band is mostly her baby.) My pick for the single would be the lead off track, “Big Change.” It starts with a simple, slightly scratchy guitar line over which Crutchfield softly speak-sings:

The best years of our lives/ were spent in some stranger’s basement/ medley made of empty cans and ex’s/ and that radical romantic conversation/ about how we are like mutants/ who found each other by chance through rock ‘n roll music

clenched fist, eyes wild/ scream over the records, you artfully complied/ while I put my bad faith into practice/ sit at home on Saturday night/ ease into my false sense of superiority/ no art degree, no conservatory/ just Katie and me

I really like what Crutchfield does here. She is basically writing about a friendship solidified over a shared love of music. Now, I know a lot of people. I also have some friends. When you ask an adult, “How many real friends do you have?” the number will vary widely. A lot of people will say “four or five,” something like that. People in general have surprisingly few real friends. I have ten or fifteen, maybe more, but am only in regular contact with about half that number. A good friendship, in my opinion, is one where no matter how long you and your friend have not hung out, if you see them it’s as if not a day has passed. With this sort of friend, I’ve found, there is between yourself and them something fundamental shared. It can be anything really. For example, I first met my good buddy when we were both in graduate school in Arizona, and at first I thought he was a total dick. He was loud, interrupted people constantly, and loved being the center of attention. One night we were drinking as a department and he started razzing me there on the street, just casually insulting me left and right. Suddenly I got where he was coming from. This was, in fact, his way of offering to be friends. Once I understood this, I began to give it right back to him. Called him every name in the book. And he ate it up. By the end of the night we were fast friends and have been ever since, because we share an understanding that our friendship is based on ripping on each other. Music, obviously, is another great basis for a friendship.

When Crutchfield sings “no art degree, no conservatory/ just Katie and me,” I’m reminded of the refrain from Don DiLillo’s Underworld: “who’s better than us.” If they can do it, why not us? Fuck ’em. That’s what attitude looks like kids–take notes.

So “Big Change” is my single from Fall Into the Sun. (“My single” here just means the song I would choose as the single. For some records, the single is super obvious, while for other records it’s debatable. Bands and producers, in my opinion, do not always get this right.) A good record will tend to have at least two singles; three is a bonus.

For Fall Into the Sun’s second single I’ll go with “Grow into a Ghost.” It opens with a chugging guitar riff with an almost Krautrock drum line. The song is a perfect 3:10–in and out. Do you know anything about lost love? Swearin’ does–here’s verse II:

I write you ceaselessly and abstracted/ I hang out with old friends/ and they unknowingly remind me/ of who I was before we met/ you were somewhere out in the desert/ you frame the natural light perfectly/ will you come back soon and/ let me love you completely

and the chorus: “I watch you/ I watch you grow into a ghost.”

Swearin’ is good, but Bad Moves is better. And the star of Bad Moves is the exquisite Katie Park. (I know they are a collective, but my world is my world baby.) Before their show Katie was at the merch table selling…magic eye! That she made by hand. And what did it say? The magic eye said “Bad Moves.” Obviously. I checked it out and chatted for a few minutes with Katie, trying to play it cool. It was the highlight of my year. 20 minutes later she and the band were on stage, crushing it.

The single here is pretty easy. It’s “Crushed Out.” The band released “Crushed Out,” “Spirit FM” and “Cool Generator” as the singles, all of which are excellent. Maybe “Spirit FM” is catchier than “Crushed Out”? Possible. But “Crushed Out” has more lasting power in my opinion. “Crushed Out” is about exactly what it sounds like. It has a basically perfect power pop structure with a killer hook, a classic bridge, and a theme at once super obvious and super deep–the power of a crush.

It was a strange infatuation/ I couldn’t place it at the time/ but now it seems as if my mind/ was all stopped up with you/ I had no sense of aspiration/ I didn’t know, I guess it’s fine/ but now it seems so obvious/ did it seem so obvious?

through all my fits of desperation/ sharing looks and passing notes/ what did you make of what I wrote?/ what could I ask of you?/ the weeks of strained communication/ could you read between the lines/ or was it just so obvious?

Baby, if you are crush-prone that power never goes away. Bad Moves knows this–it’s kind of what the record is about. Crushing out that way can be pretty obvious–do you think I’m crushing out on Katie at all? Nah, this is just a piece of music appreciation.

Cool Generator is my second favorite song on the album, but my “sneaky favorite” is “Missing You.” A sneaky favorite is just what it sounds like: it’s that song that may fly under most people’s radar but that you have a special soft spot for. My all time sneaky favorite song is “Three Drinks” by Craig Finn of the aforementioned Hold Steady. Three Drinks shows up on Finn’s 2016 EP Newmyer’s Roof. It’s nearly acoustic, unlike most Hold Steady songs, and sounds just a little bit country. Three Drinks is about a woman (most great songs are) who may have been a child star once upon a time, and is now a drinker. It is an example of a certain type of song that Finn is amazing at, the deeply empathetic look at adult relationships in all of their gloriously flawed complexity. In this sense, Three Drinks fits in with “Spinners” from The Hold Steady’s 2014’s Teeth Dreams, “Tangletown” from Finn’s 2017 solo record We All Want the Same Things, and “Esther” a Hold Steady single from 2018. Finn’s writing on Three Drinks and Tangletown is at its absolute apex. Here’s the opening to verse two of Three Drinks:

There was bloodsucker blues in the lobby at dusk/ she blew smoke in my face and it felt like a bus/ the chef cut his finger off the waiter got fired/ I only took notes to try to come off inspired

Come on man. The refrain focuses on that magic hour between drinks 3 and 4, when matters begin to move from the slightly anxious first stage of the evening to something entirely other:

It takes 1 2 3 drinks/ and now she’s not so frightened/ it takes 4 and 5 and 6/ and then she’s sick/ but in the hour in between/ she feels holy and redeemed/ blessed and blissful/ painless and serene

And then Finn delivers this killer quatrain:

She left the room to put on her face/ I went through her purse/ it was all pills and mace/ she said its so hard to choose between space and time/ she mostly just smoked and drank wine

It was all pills and mace, baby. Man Craig Finn can write.

So anyway, my sneaky favorite on Tell No One is “Missing You.” The song starts like the others, high-speed power pop, and after two verses switches to a near-spoken word breakdown of the tug-of-war between a crush and the expectations of the world around. Guess which wins?

Something inside told me I shouldn’t do/ things that set my heart racing, the dreams I held to/ so I wrapped them up tight and hid them from view/ and gave them a name I called “Missing You”/

every cop in the city and the family I knew/ the church and the pastor all said I shouldn’t do/ but their pleas for contrition just couldn’t break through/ not one of them stronger than missing you

I officially support these sentiments. And look what the band does with the simplest rhyming possible: “knew,” “do,” “through,” and “you.” High level.

So that’s my sneaky favorite –doesn’t mean it’s better than “Crushed Out” (it isn’t) it’s just a little sneaky. I’m all about sneaky favorites, on all levels.

In addition to the Magic Eye, Bad Moves also engage in a little publishing. A little literature. Specifically they publish a pamphlet called “The Virtues of Wearing White.” Check this out:

Chatting with Katie, she acknowledged more than a passing familiarity with the literature of the Jehovah Witnesses. I love Witness literature. Both Witness and Bad Moves publications have a real “it’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day” vibe. If you know me this is not a secret, but I’m a hardcore closet New Ager. There, secret’s out. I’ve messed around with all kinds of New Age action. Once I attended a Kabbala meetup in Manhattan. There were some hardcore New Agers there too, seriously. Those folks were not in the closet at all. Shining eyes, whatever color they are wearing. Me, I like black because it’s easier to launder, but Bad Moves have me thinking. (One other publication you should take a look at if you are into this kind of thing is the Christian Science Monitor. It’s a serious piece of literature. God is great baby, god is great.)

When I was younger my parents had a friend called Tom Hutchinson, who, predictably, went by “Hutch.” Hutch owned a boutique coffee shop there in town and I drove a delivery van for him for a bit. But that’s another story. Anyway, Hutch was a weird guy and he hated the Witnesses. It was one of his favorite topics. He’d call them the “Witlesses,” and say: “When they come to my house I turn the hose on ’em.” People thought this was pretty funny, but I was not that into Hutch’s attitude to the Witnesses. I mean, he didn’t want anyone trying to convert him on his property, which is fair; however, I felt, and still feel, that if someone wants to come to my door, give me a little literature, and talk about how god loves me I’m gonna let them. I genuinely like the Witnesses. They seem like lovely people. Read more

Half Hours on Earth (A Poem)

Author’s Note: I wrote this poem in Auckland in 2009 however it is based on an encounter I had in Adelaide a few days prior. (There are a lot of mussels served in Auckland, incidentally.) The theme here is pretty obvious; it’s about an encounter, or, more precisely, an event, during which time compressed itself almost to a standstill. You have probably had this experience if you have been knocked of your bicycle by a car or something like that. When this happens over a half-hour, that’s a bit of a different guy.

This is one of my favorite poems that I have written. The title, and the repeating coda, are borrowed from the band The Silver Jews.

The quality of experience in half hours
is not uniform.
Some half hours are simply wasted;
in others, something occurs,
leads into something else.

“Half hours on earth/ what are they worth?/ I don’t know”

With the occasional half hour
something actually happens,
(in the Raymond Carver sense)
something that matters.
The air is charged, and thin;
butterflies roil one’s viscera;
and something is on the line.

“Half hours on earth/ what are they worth?”

These electric half hours
even if isolated in time
are frightening, or better
giddily upsetting, and dangerous.
They sear themselves into the memory,
rippling the fabric of the universe.

“Half hours on earth”

Dedication: For Molly. And for David Berman, RIP.