Other People’s Stuff

I’m sitting in a south-bound truck between a rail-thin, born-again Christian with bright blue tattoos and a four-foot-nothing lesbian hermaphrodite.

We are going to Corvallis to pack up the apartment of some post-grad lovers, put all their stuff in boxes, put those boxes in the back of the truck, drive that truck to Clackamas, unpack all their stuff in a new duplex and then drive the truck back to the warehouse in Wilsonville. This will take all day. The born-again Christian, all 133 pounds of him, is driving the truck down Interstate 5 and telling me the best way to organize a box and how to best to tear packing tape. The miniature lesbian to my right is telling me about the physical dimensions of her girlfriend in astonishing detail. The morning fog is beginning to lift off the hills and I am trying to lift cows with my mind. I am waiting for the smell of the paper mill outside Albany to carry my thoughts somewhere outside this cramped truck cab.

When we finally get to the Corvallis apartment, I stand around in blue khakis and a grey t-shirt and do everything incorrectly. I am told how I am not to pack jewelry with silverware, how shirts go best in a Number Four box and not a Number Six; I am told to get a hand-truck for that; I am reminded the best way to tear packing tape; I am reprimanded for filling a Number Nine box so full, because, man, the way your putting on that tape, the bottom is going to fall right out, man. The couple watches us move their stuff as they drink coffee from thick, glossy, bright yellow mugs. I want to stop and explain to them that I am not a part of this crew in The Real World.

“I am a college kid with a summer job,” I think of saying, as I carry short boxes full of plates and crinkled newspaper. “My friend Tyler, he’s a college kid too and he got me the job. I am going to be a writer and this is just a short-time gig before I go back to school. No matter how many times I forget which box is used for delicates and no matter how I can’t put a lamp in the truck before the dresser, I’m super smart and have no tattoos or anything like that. I’m like you. See? We should go out for coffee and talk about being above manual labor.”

If my one year of college gave me any advantage in the world, this advantage was not recognized among those I worked with that Graebel VanLines, a national trucking and storage company whose Oregon base was located in a warehouse and business park behind a Toyota dealership and some technology firms. I was a college boy. To my co-workers, my friends and I might as well as have been special need kids trying to open milk crates from the wrong end.

“Nice try, college boy,” was the normal response to any tiny mistake.

“Box too smart for ya, college boy,” was another.

“I’m going on a smoke break, college boy. Watch how many cans of Mountain Dew I can drink in eight hours, college boy,” was something else I recall hearing.

Then, my friends and I would be shown how to tear tape, how to unfold boxes, how to pack a truck, how to move other people’s stuff so it wouldn’t break and nothing would get lost. My friends Tyler and Mitchell and Brian and I would be left to finish our tasks while the others took one of their many cigarette breaks. From the houses we drove to, or the warehouse where we put lay-over items in large wooden crates (a dreaded task known as vaulting), I could hear the professional movers talk about their hangovers, their nagging girlfriends, their plans to take off early and drink beer and play video poker down the road. I almost took up smoking that summer, just to have an excuse to not work 20 minutes out of ever hour.

On the days I had to stay at the warehouse and vault, I usually worked with my friend Tyler. Our manager, a round-bellied man with a clean-cut beard, knew we drove together from Keizer, so allowed us the chance to work side-by-side and take off together when we were done. We split the day between playing the local country station or the local classic rock station on the small black boom-box which rested on an upturned garbage can. The warehouse foreman was named Frank and he must have had been a wrestler in a past-life. He had calves the size of my head, but now they merely worked to hold up his growing gut. He wore a trimmed mustache, demin shorts, and tight, white crew socks. He never called me college boy. He was excited for my book to come out. He wondered if it would a suspenseful thriller. I told him, no, probably not.

Frank drove the forklift across the concrete floor of the warehouse with a surgeon’s precision. He spun it quickly in circles and negotiated corners, his fork carrying hundreds of pounds of other people’s stuff. In the morning, when Tyler and I walked through the office and to the warehouse, the floor would be corralled with furniture, appliances, lamps, shoeboxes full of letters, boxes of clothes, lawnmowers, mattresses, and TV sets.

Tyler turned on the radio and I swept the floor. Then, until lunch, we packed wooden boxes with as much care as we could, trying to fill up every inch from floor to plywood ceiling. Then, Frank swooped in on his forklift and carried our work away to be filed alongside and on top of other vaults.

Time moved slow in the warehouse. Tyler and I ignored the ticking clock on the wall by telling stories from high school and our first year of college. We talked about what we planned to do with our lives after we finished school. We debated the summer movies about to come out and we wondered why girlfriends seemed so hard to come by. Tyler told me he was jealous that I got to be in Seattle all year. I told him I was jealous of him for living with people he knew. At five o’clock, we got the go-ahead from Frank to take off and we got our time-cards signed by the old lady whose job it was to sign our time-cards.

After that summer, I went back to school in Seattle and stayed there. I moved all my stuff in a borrowed car into a basement apartment not far from my campus. I stole several Number Nine boxes on my last day at Graebel and did not feel bad about it. I kept those boxes for years and they held letters, albums by Seattle bands, pictures from high school, the grey t-shirt and the blue khakis which I eventually cut into shorts on the first hot day of the summer after my second year of college. I stayed in Seattle and met new friends and friends-who-were-girls I tried to make into girlfriends.

I hated the warehouse for its stale dust and the fumes of exhaust from Frank’s forklift. I hated being called a college boy as though a higher education was a big mistake. But, I have boxed the memories of the radio, the hours Tyler and I talk at length about MTV dating shows and the way our high school basketball coach would sometimes say, “do do” on accident, even the violent tattoos on the arm of the born-again Christian and the regretfully specific details of a four-foot lesbian making out with someone with, like, totally huge boobs. And the slow hours stuck in a warehouse with someone I grew up knowing very well. Those things are in a vault somewhere. With a little effort, I should be able to find them carefully packed and wrapped in crumpled newspaper.

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Knowing Stuff

Josh Ritter is the happiest person on earth.

He is definitely the happiest person in Portland’s Crystal Ballroom. He is happier than anyone I can see. He is certainly happier than I am. And I feel pretty happy at the moment. But Ritter is happy in another way, a way that says he knows something we all don’t. Maybe he does.

Josh Ritter is touring on the release of his newest album. The tour buses parked outside near Burnside are large, but modest. Right now, he is running up and down the unmarked aisle, leaping back on stage with ease, singing his folk-inspired rock tunes with such a free, shit-eating grin, it is impossible to not enjoy his performance.

I’m not a huge Josh Ritter fan. I own one of his albums and I do not remember buying it. My friend Natalie was given two tickets to see Ritter on this Wednesday night and she asked me up to Portland from Salem. The ripped album I own is one that I enjoy, so I decided to drive up I-5 after work and made it to a MAX stop in 47 minutes. I had just enough time to ride with Natalie into downtown Portland, get off, and walk up the three flights of stairs to McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom.

For a mid-week show of mellow acoustic rock, the place is packed. Natalie and I stand near the back. We stuff my puffy Patagonia jacket into her purse and I buy a two-dollar bottle of water at the bar. We stand next to a bored security guard and hundreds of twenty-to-thirty-year-old dudes and gals, everyone wondering what to do with our hands and feet. Acoustic rock is great music, and Ritter is a remarkable songwriter, but the genre does not lend itself easily to any particular movement. There is no jumping around, no moshing, no cha-cha slide. As a fan at this type of show, you have few options on how to outwardly respond to the music, to let the artist know you dig what’s going on. Standing with arms crossed makes you look uninterested. Arms dangling by your side just feels awkward and can too easily lead to an accidental butt-graze on a passerby. Hand-holding works for couples, but Natalie is not that kind of friend-who-is-a-girl. So, as I usually do during these types of show, I just put my hands in my pockets, my eyes half-open, and tap my feet on the bouncy Crystal Ballroom floor.

For some reason, I want to respond; I feel like I have a responsibility to do so. I want to let Ritter know I am happy to be here, even though I know he’ll never see my pigeon dance and smile more because of it. I want to communicate to the artist who is trying to communicate something to me. Because, I think, a show is meant to be less about entertainment and more about a connection.

Natalie must be thinking about the same thing. She leans in just before the solo section of the set and whispers in my ear a question that has obviously been forming in her head since we first got in from the dry cold. She says, “Michael, isn’t it incredible that all these people are here at the same time to enjoy this show? Why? There are people with all different experience, from different places, at different ages, all here to listen to music. We are listening to the SAME THING at the SAME TIME! Why, huh? Why do people show up at concerts, what makes people stay up late and clap for organized noise and some thoughtful words? There has to be some kind of thread, don’t you think? What is it?”

I smile and do not answer. The show carries on from soft jams, leading to electric anarchy, on to some mic-less folktales about mummies waking and love-making at the end of the world, they even play the chorus of the Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime,” and through it I cannot shake the question. By the time we go downstairs for a beer and a burger, I think I have an answer.

“Natalie,” I say. “I think I have an answer.”

“You have an answer?”

“Yeah. To your question, about why people come out to concerts.”  We order our beer and our burger. “Okay,” Natalie says. “What is it? What is the thread?”

“Josh Ritter knows stuff. That’s why people come out to shows. Because the artist knows something and they state the fact that they know something through a song. The song doesn’t have to be personal, or factual, or even have lyrics. The whole point is that he knows something about the world, just enough to put some words to it, a few chords to it, some noise to it, enough to get some guys to play along to the goodness of knowing something. People show up to be reminded that someone knows something. And, I think, it is good know to that someone knows something. Because if Josh Ritter knows something, then maybe I know something too.”

I cannot tell if Natalie agrees or not. She says that is an interesting way to think about it. We eat our burgers and drink our beer and watch the cars on the road. Natalie asks me thoughtful questions and I try to give thoughtful answers. I organize my mind as best as I can in the midst of clanking glass, shifting headlights through a dirty window, loud music coming from the bar, and louder music coming out the kitchen. I seem to talk in circles, but Natalie seems to understand me and she tells me what I’m saying makes enough sense. She nods her heads and smiles with her eyes closed.

And now, as I write this, I think about the idea of knowing stuff. And it seems like the most important aspect of making music, art, writing novels and stories, retelling conversation shared over unhealthy amounts of red meat and fried potatoes. I think about why people go to church, why they read novels about people who never existed, how they sit alone and listen to records. I think about one interview I did with a singer and songwriter named Eric Anderson. He performs under the name Cataldo and once said something very interesting about his album, Signal Flare.

He said to me, “Some people like to write about questions and uncertainty. I write about stuff that I know. I like to write music that says, ‘hey everyone, look at this thing I discovered, this part of life I found to be true.’ That’s a signal flare, you know. That light in the sky I shot to say I know something.”

Eric Anderson is also a happy person and an incredible songwriter, and I think that is because he has figured out he knows something. For him, it feels good to know something and it make sense for him to write pop songs about the things he knows. That’s why, I think, I enjoy his shows so much. Through my half-closed eyes, I can the signal flare floating above the stage, yellow and red, and it feels good to know that someone knows something. Because if Eric Anderson knows something, why not me?

Natalie and I finish our food and walk through the rain that is just beginning to fall and floats like gnats on a spring afternoon. We zig-zag back to the MAX station by Pioneer Courthouse Square. We don’t know when the train is scheduled to arrive, but the lady in a gray sweatsuit does and she is happy to tell us.

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Show Chickens

On my dresser I have a frayed and soft-cornered book called “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon” by Joseph Mitchell. It was given to me by one of my favorite professors from SPU, Dr. Luke Reinsma.

As I went through college and got deeper into my Lit and Writing major, it became very apparent to me that I was not interested in writing fiction. I also did not want to write about myself. I wanted to write about other people. I wanted to write about musicians, artists, bums, mentally-ill wanderers, old men with curious habits and quick wits.

So, Luke and I would meet for coffee on certain afternoons and talk about profile writing. Luke gave me Joseph Mitchell’s book as the supreme example of how to write about another person. How to tell their story. How to place that person in a definite place and how to bring the reader along with straight facts and strong, simple sentences. I loved those stories and those simple sentences. I wanted to write my own. Luke helped me find a voice, a rhythm, a style of my own, all while trying to emulate Mitchell.

I recently published my favorite profile piece written so far. I have been working on this essay, in one way or another and with one mentor or another, for four or five years. The character of Henry is so complex and so deep, I never wanted to finalize it. But, after a number of internal events over the years and a number of spare hours at my warped wooden desk, it came time to publish “Show Chickens.”

I have no problem sharing my pride for this essay. I like reading it. I like my simple sentences. I like what I say and I like what I don’t say.

Please, enjoy. You can find it HERE.

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An Interview With Kasey Anderson

“It feels good to be a with a band, after two years of touring, pouring out my heart on stage, living in my own head,” says the thirty-year-old Kasey Anderson from the stage of Portland’s Mississippi Studios. This may seem like a simple statement, but the sentiment behind it has influenced almost every musical decision Anderson has made leading up to his latest album, Heart of a Dog. Anderson seems almost hidden underneath his grey derby cap and blond beard. He stands tall and skinny like an unlit cigarette. His band, The Honkies, silently prepare for the next number and crack smiles in response to still-forming inside jokes.

The two years Anderson was playing solo has given him a comfort on stage, a veteran’s cool and quick wit. Now, he has fellow musicians off which to bounce his jokes and create gritty, near-violent, rock tunes. “Yeah, I like to take all of the players of my favorite bands and lure them in with promises of little money and no future,” Anderson says as he tunes the guitar that he hardly plays onstage. Kasey Anderson writes the songs and sings the words, but he tries hard not to lead.

Before Star Anna had opened the night, and just after a blaring Honkies sound-check, I sat down with Kasey Anderson to see how a bleeding-heart roots singer forced himself out of the spotlight and in a new, louder, “plain ole rock and roll” direction.

Read the interview HERE.

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A Good Story (Hopefully) Well Told

For the past month or so, I have been working on a project for the Courthouse Athletic Club, here in Salem. The idea for the project was broad and ambitious. My job was to tell some stories. And tell them well. These stories were of normal people who have done remarkable things in the realm of personal fitness. These four folks are Courthouse members like most Courthouse members: people with goals and ambitions, people with jobs and families, people who want to go out there and do something, people who want to feel good, think well, and be fit. As I had the chance to interview and film and write about these four wonderful people, I have been inspired to find my own goals and search through my own story to discover what I can do and what more I can become through becoming more and more fit. I hope these great stories, well told, do the same for you.

Please read and view them HERE.

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‘Tis the Season for Amateur Athletics

Not long ago, I called my good friend Brian who currently lives in Reno. I had not spoken to him since he moved to Reno and I had moved to Salem. Naturally, he asked me what I was up to in my hometown. This is what I said. “Well, I’m working at the Wild Pear. Doing some writing work for my dad and album reviews and what-not. Then, let’s see, I’m coaching a JV girl’s basketball team, playing in a squash league with some old dudes, and playing indoor soccer on Saturday nights with my brother and a bunch of people I don’t know.”

This is what Brian said. “Okay, let me see here. You, Michael Miller, are playing soccer. And you, Michael Miller, are coaching a girl’s basketball team.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” was my reply.

“If I had told you sophomore year when we were at SPU, Michael, in four years, you are going to be in Keizer, playing co-ed indoor soccer AND coaching a girl’s team at your high school, you would have told me to shove that malarkey up the place a person shoves that kind of malarkey.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” was my reply.

Let’s go ahead and start with soccer.

I played soccer only once before in my life. It was the fall of my first grade year. The soccer field was made out of 12 parent-arranged cones in the outfield of the Keizer Little League ballpark. The only memories I have of playing are of trying to trip my cousin Travis and of getting to wear a tie-dye shirt when it was my turn to play goalie. My older brother, Drew, recently shared his one memory of my short futbol career. “You were playing goalie,” he told me the other day. “And I think about five or six goals went past you. You were not happy. It was kind of sad to watch.”

I do not remember this, although I have no doubt that it is true.

My current soccer experience is with Mythical Creatures United (I chose Predator from Predator to be on my MCU shirt), a team made up of people I do not know, a girl I met once at the ultimately disappointing movie Due Date, my older brother, and the younger sister of a girl I liked in high school.

I should not be out there. I do not belong. I am terrible.

Our games are played in a dilapidated building behind a mobile-home park on Portland Road in Salem. They usually follow the second half of a pee-wee game. Parents congratulate their kids in Spanish after a game well played, then we enter the field, a bright surface made of years-old Astro turf and a thick layer of black rubber beads. I wear running shorts and the one pair of socks I own that go above my calves. Others on my team wear actual soccer shorts and actual soccer socks because they have actually played soccer. I run around and hope to do something right and most things legal. Last week, I was asked to play goalie.

And the memories of my first grade self came flooding back to me. I stood in the goalie box like a little kid in his dad’s shoes–awkward, unsure, afraid to pee himself–while the other team took turns making me look like an idiot, like an obvious non-soccer player. Erin, the younger sister of my high school crush, kept telling me I was doing alright, that it wasn’t my fault. Erin is a good player, a nice gal, and a horrible liar. The entire first half, I was too embarrassed (or pride-strong) to ask for a sub, and my teammates had too much pity to say how terrible my goal-keeping truly was and demand a sub. The only thing I kept that half was Mythical Creatures United out of the game.

The score at halftime: 6-1.

I should not have been there. I did not belong. I was terrible.

Okay, my girl’s basketball team. People who knew me in high school give me odd looks when I tell them I am coaching a girl’s basketball team. They give me this sideways grin because I gave girl’s basketball a lot of guff growing up. It was a funny joke that I told too often and to the wrong people.

My transformation from foe to fan came through announcing countless women’s basketball games at Seattle Pacific University. To be a convincing radio man for the five years I called games, I had to put aside my prejudice and find the excitement and skill I had refused to see in women’s hoops in high school. And I had a blast. I got to know a handful of the players and learned how each played their own style of ball in a very different, but exciting game.

When I moved to Salem, my brother asked me if I wanted to help out with his JV squad at McNary.

“Sure, why not,” I said, unsure of what this might involve.

As it turns out, it involves learning how to communicate with 15-year-old girls again (I wasn’t very good at it the first time around), learning how to motivate 15-year-old girls to play hard and play well and square up to the backboard when shooting lay-ups, how to bring together a whole team of 15-year-old girls. And I have had a blast.

So, every person to whom I ever made flippant and irresponsible comments about girl’s basketball, I recant. I apologize. Please forgive me.

I figured out the other day, between all the practices I’ve attended, games I’ve coached and watched, matches of collegiate volleyball my roommates and I have viewed from our DVR (Carli Lloyd, Miss National Player of the Year, if you are reading this, I am very easy to get a hold of), I have watched as much, if not more, women’s athletics than men’s athletics. And I have no problem with it.

My time in Salem–coaching, playing squash, writing, being godawful at soccer–has taught me a bit of humility and a renewed appreciation for amateur sports. Because no matter how good or bad, no matter what gender, no matter who comes to watch, no matter what mythical creature you decide on, we all just want to get out there and play, we all want to compete, to sweat and find little black beads stuck in our bald-soled Sambas.

After my soccer game last week, my brother (who missed the game for a Christmas party) sent a text message to see how it went.

“I suck at goalie”, was my reply.

And this is what he said. “Some things don’t change. You sucked when you were seven too. ”

Thanks, Drew.

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An Interview with Ethan Anderson

With cars moving past on Commercial Street, rain dripping in the gathering puddles on the cracked concrete of a Salem parking garage, I sat in the open trunk of my car and conducted THIS interview with Massy Ferguson’s lead singer Ethan Anderson. If you enjoy Massy Ferguson’s country grit, our exchange will lend an insight into the band, their thoughts on touring, growing up in the Northwest, and how journalistic integrity can make for good songwriting. If you don’t dig the band, or have never heard their stuff, just imagine you are a spy who is listening on a very important, super-secret conversation. Then, simply decipher the code.

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