Deep Listening

Dear Reader,

This post is about something you have quite possibly never heard of: podcasts.  As in broadcasts for the iPod.  My first experience with podcasts was way back in 2004.  Podcasts were a fairly new iTunes genre, but I loved radio shows on NPR and audiobooks, so the podcast offered a familiar and simultaneously unique form – almost like a weekly magazine but free. My favorite: Pottercast, a podcast dedicated to rehashing everything in the Harry Potter lexicon and speculating on how the series might end.  One of my favorite episodes featured an interview with Matthew Lewis – he played Neville Longbottom in the movie franchise.

And now you’ve seen my nerd card. Photo on 4-29-16 at 10.33 AM

For some reason, despite the moderate success of standout programs like This American Life, podcasts didn’t really take off at first. They remained kind of a fringe form of media: low-budget, low-interest.  Eventually, the Harry Potter book series came to a close, and I stopped listening to Pottercast and all other podcasts for a while. While the iPod itself is now virtually extinct, podcasts have hung in there, playing to a small audience week after week.

But then came a little podcast called Serial from the producers of This American Life.  Season 1 of Serial hit the airwaves like a lightning bolt.  If you have any curiosity about podcasts at all, download this podcast immediately and start listening.  The well-produced series also presented a compelling mystery told by skilled storyteller and former crime reporter Sarah Koenig. Serial is the story of a closed case that feels pretty unresolved – the 1999 murder of a high school student from nearby Woodlawn, Maryland named Hae Min Lee.  Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted of the crime, but the facts and circumstances made his conviction, well, un-convincing.  (An aside: Syed won an appeal for a new trial and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals is currently weighing the state’s appeal of that ruling for a new trial.  Justice is not just blind but painfully slow and bureaucratic.) Whereas This American Life had always focused on telling several bite-sized stories on the same theme in a single episode, Serial took a new approach.  Koenig unfolded the story a little bit more week by week; Serial not only held listeners in rapt attention but spawned other true-crime podcasts in its wake, including Undisclosed, Truth & Justice, and Accused.  This year the producers of Serial kept the ball rolling with a new podcast, S-Town, that presented something like a southern-gothic murder-mystery. No spoilers here, but the story takes a dramatic, strange turn that left me thinking, “What am I listening to?!” – yet I couldn’t turn it off. The new format of S-Town and Netflix-style dropping of all episodes at once pushed the genre in a new direction again.

The Podcast Renaissance is going strong, and I am in awe of how many truly exceptional programs are being produced. Podcasts have transformed my commute, my workout, and my yardwork – I can’t wait to immerse myself in these episodes.  When I can’t sleep, I reach for my headphones- usually a bad idea because I get engrossed in the story and don’t want to sleep, but it’s better than the 2am television waste land. Search the iTunes charts, and you’ll find some truly esoteric stuff. There’s also some pretty mainstream stuff. Pottercast still exists, in case you’re wondering – they have a new episode up once or twice a month.fullsizeoutput_ce0

Of all the truly wonderful podcasts on the charts, I would like to focus on two of them for you that I am obsessed with right now: Ear Hustle and Revisionist History.

Revisionist History features Malcolm Gladwell, celebrated cultural critic and author of books such as Blink and The Tipping Point.  I love the premise of his podcast: that some things we take for granted as settled history deserve a closer look.  He takes on a wide range of historical and social issues, from Winston Churchill to country music to the educational system.  Gladwell always takes an angle that I am not expecting, and I truly do learn something every time I listen to it.  My only criticism of the podcast is that Gladwell sometimes goes too quickly for an oversimplification of complicated problems – maybe this is part of the limitation of a 30-minute conversation, or maybe he just really believes in Occam’s Razor.  A good example of this is in the Season One episode called “Food Fight” about wealthy private colleges Bowdoin and Vassar. He starts by comparing the dining options at the colleges and then progresses to a discussion of the efforts each college makes (or doesn’t make) to offer better access to low-income students.  His general point is that because Vassar has cut back on dining options and student amenities, they are able to admit more low-income students.  I asked a former student of mine who happened to attend Vassar during the time Gladwell recorded that episode, and she pushes back on his summation that basic options are the burden that more fortunate students must bear in order to increase opportunities for low-income students.  She pointed out that the college still spends plenty of money on non-student related amenities, such as champagne-rich faculty parties, new houses for administrators, and purchasing some rare, expensive golden bird for their art collection.  My student shared that Vassar made this acquisition at the same time they were preaching austerity to students, saying they’d have to cut back on providing access to basic health items such as sanitary products. So yeah, not just about food. But even though his food for students argument is a bit reductive, Gladwell does raise an interesting point about how colleges choose to use their money – and this applies to all colleges and universities, not just Vassar and Bowdoin. It makes me think harder about how my own college spends its resources.

In addition to Gladwell’s program, another real standout for me is the new podcast called Ear Hustle.  If you read Piper Kerman’s book Orange is the New Black or have seen the sensationalized series on Netflix by the same name, you probably have some notions and also some questions about life for the incarcerated. Ear Hustle is set in San Quentin State Prison and produced by two prisoners, Earlonne Woods & Antwan Williams, and a local

ear hustle
The Ear Hustle Crew (l-r) Williams, Poor, & Woods (Photo from Rolling Stone)
artist, Nigel Poor. To “Ear Hustle” means to eavesdrop – thus the podcast is what it is like to listen in on what actually happens in prison.  One of my favorite episodes is called “Cellies” – about the pitfalls and politics of choosing and enduring a cellmate. That’s right – sometimes you have a say in who your cellmate might be, and the decision is pretty complicated. The episode called “SHU” explores the effects of long-term solitary confinement in Pelican Bay where SHU inmates are held.  SHU stands for Security Housing Unit, and it is absolutely the loneliest place on earth. Woods himself spent a year in SHU and can personally speak to the way it altered him.  His stint was nothing compared to other men who contribute to this episode – some of them spent decades in the SHU before getting released.  Fortunately, due to a 2013 inmate hunger strike, the prison changed its policy and no longer commits prisoners to the SHU indefinitely; the maximum time there is five years – which is still an awfully long time to spend with no human interaction and no chance to breathe fresh air or feel the sun.

Ear Hustle does not pull any punches and does not romanticize the plight of the inmate.  The inmates are not portrayed as animals or as completely reformed saints, but as flawed men who feel the weight of what they’ve done and who face the consequences of their choices daily. The self-awareness of the inmates is disarming and somewhat unexpected.  The goal of the project, I think, is simply to lift the veil so we can better understand these men – not to pity them, but to humanize them. Our criminal justice system needs desperate reform, and perhaps seeing prisoners as people – not numbers, not problems – is a good first step in that process. So the podcast is not just entertainment, but a subtle exercise in activism.

The great thing about a podcast is that it allows for deep, extended listening.  I have always loved listening to things – it probably goes back to when I was a kid and used to listen to baseball games on the radio with my grandfather.  Too often, it seems to me that we do what I like to call resistant listening – especially when it is something that challenges us or that goes against things we already think or believe.  We don’t listen to understand – we listen in order to respond – because we live in a contentious, litigious society where everyone wants to have the last or loudest word about things. Podcasts are helping me become a better listener and by extension a better thinker about a variety of subjects – some things I never thought I’d be interested in.  Because of podcasts, I really think about the criminal justice system, I really think about how my brain works, I really think about my biases and how to be more aware of them.  Podcasts inspire research, questions, and conversations. From politics to pop culture, true crime to television, there really is something for everyone. And more than that, we can all stand to become better listeners.

In addition to the ones I have already mentioned throughout this post, here are a few podcasts that I highly recommend (all available through iTunes):

And I’m always looking for more.  If you are already a podcast lover, tell me: what are you listening to?

 

© Ryna May 2017

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Losing Saint Ricky

This week – from the archives: a story about my father.  This week marked the twenty-third anniversary of my brother’s death.  Next month will be the thirty-fifth anniversary of my father’s death.  They died of the same thing, shared the same affliction: alcoholism. When I was eight, it was a hard thing to understand.  This is how I remember it.

Ricky
Ricky Odum, @ 1971, entering the Air Force
When I think of my father, many different images come to mind. For me, he is mostly a series of pictures like a confused, silent home movie—but in Technicolor, not the standard black and white that home movies usually suggest. I see him in a red and black flannel shirt standing in the kitchen of my grandmother’s small Tennessee house; smiling with his brown golf bag hanging from his shoulder; his jeans and black boots sticking out from under the old blue rambler my mom used to drive, his brown hair sparkling in the sun.

There are other images, more vivid and disturbing. I see him punching my mother. I hear him yelling at my brother and slamming the door as he walks away. I see his rage. These are things that I wish I didn’t remember. In general, my father’s family doesn’t like to remember anything like this either; he was the youngest of five children and my grandmother’s treasure. He was famous for doing things like skipping school to drink with his buddies—on one such occasion, this resulted in his accidentally sinking his car in a lake. These things were somehow easily forgiven and laughed off. So he ruined a car? My grandfather just bought him a new one. His mistakes were never a big deal. He was immature, but he could do no real wrong, even when he was wrong. After he died, he was practically holy: Saint Ricky. Saint Ricky never really made an effort in life to consistently be a better man, but after his death, we all wanted to believe that he could have been.

My father had this charm about him. I guess that’s because when he chose to be good, he was great. He was quick to apologize when he messed up and seemed terribly sincere as he did so. I understand why my mother, his parents and his friends so easily forgave his faults: I forgave them as well. I continue to forgive them. If I were not a part of this family, I couldn’t possibly understand this, but I am; I do. There are only a handful of times that I remember being afraid of my father, but there are more times that I remember that I loved him and he loved us.

I don’t really know what my father did for a living. He never went to college, but somehow he managed to score himself a management job. I know that he wore a suit to work (I specifically remember a brown suit he wore a lot and a tie with brown and white and silver diagonal stripes), and I know that he worked for a company called Hamilton Avnet. I used to have a key chain that was a chopped up $100 bill inside a plastic shell that said “Hamilton Avnet” on it. I used to think it was really worth $100. I prized it. My father brought it back from one of his business trips for me—I guess to make me feel better about the time that he had to be away. He was often away.

 

But this is all that I know. I’m starting to lose even those few things I can still recall. I now remember far less about my father’s life with us than I do about his death. I can’t remember the last time I saw my father alive or recall the last thing he may have said to me. But I remember exactly the moment that he died—or at least the moment that his death became real to me. It was late at night, and I think he had been away on a trip. I should have been asleep but wasn’t. Or maybe I was. Or maybe I was caught in that space between sleeping and waking where everything is at the same time vivid and hard to remember at once. Even now, pieces of it come back to me and retreat from me—like when I have a strange dream, and I stand in the shower the next morning trying to fit it all back together while images wash over and off and away from me, out of my reach.

That night in July 1981, the ringing brought all of my senses to attention. This was long before I knew the gravity of a phone call in the middle of the night, but even at eight years old, I knew that no one was supposed to call right then.   The hair on the back of my neck and my arms began to stir. I got up. The padded feet of my pajamas hit the floor. I squished and swished into the dark hall where I heard my mother’s sleepy voice answer the phone. I don’t remember any of the words that she said, but I could hear fear.   The rest was silence. In the dark, I couldn’t see anything. Once my mother stopped talking, the air was still and blank. I would have thought that I was asleep and dreaming except that I could reach out and touch the frame of the doorway that led to my mother’s room. That was when I knew I really was standing in the hall, that the phone really did just ring. All at once, somehow I knew my dad was gone.

A mass of blankets was lying on the living room floor; my mother wanted us to feel safe, so she herded us together. My brother and sister and I were still trying to grasp ideas of “tragic” and “gone” and “heaven” and things like that that everyone kept repeating. In the hours since the phone had rung, I was aware of people coming and going and crying. My mother’s eyes were wild and red. I could not understand then her fear of being suddenly a widow at the age of 26 with three small children, a part-time job as a waitress and no high school diploma.

A few days later, I remember this beige building with a black railing along a walkway out front. The place was called Laycock Funeral Home. I kept going out to the railing to escape the sobbing, sniffing people dressed in black who all seemed to want to hug me. I was afraid of them, but I was more afraid to go into the other rooms in that place. I was afraid that there would be more dead people in them. There was only one room that was safe. It was a tiny room in the back, with a sink and a counter and a little soda machine. For a quarter you could buy a coca-cola in the little old-fashioned glass bottles. It was the only room where I couldn’t hear the tinny, hollow organ music—that music made me feel as though I was floating around outside of my body, not even really there.

The room my father’s body and family were in was a lot different. There was a bronze coffin. His body was inside of it. I can say his body was inside of it and not that he was inside, because what lay within that bronze coffin was definitely not my father. His hair was all wrong. It wasn’t combed the way he usually combed it. It wasn’t brown and sparkly like it was when we were out in the sun. And it wasn’t soft. I touched it. It felt hard–like fishing line. I put my face close so that I could smell it. My father usually smelled like oil and sweat and suntan lotion. Not only didn’t it smell like him, it didn’t smell like any person I had ever smelled in my life. He smelled like Vaseline and rubbing alcohol. His face was kind of puffy and he wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t frowning either. So often when he came home from work I could tell whether we would play or if I should run by the look on this face, but now this face said nothing to me. His eyes didn’t have those lines at the corners that he always got when he squinted. I remember that he squinted a lot. And this was the worst thing of all: there was a little trickle of dry blood on his ear. If that had been my father, I would have wiped that off of there. But I was certain that this was not him.

There were yellow roses on top of the bronze coffin. They added to the overpowering smell of flowers in that place. I can never drive by Laycock without remembering that smell. I can’t smell flowers without remembering that place, this day, bronze coffin, my father, yellow roses and the American flag. My uncle, Eddie, was a soldier. My father was a soldier too—before I was born. I have seen faded, cracked pictures of my father in green pants and a green shirt polishing his boots or standing next to a plane. He has really short hair in all of those pictures. There is one that my mother is in. She is standing next to him in his tan dress uniform and she is wearing a really short white dress. Since my father was a soldier, my uncle the soldier is there to honor him. But I am not noticing all of this entirely. All the things that he said about my father I have long forgotten. Out of the funeral home and on the cemetery hillside, what I notice now is the bright, blue sky, the heat of the sun, and the green tent that we are sitting under, how it is flapping loudly in the breath of God. The overwhelming smell of flowers is replaced by the smell of cut grass. The sound of hollow organ music gives way to the sounds of cars passing by, people crying softly, and my uncle whispering something into my mother’s ear. He placed a carefully folded flag (with the white stars showing) into my mother’s lap and saluted her; I didn’t know what any of it meant.

I lost that $100 key chain long ago, and I now understand that the broken, fragmented pieces inside it had no real value, just imagined worth. I lost my father long ago as well, but the disjointed images of him, both great and terrible, are all that I have left, and now I realize that they are worth everything to me. It’s taken me many years to understand that when someone dies, we don’t lose them all at once. It seems like that initially of course because their physical presence vanishes so suddenly. But in truth, pieces of them linger for years after. Despite his many faults – even the ones that really hurt our family, I’ve found that I most often tell the good stories about Saint Ricky because I want others to meet and know and love the man I think I knew.

There is a picture of my father on his tombstone. He is outside, smiling in the sun in a faded denim jacket in front of the house where we used to live before he died. For me, he will always be frozen in this moment, with this smile. I remember so much, but there are some things that I am beginning to forget. Every day, parts of him are slipping away. I can’t remember what his voice sounds like anymore. I can play the tape recorder in my head and recall actual words that he said, but the sound, the tone, that ineffable thing that made it his voice, is gone. I’ll never get it back. I am losing him finally in parts, and I feel it so much more than when I thought I lost him all at once.

 

© Ryna May 2016

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Dear Reader,

Hey!  Is it the First Friday already?? Okay, so off the top of my head, this is what I’m thinking about.  Today, I saw a movie called Krampus.  It’s a Christmas-themed light horror movie in the spirit of Gremlins that also invokes the familial horror of a film like Christmas Vacation.  The movie opens with the dulcet tones of Andy Williams singing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” while a dumbshow plays of people trampling each other for Black Friday sales: a terrified store employee falls helplessly to the ground, shoppers slug each other in their efforts to obtain a starbucks reddiscounted toaster, and store security guards taser a couple of middle aged yuppies with a look of wild excitement in their eyes. This is what signals the start of the holidays now: frenzy.  And yet, that’s not how it has always been.  I don’t think there’s a “War on Christmas” or anything, and I have no problem with plain red cups at Starbucks, but I do feel a shift in the way Christmas feels.

Christmas has become a bit of a paradox.  On one hand, I get excited about the season – I look forward to the idea of it.  On the other hand, I get inexplicably vexed by seeing Christmas trees and decorations in stores before I have even handed out my Halloween candy. Perhaps the presence of all these decorations so early in the year just reminds me how different the experience of Adult Christmas is from Kid Christmas.

Kid Christmas was awesome.  I can’t remember anything bad about it.  I know that’s just how memory works – we amplify the things that are good and diminish the things that are not – but I really did always think of Christmas as being kind of magical.  It wasn’t just because of Santa – I mean, that’s part of it, sure, but it was also the time that our families all were together.  On Christmas Eve, we went to my mom’s parents’ house.  My grandfather played Santa and passed out gifts to everyone.  We all waited while the gifts were opened and we “Ooohed and Aaahed” over everything that everybody got.  Then we went to our aunt and uncle’s house for Christmas Eve dinner and there were more presents, but mostly it was the chance to see each other all at once and love on each other in a way that we never really did any other day of the year.

Christmas Day was even better.  We went to my dad’s parents’ house, and Grandma Odum made amazing food for us: biscuits, gravy, ham, potatoes, cookies, and pies.  We spent hours eating and laughing.  We got to see

Ryna and Grandma
“Kid Christmas” with Grandma Odum

cousins that we hardly ever saw.  The house was so warm and happy on those Christmas mornings, and my aunts got us the most awesomely bad gifts, but I loved it.  The worst: a purple sweatshirt with a hand-knitted orange cat on it.  One of the best gifts though: the year my grandparents bought all of us, even cousins, bicycles.  My uncle Frank taught me to ride it in the street that day. That was the real gift – not really the bike but that time with my uncle, even the part where I crashed in the ditch.

Adult Christmas just doesn’t reach the same emotional highs.  It’s not bad or anything, but there are so many things that escaped my notice as a kid.  My wife and I were stringing the lights on the Christmas tree the other day and talking about how much real work goes into creating that ethereal magic.  When we were kids, we just showed up and ate the food and appreciated the lights – we never really thought about the fact that someone (mostly grandmothers) put a lot of effort into creating that experience for the whole family. And dealing with family can be trying – there was nothing more exciting about Kid Christmas than the people we shared it with.  But Adult Christmas comes with a lot of strained relationships that the best adults are able to smooth over. Tongues are bitten and cheeks get turned for the greater peace of the holiday.

Something that you also don’t realize as a kid is that Adult Christmas comes with a certain amount of financial anxiety – big feasts cost money and so do presents and gift wrap and lights and things.  A whole lot of investment that goes into creating the experience of a single day.  There is a payoff, but not on the level of what used to be. It’s stressful to find the perfect gifts for everyone every year. And most disappointing of all, the feeling of the holiday fades really fast.

I am haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past – not in a Scrooge kind of way but in the way that nostalgia messes with all of us and makes us hope that Christmas will be more than it really is: a day.  It’s a day that, if I am lucky, I will get to spend with some people that I really love.  It’s not really a great movie, but the point of Krampus is that if we don’t cherish the things like family and tradition that are the real treasures of Christmas, then it can become little more than a horror that we have to endure.  Krampus is the shadow of Christmas that looms over us, threatening to destroy any real joy we have for the season.  But the better we can remember and embrace the Kid Christmas mindset, the better chance we have to love the season and all that goes with it. So that is what I want to be more mindful of this year.

I wish you all a Merry Kid Christmas.  See you in the new year!

 

© Ryna May 2015

 

Music and Memory

“No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—”

– from “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins

The other day I was working on my laptop while a popular singing competition played in the background when I heard the first few plaintive piano notes of the song “Walking in Memphis”  and I suddenly started seeing a memory play in the movie theater of my mind of a time I was stranded with a bunch of my friends in a Myrtle Beach hotel twenty years ago, January of 1995.  We had gone to Myrtle Beach for a business conference, and the morning we were set to leave, we got the news that I-95 was shut down through most of northern Virginia by a massive snowstorm.  There was nothing to do but stay a few more days and wait it out.  There was an entire floor of the beachfront hotel, the “Captain’s Quarters,” that was given over to entertainment: a bowling alley, a pool table, several arcade games, and a jukebox.  I remember playing that song on the jukebox several times while we were there.  I know I have not thought of this in at least a decade, but now here it is, just as if it happened yesterday.  It’s strange how we can be pulled so immediately into the past by music.

Actually, the more I think about it, it is not strange at all.  Music and memory are powerfully related. I used to give my creative writing students an assignment that starts with the line “The first time I heard [insert song title here], I was…”  They were always great stories because the memories were so clear – students could recount things with startling detail and emotion.

I associate certain days with certain songs.  I remember being in the living room of our house in Soddy Daisy, Tennessee on a pile of blankets with my brother and sister and hearing the spooky song “In the Air Tonight” on the radio.  I was eight, and it was the night my father died.  There are so many things about that day that have faded from memory, but not this thing. Even now, when I hear the song, it’s as if I slide down a rabbit hole right into the middle of that room.

I also remember in the months after my father’s death lying on the floor of our new house back in my mom’s hometown of Athens, Tennessee and playing the song “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey over and over again.  I would crawl out of my bed journeyat night when I was sad or scared and could not sleep and go huddle right in front of my mom’s living room stereo.  The first night I did it, I just pushed play on the tape deck and the sound came out at me like a warm blanket, wrapped me up, and hushed me to sleep.  After that first night, whenever I found myself too traumatized to sleep, I crawled to the stereo in search of that peaceful lullaby. Play.  Rewind. Play. Rewind. Until sleep came over me. Years later, when I was in high school, I had a friend who was learning to play it, and I could not get enough of listening to her play those first few measures. Even today the song elicits a physical reaction – a deep breath and warm tingle that runs up the spine.

Music has been shown to help elderly people with memory recall.  This is important to on a personal level because my grandmother suffered from alzheimer’s and dementia, a disease with a genetic predisposition.  Perhaps I will face that too someday, but even if I am lucky enough to avoid it, I know that it is a fact of getting older that our memories become less distinct over time, and there are some things that I definitely want to remember, good and bad.  I want to remember working on a paper once about Virginia Woolf sitting in McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland with my little portable CD player and finding that for some reason, I felt most inspired when listening to “Sylvia Plath” by Ryan Adams.  I want to remember my sister, when we lived on Andrews Air Force Base, sitting in the backyard with her junior high friends dangling their painted toes in a baby pool while George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” blared through the speakers of her pink boom box as they sang along in the worst possible tableau you could imagine for preteen girls.

I have so many memories of my brother that are connected to music, such as the songs by Quiet Riot and Twisted Sister that he used to play in his room, the Tesla tape that he used to play every morning as we drove to high school in our red Nissan Sentra (we were beyond cool), and the black Metallica t-shirt he was buried in.  It was his favorite. But there are two that are the most powerful.  One is from when we were kids living in Florida.  He was probably around thirteen years old, and I walked into his room unannounced – something you should never, ever do to a teenaged boy by the way – and he was jumping around on his bed wearing shorts and these white tube socks singing, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain…” by James Taylor.  It was funny then, and he was kind of embarrassed, but now it feels different.  Those white socks, for some reason, get me every time.  The way they were flopping off the ends of his feet, too big for him.  It kind of breaks my heart.

But the one that really breaks my heart is from the day after he died.  I just had to get out of the house for a little while, get away from all of the sadness, but that really wasn’t possible to do.  So I drove to the restaurant where he used to work and I just sat there in my car.  This song “One” by U2 came on.  Then the tears really came.

When I am old I still want to remember the things that have broken my heart along with the moments that have filled it.  I want to always remember “Lovely Tonight” by Joshua Radin but as performed by my friend Will at my wedding.  We stood at the top of the stairs and I gave my soon-to-be wife’s hand a squeeze before I walked down the aisle with this song drawing us to the altar, drawing us into happily ever after in front of all of our family and friends.

We are so lucky to live in this time where our life’s playlist is so easy to access, catalogue, and replay.  Our music tells our history in a way that words cannot quite reach, and for that I am grateful.  Sweet as any madeleine shortbread, these songs comfort and fortify me and summon up the remembrance of things past. As long as I can hear these songs, I am always in touch with who I am, who I’ve been, and who I want to be.

© 2015 Ryna May

Phantom Balls

This month: from the archive, a story about tagging along behind my brother.  Some philosophers believe that identity comes from sameness, as the Latin root identitas implies. More complicated are the questions about how we change and therefore how our identities change over time as we continually seek that sameness in others.  That quest began early for me as I looked for and found an identity I admired in my older brother, Bryan.

“Awrgh – my balls!”

I was not immediately aware that there was anything strange about me saying that. As I clutched my crotch in feigned pain, I slowly looked around at the ring of startled faces. My skateboard clattered away, but it was suddenly the only audible sound in the world. All of the boys in the gang were at a complete loss for words…except Gabe, of course. “Your balls?” he asked. Then he looked at my brother Bryan for an explanation. I took a deep breath and held it.

This had all started so innocently. Gabe said it first. He fell off his skateboard, hit the rail, and said: “My balls hurt. That’s the last time I do that.”

Gabe was our coolest friend at school. Well, he was the only reason we had any friends at all really. He was a skateboarder and the leader of a whole gang of skateboarding guys. My older brother Bryan and I hung out with Gabe because, well, he would hang out with us, and that was just short of amazing. Breaking into a middle-school clique is the most traumatizing experience that a kid has to go through. The new kid is never really welcome and always has to have some sort of trick to get in. With nothing but our rich southern drawls to distinguish us, my brother and I were agonizing over our outsider status together. We were grateful that someone would talk to us. We met Gabe and his gang on our first day at Lakeside Middle School – which was about two months after the first day of school for everyone else. It was the end of the day, and Bryan and I sought each other out in the last period of the day – a sort of middle school recess called “free period.” It had not been a great first day. Like the first days at the other 3 schools we had been to in the past year, no one had bothered to befriend either of us. Little did we know that our fate was about to change. Gabe saw Bryan and me hanging out alone at the fringe of the playground and walked right up to us, his cool looking crowd of skateboarding friends trailing along behind him – all long hair, baggy shorts, and Vans shoes. Bryan had brought his skateboard to school and was riding up and off the curb while I threw rocks aimlessly at my own feet. Gabe looked at us, nodded at each of us, and said “Bring your skateboard tomorrow.” He was talking to Bryan of course, but there was just no way I was getting left behind.

A tomboy from the start

Making friends was easier for Bryan than it was for me because he was a guy. Among guys the bonds of friendship are forged through action – with girls it takes months of conversation and spending quality time together to gain acceptance. Bryan could ride a skateboard and play baseball and jump BMX bikes and tell gross jokes and spit really far. I learned that I could do those things too – I just had to eliminate the girly things in life. For me, dolls were easy to give up in favor of baseball cards because it meant that I was able to be with my brother and his friends. I’d left all my friends behind in Tennessee, and since we first moved from our hometown a year earlier, our stepfather’s enlistment in the Navy had jerked us all over the southern portion of the United States. Bryan became my best friend because having a best friend is a form of survival for a kid. So I learned to appreciate all of his activities. The problem was that none of his activities were very couth for a little ten-year-old girl – not that it mattered at all to me. I think at first it horrified my mother, but eventually she made peace with the fact that I was going to be a raging tomboy. At least she still had my little sister who loved dolls and dresses and makeup.

Bryan really didn’t have to, but he always figured out a way to make me a part of whatever he was doing. Right before we moved to Lakeside, we lived in an apartment complex full of kids called Spring Creek. He convinced the boys there that I should be allowed to hang out with them because I was fearless enough to steal garden hoses – and then he made me go and steal them. Garden hoses were valuable items because they could be used as ropes. Tied to the branches of trees, they allowed us to swing over the creek like Tarzan’s children, and that was good for hours of fun on Florida summer days. The complex security guards cut them down all the time, so obtaining a new rope was usually a high priority. Getting them was a sure “in.” Bryan always insisted that I get the first swing since I had stuck my neck out for it. That was even riskier than stealing the hoses.

If the first step of anything is the hardest step, the first jump can feel downright suicidal. I couldn’t help but notice the rocks leering at me from the creek bed 20 feet below. But this was no time to be turning back into a girl. “Well, what are you waiting for?” Bryan asked. “Just jump.” That was my trick to get in, and it made me cool in the eyes of all the guys and saved me from watching television alone or worse: being relegated to playing Barbie or tea party.

ryna and bryan
Ryna and Bryan – Thick as Thieves

At Lakeside, it was no different. For some reason, Gabe and his gang accepted that when Bryan joined their tribe, it meant that I had joined as well. I was the only girl in the group, but since I never acted like a girl, they didn’t seem to mind having me around. In that gang, Gabe was the only one who ever talked anyway. Gabe was tall and strong – and outrageously confident for an 11-year-old kid. He was the king of the skateboard slackers, and we did whatever he told us to do. Everyday in the free period at the end of school, we gathered with Gabe and his gang at the edge of the parking lot by the playground to practice our skateboarding prowess. Despite my late start, I was not half-bad at skating, and it seemed the guys expected me to be at least half-bad at it anyway.

There is only so much you can do without going airborne, and Gabe decided we should learn to ride down and jump off of rails. Gabe went first and hurt his balls trying to skate down the handrail of the steps that led out of the cafeteria and out into the parking lot. He fell off and straddled the rail. It didn’t appear to be very traumatic for him; he seemed to be okay. All of his gang had to give it a try as well. One by one, they tried to complete the stunt, and one by one each of them proclaimed their balls injured.

I didn’t want to do the trick well. I just wanted to share in the agony with the rest of the gang. I hopped up on the rail and fell off on purpose. I didn’t even hit my crotch; I landed on my feet beside the rail, but I said that my balls hurt – which was exactly what the rest of them said when they fell off. I didn’t have a clue what balls were or that I wasn’t supposed to have any. That did become apparent to me rather quickly from the looks of shock, horror, confusion, and I’m not sure what else on the faces of Gabe’s gang.

What did I know about the differences between boys and girls? For me, I was more like my brother than I was like my sister, more like my dad than my mom. I liked being covered in mud and playing with the guys, but I knew I was a girl. But in this seminal playground moment, a realization began to creep over me. I had a flashback to this day when I must have been about five. I was in day-care, and there was a chubby little boy in there. He was lying on the mat next to me at naptime. He secretively pulled the front of his pants down to reveal himself and then jerked them back up and rolled to the other side of his mat where I heard the little girl on the other side of him squeal with fright. It wasn’t until now, wilting under the stares of Gabe and his guys that I understood, really, what I had seen. A hot, sick feeling started to flood through me – starting from the place of my phantom balls and spreading rapidly to my glowing cheeks.

The faces of Gabe, Bryan, and the rest of the gang came into sharper focus. I looked at each of them one by one and could see that they were taking the measure of me as I stood there clutching my crotch. They were pretty sure I was a girl, but what if I did have balls? After all, they were only eleven. What did they really know about it anyway? Gabe opened his mouth to say something else, but before he could, my brother laughed.

Bryan’s laugh pierced the bubble of tension around us. “You’re funny,” he said, “your balls!” Gabe and the gang fell over
themselves laughing, and I finally exhaled. I wonder if big brothers remember all of the times they have to come to the rescue for their little sisters? Little sisters never forget all of the times they have been saved.

© 2015 Ryna May