I had a nice lunch with my father last week at a Polish deli near his house. Over pierogies and salad, we talked a little bit about writing, and it suddenly occurred to me that first exposure to poetry was through my dad’s tattered copy of Ogden Nash. We recapped one of our favorite:
“Men don’t make passes
At girls who wear glasses.”
On the (long) drive back to my house, I remembered all the things my parents did for me growing up that encouraged me to be an artist. I was a child in perpetual danger of falling into boredom, since I was the last child left at home, and often needed something other than He-Man or Transformers on which to put my attention.
When I was in grade school, I used to direct (and write, but not on paper) short plays with neighborhood kids, most of which included a monster of some sort and ended with a climactic chase scene that, unfortunately, had no resolution. People attended and, if I remembered correctly, even subsidized the production by playing a nickel for a seat.
One Christmas, my parents bought for me a half-sized Casio keyboard. I couldn’t play piano then, but they gave me a few remedial instruction books and from that point forward, I spent many hours. I never became “good,” but I always enjoyed it and they always encouraged me. I remember my oldest brother brought home a college girlfriend, and she sat down at the keyboard and just banged out the theme from Terms of Endearment without hesitation, a song I’d been struggling to master since I could only play the right-hand notes.
I asked for lessons. In eighth grade, when I lived on an island in Wisconsin for the year, my parents connected me with the local piano teacher. I blazed through three levels of instruction in that year, learned to read and play bass clef, and even gave a recital. I loved it! I still love piano even now, although I no longer have that old Casio, and someday, when I’m a grown up, I’ll own a real piano I can use to get better.
It was also during that time I started writing little stories. Mostly by hand, and mostly awful, as you can imagine. I wrote science fiction. I wasn’t ready for literary fiction yet. I also toyed with noir writing, too, although I never knew who committed the crime.
At my parents’ encouragement, I took up the trumpet in band. Again, while I never truly mastered it and was, for four years, relegated to second chair, I enjoyed it. I quit once I got to college and had braces put on, and then sold the trumpet for a measley $50 when I was broke in grad school. But I still remember all the fingerings. Still.
In high school, my parents were going to throw away my dad’s typewriter, having upgraded to a Mac computer, and asked me if I wanted it. It found a home in my bedroom, where I’d furiosly type out my stories and poems, which I’d recently begun to write. I loved that old typeweriter, the hum of it that shook the wall of my room, the punch and tap of the keys, the ugly Courier font. I wrote in rhyme and meter. It seemed right.
Not long after, my parents gave me a key to my dad’s office, located in the “downtown” area of my hometown (think Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls), and I was allowed to go there after-hours to write and print out my poems. I’d take these furious little poems to my high school English teacher, who would give me a yea or nay on them. I did this for several years, until I went to college.
In college, I pursued a degree in film studies, which my parents supported, even though it was sure to lead me to the soup kitchen and the unemployment line. Although they probably would have preferred I study something more practical, I’m afriad the bar was lowered after my older brother graduated with a degree in French literature. So, thanks for that, Dennis.
I never once thought about a life in the arts—nor of “being a poet”—because such things were never discussed or considered in my house. But I also never considered that the arts weren’t a worthy pursuit, even if it never led to anything gainful or anything more than personal enjoyment. Still, I have spent the past three years slowly teaching myself to play the acoustic guitar. I play the guitar more than I read or write poetry. But it doesn’t seem to matter and my neighbors haven’t complained yet, even after my 300th run through of “Tainted Love.”