My hometown, my writing, my life

Why am I staying up past my bedtime to write about my hometown? At my age, when I’ve been on all sorts of medication because my sinuses are in their annual revolt against whatever is in the air or my diet? Shouldn’t I be in bed rather than trying to find words to express something that challenges every writer — the trip backwards to childhood?

Here’s how I got to this point — both tonight and in my life as a whole:

I’ve spent the last couple of days scrambling to do promotional stuff for my new book, Single-Digit Soccer. So far, it hasn’t panned out. At the end of the first official day of release and a pre-order period of a couple of weeks, my sales are, appropriately, in single digits.

Hey now, little speedyhead
The read on the speedmeter says
You have to go to task in the city

There’s no reason to hit the panic button. I have, as the old admirals might say, not yet begun to promote this thing. It’ll take time to get the word out, and I have plenty of time. It’s not as time-sensitive as Enduring Spirit, and it’s not publisher-dependent like Long-Range Goals.

As the night wore down, I figured I deserved a chance to do something a little more fun. I got back to a piece of writing I had started but not yet finished. It’s on an old R.E.M. song that isn’t one of my favorites. Though I’m unkind to What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? in this piece for Popdose, I was able to dwell on some pleasant nostalgia. I was back in my Chevrolet Monte Carlo (which had an R.E.M. connection of its own — Bill Berry sold a car to my buddy Chip’s family, and the Monte Carlo was therefore expendable) cruising over the hills of Franklin and Madison counties on the way home from Duke.

Even if you’re not from Georgia, it’s hard to write about R.E.M. without writing about Athens. They are inextricably linked. If Michael Stipe had never moved to Northeast Georgia and had gone to, say, the University of Illinois, he could’ve met the same three other guys and still had a band that was vastly different. The folk art and the landscapes are present in all of R.E.M.’s work, especially the early albums.

So I played up the history of our shared hometown. I even put in a picture of the double-barreled cannon. I couldn’t get a caption to pop up in the new Popdose design, but I didn’t bother to explain it. Like a good R.E.M. lyric, it might be better if people have to use their imaginations. (And Google, I suppose.)

It’s also been an emotional week. The staged live executions of two bright young people in Roanoke hit me hard. I saw the happy pictures of the two of them in the newsroom, and I like to think they’re in a happier place now getting the last laugh. But I also see my young newsroom-bound self in them, and I mourn the fact that they won’t get to continue the journey.

Where people drown and people serve
Don’t be shy, your just deserve
Is only just light years to go

Friends of ours moved to Savannah this summer. I chatted with them about Georgia and said the priorities are a little different. People in Georgia are concerned with the Georgia Bulldogs, a good lunch, the Georgia Bulldogs, a good dinner, the weather, maybe the stock market, and the Georgia Bulldogs.

bulldogI don’t mean that to be condescending. I remember a conversation from the great show Homicide (technically, from the reunion film) in which Giardello’s son goes to visit him in the hospital. G admonishes his son for eating some bad Chinese takeout. In Rome, G says, everyone would sit down in the middle of the day for a two-hour meal.

“Which is why the Romans never get anything done,” the younger G says.

“Maybe. But they know how to live.”

The ocean is the river’s goal
A need to leave the water knows
We’re closer now than light years to go

I got a lot done this summer. I finished Single-Digit Soccer at last. I started writing for The Guardian, fulfilling a longtime dream of writing for the British media. And I’ve done some of the best writing of my life in the last three months. I loved my first piece for The Guardian. (That piece also earned me a radio appearance that I think was my best-ever radio appearance, and the producers also seemed quite pleased.) My previous Popdose piece was a good one. I’ve done a couple of strong pieces at SoccerWire. And at my own SportsMyriad, I may never top the headline “Alex Morgan and the Bedbugs That Ate the NWSL.”

So I’m on a roll. But I think it’s more than that.

I used to scoff at the idea of “finding your voice” as a writer. In the modern newspaper era, frankly, most people didn’t have a voice. We were supposed to be dispassionate automatons. And people called us all lefty scumbags anyway. “It’s just like the liberal media to quit covering middle-school lacrosse,” griped our readers.

I worked at USA TODAY when we were trying to be innovative online and be anything but innovative in print. I had at least one editor who would be perfectly happy if I drained my stories of any compelling details. I fought an editor to get the dramatic story of Maykel Galindo’s escape from the Cuban national team to say something other than “Maykel Galindo is a soccer player. He used to play in Cuba, but now he plays in Major League Soccer. The end.”

A “voice,” for so many years in my head, was just something you adapted to your publication’s needs. I wrote for USA TODAY’s magazines after I left the paper, and I hopped around from style to style like Phil Hartman’s character showing off his different DJ voices in NewsRadio.

I’m at an age now where I can be myself. I’m not sure what flipped that switch in my brain. Maybe I’m finally getting healthier. (Without going into medical details, let’s just say a CPAP can be a very good thing.) Maybe it’s yoga. Maybe it’s because I occasionally let myself stay up and write after midnight. Maybe I just hit a limit of trying to please other people who had no idea what I could do best.

Leave the road and memorize
This life that pass before my eyes
Nothing is going my way

There’s no one left to take the lead
But I tell you and you can see
We’re closer now than light years to go

A few months ago, I was across a table from Athens Academy’s fine new headmaster and the athletic director. They asked me what about the Academy had helped me in my life and my career.

It’s not an easy question. Obviously, it’s a good school. Perhaps what I should’ve said was that the teachers were better than the teachers I would have at Duke. Because that’s true. I’m still thinking I will one day dedicate a book to the freshman writing instructor at Duke who gave me a bunch of contradictory instructions and a C-minus. But I’m not the vindictive sort. Most of the time.

I believe what I wound up telling them was that I had freedom. I could explore things. I could go to the music trailer and jam with Mr. Sherman, Mr. Carter and Ted Pecchio, who went on to a legit music career. Mr. Carter taught a humanities course that defied categorization — a bit of philosophy, a bit of sociology, a bit of politics.

Athens in general has that free, exploratory vibe. That’s why it has produced a lot of great bands who sound nothing at all like each other. Seattle has a sound. Athens has a scene.

Pick up here and chase the ride
The river empties to the tide
Fall into the ocean

It’s cliche to say I didn’t appreciate my hometown growing up. I actually think I did, even though, like a lot of high schoolers, I was anxious to get out and see the world, starting at Duke.

I could not have gone to the University of Georgia. Not as a undergraduate, at least. That’s a pity for my family’s pocketbook, because I automatically qualified for enough scholarships to live in luxury if only I had stayed in Athens.

I also not sure I could’ve gone back to raise a family, even though I often envy my Athens friends and family. Life is easier there, just as it is in many other mid-sized Southern towns. Less traffic. Less pressure. Less aggravation.

Northern Virginia aggregates the best and brightest from the rest of the country, which is exciting and yet daunting. Parents of elementary school kids fret over their kids’ college prospects, knowing that being from here is actually a bit of a hindrance. The University of Virginia can’t just take everybody from Fairfax County, even though thousands of students here are eminently qualified. I did college admission interviews for Duke for a couple of years, and I finally quit because I was pissed off that the bright kids who didn’t go to the science magnet school never seemed to have a chance.

But this is home. I’m in Vienna, which has a civic identity beyond the suburban sprawl. I rarely leave the house without seeing someone I know. I love my neighborhood and my neighbors. I can chill about my kids’ college futures long enough to appreciate the great opportunities they have here. I’m not going anywhere.

Part of my heart is in Athens. It’s on the fringes of the UGA campus, where I used to hang out at the Tate Center and play pool. (They apparently took out all the pool tables. So I’m definitely not moving back.) It’s at Athens Academy, though they’ve built so much over the past 20 years that I would hardly recognize it. It’s in all the great eateries that no longer exist and a few of the ones that do.

And I’m just grateful that Athens spread just enough of that invisible force, that creative power, that je ne sais whatever that made me first want to be a musician, then a writer. And that I’m still learning what I was given as a child and what I can do with it today.

Pick up here and chase the ride
The river empties to the tide
All of this is coming your way

The quotes interspersed here are, of course, from R.E.M.’s song Find the River, the last song on their brilliant album Automatic for the People. The album is all about the passage of time. It’s melancholy and bittersweet in places, but it’s also comforting and inspiring. Rock critics usually write about the album as an extended view on passing out of youth into middle age, seeing some friends and family pass away and trying to figure out life before summer turns to autumn.

In song and verse, a river is often something timeless. That’s how Sting used the metaphor in The Soul Cages. At least, that’s what I said in my paper in my Philosophy and Music class senior year at Duke, and I got an A-minus in the class, so I must be right.

A river is also a path. It may start somewhere humble — a sort-of Athens band, Indigo Girls, once wrote that the Mississippi is mighty but starts in Minnesota at a place that you can walk across with five steps down. It leads to the ocean, gathering speed and strength as it goes.

So I stayed up way past my bedtime because I had a realization that I had to put down in words. And though I’ve taken about 2,000 words and 45 years to reach this point, I can sum it up in four words, looking back at the place that raised me and looking ahead to whatever’s next:

I’ve found my river.


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