My dad has a thing about hernias.
All my life, any time there was something to be lifted—even if it was more bulky than heavy—he would say (the exact same words in the exact same order in the exact same lecturing tone), “Careful. Lift with your knees, and keep your legs together. You don’t want a hernia. I’ve had two. See, men’s abdominal walls are weak where the urethra passes through—it passes through a little buttonhole-like hole—and if you aren’t careful when you’re lifting, your insides slide down into your testicle sack.”
He’d say those last two words with a little shocked hush, then grimace.
So right now, talking to him on my iPhone as I drive home after work, I’m anticipating The Thing He Says About Hernias to begin any moment.
“Aw, you should’ve waited for me,” I’m saying from the middle of a 60-mile-an-hour commuter swarm.
“Well, I can’t wait on your schedule. I got ’em in place okay.”
“They’re pretty heavy.”
“I think I’m okay…”
He didn’t say The Thing He Says About Hernias on this phone call, but it’s in the air. He’d said it to me a couple days earlier, and probably a couple days earlier than that, and maybe a couple days earlier still, on phone calls where he was describing and re-describing his plan to winterize the well house as he does every year: he will build a wall of concrete blocks around the side, then fill the gap with straw.
Cheap and effective.
Kind of wacky.
I was supposed to come help with the blocks, since he’s 85—a well-preserved, strong and generally healthy 85, but 85. He got impatient waiting for me to find time to make the hour’s drive to help him lift and be told the button-hole thing.
So he did it himself.
I guess I can procrastinate driving out to see him, now, and just keeping phoning every night to make sure he’s not collapsed in the hallway (I’ve only missed calling once in the nearly two years since Mom understandably refused to move back into the house after she had a stress-induced transient ischemic attack; the night I missed was after I’d eaten way too much pasta on a Sunday and fallen asleep in the living room and awakened far too late to be ringing his jangly old Western Electric rotary dial phone).
In any case, the pump’s taken care of until spring, it sounds like.
Dad’s afraid the pump will freeze in the bleak midwinter, a raw, harrowing fear he experiences each fall, even though the old guy who owned the farm before we moved there in the 1970s had fashioned a little insulation-board structure inside the wellhouse around the pump. There’s even an infrared light, the kind that keeps chicken-and-noodles warm in buffet lines. The light has a sensor so it can activate and heat the pump when the temperature dips.
When the infrared light clicks on, it simultaneously triggers a red indicator light inside the house—the old guy who owned the farm before us really was a master tinker. Dad is not. I am not. So the annual well house insulation rite has an aura of magic, of protecting and preserving something we can’t understand but are dependent on. If the old farmer’s spell is ever broken, the pump will freeze and all will be lost.
Dad watches that red light with superstitious zeal, and reports to me on the phone when I call each evening whether it’s on or off.
Picture a druid’s son, having moved from the Salisbury plain to the moors of Devonshire, tolerating a procession of messengers relating updates from Stonehenge where druid Dad is foretelling misfortune for the hunt or crops or fertility if they don’t get the stones ready to survive a cycle of frigid angry-god-breath. That was probably my ancient ancestor.
Winterizing is a huge part of my upbringing.
I’ve lain in crunchy, cold mud trying to guess where Dad wants me to point the flashlight as we drained the pipes in house trailers he bought for his other farm. (He shouldn’t own two farms at his age, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t own two farms at his age.) I’ve participated in ritualistic triple-checkings of the furnace thermostat at his little log cabin and the triple-checking of a pilot light within the back-up heater that looks like a fake fireplace, which will kick on if the furnace doesn’t work. He has no reason to think the furnace won’t work, but if it fails, and the little back-up fake fireplace also fails, the pipes will freeze.
It’s his nightmare: burst pipes inside the walls, out of sight, ruining everything when they thaw, spraying, destroying, devastating from within.
In his defense: winters at the farm where he lives are pretty cold, no doubt. Wind blasts the farmhouse and, when it really slams across the prairie, makes a harmonica sound in the aluminum siding.
Dad has always been scared the upstairs bathroom pipes will freeze when the wind blows music into the siding like that, so in the old days the harmonica was our sign to go upstairs and turn on the sink faucet a tiny bit, “a pencil-thin stream,” he would call it. The pencil-thin stream theory was explained every time in precisely the same words in precisely the same tone as being analogous to a river, which doesn’t freeze, instead of the still waters of a pond or lake.
“Running water is less likely to freeze,” he’d conclude, and send us upstairs.
“Tooooooot,” the wind would say, sounding like the harmonica in a really lame Dylan bootleg outtake.
“I’m going!” my sister or I would say.
“Just a pencil-thin stream,” he’d call as we impatiently ran upstairs.
As it happens, while I drove along anticipating the speech about the buttonhole when Dad was telling me he’d already constructed his concrete block henge, my iPhone buzzed in my ear. I thought it might be my wife with a reminder to pick up one of my sons at one of the soccer practice fields. Or it might be a notice that a photo I’ve Instagrammed has gotten a like.
As it turned out, the buzz was announcing that seminar leader and songwriting teacher Barbara Cloyd, in whom I’ve invested the most time (and money) learning to write a sale-able song—and through whom I’ve made the most Nashville connections—has made a move in Words With Friends.
She’s a formidable word-game opponent.
Over on Facebook there are other Nashville folks: the hilarious nurse from Philadelphia; the fierce, leftist singer-songwriter who’s currently touring and making a name for himself on the folk charts; the demo singer who sang a couple of my songs for me, struggling now as a newly divorced single parent in a double-wide; the former lawyer from Athens, Georgia, who once dated REM bassist Mike Mills; the overweight family man who often sends invitations to come see him perform “in the round” at the Bluebird nightclub; the very Christian demo singer; the slick and moneyed-seeming lawyer from New Jersey. We e-chat. I keep up with some more than others. Many are selling songs to publishers and even having music appear on TV shows. “Sync licensing,” that’s called.
Sync licensing turns out to be a ripe market.
I would like to spend time trying to get songs synced on TV shows. But that’s not where I need to spend my wakefulness right now.
Wakefulness is not inexhaustible.
A few months ago, many of those Nashville-related Facebookers typed encouraging comments beneath photos friends posted from my birthday, when I got my old band back together. We hadn’t played together for ten years. I got my former guitar-player band-partner to “come out of retirement,” as he drolly refers to his decision to focus attention on his wife. We played a few shows. On my actual birthday, which happened to be a Saturday, I organized a hootenanny.
Different musician friends I knew came up on stage in different combinations for different songs. Drums, bass, various guitarists with various guitars, twin trombones for a couple of numbers, a ukulele, guest vocalists, backup singers with shakers, me on accordion, the works. It was pretty perfect. My son joined us for a couple of songs and took a guitar solo (it was an all-ages restaurant/microbrewery on our town square). The room was full of friends and family, people from work, parents from the boys’ soccer teams, characters from the neighborhood and open-minded strangers. Man. What a great birthday.
For one portion of the evening, I had the better singers (I really shouldn’t sing, though I do) come up and perform some of my Nashville songs: “Paradise Light,” “Light of a Low Moon,” “I Suck At Being Your Ex.” Response was positive, if muted. We hadn’t had a lot of practice, and the songs weren’t the solidly worked-out They-Might-Be-Giants-meets-young-Nick-Lowe-after-listening-to-Velvet-Underground kind of songs we were playing the rest of the evening.
Still, look at that: my friends helped me play my Nashville songs, for my birthday.
What should I say? Isn’t that enough? Can’t I calm down now?
Shouldn’t having people climb onto a public stage to help perform songs I wrote be enough for any randomly chosen Midwestern Dad?
How can I shake this weird urge to get a song on the radio? How do I put a cork in this little go-getting internal monologue with its never-ceasing whisper to try, try, try, try, try? Haven’t we determined that going after a Nashville songwriting deal to make a lot of money is a stupid plan for making a lot of money, similar to depending on Powerball for retirement?
Yet: There’s a pilot light of hope in me as dependable as the propane-gas-fed flame in Dad’s cabin’s unnecessary backup fake-fireplace. Every time I check it, it’s burning.
Ever since the hootenanny I’ve returned to attempting the role of A Decent Dad With A Demanding Job, a man trying to help around the house enough to keep his wife at least one step this side of fatigue’s brink. I’m watching the kids get old enough that it’s time to start panicking about college money. And, yes, I’m calling the kids’ Grandpa every night for a dose of negativity, family stories I’ve already heard, Fox News-fed opinions, prying into my affairs, clumsily attempted guilt trips, frequently tedious reports of the day’s activities, haranguing about how I spend my time, willful misunderstanding of Mom’s motives, astonishing blindness to his own inconsistencies, and various rote lectures about hernia buttonholes and irritatingly incorrect, sonorous explanations about why standing on the sideline of children’s’ soccer games is not a good way for an adult to spend time: “We’ve had this sport wished on us by the Europeans, and probably the East-coast money people. It’s an unproductive use of time. And it moves too fast for me. It’s incomprehensible. I can’t even keep track of the ball, can you? Can you?” Arrrrgh, hush, old man! Go build a ridiculous fort of straw around your pump or something.
Clearly, Nashville Ambition has no place in the previous paragraph right now.
So I keep playing Words With Friends, “liking” and chit-chatting about others’ successes on Facebook. I keep sinking time into an occasional bar band. It all amounts to a pencil-thin stream of Nashville songwriting ambition, flowing through social media and dribbling over the low-pay/no-pay stages of central Indiana’s lesser-known music venues and bars.
It’s possible, if not likely, that some kind of hidden, internal piping might freeze and burst if I don’t maintain at least this trickle. As my sister and Mom and I can tell you: running water, like a river, doesn’t freeze the way standing water—like a lake or pond—does.
“Toooooooooot,” says the third-rate-harmonica-solo playing wind, ready or not.