Sunday, July 30, 2017

Life is what happens while we're making plans

As I sit in a seaside condo on Florida's Gulf Coast where I've joined EB and [redacted] for their annual beach getaway, I continue to marvel at all the remarkable events that have unfolded this year.

Not the least of which, the eight-day period from Thursday, July 20 through Thursday, July 27 contained within it three of the most meaningful concert experiences of my entire life.

The first of the three was the tenth(!!) time that I've seen my favorite band Okkervil River perform live, but this one was the most special of them all. I remember well how ecstatic I was when the announcement was made that Will Sheff's band would be embarking on a very limited "rarities and requests" tour, performing in intimate settings as an acoustic trio, and one stop on the tour would be in Columbus, Ohio at the Rumba Cafe. I have written many, many times about the significance of Okkervil River to my and Cara's relationship so I won't rehash too much of that here. But it's important to note that my previous time seeing them, last October in Pittsburgh, was the first time I ever got to talk to Will Sheff, and I told him there about Cara and about how we had seen Okkervil River together in Columbus both shortly before we started dating and also, in an amazing coincidence, on the night before our wedding.

The way the rarities and requests tour worked was that Will asked people to post their requests on the Facebook event pages for each particular show so that he could create setlists composed of those requests. My message, far more personal than those most other people posted, went as follows:
I would be absolutely thrilled to hear "Seas Too Far To Reach." Many years ago when I had recently started dating my (late) wife I was super into the album Down the River of Golden Dreams and that song in particular makes me think of those times - I actually put it on a mixtape for her three months after we started dating. Also "Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas" would be wonderful; I have a thing for songs that evoke feelings of nostalgia and that's one of the best.
Will started out the show by himself with his acoustic guitar, then over the next two songs brought out, one by one, the upright bassist and lead guitarist who rounded out this incarnation of Okkervil River as a trio. At the beginning of each song, Will said, "This is for..." followed by the name of a person who had requested that particular song on Facebook. "Listening to Otis Redding..." appeared early in the show, but dedicated to someone else who had requested it, not to me. It was the first time I had ever seen the song performed and it was utterly magical. The lyrics about returning to one's childhood home at Christmas time and thinking about your past, and about the future you once thought you might have, are so evocative and strike such a chord with me, even more now than when I first fell in love with the song.

The whole concert was a magical experience. I was also overjoyed to hear "The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion," another first-time live experience for me and another of my favorite songs from Down the River of Golden Dreams.

As the show continued, my hopes and expectations that I would hear "Seas Too Far To Reach" and that it would be dedicated to me grew. And then Will, his voice quavering with emotion, said, "This is a very special request for Jeff McManus." My parents, who I asked to go to the show with me not because they're Okkervil River fans (they haven't listened to the band much) but rather because I wanted them to be able to share what was likely to be a very moving experience with great personal meaning, both reached out to touch me. And then I was plunged into one of the most emotional musical experiences of my life. The whole time I thought of Cara and was filled with an incredible nostalgic mixture of joy and sorrow.

All in all, the Okkervil River rarities and requests show was probably the single most meaningful concert experience of my life. After the show I again got to talk with Will Sheff, more briefly this time. I was delighted when I overheard the young man talking to him immediately before me say, "Thank you so much for playing 'Seas Too Far To Reach'" and explain how meaningful the song was to him as well.

When it was my turn, I began to say, "I also wanted to thank you for playing that song."

"You're Jeff, right?" Will interrupted.

He remembered me, I thought, awed. WILL SHEFF remembered who I was, without me even reminding him! I was nearly as moved then as at the playing of my requested song. The fact that I, by sharing with him my and Cara's story and the impact he had had on my life, had in turn clearly had an impact on his life - on one of my most admired people in the whole world - was so powerful.

I also told Will that I thought he'd like to know I had found love again, and he seemed genuinely extremely grateful that I had shared the news with him.

It was an incredible experience. And it was just the beginning.

One funny little anecdote from the Okkervil River show - after the band played "The Next Four Months" (a song about drug use) my dad remarked, "That was pretty depressing." Silently, I laughed, thinking in particular of how Cara would have reacted, and how she had enjoyed over the years recounting the story of my dad going with my sister to an Andrew Bird concert Cara and I also attended and afterwards saying, "I liked some of that, but some of it was just noise."

Which brings me to the second of the three concerts for this post. On Tuesday, July 25, Cara's mother Joyce came up from Columbus and joined me in seeing Andrew Bird perform at Cain Park not far from my house in Cleveland Heights. This was oh so special for multiple reasons. Andrew Bird was Cara's favorite musician. We saw him together four times (Cara wrote a wonderful review of one of those shows). Joyce has an iPod we gave her with lots of our favorite music on it, so she's listened to a lot of Andrew Bird and knows how much meaning that music had to Cara, her only child. Last year I tried to get Joyce to come up to Cleveland for an Andrew Bird show but she decided she wasn't up for the trip. This time she decided to go for it, and for the first time since Cara's death she came up to Cleveland to see me. Making the occasion even more notable, July 25 was the second anniversary of Joyce's mother's death.

Bird put on a stellar performance as usual. His wizardry with his violin and loop pedals and his astounding talent for whistling have to be experienced in person to be believed. I was thrilled when he played "Why," for I remembered well the passionate feelings Cara had described that song evoking in her. Cain Park was a beautiful setting with perfect weather for an outdoor show.

The final song of the night was "Tables and Chairs," a whimsical number about societal collapse. Before playing the song, from 2005's Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs, Bird remarked that it was interesting when old songs you had written years ago took on new meaning, and said that he would be changing some of the lyrics. Among them, he changed the line "Don't you worry about the atmosphere" to say that he is worried about the atmosphere.


But it was another magical night. Joyce was so grateful to me for having her up to visit and for taking her to the concert, which she said she enjoyed very, very much, and also that she was thinking of both her mother and Cara whole time.

While the Okkervil River rarities and requests show was probably my most meaningful concert experience and going to see Andrew Bird with my mother-in-law was also up there, the final show of the three, Piebald at the Grog Shop this past Thursday, was quite simply one of the most fun concerts I've ever attended.

The Okkervil River and Piebald shows were announced quite close to each other, early this year, and both announcements made me similarly amazed and excited. Piebald was the first band I ever saw perform at the Grog Shop, one of my favorite local concert venues. That show was in October 2005, shortly after I had gotten into going to live shows. It was an unforgettable experience. I saw Piebald several more times over the next two years, but then they broke up in 2007. After that I never expected I'd ever get to enjoy one of their live shows again.

Last year, the band regrouped; somehow I missed the news until the Grog Shop show was announced. And then I could hardly wait for the chance to relive some of the most fun times of my young adulthood.

Piebald's music is high energy, emo-tinged rock with witty lyrics you can't resist belting out together with lead singer Travis Shettel and a room full of other excited fans. (With a few appropriately timed fist pumps thrown in for good measure!) The band also played a brief acoustic set that afternoon at Wax Bodega, a record store in Lakewood, which I left work for a little while to see because when else would I ever get that opportunity? Between that rather laid back acoustic performance and the raucous powerhouse of a performance that followed it that night, the band played all twelve songs from their classic 2002 album We Are the Only Friends We Have, delighting me and the rest of the audience. Cara liked Piebald too, although she never saw them live. I have a memory of her choosing that album to play in the car on an early morning drive to a cycling event. It's great pump-up music. Piebald also played quite a few of the best songs from 1999's If It Weren't for Venetian Blinds, It Would Be Curtains for Us All, mostly eschewing the rest of their catalog. At both the Okkervil River and Piebald shows it was such a wonderful experience to be in a small room full of people who were long-time fans like me, with similar appreciation and enthusiasm for the music being performed for us. At the quieter Okkervil River show, this mostly manifested in enthusiastic applause and whoops after songs and astonished exclamations at the revelation of each rarity within the setlist. At the Piebald show the atmosphere was more that of a party, everyone moving to the music and screaming out those familiar choruses. Each experience was special and wonderful in its own way.

Piebald has a lot of music that can thematically be summed up as saying "life is too short so enjoy it while you can." I fondly remember rocking out to their song "Still We Let It Choke Us" as a twenty-two year old enjoying my first Grog Shop experience. Today, at thirty-four, and appropriately enough enjoying a beach vacation as I write this, the lyrics still resonate:
Well, life is a bitch
And life is a beach
You've got the sun and the sand and your suit all within your reach
Take off the tie
What a sick day
We've gone to build castles in sand and go swimming,
It's time for our play
To the barricades
We'll take them by storm
Days fade to weeks, fade to months, fade to years
And there's not that much more. [note: this is followed by a blistering guitar solo of an outro]
It was fun to feel "young again" for a night, but I wouldn't trade the life I have now for the one I had then!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Of cats and kids

As EB, [redacted], and I drove to the Shaker Square Farmer's Market on Saturday morning one of the sweetest and most touching things ever happened.

Two weeks before, during [redacted]'s first and EB's second visit to Cleveland, I had mentioned to them something that Cara had often said to our two cats Mitters and Eponine to try to discourage them from the altercations they frequently got into: "No fights, and no bites." (Today I also have two cats. Eponine remains one of them, but the older Mitters passed away three months ago. Last fall I adopted a very rambunctious kitten who I named Gavroche, now a still very rambunctious one-year-old. So clashes between cats remain an issue in my household.) I didn't place any special emphasis on the story; it was just a nice little anecdote that seemed relevant when I brought it up. So I was astonished and moved nearly to tears when, out of the blue, two weeks later, [redacted] said, "Hey remember that thing Cara used to say? No fights, and no... scratch?"

At four years old, [redacted] would undoubtedly have no way of fully comprehending just how touched I was by what she had just said, but EB understood perfectly, and I exchanged knowing looks with her. "That's really close," I told [redacted]. "It was actually 'no fights, and no bites.'"And I delved into a brief explanation of how it was a funny phrase because the words "fights" and "bites" rhyme with each other - rhyming words being a concept in which [redacted] has recently taken interest.

[redacted] took this to heart, and later that day she was repeatedly heard to exclaim, "Gavvy [Gavroche's nickname], no fights, and no bites!"

Seeing [redacted] and my two cats become acquainted with each other has been a very interesting experience. EB and [redacted] have a dog named Beazy and used to have a cat, originally EB's husband Todd's cat, named Firenze, but like [redacted]'s daddy, her kitty cat passed away when she was a baby. She once told me that she hopes they can get another kitty some day. I smiled at this.

My cats, on the other hand, had no prior experience with a child of [redacted]'s age.

(Above: Eponine. Below: Gavroche. Both these pictures were taken less than an hour after Mitters passed away. I was in a very sentimental mood.)

Eponine is one of the nicest and most sociable cats I have ever known, and as far as I can remember has always wanted to be friends with every person she has met. But she had never before met a wild four-year-old. On [redacted]'s first visit to Cleveland, [redacted] very quickly and enthusiastically approached Eponine - and Eponine was terrified. For the whole rest of that weekend, Eponine acted nothing like her normal self. All cats have their typical spots where they like to hang out. That weekend, Eponine mostly abandoned her normal spots, instead opting for other locations that would decrease her visibility.

Gavvy, on the other hand, knows little fear. The little guy reacted in a quite different way to being startled. I came home from work on that first Friday to hear that Gavvy had bitten [redacted]. I asked if [redacted] had done anything before he bit her, to which she answered no. EB, on the other hand, explained that [redacted] had sat down next to Gavvy and had then, inadvertently but quite suddenly, brushed against him, to which Gavvy had reacted by swiping at [redacted]. (It was a scratch, not a bite, EB believed - and only a very minor scratch; fortunately I had trimmed Gavvy's claws the day before.)

We explained to [redacted] that kitty cats should be handled with care - even friendly cats like Eponine and Gavvy don't like it if you approach them in a sudden and unpredictable manner.

By the end of that first weekend, [redacted] had improved in her behavior around the cats. Eponine was still quite frightened of this strange new creature who had invaded her domain, but she quickly got over it after EB and [redacted]'s departure.

On [redacted]'s just concluded second visit to Cleveland, things between her and the cats went much, much better. As EB and I like to say, "Like sea slugs, we are capable of learning." ("We," in this case, could refer to both humans and felines.) [redacted] knew to approach the cats slowly and purposefully rather than rapidly and unpredictably. This time around, Eponine showed no signs of the terror she had expressed two weeks ago. She even let [redacted] pet her with no other humans in the immediate vicinity, and clearly enjoyed it. [redacted] was quite proud of her accomplishment.

While Eponine's fear of [redacted] mostly disappeared, [redacted]'s fear of Gavvy was still present, but she's learning how to behave around the little fellow to avoid his scratches (none of which occurred this time, although there were several times [redacted] thought Gavvy was about to scratch her), and even called Gavvy a "sweet kitty" (echoing EB's description) when I held Gavvy and let [redacted] give him a goodbye pet.

Amusingly, [redacted] seems to default to thinking of cats as girls, and despite our many, many corrections, still usually refers to Gavvy with feminine pronouns.

Another amusing incident occurred the other day when I, from another room, heard a frightened shriek from [redacted] and quickly entered the dining room to investigate. [redacted] and Gavvy were standing a few feet apart from each other in a little standoff. But [redacted]'s fear quickly turned to excitement. "Gavvy jumped at me like a hero!" she exclaimed, laughing. And after this, [redacted] decided she wanted to be like Gavvy and "jump like a hero" herself. For the rest of the visit, she performed many such "hero jumps" (which to her meant jumping off of a chair to the floor) herself.

What a sweet, sweet girl. Perhaps some day in the future I'll try to explain to her how much it meant to me when she brought up that story about Cara and then imitated Cara's spoken instructions to a cat. [redacted] is definitely wise beyond her years. I think even now she'd have some capacity for understanding the importance, but I'll wait. I'm sure it's a memory that will always stick with me.

And now a few more adorable stories about [redacted] from this visit that aren't related to cats but are very much worth sharing.

The three of us went to the Stone Oven bakery near my house most days of the visit. [redacted] has developed a thing for the bakery's dinosaur cookies. On one morning she said that she wanted a green dinosaur cookie and told the girl behind the counter this, but then said she had changed her mind and actually wanted a yellow dinosaur cookie. On the walk back to my house [redacted] explained her reasoning. "I remembered that yellow used to be one of my favorite colors, so I thought I'd like to have that cookie." Apparently four-year-olds can be influenced by feelings of nostalgia!

At the farmer's market, on a wet morning following a night of heavy rainfall, [redacted] discovered that she enjoyed standing under trees and shaking low hanging branches to give herself little "showers." She'd stand under a tree for several minutes doing this until EB told her it was time to move on, after which [redacted] would tell us she had to go find the next shower. Her hair was quite wet by the end of our visit to the market. [redacted] provided a great deal of entertainment to several of the market vendors that morning.

On Saturday night we had my friend Jessiye over for dinner, as well as a delicious holiday-themed blueberry pie that [redacted] helped me make using fresh berries from the market.

After dinner EB and Jessiye were talking and [redacted] and I were coloring with crayons. [redacted] decided that we were going to draw dinosaurs and frogs, so we did. After completing some drawings, I remarked (very truthfully) that I was much better at drawing dinosaurs than I was at drawing frogs.

"Am I much better at drawing frogs than drawing dinosaurs?" [redacted] asked.

"It looks like you're pretty good at both," I replied.

[redacted] pondered this for a moment, then produced a priceless response. "I'm good at things."

No argument here!