• DRINK TO THE LASSES: Notes from a Woman's College Womb
    DRINK TO THE LASSES: Notes from a Woman's College Womb
    by Mary Beth Ellis
  • Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers
    Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers
    Random House Trade Paperbacks
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Wednesday
Nov132013

Graph Paper, Double Spaced

I finished my first book in a dive hotel at Cocoa Beach that had a tremendous view and horrifying bedspreads.  There's a picture of it on my personal Facebook feed, because I still can't quite believe the place. On the day I typed the final sentence, I wandered on the low roof wondering what I was missing, because everything I’d been told indicated it should not be this easy.  It took me, all told, about eight months to get there. I had my college mentor pushing me on one side and a deadline for another book pulling me from the other.  I didn’t think about the writing.  I just wrote it. Maybe you can tell.

This time, I’m thinking about the writing.  Every single word is peeled out slowly from the whole, strung heart-brain-hands-keyboard—the messiest, richest taffy I’ve ever handled.  The story of Drink to the Lasses concerns me and more me and the people immediately surrounding me, most of whom were given name changes.  Now we’re talking 225 bandsmen plus recent alums plus tryout candidates plus a dead squirrel on a stick plus everyone else who ever marched plus their mommies plus plus plus. 

TBDBITL alum Mike Maley was pushed through the aftermath of an unsuccessful initial tryout by his father asking every single day, “What did you do to make band today?” So here on this screen, after each word and sentence and paragraph, I ask, “What did you do to do justice to this band?”  For how do you repay the non-bandmember privilege of crouching in the north endzone as they all stream past like glory during the ramp entrance?  How do you justify your presence in the room when the director who made the band what it is today says a personal goodbye? You won't. You can’t.  You just describe the flash of the mellophones as best you can and get back on your hands and knees to crawl around after the next word.

People say, “I can’t wait for the book to be finished!” and I’ll say “Me too!”  They’ll ask, “How’s it going?”  and I’ll say, “Slower than I want—it’s so hard with the teaching.” What I want to say is “This is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done.  I’m doing my very best to get it right but I’m petrified I’m f’ing it up, f’ing it all up, and it will insult and disappoint and underwhelm instead of inspiring and thanking and relating.”

Some have asked if I somehow resent the attention the band has received from the national press due to its just and glorious YouTube fame, as though I’ve been scooped.  Which is possibly the funniest thing I’ve heard all year (and given what this year has been, I need Teh Lulz)—how can I possibly resent the attention this band so deeply deserves?  How is it news that they’re wonderful, and hard workers, and stirring and heartstopping and everything else I saw?

If anything, I feel sorry for the reporters descending on the band now-- except, initially, for the ones who got to wear a hat.  In the past six weeks, I saw at least three reporters wearing band hats, and I proved myself a distinguished grown-up Masters degree writer by screaming “HOW IS IT YOU GOT A HAT?!”  I mean, I get it-- the national correspondent wearing one of the symbols of the band makes for good optics.  That's Broadcasting Basics 101.  I'm a print girl, so I was never even offered the opportunity to wear a hat-- but then I wouldn’t have put it on if I did.  That hat means something; I in no way deserved to wear it. 

Then I realized that what I received was far better:   What I received instead was their hearts in my  hands.  When I asked bandsmen about their hats, about the weight and fabric, I was allowed to hold and examine them, and reverently pet the plume, but there existed an unspoken understanding that I would not plop it on my head and run off in search of a mirror.  They knew I wasn’t producing a puff piece—an hour running around the practice field shouting into a camera, then departing forever-- and I knew that that I was permitted to witness and sink into moments that no other non-bandsmen had ever seen.  And they trusted I wouldn’t fashion those moments into weapons, crystallizing them instead, creating keystones for those who never stood in that practice room or huddled in the rain on the sidelines.

This wasn’t a show.  There were no sound bites.  It wasn’t a 60-second segment.  It was their lives; it was real.  And in real life, I’m not wearing that hat.  They are. 

All those reporters, although filing nice, good, and complimentary stories that shower rightful reverence upon the band, are missing the story. They’re missing the callouses on the forefinger and palms of the drum major.

They’re missing the dark dampness of the practice field at a 4 AM report time.

They’re missing the tears of the 72 year old man hanging back from the ramp entrance in the thudding, heavy grey of inner Ohio Stadium, watching his own youth rush past.

In the midst of all TBDBITL’s mainstream media attention, our own dear Tiggles wrote this on a Facebook article link:  “Mainstream media hardly ever focuses on the right things. That's why I'm so excited about Mary Beth's book. The real story as told by someone who put real effort into learning what we're all about."

This then became one of those Facebook interconnectivity mealanges consisting of me quoting her comment in a post and current bandsman Zach Maley sharing the post that quoted her comment and everybody liking and crying and going “<3”!

And Zach said, “Because I try to remind myself, somewhere out there, someone has the truth.  And I don't think it could be in better hands. Thank you Mary Beth.”

The emotional meteor strike of this was such that I sat down and began to type a response, but it immediately became so involved and curvy and paragraph-y I knew it probably better serve as a post on Blonde Champagne.  I told Zach I’d post it the next day. 

That was over a week ago.  

In the interim, yeah, I’ve been teaching and eating and running errands and handing matches and knives to Sam The Small Child Nephew immediately upon request.  But I was also warily circling the keyboard.  I'd say a good 98.99% of my writing time these days is dedicated to wary circling.

You see, when I was immersed in the band, the emotions and moments I experienced bubbled up and through and there was nowhere to go with it but the keyboard.  It was the only way to sleep at night. I had to tell you about it, tell everyone, tell the band itself.  I had this expandable little white box to do that in, and there was a backspace key and an edit button, and the only way I could function at all was to pour off the foam of this pure weapons-grade awe and music-human connection I was experiencing.  That was the heart talking, the fission of the emotional reaction—falling, falling in love.   But the book, the permanent product, can’t be written in oxycontin.  It must be presented on graph paper, double spaced. 

That’s where I am now; I can’t even toss off a blog post without agonizing from semicolon to closing clause.  It’s the hard part.  It’s horrific and the responsibility-taking part.  It’s the toughest, most important thing I’ve ever done with my whole wretched life.

This is when I lean on Pete.

This is Pete Lafferty.  He marches in T Row. Trumpet.  Look at him.  Look at the way he’s holding his hat post-show.  Fingers just so on the plume.  He is the everyday magnificence of this band. He’ll kick your ass.  He’ll do it gorgeously.  You will cherish and Instagram the shreds of flesh that remain from Pete kicking your ass.  This picture wasn’t taken in the split-second snap of a shutter, but over years of refining and late nights working on scales and formations and who knows what else.  I haven’t laid eyes on Pete in months and months but I can guarantee you that in the moment that photo came into full reality, something on his body was bruised, knotted, cracked, pulled, or achy—because that’s how everyone’s body in the band is, all the time, due to the constant pushing-- and yet look at the traction in his spine, the straight splendor of the horn.

Because of that, because of the way his eyes are looking at nothing and everything, when I sit down to work on this book, I’m scraping my heart from behind its hard bone cage one fiber at a time.

I’m doing it for Pete and the way he holds his hat, the hat he earned.

Image of Pete and his hat in all their glory courtesey of the also-glorious Ed and Karen Crockett of Crockett Photography

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