Letter to You
The only understanding my parents and I had growing up was a constant shift between love and malice. This was based on the few simple facts we shared between us: The band XTC was really good, we each had problems with addiction, and we didn’t like one other.
Years passed. Some of them were good, when looked at in pieces. Which is the way all childhoods are remembered. A lot of it was bad, actually. I love my family. They love me. It’s just in ways that make no sense to either of us.
My parents arrived in town and Meagen and I met them. I handed them copies of the EFFORTS LP. The next day we met them an hour away at the wedding of a family friend. My mother and I dressed as wizards without consulting one another first. It was good to see her.
Two weeks previously, I had received a dramatic voicemail from my Uncle Mike. His voice has always sounded the same, a guarded classist who wants the attention of the room, and aren’t you lucky to hear him speak? I adore him for this. But that day his voice had something else in it. Nerves. “Todd. It’s uncle Mike” (he always reminds me who he is) “uhm call me back.” I knew it wasn’t good. I knew it would be about my Mother. In truth, I had been worried for her (not enough to call) and assumed my Uncle was going to tell me she was dying (I should have called sooner).
My sister texted me next. I read it. And then called my Uncle back. He told me his concerns and I agreed with some of them. After we hung up I talked to Meagen about what he said. My Dad texted all the kids in one group message. Nothing about my mother. Just a picture of my youngest sister, and a caption making fun of her for smiling at him.
I had to call my mother. It took me three days. Three days. When she answered she was shopping in a mall in Beverly Hills. I could barely hear her over the in-store music. “Are you alright?” I asked. “Yeah!” she said, “Maybe?” (when I was a kid she only spoke through snaps of cinnamon gum, and so that’s how her voice still sounds to me). “Are going to go to a doctor?” I asked. “Yeah!” she said. “A real doctor?” I asked. “Yeah. Soon.”
We talked a little more after that. I’m not sure about what. The mall was pretty loud and I was somehow fourteen again, afraid to pester someone between snaps of spicy gum.
At the wedding I tried to pay more attention to her than usual. Studying certain things about her, and how she made me feel. I love my mother, but I don’t know her very well. I know her from afar, if I had to describe it. As I grew older I discovered more and more of her brain inside of mine, and it’s been nice to read the hieroglyphic moments of my childhood through a healthier lens.
The rest of the wedding was spent standing next to my Sister, who rarely leaves her house unless veiled in a life unknown to her family and friends. We are alike; except she always has this look on her face, like someone strapped a bomb to her back, and if anyone sees it she might explode.
We don’t talk much. I miss her, but I never knew her. Not really. I spent as much time at the reception as I could standing next to her, treating her and her kid like a photograph that fades each time I look at it. “I have to be getting home soon.” she kept saying. As if the bomb on her back was growing louder as the wedding wore on.
When she left early, I walked her out with my parents. My Dad and I stood off to the side while my Mother did her best to have a nice goodbye with my sister, who was busy packing up her truck as if the entire venue was now ticking.
Watching from across the street, my Dad started talking about the fights and arguments in his life. This usually comes up, and usually I point out that he’s just as bad as anyone else. I do this because I don’t like selfish behavior. When I see it in the person who made me, I feel the need correct it. That if, by some chance I could course-correct the thoughts of my progenitor, I might somehow save myself from those familial floodwaters.
He never likes it. He didn’t like it now. As we stood there in the growing cold of an October darkness, he told me the only fight he ever won was probably the one where he knocked me to the ground in his bedroom. Then he laughed, and hugged me. I hugged him back, my sister’s invisible bomb now inside of me, in my chest, where I have tried my best to forget about it. Then he retold the joke to my Mother and we walked inside, my head spinning with echoes of dialogue from seventeen years ago. “I probably broke his ribs. I hope I did.” and “you’re not longer my Son.”
When I sat down again at the table Meagen asked me what was wrong. “Later.” I told her.
The wedding was for the youngest daughter of a family friend named Uncle Kevin. Growing up Kevin had been a second father as much as Uncle Mike, That had started at age fourteen, when my Mother had asked him to speak to me about the dangers of pornography. “Satan is coming through the phone lines!” she had yelled at me.
Now Uncle Kevin was about to dance with his daughter, and I was trying to glide from one island of logic to another. An incredible attempt of navigation.
The father daughter dance began, and I knew the song by the first note. My Dad did to. It was devastating in a nice sort of way. Who the fuck dances to a song by Jellyfish at their wedding? Incredible. As “Russian Hill” continued to play I thought about the Christmas twenty years ago, when my Dad had bought me both Jellyfish records and somehow hidden a hundred dollar bill in each of them. As the father daughter dance continued, I began to cry, and kept it mostly to myself.
Monday the 15th came and left, and left it’s own little mark upon the world. This was the release of the first EFFORTS album; a stunning feat which took my buddy Zach and I about three years to accomplish.
Growing up in the Meth Deserts of California (and then the blank expanse of coffee-stand horror nothingness that was once Spokane Washington), our family walked a long road from poverty-stricken yokels living in a shack, to lower middle class “Friends of Costco” (You could tell when we were starting to do well, Mom would show up with 24 packs of flavored Bubble-Gum or tropical flavored candies, “just because.”) When we left The West Coast for The Good Ole South™ it was 1995: the dawn of True Internet, lavish trips to drive-thrus and my Dad’s career as a songwriter about to blossom. After about 22 years of the rise and fall of the house of Rogers, my parents took my youngest sister and departed, back to California, now as Upper Middle Class conquerors. My dad left his electric guitar behind, the last dregs of his musical career hanging up on two pegs in my brother’s abandoned room.
I was thirty by then. It was about half a year after the first failed fundraiser for Spell Saga (and about another half a year before the second, miraculous how-did-this-work fundraiser of 2014). I asked my pops if I could hold onto the guitar for him. He said yes, though he knew damn well I had never played a note of anything in my life. I think probably because all the other musician kids had jettisoned off to the East to seek their fortunes, each of them (I think) confusing my Father’s rags to riches lifestyle as some sort of genetically earned inheritance of events.
I never taught myself to play the guitar. Not properly, anyhow. But I decorated it with vintage Halloween stickers, and I played it whenever I was upset. Eventually songs started to drop out of it and spill across the floors of my own “still-in-rags”-style rented half of a duplex.
I met other people who made music. Some stayed, and some left. Zach stayed with me from the beginning, and together we finished an album. All those first songs that I found on my Father’s old Mexican Stratocaster (a bit of sharpie just noticeable on the headstock, where I had tried to scratch out the branding and written “Spellcaster” instead).
We released the album to little fanfare. The date of the release was more important to me than setting up a chain of social media events that would inevitably lead to nothing. Though I did spend about three days afterward, panicking and sending letters out to various blogs, hash tagging posts and experimenting with various platforms for attention. I had to shake it off, though. The Music Industry is dead, and long live the survivors. Zach and I have made our own plans for sharing music, and you will see it/hear it over the next twelve months (unless you don’t, which is okay too). It’s time to find new ways to share things. I have no used for a crusty empire of dead gatekeepers.
Geoffrey Maybe is/was/should have been/still is the bass player for EFFORTS. He was both integral and divorced from the project. When Zach and I sat down to finish mastering the thing, he was supposed to be there, but bailed. He’s like Peter Parker, if Peter Parker’s motto was “With Great Power Comes Great I’m-Afraid-of-Commitment.”. I love him the way people love ex-lovers and imaginary friends. Which is helpful, as most of the time he ain’t around.
But his musical talent is uncontrollable. No one wants to be called a robot for natural musical theory, but you can’t fight the results. We had messaged a bit since Zach and I finished the album. I had left him about ten copies in his mailbox, but heard nothing back about it. Our texts were playfully mean and cautious, we have always talked as if we were about to break up.
We met for coffee near his house. I showed up dressed as a bug. We talked about his own band’s recording adventures, and his ongoing worry about the future. Geoff has been trying to join the air force for as long as I’ve known him, throwing everything in his life into a USA wartime wood-chipper to get there. It is not uncommon for us to talk joyfully about which ways he might die.
I told him over coffee my thoughts about him, that he hadn’t been there for the band, but that I thought I understood why. He agreed with my assessment. Then I asked if he had heard the album yet (“no.”) or whether he had even opened up a copy of the thing (“nuh-uh.”). I nodded my head. Then we went for a drive in his car, and listened to the whole album, from start to finish. We did not talk much as we listened, just commented on parts every now and then, noth us staring out at Halloween decorations littering various lawns in broad daylight. And then Geoffrey got quiet as the album played on. This was the first time he had heard most of the song with finished parts and lyrics. It’s always hard to tell what Geoffrey’s thinking, he keeps his thoughts off his face on purpose. But he looked a bit emotional as we finished the album. I am glad to have that memory with him.
At the end of October, Meagen and I celebrated seven years of spending time together. This anniversary was especially nice, as we’ve never been more in love.
It’s not the desperate want and desire of those selfish 27 year olds who met back in 2011; it’s something else. Some private knowledge. We still fight. We’re still stupid. But we're lucky too. Meagen and I adore one another. I think past understanding, for the most part. We are good together. And that is a miracle. It’s almost as if we are becoming the people we thought each other were when we met. What a relief. What an unexpected “rags-to-riches” both of us have lived in terms of emotional growth. It has been over half a decade, and I still look at her and think, “how do I get to b with this person?” even after all the bullshit. Of which, I assure you, we both brought enough to the table to make this paragraph seem prophetically unlikely.
Halloween came with two final surprises.
The first was waking up and deciding to write Andy Partridge, the lead singer of XTC. I had sent him a quick note years ago to let him know I had put him in a card game (The Minstrel of Chalkhill in Spell Saga is based on him). But I had wanted to reach out a bit further for years now.
Sometimes I will want to write something and spend anywhere from days to years waiting for the right lines to enter my head. I wrote him a letter, discovered there was no contact email on his website, and so I cut the letter up, and wrote him on Twitter. It was enough. Secure in the knowledge that he would see it, and that I would never hear back from him, I took a long shower, imagining what it would be like to get a response. We might become friends. I would have to fly out to the UK to record in his home studio. My siblings would never speak to me again, so great was there jealousy.
We did not grow up with The Beatles. We grew up with XTC. Their music has informed my entire understanding of songwriting. It is the same with my brothers.
When I got out of the shower I found he had indeed responded to me, and even listened to my band. I started hyperventilating and then laughed like The Joker until I had to sit down. Here is a screenshot. I will not include the texts I got back from my family, though I certainly kept those as well.
The second surprise of October Thirty-First found my Father and I sitting outside of a coffee shop just outside of the town I had grown up in. It was odd design of a Starbucks. We had a tiny patio mostly to ourselves, but it was surrounded on one side by a drive-thru for rich people who stared at us from open windows like some sort of slightly estranged Father/Son safari.
We did not talk about the wedding, or what had been said. But we did talk of other things. There is often a moment where either of us feels the very real need to defend ourselves or the history we share in one another’s lives. But the conversations went a little farther than normal. A little deeper. At one point he told me he had come to realize just how damaging it might have been to bring us up in a cult-like belief system.
I told him that I thought maybe he and at least one other sibling of mine might have had it harder than me. That I had been seen as a stranger, and a fuck-up growing up, but how easy that made it for me to achieve something--anything really. That because nobody in our house understood me, or believed in me, that it sort of gave me permission to walk the infamous hero journey of everyone I looked up to. I told my Dad how I felt bad for him. That he had grown up being told he was special, and believing in his own destiny--not that he didn’t deserve it, or achieve a great many things--but that because of how dangerous that headspace is. That when things fell apart (Things Must fall Apart. For Everyone.) that he wasn’t prepared to handle it.
My Dad nodded and agreed with me, and told me something he had never shared; that when he was my age, his band had fallen apart, and he had stood in our kitchen in confusion. Because he was supposed to be someone.
I did not tell him how many times that has happened to me. Because it didn’t affect me the same way. I was treated like shit by most of the people I knew growing up. A practice that still continues. Not all the time, and not everyday (I’m no victim here). But I’m weird. And people don’t know what to do with weird people. Even my Dad seems generally bewildered by me, still. But there’s an acceptance there now; on both our parts.
Sometime after the wedding I heard a knock on my door, it was my sister. She waved to me from the doorstep. I opened the door and hugged her. “I have to leave.” she told me. I nodded my head and remembered the bomb that we both share. I walked he out to her car, and gave her a CD I wrote with our Father’s guitar. Then I watched her drive off. It was good to see her.