Dan folds

It was September 12, 2001. I was stuck in Peoria, Illinois, where I’d been when the previous day’s attacks had occurred. I’d come for a communicators’ conference, which had ended early and left me more or less stranded there while American airspace was shut down. My wife was back home in Raleigh — more than 800 miles away — terrified for me, herself, and our first child, who wasn’t yet three months old.

I don’t remember what book I was reading at the time, but I distinctly remember pulling it out of my backpack after I’d gotten my seat on the Sept. 9 flight from Raleigh to Chicago, opening it, and finding a little surprise from Kim where my bookmark should have been — a newly printed picture of Christopher, with a caption that said, “Come back soon, Daddy! I miss you!” That photo brought me much solace during the horror of the ensuing days; I remember just sitting on the end of the bed in my hotel room for a good portion of September 11, staring at my baby’s innocent face.

Kim told me later, while I was doing that, she was sitting in front of the TV in our living room, holding Christopher and trying not to cry as she watched the uninterrupted coverage of the attacks and the physical and psychological damage they’d caused. We felt lost and terrified, as did the rest of the nation.

The only thing either of us wanted was for me to get back home safely. We had no idea when air travel would be allowed again, nor how long it would take to get through the backlog of likewise-stranded travelers when it did.

To compound the issue, I was under the weather and I had an unresponsive manager at my job — I couldn’t get an answer to the multiple desperate voicemail messages I’d left for him (in fairness, everyone was in a state of shock, and I’m sure he had to deal with plenty of other issues). He was paying for the car I’d rented for local travel in Peoria, as well as my lodging and meals. I felt I needed his blessing before incurring additional expenses with a cross-country drive home.

Fortunately, most of the car rental companies agreed that week to waive contract stipulations that would prevent customers from keeping their cars longer and driving them across the country. So I decided to make the 13-hour drive home, hoping for my manager’s forgiveness rather than permission. My rental happened to have a CD player, so before I left town, I stopped at Peoria’s aging mall and bought three CDs to keep myself awake on the drive. Two of them were throw-aways — greatest hits collections that I’d selected less for my love of the bands than for the sheer number of songs they had.

But the third one was a new release, with the misfortune to have come out on a date that will never be remembered for anything save death and terror. It was the first solo album of one of my favorite artists — Ben Folds. I’d loved his work as the singer-songwriter and keyboardist of a local band back in North Carolina, Ben Folds Five, so I pounced on the new CD — “Rockin’ the Suburbs.”

I popped it into the CD player before I even left the mall’s pothole-infested parking lot, and the upbeat “Annie Waits” guided me out of town. I think I was already on I-74 when I heard Folds’ incredible piano licks on the opening of “Zak and Sara,” and I felt like I could drive forever if I could keep listening to this CD. Then the third track, “Still Fighting It,” punched me in the gut — as it’s been doing ever since.

A love song for Folds’ son Louis, who was two at the time, the song is an achingly beautiful expression of sadness at the pain of growing up — through the words of the parent watching it happen. It’s expressed in Folds’ trademark blend of sublime poetry and obscure triviality, where the latter can’t possibly detract from the former. It’s stunning and gorgeous, and it left me breathless when I heard it for the first time in the car that day:


Good morning, son.

I am a bird
Wearing a brown polyester shirt.
You want a Coke?
Maybe some fries?
The roast beef combo’s only nine ninety-five.
But it’s okay,
You don’t have to pay.
I’ve got all the change.

Everybody knows
It hurts to grow up.
And everybody does.
So weird to be back here.
Let me tell you what —
The years go on and
We’re still fighting it,
We’re still fighting it.
And you’re so much like me,
I’m sorry.

Good morning, son.
Twenty years from now,
Maybe we’ll both sit down
And have a few beers.
And I can tell
You ’bout today,
And how I picked you up
And everything changed.
It was pain,
Sunny days, and rain.
I knew you’d feel the same things.

Everybody knows
It sucks to grow up.
And everybody does.
So weird to be back here.
Let me tell you what —
The years go on and
We’re still fighting it,
We’re still fighting it.

You’ll try and try,
And one day you’ll fly
Away from me.

(Good morning, son.)
(Good morning, son.)
(Good morning, son.)
(Good morning, son.)

Good morning, son.
(Good morning, son.)
I am a bird.
(Good morning, son.)
(Good morning, son.)

It was pain,
Sunny days, and rain.
I knew you’d feel the same things.

Everybody knows
It hurts to grow up.
And everybody does.
So weird to be back here.
Let me tell you what —
The years go on and
We’re still fighting it,
We’re still fighting it,
Oh, we’re still fighting it,
We’re still fighting it.

And you’re so much like me,
I’m sorry.

Of course, I immediately thought of Christopher, and the song became a soundtrack to the mental imagery of me picking him up from his crib back home and watching him inevitably grow up past his need for that — or for me. A lifelong sufferer of low self-esteem, I was especially stricken by the line, “You’re so much like me, I’m sorry.” I knew even then that Christopher was going to be like me, and I was sorry for that.

In the 18 years that have passed since that long, lonely drive past Indiana cornfields, Kentucky coalmines, Cincinnati suburbs, and other desolate spaces of the national landscape, I’ve come back to this song time and again. Its sorrow has lifted me past my own as I’ve watched Christopher and his brother Matthew grow up.

“Still Fighting It” became my secret theme song for Christopher; I tend to internalize favorite songs and relate them to various facets of my life. Two others from that CD also became thematic for me — “Fred Jones, Part 2” for my increasing troubles at work (now water under the Murray Baker Bridge), and “The Luckiest” for my love of Kim (definitely still in place). And of course those two facets — work and Kim — are inextricably intertwined with my parenting mission.

I’ve not been impressed with life since 9/11; the new millennium has sucked in far too many ways. But my wife and kids have always brought me joy in spite of that — and I hope I’ve done the same for them.

As the song predicted, time passed — despite me fighting it. And today, both boys started a new chapter in their lives — Matthew as a freshman in high school, Christopher as a freshman at N.C. State. Which means, also as the song predicted, our first little bird really did fly away.

This song played in my head all morning as we packed up the car and helped him get ready. I kept myself together fairly well until I saw him saying good-bye to his cat. Then I couldn’t speak for a couple minutes, but pulled it together again as we drove toward the inevitable.

We successfully moved him in and helped him set up his things, at which point saying good-bye was as tough as I’ve always thought it would be. I only hope we’ve prepared him for this.

We picked up Matthew after we left campus, got all the big news from his day, and drove home. In a weird paradox, when we walked into the house this afternoon, it immediately felt both bigger and smaller. The physical house versus the emotional home, I suppose. It’s going to take some getting used to, whatever it is.

This probably would have embarrassed Christopher, and of course he would have had no idea what it was referring to, but I wish I had hidden a picture of me in one of his textbooks, with a caption reading, “Come back soon, Christopher! I miss you!”

BabyCB-State2

Good luck, son. You’re so much like me. (I’m sorry.)

About Dan Bain

Dan is an award-winning humorist, features writer, emcee and entertainer from Raleigh, NC. His collection of humor essays, A Nay for Effort, has earned him fans from one end of his couch to the other. Why not join them and buy one? (You won't have to sit on his couch.) Dan will donate 10 percent of the book's proceeds to education. You can check it out at www.danbain.net; thanks!
This entry was posted in Air Travel, Family, Life and how to live it, Music, Nostalgia, The Kids, The Wife and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Dan folds

  1. Elaine says:

    Just beautiful, Dan.

  2. Gene says:

    Great writing Dan!

  3. Carole Kelly says:

    This is a good read, Dan. The empty nest is not a place I like to be, but time marches on and here I am. The children are scattered across the country and I cannot change that, so I have to try to change me and learn to live the life I have now. It’s not an easy task.

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