What I Took for Granted: A Review of Uniform by Lisa Stice

My wife and I met while we were both stationed at Kunsan Air Base in Korea. There were a million things I didn’t have to explain to her because she was in the Air Force like me. After reading the book Uniform by Lisa Stice, I realize that I took too much for granted. Stice’s poetry made me feel what it was like to be isolated, confused, and worried as a spouse of someone in the military. I bet my wife felt a lot of the same emotions when I went downrange, even though she had time in uniform.

Much of Stice’s book is familiar to me and would be to anybody who served. The love-hate thing with Uncle Sam. The cycles of training and deployment. I find myself nodding in familiarity, but seeing it from a whole different perspective. A new perspective that should’ve been apparent to me for 20 years, but wasn’t until now.

In “Memo to the Wives” and “Corps Value” there’s a line that says childcare will not be provided. Events happen that should be a good deal to attend, but you can’t go because nobody can watch the kids. Nothing says service more than a Catch-22.

Stice writes “Where are you?” in a couple poems when hearing about accidents and injuries, hoping that her husband isn’t involved. “In Training” and “The Pit Opened Up” brought this up well. I’m not sure I understood how terrifying it is to just not know.

“Family Readiness”: I wrote a letter to my family to be opened upon my death. This poem made me realize what it must be like to know the letter exists and prepare for the possibility that it might be needed.

“Family Day”: Attendance not mandatory / but expected. Mandatory fun is definitely part of military life.

There’s a one-two punch in the book that had the biggest impact on me. In “Deployment Notices” Stice shares some platitudes that people say like, Some time we’ll have to / have you over for dinner. Sure, people say things that are well meaning, but when they don’t follow through, it sucks. My favorite poem in the book is “Words From Friends.” It’s the knockout punch of this combo. The last line is just killer. Your friends probably aren’t being intentionally mean when they say things, but that doesn’t matter. When you’re a raw nerve, unthinking comments have the same effect as malice. Buy the book. I’d buy it just for “Words From Friends.”

In “The Night Before Deployment,” Stice talks about her need to trust in the training her husband has received as he leaves. Then she laments, but where was my training? She had on-the-job training, I suppose. But you can learn from Lisa Stice. Call it your own training. Call it what you want. Just go read Uniform.

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Trust It

I walked into the room and Kevin Price had his head in his hands. He was my dedicated Instructor Pilot (IP) during the T-38 phase of pilot training. I asked him what was wrong.

“Stevie Ray just died,” he said. He looked so sad, I assumed Stevie Ray was a member of his family. I asked who that was. Then he looked like I just made it worse.

“Stevie Ray. Stevie Ray Vaughan,” he said. I blinked, not understanding.

He explained that Stevie Ray was one of the greatest blues guitarists in history. He said this was a tragedy. I was confused because I claimed to know the blues. I knew John Lee Hooker, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. But somehow I missed the memo on SRV. I went backwards through history and figured out what I missed. I soon agreed it was a tragedy. Now, when I’m on layovers in Austin, Texas, I run by Stevie Ray’s statue by the river and give a little nod. I even play half-assed versions of “Cold Shot”, “Red House”,  and “Life By The Drop.”

But here’s what I’m getting at. Seven years before his death, I sat in my room in high school doing homework while the David Bowie “Let’s Dance” cassette played in the tape deck. I thought the guitar was pretty awesome. More than awesome. I especially remember these tracks: Let’s Dance, China Girl, and Cat People.

I was a kid. I just figured it was David Bowie on the axe. Probably because of the Let’s Dance video where Bowie seems to play a guitar.

It was many years after Stevie Ray died that I learned that he was the one playing the guitar on most of the tracks on Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” album. Bowie saw SRV at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982 and was blown away. He invited Stevie to play on his album. I was also blown away by the guitar in my little room, long before who I even knew who Stevie Ray was. I followed this little thread backwards and forwards through time and arrived at a place where my interest and my knowledge met. Stevie was talking to me for years, I just didn’t know it.

Kind of like how later I learned that New Order was an offshoot of Joy Division. Or that Fine Young Cannibals and General Public were the spawn of the English Beat. Or the path from Bauhaus through Tones on Tail to Love and Rockets. Or when you learn that Diana Krall is married to Elvis Costello. I’ve forgotten which bands I knew about first. But I’m almost certain I didn’t learn the stuff I liked in chronological order. I’d like one thing, then another, and then later, find out they were related. Maybe even directly related. And then feel like I was consistently attracted to things that ended up being the same. I could trust my own instincts.

There’s a band from the 80’s called the Cocteau Twins. I’m probably the only person you know who has everything they recorded. The reason I like them is because of Elizabeth Fraser, the vocalist. Her voice is remarkable. And most of the time, I’m not even sure she’s speaking English. From some interviews I’ve read, she’s not sure she is either. But that voice.

If you’re still reading, you’re as twisted as I am, so follow this 30-year thread with me:

  • I like the Cocteau Twins.
  • I get into Massive Attack, mostly because of the song “Protection” featuring Tracey Thorn from Everything but the Girl. (which leads to the bands Mazzy Star and Portishead.) 
  • I like the TV show “House” with Hugh Laurie in the grouchy lead role. I especially like the song that opens the show. Turns out it’s a Massive Attack song that I thought I recognized from the Mezzanine album. Cool, right? I binge watch the whole series and don’t even fast forward the opening song, because I like it. Of note, the TV show theme snip isn’t long enough to include the ethereal vocals of the woman singing, but still cool. 
  • About three years ago, I was on a layover where the hotel has –gasp–HBO! We don’t even have hot and cold running water in the house in Duluth, so I usually check out what’s on HBO. I stumbled into a movie called “Greetings from Tim Buckley” It’s essentially the origin story of Jeff Buckley, who emerged at a tribute concert to his estranged father, Tim Buckley, a famous singer. I looked into Jeff Buckley. He’s probably most famous for his version of “Hallelujah” but I recognized him from “Last Goodbye.” Naturally, he died (drowning accident) in 1997. Another artist I was interested in too late
  • Just a few weeks ago, for some reason, I fell into rabbit hole on the web. I somehow saw that Elizabeth Fraser released a “new” song ten years ago. In the course of looking at YouTube videos of her songs, I saw that she sang a song with a band called This Mortal Coil way back in 1983 called “Song to the Siren.” Beautiful, I thought. Amazingly, I learned that it was a cover of a Tim Buckley song. Hey, I know who Tim Buckley is, I thought. That’s Jeff Buckley’s dad.
  • Then, I get decapitated by the discovery that Jeff Buckley and Liz Fraser recorded a song together in the mid-90’s called “All Flowers in Time Bend Towards the Sun.” Turns out they had an “intense” relationship. Amazing convergence of voices. Even freakier that Fraser is singing a song with Jeff Buckley 15 years after she covered a song by his father. 
  • Stumbling around the internet some more, I find out that she was recording a song with Massive Attack when she learned that Jeff Buckley drowned. She essentially said  that the song Teardrop was a tribute to Jeff Buckley because she put her sadness at learning about his death into the song. Wait, WHAT? LIZ FRASER WAS THE SINGER ON TEARDROP? THE MASSIVE ATTACK SONG I LIKED FOR 20 YEARS (AND WAS THE SONG ON HOUSE) WAS ELIZABETH FRASER FROM THE COCTEAU TWINS?

This is the most recent example of why I love music. And why, when I find myself strangely compelled by something I see, read, or hear, I’ve learned to keep following it.  I’ve learned to trust my curiosity. To follow the whispers and the threads to the end. The connections are astounding.


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Grammie and Me

Grammie and Me, Christmas 1967

My book, Hugging This Rock  came out yesterday. I dedicated it to Dorothy Chandler, my grandmother. I explain some of my reasons in the book. In short, she was full of ditties and poems and songs that just bubbled out of her all the time.

She died when I was a young lieutenant stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. I remember being on the phone with my folks asking if I should fly to Maine for the funeral. Somehow, groupthink took over and we agreed that I should stay in Alaska for all that important Air Force stuff I was doing. What could I possibly have been doing that was more important? Horrible misprioritization on my part.

Around that time, I was using an old Panasonic electric typewriter to write things down. Journal entries and quotes that I found in books that I read. Today, I remembered typing something about her, not long after she died. I looked around the house until I found the right binder. There it was on the front page. I dedicated that pile of typewritten chaos in the binder to her and nearly forgot that I wrote it.

Now that I’ve got some mileage, I’m able to see that Kurt Vonnegut was right: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Words, intentions, thoughts, and memories have spooky power. Somehow in the back of my mind, my grandmother nudged me along for 25 years until she showed up on the dedication page of a real book.

I hope the poems in the book aren’t crappy. But that anxiety is overwhelmed by a massive feeling of relief. Gratitude that I didn’t run out of time.

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