Sunday, November 03, 2013

Friday Night in the Lights

In recent weeks I have wondered about my reasons for playing in a band. Is it just a creative outlet? Does the fact that I need to be on stage say something about my self-image that I don't want to know? Do I still secretly think that chicks dig guys in bands, and that somehow playing the drums on a lit stage will offer the solution to my dating efforts? Maybe. On a Friday night this past September I played a benefit concert with some friends up at the Ed Kenley Amphitheater. But as fun as it was to take the stage and release a little rock and roll, my best moment had little to do with playing the drums.

Around 8pm, just after the sun had gone down and the stage lights gained their full illumination, I sat on a small cement retainer at the edge of the grass with my two-year-old niece perched next to me. Her degree of calm was impressive given her typical toddler energy level. We quietly watched Danny Wood play his guitar alone on the stage, bathed in the reds and purples of those lights, sending his music out into the night. Nearby, several children wandered back and forth on the grass, alternately pausing to watch the stage, then returning to their exploration, taking in the full freedom of their Friday night. I knew all of these kids, because they were my friends' kids, my own auxiliary nieces and nephews that broke me in over the last few years before I became a bona fide uncle almost three years ago. These were the same friends that played in the band with me, friends I have now known for over twenty years.

Me and Niece #1
Becoming an uncle has been the most substantial event in the last three years of my life. Partially because it came so much later for me than others--I have friends who have been uncles or aunts since before they could walk--but mostly because of the sea change it has triggered in my day-to-day perspective. For years I would get annoyed when a friend would cancel our plans because he or she needed to attend a niece or nephew's birthday party. But now, with nieces of my own (my sister just had daughter #2 in August), and with my gradual separation from the singles scene that has dominated my social life for the last decade and a half, I get it.

In the months that followed the birth of my first niece, I expressed my elation through photography, as she became my favorite model in a string of Facebook albums that would make most obsessed parents look conservative. On a trip into Salt Lake during that period, a friend asked in confidence if I was "Baby Crazy." It was a fair question, but the truth was that even though I was pretty crazy about my new niece, I wasn't chomping at the bit to get a baby of my own. It will be great to have my own kids one day, but there are enough steps between me and a maternity ward that the idea of being a parent myself almost feels like an abstraction. For now I'll just enjoy my campaign for the title of World's Greatest Uncle.

As I do, I realize the true motivation behind my efforts. In a way, my first run as an uncle has been an opportunity to connect with my Aunt Sandy, who died of cancer back in 1983. I had just turned seven when she passed away, but even though she lived more than 1,500 miles from our family, she left an indelible influence on me. She was always writing me letters, sending me care packages with "Return of the Jedi" T-shirts, or talking to me on the phone. Even though I only spent time with her on a handful of occasions, I had no doubt in my mind that my aunt loved me very much.

Niece #2
One of the few crystal clear memories I have of my early years is being woken up late at night by my father. I was sleeping in my parents' bed because my mom and sister had flown back to Ohio to be with Sandy before she died. I clearly remember sitting on my mom's side of the bed under the glow of her bed stand light as my dad sat down next to me and told me my aunt had passed away.

The morning after the concert, my sister and I took my eldest niece into Salt Lake to attend a "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2" screening. Ever since she was born I've been looking forward to taking her to the movies, hoping her reaction would mirror her mother's when my family took her to see "Return of the Jedi" from the front row of the Center Theater in downtown Salt Lake. I'll never forget seeing her perched on my dad's lap, eyes gaping at the larger-than-life screen, overwhelmed at six months of age.

Along the way to our screening, my sister told me that my niece sat transfixed through my band's performance, and that she is officially my "biggest fan." I wouldn't have it any other way. When you're up on a lit stage, the audience kind of fades to black, and you have plenty of time to think. But whatever my reasons, knowing my niece was out there watching me in wonder with her huge brown eyes just kind of makes everything else irrelevant.