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  • (Song: "Raymond Carver's Eyes," by Will Stenberg.)

    Until my 10th birthday, I didn't ask for many presents. I wasn't being intentionally modest, either -- it was just that I had already had books and baseball equipment, so I couldn't imagine what else I would need. Music came later.

    Then suddenly, in fifth grade, I did have a present in mind. I wanted a punching bag. I was so young that I was completely focused on the punching bag, without even pausing to consider that it meant I was "angry," or why I might be angry. However, I'm pretty sure anger was the motive, because I didn't stop to consider anything else I'd need. I didn't, for example, order boxing gloves.

    The punching bag did, in fact, show up, courtesy of my parents. I had a wide, spacious room, and we hung it right in the center, from the one of the rafters. For two nights in a row I fought with it. The vinyl was a little pebbly, and cool to the touch. After only an hour of punching bare-handed, my knuckles were killing me. So I went to a chest under my bed, retrieving a bunch of old "costume ties" that had belonged to my father Joel in the 1970s. I wrapped them around my knuckles and kept going. My knuckles split open, bright and bleeding. I waited for the pain to settle, then started right up again. I remember the end of the second night. I peeled a yellow tie off my left hand, staring at the four little imprinted circles of blood.

    By the time I met Will Stenberg, I'd taken the punching bag down. We must have ditched it a few years later, when my family left Mendocino. I was shy, and didn't know much about anybody. Will threw a party, and I went, although it's hard to say why. Half the people there were strangers, and I was by myself. I walked in silence around his room, the epicenter of the party, ducking people and drinks. I was mystified by his collection of photos, most of which were of "Kurt Cobain" and "Kate Moss," names that meant nothing to me. Finally I just sat down, essentially waiting to go home. Will was outside, claiming to be able to do a lot of pushups.

    In the center of his room was a punching bag, suspended from a redwood rafter, just as mine had been. It looked quite different; it was also a blue Eveready, but covered in poems and graffiti. I turned it over, reading. Some of the phrases had been retraced, carefully, over again when the ink wore off. As I spun the bag on its chain, I was amazed to see a flash of real poetry, evenly and precisely carved into the skin of the bag. It read, THE BLUES AIN'T NOTHIN' BUT A GOOD MAN FEELIN' BAD. In the end, I'd say that's why I was there. That was the thing that had to be seen. We barely exchanged five words that night, though.

    We ended up talking more after high school than during it, as can happen in a small town; plus, in the time intervening, Facebook was invented.

    In a few hours, we're going to release publicity for him, featuring some of his best and newest songs, along with my essay on his music. I wrote it after living with ten songs of his for a string of days. He read it, and wrote to me, "you've made me cry." It was the first time, he wrote, that somebody had understood his music and captured it in print. You can read the essay on my blog, here.

    It's funny, but when I went to that party, I never once thought about the punching bag from fifth grade. The coincidence only occurred to me tonight. This story, of things that happened over a decade ago -- well, what can I even say? It simply did not exist.
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