Saturday, December 31, 2011


"After that it was all gravy, every minute . . ."
Raymond Carver, "Gravy"

Well then, here we are, the eve of a new year. January is named, of course, for the Roman god Janus, whose two faces looked both forward and backward, and what better way to symbolize turning the corner into a new year? It also happens to be the month of my illustrious birth, which means the cosmic significance of January simply can't be denied. Don't fight it.

When I sat down to reflect on 2011 (because I always sit when I reflect), I quickly realized there were many, many more high points than low, even without holding 2011 up against the glare of the unmitigated disaster that was 2010. It wasn't all good, and this will be an incomplete list because, honestly, it was a jam-packed twelve months, but here are a few observations from my year.

I learned that my daughter loves Henry David Thoreau and The Great Gatsby and that she speaks with impressive eloquence and thoughtfulness about the books she reads. I watched her demonstrate that she's a natural at tap dancing. I gave her my monster iPod for her birthday, complete with some eighteen-thousand songs, and was delighted time and again as she discovered songs and bands I love, and now she loves them too. She's the person I'm fortunate to be able to point to as the reason for all the best things I do, and I can't imagine being luckier than I am.

I rediscovered my words this year. They'd been in absentia for far too long, and I recovered them from a heap of ashes. I wrote a book that still needs work but will, I think, turn out alright. This year has taken me very far from the circumstances that conspired to make up that book, which is good because I can see the stories with new eyes. They need to be funnier. And maybe a little meaner. I'll keep you posted. As for the blog, I give my kid credit for suggesting I dust it off and get it going again, and thanks to all of you who have read and shared your thoughts. I mostly write to get chicks (obviously), but I also write to be read, and it's a great thrill to know you're all out there checking out my work. Last but by no means least, it's been a blast writing for The Nervous Breakdown -- many thanks to Peaches for hooking me up with them. Writing is most definitely work, and sometimes it kicks your ass for what feels like no good reason, but for me it still beats a hell of a lot of other things I might be doing with my time, so I'll take it.

I got a little smarter this year, thanks to, among many others, Tolstoy, Flannery O'Connor, Rabelais, Steinbeck, Michael Chabon, Thomas Paine, Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Bret Easton Ellis, Kurt Vonnegut, Andre Dubus, and of course my favorite living writer, Ron Currie. I read a hell of a lot more than I watched TV (which should be a no-brainer), but I did find myself quite happily absorbed in Louis C.K.'s FX series, Louie. It is wise and brilliant, and I hope you'll all take some time in the new year to check it out.

Lots of outstanding new music came my way in 2011, which was very good news because the ongoing soundtrack was all wrapped up in bleak despair, a natural side-effect of connecting with someone in part over your music collection: your best tunes take on the echoes of that cruel ghost. There were new-to-me bands like Frightened Rabbit, the Mountain Goats, Portugal. The Man, and Wild Sweet Orange, as well as new albums by some of my favorites: Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie and the Twilight Singers. I think I'll roll out a few tasty playlists in 2012 -- it's been a while since I've done that, and I have enough new stuff now to make it worthwhile. Oh, and speaking of music, I saw the Pixies -- easily one of my top five moments of what was a pretty good year.

I pondered somewhat incessantly the statement, "But I didn't mean to," and struggled to understand why anyone would perceive carelessness as a virtue. I continue to ponder this question.

I was reminded that secrets are hard to keep because they are burdens. The more a secret strives to escape your lips, the more determined you should be to keep it because, if it's hard for you to keep, imagine how hard it will be for the next twenty-five people.

I kissed some ladies this year. I liked that a lot, too.

I managed to nothing somebody -- not love or hate, just nothing -- and that ain't no mean feat.

More than anything, I got back to being myself this year, and that's good stuff because, no kidding, I dig me, warts and all. I make my share of mistakes, I stumble over my own feet sometimes, but all things considered, I think I'm a pretty good guy to have around. I admire my better impulses and am relieved to see them back in play. I'll make you laugh, help you move a couch, hold your hand, get your back, and tell you it's all going to turn out fine when you're not able to see that for yourself. I like this version of me a whole lot better than the version that was free-falling into an abyss of his own making. That guy was pretty useless and absolutely no fun.

So raise a glass or whatever you like to do, and here's to 2012: a year of meaningful accomplishments and thoroughly satisfying surprises, of lost puppies and missing children finding their way home, of bad luck turning good and good luck turning great, of windfalls and great sex and minor miracles. A year where no one gets sad or hurt and nobody dies. To 2012: may it be nothing but gravy for us all.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


It's the day before Christmas, and I find myself with good things to look forward to: my lovely daughter comes tomorrow, and we'll spend the day in Portland with my parents at my younger brother's house. Sweet Milly comes home from her travels and I'll be seeing her soon. All good stuff. But I'm not going to lie to you: I have heavy thoughts on my mind these days.

By now anyone who has watched or read or listened to any news reports in the last several days knows a little girl from these parts went missing a week ago. It's a story that swirls with low-end melodrama. The little girl's mother went to rehab, and the Department of Health and Human Services placed the girl with her father. I don't know any of these people, but from what I've seen of the mother (in multiple television interviews), she is no prize pig. Add to that the comments of that woman's mother, the little girl's grandmother, who claimed DHHS took the girl away because for some reason that agency has a personal bias against the elder woman's family. The depth of ignorance betrayed by a statement like that can't be quantified. It also adds a particularly insidious ripple to the investigation: if a person is so irrational (and immature) as to pointedly express such a bizarre persecution complex, how do you measure your expectations of either that person's credibility or her potential culpability? In other words, if someone is both stupid and batshit crazy, what can you reasonably put past her? More than one person has openly speculated that somehow the grandmother sent someone to kidnap the girl, to take her away from her father. On the one hand, given what we know about her limited intellect and obviously dubious judgment, I don't think you can put that past her. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine this woman knowing anyone with sufficient smarts to pull it off and then elude investigators for even a day, let alone a solid week. The conundrum of dealing with dumbasses.

I admit, I judge stupid people harshly. I also admit, again, I don't know any of these people, I only know them through the lens of what they've said to the press. The father has been mostly quiet, and so I have almost no opinion about him, except that, well, if you have a child in your care, and that child happens to have a broken arm, and you don't look in on that kid even once in twelve hours, you fucked up. If the father did nothing else, if he is in no way involved in whatever has happened to his daughter, I won't say anything more than that: he fucked up, and he's going to have to live with that the rest of his life. But the mother and the grandmother have been quite vocal, and each time either has opened her mouth, she has proven herself to be the quintessential scumbag. They are small-minded, simple-minded, self-absorbed people, neither of whom should have ever had a child. They are shitty, shitty human beings, and if this little girl is found safe and sound, I hope she never has to suffer another day in the presence of her mother's family.

Now to the observable particulars of the last few days. There has been a massive police presence here in Waterville, presumably every cop on the force, as well as State Troopers, game wardens, the FBI. There have been scores of volunteers out searching. It's an operation being undertaken in just the way it should be: all hands on deck. Local businesses have contributed staff to assist in the search, restaurants have been providing food to keep the volunteers going. This is all good and sadly necessary. Then there are the ancillary cohorts of events such as these: at least one erroneous report, broadcast on Facebook, that the girl's body had been found; the overheard conversations in bars and restaurants and coffee shops, endless speculation about what really happened; and, of course, the vigils.

I take no comfort in vigils or in impromptu memorials, piles of teddy bears and flowers and handwritten notes left in the victim's yard. To me such things feel contrived, but that's my temperament: I don't sport yellow-ribbon bumper stickers, don't drape myself in the flag. Confucius said that when the wise man points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger. In real life I resist embracing symbols and symbolic gestures because, it seems to me, too often people get caught up in the symbol and lose sight of what the symbol represents. It's the moon, not the finger, that moves me.

At the same time, as a parent I recognize something in all of this that perhaps some without kids might fail to see: if you have a child you adore, you can't watch any of what's going on and not ask yourself, "What if that was my daughter?" It is almost certainly the most obvious truism of parenthood: any threat of harm coming to your child is something you desperately hope to never have to bear. The sense of helplessness that accompanies any mystery is pervasive -- we feel it collectively. Something as incomprehensible as the mysterious disappearance of a child ratchets up that sense of paralyzed impotence. It gnaws at an empty place in your belly. It makes you want to do something, anything that might offer the vague promise of even the slightest comfort. It is as though, as a community, we are holding our collective breath. It's important, though, to remember that while it feels like we're holding our breath, for the family of that little girl, it is much more like someone is holding their heads under water: they don't have the choice of taking a breath. Keep that in mind while you're lighting candles and sporting ribbons and wristbands and whatever else people choose to engage in, regardless of their motives. Don't ever assume that either sympathy or empathy makes somebody else's pain your own.

On this Christmas Eve, I hope for everyone's sake, but mostly for the sake of the little girl, that she is found and she is unharmed. I am not a praying person, I don't believe in gods or their associated mythology. I don't believe things happen for a reason. I do believe in my gut, and I'm sad to say my gut is telling me nothing good is going to come of this. Too much time has passed, too many of the stones under which she was most likely to be discovered in one healthy piece have been overturned to no avail. That being said, though, my wish this Christmas is to learn, and soon, that my gut is completely and utterly wrong. I don't like being wrong any more than most people, but this is one of those times when I'd be overjoyed to find out I'm mistaken. Here's hoping.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 12, 2011

True to Life

Big thanks to everyone who has sent thoughts or thumbs-up about my latest piece on TNB, which you can find here if you haven't read it yet and would like to. I fretted over that essay, more so than I realized until after I finally finished it and it posted to the website. It was easy to write in the sense that I was plucking low-hanging fruit, and difficult for the obvious reasons: I was telling secrets on myself and aiming to tell them honestly, but more than that, I had to spend much of those two weeks putting my head back in a place my head didn't particularly enjoy being. Still, it wasn't the subject matter that made me anxious, it was the question of whether or not I would manage to do it the sort of justice I felt it deserved. Overall, I think it came out alright, which is a good thing because there's a hell of a lot more to that story and that's where I'm going next. Put your seatbelts on, kids, it's a roadtrip.

Memoir is a funny thing. I've written more than three-hundred pages of interrelated stories about the slow death waltz that was 2009-10. All the stories spring from events that actually transpired, then diverge into fiction from there. So while the central narrative was born from real life, it is, ultimately, a work of fiction, and if it's ever published, that is how I will present it: as a made-up tale. Much of what I'm writing now, though, is the factual account of those events. They are the same stories, but they come with the qualification of their author telling you these things actually happened, more or less in the way I'm presenting them (don't ever take memoir purely literally: memory is inherently flawed, subject as it is to the influences of time and shifting perspective). I could write both of these books, parallel novel and memoir, and even if I managed to pull off the objectives of each separate work as close to perfectly as possible, I guarantee the memoir would be much more widely read. My friend Snuggles, who knows about such things, mentioned recently that fiction at our local public library out-circulates non-fiction, and that surprised more than a few of us. Later it occurred to me that there's almost certainly a distinction to be drawn: I'm willing to bet genre fiction makes up the bulk of the fiction that flies off the library shelves. In other words, what we interchangeably refer to as either realistic fiction or literary fiction is probably not what most readers are choosing. When a person reads a James Patterson or a Linda Lael Miller, there is absolutely no pretense that what you're reading is a "true" story. There's a strange sort of comfort in that knowledge, right? Conversely, when we read a story that seems like it could very well have happened, we begin to imagine the story's author actually having lived those experiences and, knowing the words "A NOVEL" are splashed across the cover, a lot of readers grow at least slightly less comfortable. It's a strange phenomenon.

Several years ago I wrote a story about a family whose circumstances change drastically and suddenly. It's a rather large family, four children, many mouths to feed. The father in the story is basically a good person but is flawed in a number of ways, including that he is perpetually underemployed, in part because he tends to butt heads with authority figures. One day he makes a fatal miscalculation: he takes something from the building supply company where he works, something he has determined will not be missed because it has, he believes, already mistakenly been accounted for. It is a keg of roofing nails, something for which he has no real use. But the feeling of getting away with a minor coup is irresistible, and so he puts the keg in the back of his truck and takes it home. He has, of course, been set up, and he ends up losing his job.

A few months go by, the family survives reasonably well on the mother's income (she works at the shirt factory in town), but when the father's unemployment runs out and he still has found no work, they're evicted from their rented duplex and move, all six of them, into a tin-can trailer built in 1949, thirty-three feet long and six feet wide with no electricity or running water. The mother cooks their meals on a Coleman camp stove. They illuminate the trailer at night with lanterns and candles, and after dark light the way to the outhouse beyond the pine-black treeline with flashlights. It is a crude life, but particularly by contrast to the relatively comfortable life they'd had in their other home. The story is told from the perspective of the younger son, who is an insomniac and an eavesdropper, which is why he has access to details he shouldn't really know. He begins to dream of something awful happening to his parents, with the result being that he would be transported from that miserable existence to go live with another family that lives in a house with lights and plumbing and soft mattresses. But nothing happens and nothing changes and, in 1976, the year of this country's Bicentennial celebration, that young boy begins to develop the condition that will come to define his life: profound depression.

It was a pretty good story, if a bit amateurish in the execution. Oh, and the other thing about that story is that it all actually happened. My father lost his job when I was six, and a few months later we had to move to a secluded piece of land my grandparents gave us, into a 1949 M-System mobile home that had seen way better days by the time we first occupied it in 1976. The front room was a cramped living- and dining-room and kitchen. There was a hallway down the center, with a built-in full-sized bed on the left and lots of tight, narrow closets and drawers and cabinets and cubbies. At either end of that center section were pocket doors, and beyond the pocket door toward the back of the trailer was a small room in which my father and his friend Kenny built, from cheap two-by-fours and plywood, two perpendicular sets of bunkbeds. We rolled out sleeping bags on the plywood, and that's where my brother and two sisters and I slept (my younger brother would come along a couple years later, his bassinet propped in the only empty corner of the room). Technically (as the schematic and description in the attached link indicate) there was a small bathroom in that back section of the trailer, but we had no running water, so that was more or less a moot point. For water, we would rinse out plastic milk jugs and cart them a quarter mile down the road to my aunt's house, where we'd fill them from her taps and lug them home. There were stretches when we had only one vehicle, which my father had to take to work (by then he was tending the town dump), and so the water lugging had to be done on foot, an arduous process because, of course, a family of six goes through a fair amount of water. In my memory, there were four-foot snowdrifts every time we made a water run. Eventually poles were sunk and power was run up the hill to our hovel, and at some point we had a well drilled, although for at least a year all we had was a hand pump propped on top of the well -- so still no running water.

We left the hill for a little over a year, moved back into town to a rented house. I don't know how that happened or why it didn't last and we found ourselves once again living in the little trailer up on the hill. Very gradually a twenty-two by twenty-four foot two-story shack was framed up, and one cold day in mid-winter uncles and neighbors and friends descended upon our hill, with hammers and saws and tool belts and ladders, and they spent that miserably frigid day sheathing the house, putting a roof on it, getting it slightly closer to habitable. I suspect it was spring by the time we actually moved into the tarpaper shack, but I can't be sure because it's hard to pinpoint marginal or incremental improvements in your life. Honestly, we had a bit more room when we moved into the shack, but for the most part it still sucked.

Those are all details, though, the raw material that we all crave. The story, ultimately, is about a boy's growing sense of shame and disappointment: shame because he really does spend much of his time dreaming of being taken away from all this (even to the point of wishing ill on his parents), and disappointment in the fact that nothing he does (he's a remarkably bright student, roundly praised for his wicked smarts) appears to change anything for the better, which creates an unhealthy level of skepticism in this kid -- me. And one day in the sixth grade, with all of this having gone on more than long enough, I sat up in Mrs. Welch's history class and for no good reason realized nothing mattered, nothing was ever going to change, nothing would ever get better. None of which is true, of course, but it was how I felt, based on what I'd experienced. And as with so many monumental changes in a person's life, gradually and then very suddenly I became the person I am today. The good news, though, is that I have an outstanding sense of humor. Pull my finger and find out.

So ask yourself: which of these stories would you want to read? The one that I tell you I made up, or the one I tell you I lived?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Never Tell a Writer Your Secrets

Before I go deep, here's something: please check out this link from The Nervous Breakdown, read some cool writing, and cast your vote for the best posts and interviews of the year. I know I've been saying this over and over again, but it's for real, gang, this site is loaded with good, good stuff. Drop me an email if you're looking for recommendations, I have a few favorites I can point you toward, but honestly, if you just poke around, I guarantee you'll find much to enjoy. And please do vote, give these writers some nods. Thanks.

And speaking of TNB, this morning I finally managed to polish off an essay I'd been working on for two weeks. It's a very different sort of piece than those I've written for TNB to date, all of which have been entirely tongue in cheek good fun. This one was not much fun to write, although my objective was to find the humor where it exists and let it do its thing. I wrote the first fifteen-hundred words of the essay a couple days before Thanksgiving, on the first anniversary of the day I was carted off to the looney bin. The words were coming so fast, I had every expectation of wrapping it up and submitting it for review before I went to bed that night. This morning a little before six, two weeks to the day after I started it, I finally tapped out the last few words, proofed the hell out of it, and sent it off. I hope I did a good job.

One of the refrains I hear most often from readers of the blog is that they appreciate my willingness to write very personal stories. That's a double-edged sword, of course, because any individual's personal stories are going to touch on the private territory of the other people in his or her life. Judgment and discretion matter in life, certainly, but the truth is, when you write, it's pretty much all fair game. People tell me their secrets. I don't ask them to, I don't dig, I just listen. I carry a few secrets I expect I'll never touch in my writing, but the great majority of them, in some fashion or another, will probably find their way into the work. That's my thing: I write about the shit people do. A few months back, a friend of mine heard through a mutual acquaintance that I had written a story about something he'd done, and based on what that acquaintance told him, he was none too pleased. I was a little peeved about the situation, mostly because the acquaintance was talking out of her sour-grapes ass, but also because that story wasn't really about my friend or what he did, it was about the experience of those who were affected by what he'd done. The story in question is a very small piece of a larger narrative in which the main character does some things that put his friends in a similar but in some ways much worse position, and that little story that my friend objected to (without having read it) presages those events in what I consider to be a meaningful way. I offered to let my friend read the story and (remember, I was already irritated) I told him to feel free to let me know what he objected to, and I would be sure to let him know whether I gave a shit. To his credit (and not surprisingly -- he's a smart, thoughtful person) he read the story and appreciated it. Take that, Sour-Grapes Ass. For the record, I'm still not sure whether I would have given a shit if he had objected -- I know I didn't give a shit when Sour-Grapes Ass begged me to pull a story she felt cut too close to the bone of her personal life. The irony is that the story she opposed was almost entirely imagined. I must have a pretty good imagination. Not to put too fine a point on it, but even if the book itself never sees the light of day, I'll get that one story published if it kills me. I'm a dick like that sometimes.

I realize that sounds like I'm being spiteful, and in small measure I definitely am, but the larger point is this: it ceases to be exclusively your story the moment you tell it to me. It becomes less and less your story the more time I spend with it because as it floats around in my head, and as I start tapping the keys, it becomes infused with elements that exist entirely outside the realm of what was once your story. There's a rule of thumb I'll offer up for what it's worth: don't ever tell anything to a writer. In fact, don't even associate with writers because, whether you tell us things or not, we'll gather more than enough useful information just hovering on the periphery of your cocktail party, or observing you from across the restaurant, or catching a vague glimpse of your life through an upstairs window as we pass by in a car. It's what we do: we observe and report. We imagine what we can't know for certain, and we connect events both real and fabricated in order to tell those characters' stories.

Fair's fair, I say, so in case anyone feels unreasonably maligned or thinks I'd ever let myself off the same hook, here goes: last November I spent a few days on the psych ward at St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston because I'd made it abundantly clear to my friends that I wanted to kill myself. I'd given up. I'd lost the ability to value the very many things that make my life worth living. The doctor who examined me at the emergency room determined that I was severely depressed, and she made the call that I should be in the hospital. Shortly after dawn the next morning they stuffed me in an ambulance and drove me to Lewiston. By the end of that long, sad day I decided that was the last place in the world to get myself out of the rabbit hole, and so I spent the next two days conning the doctors into believing I was out of the woods (already), and they let me go. My friends Hank and Snuggles took me in, and I spent the next six weeks simultaneously wishing I was dead and doggedly determined that I wasn't going to repay their kindness by offing myself in their house. It was never easy, but without something as immediate and significant as my dear friends' best interests to focus on, I would not have made it. In the midst of that stretch, two days after Christmas, I woke up and started writing an entirely new story. It seems like nearly every evening for the next four weeks I would come out of my room and regale Hank and Snugs with the news of what I'd just written. Their unbridled enthusiasm and encouragement buoyed me like nothing you could possibly imagine, unless you use heroin regularly. In seventy days I had a first draft of a book, and that felt magnificent, but more than that, it's a year or so later, and not only am I still here, but I plan to be here for a long time, as long as I don't get hit by a bus, in which case, shit happens.

So that's some of my story. And now it's also yours, see? Do with it what you will.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Brother, Where Art Thou?

You know it's Monday -- you know it's Monday, right? And I don't even have a real job, so it's not like Monday means putting the carefree times of the weekend behind me and getting back to the grind. But I do remember those days, how Monday always meant "Aw, fuck, I gotta get up and go do that shit again." That's Monday when you're a real working stiff. There's an aura to Monday, though, a quality you can't miss, even if you're "self-employed." And don't get me wrong, today wasn't a particularly shitty Monday. It wasn't an "Are you fucking kidding me?" Monday. It was more like waking up and discovering someone's having sex with you. It was a sleeping tushy Monday, sort of a "Whoa, hey, what's going on here?" Monday. Which, depending on your attitude, I guess you could say was a good Monday? I don't know. Feedback is always welcome.

Before I go any further, I'd like to throw out a little request to the universe, and if anybody knows of a way to make this happen, I will procure for you a night of the sexual satisfaction of your choice, no questions asked. I'm speaking, of course, of the Geico ads. I don't even give a shit about that stupid gecko -- fuck him, I tune him out. But every time I see that suit-wearing, slicked-back hair numbnuts from The Brothers McMullen, turning toward the camera with his hands in his pockets and asking offhandedly whether Geico can really save you money on your car insurance, and then he eyes the camera and asks a pithy one-liner question like, "Do woodchucks really chuck wood?" I want to destroy every beautiful thing that ever existed. It's like fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul. I can't take it anymore. They had one -- one -- funny bit, and that was the one where he asks whether Abe Lincoln was honest. I mean, seriously, they put Abe Lincoln into every guy's nightmare scenario, a version of "Does this dress make my ass look fat?" and, of course, because he's honest Abe, he hesitates a beat too long. That is flawless comedy, and I could watch that commercial, uninterrupted, for two days straight, and I would laugh every time. But the rest . . . the rest. Stop. Just fucking stop, now. I take that back: make one more, and just one more. Ask this question: Does the Pope shit in the woods? And . . . lights. Please, I beg you. And if anyone out there can make this happen, for real, you will have one wild, kinky night to look forward to, even if I have to do the deed myself.

I confess, for the most part my Monday was bumping along just fine: I got up early, as I almost always do (I'm not proud of this, I just seem to have arrived there in the last year, like older people usually do), I settled in at the coffee shop with the manuscript I'm editing, did some solid work, felt good about it, took a little break to respond to a couple emails, in the course of one of which I talked a bit about my older brother. For those who don't know, I have two of each, brothers and sisters, and I'm smack in the middle: sister, brother, me, sister, brother. So I was giving the updates on my siblings to a long-time friend I hadn't seen in far too long, and I lingered a bit as I talked about my brother. I haven't spoken to this brother in four or five years. We had a falling out. I'd like to say it was entirely my fault, but in truth, he's married to a truly awful woman, and after about a decade and a half of nobody saying so much as boo, I finally made the mistake of saying, pretty much, "Boo." Regrets are for suckers, and this woman is Mussolini with a Mainah accent, except the only thing she ever made run on-time was mealtime (Mussolini at least made the trains run on time), so, well, so it goes. Rarely, but sometimes, I miss my brother.

Pete is about fourteen months older than me, we were a year apart in school, and growing up out in the sticks as we did, we developed a pretty typical camaraderie. Endless hours we threw baseballs and footballs back and forth. Pete cut the bottom out of a square cardboard box and nailed it to a tree, and we shot baskets on it with a kickball that was about two-thirds inflated. When the box disintegrated, he clipped the spokes out of a twenty-inch bike tire rim and nailed that to the tree. We had to keep climbing up and driving the nails back in pretty constantly, but for a while it worked for our dirt-poor purposes. One weekend we built a motorless go-cart out of some scrap lumber and a combination of lawnmower and bike parts, and Pete pulled me around on it with a tow rope (because he was twice my size and I possessed one-eighth of his strength, so the other way around wouldn't have been fun for either of us). And we worked: stacking wood, mowing lawns, pulling nails out of potential firewood, cleaning horse stalls, whatever there was, we did it, and usually we did it together.

As I say, Pete was always much bigger than me when we were kids. Allegedly, there was a three-year span during which I gained not one ounce of weight. "That boy ain't right," everybody figured, but I was perfectly healthy, not the least bit sickly (I still get sick less frequently than anyone I know, which makes no sense, but maybe it just means I'm the chosen one). But Pete went up two pants sizes every year, it seemed, and he was strong -- farm-boy strong, in spite of the fact that we did no farming. He was an inadvertent bruiser, not nearly as guileless as Steinbeck's Lenny, but equally as effective when doing little more than closing his hand around something crushable like the fender of, say, a '74 Dodge Charger (for those who don't know, once upon a time, cars were made out of something called "steel"). I loved my big brother's attention, and I was a tad relentless, which means from time to time I would harass him until the point where he'd had enough and he would, with one beefy hand, brush me aside, leaving me bawling in pain. Our overworked mother would stop whatever thankless, endless task she was engaged in and scold him, to which he would always respond (and I'm not making this up) by looking at the hand that had done the swatting and say, with more than a hint of wonder, "What? That didn't hurt."

My first real lesson at the hands of my brother came early on, and it was significant enough so that I should have learned. But I didn't, and I like to consider this a testament to the affection I had for my brother when we were kids. It was a hot late-summer Friday evening, my sisters were spending the night with our grandparents (and my little brother's arrival was still a long way off), and after a long work week our mother had no patience for her idiot sons and so had filled the little wading pool and allowed us to soak ourselves until bedtime (in lieu of an actual bath), which afforded her some rare relaxation time with her latest Reader's Digest magazine. To this day I wish I could recall the tipping point, the moment at which I crossed the imaginary line that existed in my brother's head, but I couldn't have been more than four when it happened, and the minutes that followed whatever near fatal choice I'd made are what linger in my memory. I said or did something, Pete had, once again, had enough, and he grabbed my head, pinned it underwater, and proceeded to sit on it (my head). I'm not much of a swimmer -- I can swim, but it's not something I do unless I absolutely have to -- and I certainly hadn't learned to swim or do much of anything underwater by that point in my life. With my head pressed to the floor of our wading pool under a forty-five pound human weight, I kept my eyes open and remember three images that will always be burned upon my brain: first, my brother's face, laughing down at me; second, my mother sitting cross-legged and pleasantly oblivious not more than six feet away, probably reading about a harrowing experience with a grizzly bear in Yellowstone; and then, once more, my brother's face, the instant before he released me, glowing with magnanimity. I came up, sputtering and coughing and crying, crawled out of the pool seeking my mother's solace. She shielded herself with the towel she threw over me, and I couldn't get the words out.

There weren't a lot of occasions for Pete to play the real big brother role -- that of protector and avenging angel -- because I was far too innocuous to fuck with in those days, but on the rare occasion when someone did try to raise a hand against me, Pete easily and immediately rose to the occasion. The one I remember best happened as we were getting on the bus to head home one afternoon after school. Brent Norris was two years older than me, so a year older than Pete, and a notorious paper tough guy, a scrawny teenage chain smoker who wore his daily uniform of blue jeans and matching jean jacket over a t-shirt bearing a pot leaf. He was nothing more than a punk, but punks, as we all know, have to find ways to solidify their reputations as tough guys, and what better way than to flex his limited muscles in the face of a puny sixth-grader. I still don't know exactly what I did to garner Brent's ire, but I suppose somehow I bumped into him when whoever was in front of me suddenly spun around and dropped into a seat and I took a step back. Next thing I knew, Brent shoved me. Skinny little dude that I was, I was still no pussy and I took no more kindly to being shoved than anyone else would, and so I spun around and said something to the effect of, "Excuse me, asshole, cut the shit." What I said doesn't matter, because he was Brent, and the likes of me were supposed to cower in his presence, which meant now he had to make a show of bravado. He grabbed my jacket and started to say something . . . but unfortunately for Brent, Pete happened to be only one person behind him. Pete reached that magnificent beefy paw over the shoulder of the poor soul who separated them and lifted Brent off his feet. I'll never forget the look in Brent's eyes as his fingers let loose my jacket: it was the look of a kid who had certainly had his ass kicked more than once and yet had never seen it coming (translation: beatings in the Norris house were random but frequent, and for that I pity young Brent, as I pity anyone who grew up enduring something like that from people who were supposed to care for him). When his feet touched the floor again and he was facing my brother, Brent tried to get tough, but my brother's slightly smirking square jaw made it abundantly clear it wasn't going to get any better for Brent, and would quite likely get a lot worse, regardless of the fact that Brent was older and thought himself untouchable in that environment. Brent did get lucky, though: just then the bus driver wove his way down the aisle and escorted both my brother and Brent off the bus and into the principal's office. They were both banned from the bus for one week (a hardship for my family, I assure you -- I think Pete actually walked all the way home that day, something like five miles). But Brent never came near me again.

A few years later we were in high school, and I watched sadly as the image I'd had of my big brother slowly crumbled. We'd grown up in a small town ripe with good kids (the Brent Norrises of the world notwithstanding), but high school one town away was a different story. It was a much bigger town and thus a much bigger school, for one thing, but there was also an insular quality to the place. It was still a relatively thriving mill town back then, which means the population didn't alter much, it just grew from within. The town kids had known each other since kindergarten and peewee sports, and the influx of outlier kids from the towns with no high school of their own did little to interrupt the cliques that had been maintained for a decade or more by the time we all got to high school. But Pete was a big-hearted affable guy who had grown accustomed to rubbing elbows with what he perceived to be the centers of attention of our little country sect, and so it never even crossed his mind that he wouldn't simply transition into the same group of fellers once he hit high school. Except, for whatever reason, Pete was never their kind of guy. Well, I say "for whatever reason," but the reason is that these guys had some vision of themselves as special, because Winslow was a sports-idol town, and these boys had grown up believing they were big fish, without the requisite sense of how pitifully small their pond actually was. They tolerated Pete the way the court tolerates the jester. And Pete never got it. I recognized it almost immediately by the time I'd passed on from our little country school to the big high school, but, to my shame, I didn't immediately recognize what these phonies were doing to my brother because I couldn't get over wondering why my brother even cared about what these small-minded, meaningless jerks thought. I didn't get it, because as gregarious as my brother always was, I was equally as introverted, and so I never gave a shit about cliques or crowds or acceptance. I didn't see my brother's struggles as a problem with that fucked-up social dynamic, I saw it as a problem with him. And I started to withdraw from my brother.

Two years later, I went off to a better school and left my brother to fend for himself through his senior year. But not before I took away probably the last bit of joy he was likely to get out of high school. I was a sophomore and Pete was a junior, and for the first time in three years we found ourselves once again on the same basketball team (in Vassalboro, the team was made up of sixth, seventh and eighth graders, and goddamn was it fun, in part because I got to play with my brother every day for two years), anchoring the bench on the Winslow High School junior varsity. Our coach that year was a monumental prick named Jim Poulin -- and anyone reading this who grew up in Winslow and has drunk the Jim Poulin koolaid, I make no apologies: the guy was a dick and if there is a hell, which I don't believe, I get no small pleasure imagining him writhing there for all eternity. Jim Poulin was a Winslow guy, born and bred, and he'd spent the entirety of his pointless, miniscule life watching Winslow kids grow up to play sports for that school, developing the myopia typical of unimaginative, intellectually limited people. It wasn't just that he had no interest in kids from outside Winslow, he was small enough to use those kids as foils to boost his limited coaching skills among the kids he did understand, the Winslow stock. My brother Pete was one of his favorite targets. Pete lacked game, that is undeniable: he was slow and oafish, and I used to lovingly refer to his beefy hands as "stone mittens." What can I say, finesse was not his game. But he worked harder than any two Winslow kids combined, and he was anything but stupid. In other words, he never even remotely deserved the malicious treatment he suffered at the hands of this poor excuse for a coach (if you wonder whether I'm just spitting sour grapes here, go check Jim Poulin's career coaching numbers in basketball -- they are less than impressive). He picked on all of us out of town kids, but he railed against Pete incessantly, and it chapped my ass, but what could a fifteen-year-old kid do against a petty tyrant? Because he lacked the ability to evaluate talent (the year before he got his hands on me, I'd been captain of the freshman team, leading the team in assists, steals, shooting percentage and minutes played), "coach" Poulin engaged in self-satisfying perversions, such as pitting my brother and me against each other in drills during practice. The implication, of course, was always that one of us could distinguish ourselves enough to earn a starting roll in the next game, but all it ever was to him was a way to demonstrate to the other players his ability to motivate. Genius: pit two brothers you've spent months maligning against each other, and then take credit for the resulting spectacle. Again, die an ignominious death, Jim Poulin, and rot in hell. Anyway, the rebounding drill. Five guys on offense pass the ball around the perimeter, five guys defend, and when "coach" blows the whistle, whoever has the ball puts up a shot, and the defenders seal their respective men and GODDAMNIT the defense better get the rebound or we'd be running. "Coach" put me on Pete, and I remember him making a snide remark about us as he tossed the ball in play. Pass, pass, pass, Pete has the ball and tweet, Pete takes the shot. And I do what I've been taught, what I've always done: I step into him, plant a forearm into his chest, pivot, and seal him off with my hips. Except that Pete hasn't quite reached the floor as my forearm nudges him, and he comes down awkwardly, and he breaks his foot.

Pete loved basketball, loved it more than any of the sports we'd been playing together all those years. He was never very good at it -- those stone mittens did not serve him well. No matter what sport you play (except perhaps sumo wrestling or boxing), soft hands will always serve you better than the alternative. But he loved it, and he worked hard. I have to believe he didn't imagine he'd ever be a regular playing in that system, but still, he had a place, and he had another season and a half to enjoy it. But I broke his foot, and except for pickup games here and there and some one-on-one, he never played again after that. It was an accident, I know, but still, I was the one leaning into him when the accident happened. I could forgive it all, perhaps, if not for that awful place and those shitty people like Jim Poulin who were so determined to remind him, at every turn, that he wasn't one of them.

One afternoon the summer after I graduated from high school, Pete and I were home alone at my parents' house and decided to play some one-on-one. Sometime in the years since the bike rim on the tree we'd managed to score a pretty well bent, netless rim that we'd screwed to the face of one of our father's many outbuildings, and though it left much to be desired, it was our regular court and we both knew how to play it. And we played for hours that hot afternoon. I had developed my own game quite a bit since he and I had last played, and at first I took advantage of my improved shot, my exceptional first-step and ball-handling. But he's my big brother, and rubbing his face in anything at all, least of all basketball, was not something I relished. And so I sandbagged a bit: I settled for long shots, I gave up on loose balls I could have easily fought for, I let him blow by me a handful of times. I didn't throw games, I just understood he needed it more than I did, and so I did my best to keep the games close. Because you never know when this time will be the last time you get to have a day like that with someone you love. After it was over, we stretched out in the room we shared in the tarpaper shack, and he told me he'd gotten a girl at Vo-Tech school pregnant, and that he was going to marry her.

I was incredulous, but for all the wrong reasons: I was young and brash and by then had had my share of teenage sex and so I thought I knew a thing or two. I'd imagined the prospects of a "mistake," and thought I knew what I would do. What I wanted, after the fact as always, was to protect my big brother from the world, protect him with my wisdom the way he'd protected me with his brawn when we were kids. But I couldn't protect him then any more then than I could when we were in high school. He married the girl, the baby was born the following February, a month or so after the ink had dried on his divorce papers. For a while, though, he acquitted himself nicely: he was a good dad, and that impressed me. I was proud of my brother for that.

Eventually, and perhaps not unexpectedly, Pete lost his way. He wound up married to Mussolini, they moved away and had two more kids. Mussolini (as petty tyrants always are) is threatened by anything that doesn't revolve around her, and so in time she managed to carve my brother's first child entirely out of his life. That poor girl, my niece, grew up under the influence of a mother who, given her many limitations, couldn't help but raise the girl in her own image. I mention this -- I tell this entire story, in fact -- because for the first time today I realized my brother, who is only fourteen months older than me -- is a grandfather. His first child gave birth to a child earlier this year. At the age of forty-three my brother became a grandfather. I realize there was a time when that wasn't even remotely unusual, but these are not those times. And if the variables were different, I would quite possibly think nothing of it. But the variables are what they are: my brother made a series of poor choices, some of which were the byproduct of shitty experiences at the hands of shitty people, and he ended up becoming a grandfather at the age I'm going to turn in about a month. And that is a HOLY FUCKING SHIT moment if ever I've had one.

And that would define my Monday, except that one question remains, the question I can't ask him because he won't speak to me: has he even met his grandchild yet? Part of me wants to know the answer, the slim sliver that believes the answer must be "yes," because he's my brother and there was once much to admire about him. But the other side of me, the side that watched my brother slowly evolve into someone I don't even recognize, suspects he hasn't, and what could I say to that person, except, "You are no brother of mine." And who would ever want to face that moment?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Little Boy Blue and the Man in the Moon

My father bores me to death.

That's a shitty thing to say, isn't it? By and large, he doesn't have conversations, nor does he ever seem to have a destination in mind when he starts to ramble. A few years ago I spent Christmas with my folks at my younger brother's house. At one point my brother went into the kitchen to baste something, and my mother -- perhaps without malice but I prefer not to be presumptuous -- decided to go help him, leaving me alone in the living room with the old man. And he started talking (or probably kept talking, about whatever he'd been verbalizing before he lost two-thirds of his audience), and I stretched out on the couch, closed my eyes, and steadied my breathing, throwing in the occasional light snort, because I am, allegedly, prone to snoring, and I wasn't leaving anything to chance in selling this bit. To his credit, the man kept right on going. More recently, I abandoned my daughter at my parents' house for about an hour, but that was entirely her fault. She and I were sitting in the screen house with the old man while my mom was inside preparing something that would eventually be part of our dinner. After no more than ten minutes of being sequestered in that plotless tomb, my daughter, that lovely little coward, stood up and announced that she was going to go see if Nana needed any help. I shot her a look the significance of which could not be missed. Even with her back turned to me, I could tell she was smirking, the little shit. I sat there and took it, alone, for another twenty minutes -- my mind churning the whole time, trying to conjure a graceful escape plan or, failing that, willing a sinkhole to open in the earth beneath either my chair or his (but good god not both) and swallow one of us up -- when I finally hit upon an idea. It still took me ten minutes to get even a small word in edgewise, but I finally said, "Hey, I need to run down the road and talk to Hank about work on Monday." (Note: I sometimes paint with Hank, and he does indeed live down the road from my parents; I did not, however, need to speak to him about work on Monday.) I drove down the road, Hank handed me a beer, and then another, and I smoked many cigarettes and breathed the refreshing air of the sort of banter I can sink my teeth into: multi-voiced, wide-ranging, inclusive. I returned to my folks' place just as dinner was being put on the table. My daughter shot me a dirty look, and I shot one in return that said, "See what you get, you gutless chimp?"

From as far back as I can remember, I thought of my father as a storyteller. He has some stories, he's seen and done some things: I know this because every once in a great while over the last forty years I've heard him start to tell a story that made me sit up and pay attention. But then he gets distracted and sidetracks the story, and it ends up being about how someone else who was there confirmed to my father's satisfaction that whatever went wrong, it wasn't my father's fault. There are some compelling family secrets I've stumbled across, legacy type stuff, but I only know the titles of these stories because they're not the stories he tells. Instead, he tells stories like the time he was driving an eighteen-wheeler along a dark country road in northern Maine and he saw a deer in the road -- if you can believe that, a deer in the road in Maine -- and he was afraid he wouldn't be able to avoid the deer, afraid he was going to either imbed the thing in the grill of his rig or go off the road trying to avoid it. But by the time he saw the deer it was too late for him to do anything to alter the outcome, so he held onto the wheel and hoped for the best. And guess what happened? Nothing. The deer took three easy strides and my father went past without incident. That deer lived, but it cost me twenty minutes of my life I'll never get back.

I never met my father's parents. His father was gone long before I was born and sometime after that his mother moved to Florida, remarried, and then died when I was three or four. By all accounts she was a terrible person, mean and selfish and petty. But who knows? She found two men who were willing to marry her, and it certainly wasn't for her money, so she must have had some redeeming qualities. Or maybe she was just irresistibly charming when she had to be. I've never even seen a picture. He's never talked much about his mother, but the way he does speak of her is telling, never referring to her as anything other than "my mother" -- which is even more revealing by contrast to how he has always referred to his father: he calls him "Dad." "I pulled into the driveway and Dad was standing there with a live chicken in each hand and one squeezed between his knees." Tell me more . . . Seriously! What happened next? Well, whatever happened next, that wasn't where the story went. Guh. It's infuriating. Which is my way of saying that my bygone sense of my father as a storyteller was entirely misguided: my father is not a storyteller, he is a talker.

When I was a junior in college, my other grandfather died after seven years of slow, painful decline. He was the last of my grandparents, and because he was my mother's father and I tend to be more sensitive to that which affects my mom, I was more than usually engaged in this particular family event. Fortunately I chose to attend college very close to where I grew up, and so I was around all week as the preparations were being made. There were two nights of "viewings" (a ridiculous ritual, I have to say) at the funeral parlor, and I was there for my mom, chatting with relatives I barely knew and fielding questions from complete strangers who had known my grandfather decades before I existed (I resemble my grandfather, which was endlessly and, in fairness, not unreasonably fascinating to those curious mourners). At the close of the second wake, I found myself in the car with my father and brother, waiting for our mom to finish saying her goodbyes. Apparently there had been a woman there that night, someone my father had known in grade school or junior high, and sitting in the car with two of his sons, waiting for his grieving wife, my father was inexplicably talking about this woman -- inanely, really, because, whatever else he is, my father isn't stupid, nor is he unkind, he's just occasionally remarkably oblivious -- and at one point my father said, somewhat wistfully, that had things worked out differently, that woman could have turned out to be our mother.

I was, of course, only half paying attention, and so maybe I missed some useful context, but those last words struck me and for the next several moments I pondered the strangeness of this perspective: the notion that if he had married some other woman, we still would somehow have ended up being his progeny rather than our mother's and whomever she ended up with. I wasn't sure how to tackle that question: it seemed overwhelmingly multi-faceted, but more like an amoeba than a D&D die, with nothing concrete to put my finger on. I was still turning it over in my head when I vaguely heard my brother ask the old man how his father had died. "By his own hand," our father replied.

Several beats of silence later I said, "Wait, what?"

"He went out to the back field with his gun," my father said, "and that was that."

The passenger door opened then and Mom climbed into the car, shaking off the cold. Under the circumstances, with our mother preparing to watch her father be lowered into a hole in the ground the following day, I knew we wouldn't be discussing the topic of my other grandfather any further.

That happened more than twenty years ago, and not once in all that time have I managed to find a way to ask about my grandfather's suicide. At first it was because I had no idea how to approach a person who has lost someone in that way, and regardless of the fact that the person is my father, we'd never had the kind of relationship where we talk about anything important or meaningful -- we've never really talked about anything, actually. He talks, I endure. When I talk, he changes the subject, and that's another part of why I haven't broached the grandfather topic in the subsequent years: inadvertently or not, he's a rude and self-absorbed conversationalist. He doesn't appear to care about what anyone else is saying, unless they're talking about him, and even then he'd rather do it himself. But mostly I just don't have the stomach for listening to him anymore. I am reluctant to ask him anything because I can't bear the thought of being trapped in one of his meandering journeys through conversations he recalls verbatim with people he always thinks I know but whom in truth I've never even heard of. And that really is a terrible thing, people, because he's my father, and he doesn't have a mean bone in his body, and he could almost certainly use some company once in a while (my mother appears to be his only consistent friend). At the very least, I suppose I should take some of the heat off of her, now that they're both retired. I'll take that under advisement.

Here's the thing, though: my father and I have nothing but blood in common. I mean, yeah, I grew up in his house, so we shared some experiences. One summer while he was the keeper of the town dump (that was his job for several years when I was a kid), he let me go to work with him and dig around for bottles and cans so I could make a little money, enough to buy a pair of sneakers come basketball season. We spent a fair amount of time together that summer, and I'd say we probably had some yucks, but mostly I was left to my own devices to wander the piles and think my deep thoughts. I suppose it's a little sad to think the only good times I've ever had with my old man were spent at the dump. But it would be sadder if we didn't even have that.

I often tell people that my father never taught me anything. Part of me suspects that's not true, and I imagine a day in the future, maybe after he's gone, when I'll recall some valuable technique or life lesson he introduced me to. I can say without reservation that, entirely incidentally, he did bestow one gift for which I am grateful: he demonstrated by default how to be a good father. I'm far from perfect as a dad, but goddamn do I find my kid interesting, and I let her know that in no uncertain terms on a regular basis. As much as I rue the prospect of finding myself the sole beneficiary of my father's endless blather, I experience an equal but opposite sensation at the prospect of listening to my daughter's voice. She and I just had lunch, and she told me about her Thanksgiving in New York, why she dug the Seurat painting she saw at the Met, how much she loved her first experience with soup dumplings, how she met B.D. Wong at the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop. She told me about the play she's auditioning for this week (Into the Woods), told me in a firm, unyielding voice she will be Cinderella. She recited from memory the poem she read at her school's Poetry Out Loud competition. She even told me a tiny bit about the boy she likes. She's a cool chick, and I feel pretty lucky that I get to be the guy sitting across the table from her, listening to her stories. And I feel bad for any parent who never manages to find out how cool his kid can be. Sucks to be you, Dad. But thanks for the perspective.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Heavy Metal Drummer

Today is an anniversary of sorts. It's a clear, cold, quiet day and I just spent my last fistful of cash on a pack of smokes and a bottomless cup of coffee. Another amusing little piece I wrote for TNB posted yesterday, and its companion is in the queue so should pop up in the next few days. I'm working on a longer, less humorous essay that I expect to submit sometime early next week. Much is good as I slide into this week of friends old and relatively new returning to town for the holiday. And yet this week resonates with the drumbeat of its counterpart from a year ago, a beat that followed a thirty-hour solo that tore up the skins, then settled into an unflinching rhythmic bass kick that would ostensibly culminate in one loud terminal cymbal crack that, as it happens, never came.

{This is a time-lapse break.}

It's now about five in the evening. I ran into my buddy Mike while I was typing earlier today, he offered to buy me a beer, and because it's a special occasion, I thought, "Why not." I set the writing aside and moved down the street. At the bar we sat with my pals Eric and Andrea, and proceeded to have a lighthearted, laugh-filled afternoon. It was the ideal way to spend a dubious anniversary.

Memory is peculiar. There are stretches of that night a year ago I recall with stark clarity, and stretches I remember not at all, as though they never happened. Last night I managed to recreate an entire weekend in my mind, two full days I hadn't associated with this event at all, not at any point in the last twelve months. But they were a part of it. I packed a bag with someone else's things, I sent that person an email saying, "Come get your stuff or I will throw it in the trash," then I went away for two days, and when I returned, the bag was gone. I'd forgotten all about that. When I came home and found nothing but an empty hallway, I made a solemn face and nodded my head, and then I went to the store to buy beer and cigarettes, and I settled in for the very early stages of what turned out to be a thirty-hour blow. When I opened my eyes the next morning, my first thought was that I should face the day like it was any other: walk downtown with my laptop and sit at the coffee shop, tapping away at the very bad book I was writing. By ten-thirty it was clear I was still too drunk and forlorn to get anything done, so I hatched a new plan: wander up the street to the Unicorn and drink something for lunch. And shortly after eleven, that's just what I did. Until late afternoon, I'd say, at which point I packed up and moved to Mainely to drink my dessert. That's where Peaches found me. Well, not me, exactly. He found the devolved version of me that had become unrecognizable to anyone who knew me -- unrecognizable even to myself. At some point he said he was getting tired of watching me do that to myself, and because I had no patience for editorializing at that juncture, I packed up my belongings, paid my tab, and left without a word. I went to the store, bought more beer and cigarettes, as well as a bag of Munchos and a pound of M&Ms, and I sat in my once upon a time living room, drinking beer after beer, lighting smoke after smoke, listening to Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees" over and over and over. Until, sometime that evening, two silhouettes appeared in the doorway to take me away.

The night after I came home, I found myself back at Mainely's -- there because all my friends were there, because Hank's band was playing. It was their first gig, and it was a packed house. I'd watched them practice for months, knew their set like it was my own, and part of me reveled at the response they were getting. Another part of me closed my eyes and tried to pretend I was far from that room full of people. It was just this side of unbearable, that press of drunken, enthusiastic crowd. I was almost fine, right up to the point when a woman with whom I'd had a very brief fling nearly knocked me on my ass -- not because she'd shoved me so hard, but because I had absolutely no resistance to offer. After that, I spent the evening beside the pool table, somewhat behind the band, and locked my eyes on the drumsticks in Hank's hands. I stood against the pool table and watched Hank mark time until the night was over. The kid can throw those sticks around, and he does so with a buccaneer's reckless joy and a teamster's conscience. Under any circumstances, it's wondrous to watch him. That night it might have been the only thing that kept me moored to the earth, and as hard as he struck those cymbals, nothing, as it turns out, was terminal.

Thanks, all.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

You're the Top

I drifted off to sleep last night still humming the title song from Anything Goes.

You may not know this about me, but I'm no fan of musicals. I'm actually not a fan of live theatre in general: for a variety of reasons it makes me anxious, and if given the option, I will usually choose to avoid things I'm pretty sure will give me a stomach ache. For better or worse, though, I was blessed with a daughter who has been finding herself on stages with impressive frequency the last decade or so, and nothing suggests that will change anytime soon. And she's my daughter, and she is my favorite person, which means fuck stomach aches and fuck my personal tastes: I show the fuck up.

For years I've been telling anyone who comments on what a great relationship I have with my daughter that, in all honesty, she makes it easy. But this wasn't always the case: for the first few months of her life she was worse than Hitler. Cuter, but still worse. It was like she was born with the impulse to punish me. Do you want to sleep? Do you want to eat? Do you want me to pick you up? Do you want me to put a bullet in my head? Just tell me what you want -- tell me by not crying for ten consecutive seconds -- and I will do it, and you and the rest of the world can just move on. Seriously, I would have done anything to get this screaming maniac to just cut the shit. I once sat on the end of a bed with her, gently bouncing, trying to get her to just go the fuck to sleep. After a little while I started counting the bounces in my head, offhandedly at first, but as I approached five-hundred bounces and still no sign of her settling down, I started to take it seriously: I ticked off each bounce with a fierce solemnity. At that point I'd been around for about twenty-six years and was still naive enough to believe there were things I knew better than a lot of other people, newborns included -- no, especially newborns. Silly, stupid man. But I was Certain, and in my Certainty I kept counting, and bouncing. As I breezed past two-thousand bounces, I realized at some point I'd started humming sort of tunelessly -- like I was slowly losing my mind. At twenty-five-hundred, I realized I was licked: the kid had beaten me. I stood, passed her to her mother, and went outside to flatten my forehead against an oak tree.

In the months preceding her birth, and in fact at the very moment she arrived, there were strong indicators that this nascent creature intended to have things her way. I don't remember exactly how many times we went in for ultrasounds, but there were several -- meaning several opportunities to discover whether we were having a boy-spawn or a girl-spawn. We weren't determined to find out the sex, but we were willing to know (even though I was Certain from conception she'd be a girl because I'm prescient like that). I still remember the first visit, to a clinic in Scarborough, and as we pulled into the parking lot Michele felt a solid kick. "Whoa," she said. "Guess who's awake." I figured that was a good sign. Twenty minutes later, though, the fetus had other ideas. "Hmm," the OB/GYN mumbled. "Can't seem to make out the genitals." There was a long pause during which I considered asking, "So does that mean there aren't any?" I held my tongue, assuming it would occur to even a first-year resident to mention an abnormality like that. "Sorry," the doc said, "but we'll probably be able to tell next time." Uh-uh. Not the next time or the next or any time. When we went in for what proved to be the final ultrasound, a week before go-time, the kid was actually doing jumping jacks in her mother's uterus while we walked through the parking lot, rode up in the elevator, sat in the waiting room. Then the doctor ushered us in, laid Michele out, slathered on the jelly, and the kid tucked and went to sleep. And listen, it's not easy to hide your genitals from an ultrasound. Picture yourself in a pair of spandex running shorts with your knees tucked up to your chest: even if I have a bad angle where I'm standing right now, I can improve my view by shifting a mere matter of degrees and, bingo, there's your junk. This kid was a fucking pro, and we all should have been absolutely terrified.

Due dates are a crapshoot to say the least, and Michele has always grumbled about the date the doctor assigned to this particular birth: May 31. "I know my body, I know what's going on," Michele insisted. I was tempted to point out to her that -- and not to give too much away here, but it's relevant -- we were doing it every chance we got for like three weeks because we genuinely intended to have a baby. I wanted to ask her if she'd somehow been able to tell the instant my microscopic Michael Phelps took the gold medal (because perhaps she's prescient like that), but as stupid as I can be and as many times as I did manage to say the wrong thing those days, by that time in our pregnancy I understood my best course of action was to say something like, "Yeah. Stupid doctors. Who do they think they are, trying to tell us when we had sex? They don't know." In the glare of hindsight, though, knowing what I know about this kid . . . I kind of have to side with the doctors on this one: this kid was coming out in her own sweet time, and damn the torpedoes. Still, Michele was displeased when, two weeks past her alleged due date, the doctor said, "Come on in, we're going to induce you."

Intellectually I can understand that, to a lot of women, just the thought of any intervention in the process of getting a baby from inside you to outside is anathema. I get that it happens, that some women feel at least a faint sense of having failed. I mean, you've just carried this parasitic monster around for the better part of a year, getting huge and feeling like shit most of the time, you're uncomfortable sitting like this, it's worse sitting like that, and fuck trying to get a good night's sleep. You weathered all that, and goddamn it, you've earned the right to pop this kid out on your own. By the same token, though, couldn't that litany of ills also translate into, "Get this thing out of me, I don't care if you have to split me in two with an ax." Right? (I didn't say any of that, by the way, although I did remind her that we'd been waiting to meet this purported bundle of joy for a while, and now we finally would, which was a good thing, right? "Asshole," she didn't say, but I know she was thinking it.)

We spent all of June 14 wandering around the hospital, doing laps while the coaxing balm worked its magic up in her lady zone. I'm not going to lie to you, I was on my toes the entire time, fully expecting to see her out of the corner of my eye give a little hitch and mutter, "Whoops," at the same moment I would feel six gallons of "water" flowing around my feet. It didn't happen that way, of course. What actually happened was that we spent that day and well into the night waiting and waiting and waiting. Finally around midnight the nurse who had been looking in on us all evening suggested we try to get some sleep. I kissed Michele on the forehead and settled into the chair-bed. I was just starting to dream -- and it was a good, far from all this craziness, life is calm and easy sort of dream -- when my eyes popped open at an unexpected sound that might well have been the word, "Whoops."

"What?" I managed to ask.

"I think my water just broke," Michele said.

Auto-pilot is a wonderful thing. I threw back my flimsy blanket, stood, took two strides toward the door, threw it open and said to the two expectant faces floating behind the countertop of the nurses' station directly across from us, "Bah-zabbah-zeebah."

They raised their eyebrows in unison but didn't move, and so, once more, I said, "Bah-zabbah-zeebah."

That time they got it.

It was right around two-thirty in the morning at this point, and although it would still be some time before the kid decided to join us, my recollection of those next several hours is that things happened very quickly -- in my defense, there was not one thing I was trying to push through a small opening in my body, be that thing oversized or otherwise. In other words, my sense of relativity was, well, relative. What seems to me like moments later, but which in fact was about five and a half hours in "real" time, we were in a delivery room with not one but two residents, a nurse's aide, and an actual, full-blooded, bona fide nurse named Kim.

One thing you need to know is that Michele's actual doctor during the course of the pregnancy was a certified nurse midwife, which basically means she does it old-world stylie like a midwife do, but she can work in a hospital and play it by the book if necessary. Michele and I dug this doctor quite a lot, particularly when Michele somewhat shyly asked if it would be possible, when the blessed day arrived, if she might maybe use a birthing stool. Birthing stool: it is more or less what you think it is, but, honestly, less. Picture one of those portable camp toilets, a steel-tube frame with a toilet seat on it, under which one places a bucket. The height of elegance under any conditions. Yes, a birthing stool is just a fancy camp toilet, except the seat itself is appropriately more accommodating to the birthing process, and there's no bucket. The doctor assured us that a birthing stool would be available, and that if she didn't happen to be present for the birth and whatever resident happened to be in attendance tried to talk her out of it (because none of them start out learning that old-world technique, and let's face it, if you're catching this game, you'd much rather be sitting on a raised stool at the end of a bed than squatting on the floor), Michele should stand her ground. No problemo.

Problemo. When Michele finally went into labor, it really did seem like things were happening fast: right the fuck now fast. She started out in a bed in the delivery room because, pre-labor, that's where they'd planted her so they could examine her, attach a fetal monitor to the baby's head (are you fucking kidding me? I found that to be no bueno) and, I don't know, whatever else they needed to do. And then she was in labor, and tall guy resident was in the catcher's position, and short lady resident was peering over his shoulder and nodding (grimly, I thought, but I couldn't tell if it was because she thought  something wasn't quite right with this birth, or it was birth in general that made her frown), and in her mild, undemanding way, Michele asked for the birthing stool.

Both residents' heads shot up instantly, and I was pretty sure whatever came out of their mouths was going to mean I'd have to beat one of them up, immediately. But tall guy resident was good. He smiled and sort of -- and I still don't know how I feel about this, but I think it was right because it worked in the moment -- he sort of purred, "Well, Michele, I think this baby is coming right now, and we could have a problem if we try to move you."

Cocksucking smooth competent motherfucker -- I was helpless. I was supposed to be her rock, back her up, and here this charming sonofabitch had just fucked me, hard. I slipped the bullet between my teeth and bit down.

"Look, pal," I started to say, but just then a ferocious spasm rocked Michele and she squeezed the knuckles of my right hand into a fine, powdery dust and shrieked, "Shut up! Just shut up! I don't care!"

A few seconds later the contraction passed and, its memory apparently quickly fading, Michele lay back and smiled at me as though she didn't think I was the most useless asshole in the universe, and she said, "This is fine. It'll be fine." And she smiled again.

Except, of course, it wasn't entirely fine, because this was no ordinary baby we were trying to disgorge. There were many more fierce spasms. There was some yelling, some cursing. At some point I reverted to my baseball playing days and started doing a version of the patter I'd learned long ago, standing at shortstop waiting for the pitch to be delivered: "Hey, no battah, no battah, no battah." I think I was probably saying, over and over and over again in a faintly melodic monotone, "You're doing great," but I can't be Certain. Michele was in the very midst of one of those panting, gasping, body-racking contractions when she sat up, stock-still, and in a voice reminiscent of Linda Blair from The Exorcist, turned to me and informed me, in the most frightening staccato I've ever heard, "You. Only. Have. To. Say. It. Once." After that, I said it nonce. Maybe thronce.

And then . . . everything stopped. Everything. I mean, there were still two strong heartbeats going on in that bed, but neither party seemed enthusiastic about continuing with birthday zero. The rest of us -- me, two residents, an aide and a nurse named Kim -- silently held our positions for several minutes, half-holding our collective breath, avoiding eye contact. Finally I had a thought -- and I can't tell you if it was me being a good, supportive partner, or if the awkward silence was simply killing me -- but I spoke up.

"So, since it appears this isn't happening 'right now,' what say we give the lady what she wants and put her on a birthing stool."

I could tell instantly by the look that crossed tall guy resident's face that he'd spent the last few seconds dreading the possibility that one of us might say that, and also that I'd won. Take that, you handsome, six-figure earning crumb. Michele squeezed my hand, gently, lovingly this time, and for a few seconds I felt like the best guy ever.

They wheeled the birthing stool in, and we hoisted the expectant mama onto it and resumed our positions -- for ten entirely uneventful minutes. Just so you know, when you're in a delivery room and have witnessed the sheer madness of back-to-back-to-back contractions, and then things get suddenly quiet . . . it's eerie as shit, man. No kidding. I imagine it's not unlike the experience of being dug in in the Ardennes when the Germans were exercising their typically German capriciousness: there's a small part of you that sort of hopes for a direct hit so you don't have to keep doing this shit. Finally it proved too much for tall guy resident, who made a show of peering at his watch and then said, "I have to go check on Mrs. Smith, but buzz me if anything changes." Check. No problem, we were down one resident but still one resident to the good. Until, three minutes later, she left the room to go check on a Mrs. Jones. I'd been standing behind Michele with my hands on her shoulders the entire time, and as little as I could say for Certain with just my hands touching her shoulders, it seemed to me like there was nothing going on. Yet. Again, remember: this was no ordinary baby.

I don't know how much time had passed between when the last resident left and the instant I felt in the palms of my hands every muscle in Michele's body tighten, heard her mutter through clenched teeth, "This is it." It might have been no more than a few seconds. But then -- then -- I can tell you, everything happened very fucking fast.

The nurse's aide stood somewhere off to the side, near the door. The nurse named Kim stood to our right, arranging and rearranging implements on a tray. At the sound of Michele's voice, the nurse whose name is Kim did the first and only convincing double-take I've ever seen and, in the flash it took her to drop to her knees in front of Michele she managed to say to the aide, twice, "Hit the call button."

I'm guessing the aide did hit the call button, because at some point the two residents flew through the door like two-thirds of the Three Stooges falling out of a closet, but that was entirely after the fact. A million years before they stepped back into that delivery room, here is what I saw, from the best seat in the house, standing behind my daughter's mother: a nurse whose name is Kim disappeared seemingly into the floor, and as I saw the top of her head reappear, less than one-one-millionth of a second later, instead of her pale, sweet, bespectacled face, I was greeted by the bright, rosebud-lipped, oddly relieved looking face of my little girl.

There's a lot more I could say about the hours, weeks and months that followed that moment. What you need to know is that I adored her, without exception, from the very first moment she was plopped on her mother's shoulder inches from my face. And as you have now been told, she did everything in her remarkably (for an infant) considerable power to crush my spirit for a solid year after that moment. Perhaps it was as simple as her immediate awareness that I was madly, deeply in love with her and, being the kind of person she is, she wanted me to cool my jets until she'd actually done something to earn my affection. I wouldn't have put it past her, even when she was a month old.

I hope she feels like she's more than earned it by now -- she's done some great things, and she delights and surprises me on a regular basis. Last night it was Cole Porter, and with that in mind, I have three things to say:

For not letting my daughter land on her head on day one, You're the top, Nurse Named Kim, you're the Coliseum.

You're the top, Michele, you're the Tower of Pisa.

And Braden, You are most definitely the top -- you are and always will be the smile on the Mona Lisa.

I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, baby, I'm the bottom, you're the top.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Down By the Old Milly Stream

Another piece up on TNB, kids, check it out. And in case you're wondering, yes, I would love to field your relationship questions: just email me and I will post a response as soon as I get around to it, unless your relationship issues are boring, in which case I'll respond right away. Seriously, I may be one of the best untapped resources in this particular discipline -- just ask any of my many recently single friends. I know my stuff.

I have a couple things on my mind, the first of which is something I admit I don't know a whole lot about, in part because I've avoided the coverage as much as possible, but also because what coverage I have seen doesn't tell me anything. I've started to look into it in the last few days because it's getting awfully goddamned real all of a sudden, but even a concerted effort isn't telling me much. I'm talking, of course, about the Occupy Movement. I have friends in some of the cities where the Occupiers are or have been Occupying. The one constant refrain I've heard is that a substantial number of the Occupiers are not at all unlike my friends and me: they are average people in their thirties and forties, they're thoughtful and articulate, they have jobs (so in that way they're unlike me, but fair enough). The point is that they're not just a bunch of dirty hippies and drug-addled punks who are simply flocking to tent cities because it's the groovy thing to do right now, man. If I understand the Movement correctly -- and please, someone, straighten me out if I'm way off-base -- it is fundamentally about holding Wall Street fat cats accountable. It's about putting an end to "corporate greed." Is that about right? Because that's what it sounds like to me, and honestly, it sounds like a good idea. Except how do you do that? I'm not being glib or negative, I'm honestly asking: how do you put an end to corporate greed? How do you even define corporate greed? That seems like an entirely subjective term. If someone can enlighten me, in her or his own words, I'd be grateful. And I mean that -- in your own words. Please don't send me links to media analysis of the Movement, I've read too much of that already and, again, I don't find myself any closer to understanding the essence of what's going on.

The other thing on my mind is my friend Milly.

A few years ago I wrote a vaguely investigative piece for the local newspaper -- my great pal Christina was the assistant city editor, and she would very kindly offer me softball freelance assignments from time to time because she knew I needed the money and, although I'm really not a journalist (I have neither the eye nor the ear for it, and "just the facts" leaves me feeling anxious), I can write a sentence, so it was all good. The last piece I wrote involved the typical contentiousness that arises whenever someone who owns undeveloped land on or near a lake seeks permission to subdivide his property and sell the lots to people who will build houses on them. There are compelling reasons to manage that sort of development with a deft and careful hand: unchecked development kills lakes. It's that simple: more houses means more run-off. You're cutting down trees, building roads and driveways, putting in septic systems, et cetera. In truth, though, more often than not the most compelling reason to squash such development tends to be much more personal: nobody wants his pristine spot sullied by the presence of a bunch of other people. This particular piece of land sits just north of the lake in question, on the banks of an inlet brook that feeds the lake from a source far up in what's called the Kennebec Highlands. Beaver Brook is a pristine piece of water, virtually untouched by anything man-made along its entire course from the hills to the center of the valley where it terminates in the lake. The two families that own the only other camps at the mouth of the brook raised that point in challenging the petition: they feared this subdivision would eventually destroy that rare unspoiled water source, which would in time lead to significant damage to the lake. Anyone who has ever known long-time lake people -- I'm talking about lake houses that have been in families for at least a couple generations -- would recognize in the shorthand what was really going on: they didn't want eight new houses springing up in a spot that, for their entire lives, had contained but three small, inconspicuous camps. But I couldn't write that, of course, because no one would actually say it. I could only write the facts: that some people thought the brook would be destroyed, and that other people disagreed, and ultimately the planning board approved the petition because, unless the property owner actually did something stupid like put an outhouse hanging out over the brook, he wasn't doing anything wrong.

I'm meandering, I realize, but take my word for it, I am doing so for appropriate effect. You see, in writing that article I had to do a fair amount of research into things I really knew nothing about, one of which was the waterway in question, as well as inland waterways in general. I still don't know all there is to know about lakes and streams and fens and such, but here's what I took away from that research: waterways such as these are remarkable. If you were to follow that particular brook backwards to its source, you would find it taking a handful of different forms: at times it's an unassuming brook, sometimes it is wide and swift, at one point it fattens up into a modest pond, other times it appears to disappear entirely, when in fact it's flowing beneath a mossy fen. I found this fascinating. It is often a wondrous thing to have your perceptions either proven spectacularly wrong or, at the very least, unexpectedly broadened.

Beaver Brook came to mind this evening as I was scrolling through some photo albums Milly posted on Picasa -- was called to mind, actually, by a picture she'd taken of a stream somewhere in Quebec. Milly, it turns out, takes astonishing pictures. I don't have the language or the inclination to analyze visual art and tell you what I think is good or bad about it. I approach visual art much the same way I approach wine: I know a good bottle of wine when I taste it, not because there's something on the label that means everything to connoisseurs but nothing to me. I know when I'm looking at Milly's photos and find myself smiling and nodding my head, find that my breath catches in my throat, that I'm looking at something special. Milly is, by nature, quiet and observant, which means she is inclined to see things many if not most people miss. This is one reason she manages, through the lens of a camera, to transform moments into art. The other reason is that she so clearly loves it. It's impossible to look through her photos and not understand that about her. Maybe if I ask her nicely she'll let me post a few of my favorites for you to see. No promises.

As I've gotten to know Milly well over the last few months, and particularly these last few weeks, I've come to understand that she is very much like that shape-shifting waterway. I've found myself walking along her banks confident in my sense of what I'd find when I rounded the bend, only to be, time and time again, greeted by a sight that is not unpleasantly unforeseen. She surprises me not just in what she notices but in how she draws the picture for me. Since some of those things she notices are about me, and because she relays her observations of me in a way that conveys her sincere sense that I should be as impressed with myself as she is -- well, that's what we call a genuine win-win. She's also the girl who will casually mention the time she spent as a day-trader in her twenties, or her brief stint as a trained phlebotomist, and always as she's describing the impulse to follow these paths, her eyes take on a look that is equal parts intensity and curiosity and mischief. And always in the telling there is a moment when she smiles, and then she laughs, delighted as she should be by the fact that she's just told me something about herself I wouldn't have guessed even given an infinite number of chances.

This evening as I was making my way through an album of photos Milly took at a very snowy outdoor winter wedding, my phone buzzed and it was my friend Chili telling me he had a piece of mail for me from Milly. I love this about her, too: when she was in Chicago a couple months ago, she sent me a postcard, care of my favorite bar, the bar where she and I like to sit and share beer and bacon; this time she sent me a package, care of my buddy's office. Delightful. In the package were several snack packs of Whoppers and a card in which she wrote (among other things), "p.s. You're a really handsome guy." There are times when I feel a little bad that this smart, beautiful woman apparently lost a bet with Satan and thus ended up spending quality time with the likes of me, but for my own sake I'm glad because it means I get to keep tracing the course of that mysterious stream, slowly uncovering its secrets.

I can very much appreciate the allure of putting up four walls and a roof at the terminus of that lovely brook, with a porch on the front where I'd sit in my creaky rocking chair every evening and watch her lovely waters settle quietly into the vast, peaceful lake.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

So I've been trying to write a new post all morning, but blogger wouldn't let me. It's pretty harsh when your own blog doesn't want you blogging anymore. I was closing in on a strange sort of despair when, probably the ninth time I'd gone back and tried to open a new post, my eye finally fell upon the notice in the menu bar suggesting I try the new blogger interface. It wasn't until that moment that it occurred to me that blogger is a Google product, as is gmail, which recently launched a new interface that, as promised, is not optional. Neither is it particularly appealing. Function means more to me than form, but still, if you're going to get a hard-on about rolling out your new facelift, try to make it look like something that wasn't designed by developmentally challenged second graders. Those who would point out that my blog is pretty spare in appearance, I'd say this: I don't pretend to be a designer, nor do I want to be one. I just write. I'm willing to bet Google paid some design firm a fair chunk of change to drape their sites in the emperor's new clothes, and if I'm right, they got fleeced hard.

Before I get down to it, I want to point out the link in the upper right corner of the blog: it connects you to The Nervous Breakdown, an arts & culture website featuring work by some of the smartest, funniest, most insightful people you'll encounter anywhere. If you enjoy my writing, you'll absolutely love TNB. They've published two of my essays in the last couple weeks, and with any luck I'll be contributing regularly. Check them out, and if you're a real trooper, join their book club -- it's an outstanding deal, and it supports some truly vibrant and meaningful writing. Feel free to email me if you have questions.

Thanks very much to all who have commented on my last post. That one was special to me in a few ways, but mostly because it surprised me by going someplace I didn't expect. I was, as I mentioned, in a funk I hadn't been able to shake, and as I cracked my first Rolling Rock pounder Saturday evening, out of nowhere I remembered the image of the sign behind the bar in Seattle: "Attitude Adjustment Hour." From that image I started coaxing recollections of the days and weeks and months that surrounded that evening sitting in a bar in a far-away city with my girlfriend's dad twenty years ago, and bits and pieces I hadn't thought about in years surged back to me like the benign remnants of a capsized cruise ship washing ashore, hats and shoes and deck chairs and umbrellas, only faintly hinting at some distant tragedy now that they've been separated from the wreck itself (as well as the casualties). There I was, just sitting in the Bear Cave trying to adjust my own attitude, and all of a sudden I found myself thinking about a lovely pixie, three electricians from Texas, a closet full of handguns, and the flaws and joys of a relationship that at one time meant the world to me. You don't need any more than that to tell a story.

Kierkegaard said, "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." Yeah, no shit, Soren. Actually, I've always been partial to the way Milan Kundera put it in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: "We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come." Life is a complicated, backwards affair. The events that have the most profound effects on us do so most often in hindsight: whether we act or react or sit silently still, the play goes on, and as time accumulates behind us we find ourselves sitting in the balcony gazing down upon those remembered scenes being reenacted by perfect replicas of ourselves and, removed now from the stage, we notice details downstage, off center, that eluded us in the living of those moments. We remember a sign in a bar, and from that brief detail we hear a wistful admonition for what it was, we see strangers become generous neighbors, we smell gun oil, we remember unfair fights, and the threads of bad choices made for good reasons become clear and compelling and forgivable.

It's reasonable to say this contributes to my inclination toward storytelling. I hear it in my voice, hear it in the voice in my head when I'm writing: an implied sense of perpetual wonder. How and why lead to exactly when was that and where was I and who else was there. I'm constantly searching for something in those scenes from my life. I'd like to tell you I'm trying to make sense out of all of it because I believe that will help me do a better job tomorrow or the next day, but that would be a lie. What I'm really looking for are those wooden boxes hidden in the closet, the ones containing my long-ago neighbors' pistols. I'm looking for those guns because that's where the story is. If we don't buy that ridiculous couch, there's no story. If we don't move to Seattle together, break up, reconcile, love each other but disagree constantly, no story. If I don't hide the guns in the closet, no story. If I don't find my way to that particular bar and choose a seat that affords me a view of the sign hanging over the bartender's head, I don't sit up straight almost twenty years later in the Bear Cave and realize what I need is an Attitude Adjustment. I could have gone twenty more years without looking in that closet. Except that Saturday I needed an Attitude Adjustment. And from that I have a story. See how easy it is?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Attitude Adjustment Hour

I just bought the cheapest six-pack I could find -- and don't ask, don't guess, I'm not going to tell you what it was. All you need to know is that the price was right, and now I'm on beer number two. Because for three days now I've been in an impressive funk, and none of the usual remedies were making a dent. I wrote, I read, I hung out with friends, I went for walks, I watched an episode of Louie I hadn't yet seen, I watched some adult entertainment, I corresponded with smart, thoughtful people -- I did all the things I know how to do to kick the crap out of a funk, or at least ease myself out of one, and nothing helped. So now I'm downshifting into cheap beer, I've got a fresh pack of smokes, and I'm listening to Alkaline Trio. If you text me tonight and don't hear back, it's probably because the cure is working. Or it isn't.

The year after I graduated from college (a minor miracle for a number of reasons: I was a terrible student, I got by on charm and brains and a silver tongue and should have had my ass booted out of Colby half a dozen times), I moved to Seattle with my lady love, Charlotte. This was an enticing but not unexpected adventure for me: but for brief forays bopping here and there during college, I'd lived my entire life within a dozen miles of where I grew up, and so moving all the way across the country with my girlfriend seemed like the next logical step to me. What I never suspected then (but have more than an inkling about now that I have a daughter of my own) was that maybe her parents wouldn't be so keen on the idea of their youngest daughter relocating three thousand miles away to live with a guy they certainly liked but didn't exactly consider a strong match for young Charlotte. In my mind, of course, we were both adults -- she was twenty-one, I was twenty-two -- and for all intents and purposes we'd spent our last year of college living together (and all that that implies -- sorry, Barry and Mary, your daughter and I had relations -- a lot). So no big deal. Sure, I get it now, but at the time I couldn't fathom why Charlotte's mother didn't speak to her for three days after she finally told her (sometime in July) that we were moving to Seattle and would be living together. I mean, yeah, I get the sentiment, but come on -- passive-aggressive much? Nice parenting. When Mary finally came up for air, her first spoken words to Charlotte were the announcement that she had purchased plane tickets for her and Barry to visit us at Christmas. Bully for you. (And all that that implies.)

Our transition into the real world of adulthood was by no means seamless. We had a sweet housesitting gig when we first arrived, leaving us free to explore and have some fun, which we did. But two weeks after we got there, Charlotte finally announced that she didn't think we should live together. I confess, I was nonplussed. She didn't know that word, so I had to be incredulous instead. Still no good, so I settled for disappointed. I crashed for a month and a half in the boyhood home of one of my pals from Colby (hey, Q!), found a job managing a cookie store, and with gainful employment in my favor, began courting Charlotte anew.

I can be good when I want to be, and in that instant, I definitely wanted to be: I found my way back into the warm glow of that smile. Charlotte and I weren't a good match for the long haul, it's true, but for a brief, memorable moment in time we were good for each other. I liked being the guy who made her laugh, and she made me feel like I was larger than life -- I mean, seriously, she believed in me. I think she was the first girl I ever knew who made me feel that way. Regardless of the expected shelf-life of that relationship, it was more than worth sticking around even if only for that. Props, Charlotte: you were one of the good ones.

I was an artist back then, man: I wrote sad, angry little stories about heartache and class warfare and being a young but promising drunk, always wrapped up with the sort of vaguely discernible lesson twenty-two year-old me thought you ought to have waved in front of your nose. I was so awesomely earnest -- it's one of the memories that informs my less judgmental older self. Goddamn, are we full of shit at that age. We're always a little full of shit, but once you top forty, you have a much better chance of recognizing it. I cut no slack whatsoever back then, man. I was a swinging dick extraordinaire.

Charlotte and I reconciled, after a wild night of intense wine-drunk fucking on the floor under the piano in Q's mom's sitting room (sorry, man, and, um, thanks), and soon we started apartment shopping. We finally settled on a place in Northwest Seattle, in Ballard, which is up by the salmon locks and quite near a ridiculous marina that, if not for the view of the Olympic Peninsula from its docks, I would have utterly cursed: gross money, kids, gross. But Seattle wasn't curse-worthy then, not yet at least. I loved Ballard. There were seven or eight bars within walking distance of our place, all of which had local brews on tap. And everyone was so nice. And smart, and interesting. Those first couple months in Ballard were straight-up excellent. Charlotte and I were, on a daily basis, donning the costumes of grown-up her and me, and every evening we rode the bus home together, made dinner, split a bottle of wine, and crawled between the sheets together. It was an awful lot like what I thought it might be. And then Christmas happened.

I should back up and tell you that Charlotte and I furnished our apartment at the Salvation Army. Neither of us had much money, and I for one didn't really care one way or the other: give me a bed, a couch, some chairs, a table, and I'm good. Charlotte, very much to her credit, was on board with this plan, so our first Saturday in the new place we took the bus all the way downtown, down by the old Kingdome, and we wandered the aisles until we'd found what we wanted: a chunky dining room table with four chairs, a beat-up recliner, a couple end-tables, and what turned out to be the most massive couch I've ever seen (in that sprawling warehouse, nothing seemed as big as it actually was). We, of course, had no car, but no problem: the helpful clerk at the checkout called a man who, for a nominal fee, would transport our new belongings wherever we were going.

Luster Mitchell was his name. It was a quintessential Flannery O'Connor name if ever there was one. I will not forget that name as long as I live. I will be on my deathbed and the name "Luster Mitchell" will escape my lips, and with any luck those two words will inspire a Citizen Kane-esque mystery. Luster Mitchell is my Rosebud. We met him upon departure, gave him some money and our address in Ballard, then sauntered up to the bus stop and headed home to greet our new used furnishings.

Luster Mitchell was there when we arrived. Our belongings were piled high in the back of a two-tone early eighties Chevy pickup that clearly needed some suspension work: the body was sitting right on the rear axle, and having been through some momentously stupid overladen adventures in my day, all I could think was that I was glad I hadn't been in the cab for that trip. Luster was unloading the pieces one dining room chair at a time. I stepped around the truck, reached up and shook his hand, thanked him for getting everything there in one piece, and asked him what it would run me to have him help me cart everything upstairs -- to our third-floor apartment.

Luster shook his head apologetically. "Oh, no," he said, "I don't do no stairs."

We'd paid him fifty to drive everything that far, so I asked, "How about twenty bucks?"

Again he shook his head. "No stairs," he said, more firmly this time.

"Seriously?" I asked. "Not at any price?"

"You on your own," Luster Mitchell informed me in no uncertain terms.

We unloaded the rest of the truck in relative silence, with no fanfare, and then Luster Mitchell climbed into his piece of shit Chevy and Charlotte and I stood there, surrounded by our current folly, and watched him drive away. I glanced at her soccer-playing pixie body that, in every other way, I absolutely adored, realized she had the arm strength of a nine-year-old, and heaved a world-weary sigh. "Well," I said, "let's get this stuff inside."

We got everything, including the awkward table and the more awkward recliner, which as we wrestled it around the tight corners of our stupidly designed modern apartment building kept extending itself enthusiastically as though it was trying to endear itself to us (See how comfortable I am! Please! Sit in me and banish all your worldly cares!) -- everything except that behemoth of a couch.

You see, Charlotte had insisted we needed not just a couch, but this couch. Did I mention it was a sleeper-sofa? Well, it was. To her mind, it was a good idea to have such a thing because, well, you never know when you're going to have to make accommodations. Did I also mention that this sleeper-sofa was nine feet long? You think I joke -- but no. I only wish. I've moved a lot of furniture in my day, and all I had to do was look at that hallway to realize a nine-foot sofa wasn't going anywhere near the top floor of that building, at least not via the stairway, and certainly not with Charlotte's spindly (but lovely) arms at one end of it. Standing there in the driveway with all but one of our new possessions securely stowed in our apartment, I allowed myself to contemplate the fate of Moby Couch if we chose to, say, abandon it on the sidewalk. And just as the vision was about to crystalize to my satisfaction, our downstairs neighbors pulled in.

There was a fair amount of high-level development going on in Seattle back then. It has always been a vibrant city, and in those early nineties days, money was flowing into the city proper from all over the world, which meant that high-rise office buildings were springing up at a ridiculous rate. The three guys living downstairs from us were commercial electricians in town from their native Texas, working on one of the new buildings down on First Ave., overlooking the Sound. Before that moment, we had seen each other maybe twice and exchanged no more than a quick "How's it going?" These guys were older, probably all in their late thirties or early forties. They'd been around, and I'm sure they'd sized us up immediately as a couple of hapless kids who were, for the first time, embarking on what we thought was the big thing. They also accurately estimated our present situation in less than a handful of heartbeats, and they offered to help.

I could easily leave it there: these three men who didn't know us at all and had just come home from a long day, their sixth in a row of working eight solid, far from home and their families, unflinchingly and sincerely offered to help two people they didn't know at all but instantly recognized were out of options. I could just say they helped us and leave it at that, but in truth, these three men spent the next hour and a half conjuring what amounted to a magical solution to our dilemma: they dug out some climbing ropes, lashed the couch to it, and the four of us proceeded to essentially clean-jerk this five-hundred-pound sleeper-sofa up three floors to the lanai that (blessedly) projected from each of the apartments in that building. There was no other way. It wasn't easy, but we did it, and, all four of us sore and sweating, goddammit, that couch ended up in our living room -- in Charlotte's and my living room.

Three days before Christmas, a day before Charlotte's parents arrived in Seattle, one of those guys -- they were Terry, Darren and Frank, by the way -- Terry knocked on our door and, a bit sheepishly, asked if we would do them a favor. I said, "Are you kidding me?" and I gestured toward the couch, which sat along the wall to my right -- the only space that would hold that beast. He smiled and said, "You woulda done the same for me, son." I nodded and asked, "What do you need?" Of course, they were all going back to Texas, back home, for Christmas, and they were worried about leaving certain things in their apartment unsupervised. "I wouldn't ask," he said, "but I'd hate for something to happen."

What he wanted was for us to hold on to their guns for them. Each of them had a handgun. They were all in wooden cases, none of them were loaded (Terry pulled out each one and showed me), they just didn't want someone to break in and steal them and then use them to rob a convenience store. He didn't have to give me a reason: he had me at "Let's get this couch into your apartment." Of course I said yes. He could've said, "Can you stash our heroin until after New Years," and I probably would've said yes.

Of course, the funny thing is, I'd forgotten all about it by the time Charlotte came home from work: I guess that's the thing about repaying a debt, you don't necessarily think to flaunt it, unless you're a dink. If I'd been thinking, I would've realized Charlotte, the child of good Massachusetts liberals, only ever saw guns as one thing: bad. And I'm no fan of guns myself, but I'm also smart enough to understand that this wasn't about guns, it was about people -- good people, who also happened to own guns. I'd stashed the guns in the hall closet, on the shelf behind something that, as it turned out, Charlotte needed that night for her holiday prep work. I heard her open the closet door, rummage around, and then she asked, "What are these wooden boxes?"

That turned out to be a strange and unexpected shitstorm. How could I allow guns in our home without consulting her? I'm pretty sure I referenced the couch no fewer than nine times: the couch that wouldn't be there but for the intercession of those dreaded gun owners, the couch on which we had stretched out to watch TV, to nap, to quite gloriously fuck many times. I failed to convince her, and but for a lovely Christmas morning, the next few days she greeted me with a disappointed stoniness. Her parents arrived, and we spent a fair amount of time entertaining them. One evening her father (who I still adore to this day) and I found ourselves in a bar that was new to me, waiting for his daughter to get out of work and his wife to wrap up a conference call, and on the wall behind the bar stood a sign that, instead of "Happy Hour," announced the "Attitude Adjustment Hour" specials. I pointed it out to Barry, who appreciated it in the same way I did. Then something else caught his eye, a sight not at all unusual in Seattle in those days (and almost certainly common now): a well-dressed young Asian man, his tie slightly undone, a vodka tonic in hand. Barry, in his unassuming and endearing Mississippi drawl, said (in the old-world way even Massachusetts liberals from away could get away with if they were of his generation), "I have a lot of respect for the Asians. They work hard, and family means everything to them. I wouldn't be at all surprised or disappointed if one of my daughters ended up with one of them boys." Barry had three daughters, one of whom was married, one was undeniably going to end up with no one because she was a basket case, and the other, of course, was Charlotte. I nodded, finished my Ballard Bitter in one long pull and, since Barry was buying, waved to the bartender for another.

I never forgot that moment, not because it was my girlfriend's father telling me he didn't think I was in it for the long haul, but because he was, in his gentle way, telling me it was okay. He knew who I was, and he knew I was good for his little girl, if only for a while, but that we were different people. In a sense, he was telling me he wished he had another bite at the apple and could be me. Because believe me when I tell you, as much as Barry loved his daughters and loved his wife, there was a deep swath of Barry he'd had to put down in order to have that life. What he was saying to me was: don't put down that part of you, unless you really mean it and it's what you want for now until the end of time.

We survived Christmas unscathed, and on the evening of January 2nd Terry and Darren and Frank returned from Texas and showed up at our door to wish us a happy New Year and retrieve their guns. But they weren't just there for that: in his arms Terry held a whole smoked salmon they had just picked up down on the docks that afternoon, as a token of their thanks. He made a bit of a ceremony of presenting it not to me but to Charlotte. "That fish was caught two days ago," he told her, "and smoked just for you." She blushed, and I left her alone with them while I collected the guns from the closet.

"Did you guys have a good holiday?" I asked.

They nodded and chuckled and one of them, I forget which, suggested one of them had had a bit of a run-in with the law and that had made for quite a night. They all laughed, and I laughed with them, but I could see on their faces that they were all still back there, with their wives and girlfriends and kids, with their friends, and that they were in a sense grateful to be laughing at the dark, faintly insidious stuff because now they were back to facing long months away from home and to remember the good stuff would make them feel that much farther away from what mattered. We shuffled our feet the way men do, though I was anything but a man then, and we said our bashful goodbyes and they went back to their apartment, and Charlotte and I settled into our massive couch and talked about how we would feast on that bountiful salmon. Sometime later we climbed into bed and made -- I'll just say it, fuck it -- tender early twenties grown-up, crazy-for-each-other love. In two days I turned twenty-three, and less than three weeks later I was walking away from her standing in a pair of pajamas I'd bought for her at Victoria's Secret (cute, flannel, not at all sexy except on her), she was sobbing and I was on my way to Tacoma to get on a plane to fly back to Maine, away from her. Because, of course, Barry was right: I wasn't the guy for his daughter. Not even an unbroken string of Attitude Adjustment Hours could have fixed that.