Sunday, December 15, 2013

25 Photographs

Last weekend, five months almost to the day after I first took up residence here in the cozy Bear Lair, I hung some pictures on the wall.

There's no significance to the anniversary itself -- if not for the fact that I know I moved in over the Fourth of July weekend, I wouldn't have even known it was sort of an anniversary. It's the five months that resonates: five months of living in a place without particularly personalizing it. The first few weeks I lived here, there wasn't a single day when I climbed the stairs to my apartment after work and didn't have the faint inkling I'd find a note on the door telling me I couldn't live here anymore. This is what a prolonged stretch of living in the margins does to a person: you find yourself looking over your shoulder long after the danger has passed. I spent a year like that before I finally lost my house a couple years back. Walking down the one-way street that terminates directly across the street from my former driveway, I would look for signs that the bank had finally sent someone to lock the place down: no-trespassing signs on the lawn, maybe some yellow tape across the doors, or a small fleet of sheriff's cars parked around the perimeter. I remember one evening as I came within sight of the house, the first thing I noticed was that the outside light, which I left on perpetually, was out, and my first thought was that the electric company had finally cut the power (I wasn't paying for that, either). It turned out to be a blown bulb and, ironically enough, I had a whole drawer full of fresh bulbs, which felt like a win. When the end finally did come, it was relatively benign: my friend Snuggles drove by and, seeing the notices taped to the doors and windows, called to give me the news I'd been expecting for what felt like forever. By then I was occupying a friend's empty apartment while he wintered in Puerto Rico, so I was fortunate enough to have a roof over my head. Still, it stung. I felt the ambivalence of someone whose bandaid has finally been ripped off, but who also knows he left behind more than enough to lament. As it happens, that was also the day I found out the girl I'd been pining for, the one who'd sent me off the rails, was dating a gay German physicist baker. The bandaid ripping was rampant. It wasn't my best day ever.

The pictures line the left-hand wall of the long entry hallway of the apartment. The first one you come to when you walk through the door is a framed diptych from the year I coached Braden's rec-league soccer team when she was in the first grade. When we went to sign up Braden for soccer, I casually jotted my name under "assistant coach," foolishly expecting they already had all the coaches they could ever want (what the hell did I know about rec leagues?). A week later, Braden's mother called me at work to inform me that Braden had come home from school with the game and practice schedule, at the top of which was my name after the word "coach." I remember thinking, "Aw, what the fuck is this?" But I showed up and took my medicine for the girl's sake. And you know what? It was fantastic. Eight little girls in teal t-shirts and shinguards bumbling around the field in clusters wherever the ball happened to be -- well, except the goalie, who was usually crouched in the goal mouth drawing pictures in the sand -- and me, an out-of-shape thirty-something egging them pointlessly on. The most common occurrence in sporting events featuring kids that age is the incidental injury: the kick to the knee, ball to the stomach or face, or the unexpected rough tumble, and those were the moments I truly shined as a coach. I've always been of the opinion that the worst thing you can do when a kid takes a digger is act like it was a big deal, because, let's face it, more often than not it really isn't, and whether it is or it isn't, the kid's potential to get hysterical is directly proportional to the extent to which the adult in charge gets hysterical. This is where I perfected my pain diversion technique: get the kid's attention, and then get her to start smacking her elbow with her other hand, then nod and say, "Better, right?" I won't say it works every time, but it definitely works more often than not. In the two photos featuring my soccer team and me, the girls are draped all over me, smiles on every face. I'd say we did okay.

There's a smattering of Braden-as-a-toddler and Braden-as-a-little-lady photos: one of her crawling that is almost certainly the first record of her mugging for the camera; another one of her on her belly in our apartment in Portland, which is a little weird because she was walking by then (although I like the composition of that one, because it shows the bottom shelf of one of our bookcases: big art books of Muench and Klimt and Modigliani, all of which are now long gone); Braden wearing some sort of headband and a perfectly beatific smile; and one of the girl wearing a quilted robe and playing peekaboo one night when she stayed with my folks. There are also two pics from when she was even younger than that, maybe no more than six or eight weeks old. We were living in Portland then and frequently took the kids to Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth. In one pic I'm standing on the rocks above the ocean holding the newborn, a big smile on my face and a full head of hair on my head. In the other it's me and the baby, my head turned toward Braden's brother Julian, who appears to have just said something profound. The sun's getting ready to set. That was a fine evening for our little family.

There are satisfying moments of continuity: Braden in a fancy dress and me in a tie, mock-dipping her in preparation for our first father-daughter Valentine's dance; and the two of us six years later, both dressed to the nines (my tie even matching her dress, if you can believe that), dining at her step-father's short-lived restaurant the night of our final father-daughter Valentine's dance. We went to every one of them from kindergarten through sixth grade, and the one thing I'll never forget about the last one is that, unlike all the rest, she eschewed the allure of running around with her pals and, instead, stayed on the dance floor with her dad until the lights went up. Ladies and gentlemen, that right there is a girl with heart.

I could share with you the whole litany, give you some background on every one: the snowman photo from a late-winter freak storm in 1996; the belly laugh pic with missing teeth at her friend's birthday party the summer before second grade; the school photos in which she looks like a different person every single year. But I'll wrap it up now. At the very end of the line, encroaching upon the living room so that I can see them from where I now sit if I crane my neck, there's the matched set of Braden and her brother Julian from the year they turned two and five, respectively. I know this because in the photos they are each posing beside an oversized rendering of the number that corresponds to their ages. The photos are tacky in the way those wispy profile-over-the-shoulder senior photos from the 80s were tacky. But they also make me smile every time I look at them because, whoever that photographer was, he or she made magic that day: those kids are both wearing their best ever faces in those photos. And that's good stuff.

Just above those pics sits Braden's senior photo, which was shot by one of her friends. It's a close-up, head and shoulders, her body turned away, head turned back toward the camera. It's an artful photo, well shot by her friend but also well posed by Braden, who has always seemed to have a knack for showing the camera what she wants it to see. She is looking back, but her momentum is carrying her in the other direction.

Which almost certainly explains why that was the last picture I finally hung on the wall.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Inimitable Worm

Writing is a lonely racket. It kinda has to be, if you're doing it right. There's you, and the palette on which you're spraying your brilliance -- laptop, yellow legal pad, vintage Olivetti, whatever -- and the cranky, capricious, perverted worm in your brain that offers up the words but also enjoys shifting gears without warning between your mother tongue and the language of some long lost tribe, then grows surly with impatience at your inability to translate. That is what one would call a genuine mindfuck.

In the last two days, I've left my apartment for exactly ninety minutes: I joined my parents for Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant here in town, then came straight back home and planted my ass in the chair. Now, truth be told, yesterday I did, off and on, partake of a pleasant distraction: there was a Modern Family marathon on one of the cable channels, and I'm not ashamed to admit I watched a few episodes. If you've never seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out. It is sneaky fucking funny, in part because the cast is phenomenal (timing is a dish they serve cold, every time), but also because the directing and editing are brilliant. And it's sneaky touching. There's a scene where the patriarch of the family, played by Ed O'Neill (of Married, With Children infamy), offhandedly assuages his gay son's partner's newfound insecurities regarding the son's former boyfriend, whom everyone in the family seems to adore. "There's gotta be something there I don't see," the father says. "He didn't exactly bring out the best in Mitchell. Not like you do." There's no design to it, he's just making conversation. And yet it does the trick, and it's kind of a beautiful moment. So go watch Modern Family.

When I haven't been watching Modern Family or sleeping or gazing at my Bettie Page snow globe, I've been working on an essay I hope someplace with a bit more reach than my little blog might publish. It's going to be pretty lengthy when it's done -- I'm maybe a third of the way through, and it's already at about 2200 words (3500 words is probably the high end of average). For a variety of reasons, I've had occasion of late to think about (to steal from Nobel laureate Alice Munro, quite possibly the only Canadian I'll ever admire) the progress of love. Recently I've witnessed a handful of friends going through tumultuous and, in most cases, unexpected endings to their relationships. It's painful to watch because these people are my friends and I hate to see them suffer the rough strife of divorce. It's also tough because I've done all that and so I'm well versed in the tales we tell ourselves while we still believe there's something we can salvage. I don't know how many stages there are to the end of a long-term relationship, but I do know the worst of them repeat, and goddamn doesn't that suck. How many times did I go through my day thinking, "I can do this," only to get home and spend a sleepless night chewing on the inside of my cheek from abject frustration? It calls to mind Hemingway's line from The Sun Also Rises: "It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing."

All of which got me thinking about my own history of relationships. We could debate the semantics of what constitutes a relationship -- I know I've been guilty of underestimating a time or two in the past. There was the woman I reluctantly hooked up with a handful of times who, probably to this day, considers me not only an ex-boyfriend, but an ex-boyfriend who treated her badly. Believe me, that's her creative fantasy. Not to toot my own horn, because this is only admirable up to a very fine point, but I don't lie to women to get laid: if it is what it is and no more than that, I don't allow any illusions to linger. In other words, I won't lie to you, so don't lie to yourself. Ah, well, sometimes you can't win. Then there's the rare converse, the lovely pretend girlfriend I had for a while, who was absolutely anything but pretend and deserved more, but took me as I was. There's a lesson for you: it is always better to be with a person who doesn't judge you based on how shitty she feels about herself. The pretend girlfriend was a keeper. I hope there's some excellent guy doing just that.

Anyway, the essay isn't about the implacable one or the one who took me as I am. It's about the ones who left an indelible mark. For the purposes of the essay, there were five: the first girl I kissed, the first one I slept with, the college girlfriend, the mother of my child, and the one who completely undid me. It's about the ways I came to be with them in the first place, and about the ways each relationship ended. I have to say, it's been nice recalling the sweet stuff. It makes you feel like less of a schmuck when you can put into words some of the whys and the wherefores. You always feel like a schmuck when it crashes and burns not by your choice, and that's because in the slow descent toward death you see all the shitty things about the other person, and you can't help but wonder what the hell is wrong with you that you didn't see how shitty that person could be right from the outset. It's a despicable side-effect of rough strife. If you're lucky, you shake it off in short order and move on somewhat the wiser.

So you may be wondering, since I claim to have been working on this awesome essay, why am I spending the latter part of my night writing a blog about it rather than continuing to work on the essay itself? Well, because it's a little bit overwhelming, both the good stuff and the bad. In places there's a depth of history that can lead quite easily to pitfalls and dead-ends. There are betrayals that still sting, and the memories of my own missteps that still make me cringe. And in its eminently perverse way, the worm in my brain decided to start offering up the story in Portuguese, which is a gorgeous language but not one I'm equipped to follow. I'll tell ya, if I didn't need it so badly, I'd squeeze the life out of that worm here and now. Instead, I'll take it to bed, and hope tomorrow he wakes up ready to tell his tale, and spouting nothing but beautiful English.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Good Liar

It was December 31, 1996. Some friends were hosting a New Year's Eve party, and I offered to stay home with our eighteen month old daughter so that her mother, the Prevaricator, could have a rare night out with good pals. We were at the tail end of a fairly miserable year, but better than the year before, which made it seem like we were moving incrementally forward, and anything I could do to help the cause seemed worth the effort. My best friend from college lived in the apartment upstairs from us, and of late he'd been feeling pretty down: he was sort of perpetually alone and in no danger of rectifying the situation, but in the last couple months he and the Prevaricator had formed a bit of a connection, and so I felt pretty good being the guy who stayed home on New Year's Eve and sent his two best friends off into the night to a fun, mellow party. At the very least, since the Prevaricator didn't drink, I thought she could drive dear old Mattie home after he'd drowned his recurring sorrows.

Somehow I got the Little One to sleep at a halfway decent hour -- no small feat in those days -- and camped out on the couch with some lame TV for a few hours until, just before midnight, I picked up the phone and dialed the party, intending to wish my beloved a very happy new year as the clock struck 1997. Eventually, after a handful of truncated exchanges with drunken revelers, the phone made its way into the hands of my friend Mike, the party's host, who drunkenly suggested that Mattie and the Prevaricator had already left, or perhaps never been there at all. Like a dummy, I remember thinking, "Aw, she's on her way home to her feller." I stretched back out on the couch and waited.

It was well after two when I saw his headlights splash the wall as he turned in to the driveway. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. The Prevaricator slipped in like a flat-footed, legally blind ninja, bumping into at least five things on her way to the bedroom, where she inexplicably changed her clothes, and then just as stealthily slipped back out the door and climbed the stairs to Mattie's apartment.

I spent the next three and a half months being alternately vigilant and accusatory. My accusations were met with such ferocious indignation from the Prevaricator, most of the rest of my non-vigilant, non-accusatory waking moments were dominated by self-flagellation: how dare I accuse her of such a thing! What a dick I was!

Mattie's dad bought him a house that spring, and in late April we had a dude day at the new house to install the basketball hoop his daddy had bought him. Mattie lacked the ability to screw in so much as a lightbulb, so he was beyond helpless when it came to attaching a basketball hoop to the house his father had bought for him. The friends gathered and we got to it. At one point Mattie had to make a run to the store, and I chose that moment to reconnoiter. It wasn't tricky: until very recently he'd lived right upstairs from me and we'd hung out all the time, so I'd had occasion to take note of the box of condoms he kept in his medicine cabinet. That particular box was long gone by that day in April, replaced by a different brand of twelve-pack that was down to just two, nestled optimistically beside a brand-new twelve-pack. I remember even then taking a moment to consider the possibility that I was wrong. Because that's what you do when the worst case scenario has crawled into your lap and nestled in like it has a right. But he was my best friend: there was only one reason in the world he wouldn't have told me he'd been fucking someone.

When Mattie came back, we shot free throws to determine the teams, and then we played two-on-two all afternoon. I was like a man on fire: I never lost. Christ, these were some of my closest friends, and I don't even remember who was my teammate. I just know I wouldn't lose. Until the afternoon began to fade and a couple of the guys had to go home to their lives, and I ended up with Mattie on my team. Suddenly, my still crisp passes were hitting him in the face instead of in the hands. We had every chance to win that game. I made sure we didn't. Poor Mattie: a brand new basketball hoop, and he'd lost every game. Then there was me: I'd won them all, save one. Hadn't I?

At home, the Prevaricator and the Little One met me at the door with smiles and kisses. I took a chair and peeled off my sneakers and socks, then looked her in the eye and said, "I'm going to ask you this one last time, and I swear I'll never ask you again." I asked, she bristled indignantly as ever, and I put up my hand and said, "Okay." Without another word I stood and limped into the bathroom, turned on the shower, undressed and, with a sigh months in the making, stepped under the spray. A minute later there she was on the other side of the curtain, uttering quite possibly the only honest words she has ever spoken to me: "It's true."

All of this happened long ago. In an ordinary life you'd write it off and move on. But ours has been an extraordinary life, because we're fortunate to have a daughter we both adore. This daughter we share is more than worthy of our adoration: if I lived another hundred years, the world would be hard pressed to offer anyone I'd favor above my daughter. The downside is that I continue to have to interact with the Prevaricator, who, to put it kindly, is a remarkable case of arrested development. To be fair, the combination of a broken home made whole by the odd dichotomy of the ever forgiving mother and the by-the-book step-father, plus a wholly inappropriate sexual relationship with her thirty-year-old history teacher when she was fifteen, almost certainly rendered someone like her incapable of dealing with the world. You always think you're the one who's going to fix them, right? Hence the concept of hubris.

This morning the Prevaricator called to say she was going to be an hour late picking up the Little One at my place. That's not a big deal: in sixteen years, she's probably had to make that call at least twenty times. Every parent of a broken home has had to make that call. Except that this time she led with a specific excuse, and also the husky, ethereal voice of someone still lying in a bed she doesn't yet want to leave. She had car trouble, she claimed. I could have just left it there, as though I imagined that her shitty car were capable of the rarest of car troubles, the sort that you know for sure will be resolved in an hour on a Sunday morning. But I let her dig -- because she's going to see me as the dick oppressor either way, so I might as well fuel the fantasy. She drove down a dirt road last night, she said, and might have put a hole in her muffler. (She makes it painfully easy to be crass, by the way, but I won't bite.) Long story short: perpetual liars will always believe that the reason they give you, if it's even remotely plausible, is the true reason for their actions. They believe it, and therefore you should too.

And that's fine, I get it: the Prevaricator is a broken little girl, and I failed to fix her, and so every broken-little-girl moment that presents itself is, at least in part, mine to bear. But goddamn does that shit take a toll, man.

Recently a friend made a comment in response to some offhand joke I'd made about drunken sex. He used that tragic modern catch-phrase, "fear of intimacy," and he wasn't entirely off-base, but he missed his mark by a significant matter of degrees: saying I have fear of intimacy is like saying someone whose legs have been crushed under the wheels of a runaway dump truck has fear of Michelin tires. I was never a physics major, but I believe in a version of Hooke's law, which states that an applied force will yield a linear-elastic response. A dump truck will crush your legs, and a Prevaricator will crush your heart. Sometimes you know too well that the force exerted is guaranteed to exceed the stiffness of the spring. Generally the reason you know that is that the spring has just been obliterated by said force.

Let this be the lesson, then: A life of perpetual lies is born of a single lie, the one the liar tells herself over and over again: that it's not about her, it's about the person she's lying to, who can't handle the truth. And while it's often true that honesty comes with its own peculiar consequences, the consequence of perpetual lying is that you become a shittier person with every lie you tell. Also, the more you lie, the harder it is to remember what actually happened, and that is one of the ways in which people go crazy. And not for nothing, but you can't fight crazy. You're stupid to even try.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Howdy Neighbor, or A Nightwalker on Elm Street

Here's your playlist for today:

Best of Jill Hives - Guided By Voices (live in Austin)
Devil with the Green Eyes - Matthew Sweet (for all you green-eyed she-devils out there)
Almost Crimes - Broken Social Scene ("We've got love, and hate, it's the only way.")
Love Me Or Leave Me - Nina Simone (Excellent advice.)
Photobooth - Death Cab for Cutie (Because some relationships are just plain shitty. But at least you have pictures.)
I Will Survive - Cake (Funny cover.)
Total Eclipse of the Heart - The Dan Band (Very funny cover. And for-fucking-ever really is going to start tonight.)
Girl in the War - Josh Ritter (No comment.)
Anybody Wanna Take Me Home - Ryan Adams (Been there.)
Lover in the Snow - Rivers Cuomo (This song makes me think about what it might be like to find out your de facto wife has been fucking your best friend. Yeah, it's pretty much like that.)
Something I Can Never Have - Nine Inch Nails (A sleeper from Pretty Hate Machine, for true fans.)
The Perfect Song - The National ("I'm looking out the window, sittin' there, sittin' there just fuckin' drinkin'.")
66 - Afghan Whigs ("You walked in, just like smoke, with a little come on, come on, come on in your walk.")
Free - The Martinis (Nod to freedom, whatever that means.)
Fatal Wound - Uncle Tupelo (Nod to fatal wounds.)
Place to Be - Nick Drake (Nod to Nick Drake, and the weakness of the palest blue.)
Dear Chicago - Ryan Adams ("I've been thinking some of suicide, but there's bars out here for miles.")
Femme Fatale - Velvet Underground ("You're written in her book, you're number thirty-seven, have a look." I miss Lou Reed already.)

This morning when I left my apartment building to grab a cup of coffee, I stumbled upon a flier sitting on the ground outside the front door. I glanced around and noticed more copies wedged under people's windshield wipers. At first glance it appeared to be just an ordinary sheet of copier paper, with an unfamiliar URL printed across the bottom and three grainy black and white photos of a pretty blonde running down the right hand side. Then I noticed what was clearly the intended message, in oversized bold font: "FYI Your neighbor {name withheld, by me, not by the helpful informer} is a PROSTITUTE!" (Emphases his, or hers.) This announcement prompted me to look more closely at the rest of the flier, and, sure enough, it turned out to be a printout from the "female escorts" section of an online personals page. There you have it, then: one of my neighbors is a prostitute. Thankfully, it's not one of the old ladies who sit in the lobby in their bathrobes, swapping disappointments.

I've never met the woman in question -- I haven't met any of my neighbors, actually, not even the old ladies in their bathrobes. I haven't met her, but I've seen her around. She has a young daughter of indeterminate age, maybe pre-school, maybe kindergarten, maybe just a bit older. For a brief time it looked like she had a boyfriend, as I saw her walking hand-in-hand with a guy a few times. Beyond that, she just seems young and sort of pretty and kind of dumb (in her ad she offers a "100% Satisfaction Guarenty" -- plus I've heard her speak). And she has sex for money.

But that's not the story, or at least it's not the part of the story that I find compelling. No, the real story is who made and distributed those fliers, and why? That's the question that intrigues me. I suppose it could have been some nosy, self-appointed moral crusader who takes it upon him- or herself to let everyone else know what's good for them (and apparently living in proximity to a prostitute is not good for you). Or -- and this is the only one that delights me -- maybe it's one of her competitors. I can tell you, from having done some impressively exhaustive research, there are a lot of female escorts in this zip code. They're decidedly similar: same heavy make-up jobs, same series of revealing outfits, same poses in their photos, painfully similar grammar and spelling skills. So how do you set yourself apart in a tight market? Why, eliminate the competition, of course. Obviously, the most likely scenario is that it was a guy, some jilted dickhead who, sadly, knows where she's vulnerable and was bitter enough to act on it. And so he told her neighbors what she does for a living, which is a pretty shitty thing to do, if you ask me. I've said and done some pretty lousy things in the wake of bad breakups, but that's a bit much, even for me.

Which takes me to my topic for today: relationships. I've had occasion of late to think a lot about relationships, and I suppose the playlist above, which was plucked from several hours of iTunes shuffle time, is reflective of those ruminations. I've seen too many friends lately going through circumstances that fall on the spectrum between aggravating at the better extreme and devastating at the other. The best of the bad has reminded me why I prefer being single (and more than once I've said so, out loud, to the person venting his frustrations). The worst of it has stirred up, from a deep, dank place, a host of unpleasant memories.

Relationships fail for a vast array of reasons, but more often than not the way in which they ultimately blow apart is that one of the two participants starts to behave like kind of an asshole. They pull away, lie, blame the other person for everything that's wrong. Honestly, it's pretty grotesque. And yet it seems inevitable, doesn't it?

I'd like to state for the record that I am not, nor do I consider myself in any way, an expert on relationships. I am, however, a bit of an aficionado. I had a relationship once that, it's fair to say, bestowed upon me a double-major in batshit crazy and whatever is the opposite of logic, with a minor in lingering self-doubt. It was a perfect microcosm of the prominent stereotype that suggests that men are rational and reasonable while women are emotional and, well, crazy. I don't happen to believe in this stereotype generally: I think rational people, regardless of gender, are rational, and irrational people just fucking suck. The most stunning example of our specific disconnect, hers and mine, was the way in which she could somehow justify the shitty things she did by asserting I was too this or too that, and in the next breath insist that I wasn't entitled to blame the way in which I reacted (back then, a lot of yelling and some pretty choice curse words) on anything she did. She practiced a sort of Alice in Wonderland logic, which works like this: I wasn't angry because she'd been fucking my best friend, I was angry because I was just angry, and I needed to not be that way. Curioser and curioser.

Sins on all sides, though. We were both unhappy, we just played it out in different ways. She wanted to close her eyes and not open them until everything felt alright again, while I didn't want to close my eyes for even a second until I'd fixed the whole goddamned thing. That's who we were -- who are now, in fact. Except that she's still out there looking for love, while I'm content with the notion that I probably won't love any of them, so instead I'll love as many of them as I can and leave it at that. And for better or worse, I'll tell you this: my way makes it a hell of a lot easier to waste an entire day listening to music, drinking beer and writing a blog. At no point did anyone ask me if I wanted to go to the container store. And for that I am grateful.

Hope you liked the playlist. I'm going to go get to know my neighbors.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Taste Is a Matter of Taste

It's been a good mix on the iTunes tonight: Replacements, Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, Old 97s, Aimee Mann, the National, and so on. It always feels like a good sign when you let the shuffle take over and it pulls up tracks you weren't thinking of but are glad for the surprise. Decades ago I can remember having the same experience listening to something called "radio." Here in central Maine we've never had great radio. These days we have the exact opposite of great radio: it's either dumbfuck country or establishment pop, neither of which is any more distinctive than a department store mannequin, and both of which are hosted by DJs whose high-strung enthusiasm is so obviously fake I find myself wondering how they keep from killing themselves. They must be very well-paid. Thirty, thirty-five years ago, though, I was young enough not to have heard everything several hundred times, and so it was kind of special to tune the radio to WBLM (the Rock & Roll Blimp! My first girlfriend gave me one of the original tees for Valentine's Day, 1982!) and hear AC/DC's "For Those About to Rock," or to stumble upon WTOS (the Mountain of Rock . . .), which might have been the area's first alternative station (that wasn't affiliated with a college) -- it was the place I first heard REM and Elvis Costello. Of course, now WTOS is just another schlock-jock commercial rock station, with the personality and integrity of a snake-oil salesman. Steve Jobs, thank you so much for making the iPod possible. For those of us residing in America's radio-culture wastelands, it has been a tremendous blessing.

The great mass of people ask for so little and get so much of it. I said that. Actually, I've been saying it for years. Of the many quips that have crossed my lips, I think I'm most proud of that one (although I'm also rather fond of the response I gave to a woman who demanded to know how I could despise Eric Clapton: "Well, I was recently diagnosed with good taste." Not the point, though. I was mostly just distressed that she was showing no respect to the late JJ Cale.). I know it sounds like a shitty thing to say, but I believe the evidence supports my hypothesis: most people have lousy taste, and the mid-level executives whose responsibility it is to turn a profit for their shareholders make sure the bar goes no higher than those standards demand. In Cameron Crowe's Singles, maybe Matt Dillon's character Cliff Poncier said it best: "Most of these bands are like well-designed bottles of bleach." Indeed, Cliff. Indeed. "Touch me, I'm Dick" deserved some love. And I'm giving it to you right now, man. Right now, Cliff.

Taste, of course, is the most subjective of the several senses. Why in the world would anyone collect Hummel figurines? Or the artistic renderings of Thomas Kinkade? Why would anyone, without irony, decorate his lawn with plastic pink flamingoes? Or read, with absolute earnestness, Khalil Gibran? What does she see in that guy? Why does he stay with a woman who makes him crazy? How can you put hunk after hunk of pickled herring in your mouth like that? The answer to all of these questions, the only answer, is taste. As the French say, to each his own (they say it in French, but it sounds tres ludicrous). But like so many things French -- the Maginot Line, the Third Republic, the Renault le Car -- I find this less than satisfying. I think we owe it to each other and ourselves to do more than just live and let live.

And so, since we started out talking about music, I'm going to offer you all a little dose of good taste, in the form of a playlist I whipped up, just for fun. I'd love to be able to just post the actual music here, but our budget doesn't allow for that sort of high-tech know-how, so I'll give you the analog version, and you can run with it. If you're truly enamored, drop me a line and maybe I'll burn you a CD.

1. "Little Wing," Jimi Hendrix. Stevie Ray Vaughn did this song as an instrumental. The original is better.
2. "Secret Girl," Brad. Most of these guys were in Cliff Poncier's band in Singles. No well-designed bottle of bleach here. No well-designed bottle of bleach at all.
3. "Rattlesnakes," Tori Amos. This is actually a Lloyd Cole tune, but I like Tori's sultry take better. Plus, there's a line that says "Jodi wears a hat," and I have a friend named Jodi, and I've always wanted to see her in a hat.
4. "Exploding Boy," Alkaline Trio. This is a Cure song. If you don't know Alkaline Trio, you should, particularly their early stuff. The first time I heard it, this song was -- no hyperbole -- an awesome surprise.
5. "Thursday," Morphine. I don't know. Illicit sex. Give it a listen.
6. "So Nice So Smart," Kimya Dawson. This is a Juno soundtrack tune, I know nothing about the artist. But it's also about illicit sex. And there's some mention of lice.
7. "Half Dead," the Mountain Goats. These guys actually sort of annoy me, but a few of their songs crack me up. This is one of them.
8. "Shampoo," Elvis Perkins. Elvis Perkins is the son of Anthony Perkins (of Psycho fame). Nice recovery, Elvis. Well done. Seriously, this is an outstanding song.
9. "Exit Music (For a Film)," Radiohead. This is a pointedly bitter song, and I dig the underlying tension and pathos.
10. "Wide Eyes," Local Natives. I don't remember why I put this on here, but I like it. Actually, yes I do: it's the opening riff. I don't even care what follows. Great opening.
11. "The Hardest Part," Ryan Adams & the Cardinals. You wanna know what the hardest part is? Ryan Adams will tell you what the hardest part is. Just . . . shhhh. Shhhhhhh.
12. "I Will Dare," the Replacements. Once upon a time I knew a girl who was getting banged by one of her high school teachers. He put this son on a mix for her. He was classy.
13. "Left of the Dial," also the Replacements. Just a great fucking song. And this is the song I would put on the mix for the aforementioned girl, as well as a small handful of others. "If I don't see you there, I'll know why."
14. "I Never Cared for You," Willie Nelson. One of the best oblique love songs ever.
15. "Nowhere Is My Home," The Tim Version. Another Replacements song, a B-side, covered here by a band I'd never heard of, on a tribute album I stumbled across one day at Bull Moose Music. This is a quality cover, and it's my second favorite song in this mix.
16. "Cath..." Death Cab for Cutie. The album from which this song comes, Narrow Stairs, is my least favorite DCFC album, but this song is amazing. Benjamin Gibbard is a master songwriter, and when he's at his best, as he is here, there's absolutely nobody better. Best song on the mix.
17. "Light of Day," Tommy Stinson. Tommy was the bass player for the Replacements, and I loved him with the Mats but haven't much cared for his solo stuff. This song appeared on one of the soundtracks to the Showtime series Californication, and it speaks very much to the ethos of that show and its main character, which is why it caught my ear. Well done, Tommy. I'll never forget the night you spit a mouthful of . . . whatever on me and a dozen other people pressed against the stage at Colby College in 1989. Those were the days, huh, Tommy?
18. "Pieholden Suite," Wilco. This song breaks my heart. Every single time. I hope it breaks your heart too.

So that's it, that's the list. I hope you have taste enough to love it as much as I do. But if not, don't despair. We are, each one of us, imperfect creatures. Sometimes when I'm listening to my iTunes on shuffle, something entirely unexpected like, say, Maroon 5 will pop up, and my immediate response will be, "What the fuck?!" And then I remember: oh yeah, I want my daughter to love me. In the end, what does good taste matter if you have no one with whom to share it?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Fourth Estate

Several months ago, on the recommendation of a friend, I dedicated something like seventy hours over several weeks to watching a television series in its entirety, the first two seasons on dvd and then, because I'd become a junkie who couldn't wait for inter-library loan, on streaming video. That show was The Shield, and other than the brutal and heartbreaking kicks in the gut that come when the sins of the father are invariably visited upon the sons, I had no regrets. It was fierce and funny and smart and, in surprising ways, human. When it was over, though, it felt like the end of one of those ten day, no holds barred affairs that come out of nowhere, where it's all risks and laughs and sweat and unexpected, usually poorly timed, outbursts, and nobody gets hurt because you're both too dazed to know the difference. Usually there's a scar, always there's a story or two (or twelve). You know the ones I'm talking about. When they're over, you hit pause, draw the shades, pull back and take stock. That's where I was after The Shield: I wasn't willing to leap into another torrid month with Dexter, Homeland, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad. I needed some time alone.

The Bear Lair is a humble abode. To paraphrase They Might Be Giants, it's austere, severe, it holds few furnishings dear. What we do offer, however, is a rather nice television, a damned fine couch, and some pretty comprehensive cable. We've also experienced a fair number of aw-fuck-it time here at Casa del Oso: the long-day-at-work-so-aw-fuck-it, the took-a-day-off-and-it's-fucking-raining-aw-fuck-it, the visit-with-my-daughter-was-cancelled-aw-fuck-it, the too-brief-visit-with-my-daughter-just-ended-aw-fuck-it, and so on aw-fuck-it. Aw-fuck-it is generally a prelude to visiting the couch, cracking a beer, and reaching for the remote.

There's a protocol of sorts to this. I usually start by punching up the channel I think I want to watch, and then I hit the guide and start scrolling. That's a ruse, of course. I'm trying to con myself into believing, even for just a few minutes, that I'm not going to press the On Demand button. I scroll and scroll, the remote almost literally winking at me. It's nice to be able to play these little games with inanimate objects. I almost said "non-sentient," but let's not kid ourselves: I'm sure by now my cable box and, by extension, the remote, perceive plenty about me. Wink. Wink. On Demand.

I don't remember exactly when it was, but I do know this: it was a rainy day when I first clicked on The Newsroom on HBO's on-demand series page. It rained, there was thunder and lightning, and I wasn't going anywhere. I also know I was supposed to be doing something else at that time: laundry, or digging through an as yet still not unpacked box for a piece of paper I needed for some reason, or editing a story I should've finished editing a year ago but goddamn does it make me want to punch kittens every time I look at it. So aw-fuck-it, I pressed some buttons and a few seconds later I was watching season one, episode one.

As tempting as it is, I'm not going to tell you everything you always wanted to know about The Newsroom. I'm not a reviewer, and this isn't a review. I'll say this: I like the show. In fact, I find it a little irresistible. I was a big fan of The West Wing back in the day, so it's fair to say I'm a Sorkin devotee. I used to plan my week around that show. I cared about the characters and I cared about what happened on the show, which means everyone did their jobs. In particular, I'd say the writer did his job: I don't suffer bad writing, not for anything. Aaron Sorkin is a good goddamned writer, period. A bit sentimental, sure. In the tradition of It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, this is unabashed Capra-corn: high ideals being fought for in the face of boundless cynicism. He's also a shameless emotional manipulator. Sorkin's like a male, thinking person's Jodi Picoult, using your investment in the character to stretch the tension to the point where, when that character's moment of clarity pops, you're complicit. (I give the actors and directors credit for that, too, because only war and keeping secrets require a greater collaborative effort than ensemble performance art.) It's easy to take potshots because, as The Newsroom's protagonist points out, "Snark is the idiot's version of wit." My best angels remind me that ideals aren't just worth fighting for, they must be fought for, or they'll get trampled by the herd, which asks for little more than to just get from here to there. We've walked on the moon and roved the surface of Mars. We've cured diseases and, for better or worse, split the atom. I'd call that promising. I'd say our ideals, tarnished though they are, mean something.

There are truths in this show too. There is the truth that networks -- cable networks included -- are owned by people who intend to make money and are thus beholden to the advertisers whose dollars fill the shareholders' coffers. Likewise are they beholden to politicians, because politicians, once elected, are responsible for enacting (or blocking) the rules by which those organizations make their money (or don't). There is the truth that the people responsible for reporting the news are human and therefore subject to the caprices of human life: distractions and enticements and blindspots and biases and desires and disappointments. At bottom, though, is the message that it is still better to try to do it right and fail than to know you've done it wrong for the sake of being popular and therefore profitable. It's better to report on the insidious nature of a political movement like the Tea Party than to offer up nightly voyeurism like the Casey Anthony trial. Why? Because the former is a collection of lies with lasting impact, while the latter is a spectacle of conjecture and manufactured outrage. One's an easy sell, and the other most people don't want to hear (sadly, not respectively).

But I'm really not here to talk about a television show. I'm here because my state's governor, Paul Lepage, recently made a joke. A few days ago while sitting in a fighter jet simulator at Pratt & Whitney, our governor quipped that he wanted to blow up the Portland Press Herald (our state's largest newspaper). A little later he reportedly added the Bangor Daily News (our second-largest and, for my money, the only good paper in the state) to his list of targets. Obviously the man was joking, regardless of the tastelessness of the joke (a bit of a trademark of his): he was in a flight simulator, for christ's sake, he couldn't even blow himself up (sadly). But the sentiment is genuine: Paul Lepage doesn't like news outlets that speak in less than glowing terms about him, and he makes no secret of that. Last year he told a gathering of school children that newspapers are something to be feared. When I say school children, I mean kindergarten to sixth grade. This is a state governor telling children as young as five that newspapers are bad. I wish I were making this up.

During the same Q&A, Lepage told the students that, by the time his administration concludes, "education in Maine is going to be great." His solution to making education in Maine great? He wants to utilize a voucher system to leverage private education against public education, thus creating a competitive environment that will -- in the spirit of pure capitalism -- elevate the standards and practices of public education. I'm not a socialist. I think capitalism fundamentally makes more sense: it is, ironically, more human, in that it is more in keeping with human nature. I think in its purest form competition is better for the consumer, as long as everyone's playing by the same rules (I'm talking to you, Walmart). But education isn't a consumable. And beyond that, you can't simply disregard the vast per-capita disparity in funding capacity between public and private education. If you could, I wouldn't feel like this is actually just a sinister way of hamstringing a substantial union that doesn't typically vote Republican. Here's something else: many years ago when I first heard the details of the bastard lovechild of the George W. Bush administration, "No Child Left Behind," my first thought was, "This sounds like a tremendously effective way to build a lasting constituency." Any educational system that cares more about teaching to the test than it does about compelling students to apply reason to problem-solving is not about education, it's about programming. There's a reason why evangelism is so popular: thinking about stuff is hard; having a book of answers, regardless of how implausible most of those answers might be, is easy. Super fucking easy. Similarly, having a test that says you know the stuff you're supposed to know, and making sure your educational system does nothing so much as it drums the supposed-to-know into your head: also super fucking easy. And it's a double-bonus, because when those children who weren't left behind reach voting age, many of them won't be smart enough to see you're selling them a bill of goods. I grew up dirt poor, so I feel safe saying that if you're poor or working-class and you've voted for clowns like Paul Lepage or George W. Bush, you're fucking stupid. At best, you're horribly misguided.

Paul Lepage started out on the shitty streets of Lewiston, Maine, fending for himself from an early age, and somehow he grew up to be a mayor and then a governor. It's no surprise he's among the ignorant masses who have, their entire lives, hated the smartest kid in the class. Goddamn must it chap Lepage's ass to see some pedigreed journalist write an article using his own words to demonstrate what a dumbass he is. His off-the-cuff remarks are rife with threats and empty rhetoric and (as demonstrated in the fighter jet simulator) tasteless jokes -- how dare a reporter use those against him. Not to mention his personal attacks on other lawmakers, like Troy Jackson, whom Lepage accused of giving it to the people without vaseline, and who Lepage suggested should go back into the woods to cut trees and send someone with a brain to Augusta to do some good work. Being accused by Paul Lepage of not having a brain can only be a shade better than being accused of the same offense by, say, a spoon.

I have the dubious honor of living in the small city where Paul Lepage served nearly two terms as our titular mayor. I say titular because, the way the city charter is written, the mayor doesn't have any real power, other than to break the occasional tie in a city council vote. Well, that is unless he happens to be a bully and a monumental prick, in which case he has, essentially, all the power you give him. The one time I ever encountered Paul Lepage, it was a little over a month after the gubernatorial election when he wandered into one of our local drinking establishments and seated himself at the bar not far from where I sat with my friends. I was in a bad way at the time, not long removed from several weeks of taking a baseball bat to most of the interior walls of my house, and even less removed from a stay in the looney bin that was only technically related to the wall battering. Needless to say, I was in no mood to suffer fools, myself included, which is another way of saying I had absolutely nothing left to lose, so I was a bit mouthy. My friend Ron met my Lepage rant with the challenge that it was easy to sit there and grumble, and suggested I go up and tell him what I thought of him. I shrugged, rose from my chair, clapped the governor-elect on the back and said, "Good luck being governor." He turned and offered me a broad smile that vanished the instant I finished with this: ". . . because you were a shitty mayor."

He probably thought I was a reporter. He probably still thinks that. Sadly, I was just a drunk asshole in a bar. Sadder still, he's just a dumb asshole in the governor's office. Based on his record, I'd say that's worse. But if he wins another term, I won't be taking it out on him. There was a joke going around after John Kerry lost the presidential election to a floundering George W. Bush, and it was cruel but apt: Kerry was like a non-retarded person who failed to win a medal at the Special Olympics. Democrats, get your house in order and stop playing to your imaginary strengths. You're not that special, and working people have plenty of reasons to think you suck. If you can't put a candidate out there who can beat the third-party independent, let alone the incumbent, have the strength of character to step aside. And journalists: stop being pussies. Lead every day, for as many days as it takes, with the ineptitude of the Lepage administration. He's writing your script, all you have to do is print it, every day, without fail. Short of that, you'll all get what you deserve, and you'll have no standing to bitch about it.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

I suppose so

Recently I found myself rereading The Great Gatsby, a book I've come back to countless times since I first picked it up more than thirty years ago. I was reading it this time because, after all these years and entirely unbidden, a thought that had never once occurred to me crossed my mind with alarming clarity: Daisy Buchanan is a vapid, empty bimbo. This was disconcerting because, of course, my image of Gatsby as a genuinely and meaningfully tragic character depended upon Daisy: without her, Gatsby is little more than a cynical perversion of the Horatio Alger mythos, a shameless, unscrupulous social climber for whom the means are entirely justified by the irrepressible allure of the gilded mirage at the horizon's edge. Daisy gives direction to Gatsby's odyssey, and if she is lovely and pure and deserving of his intense affection, Gatsby's ascension from Jimmy Gatz of North Dakota to Jay Gatsby of the glittering palace on Long Island Sound can achieve a sort of nobility. "The lawn and drive had been crowded with the faces of those who guessed at his corruption -- and he had stood on those steps, concealing his incorruptible dream, as he waved them good-by." That was Nick Carraway's assessment upon wishing Gatsby good day for what turned out to be the very last time. In the book's opening pages, Carraway also offered this: "Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope."

As I stretched out on the couch with the book open in front of me, I imagined I was looking for a scene, a passage, as little as a brief phrase, that would prove me wrong about Daisy. I believed that was what I was doing because my own history tells me I am just such an idealist, just such an incorruptible dreamer. Sadly, though, I suspect my true intent was to prove myself right. Regardless of my motive, I found nothing that caused me to reconsider my newfound opinion of Daisy Buchanan. I saw that she is pretty and stylish and rich, that she is anxious and self-absorbed and disappointed, that she is selfish and weak and, in her way, cruel. In a word, I found her unworthy. The character of Daisy Buchanan is, without a doubt, lacking in anything that could even remotely be called character. What, ultimately, can be said about an abiding affection that has no basis in the character of the beloved?

Perspective is trigonometry: the sine of what you know now and cosine of what you thought you knew then creating the arc of how you see the world right now. Once upon a time I met a girl in college and thought, because we were all grown up and out in the world, "This will be the girl." She wasn't. A few years later I met another girl, and we changed diapers together and read bedtime stories and talked late into the night about plans and fears and hopes, and I thought, "This will be the girl." She wasn't. A lot of years went by before I met the girl who claimed to be so torn she could cut off her hands and feet and wrote text messages like, "I was brushing my teeth, thinking of how to say I love you in an oblique way," and god did I hope she was the girl. What can I say -- she wasn't. They were all devastating losses in their own particular ways, but except in the case of the last one, my mind's eye doesn't recollect the dark and desolate days nearly so much as it does the sorts of images that accumulate when two people find some measure of delight in each other. I used to sit in an overstuffed leather armchair in the grand marble lobby of the bank where Charlotte worked, reading a book while I waited for her to get off, and on the best days I would look up just as she passed under the sprawling archway and see her face break into that perfect smile, the one that said, "Let's go home, just you and me." When I first lived with Michele, there were nights when I walked the mile and a half home through howling blizzards, and when I stepped through the door, she'd throw her arms around me before I'd even shaken off the snow. Those are the kinds of things I tend to remember.

A few days ago I found a package addressed to me sitting on my desk at the library. Inside were three books I'd lent to someone in 2010. No note, not even a return address, just three books I'd long since given up on ever seeing again, my name scrawled in the corner of all three title pages. I sat and stared at them for I don't even know how long. It didn't seem possible, after all that time, after everything that had happened in the years since I'd last seen or spoken to her, that they could just one day arrive in the mail like any old thing. I picked up the top book -- Drown, by Junot Diaz -- and flipped through the pages, looking for some sign of her. She has a tendency to circle words she doesn't know (based on my copy of Gatsby, which she also borrowed long ago, she was unfamiliar with, among others, the words supercilious, rotogravure, impetuously, vinous and punctilious). Twenty, thirty, forty pages in I found nothing. I stuffed the books into my shoulder bag and shuffled off to a meeting. I don't remember one thing from that meeting.

In the ensuing days it started to bother me, this simple act of finally returning my books to me. If it could be done now, why couldn't it have been done last year or the year before that when I asked for them? And what about the courtesy of a note that simply said, "Sorry it took me so long." I mentioned this to my buddy Hank, who wisely pointed out that there was nothing she could say that would make me feel better about any of it. He's right about that. In his inimitable way, he often is. But it's not as simple as that. It's not just about making me feel better about any part of it. When you've run out the string on anything, nothing that is so obvious is nearly enough. It's still a long way to vindication.

Which is why I started with Gatsby. That poor, sad son of a bitch. Upon departing on what will be the last afternoon of Gatsby's life, Nick says, "I'll call you up," and Gatsby, desperately, pathetically, offers, "I suppose Daisy'll call too."

Nick replies, "I suppose so."

I hate to ruin the ending for you, but she doesn't call.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Thinking of Home

"How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home."
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Rain fell on a strange roof over my head in Brooklyn the first time I read that line. It was the summer before my junior year in college and I'd managed to wangle a low-paying summer internship with a New York publisher and a rent-free place to stay in Flatbush. At the end of my first day of work in the city, I boarded the wrong train and ended up not in Brooklyn but in a particularly unnerving part of the Bronx. I don't know why I thought leaving the tunnel for the street would give me a better chance of figuring out where the hell I was, but that's just what I did, without either a dime or a subway token in my pocket. The sight that greeted me wasn't all that different from some of the more benign but still harrowing pictures that would come out of Sarajevo a few short years later, the distinction being only the matter of degrees that separates devastation by bombs and bullets from decay by poverty and despair. Two cops stood on the corner, and they glanced my way as I climbed out of the subway. The looks on their faces when they saw me expressed what I already understood: I was lost in a bad way. Fortunately, that fact wasn't lost on the woman in the booth when I quickly descended back into the tunnel and started to explain my predicament: before I could even finish, she slid a token through the slot below the glass and wished me luck. I rode the rails for more than an hour, eventually making my way to Newkirk Station, all the while, and not nearly for the last time, thinking of home.

Two years later, a freshly minted college graduate, aspiring writer and accomplished malcontent, I boarded a plane with my pixieish college girlfriend and crossed the country to that city of perpetual rain, Seattle. We had a housesitting gig for a month, after which the plan was to find an apartment and live happily ever after a while. Less than a week in, she announced that she didn't think we should live together, and almost instantly I felt the sands shifting under my feet. In a sense, she wasn't wrong: we were ill-suited to each other. I was guided and therefore limited by the only three things I feared in the world: sharks, sinkholes and homelessness. She was (and presumably still is) thoroughly suffused with a patently upper middle-class perspective that means almost nothing to me, a perspective the primary quality of which is what can only be called social grace: polite agreeableness at all costs. One evening we had dinner at an upscale restaurant with friends of her family, and just after the entree was served the matriarch turned to me and said, "So, Charlotte tells us you're a writer," at which point I swallowed the hunk of salmon I'd been lovingly chewing and said, "Actually, Charlotte and I have a deal: she doesn't tell anyone I'm a writer, and I don't tell anyone she's a stripper." You'd have to know Charlotte to understand why that was funny, but you probably don't need to know any more than what I've told you to recognize why she didn't find it funny. That was a long, icy night, the prelude to a long deep-freeze that would eventually find me climbing Capitol Hill to my friend Q's house, where I'd spend many night sleeping under a rain-spattered roof, thinking of home.

In the ensuing twenty years, there have been a god-awful lot of homes. There were five alone with my daughter's mother during an eight year span: the toxic three-story with the gay baker on the third floor; the big move to Portland, upstairs from Silly's, where we lived when our girl was born; the desperate dash to the Revere House in East Vassalboro when the baby blues kicked in; an equally mad dash back to Portland to an ill-fated apartment downstairs from my best old ex-friend; and finally, three years later, half of a duplex here in the 'Ville that, one fine morning, was raided by the police (neighbor's side, not ours, but that's not exactly how the kid announced it in kindergarten that day -- "The police raided our house for drugs this morning!"). The three years between High Street in Portland and our crack house in the 'Ville, I lived in a narrow top-floor apartment with a progressively leakier roof. I almost loved that apartment, but that's entirely because I spent almost every weekend there with my little girl. It's the place where I learned to be a dad. Of course, it's also the place where I learned there's a difference between being solitary and being alone. It is the very depth of bittersweet. But then the rains came in earnest, and the girl's mother moved with the girl back to the 'Ville, and I found myself thinking this was no home.

And then there was the house where I say I lost everything in the fire. But of course there was no fire. To paraphrase As I Lay Dying, there was no me: I was not is. I had left the building long before the boys came along and trucked me off to the emergency room. Perhaps it's telling that the summer I started to lose my way entirely, it rained nearly every day. I'd lay stretched on the couch on the screen porch, listening to the drops pounding down around me, waiting for something to change. A year later I lay stretched on the same couch beside a young woman who didn't want me to love her but didn't want me to leave her either. By then I was morbidly unwell in a way that made it impossible to resist futility, particularly the sort that might well guarantee a glorious immolation. And so I marched, step by predictable step, into the flames. And thus is the metaphor apt. But, as I say, there was to be no fire for me. The people whose occasional misfortune it is to be my friends and family gathered like a volunteer fire brigade, tossing bucket after bucket on the flames, remaining until the last ember faded into harmless soot.

It takes time, though, to rebuild after a fire. It took, in fact, until pretty much right now to put the final pieces in place: the bricks and glass and plaster and wood, the chair to sit on, bed to sleep in, the pictures of the girl on the night table. It's a good place, this Bear Lair, that looks out across the city's downtown and faces the light from sunup to sundown. It's a place the girl can visit -- the girl who, as of a month ago, is now technically a grown-up, and poised to begin embarking on her own adventures away from home. I picture her listening to rain on strange roofs, and hope she'll always have someplace to think of as home. I know I do.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Invincible Province of Why

It was the last hour of the last day of what had been a grueling tax season: countless W-2s, 1099s, K-1s streaming across my desk as mindless and relentless as a horde of zombies. More than a handful of clients I'm convinced actually were zombies. But we were within sight of shore, and all that was left was to make one final sweep to be certain we hadn't missed anyone who needed a filing extension. I could almost taste that first celebratory beer as I rattled off name after name to my buddy Karl, who flipped through the master list, found the name and confirmed: "EXT." We paused only briefly for Karl to pop down to his office to check his email. When he came back, he had terrible news.

The words "bombs" and "Boston Marathon" took some time to settle into my brain. With all that was already up there clogging the network, words like refund and estimate and extension, numbers like 8879, 7004, 4868, there simply wasn't room for what those other words conjured. I shook my head and sighed and, half a beat later, read off the next name.

I'm not a runner. Not even in my younger days of perpetual sport did I ever aspire to tackle any distance greater than the section of left field I had to cover to track down a long fly ball, or the ninety feet from one base to the next. But I've known distance runners, and over the years I've seen the coverage at the finish lines, particularly of the Boston Marathon, watched the masters of the sport competing against each other, followed by the multitudes competing not necessarily against but for a panoply of reasons as broad and mysterious as the human heart can conceive. And always I am struck by the same thought: it is so very far to go, and so very hard to do.

But this almost certainly wasn't about a foot race, was it? It was about thousands of people standing in one narrow corridor, cheering and laughing and celebrating a sense of achievement that is both singular and collective, on a bright beautiful day in a northeast city only recently thawed out from another arduous New England winter. An hour or so earlier the hometown team had walked off with a win in the ninth inning. It was Patriot's Day, that day set aside for denizens of Massachusetts and her formerly conjoined fraternal twin to the north to reflect on events that started in and around that very city and, ultimately, contributed to shaping a nation. It was a day replete with delight, leaving no room for thoughts of despair. Just happy, sun-warmed people of all ages, stacked six, ten, a dozen deep all along the sidewalks.

I've read and watched and listened to the coverage. I've seen the faces of the maimed, of the brave, of the stunned, and in my mind, suspended just below the outrage and the sorrow, flickering like a faulty fluorescent bulb, lies that sickening, maddening feeling of deja vu. It's Oklahoma City and Columbine and 9/11 and Aurora and Newtown and on and on and on and on. It is someone who doesn't know your name, has never looked into your eyes or so much as said hello, strolling away down the street, having left a satchel full of gunpowder and ball-bearings behind to blow off the leg of a five-year-old girl, and kill that little girl's eight-year-old brother. What politics, theology, or philosophy could ever reconcile the intent with that result?

Of course, when something like this happens, all we ever have are the questions. We hear them phrased every which way, these questions that beg to understand how it's possible for any one man's humanity to burn down to nothing but a coal-black cinder, leaving him utterly indifferent to the humanity of others. In the end those questions can all be distilled into that remarkably short but most densely fraught of all questions: why? And I, as I'm sure are so many of you, am so terribly, terribly tired of why.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

I Win

A few years back when I left the job I'd held for several years and suddenly found myself with money to live on and the time to do as I pleased, I dove back into writing with the expectation that, finally, in my fortieth year, I would write the book I'd been promising myself most of my life. That first year of well-subsidized unemployment was a monumental failure for a handful of reasons, but mostly because, each time I sat down to write, I somehow expected to catch lightning in a bottle, hit a home run with my first swing of the bat. In the beginning, that tacit notion was simply hubris, but as the months wore on and the bank account dwindled, clinging to the hope that any given day would bring that stroke of unprecedented artistic genius became a matter of necessity: I grew more and more desperate for a win. That is a terrible way to approach anything in your life, but as you sink deeper into the mire you've created, the blob of neediness devours more and more of your perspective, until every single thing before you appears to present only two options: a big win, or an epic defeat. It doesn't take a Vegas bookie to recognize the foreseeable consequences of this scenario.

Today I find myself, for the first time in quite a while, with a few hours on my hands, and when I first flipped open the laptop and peered at the screen, I felt that familiar niggling itch to hit one over the fence. It's an itch that started earlier in the week, when I stumbled upon someone else's blog, one that features some exotic casual cooking and baking (just simple stuff they throw together when they get home from school, like cream-puff swans), as well as photos of an effeminate German fellah and a bulimic-bobblehead female grad student. I poked through their pretty little blog and was immediately reminded of the scene in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou in which Bill Murray demands of a gum-chewing Cate Blanchett, "What do you want?" and she, languidly chomping her gum, replies, "Nothing," to which he responds, "That's so arrogant. That's . . . Screw off."

The impulse to rattle off something quick and pithy was strong, but as it happened I needed to shut it down just then and head to work. The subsequent days were likewise filled up with work, and as is often the case, the short stretch of time created by the immediate need to show up and be responsible offered the possibility to reflect on the nature of my initial reaction. Ostensibly, there's no good reason for me to care in the least about either of these two recreational bloggers. The girl exists as no more than a memory, and the German is, for all practical purposes in my life, a cardboard cutout. So why was my ass so swiftly chapped by this otherwise benign, entirely fatuous entry in the blogosphere?

Admittedly, I didn't spend a lot of time pondering the question: I have two jobs, both of which I enjoy and appreciate, and neither affords me a lot of self-absorption time. But I picked it up as I lay in bed at night ready for sleep. I turned it over, scratched the veneer and found myself scrolling backward, like a reel-to-reel film run in reverse through the projector, the images flickering unnaturally on the screen, a blunt display of regression. It was a history of loss: of things and people and places and, most shamefully, self. After the last frames flashed by and the film flapped on the still-spinning reel, it occurred to me why I found those artful desserts and well-used leftovers, that grinning German and, especially, that too-thin smiling graduate student so utterly offensive. Viewed forward, that imaginary movie is also about redemption and heart and no small measure of integrity. It's about the hard slide to somewhere near the bottom, and the much more arduous scrabble in the other direction. And I say this all the time: I know I'm lucky, and I'd always rather be lucky than good. But I'm also fond of saying luck's for the Irish. So fuck it, I'll say it: I am more good than lucky. I blew myself apart into an unrecognizable mess, and yeah, it took years to scrape together those widely scattered pieces, but I did just that. I had plenty of help along the way, but in the end, as with anything that truly matters, you have to do the heaviest lifting yourself, or it's not worth a damn. So there's that: I earned this place where I now find myself; all she ever did was stick her finger down her throat and make herself pretty. She laid down a bunt single to break up a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning. I reached out and stroked one into the right field corner, busted it out of the box and outran my own shadow around the bases for an in-the-park home run. I'll take a win like that over a bush-league play any day.