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Fall Starts

Alternate synergists

Alternate synergists

It’s like that last bike ride. 

It is Labor Day, the sun past setting. Labor Day is cordoned off, a liminal world unto itself separate from the before and after it separates. But there’s no big sky religion here, only the mundane profane of a day rich white men terrified of Communists moved from May to September. Dogmatic leftist historians may fume, but this move is an inadvertent gift. We now have a day to celebrate the end of summer that is a transition in itself. Inside this day nothing is solid. Everything is being formed.

I can’t remember which summer it was–fifth, sixth grade, because I was really dreading summer being over and the next day being school. I was riding my bike around Norwood [Elementary School], around the playground and down along the treeline that led to the creek. I just rode around, looking and thinking about how everything was going to change. When it started getting dark I went home. I remember pulling up into the driveway and realizing this was the summer’s last bike ride. No more summer bike rides–there wasn’t any more summer to have them in. And that was it for summer!

I am on the phone with my oldest friend. A new job starts for me tomorrow, and it could not be more like that time when our ages were just in double digits: night descending with finality, every moment a world. This is more or less what he said…more or less. We both know the feeling but in recounting it I want it to be even more than it was. I was listening, then and now. I was hanging on, just a little.

He finished that bike ride and went in, and after the pile of crisp new school supplies was checked and the last moments of Hee Haw ignored, he was in bed, staring at the ceiling. I was too.

Since February or March sick tickles have sizzled inside my arms, sweat drenching the bed nights, fatigue settled over me in the classic leaden suit, the strange not-quite-headache sensation I describe as “helmet head” but with the helmet inside the skull–these all have settled in this muscle or that connective tissue, rummaged around a while, and then left. It was never bad. It never upset me, but I noticed. I could have been more B-movie about it: So. We meet again. Instead I kept going to work and writing evenings and weekends and made sure to not skip vitamins.

Last year’s heebie-jeebies have been nowhere. Thanks, little pink pills. You get in the way of what little blue pills are supposed to superinvigorate, but I’m told those wouldn’t be a good idea. I won’t argue with a good trade.  But the weakness, fatigue, zip-zinging lightning in the arms that once was everywhere: that must go. Doc and I talk. Doc says: Mmmm. I offer that Bactrim worked great two years ago: it cleared up nights of sweat-soaked bed in three months, four tops. She flips through lab slips. You taken Flagyl? It’s even better.

I have taken Flagyl. It’s a mean one. It pulls no punches in getting the job done: biting hard into nerves, striding across the blood brain barrier, cleaning out the mind. 2004 was the first time, when I was desperate and only knew I was sick. I could hardly move, the pills came down so hard. A couple more tries after that, though only certain about 2010, the date on the remaining pills. That was easier, but still tough. I appreciate toughness. Sometimes that’s the way it has to be.

I wait until the job ends, not wanting to be incapacitated. I give in to the modern impulse to check the internet and find warnings of a first-week honeymoon before Flagyl takes the gloves off. The pills are such a plain white disc they could be placebo pills: a little powdery, one side blank, the other stamped with F 500.  They go down easy.

The first minute

The first minute

New Year’s Day is perfectly placed: an entire day to recover from at least staying up late. It also provides a still place for anxiety to pool for the new job starting the next day.

January 2, 2013 was grey and not too cold, but a shock from the previous day’s brilliant sun. The job is here, the one to pull me out of the dark, thin months of the previous fall (even though half of them, too, were full of sun). I don’t want a job, but need a job. I need a place to go that is not my head.

The job did what it was supposed to. I realize now for one of the few times in my life, I used a job more than it used me. At the end, everything changed: the project cancelled, people let go. Everyone is sad or flummoxed. I thought it would make things easy, but I am one of the few arranged to keep going. No thanks, I tell the shocked woman. It was calm to tell her, though some anxiety came after. It was time to be free. There was nothing to worry about. There still isn’t. Mostly, I don’t.

My mother has always had pills: vitamins, mostly, and then various antibiotics or anti-inflammatories for her allergies, “pleurisy”, and other complaints. During the Eighties War on Drugs these never registered as The Enemy. Why should they? The TV constantly hawks pills, mostly for pain. I realized the difference was the TV pills just dimmed the pain a little, if at all. They never made you feel good. The Calvinist zeitgeist approved.

Now my parents are in their 70s and, like all older people, are walking pharmacies. Blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, a few others I don’t know: and that’s just my dad. My mother, with her host of indefinite aliments, has even more. To travel, she transfers pills from the labeled pharmacy bottles or over-the-counter packages to zip-seal sandwich bags.

I think it was middle school when I first called my mom’s pills her junk, her doctor her pusherman. I’m your doctor when in need. My father said something unappreciative once. They might have said more if they knew the Curtis Mayfield song. I was my parents’ main boy, thick and thin. I’d never get mixed up in that stuff, I’m sure they thought, but Nancy and white suburban neighbors pumped the air thick with fear.

By and large, I have shunned pills. I barely tried anything in college, and didn’t understand drinking’s appeal. (I rarely drink now.) I was reluctant to try antidepressants. Since being sick I have cycled through many antibiotics, antiprotozoals, antifungals and antivirals, pills and capsules of interesting colors. MDs would be horrified, but the pills have no promise of fun. One makes pee orange, but that’s about it. The antidepressants make you crazier before they show the upside, if they have one.

Benzodiazipenes have the soft teeth of need. I understand why there are songs about them, why they engender fear. I have a bottle of them–exactly one–and I take them as directed. I don’t play around. I don’t wait for kids walking up the street to the high school to lure them into iniquity or to see what they’ll trade. In fact, I now realize my last refill was for half-strength pills: pale sunshine half-milligram instead of faded pistachio one milligram. For the past couple years I’ve been snapping the stronger ones in half, leaving the other half for another night, or reserve. I’ve been good about it. But I don’t forget. I can’t. Missing the evening dose means no sleep, and I’ve got to sleep.

Am I a junkie now? My psych nurse therapist counsels a half-milligram is nearly nothing. The hardest part about prescribing benzos, she says, is the stigma. People won’t take them. They fear being hooked. I’ve been hooked on sleep meds before. I’ve gotten off before. It could be argued I’m not off now because I am lazy. Sleep is more important than virtue.

Work in the woods

Work in the woods

Labor Day faded out with the double-whammy Sunday letdown it always has, at least when I’ve had school or a job. Every elementary school weekend had its last milling walk with fellow stragglers to the end of the block, its last trip out to the garage, that last bike ride. After that, it was 60 Minutes and steam from Sunday dinner, then making sure everything was ready for school. The end was the sound of the TV down the hall and looking out the very black windows, the darkness thin and empty. Now is the same when the next day is a new job. Ten o’clock A.M. may not be the crack of dawn, but is still inside the walls.

But the job did not come. Bureaucratic inertia prevented the proper triplicate form being stamped in the correct ink. I am awake in the fractured headache reality that comes with never really sleeping, and by the time it’s figured out there’s no job to go to, I am too much awake.

Awake and alive and a free man yet. Tuesday, September 3, 2014 was astronomical summer’s most productive day: farther into a new chapter, farther into a next batch of Twitter stories, more on this blog, attended writing group where I focused through the coffeeshop’s Eighties pop and a giant, friendly man’s single-finger huff-puff typing to write a little bit more. I even mopped the floor. Twice long, the day’s length stretched out like as a child: the day keeps going. For once as an adult, I had more time.

All week returns to me, but I never get back to Tuesday’s double living. Relief doesn’t wake me in summertime excitement like it did in elementary school, ready to see what’s out there. I know everyone is back at school or work, and it’s uncomfortable. We are well-trained.

Starting early

Starting early

What is a life for? 

Therapy is good for many things, including restoring a sense of surprise.

I do not have a gotcha therapist, she explains. I’m not asking open-ended questions for you to guess at and get wrong. I am like Carl Rogers, here to get in it and wrestle it with you. There’s no point in being a spectator in your own life.

Resolved: I am not doing enough, have never done enough, can’t do enough. This is the topic we have stumbled into. Why didn’t I write these books I supposedly so want to write a long time ago? Why have I been a wanderer, confused, doing well at everything I don’t care about? All that potential I had to live up to lies deflated in a pile of receipts.

For months, we talk about this. My fragile mental state then fixated on all my intractable failure. She was adamant, but still a therapist: like Jeopardy, every challenge was a question. Are you really a failure? Who’s telling you that? More important, why are you still asking the question?

Rembrandt painted and drew thousands of works, big and small. Vermeer made at most sixty-some paintings. Who is better?

Every couple weeks in her pleasant office looking out on the rhododendrons, she repeats herself. I need it. You were doing the work you needed to be doing. You were learning what you had to learn. We all learn these axes of good/bad and right/wrong, but the problem is for a real life they aren’t helpful. 

I’m not doing it right. It’s all wrong and always has been. Well, there’s lots of alcohol you can drink. Drugs you can take. You can watch American Larynx and Swamp Idiots and whatever else it is people stay up and watch. You can learn to be way more self-destructive than you are. She says something I don’t quite remember, but something like: You have that artist’s eye and you won’t settle for the surface of things. That’s a great gift and a curse too. I get it. But don’t think you’ve wasted your time. Nobody’s watching. Nobody’s judging. Nobody but you. 

For months, we rehearse the same play in her little closed-off stage. Then, a little at first, then all at once, the play changes. The little closed-off stage is too small. The sky no longer threatens to come crashing down. It’s not so much that I’m not asking those questions any more. It’s that the the play that asks them is no longer interesting, and I have left the show.

I had exactly one date with a woman who also wrote, though more professionally than I have. We talked a couple hours. She was nice. She was making changes, testing her freedom. She said: not writing is still writing. 

What is a life for is the same as the answer 42 in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. The entire mental world that question-answer drama implies is only one narrow possibility.

Big and small

Big and small

No choice in red or blue. Taking red doesn’t wake you out of the mass dream to the horrible truth, nor does the blue keep you oblivious. Both represent a grasping at freedom much of the medical establishment doesn’t believe in. People go broke over these pills, and doctors have been threatened for prescribing them. These pills are no abdication or escape. They make an extra pair of hardscrabble hands hands for grabbing, wresting, pulling through.

Red pills on empty stomach. Blue pills require food. Blue pill with breakfast, and red pill mid-morning sometime. Evenings are the red pill some time before dinner, if I remember. The blue pill is more natural to fit in.

The reverse is no calamity–just 20-30% less is absorbed. Now, in the future I once did not believe was possible, I’m more cheap than desperate. Ten years ago there was desperation, the pills taken with slavish devotion to their needs. I held them in tight fingers and drank plenty of water. I never thought they wouldn’t work so much that I didn’t want more punishment for doing it wrong.

The job makes it easier. Blue pill with breakfast, red pill around ten or eleven, before lunch. Red pill before heading home, blue pill whenever I eat. There is a third thing I’m supposed to take on an empty stomach three times a week, and that’s trickier. I don’t feel desperate about it. I eat a lot of vegetables and whole wheat bread and consider that a likewise effort.

Everything is temporary. The job was grabbed in a moment of worry about money, and I work for money and not much else. Leaves will lighten as the days thin out, and the bright fall sun will shine even though I am inside. I’d probably be inside without the job, peering into a different screen, doing my work instead of the Man’s. So far, the Man pays better. He probably always will. I’m not sure how hard I’ll work for myself.

Mornings I write down notes from dreams, and things become clear. A third through a first draft, it’s as good as I should hope. It’s better than the two books I wrote twenty years ago that you will never see.

Jonathan Evison wrote six novels. Three of them he took deep into the forest, dug a hole, and buried. He was doing the work he needed to be doing. His latest three he has not burned.

Even when I am not writing, I am still writing.

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The Severe Clear of Now

9-11-14, Severe Clear

9-11-14, Severe Clear

Yesterday was like today, was like the day the year before, and before. We don’t notice going from 43 to 44 any more than from 23 to 24. Maybe you can see a change with five years, or maybe not. I hope you can at ten.

Seattle has been beautiful, and warm. Free of summer’s weight, the sun is slimming down, dropping the flab, getting fit for its winter closeup. A fire warning is up for the dry and cool air. Desert air has come: warm days, cold nights, the heat fleeing up the sky.

Severe clear is what this is called, at least if you’re flying a plane. I associate it with winter, and snow, and stars that for a few freezing moments don’t twinkle. Now, of course, we associate it with something else.

Bus goes home across the bridge. Last year was no different. Was it different ten years ago? Living things age differently. If we all disappeared and stopped driving on it, the bridge would last eons. It would leave our timescale and join the sun’s, blind to each other as time ground them down.

I am glad we are forgetting, the TV not showing the fiery video over and over. I am glad this is just a bright day with a cool night and a big memory we can remember, or not.

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“Hey, It’s Mork!”

I'm sad too, Marc

I’m sad too, Marc

On August 11th, 2014, Robin Williams took his own life. He was one of the funniest people alive, perhaps to have ever lived. Who would say differently? Bitter people, and rocks, and things without backbones, but no one sad who needs light. If you are sad, you cannot be a monster. Robin Williams cried a clown’s tears, and drowned.

I discovered Marc Maron’s WTF podcast only this year. After a long conversation with a friend on the difficulty–perhaps futility–of creative work (at least in terms of getting paid for it), my friend suggested I listen to Maron’s interview with Will Ferrell. Marc asks Ferrell about the vast universe of opportunities opened up by the internet, and Will replies that yes, in terms of absolute opportunities to have your material accessible to others, the number is now greater. “But it’s harder than ever to get paid,” says the very successful Ferrell.

I knew nothing of Marc Maron and wish I had. He is the perfect angry man: honest, incisive, unflinching, vulnerable, self-destructive, the child become a man who realizes he is still a child wanting his boo-boos fixed. Self-knowledge is power and it boils out of him. His studio is his garage in his house in some hilly and unpalatable part of Los Angeles, and he opens most shows with an update on the neighborhood cats that come to his patio door. He gives them food and later reports their lengthening absences. No man that reaches through his bitterness to care for furry creatures can be bad.

The friend that turned me on to Marc Maron and WTF lives in Los Angeles. He has a dog and a very senior cat. If there is anything holy, it is the fact that my friend is good.

I haven’t sought out Maron’s recordings or his many TV appearances or his writings or checked on local appearances, but should. I don’t beat myself up about this. I don’t beat myself up about a lot of things these days.

I have read through his website, particularly the about page. At the top are sentences of wisdom so clear, concise, and relentless they have transubstantiated not into truth but the vast shining beauty that makes jewels of truth shine:

  • The great philosophical question once was – What is the meaning of life? Now I think the great philosophical question is – How am I being used and am I okay with that?
  • If it weren’t for the shame of the rich there would be no charity.
  • In the American south there is an ignorance that runs so deep it actually has integrity.
  • If you’re a talented person and you’re not successful there is probably something inside you that is stopping you from being successful, and sadly, it might be your talent.
  • In most cases the only difference between depression and disappointment is your level of commitment.

The last two struck me when I first read them. They struck me again today, after having listened to Robin Williams and Marc talk, four years ago now.

I was eight or nine when Mork and Mindy was new. I remember a little of the show then: Mork in his suit at the close of each show, the three chorus members he addressed with the episode’s moral revelation having their backs to us in their strange helmets, the brilliant Jonathan Winters appearing as Mork’s son. It was a frenetic show, and I don’t understand why I didn’t glom onto it more. In middle school it was on every weeknight at 10, the half-hour before Star Trek. I seldom watched it. Star Trek was serious business then.

I have Williams’ first album, Reality…What A Concept, on LP, bought secondhand from Fort Worth’s Record Town. It went into my comedy album rotation with Monty Python, Bill Cosby, a Flip Wilson album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, and, I think, a cassette of Spalding Grey recorded off the radio. I bit pillows and towels at George Carlin specials, made available on VHS by the kids whose parents splurged on HBO. They can say that? was the primary reaction. There was that for me, sure, but then there was the adult reality Carlin and all the rest had seen, grabbed, gotten messy with, and were now reporting back to us. School wasn’t telling us anything. We really needed to know this.

Williams danced around TV and in movies. I didn’t fixate on him but appreciated him. Catching a Johnny Carson or Letterman appearance was a random gift. That he could play a dramatic character with nuance and sincerity was the revelation of Dead Poet’s Society. There is more to us that we know.

Marc and Williams talk for an hour, as much about their mutual dark times as good-time-hey-do-you-remember-this. How did you deal with the resentment other comics had at your success? Well, you just have to be Buddhist about it and let go.

Williams is quiet, almost whispering: I struggle to hear him over Marc’s relative shouting. Only a few times does the big-top Williams come out and overwhelm with a character or a joke, Marc cracking up. We all crack up. They talk about how this is a defense, both four years ago and in Marc’s introduction and conclusion. It’s another side of drinking, doing drugs, anything to fill that void. Sometimes the room is immense. Sometimes it is the unfillable abyss.

They talk about depression, highs and lows, what was accomplished with drug use if nothing more than understanding why they used. Marc’s father had serious depression; Williams’ father told him to have a backup career, like welding. Neither shies from anything; nothing is forbidden.

Comedy saved me in eighth grade. It was a bad time: the start of the year missed due to mono (which hung around for decades as chronic fatigue), pressure to go back to school as soon as possible, adrift and drowning in classes meant to accelerate college-bound me. English was worst. A tiny, elite class of overachievers, underachievers, and one kid who was terrified of getting something wrong. Taught by a furious, condescending and capricious man whose hatred of teaching filled what had been a tiny, warm room with sharp grey fog, the class terrified me. I threw up before and sometimes after. A then-friend snorted at how badly my hands shook. I developed the insomnia that persisted through my thirties. The anxious depression I thought I’d felt earlier at contemplating the world’s nuclear end came out into the open, introduced itself, and sunk its icicles into my hand.

I asked my parents if I could drop TAG English. Just that one class–I’d keep up the others. They didn’t think that was a good idea. We had the conversation on a weeknight, with me already in bed, in my room. When they left I first felt the walls closing in just as they fell away, leaving my little boat lost in the great dark.

The Bill Cosby albums had been played plenty, but now I listened to them every night. Cosby defeating the chicken heart with the Jello-slicked floor was the funniest thing I knew, and after a week or so I could laugh at it. Andy Griffith’s What It Was, Was Football bit was the next thing that registered. Pryor’s records I first heard on cassette copies, the deck’s auto-stop like a bomb going off around midnight. (I listened to that one early, or sat up to stay awake and stop the tape myself. Quietly.)

At first I grabbed at each word, even though it was right there and at no risk of escaping: grabbed and lived inside the twenty minutes of an album side. As weeks went on I still needed the albums, and noticed the next day if I fell asleep without a sustaining dose, but I was less shattered, the gaps between my pieces closer. TAG English still felt like the copies of 1984 we were reading, but leaving the room left it there. I could struggle with algebra better, avoid bullies with kung-fu quickness. I was holding it together.

Maybe Williams was too much then. He must have been known, listened to, but I never picked it up. Trapped in suburban Texas, there was no chance to see him through the window of a Bay Area club. He was nearly twenty years older than me, in a different world. But I only now realize he was doing something like what I was doing: whatever was necessary to make the laughter come, because not having it was so much worse.

Only since my 40s have I thought about comedy as a means to share your darkness with others, and through that sharing expel it, or at least hold it off. Marc brought it up with Williams over and over again. Williams never told him he was wrong.

At points in Marc’s recording, Williams sounds uncomfortably vulnerable. It is probably one of the few times Williams ever was to someone publically. Even Williams, the great frenetic funnyman, his titanic free-association engine always compiling and ready to erect a hilarious edifice of funhouse mirrors, was spinning as fast as he could. Marc has done that. I have done it. I bet you have.

There are two points in Marc and Williams exchange that crystallize in impossible and subtle beauty for me.

At about fifty minutes in, Marc asks Williams what some of his favorite experiences have been. Williams relates working with Jeff Bridges. Something technical went wrong and the shot couldn’t work the way it was intended. It seems to me that Williams implies his anxiety, but Bridges channels his inner Dude: …and [Bridges] says it’s a gift if something screws up. It’s a gift. Don’t be afraid of it. 

I wrote this down and have it posted on my wall.

In the last few minutes, when Marc is hashing over Williams’ heart surgery and the closeness to death, Williams doesn’t give in:

I mean, when I was drinking there was only one time, even for a moment, where I thought: mmm, fuck life. I went like, my conscious brain went like: did you just say ‘fuck life’? You know, you have a pretty good life as it is right now. Have you noticed the two houses? Yes. Have you noticed the, uh, the girlfriend? Yes. Have you noticed, you know, that things are pretty good even though you may not working right now? Yes. Okay, well, let’s put suicide over here in discussable, let’s leave that over here in the discussion area. We’ll talk about that. First of all, you don’t have the balls to do it. I’m not gonna say it out loud. I mean, have you thought about buying a gun? No. What were you gonna do, cut your wrist with a WaterPik? Maybe. [Marc cracks up.] That’s erosion. What’re you thinking about that? So, can I put this over here in the ‘what the fuck’ category? Yes. Let’s put that over here in what the fuck, because–can I ask you what you’re doing right now? You’re sitting naked in a hotel room with a bottle of Jack Daniels. Yes. Is this maybe influencing your decision? Possibly. Okay. We’re gonna put that over here, and tomorrow morning– And who’s that in the bed there? I don’t know. Okay. Well, don’t discuss this with her, because she may tweet it. [Marc cackles.] Okay? This may not be good. Let’s put that over here in what the fuck category. We’re gonna put that over here, possibly for therapy if you wanna talk about that in therapy. Or, maybe a podcast two years from now. You wanna talk about it in a podcast? No, I feel safe. You’re talking about this in a podcast. I know. Who is this? It’s your conscience, asshole. Oh. Okay. So, have you ever thought about it since then? No. During the surgery were you thinking about death? No. Why? Because…eh, I was just thinking everything’s gonna be fine. Was that your mother talking? Maybe. She was a Christian Scientist who had plastic surgery. Wow. Is that a mixed message? [Marc laughs wheezes.] Yeah, it is. Okay. 

Williams delivers this in a soft therapist lilt, calm and soothing. Reading my transcript you don’t know where to laugh. It’s so earnest. It would be painful if you didn’t know it was from a comic podcast.

Robin Williams, Marc and I aren’t any different. I haven’t done the drugs and drinking, but from all accounts it sounds like we’ve been in the same dark pit, stumbling over drunks and furniture, going through the motions even though we understand the futility. There is no light there, no matter how much we may be laughing. And then there is light. With the pit behind us we forget even as we remember, because everything is okay and everything is going to be fine.

I can’t learn that lesson too many times.

Marc asks Williams about his quick rise via Mork and Mindy. What was the fallout from that? Williams said when his first album won a Grammy, he was proud, thinking this was the breakthrough, the real launch. Then, walking down the street, people still yelled: Hey, it’s Mork! 

Mork is what people remember, and he enjoys how that touched people. He accepts he has no control. He’s glad they still like Mork.

It took me almost a month to listen to Marc’s Robin Williams interview. I wasn’t avoiding it, but I didn’t have the time it deserved. Yesterday, facing a job starting and the loss of free time, I did. It was the strange space I expected, the voice so vibrant now belonging to a ghost.

I texted my LA friend after. I want to find him somehow, make him a sandwich, share a package of Oreos with him. The last ten minutes of him discussing with his conscience the nonsense of killing himself was hilarious, and like my experience. I just want to give him a hug. 

YES, my friend replies.

In the end, no matter what, the only option is YES.

Robin Williams, 1979

Robin Williams, 1979

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Perfect Little Death

Repose, for now

Repose, for now

Yesterday was perfect. I saw him, or her, while reviewing the graffiti longstanding on our communal fence. Two planks are gone, making the long gaps of missing teeth in a double-barrier against weeds and freeway. At first there was just wood and some kid’s bubbly spraypaint letters, dust and scum on the concrete foundation. I looked right at him or her and didn’t see the shape. The mind sees what it expects to see.

Thunderstorms flashed and boomed to the east yesterday night, but only castoff drops tantalized the city. The day was not hot but not cool either, sultry with the trapped tropic damp Hawaii was done with. By afternoon radar showed a swirling yellow and orange rain comma lumbering up from the south; the sky was the smeary haze that lives at the ocean, the sun the brightest blot in shapeless decks of grey. Today is trash day, and yesterday I took it upon myself to trim some bushes and dispense, with vigor and prejudice, a blackberry vine establishing itself on the retaining wall. A real fucker, like all blackberries, though not yet terrible. The vine folded up easily as I crushed it into a wad. I sprayed the stems still in the ground with glyphosphate: it’s blackberry, and it was only three squirts. I filled the neighbors’ undersized compost bins (we are all cheap urbanites with the smallest bins) and lugged them to the street, satisfied. I hate yardwork and it was done, so I walked the grounds, looking for more modest triumphs. I thought about finally cleaning up this graffiti and saw her, or him.

Yesterday I froze but jumped inside my still skin. He, or she, was perfect: the coat clean and soft even to look at, the paws poised as if to grip a pen, the line of the mouth as drawn as my cat’s mouth. The eye was mostly closed but open enough to see the black eye, jewel-clear. I thought he, or she, was napping. Many seconds passed before I realized it was dead.

I didn’t take a picture then. Yesterday it had not rained and he, or she, was perfect there, so strangely composed. He, or she, was beyond fluster. Entropy had not yet taken notice. He, or she, was a perfect mouse in every way other than not being alive. Honest: I thought it was asleep. Taking a picture would have woken it up.

August in Washington is free of rain, more dry than Phoenix, on average. Last night’s rain was something out of autumn going into winter: the steady but not drenching patter that chuckles in gutters and makes tires hiss. Months of it make locals crave the sun, but months of sun get tiresome. I was glad for it, even just plain rain with no lightshow. No lightshow is better for the fires out east.

The mouse held on through the evening. I thought about what it would do to him, or her: drenching the perfect coat, making the body sodden. Maybe it would hasten smell and dissolution, but that was clinical thought high up in the cerebral stratosphere. Mostly I thought child thoughts about the poor mouse getting wet in the rain.

Ego endures. Conservative gasbags on the shouting channels rail against the estate tax with statements like When I die, I want my money to go to my children, not the government. We all do this, not just conservatives, but conservatives are least amenable to having it pointed out that when they die, they are dead. There is no I in death. By definition, the thing that wants and needs no longer exists; they can have no wants. But the ego continues to be the star of its own movie, projecting itself into a future where it does not exist, and we pronounce such non sequiturs all the time. We can’t help it. We can’t understand what it means to not exist.

Life is hard outside. Feral cats are said to live five years or less, if they’re lucky. My cat, who lives inside with good food and unappreciated veterinary care, will probably live to be fifteen or so. To be four and a bird is to be a very durable bird. Outside there is disease, cold, hot, hunger, predators, and your own species, who often as not are competitors and assholes. Mice, says Wikipedia, only live for a year. Their problem is predation. Might as well be assholes.

This morning I get up refreshed, determined to get to work, to be productive. I wrote 90 minutes on the book yesterday and surely, despite fatigue and medicine’s icky feeling, I can do another hour or so. I can finish washing the windows, take pleasure in the garbage truck picking up that fucker blackberry. But the first thing I think of is the little mouse, and whether he, or she, got wet.

There is no he or she. I am firm with myself as I get the camera. Outside is grey and heavy with rain’s passage, air thick and not quite cool. Everything seems washed, unbrittled. The dry grass now has give against my feet.

The mouse is there, the it of it. It is drenched, the coat no longer perfect down but sodden and rough to look at, like discarded carpet. For the first time, I notice the separated leg. It is still. The eye is still barely open. It still holds some illusion of being asleep.

On the Fourth of July, I happened to look down at the neighbor’s garage. Fireworks lit and boomed everywhere, deafening and brilliant, and a dark spot darted from one edge of the neighbor’s garage door to the other. It paused there, ran a little more to the front door, then ran back. It was a mouse. Why was it out now? What could it be looking for? Poor little thing probably scared out of its mind, my girlfriend said.

Is this that mouse? No, ego again: was this that mouse? It escaped that terror to find the jaws or beak of another one, one that snapped a leg off and then lost interest. There are no other wounds. Maybe it was scared to death.

I take the picture. Should I bury it? It is an it, now. Does it matter to project human dignity upon it? It isn’t human and never was. It is a fellow creature, though, another mammal on the bus, and we are all on the bus together.

Trucks rumble on the freeway, planes fly overhead. Mammals have been around millions of years longer than either. Trucks and planes will disappear before mammals.

In Ray Bradbury’s “Frost and Fire”, people came to Mercury eons ago, marooned there by a crash. An undamaged rocket lies an hour away, but an hour is too short to reach it during the tiny interval between deadly day and night. Radiation has reduced human lifespan to eight days. I remember this story, one of the first I read: I still have the browning paperback of R is for Rocket. Sped up by radiation, people flitted their lives like vibrating strings during their eight days. The main character, taunted by the other rocket, dedicates himself to finding a way to it. I remember the rush I felt, sitting in bed in elementary school by the bedside lamp, as he scrambles the last yards, grabs the airlock, and falls inside as dawn breaks. Time lurches down a hundred gears, and protected by the rocket his life stretches out. Out the window he can see his marooned race buzzing about their caves in streaks and blurs. He has made it. He cannot go back. The rocket takes him away forever.

I leave it on the cement, in the open. Something will eat it in the way of things. I go back inside to my shelter of vaccinations and antibiotics, cleanliness and nutrition, electricity and science. With luck, these things will outlast me, so I can beat jungle’s odds and ask the jungle questions it can’t answer. Outside things will look in but live too fast to understand.

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Catch and Release

Last money

Last money

June 27th, 2014 was my last day on the job. I could have kept on, but a break so natural and effortless is something I am at last ready to receive. The newest manager in the ever-changing succession was surprised when I politely declined another year in the off-white hive, its promise of excitement and doing something important. We can only buy so much safety, and in a year the same desperate rush will still be there, the coming quarter’s rush all forgotten. There is always a new emergency when there is never enough. Money is useful, to be sure, but I have a pile big enough. A key idea we forget–or never learn–is enough. 

For weeks, the end comes slowly: my initial hour of heebie-jeebies at telling the manager that thanks for the offer, but I’d rather let my contract expire, successive hours of anxious repeats when the contracting company emails their incredulity and I somehow maintain my position. Then there are just hiccups in the slipstream as the weekends pass, the knowledge that paychecks will stop, that my squirreling behavior of the past eighteen months will shift to a new phase. Writing remains productive. The book’s first draft is less of a mess and getting straighter all the time.

Then the end comes all at once, as it should.

Summer dawn

Summer dawn

This is dawn on June 27th, 2014. Light comes before 5 a.m. at 47º36″, and light this clear this early wakes everything, even things that have spent all night awake, like cats. I get up, wash my face, take my vitamins and latest round of pills to at last defeat the Lyme (or at least put it back to sleep), make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for my bike messenger bag and walk outside to the clear sky invisible to the freeway noise: the body all habit but the mind aware in a new way. Years past when leaving a job or school my mind would be grave, or boiling, or stunned: this is the end and what comes next? Now I am fine with it just being the end right now.

Last morning ride

Last morning ride

The bus is unremarkable. I have ridden it sparingly since carpooling, choosing free time over a free ride. It bothers me a little, both as a cheap person and knowing yet another car out on commute time isn’t helping anything I care about. But an extra 45 to 60 minutes free time a day is yet another tradeoff: possibly selfish, but ultimately I can only live for myself. (I spent a lot on therapist copays to learn that, but you can have it free.) It feels good to ride and watch the city work through itself, circulating and alive.

Arriving at the second bus stop to catch the third and final leg, the Microsoft shuttle driver smiles at me. Hey, haven’t seen you much. She knows work, the lines in her face say, but she smiles and drives the big van, not the small van she had before. Yeah, one trip where I have six people and they give me this big thing. I tell her it’s my last trip, at least for a while. You don’t seem upset about it! She’s right.

Ghost way

Ghost way

Work looks like this. Some warrens and cul de sacs are populated: another crop of interns–some flaunting wild and sexually ambiguous getup, others straight from Midwestern Bible college–sit alone before their screens, their office space secured by very temporary sheets of paper taped to doors. Occasionally an employee or another vendor will appear in the custom of corporate departure: a box full of papers or a small houseplant held with bent elbows above the waist. There are few of these. The place is quiet, the project shut down last week. We are just here to wind down the fiscal year.

Idea factory

Idea factory

Weekday waking hours the last eighteen months have been in this physical space: two meeting rooms combined with a movable wall retracted, spare and loud and first, over time becoming crammed and louder. Had a fire or earthquake happened I doubt everyone would have been able to escape, so I’m hopeful to run out the last few hours without that irony requiring my appreciation. People are even-spirited: the announcement was last week and anyone with attachments has had time to process any turmoil. Most of today is contractors lugging vendor-owned monitors down the stairs. Fulltimers plug away at their interminable PowerPoints or are absent.

Square view

Square view

In the end, there is little to show for eighteen months: a demo application, if you have the right version of Windows and a touch screen; files of drawings; an app (yes, that word) for displaying icons in various colors; an app intended to facilitate brainstorming. This last was of great importance the past month. Now finished, it is unmentioned. Its ultimate purpose was as an offering to impress some wise wizard somewhere in the vast hive. Maybe it did. I suspect it engendered an elaborate conversation full of tangents and wide-eyed insights that might be valuable to someone somewhere, sometime. In the end it will end up like nearly everything created in any idea factory: shelved on a server nobody knows about, lost to the outside when the last person who knows the password is let go. Microsoft spends a lot of money to conquer new worlds. But is in such a hurry to get to the future everyone else made, it doesn’t keep track of all the worlds it tried to invent, and all the closets it put them in.

I feel little connection and no loss. I am grateful to have had the job during a very difficult time, but that desperation faded last fall. After that, I was only in it for the money. Am I happy? I am not panicked, fearful, or shamed. I feel hopeful and just fine. I need to do something different now.

At 11:30 the beer and pizza comes, and with it the Big Boss. At least, the biggest we have. Full of an eight-year-old’s energy, he has zip-zinged the project and its tribe for the past two or three years to end up junked in the ditch, but he holds no grudges. He relates the old days and the new days, how excited he was and how proud he is. He pulled every lever and tried every trick, but in the end The Big Answer came down from on high: The Big No. The company only made $14.46 billion the previous quarter, down from a record of over $25 billion the previous quarter. In response, vendors let go company-wide and projects trimmed. But then, Microsoft has always acted like the old heiress living in a rented room, living off church handouts to keep from running the hot plate. One can only laugh.

Emptied and empty

Emptied and empty

Things break up. I wander the halls and take pictures, free of both remorse and expectation. A friend calls quickly to wish me well in the transition. I am touched by this thoughtfulness, and that of everyone I know. Everyone is supportive. You don’t have any kids, the friend with three told me last year. You can do whatever you want. Texts come in through the day: Time for adventure! I look out the windows at the parking lots, the office buildings, the entire suburban consumerist industrial project. It will go away some day, but not tomorrow. When Microsoft cuts off the free soda, we will all know it is the beginning of The End.

Squirrels and shiny things

Squirrels and shiny things

I am useful and honorable, updating some tablet computers that don’t belong to the group before handing them back to someone whose also on his last day. He smiles through his beard, hands full of tablets: well, seeya! I fill canvas bags with my vendor’s equipment and haul it to my girlfriend’s car. I remove my plant in homage to Steve Martin’s The Jerk: I’m gonna take this plant, and this keyboard, and this book, and this…. For the first time, I have a real conversation with a woman who sits behind me. She has worked in TV and shares stories of being a colorist. I feel stupid I never talked to her before the last day.

The Big Boss is in his office, all smiles and no desperation. This place, I mean, jeez. He turns on a demon’s voice. Thank you for your years of devoted service. Now go tell all the people you have told are doing great work their project is cancelled. When you’re done with that, tell these young children there is no Santa. We laugh about it. Why not? That’s the power we have.

When school let out for the summer, there was rush, release, a massive catharsis that thundered in every inch of air shouted out every throat. By college the release had become a quieter putting down in the hour before heading off to work. Today the end is like a line on a map: not there at all, only in the minds that agree it exists. I say goodbye to the people that are left, have a longer talk with the oldest fulltimer still there. He seems the most incredulous that the end is real. Well. Well. Good luck to you. He shakes my hand.

On the other side of the door, I am on the other side of the door.

Thursday, June 26th, 2014 is the last carpool day. Traffic is rough and The Lane, even though it stops midway across the lake, saves its many creeping minutes. Sun streams in westward brilliant, the city’s neat houses set dull in the hillside, the sky behind them bright.

The woman I have been carpooling with is older, a teacher of anthropology working at the college near my office building. She has suffered many losses these past few months: her mother, her oldest mentor, another friend. Now she is losing her ride and conversation with somebody who appreciates a hippie-generation anthropologist. She is thankful a ridematch website and chance have brought us together. So am I. She is someone who appreciates leaving the rat race because she remembers when people called it that and had dreams of leaving it.


She gives me the envelope you see at the top. She keeps tabs of her rides and insists on paying for them. This is the last of that. The note is more. It says grateful things.

I am grateful for having a place to go when I needed one, and someone to talk to in the morning, in the rain.

Big dawn

Big dawn








The Deal Vibrant

The standard stock photo of business

The standard stock photo of business. The future is graphs!

As insults go, one from junk email should incite small reaction. It was standard marketing puff I hadn’t asked for. Well I know such emails come from managerial delusions of grandeur, someone in a tie or uncomfortable heels whose starry eyes are too enamored with the products and services they are responsible for pushing to realize nobody will care about another email pimping for them, not even the people paid to write them. But this one is so insipid it begs the question: were the people paid to write and design this one paid?

“Important Tax Tips and Information from TaxAudit.com” came to me last Monday (May 12). From the supposed desk of Mark Olander, CEO, this competent but undistinguished memo features personal finance articles that are an odd mix of bland and “how to get rich at a respectable, legal clip”. A slip of the finger opening instead of deleting, I scanned the opening paragraphs with their alluring read more links: selling a house, rental properties and taxes, blah. Chance had me scroll one tick more, to this:

Is Retirement Even Possible for Gen-Xers? Do I Even Want to Retire?

For many of us, saving enough to retire may not be possible. But before we toss our hands in the air, let’s look at this problem in an entirely different way. What about working longer? Maybe loving what we do? Staying vibrant in mind and body for as long as possible. Read more

Morning is quiet under fluorescent light, the tea cooling, sun in the windows, and in that moment of held breath I experience a riot. Shock, of course, but politely contained, like a dowager served cold tea. A writer’s slump at the last sentence that isn’t a sentence. And then the hot flush of insult. I feel like last fall when someone tried to break into my house: violated to the point of dispensing physical harm.

No Gen-X-er would write such tripe. Your lead graf contains an incomplete sentence. Who the fuck are you, puff email writer?

For no reason that is good in the literal sense, I click through. The essay (I know the fashion is to call such thing “blog posts”, but my indignation forces me to hold this writing to a higher standard) is 600 words of loose and gushing prose that holds a theme as well as one expects from a middling freshman English paper. Author Eric Linden, The Wily Tax Blogger, has a “varied” background, “ranging from the rock and roll business to high technology. He loves tax law, prunes, and swimming laps in the San Francisco bay.”

Armed only with this knowledge, perhaps your Old Man Grumpus impressions are similar to mine:

  • These qualifications (to be generous and call them such) sound appropriate for fast food, “hospitality”, or, to paraphrase Mike Myers’ character Wayne, a wide variety of nametag and hairnet jobs.
  • Someone with a love of tax law would surely put a ring on it with a degree from an accredited college. Wouldn’t such a person proudly name this institution before a love of prunes?
  • “Rock and roll business” is a rich mine of unseemly implications. No musician I know refers to their craft as a “business”, and loathe dealing with money as an evil. Does the swimming help you play whatever it is you play better? Or, to select another likely stereotype, make you more wily at stepping on others?
  • Are you proud of this bio? It would embarrass the thirteen-year-old me. It’s an insult to no-good kids.

Thus needlessly incensed, I read through Linden’s prose. Key gems [sic]:

  • I mean, I am a frugal individual right? Heck, I have never even had a car payment. I drink Folgers! Well, okay, I do occasionally have a $2 Starbucks espresso but dang it that is rare! I can retire and live these Golden Years too, right?
  • For many, saving nearly $3 million is a stretch, if not outright impossible. This is not to say it cannot be done, but unless something drastically changes, many of us may never be able to retire.
  • But before you toss your hands in the air with despair, let us look at this problem in an entirely different way. What about working longer?

In the piece, Eric uses dang twice.

The essay’s key message is: if you were born between approximately 1965 and 1985–the height of the West’s consumption and material wealth, and the greatest period of wealth in all of human history–you have walked into the party in its waking up wearing a lampshade phase, and you, dear Generation Xer, get to clean up, go to work forever, and pay everything off.

This doesn’t disturb me. It’s self-evident. Humanity exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity some time ago, or will soon, or will this century (depending on your mood and the assumptions behind your reference. I leave this research as an exercise for the reader.) Most of the money in the Too-Big-To-Fail banks is not even paper, just numbers on a hard drive your ostensibly democratic government handed to them over your overwhelming objection. The planet’s human population is over 7 billion, with about 216,000 humans born every day. There has never been enough to go around, and I don’t see how this can get any better with fossil fuel depletion, climate change, and the near-total domination of big business capitalism.

Retirement is a very modern idea, one I believe is an historical aberration restricted to the big industrial economies of late. (This isn’t my idea, though one I can’t find a good reference for.) Never before the Twentieth Century, and FDR’s New Deal in America and the socialist reforms in postwar Europe, have so many people been able to live for so long, in such health, with such material security from their own savings plus socialized pensions (which Social Security was not really intended to be, but ended up becoming). Everyone alive has grandparents that were able to live their final years with dignity and some leisure due to these changes that would have been unthinkable as recently as, say, 1920. A paper I read twenty years ago in college claimed Social Security was the greatest anti-poverty program for the elderly in human history, and I think that’s more or less right.

But you can’t spend what you don’t have, something the financial wizards and tech nerds do not understand, or are in denial about. All the debt from all those pointless wars, the bank bailouts, and who knows what else stares out of the accounting books–both the public ones and all the secret insider ones. That the richest rich pay less than everyone else doesn’t help. Are people worried, indifferent, angry, helpless? Are they those things toward the right things? It’s hard to know, especially if you have the TV on.

I turned 44 this year. I hope to be one of those that exceed 100, as Eric notes half of us Xers are expected to. Piling up enough money to reach an arbitrary age and then never work again doesn’t seem realistic. I’ve done several different things already and expect to do more. The world is changing and the consumerist model won’t last anyway–it can’t, if we want a habitable planet. Good work which offers real value and sustains something larger than the individual is good, and not just because it keeps you busy. We all need meaning.

Wily Eric infuriates me for his lack of meaning. It is projection to assume he is an early-twenties know-nothing who scrabbles together food money with little writing jobs and “rock-and-roll business” and doesn’t know what couch he’s crashing on tonight, and I risk becoming a grumpy old man by imagining him so. But his juvenile style and tone show a lack of serious thought.

Dear Eric, have you considered why people will not be able to retire at 65? Could it be because their jobs pay too little for them to save anything? Or that they may be lost to the system because they’ve been out of work so long they gave up looking? Maybe they got seriously sick–a sure road to financial ruin in America.

Eric counsels staying vibrant and loving what you do. How vibrant are those over 70 you know? My 86-year-old grandmother worked as a waitress up to the day she died, and she was as vibrant as she was lucky. Septuagenarians may be sprightly, but can they keep carrying mail, or switch to that as a career? Doctors are seen as cerebral, but most are on their feet all day. Even vibrant 70+ folks beg the question: what of the aged’s mental competence? The culture is full of jokes about the old not being able to drive or operate their phones. Shall we consign them to work too? At what?

In the most literal sense, Eric doesn’t understand what he’s talking about, and this is why his offhand suggestion to “do what you love, forever” enrages me. You write about working for forty years and then finally hanging up your computer mouse. If you think that’s work, you don’t know what work is.

Back in rock and roll’s heyday, when the Boomers were your age, the most serious breach of the social contract was to sell out. I understand that’s changed, but do me and my elders a favor. When you sell out, be tasteful and do it in private.

Eric, I hope you got paid for that gem. In money, I mean. Stay vibrant!


Michael Glawogger Has Died

Michael Glawogger, the

Michael Glawogger, the “Austrian cowboy”

The Austrian documentary film director Michael Glawogger died on April 22, 2014, a result of misdiagnosed malaria on a film shoot in Liberia. He was only 54.

The news came to me only this week. In some places, news does not travel fast, and this is a comfort to me. It allows time for the news to breathe, a gift of suspension we had when we wrote letters and when people had dignity in waiting.

Workingman’s Death is his 2005 documentary about hard labor, the kind of work we in the West prefer to believe banished to history books and now exists only as cinematic simulation. I saw it a few years ago at the Northwest Film Forum, the poster image in that week’s email of coming attractions some mix of color and shape and promise of unmodified truth I knew I had to see it, even on a school night.

I wrote about this night and the film’s sheer beauty and horror remains fixed but not frozen, its nebula spreading outward, coloring men behind counters, filling in shadows under the women manning construction barricades. Seattle has a serious fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. This would be a fortune to the people Glawogger filmed in Workingman’s Death.

I appreciate the film even more now. Unlike most films that nowadays declare themselves documentaries, Workingman’s Death has no message and no opinion. There is no narrator. The film crew goes into the same dangerous and inhuman environments as its subjects and the cameras roll. Glawogger is never seen. He knew to get out of the way of the color of the sulfur plumes, the gulping pause of tons of ship steel falling to a beach, the Bosch-cum-Kubrick horrorshow of a meatmarket-slaughterhouse, all the filth blooming color. Seeing this movie at 42 was like seeing Koyaanisqatsi at 13: a journey while sitting still, the view of a thing that could never fit in words streaming at rest in absolute time.

Glawogger was there that night at the Film Forum. Tall, bigger than befit lanky, scruffy but combed, his face the big, Teutonic block of someone who had made choices and not looked back, he took questions after the showing. His voice was soft and buttered with an accent: not harsh at all. He thought about his answers. He smacked around some twentysomethings who tried way too hard with their questions, something about whether he was exploiting the workers he filmed. Older people smiled and laughed. I rolled my eyes, because I might have asked similar questions that I now saw as naive. He wore cowboy boots. I liked him. In the lobby he was swarmed with people, and I decided I had nothing worthwhile to say to him. How many times can you hear I really enjoyed your movie, it showed me things I hadn’t seen in a way I hadn’t seen them before it gets boring? Now I guess the answer is: probably never enough. Making anything significant is hard.

Glawogger is not a big film name, at least in America. In a memorial essay by NWFF’s Adam Sekuler, Glawogger is described as a European film festival habitue, and “having a cunning way of cutting to the heart of everything.” Seattle U film students describing their epic ideas for their five-minute documentary piece, Glawogger said: “Do you know how short five minutes is?”

Here are the last two sentences of Sekuler’s memoriam: “He was only 54. Do you know how short fifty-four years are?”

ORF.at has an account of Glawogger’s death. My German isn’t good enough make significant sense of it, but Google’s translation is fitting: ethereal with the living body dream:

One day after the announcement of the sudden death of the malaria filmmaker Michael Glawogger were widow announced details for disease course…. Thus ill Glawogger last Friday in Harper, Liberia. The reanimation by the verge landed Austrian medical team remained without success. RETRIEVAL IS NO LONGER POSSIBLE

The poetry is chance from a dumb machine, but still beautiful, like something Glawogger would find. It is filmic beauty but with nothing to see.

Carpe diem has been thrown at me multiple times the past two weeks. I feel punchy, not quite glum, overtired; other days carried on a great current and held in a warm wind. The crawling glass tentacles of fear are gone, but so is some of the drive. Steady dedication is becoming a working substitute.

Those of us with careful lives have a lifetime of risk-aversion to overcome: save your money, get good grades, wear a sweater. Trouble is always around the corner. Your Uncle Eddie was fit as a fiddle, and then he didn’t put the lid back on the peanut butter, and two weeks later he was dead. So what do you think would happen if you didn’t have money coming in? 

Needs and wants have become confused. We are rich enough, at least with the kind of rich that people mean. We can allow ourselves to turn the color up and let things happen without comment on what they are.








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