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Heatolator Ministrator

Not a temperature

Not a temperature

Gainful unemployment proceeds apace. Writing goes by every day, along with the goal to be more disciplined and get up earlier. Obamacare provides against calamity, and the dental woes that caused me to get the quickie job are fixed. Groceries are on the cheap at Grocery Outlet. I have made rice and beans twice.

Being in the place I have dreamed and planned about since high school is strange. It is not quite real, but getting real-er. When my old agency calls with a job possibility, I feel confused and afraid: what world are they talking about? That has nothing to do with me.

I am not as efficient as I would like, but getting better. I don’t sleep well, but go to bed anyway, and feel adequate the next day. The drugs to sleep are getting halved and halved and I am not backsliding…anymore. Writing has a sense of progress, sometimes releasing glimpses of adolescent delight. The days of the strange spring progress: warm and bright, people lost without gloom. I’m not worried about my checking account. Really.

Hiccups are minor, first-world problems. I patch a wall and can’t get the paint to match. $500 for an extra month of COBRA I didn’t anticipate, to cover the teeth. I keep not-quite-finishing cleaning up an old phone and computer on my to-do list since November. Nothing big, all handle-able. The ice is thick this far from shore.

Last week, something strange happened to the hot water. It was hot, and then it wasn’t. I was preparing for bed and didn’t worry: a bubble in the gas line. Next morning it was hot. A few seconds later, it petered out. Down in the garage, the control panel flashed C7, then 76. I flipped the breaker and it returned to 116. A minute of hot water ensued before giving out again.

My initial reactions of frustration and fear–how much is this gonna be?–are muted. For a brief span, I home in on those fixer skills learned in high school and college: who to call in the Yellow Pages, what Haynes and Chilton fixit manuals the library may have on water heaters. But this is a new era and grownup neurons connect to the first principle: Googling “Rheem water heater C7 76”. Days of 1987 futzing are reduced to one–very effective–2015 second. Therer’s lots of traffic on a common complaint: blown capacitors in the water heater’s insect brain. I called 877 123 XYZZ and they said they’d send me a new controller. Thanks, I called ’em and they’re giving me one too. That trouble code has its own number! 866 ABC 1234. HTH. 

In September I will have lived in this house four years. The fact sits in front of me like a dog made from Kubrick monolith: no shock, awesome presence. In May, the four years since my divorce came and sat with the same substance: black, smooth, quiet. No shadows lay over anything–the spring has been unusually sunny. The house, which clanged with newfound emptiness, is now new-ish. When I return from a trip, it still smells of fresh paint and new carpet. I haven’t gotten lost in the 976 square feet in some time. It’s time for something to break.

Calling the number rewards the good sense I had to write down the model and serial numbers: Rheem RTG-74XN-2, RHNG0807900362. Transfers between a variety of accents puts me with a Tankless Service Specialist. C7 76 must have some infamy. Without discussion, Rheem is happy to send me a new controller board, with instructions, “as a courtesy replacement”. I am grateful for the wisdom of the crowd. I’ll even save them hiring a plumber and do it myself.

Difficult nights are rare, aside from the trouble sleeping, or overdrugging myself to get to sleep, leaving the next day insulated and hazy. Trouble comes more in the afternoon, with the bright light. It looks like childhood summer out there, with the high blue sky and the grass dried to hay. The neighborhood is quiet.

Childhood summers had a sliced quality. I can’t find a good word, but try this. Imagine the world is made of an infinite number of glass panes, all arranged face-to-face along an infinite number of planes. A stack of glass sheets recedes away from you into the distance, while other stacks run parallel to you, left and right; others run at every possible diagonal, up into the sky and down into the ground. No series of panes in its plane interferes with any other; nothing can break. It’s harder to see at night, but easy during the day, bright and still as it is. Days, I could step into the street and into exactly one of those panes. Everything was frozen and enumerable–one, two, three blades of grass, one suspended yellowjacket, ten rays of sun breaking off a cloud–the time inside the pane as infinite as that outside, but suspended, echoing. It didn’t matter what time it was. It was always that time.

Now, thirty-plus years on, some afternoons are the same. I am on a different street but the same place. Time is creeping and running away. How can I still be here? All that work was for nothing, because I haven’t gone anywhere.

No one will want to read this dumb book. I’m going too slowly to get it done, anyway. Who am I kidding? Should I call them back about that job?

The Earth is getting hotter. See how hot it is already? Your fluorescent bulbs and tankless water heater have made no difference, just like in high school, when you looked out the car window at the freeway and all the little houses, and knew it was too late. 

Later afternoon breaks the spell. Afternoon light lets the glass panes merge back into a fluid world. Kids walk down the sidewalk. My two trees are leafed out, green and growing. David Letterman is still on TV, for a little while yet.

New brain, same as the old brain

New brain, same as the old brain

The day I call Rheem, hot water comes provided the power is reset. The internet says shorting some wires will cause the unit to work despite the fault, but I only get 90 seconds of hot water before it quits. This makes for a shower with a fast start and a thrilling end: head under the faucet to get wet, then enough warmth to shampoo and soap up. Closing the tap and scrubbing in the open air finishes with a stand-up polar bear plunge. (Glaciers provide cold water!) The next day, the Fedexed replacement does not arrive. I boil a kettle and mix this in a bucket for a sponge bath, like I am camping, or practicing for after The Big One.

Thursday the doorbell rings. I leave the box on the table to finish writing, and finish a chapter rough draft. (I am a good boy.) The fixing will be fun, and no reward is too small.

The Fedexed box contains a new controller board and a chip to program it, as well as two sets of contradictory instructions. One directs turning off switches in text, but the illustration shows turning them on. The other demands buttons be pushed and values read off the remote control display, actions not mentioned in the confused-switch instructions. I call the Code 76 dedicated line.

“Which set of instructions do I use?”

“Okay, turn the water off.”

“It….I’m sitting at my kitchen table reading the instructions. I haven’t done anything yet.”

The call center must be in New Jersey: the accent pours out of the phone. “Huh? You haven’t done nothin’ yet?”

“No. I got two sets of instructions that don’t match and I want to know which I should use before I do anything.”

“Uh…. Okay. Look, forget the instructions. Yoo dohn need dose. All yoo gotta do is replace the board and put that chip in. Pieceacake. Whydontcha cawhl back when you got it put in and we’ll walk you throo it.”

“Okay, I’ll do that.”


The mass exposed

The mass exposed

Straightforward work comes together in taking things apart. A few screws release panels that reveal Japanese workmanship. Thin color-coded wires plug into white sockets, all labeled with exquisite neatness, in English and kanji. American plumbing handiwork beneath is rushed and crooked. I am transported past those glass plane afternoons to a time after, working on Clinton-era computers and cars.

The help

The help

I once had a warehouse job at the army base south of town, pulling memory and hard drives out of scrapped computers. A man who said he was a retired sergeant major worked there, a former missile commander now driving a forklift. “I love this job,” he told me. “Obvious, well-defined tasks and objectives with clear expectations of what success is. No ambiguity. And always home at 4:30.” He drove that forklift like an equestrian ballerina. Standing in front of the water heater, reversing screws and unplugging connectors, has the same feeling. There is only one criteria, one objective, and no meetings required to answer: is the water hot?

The board in question

The board in question

Like the gold head in Indiana Jones’ temple, the prize is tantalizing but must be treated with respect. Do I pull out all the wires and then stand there wondering what goes where on the new board, like in middle school? Nope–one wire at a time, from old to new. It’s easy, except it isn’t: the wires have no slack, so the new and old board must face each other, the plugs going in as mirror images. I unscrew the power leads without taking care to note which terminal takes the white or black, but you can click picture above like I did to check. Film directing class pays off in surprising ways.

Amazing satisfaction comes from this simple work. Even though I am stooped and my fingers are too big, it’s clear, tactile, sensual. For the first time I figure out how to zoom in on a picture on my camera, using its even tinier buttons. No gotchas. Everything fits back where it should, Japanese tight.

I take some time to enjoy getting this far. While the cat lounges in the sun I look at this dismembered thing, now halfway together. Cars were like this: old parts finally out, new ones ready to go in. Momentum will carry on after the pause because we are at the peak, dwelling here at this place of change a moment before continuing on, enjoying the achievement.

The warm, bright, and almost rain-free spring has been a strange companion. Where are the clouds and drizzle? Women are bare-legged and sandaled in April, normally a time of hooded windbreakers. I had anticipated mornings of writing to my SAD-alleviation light, its hour-long timer breaking my concentration into chunks. But it’s too bright for that. Sun keeps getting brighter.

Writing is slow. I am not spending the time as I planned: launching into a day when it’s still early, wrapping up by noon, spending the afternoon exercising to wear myself out and sleep well, repeat until done. I get up late, sometimes 11, and take six hours to write for two. As described already, I feel unsettled, but I keep going. Shawna emails a Hemingway quote: The first draft of anything is shit. I’m not one to argue with Papa. Still….

No TV chatters distraction, but the internet provides enough news, and also “news”. I ignore all but the New York Times daily email digest and two environmental news feeds. In January of this year, the green feeds release news of a new report on planetary limits. Four of nine planetary limits exceeded, researchers say. Remarkably–because its environmental reporting has been reduced–the NYT carries a story on the same day. A graph is widely reproduced:

The Nine

The Nine

Reader comments do not suggest confusion over the graph, though it takes me a moment to figure out. (At the risk of condescending, it’s a polar graph. Think of the bars as rising out from a central point, instead of along a horizontal line.) As copied from the researcher’s site, the nine boundaries are:

1. Climate change
2. Change in biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction)
3. Stratospheric ozone depletion
4. Ocean acidification
5. Biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles)
6. Land-system change (for example deforestation)
7. Freshwater use
8. Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere that affect climate and living organisms)
9. Introduction of novel entities (e.g. organic pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, and micro-plastics). [from the report summary]

Two-and-a-half of the nine the authors don’t know how to quantify (shaded white-grey in the graph). Land system change and climate change are in a dangerous area. The extinction rate and our use of fertilizers are off the scale. But at least we’re using water well (which seems counterintuitive given the profligate waste in the Southwestern US) and banned CFCs in 1987.

It’s nothing new. Since I’ve been paying attention, warnings have been given, alarms sounded, dire consequences foretold. Aside from the 1987 CFC ban, attempts to at least reduce the reach and speed of human destruction are confined to the 1960s an early 1970s. The free market has been allowed to save us instead. Now we can see images of our carelessness and folly in an instant, in our palms, if we are not playing a game or looking at cats.

1989 brought an epiphanal car ride. I know I’ve written about it before, but it sticks with me, a personal Kennedy assassination gasp. I am nineteen, back in Fort Worth, Texas, after some months away at a Boston college. My mother’s 1988 Ford Taurus wagon still sparkles. It is autumn overcast, and we drive a tiny portion of the long north-south galactic landing strip of I-35W. My mother and I are having a halting, prickly conversation about college and what I should be doing with my life. I am sullen, feeling trapped: school is expensive and isolating, but most classes are far meatier than anything I experienced before. I feel there is another solution but am blocked by my mother’s reactive blowups, fueled by her fears I won’t graduate any college.

Plains of nothing, corn, and single-story ugly suburbanity extend east and west. To the west are big squares of corn, now tawny for harvest, threads of potholed roads running through them. Farther west, suburban tract homes–little squares with triangles on top, like a first grader would draw, but lacking anything green–cling to arterials.

1989 is the rising curve of an echo of earlier environmentalism. TV news has even paid attention, covering the CFC treaty and the first reports on “the greenhouse effect”. Spurred by fears of nuclear war, I joined the Union of Concerned Scientists in high school. Their magazine outlines the looming threat of climate change–in 1989–and in typical environmental fashion provides overwritten articles describing the problem and what to do. This is the era of “Fifty Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth”, an upbeat, can-do book on recycling newspapers and turning lights off. The book is a runaway bestseller. That these tips are 1970s retreads goes unexamined.

The UCS magazine has articles on tree planting to capture and store greenhouse gases. I remember an estimate of 40 acres of trees to store the annual emissions of one car. (Now the EPA says approximately 4 acres.)

All these thoughts–college, my mother’s expectations, love of cars, greater love of trees, military adventures in Central America, oil spills, climate change, what else is there to do but go back to Boston and dig a giant debt for my parents–stew around as I stare out the autumn window, corn a blur. We are in a car, the engine running, one among many. Trees could go out there instead of corn, growing year after year. The blur going by would cover this 1988 Ford Taurus wagon. And then another blur, more trees, more trees to the horizon times number of cars times available acres–

There’s not enough. 

Like everyone reporting back from the mountain, the tale of the divine sight is wild and boring. This is just like that, but quiet. It’s a fall day on a Texas freeway and I understand: there are too many cars, planes, trains, ships, furnaces, pilot lights and Zippo lighters. It can’t be done. 

All the little plugs are snapped in, the screws replaced. The breaker is flipped, the unit ready to be plugged in. The cat watches from the window as I call the Code 76 Line again.

“Yeah, this is Rheem Technical Support. Can I get your serial number. Please.”

It’s somebody different: a black man with the black man deep voice, maybe bored, maybe tired of dealing with idiots. My bona fides are established. “I’ve got the board installed and wanted somebody on the line to walk me through it. I don’t want any burned out boards.”

“Yeah.” He shows no sign of approval. “All right. You got the board installed?”

“Yes, it’s in and connected. Everything done but no power.”

“Okay. You program it yet?”

“No, like I said I haven’t done anything, just put it in.”

“Okay, you gotta program it. Put that chip in before you turn it on.”

“Instructions say to write some numbers down. I don’t need to do that?”

“Naw, the programming does all that. You got the chip in?”

A postage-stamp sized breadboard with a white connector comes out of another bag. It fits in one slot only one way. “Okay, it’s in.”

“All right. Turn the power on.”

It’s on Rheem now if it goes wrong. I plug it in. “You see any blinking? Should be a red light blinking.”

A red LED flickers once on the new board. “On the control board? An LED blinked once. It’s dark now.”

“What’s the remote show?”

“The temperature panel?”


This is just beyond a window that doesn’t open, on the other side of two flights of stairs. “It’s flashing 82.”

The guy is nonplussed by my post-run gasping. “Okay. You gotta program it now. Press S3.”

I run over the stair mountain again and am press a tiny button sized for an infant’s finger. With the invisible magic we have become accustomed to, somewhere on the board a program runs and reads a file from the little chip. The red light flashes rapidly. “It’s flashing. Now it’s steady.”

“Okay. It’s programmed. Should be good now. What’s on the panel?”

More running. The temperature display shows 100. Running back outside rewards with the low thrum of a lit burner and a fan, humid exhaust coming hot out the top. Inside the water runs hot.

“All right. Looks like it’s all done. Thanks for the help.”

“Yeah, okay, yeah, thanks for calling Rheem have a good–” The line cuts off.

I feel a modest triumph. I take my time now: bottom panel back on after re-wrapping the inlet tubes against freezing, top panel next. Sheet metal screws are a simple pleasure, the threads snugging without fully gripping. I remember a web page about annual maintenance and remove the cover just installed. Flames glow blue through the little window; nothing comes out of a filter. Everything was fine already.

I feel like the retired warehouse missileman: the job is done, no doubt, just satisfaction.

A temperature

A temperature

Since the grey epiphany of autumn 1989, I have wobbled between two spaces. One is wide open, where ingenuity, Yankee thrift and responsible shepherding walk us away from the cliff and toward a future that is sensible, respectful, and green with modest bounty. The other is the dark place of all those science fiction and black fantasy novels I read as a kid, a world of puzzling ruins from a long-ago planetwide bacchanal, tribes scratching out lives while they hide from radioactive monsters from the sea. The B-movie presentation of this second is ridiculous, but in a way not bad enough for what a world 2°C…4°C…6°C warmer would look like.

The cost of wind power drops in half, and I feel like something could work out. The SUV craze more than cancels this out. Hope from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit evaportes as the decade goes along. In 1998, gas gets to 80¢ a gallon, and you can buy a Ford Expedition that weighs more than the biggest Seventies boat, and has worse mileage. 1999 brings the Honda Insight, the first real hybrid. My ex bought one in 2005. I got 73 miles per gallon on a cross-country trip. On the road, this miracle car is a rare oddball.

I float through a period of internal darkness where everything external is fine. Even before I get sick in 2002, I struggle with an inner narrative of us lumbering toward a dire future, while everything external is great (as seen from middle class white America). There’s peak oil, carcinogenic flame retardants, e-waste. September 11, 2001 is a symptom of a greater disease, and, true to form, the American response is to double down.

It’s a hard duality. This must be what the true believer feels like, wandering among the Godless knowing they are headed for eternal fire. My secret admission: I relate to their secret smugness, knowing everyone will burn. But unlike them, I know that ‘everyone’ includes me, and am sad. I am tasteful and keep all this to myself. But: the rainforests, the polar bears. I feel the worst sort of bad for them.

Time brings all the big changes you can go back and read about in four years of essays here: divorce, Hawaii, jobs, losses, pursuing an old dream in a new way. I ride the bus; I walk. I have a Prius now.

Here is what happened: I found a place outside the two I’d known. I can look into those old rooms of despair and hopeful curiosity and see them as understandable but limiting. We all need models to make sense of the world, but models are not reality.

Kubler-Ross' stages

Kubler-Ross’ stages

I don’t know when it happened, or exactly how. The Kubler-Ross stages of grief came up in therapy. Kubler-Ross never intended her work to be seen as scientific, or her stages as immutable boxes passed through in order. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are soft categories, helpers to group common experiences without limiting them. Kubler-Ross was only reporting what she saw, trying to make sense of things.

Decathexis is the dis-investment of mental or emotional energy in a person, object, or idea. (It’s fun to learn a new word.) A person facing death undergoes decathexis in his or her own continued existence. For survivors, the dis-investment is of the existence of the person who has died. This is what grief is. Grief, like anxiety, is a defensive barrier: the ego, in its narcissistic panic at no longer being the narrator at the center of the universe, throws everything it has at the void. Nature abhors a vacuum, and human nature is no different.

Over the past year a quiet struggle has carried on beneath my attention. Friends wax that our damages will roost on us but the Earth will continue on into the deep future. It feels suitably Old Testament, but I don’t think it jives with the science. The Arctic is warming at the rapid pace predicted decades ago. YouTube has many videos of Alaskan and Canadian high school kids punching holes in Arctic lake ice and lighting fireballs of escaping methane. At the latest big UN climate change meeting last December (2014), a group of scientists calling itself the Arctic Methane Emergency Group has dire talks about the melting Arctic permafrost. Methane is an underappreciated wild card. No one in the 1990s modeled the effects of the amount of CO2 that has in fact been emitted, because no climate scientist could imagine anything so crazy. In the same way, nobody knows what would happen if very large amounts of methane entered the atmosphere, or even has a good estimate for how much methane the Arctic (or Antarctic) has locked away.

The struggle is….what?

February cherries

February cherries

On walks the trees turn colors with fall. The November grey and rain comes in October. Cold snaps are few and brief. Spring comes early, crocuses popping up in February. The mountains have no snow. Nature goes on, but all the data says it’s changing, and it is.

Decathexis happens on a walk, from what I can remember. Maybe it has happened before and I’m going through it again, like Kubler-Ross says to expect. But I am walking and with each step there is a little less, a little less, shaky but always less. Less what? Fear, anxiety, flattened sheets of rage, disgust, judgmental smugness, that indescribable thing that makes you hop on one foot in the middle of the night and try to get inside the walls, impolite to show in daylight.

I think I stop at a corner. I am facing south and the great white edifice of Mount Rainier fills the horizon. Rainier and the Cascades are young: as mountains go, they just got here yesterday. Its glaciers are remnants from the ice age–from the mountain’s perspective, just an hour ago. They could be gone by its afternoon.

I don’t feel light, but it’s similar. I let go of things and they blow away. I didn’t even know I was holding them.

The Buddhists call this surrender: not a “giving up” in the Western, Cinemascope sense, but disabusing oneself of believing that the universe is interested in our opinions. The universe is not even indifferent.

Peace is a strange air. I realize peace is not necessarily pleasant–release is still falling–but it is easier. There is nothing to do.

Two days without hot water is the firstest of first world problems. Billions do not have a valve to turn to release cheap, plentiful, near-sterile and delicious fresh water any time they wish. Nor do they have a tub to stand in, electric light, soap, a house to keep this all and a store to buy more. Come summer, I won’t use hot water at all, the cold water a sharp relief from the un-air-conditioned day.

Will those billions get clean water, cold or hot? A house with electric light? A washing machine? Billions want them, it is assumed. Thirty years ago a billion Chinese had bikes; now they are repeating the most American mistake and building freeways and buying cars. Spittle flies off economist lips, their eyes big with all the money to somehow be had selling the Consumerist Life to people who have no money. Still, the machine works, however it does, for a while. It doesn’t ask questions of how much stuff is left for making all those houses and washing machines.

My hot water is turned down to 116. When I run a shower, I catch the first few cold gallons in a bucket and use that to flush the toilet or water a bush. I set the central gas heat to 65°F, and much lower at night. I make hardly any trash, and my recycling bin isn’t that full either. I use the free LED bulbs the utilities give away, and buy them as their prices fall.

What will happen in the future? Is there time left to preserve the climate civilization evolved in, lift billions out of poverty, reduce disease and increase health while not overwhelming the planet by sheer numbers? Will we make the Great Transition? I don’t know. Nobody does. Maybe we will. All kinds of things are happening, or struggling to happen, on the tip of happening. But I see the biggest impediment to our own survival as the burden of obsolete ideas.

I don’t know what the future will be like. The more hopeful part of me sees something more practical and egalitarian than what Valley geniuses can imagine on a phone, the darker the ruins and scrabbling tribes. I do not think there will ever be monsters. Any monsters are small and look a lot like us.

I have hot water. I will take the broken part to the used computer junk palace down the street and hope they take it for recycling. I will pick up cans and bottles on the way home. I’ve been picking up cans since 1978 and they keep coming. A future without discarded cans is certain, I think, but I don’t know what it looks like. In the meantime, I will pick them up, and when I drop them in a recycle bin, I will let them go, over and over again, as many times as necessary.

The edge of the earth is solid

The edge of the earth is solid

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Monkey Doesn’t Work Here Any More

[To have been published in March. Sorry for the delay.]

Call to fantasy

Call to fantasy

You can never get enough of what you don’t really need.

– Eric Hoffer, as quoted by Harold Ramis

Only now, as so often happens with adulthood, do I get the unspoken messages implicit in viewing life as a journey. There is the going, of course, and the looking back, or not. Which of these makes trouble for you gets the balance of your attention, until persistent effort has made that problem so small even you can’t find it any more. How shocking: the mountain, sharp-toothed and insurmountable, not even a molehill! But to see even this, one must pause. We aren’t much on pausing, at least those of us brought up in Calvinist shadow. We have to hurry up and get to work tomorrow. If we paused, we’d wonder where we were going in such a hurry, and why.

That, then, is the journey’s real treasure: the ability to leave it for a while. The pause lets you see the shape of it, walk around the animal of it, hold your hands up to its breath. That gift shines and and shines and can’t weigh you down.

Everything is steady now. It’s a funny feeling. The ground doesn’t shift, and the alternating feelings of floating up into a giddy Teletubbie sky or falling beneath the sidewalk are no longer present. Instead, the daily up and down is more even, and all the business occurs on or slightly above the sidewalk. Pills are at work, but medical professionals are quick to scold: don’t be so eager to give them all the credit. I don’t know what to do with this: if they don’t work, why am I putting up with Cowardly Lion libido? I get the point, as uncomfortable as it is to accept the truth. Unforgiving questioning of the old negative scripts–you aren’t enough, it’ll never work, you have already failed–makes them squirm and eye the exit. Whether the pills are a cause or effect doesn’t really matter. I am happy to talk to the medical professionals, though. It’s important to validate all their time in school.

Still, it’s more than a little weird. I am not sure what to do with devoted friends who are supportive and interested, and even more rewarding to talk to now that our conversations go beyond the immediate task of talking me off tonight’s ledge. I have a surfeit of loving and growth with a beautiful and dynamic woman. Health is more up than down. I have a nice cat.

My job’s end a week ago was a non-event. It hardly registered on an emotional scale, and this was curious but unconcerning. Since it was never meant to be anything but short-term padding, I had even less interest in bringing anything to personalize my space. There was nothing of mine to take home; the computers and monitors I lugged out belonging to the agency. The guy next to me was on a different team, but he was affable, and we chatted sometimes. I don’t think he understood I was leaving the job on a trajectory that did not lead immediately to another job just like it. To stop his questions of what kind of business I was starting, I told him I was taking time for myself to write. After two days the idea percolated through, and his shock changed to wonder. It truly seemed like something new.  

I met with my boss the day before my last. He was grateful, animated, and thankful for my professionalism (which still surprises me, as experience has shown this decodes to acting like a grownup). He wanted to take me out to lunch for a proper send-off, which I found unnecessary, and fate conspired to take all his spare time for meetings and “offsites”. In the end, he shook my hand, asked me to keep in touch, and ran off to a meeting. I never saw him the last day.

Blank desk

Blank desk

With nothing to remove, leaving is easy. I take a big monitor home on the bus and make do with just one. Its last work done, a desktop computer, its metal hull battleship-thick, is cleansed of all precious IP (intellectual property: software–especially the human-readable source code–and other documents someone, in theory, would care to steal) and lugged home a previous day. The agency does not need it for a while, so it sits on my main floor and works full-bore on curing cancer, sipping electricity in silence. (My personal 2009-era desktop at the same task shrieked like a hair dryer and made an obvious impact on my electric use, and so sits off.) Mice and keyboards borrowed from The Man are returned, to the supply room’s astonishment. I return sticky notes.

On the last day, I remove the project’s last vestiges from my agency-issued laptop. Setting everything up took weeks. Removing takes a couple days.

Goodbye to you, polite little thing

Goodbye to you, polite little thing

On the last day, anxious or stern or aloof administrative assistants (Microsoft’s title for secretaries–typically temporary employees, and all women) roam my pod of tables, arms full of red and white packets. Each desk gets one, even if no one has sat there for months. The woman that comes to me is the sort of heavy-set that would be very attractive if she wasn’t so worn down by work she could take care of herself.

Everyone is being moved, as is standard Microsoft procedure: every six months or so, groups are moved to a different building, or a team broken into separate molecules and dispersed to different campuses. Most often this occurs when a project is in a critical phase, deadline looming, everyone bleary-eyed and sleeping in their cars. I have not been able to discern what the intent is, though the effect is to make in-person communication impossible. On a previous year-long assignment, I was moved four times to four different buildings.

The woman looks at the surface of me, like an elementary school teacher who has realized she dislikes kids. “What’s your alias?”

Throughout this job, admins have come by at regular intervals asking for my shorthand network name. The alias confers a person legitimacy in the Microsoft collective, and existence in the machine realm. Without an alias, one cannot login to the network, print something, send an email, or even enter a building. All the records relating to moving my corporeal self is not related to me, as a living human being, but to these bytes in Active Directory. It is efficient, in that computer way. I believe the alias was invented by George Orwell.

I smile at the woman. My neighbor–the one who could not comprehend not having a job–has been abuzz with rumors of the move, gone with others to see the new location. I am removing the software pictured above, and taking the picture. I smile at her. There is no reason not to.

“It’s my last day.”

It stills her, flummoxed with her papers. I’m smiling and that’s all: no gotcha, no sticking it to anyone, no getting back. I have nothing to let go of because I never grabbed on.

“Oh.” She seems disappointed in an annoyed way. I have probably made some work for her, a bit of extraneous data to clean. She moves to the last desk. “Are you vee-dash-why-arr-el….” The guy nods and she thrusts a packet at him. She exits.

A few hours later, I check around my desk one last time. “Well, see you later,” I say to my neighbor. “Nice knowing you!” he says, happy.

Off and on, here and there, I have checked for Monkey. At streetcorners I look behind me. At home, I lift up rugs and look behind my closet door.

“Monkey? Is that you?”

No answer. The silence is that fullness that does not ring. The sky is grey but not leaden. Empty eyes do not stare out of soulless buses, and people do not huddle in their coats against an indifferent rain. Christmas lights left up are not a source of sadness. Somewhere, cartoons are always on.

I get to writing without the fullbore drive I would have when I was younger, and with modest goals gradually increased. I hold myself accountable and meet them, mostly. A film directing class spikes my anxiety–how can I handle this and get the book written?–but find a way. I keep moving ahead. Time is busy with much leeway. Don’t beat yourself up, I’m told. With some practice, I don’t.

One night the late phone call that needs no phone comes.


I’ve only got a minute. 

Some silence. Then: “Where are you?”

Asking questions puts everything back on me. Is that really what you want to know?

“I’m…look, I’m sorry.”

Bet you never thought you’d say that to me.

“You seem angry.”

He laughs, not a monkey screech but a mahogany purr. You’re a terrible mindreader. How’s that working out with the ladies?

“I can only go by what I hear. You said time was short. Are you leaving for good?”

I left a while ago. I was hurt that you didn’t notice, but I got over it. Always do. 

“Why did you leave?”

Pharmaceuticals offer an unfair advantage. They don’t get tired.

“Be honest.”

Oh, now you’re the one speaking from the height? You were such a little thing…. You’re right. It’s best to be honest. Look, things change. It’s all Brownian motion, things bumping together and wandering apart. Any sticking is a temporary arrangement. By which I mean, everybody dies someday. It’s the middle of the night–I can say that. But right now I feel footloose. It’s a big world. So many other deep pits of need to fill, because humans can’t survive a deep pit of need that’s empty. 

“You’ve found someone else.”

Not like a love interest. More like: it’s me or the void. Man, you do not want to sit next to that on an airplane, as it were. I’m giving out the best favor anyone can have.

“Maybe that’s how it is.”

I have a big heart.

“You don’t talk as much as you did.”

I only talk when I need to. Them voids, whether they’re real or not–theys can be big. 

“You sound satisfied now.”

Do I? Funny. Maybe. I’ll bring that up. Look, they’re here. Last chance.

“I feel all right.”

Good. I like you and always did. You made me laugh. 

The line that isn’t there goes as silent as before.

The film class is over. I am plugging through a rough draft and accepting it is a mess, and accepting the advice of the successful to accept that its being a mess is fine. My girlfriend took me to New York and the Oregon coast. She has a new car. The house is clean.

I am not sleeping. I have been dependent on clonazepam to sleep, and two years on a benzodiazepine is too long. Decreasing the pills to halves and then quarters is a modestly increasing goal. I sleep some. I have a headache but the world has a resilience I had forgotten. It’s summer anyway, and it’s bright early and late. It’s a good time to not be sleeping.

The edge of the earth is solid

The edge of the earth is solid


Asshole Stole My Bricks

[A paean to Marty Barrett’s Asshole Stole My Bike.]

Gone, baby, gone

Gone, baby, gone

Getting the mail last week I chanced to look down and see the theft. Recognizing it took almost a full minute. What is wrong with this picture? The gravel is stacked too high and should not be visible, covered as it is by bark. Isn’t there more moss? What has happened here? I realize bricks are gone. I am not an expert in bricks, but it is not my experience that they sublimate into a gaseous form or enter the spirit realm, their secrets intact. There is only one conclusion: someone boosted my bricks.

I am not angry, but flummoxed. Why would anybody steal bricks? You can’t make a treehouse out of them, put them in a gas tank, smoke or drink them. They are the ding an sich of the unstolen. It’s bizarre.

It’s not a major loss. The bricks were offered by a friend, who got them free from a demolition site, and after using them as patio pavers has a big cube of them left over. A bright fall day three years ago, I stacked a small pile of them in my car, the moss cool, the spiders letting them go without a fight. My plan is to make a sort of vertical French drain to make up for an unaccountable gap the builder left in a foundation wall. Jammed in the gap, they keep junk from running down the driveway when it rains. The only thing I paid for were two torn, half-price bags of gravel. It’s no feat–gravity does all the engineering–but moss grows on them and it looks okay. It makes me feel competent that something so cheap can work.

But, still. Four or so bricks stolen out of a wall? Could the thief not be bothered with a crime worth committing?

Kids. I think this like the jowly old man who will suffer any injury to defend his emerald lawn. Damn kids. 

Like some life-size spooky interaction at a distance, I have had some arm’s-length run-ins with kids. There is a high school one block up, at the top of the hill, and we all know what nascent dangers brood there: punchies and swirlies, or nowadays, hate texts and black market Adderall.

One morning I found my side gate’s latch torn off, and a backpack stuffed inside. It was pink and small, Dora’s saucer-eyed visage smiling out at me. I realized kids had jumped a girl–a young girl. For several minutes I was enraged. I wish I had been there, with a gun. I imagine the kind of girl that would wear a small Dora backpack, how the asshole boys would have surrounded and pushed her, and at the height of the hitting, called her the worst things they knew. But the backpack is empty: there is nothing to trace, no one to call. I straightened the backpack and buckled it to the mailbox, giving it some dignity. Later it was gone. I repaired the latch and keep it padlocked now.

New Year’s 2014 had me outside at 2 a.m. I forget why. The gate’s latch was again torn off between sometime around 12:30, when I got home, and now. My trash bins are disturbed, and the ground is ravaged with wild kicks and drags. My neighborhood has a lot of Asians, and New Year’s and Fourth of July can pass as re-enactments of the Tet Offensive. I surmise some kids tracked a rocket behind my fence, were terrified of fire, and wrenched the gate open to make sure nothing was alight. This is noble, and I’m grateful. The latch pieces are even collected and placed on top of the nearby mailbox. The next day I consider using stronger screws, but then, it wouldn’t be so easy to keep my building from burning down. I use the same ones.

If adolescence is a continuum, these events mark the far end, and somewhere our side of halfway. Among all the stupidity I remember, there were a few truly depraved young people: the animal-torturing kind, the ones with wild eyes who liked knives and guns, the raw ones who just liked to hit. Some of these went after Dora, I think, and they go to school just up the hill. The ones that checked for fire are what I like to hope are the majority: just having fun, some a little dumber than others, but realizing a house catching fire is worth some risk to prevent. Good kids, I can hear my parents and their co-parents echo twenty-five years ago, with approving nods. Sometimes I wonder. But they’re good kids. 

Dumb, to be sure. I see them walk past, heading down to the bus when school lets out, shuffling and lugging packs, laughing in groups or alone and grim-faced in the afternoon sun. Did one of you steal my bricks? I just want to know why, really.

And why is that?

When I was in high school, I had a loose friendship with a kleptomaniac. We wrote surreal poems in homeroom:

I was dead in a bed

With a hole in my head

When I perceived a liquid that appeared to be red.

“It’s only blood,” the doctor said,

But I didn’t care.

I was already dead. 

He giggled frequently, was extremely intelligent, affable and failing everything. All he cared about was pushing the klepto boundary. I asked him about it: aren’t you afraid of getting caught? He giggled. Yes. That’s why I do it. It’s the challenge. It’s beating something that’s not up to me.

I never accompanied him, but he would return after weekends with handfuls of cassettes looted from music stores, or electronic pieces from Radio Shack. No liquids. Nothing that smells. Gotta be small and quiet. The audiocassette was perfect for him. He did not take requests, but was thoughtful and would bear his friends’ preferences in mind. I never saw it, but others described a dresser drawer in his bedroom filled with tapes, all still in plastic wrap.

I don’t know if he was ever caught, or graduated. Like whining and fart jokes, I am hopeful his klepto days were something he outgrew. He may not even remember them. I do, quietly, to myself.

He would not steal bricks. Why bother? That won’t impress anyone, not even the thief. But I imagine kids that would steal bricks, laughing as they struggled not to laugh, dumping them off a few blocks away after the minor thrill of doing something stupid has worn off. I haven’t seen my bricks anywhere, but I haven’t seen any broken windows or smashed windshields either. The kids that stole my bricks–if they were kids–were assholes in that moment, but not star assholes. They will outgrow it, probably.

The story behind the Dora backpack lingers. That was not the work of assholes, but sickness. I would rather they had taken all my bricks and smashed anything, but left Dora alone, and let her be a little girl.


2014 – Last Things

Last sachet

Last sachet

As years go, 2014 was better than it feels to write about its passing. Things were done and said I don’t remember that were important, and that weren’t. Some may remember the unimportant things, and forget the important ones. Who can know? I’m sure you are in the same boat.

Above is the last dishwasher detergent sachet (a far more artful word than “pack”, which sounds like a borax mule) from a package I must have bought over a year ago. I manage one dishwasher-load a week, so this box of sixty must be over a year old. I’ll admit it’s a strange nostalgia to have–the passing of one’s dishwasher detergent supply–but these little orange gems earned it. Their orangey-lemony-janitorial scent wafted through the house, providing a daylong smell of clean-not-chemical. Touching them was an exercise in kindergarten fascination: sticky-gooey like a jellyfish, but firm like fresh bread. Don’t hold too long! All the engineering effort to make each package with its perfect seams of orange and yellow goo, tense against the transparent membrane. Did this stuff work any better than the box of boring white powder? For my child mind, the point was each load of dishes had a single quantum of exactly right clean. This was Fifites space-age magic, a product designed by Ray Bradbury to thrill and delight and prepare us for Mars, smelling like golden apples of the sun.

What else?



Shawna came into my life. She is my golden apple from the sun. We are going up together.



In the fall, I went back to work. Just three months, just for surprise bills, just to assure myself that everything was all right. If nothing else, I told my adolescent imagined audience, it will prove what my real work is. Leaves reassured me by taking on brilliant colors.

Working fall

Working fall

You and I and everything we know went around the sun. We traveled time together, sixty seconds every minute.

What ancestors knew

What ancestors knew

I had phone calls with my oldest friend. We talk about daily marvels and mundanities. The world is different from a year ago, free of panic and the walls closing in, the sense of failure and pointlessness. The world did not change at all, of course, its living and breathing stuff, all its processes and procession going on with imperceptible certainty, mortals like us no more substantial to it than a cloud’s shadow. But still the world was different. I kept plodding on the book, a little every day, and every day it became a little clearer. Plodding is okay because that’s how anything gets done. He rolled with big changes at work and a new sense of being here now, moving ahead, his music reinvigorated.

Each time we talked at his lunchtime, I hid in a meeting room or walked outside the building where my job was gradually succumbing to not penciling out as a going concern, having these talks, looking at ducks in a pond or the Moon high in the afternoon. Everything was different, even more different than when we looked up at the Moon in college, separated by barely an hour’s drive. But it is the same Moon. Evenings, once a week or so, the house smelled of dishes future-clean.

There were flowers.





Treasure Winter

He finds it

He finds it

I haven’t written since September. I had just started a new job back at the old place then. I was panicked by dental bills and a sense of summer ending: a beautiful summer, exhausting with class and naps to recover from class and another round of Flagyl and keeping the writing going. But the job kept at bay that fear all middle class people have of ending up like the guy above, that guy we are all programmed to think we are one screwup away from. And we are, if powers so decide. And big dental bills make uncomfortably close.

WordPress keeps a Drafts folder, and in mine are a half-dozen starts with notes and ideas. They are all different from the stark raving navel-staring this blog has mostly been about. One could become a wonky treatise on nuclear waste: why not store it in the center of town, where it can be looked after, and provide eternal hot water? (It’s so safe and all.) Another began as lashing out against some nerd fantasist I heard on the radio, waxing poetic on how “intelligent” machines will finally, at last, for real this time, solve all our problems. Having seen how software is made, I would find the supposed incipient release of self-driving cars the amusing grist of a Laurel and Hardy movie, except I doubt it will be funny when real people suffer. That one is mostly about how technology is another tool used by elites for their purposes, a theme familiar to anyone who’s read exactly one serious (or even not so serious) science fiction book. If nothing else, nerd fantasists do not seem to read these books. That post is titled The Rape Machines. A happier one is mystic, star-staring, diving down into deep past and out into the deep future. It’s inspired by the Kepler spacecraft, now broken, that’s found all those exoplanets. That one is titled Kepler’s Planets. One my girlfriend suggested, about the old guy who shows up at the house across the street Saturday mornings in an aging sedan. The house is maintained at the margins, its vacancy obvious to any practiced burglar: the leaking gutters and collapsing garage door aside, the house exudes emptiness. Standing on the street, you can feel the Sears chain-link gates never open, the mail is forwarded. The old man takes five minutes to walk the thirty feet from parked car up the steps to the front door. He carries plastic grocery bags weighted with something. Maybe there’s somebody tied up in the basement, my girlfriend muses. I don’t have a title for that one.

Instead, I have focused on a novel. It has been with me so long I’m not sure it’s now something I want to do so much as at last get out. Sometimes I feel enthused and get caught up in it. Confidence increases as much as it abandons me to the old tapes: who cares about this, this isn’t any better or different than what anybody else has done, it’s old now. But every day I put in a half hour, an hour, and hour and a half. It’s slow but it’s steady and I listen to the good voices, like I’m at a party tuning out the noise.

Fall on Elliot Bay

Fall on Elliot Bay

Autumn’s dazzling clear gave way to deeper autumn’s murk. Heavy air that had been in Hawaii only ten hours before made the green land feel like a sweaty sock as it rained and rained. This gave way to cold breaks where the sky reached up to space, everything crystalline and blue.

Winter space

Winter space

I went for walks; I rode the bus. I splurged more often and drove to work by myself, exchanging gas and road time for free time and a free ride. Every day I worked on the book, a day off here or there.

November brought a sense of good. Describing this is hard: it’s ineffable, always there the way anxiety or depression is always there, but instead of lurking this new thing soars, gently, its tether to the sky just off the ground, where I can take hold. There is something about the light in the November trees, the leaves on the ground, the crunching. It comes out of the trees and the sky, the black background of the command windows I stare into at work. They’re like the whole screen was when I got my first computer, running MS-DOS 3.2, in 1986. Out walking around or at my now desk, I can feel the excitement of that time like cool water on a hot day. I don’t know what it is or where it comes from. Here’s a picture of it:

How the beautiful feels

How the beautiful feels

Do you see it? I’d point, if I knew where.

A month later, I examine with care a supplement my doctor has suggested. Lithium orotate is a major ingredient. Months prior to this, the New York Times ran an opinion piece suggesting we all take a little lithium. Is this it? I’m not asking questions. It only took me months to figure it out.

Thanksgiving brings the end of my three-month quickie job. The Man is pleased and reeks of desperation, so I make a deal to continue another three months, but at 20 hours a week. The project is nearing an end and they are short-handed as ever, and the compromise makes everyone happy. It feels like the third way. Thanksgiving feels like middle school, with turkey and friends and cartoons.

In the long slide to Christmas, I keep writing everywhere but here.

Bright lights

Bright lights

My girlfriend and I put up the lights and a fiber-optic glowing tree she has given me. We’ve been together over a year, through challenges on both ends, everything getting better. It feels brisk and clean and open, the sky nothing to hide from.

Mid-December I use up my allotted hours and my time is my own. My noble ideas to get up early and write on the book are kept in spirit, if not in all-out attack: I have trouble getting up before nine and don’t write much more than when I was at work. But I am cutting down the klonopin, and the adjustment dents my sleep. I can handle it now, and I’d rather give up something I don’t need. Anxiety isn’t sniffing around, and while it motivated me to write this blog in addition to everything else, I’m okay with the trade. I don’t fear your judgment.

Belltown Christmas

Belltown Christmas

I am accepted to a film directing intensive. Lugging a cold, I meet with the theatre director and an assistant director to be interviewed. All the young adult noise of doubt and self-defeat and terror is on another channel as we talk about directing Chekhov and trading off photography duties with other directors. They seem more excited than me. Afterwards I take the picture above, amazed at how grown-up I feel. They say they will make decisions in the next week. I get a thumbs-up email the next day.

I take a break from the novel and finish a short story, I’ll Be There All Night Tonight. It came to me all at once in a dream. I wish I could write them down all at once like that.

And now I am here. The sun is out again, crisp, dew points dropping into the teens. Behind me, the cat enjoys the heater after annual shots-at-the-vet trauma. And I am writing this because I feel this needs attention. I want it to stay alive.

Cat heat

Cat heat

Lights are still up. I like lights. They engender a feeling of childhood wonder–all its freedom and amazement, none of its powerlessness and fear–that feeling of lying under the Christmas tree and looking up into it, where the magic lived. That is the promise of Christmas lights: that feeling is available any time I want.

Streetsweeper, on time

Streetsweeper, on time

Things are going as they should. I apologize for my absence, but good work is happening, for you and me both. The streetsweeper does its pass late Saturday night like always. Stephen Colbert is off the air, but new things are coming. The future is coming. It is the only place we can go.

New Year’s is coming, but not the dread after it. Fear feels optional now. It feels like everybody else figured this out ages ago, but it’s a new ride to me.

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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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