13th Floor Omens and Gravity
The office building where I work stands amid the modest skyline of our town, it’s domed top glimpsed while driving on the freeway or sometimes a sight line from the grid of numbered and lettered streets. Every morning I trudge up the north stairwell to my cubicle on floor 16, a solitary daily struggle against excess calories and middle age sedentary existence. Grinding out each flight of steel-framed stairs and landings that wrap in right angles, I note the floor numbers as I go by, one closer to a cup of coffee in our department kitchenette.
I think about the information workers like myself inside this building, who spend their days in the business of science and technology, this building that was imagined and designed using sophisticated microprocessors operating three dimensional architectural software, constructed by engineers and builders from materials forged, cast, spun, bolted and riveted in automated factories, materials made of ore and stone extracted from mother earth by gigantic machines and shipped along an intricate web of supply chains across the world. I think about the building’s integrated systems—heating, cooling, electrical, plumbing, security, and fire safety—these are the culmination of centuries of learning and knowledge—a multi-disciplinary triumph of modern human beings.
Minute daily ritual is the unsung solace of a salaryman, marking uneventful passage through quotidian days. My particular ritual occurs as I pass between the 12th and 14th floors, where each day I note the lack of a 13th floor, and I briefly contemplate the irony of this highrise temple of technology that superstitiously excludes a 13th floor—tribal fear of omens interrupting the linear numerical sequence. At 7:55 each morning I am momentarily pleased to encounter this artifact from the dark ages that runs counter to the sum of modern reason. This omission says that self-satisfied modern man may not be as far removed from antiquity as he imagines. As I move past the illusionary 13th, I contemplate the idea of one fewer floors to climb, and the fanciful notion that I am somehow cheating gravity, swindling the natural laws, deceiving the gods themselves.
Are You Ready for Christmas
One’s holiday readiness is a topic on the minds of many these past days, asked on elevators, in cubicles, at the kids’ school. ‘Are you ready for Christmas?’ My state of readiness is lacking at present, I answer these good natured queries, feeling a vague sense of dread, advent calendar closing in. But I am a man possessed of good intentions and plans and lists. I am a man with a credit card and the determination to bring Christmas home from the shopping mall.
My heart will be big, I tell myself, as I seek an empty spot in the Arden Fair Mall parking lot, driving Mobius loops, stalking bag-toting shoppers in a slow crawl of brake lights. I will diligently seek out sweaters and jewelry and T-shirts. I will purchase books under the potentially flawed premise that anyone still reads paper books. I will steel myself against my own wavering middle aged self esteem and enter the apple store, move through a throng of students and hipsters in deep consultation with attendant apple geniuses. I will envision and create our Christmas cards, posing the family here or there to capture and publish our familial essence in a 6x4 inch glossy, reasonably priced Costco verisimilitude.
I will lower my guard this year and let the plain sentimentality of the season reach my cynical, rational, overly efficient self. I will again track the figure of George Baily making his loping run of joy through the black and white winterscape of Bedford falls, having undergone anew his angel-guided epiphany on the snowy bridge. I will seek out trinkets, sundries and interesting consumer goods to put into my wife’s stocking. I will succeed in this task after having failed in years past, knowing this seemingly modest display of affection is the only thing this woman of simple wishes and deep sincerity really ever wants. I will hang my own black dress sock up beside the fancy embroidered Christmas ones, reminding the kids yet again that this is how we did it back in the day, with a real sock. I will preassemble bikes, scooters, remote control aeroplanes, stowing extra parts unashamedly in drawers, never to be seen again.
When the woman in the lobby asks, ‘Are you ready for Christmas yet?’ I will answer that although we have a box in the attic marked ‘Christmas’ I know that Christmas cannot be stored in a box. I will tell her that I am trying to remember that Christmas isn’t about what is under the tree or the logistics of the season. I will explain to her that this year I am getting my heart in the right place and looking forward to the only thing that really matters, being in one particular living room on Christmas eve and together around the dinner table the next night. I will tell her that having understood these things, I am, in fact, ready for Christmas.
When you are a child you are by necessity told a simpler and more comprehensible story of things and of yourself. When you grow older, you begin to notice the gaps in the story—you see the things that were not told, the paradoxes and flaws and imperfections, the stupid, the meaningless and the cruel. You see the artifice of personality and identity itself.
The weight of these revelations have the effect, for empathetic youth, of blowing their hearts to pieces. And then after that, in order to really grow up you have to somehow find a way to understand that your purpose is to make something new and beautiful from those tattered pieces. You have to realize that learning how to love is the most important of all our tasks… the work, to paraphrase Rilke, for which all other work is but preparation.
Browsing Through Skies
Browsing through skies
photo squares in rows and columns,
raining down my screen,
scrolling through idealized blue and white window panes:
azure spread over a scrub valley, or a sky above dairy farmland,
and here an airplane wing interrupting clouds.
looking through skies,
the graphic artist is voyeur of real life,
cuts and pastes together imagined scenery
batch processed, crowd sourced vernacular,
a digital workflow of elements arrayed
on artisan microcomputer workbench.
Looking at skies,
stock photography, perfect life--
not the thing—but guessing at a notions of the thing,
hyperreal semblance enhanced to supercede the original.
I am a wholesaler in gesture and approximation,
more comfortable living in this flat world made of pixels,
Browsing through skies,
ten million clicks of the camera shutter,
looking for that thing once glimpsed amid vast media landscapes,
aggregate record of information. Recombine! Clone! Mask!
We are harvesters from the omniscient browser of memory,
endlessly searching, waiting, and then finally, the vision of one true sky.
Christmas Poem 2012
My Christmas poem this year does not involve the shopping mall. It doesn’t shake its head disappointedly at people fighting over cheap discounted plastic items; it doesn’t dwell on the paradoxical sense of isolation one feels in a crowd of smartphone users, and it doesn’t express the exhaustion of trying to bring the holiday enterprise toward some mythical notion of seasonal perfection.
This year my Christmas poem doesn’t remember heartbreakingly beautiful old camcorder moments captured and digitized from the ether of forgotten time—the wonderment of our little children opening presents in a chaotic living room so many years ago, the spontaneous dance of triumph our son danced when he opened his bass fishing video game.
This year my Christmas poem isn’t even about Christmas. Instead it remembers one of the thousands of YouTube videos that flashed across the collective news feed this year—merely a video, an advertisement for cans of fizzy brown sugar water, featuring footage from security cameras around the world.
And what Big Brother spied was not tragedy or theft or violence, but instead a series of random good deeds and kind acts: strangers helping push a stalled car off railroad tracks seconds before a train rolled through; a fallen pedestrian helped up by a passerby; a dropped wallet returned; a couple on a park bench stealing a quick kiss.
My christmas poem this year is about the eye of God—ubiquitous video surveillance— and how it has reported back to us that we are still OK, and that this Christmas there are still at least three wise men following a guiding star, and that in 2012 there is still hope in this little world.
Crossing the Roberto Clemente Bridge
We walked across the bridge, borne along in a sea of team jerseys and billed sports caps, moving through a warm September evening toward the ballpark. My brothers and I had come back to visit the old man, and to show my son our hometown, all of us crashing in his cluttered bachelor apartment, amid the familiar furniture and mementos he has carried through decades, through other apartments, marriages and girlfriends. He has lived alone here for a long time, behind his prized windows that frame the skyline, the bridges, and the coal barges pushing upriver.
This is the city he moved to in ‘56, in the heady days of atomic fronteers, an old rust belt town reborn then in uranium and superconductors. He married a pretty laboratory girl from Wilkinsburg. They believed in science, in the promise of the future. Today, the sprawling, modern campus of the George Westinghouse Industrial Research Park where he worked sits abandoned, the letters on the front gates crooked and broken.
We walked slowly across the bridge, waiting for dad, who shuffled along behind us, his back hunched. Going to the Pirates game is a reenactment from boyhood, when we dragged him to so many ball games. All those years this man, who would rather have been at the symphony, sat with us in the upper deck—through double headers, through rain delays and humid afternoons when time must have ground to a stop.
One-by-one my brothers and I left Pittsburgh in the late 1980s, left the dying, jobless mill town, the hills lined with dirty row houses, old sauerkraut ladies in babushkas getting on and off trolleys.
The names of neighborhoods echo down the years:
Sharpsburg, Blawnox, Aspinwall, Lawrenceville.
The old man proudly shows off ‘his’ town, reinvented again out of the wreckage of mills and smokestacks. I catch myself staring at how stooped he is, this man who has always defined himself with a sort of forward looking youthfulness. But the 85 years only got his spine--his spirit remains unbent, still skiing, taking classes, shopping in the Strip for olives, fish and bread. He has a strange optimism for an old man, looking forward still, waiting for the next rebirth.
On the bridge we snap pictures like tourists. This is not our town anymore. We are strangers looking for a lost city: I-talian restaurants, pools where we learned to swim, our elementary school cleared away for condominiums. These places loop on the screen of memory. The empty red brick warehouses and factories that remain are dotted by shops with interesting names, lofts, glass buildings of the newly arrived software companies.
Where are the angry Union men blind drunk on boilermakers? Along the Monongahela where Pinkertons once cracked skulls for Mr. Frick, service economy hipsters fuss over coffee drinks, college kids swill microbrews and swagger thru wasted mating rituals.
Bloomfield, Etna, Rankin, Polish Hill.
On the crest of the bridge, we hand a cell phone to a stranger who frames five smiling figures. The invisible current of the Allegheny flows underneath us. Outfield light stanchions loom in the distance. A lady leaning against the railing asks ‘Is that three generations of you?’ Her bystander question lends spoken significance to the moment. In the pictures, if you look closely, you can make out a truce between father and sons—we have moved past the arguments and anger of growing up, have let go of the things we could not articulate. The presence of a grandchild is a reminder of the larger cycle of ancestors.
Going to the Pirates game with our dad is a reenactment from boyhood. The evening seems soft and warm. We have made it thru the dark tunnel of years to this bright moment on the Roberto Clemente bridge.
Bobby Burns Time Traveller
The ghost of Bobby Burns shambles along, flashing a sweet, missing-teeth, wasted grin, hollering that hepcat greeting across the street: ‘Yabba Zabba, Baby!' shouted with magnanimous wave and flourish, maybe a little mock jig in loud plaid pants and shiny white shoes. Yeah, there were always vague rumors that he had been a session man on the drums for the likes of Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey. The facts of his biography mattered less than how a whole crowd of kids a quarter his age adopted him, drawn to his singular genius for life, a particular vintage alcoholic, swaggering enthusiasm.
He's a ghost now, and every year a few guys go drink whisky on his grave. Midtown is full of ghosts now—all the stuff that’s disappeared or left behind: The Sam’s Hofbrau sign just got pulled down this year. Odd to see that neon icon unceremoniously hauled away on a flatbed truck, the pudgy, pink cheeked man in a chef's hat still offering up a piping hot roasted ham. And that friendly little spot hidden in the concrete bowels of the downtown shopping mall, with it’s unlikely transportation backstory. In the dark subterranean catacomb of the Preflight Lounge the swingin 70s were archivally frozen in time. It was just razed to make way for a glass basketball arena that will resemble a spaceship.
The list goes on: a secret lunch counter in the produce docks, the Beat Records, finally swamped over by the inevitable wave of digital music…now a suburban chain store. And the Monte Carlo, little corner tavern whose sign boasted ‘Open at 6 am.’ Where are the haunted winos who sat in those dive joints? Sunk deeper into dementia? Or finally reached the last call?
Our crowd of janky midtown punks, scenesters and art freaks rails against the new luxury lofts, high concept eateries and bro bars. But we are getting old and fat, clinging to our antiquated eccentric, late century, counterculture memories. History doesn’t give a shit about our finely honed vintage aesthetic. It churns and swallows us up as we puzzle over why the things we treasure just don't matter to the newcomers. This is their time, and we have crossed over, the way Bobby Burns did, to some sort of far side from which things must have looked a little strange and unrecognizable. Say it now, with a knowing, wasted sort of enthusiasm: ‘Yabba Zabba Baby!’
Go Wide, Mr. Quotidian!
Something possesses an old guy to put a mantra in steel letters out in the yard that reads GO WIDE. And then he sits out there like a damn fool and derives some kind of satisfaction from this rusting curio of belief. This sentiment has grown more important to him in these days of routine--office work, freeway commute, sweet homelife. Go wide, Mr. Quotidian!
In weaker moments he thinks it may be an empty souvenir. But deep down he knows the expansive spirit can't be contained. Go wide across all disciplines and facets of life, like Muir and Whitmen, walk in all circles, walk with kings and homeless dudes.
Today I am thinking about our oldest kid who is out there adventuring around Thailand. Godspeed to Audrey, and to all of us seekers and pilgrims and wanderers...go wide everyday!
Kleenex Ladies at the Glide
The service is about to start, and the ladies who are church deacons or helpers or something walk up and down the aisles holding out boxes of kleenex, and you think maybe they’re just doing this for effect, you know, church stagecraft and shiesters in pulpits. And then the choir starts and it's a hundred voices plus, rising up to a height you've never heard before, trumpet and organ riffs piercing the morning calm, shaking the whole place right up to the heavy timbers of the high old 1930s roof.
And before you can get your bearings, a soloist steps to the microphone and starts into another hymn, quietly at first, sweet soulful high register, meandering slowly upward, the choir standing on risers behind her, coming in perfectly underneath the solo. In this restrained mode, they are more powerful almost...and by the end of it she completely brings down the house, and you realize she’s probably just a regular person with a day job, but Mahalia and Aretha have got nothing on her, absolutely nothing.
And then some raggedy dude shuffles up there. His face is wounded and deeply weathered, but his gap tooth grin shines big, and he delivers his plainspoken story about ending up on the Tenderloin streets, and then finding his way out to this better place. People in the pews who have been standing and swaying and clapping all morning shout into the lulls…’that’s right, brother...amen!’ The saints we learned about in Sunday school, who were illustrated in fancy watercolors in our books, struggled just like this guy, just like the trannys and hookers and crack heads.
And no, well into the service, you are thinking thoughts you haven't thought in years...thinking about all the broken people walking bravely through doomed worlds. And just then you realize your eyes are wet and you look around and these songs and stories have broken everyone down, all the strangers around you, who don’t seem so distant now. And you know you are with other good people here, together in this moment of humanity…and it’s then that you understand about the ladies at the Glide walking down the aisles with the boxes of kleenex.
My Smartphone is a Precious Little Animal
My smartphone is a precious little animal that I hold and caress. It soothes me as I send messages, gather souvenirs, curate my digital identity.
At lunch, a parade of phone tappers passes, each in a task-oriented bubble. This street scene bustles with a strange loneliness.
Delete! edit! retouch! Reply! Customize the messy tangle of life until it is concise and perfectly articulated.
Where are the cubicle men gazing absentmindedly at shifting skies? Where are the associates stealing quiet moments of reflection on the elevator?
Everywhere, illuminated screens offer a new perfection. Everyday we go deeper into the machine with the hope of being more human and less alone.
My smartphone is my pet. I sleep with it to be ever nearer the digital pulse.
In a world where friendship is a commodity, my smartphone is my one true companion.
Picture of Sarah in the Garden
This is a photo of Sarah many years ago in a little garden in Bodega Bay, at Kelly and John’s wedding. They were so happy that day, Kelly who babysat our kids and worked for Megan’s sister. Kelly who found the man of her dreams after so many years playing an extra in other people’s dreams.
Megan captured this image of Sarah, from behind, the half silhouette of a little girl in her party dress, walking through a spot of sunlight, framed just so by bushes and evergreen branches and flowers, her right arm slightly extended in a wayfinding gesture.
Photographers spend lifetimes waiting for a shot like this, this particular digital arrangement of pixels, proxy of the unexpressed universe. Sarah was maybe five or six, like Alice walking through the tangles of a monochrome wonderland.
John left us way too early, just a few years after their marriage. He had a heart condition, and one day he just pulled over on the side of the road and died, their little daughter Vivian in the car with him. The last thing he did was roll up the windows and lock the doors so she would be safe.
Now Kelly is raising Vivian. Sarah has grown into a beautiful young lady ready for high school. I wonder if that garden is still there? Megan captured this precious moment--some things happen exactly once.
Play Like a Champion Today:
(a pep talk for the living and the dying)
How old would you be if you didn’t give a damn how old you were?
Candles on the cake--they’re beautiful, except when they’re not, except when counting years means chasing youth, and watching clocks, and making tick marks on the wall. Counting makes you old real fast, and quantity of life misses the whole whole point of living.
A good pep talk wants to be a little pissed-off, and involves some cursing--a spit flying diatribe, a blast of fire and brimstone to rattle us awake.
So take all your hair dye and face lifts and goddamn miracle elixirs and give ‘em back to the con men from whence they came. Start by moving your body, but don’t be the treadmill zombie. More important to stay curious and keep your spirit open--go wide across all disciplines and facets of life, walk in all circles, walk with kings and homeless dudes.
Guard your independence fiercely: tell the focus groups and big data machines that think they’ve got you figured out to go fuck off.
Go wide across all landscapes. Get out of your well-furnished, climate-controlled interiors, get out of your TV shows and glowing smart screens, get outside into backcountry wilderness--be small under the grandeur of peaks and skies. That’s how to be young.
This is the cheeseball overwrought pep talk that tries a little too hard, reaches a little too deep and grasps after platitudes.
What is essential? Ask this question point blank. Day-to-day, the really important things go unnoticed, or slip through our fingers...until we hit a crisis and then we rush off to priests and therapists and gurus to interpret essential things for us. It is good to seek wise counsel, but not in place of your own good counsel. This used to be called instinct and intuition. Listen a little more to that voice.
This is the pep talk in the made-for-TV-movie, where the stoic football coach finally explodes in passionate, gravel-voiced oratory, before sending his boys out to face certain doom on the gridiron of life.
Alright then, we know what we need to do: let’s do some living, people, let’s do some real goddamn living while we still can. It’s getting late...it is always getting late!
Now go out there and play like a champion today!
Post Historic Man, figure 28
In our textbook figure 28 illustrates Post Historic Man
reclining in the darkened interior of his spacious dwelling,
his agape eyes track images dancing on the wall, what seems to be
a splendor of color and figure in continuous loop and bloom.
His expression suggests that there are no words left in his world,
only these cave paintings, the mimic of forgotten tribes.
Post Historic Man, we come to understand, surrounded himself with
trophies and totems, entranced by evidence of his own existence.
In class, some of us mimic the imperceptible little noises he might have made
when something pleased him. We learn that he is descended from
a long bloodline, ancestors who built great cities, organized themselves
according to rank, belief and geography.
In my mind, I see Post Historic Man contemplating the notion
of his own evolved state, a fragmentary moment of recognition
flickering across his narcotic gaze, trying to form itself into a thought.
But we now know the world had run out of words,
and all that remained was the immaculate white noise,
the conditioned fast twitch response, the safety of high walls,
among all the other tribes dotting the gently arcing luminous horizon.
Prayer for Thanksgiving Zombies
As we gather around this bountiful table there are zombie attacks happening all across America. Yes, while we prepare to savour our beautiful Thanksgiving feast, wave after wave of zombies are advancing on their prey, shuffling forward ominously, a look in the eyes at once vacant and bloodthirsty.
At this very hour, in town after town, this breed of automatons falls further under the terrestrial spell of urgently broadcast directives. The zombies surround the glowing Shopping Centers...close in on retail outlets in a riot of Black Friday madness.
Tonight we pray for their souls, these pathetic creatures, who seek holiday fulfillment in the purchase of plasma TVs, blenders, designer jeans. Dinner tables have been abandoned. Traditions have been forgotten. Expressions of gratitude are halfheartedly mumbled in lieu of the greater quest to gather evermore treasure.
A holiday that marks neither a religious event nor a military victory.
Lord, hear our prayer for the wayward consumers. Save our brothers and sisters from their grim transactional fate. Amen and Hallelujah!
Prayer on Super Sunday
In this it’s forty-seventh reenactment, marked by the Roman numerals XLVII, we celebrate Super Bowl Sunday, a day greater than all other religious feast days on the American calendar. We add a trademark ‘circle-R’ after the name of this pageant that has replaced the faith and superstition of the ancients with its own belief system.
On this day alone, our nation is unified under one God and one common narrative, spanning all demographic groups and transcending team allegiance. Gun rights activists and bird watchers stand shoulder to shoulder; monster truck enthusiasts and librarians pass the keg spigot from hand to hand; muscular fraternity brothers and absent minded poets gather together around the luminous glow of the giant plasma.
Originally a celebration merely of the warrior ideal, Super Sunday (circle-R) and its precursory ceremony now embodies a singular spectacle of consumer culture, orchestrated by a wide order of celebrants—from high priests of the absurdist 30-second television spot all the way down to local sponsor-partner car dealers and pizza shops. So ubiquitous is product placement in this melange, the untrained eye confuses solicitation and reality.
On this February occasion, we come together to celebrate our material abundance with lavish offerings of food and drink, worthy of Pagan ritual. So then, Pilgrim, let your BBQ be blesséd with succulent Buffalo chicken wings. And may rivers of nacho cheese flow easily down our super sized mountains of tortilla chips. God bless us all on this momentous day! Let us begin our celebration with an extra-spicy Absolute Bloody Mary. Amen and down the hatch!
Sometimes I’ll catch a few faint notes of that sweet lonely music, and three cowboy figures come into view, huddled close in a little shanty shack, in a desolate place somewhere way off the map—those sincere, plaintive harmonies they made, the likes of which I hadn’t heard before, old murder ballads and hill country songs.
Where the walker runs down to the Carson Valley Plain
There lived a maiden, Darcy Farrow was her name
We didn't exactly know what was happening then, didn't quite register how pure the sound was coming off that raggedy stand up bass and five stringer. But for the rest of time, I imagine, we’ll be trying to get back there, we’ll be broken down and old, still clinging to those song fragments and antique notions.
Young Vandy in his pain put a bullet through his brain
And we buried them together as the snows began to fall
Eventually the shack we called a saloon burned to the ground, and even after, we tried to buy it. But what we wanted couldn't be bought for any currency. So now, it flickers in the lantern of recollection, meagre little shanty of myth and dream, fabrication of the sentimental mind.
Who doesn’t chase after ghosts? It’s a futility not limited to ghost town fools. People chase after lives they can't have, and lovers who don't love them anymore, and places that are long gone.
They sing of Darcy Farrow where the Truckee runs on through
They sing of her beauty in Virginia City too.
If there ever was anything true it was in this shanty, around a circle of orphans, broken people and true hearts, who hung on to those desperado harmonies, floating up into the hot desert air, in the middle of nowhere, dusty good time evenings so long ago.
Strange Habitat of Morning
Through a wakeful fog, the voice spoke directly, unmistakably: ‘we do not have much time left here,’ it said, not announcing itself in threat or a preacher’s pedantic tone, but plainly and absolutely, offering a newly tangible vision, a sense of the days, like this one, rising automatically in the east, ribbon of days unspooling through decades in a long, tangled scroll.
The bleary eyed man in the mirror reached for his robe, a litter of grocery lists, calendar entries, quotidian concerns falling away, as he animated a well worn routine of coffee and newspaper. The clocks in every room stared strangely back from walls, night stands and computer screens, fixing him with the inevitable gaze of hours.
A grainy, cinematic biography of scenes and outtakes played In the commute windshield, footage of people who have come and gone, the jobs, the places moved through, nomad protagonist in the desert carting his fledgling array of memories. By mid morning, the haunting gave way to a safe, comfortable drudgery of meetings and email.
But thereafter, an intermittent, lingering sense of that particular morning, of swimming alone through the manifest destiny of biology, a creature suddenly alive and aware of his strange habitat.
Those Travel Arrangements Were An Act of Faith
‘Bloom where you are planted,’ my friend’s mom used to tell us, she who was an army wife and moved to a new town across the globe every few years, she who knew what it meant to be the new kid, the kid in transit. She understood our hitchhiking, a travel arrangement that is an act of faith, throwing yourself into the wind, seedlings scattering across enormous skyway. That is how I came to be here and to have this life.
Memory makes a strange collage of moments and people, ribbon of highway, wayward souls by the carload: midwestern retirees listening to static talk radio, or the quiet, tired dirt farmers, the drunk indian teens in a pickup outside of Rapid City, the pale, homely single mother looking for a friend. In Eau Claire the five O’Clock shadow man in rags on some kind of last chance getaway — he pulled out the pistol under his seat just to show me. Trying to sleep under a freeway overpass out of the rain, all night thinking a hot bowl of truckstop chili.
Not a real hobo, fraudulent college boy version with too much Kerouac in his head and fanciful notions of dodging the long sequence of fluorescent lit classrooms and cubicles. ‘Bloom where you are planted,’ the voice echos down a pitch-black corridor of comprehension, feeling in the dark for a bannister, lightswitch, faces I used to wear. Nothing since has quite compared to the purity of strolling with meagre provisions into inscrutable destiny, the immense and impersonal afternoon waiting to receive you.
We moved past the grip of fear and the careful logistics of instruction books, actively, self consciously embracing the illusion of freedom, of which we will not again partake. Or was it merely a fool’s errand? I have wondered all these years. Thinking of the souls who looked at me and saw their own faded youth, their own kids, their own families. They familied me in my strange hours, kindness of strangers, a debt I keep in a ledger, still trying to repay.
‘Surrender to the unknowable’—it sounds easy on the lips of sages and poets. I remember the suburban parental cautionary voice, the discomfort of family room inquisitions. My mom, her whole life spent climbing up from her Croatian housecleaner mother’s tiny apartment, could not understand my dalliances, but still found it in her heart to drop me off by a lonely on-ramp north of Philadelphia, and watch her son, for whom she had sacrificed everything, disappear into the woods. Only now, with my own children, do I begin to comprehend the immense difficulty of that moment for her.
But I could not stay, had to go reckoning after some happenstance imperfect kind of beauty, incomprehensible, pure crystalline aesthetic captured in the crude pin hole camera of recognition, reported back now to a middle aged man in his slippers sitting at his computer. This is the treasure I carry. ‘What would you do differently with your life?’ This is a trick question. Those travel arrangements were an act of faith, and that is how I have come to this place and this life.
Halloween Ghosts & Magic
Our youngest is in high school, the last kid in the nest. But tonight she is out with her friends, so Meg and I are sitting around the house like lonely old people waiting for the next ring of the doorbell.
On a night like this I can't help drifting back to those times we had, racing around the neighborhood at dusk, the kids in Target costumes clutching pillow cases, animating their carefully chosen alter egos. And my mom, “Mimi,” would make her annual appearance in that goofy outfit, some kind of a mis-mash craft store sorceress. As much as she looked forward to her star turn with the kids, they just couldn't wait to get through the preliminaries and race out the door.
We hit the streets with the efficiency of a door-to-door sales operation, trying to maximize the candy haul. At the end of the night, the kids would dump their bags on the carpet in the front room and commence the serious task of sorting...and gorging themselves on high fructose corn syrup. Like any self-respecting dad, I’d beg for morsels and poach unguarded treats, rebuffed by Audrey’s withering stare.
There is a primal magic about Halloween—the joy of the costume ritual, the flirtation with human terror in a kid’s heart, the departure from normal school night rules. But that magic was a bit obscured from me back then, because we were so caught up in the chaos of managing the whole thing.
The house feels lonely now, but all evening I get a glimpse of that magic framed in the front door: all the runny nosed devils, the wide eyed princesses, trading in the currency of Baby Ruth bars and Starbursts, begging to stay up just a little bit later.
Tonight, the ghosts are real. Memory fills in the missing pieces, and conjures up the things that had been obscured from view—but not until after those things are long gone.
Vote for Crazy Uncle
Campaign speech to the family on Christmas Eve
Earlier this year, Uncle George suggested I might be a frontrunner for the role of Crazy Uncle in our family. Initially I was resistant, thinking, "how dare you suggest that! I am a normal guy, a low key guy. I'm not that guy."
But the more I thought about it, the more the idea has grown on me. Crazy Uncle...it has a nice ring to it, and it might give me that sense of purpose in life that I've been seeking.
So, I have come around on this question, and am now actively seeking this role. And to be clear, this isn't about me... I'm thinking about the kids, these precious children here, who need a crazy uncle. After all, imagine the thought of growing up without a crazy uncle. What a tragedy that would be.
If you elect me Crazy Uncle, I make the following pledge to you:
I will try to increase my alcohol consumption, and be visibly drunk more often;
I will make more ill advised remarks, will blurt out more things; will downgrade my table manners;
I will tell politically incorrect jokes, and recommend age-inappropriate content. I will make fun of serious things...and I will reserve the right to mock sincere, well meaning people.
I will be that middle aged guy trying a little too hard to be hip and youthful;
I will finally pull the trigger on matching track suits for Megan and me.
If you kids seek my counsel, I will be there for you with questionable advice and get-rich-quick schemes. I will be there for you with apocryphal stories (I will use big words needlessly). I will recommend shallow solutions to complex problems...trust me on this.
If you elect me to the position of Crazy Uncle, we will make this family crazy again! It's going to be tremendous, gonna be really fantastic. I guarantee it. Thank you and God Bless!
Coach John Stone
Hey Sean, I just heard from Bill Rapp about the passing of your dad. I’ve been thinking about John all afternoon. I pulled out some of the team photos from when the three of us coached together, and that brought back great memories. He was a steady presence in the dugout and at practices. He gave a lot of his time to the boys...during a period when he was struggling through some health issues.
On the exterior, John was a hard-nosed ball coach. You and I used to chuckle when we heard him grumbling or launching into a rant about the umps. We gave each other a knowing look whenever we heard his ever present advice to the kids to ‘bring a jacket to practice’ so their arms didn’t get strained in the early season weather. But underneath the grumbling exterior he had a lot of love for those kids. I remember him pulling kids aside and asking about how school was going, and telling them that studies came first. And asking about their families. He had a genuinely warm, caring side.
You and I were new to coaching—we were just trying to figure out how to be good coaches. He had coached for something like 30 years. But he didn’t try to pull rank. He let us run the show...making sure he always gave us his opinion (actually the three of us were mostly on the same page in terms of practice and game decisions). He had a real love of the game, and a sense of respect for the game. That’s one of the big lessons he taught me...respect for the game and the right way to do things on the diamond.
I am looking at the team pic from the 2007 season. It seems like a long time ago. The kids are tiny. The grass is so green in the springtime when team photos are taken. And there’s John in the back row with a River Park Indians cap on. The more years that go by, the more I treasure that time period—when Evan and Jonathan were learning the game. There was a purity to those few years compared to the hyper-competitive sports leagues the boys are now in.
People read a lot of things into the game of baseball. If it gave me a chance to coach with a man like John Stone, then it’s a helluva game for that reason alone. Peace and prayers to you, Johnny and your family. Your friend, Justin.
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