A Near-Life Experience

Ascent of the Blessed, Hieronymus Bosch - source Wikipedia

Ascent of the Blessed, Hieronymus Bosch – source Wikipedia

I drank too much and stopped in 2001, but started again about nine months later. I told my doctor I stopped drinking and when he asked if I was alright I started crying and so he gave me the number of a psychiatrist and patted me on the back, and that was that.

In November they started sending letters with Anthrax to Congress members and I started thinking my mail was tainted too. I had a dream about Bin Laden and a spider on my arm and my arm actually went dead and cold when I woke up. Dawn said she was concerned about my drinking and I said OK, I’ll stop.

My grandfather had a stroke that fall and never got right again (we think, from watching the news coverage of 9/11). Dawn’s friend Kristie was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease. Our neighbor got into a car accident and went into a coma, and we had a 6.8 earthquake in my office building, built in 1919 on land-fill.

The film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out and I lost myself in the characters swinging above ground, flying from tree to tree, imagined I could do that too in my state of life in-between, dreaming about falling, imagining what would happen when I hit the ground.

The Strokes made their first album and before it even came out, they sold out at The Crocodile in Seattle, August, 2001. They had to delay the record release because of the song “New York City Cops,” which made fun of the cops (‘they ain’t too smart’), and wasn’t cool, now with 9/11.

It was the first-year anniversary of September 11th, and Dawn and I drove over the Cascades to Eastern Washington, to a cabin my friend owned. It was out in the woods near a lake and he drew a map but I wasn’t sure we were at the right place until I found a rock on the beach that had his initials scratched into it, BWS.

I decided I would start drinking again at the cabin and we went to the local Safeway for some wine. It didn’t taste that good, but there you have it. I got up in the morning before the sun came out while the crickets were still frozen on the porch and sat there drinking coffee, soaking up the peace of the place, the solemn reflection of 9/11, what it all meant for me and the crickets, frozen there on the porch.

When I applied for life insurance, they asked if I ever stopped drinking for a period of time. They were probing for something different but I didn’t get it, so I said yes in fact, I had. When they asked why, I said I was training to climb a big mountain (another bad answer for a life insurance application). And so I failed the urine test and got a higher rate, based on my risk quotient.

We bought our first house in 2003, which was built in 1919 — the same year as my office building, the same year my grandfather was born. The house had a pond out front with a goldfish but the raccoons were hell-bent on getting him, and the fish became a kind of symbol of something pure we needed to protect about the house, but couldn’t.

The neighbors were from Aberdeen and went to school with Kurt Cobain which seemed kind of cool and unbelievable, until we realized the neighbors were just like Kurt Cobain with missing teeth and junkies for friends, which wasn’t really cool when we started having babies and had to think about keeping the house safe.

Years later, I started a blog as a “Look at me, world!” but had to give it up to make time for a writing project. Habits are funny, because you seem to come back around to the bad ones. And they tend to get in the way, the more they become a part of you.


The Notes Between The Keys

Gone Fishing

Gone Fishing

I spent the last year here rebuilding my confidence as a writer, forcing myself to see my life as noteworthy every day, gathering inspiration. I didn’t know what I was doing, and half-hoped the sheer pursuit of a Broken Down Writer theme would be enough to sustain the blog.

But giving myself about a half an hour a day to do this, I’ve been gumming the edges of what I really want to do, which is to write a full-length story. And I’ve been terrified by that because if I can’t do it, it will negate my life-long dream, and also because I know it will be terribly hard.

Posting blogs grants us an immediate, short-term satisfaction of casting ourselves into the world and then waiting for the chimes to ding when someone acknowledges us. And it sure feels good.

All our time is limited, and I’m happy to report I’m spending more of mine now on my hard-drive, picking my way through a story that’s troubling and difficult, as I knew it would be, because it’s forced me to go deep inside myself. And things don’t present themselves in a linear format, through the creation process…like life, it’s a mish-mash of scenes and impressions, hard to distill meaning.

I’m taking time off from the blog now in order to devote myself to a new writing project, and I’m grateful to you for being a part of the blog-journey with me this far!

I’ll leave now with a dream I had early last week, where I was at a soccer game and watching my team-mates on the field. I realized the game was almost over and I would miss out on getting a chance to play, which is not much different than how I felt when I really played soccer, in high school.

In my dream-state, I imagined whether I wanted to play offense or defense, and felt the rush of fear and anticipation when I thought about what I’d do when the ball came to me. I saw myself lacing my cleats, and that’s when I woke.

I really dread sports metaphors, but it’s time I got my ass in the game. Thanks for reading.

Climbing cocks, steep peaks, dry tools

Source: Wookieepedia

Source: Wookieepedia

When I look deep inside myself to remember why I joined the Mountaineers climbing club, the only reason I can come up with is that I’m cocky. It may be a male-thing, too. I had already climbed Mount Rainier, which gave me the attitude I could do anything. My partner and I had even schemed about Mount Aconcagua in South America, the kind of mountain where you pass corpses because they don’t have the resources or interest to remove them, and then find more when the snow melts out.

The Mountaineers is a club in the Pacific Northwest that offers a number of different courses and organized outings, including kayaking, snow-shoeing, and mountain climbing in different levels of difficulty.

I took the alpine scrambling class, defined as anything you can do without a rope. It sounds like it should be safer than rock climbing or glacier travel, where you have to rope up.

But I followed an instructor who seemed to get off pushing the limits, and doing things that shouldn’t be done, and I liked that. I also liked the fact he was in his 60s but looked about 40, had a crude sense of humor, and wore cotton T-shirts even though the club insisted that cotton is a killer because it doesn’t wick moisture right. He had the kind of beard that wasn’t planned or maintained, started half-way down his cheeks, and went around both sides of his neck.

Steve always gave the impression of knowing where he was going, which is a good quality in an instructor. We’d meet at the trailhead around dawn, groggy and farty, and he’d describe the route with uninspired gestures, sometimes pointing at a far-off ridge or valley with his ice axe, giving the impression he’d done it a hundred times before and was a bit annoyed he had to talk about it again.

I liked that the others who signed up for his trips were nut-balls, too. There weren’t any slackers or whiners except possibly me, and I kept that to myself. The trips had brief descriptions you could read about in small newspapers the club published, or online, and there was a rating system used to categorize the difficulty as one number, and the distance as another. The hardest trip would be a “5 – 5.”

We met in an old mining town in the North Cascades in early April for my first outing with Steve, a peak called Mt. Baring, a “4-4.” I was the only student as all the others had graduated or had more experience, but I had climbed Mount Rainier, so there. And I really didn’t understand it’s just as easy to kill yourself on a 6,000 foot peak as it is on a 14,000 one.

I was shooting my mouth off about something, giddy with testosterone having led most of the way up a steep ravine that wasn’t a trail but more, required pulling on roots and dry-tooling with our axes, when I went down and realized I was falling fast across the snow, and flipped my body into arrest mode, aiming to drive the adze into anything that would make me stop and find purchase.

Instead, I bounced off a rock and hit a woman in my party who was down-wind of me, training for a climb in the Himalayas, possibly injured now and unable to do that trip because of some jackass student on some dip-shit peak in the North Cascades.

News about my fall made it up to Steve, who had gone off with another climber far ahead to assess the avalanche conditions as we broke above the tree-line. I don’t recall him acknowledging the fall or asking me about it, and it was the one time in my life I felt true adrenaline, my body humming with fear, insensate, unsure if I was really hurt because my body had gone somewhere else.

We set up to cross an avalanche area, a large open bowl with steep rock faces and twisted couloirs above, the technique quite simple, basically spread out, go fast, and keep an eye on everyone. You spread out in case someone gets taken out, so that everyone else can go dig them out.

Most people in the party summited that day but I wasn’t one of them. I stayed back with the woman I hit when I fell, and we bundled up in down jackets and watched the others as they turned the size of fleas on the snow and disappeared into a dip, then wrapped around the backside of Mount Baring, to the top.

We stayed behind because we knew getting down was going to be much harder, and it had been a weird day already. One of the guys would later crack his head on a rock, and we had to diagnose if he had a concussion, by having him count backwards from 100 in increments of four, which is hard to do as-is.

He was the classic Mountaineer nut-ball, who modifies their gear in the most geekish of ways, in this example, creating a fixture to block the sun from his nose, a piece of cardboard taped to the brow of his sunglasses, yielding a Tusken Raider look.

When we finally all did get down and collected ourselves in the same spot in the parking lot, we agreed to go for pizza and beer in the town of Sultan, and shuffled our way through the dining room, some still wearing our muddied gaiters, shown to a room in the back where no one would see us, and the guy with the Tusken Raider nose-block had dried blood matted in his hair, and it wasn’t worth pointing out because he wasn’t the type to care.

Trying on masks (2)

This is the second in a series of posts where you can’t trust the narrator and the narrator’s not me, inspired by a T.C. Boyle short story.

The night fell and so did the frogs and the crows, they all came out mouthing at the sky, and that’s when I saw him just for a second, the back of a guy who didn’t look like the neighbor and was gone like that, moving behind the neighbor’s house with a dog, a muscular, mustard-colored dog, and I sat there staring at the gap where he was and the motion detector lamps burning, and knew I had to do something.

I sat looking for a while and then I got up and told Dawn what happened and I was going across the street. I put on my slippers and got the dog and then remembered the gun, the gun I always thought about but didn’t get because I didn’t want to welcome that kind of Karma by having a gun, I thought it would be better to go out straight and get killed by some freak if that’s how it was meant to be.

But that’s not what happened because I did have a gun, the one I kept in the garage I never told anyone about Just In Case, and it was time, which was good, because we had kids and assets, and this was our street.

I moved with purpose like it was a role I was working on, I knew just what to do. It was big in my pocket and stuck out like a broken rib, so I moved it to the small of my back and put the safety on, made it snug in my briefs.

And I tried to walk normal as I came upon Mark and Diane’s back porch, not much of a porch, but I looked around as the night fell and the light got bad, it’s hard to see when everything goes indigo-like, and I rang the bell even though it didn’t look like they were home; the cars weren’t there and what lights were on gave the look of lights you’d put on to pretend someone was there when in fact they weren’t.

The yard went on about an acre in every direction and I had never been in it, and the guy could be anywhere now, bedding down with his muscular dog or off to peer into the back of someone else’s house, and Ginger (my dog) was more interested in sniffing the moss in the grass than anything, and then I got spooked, so I got out the gun.

The gun felt like an extension of my hand, like a superhero’s sketch by a kid where one hand gets bigger and starts spewing out flame like a factory chimney, that’s what it felt like to watch the red from the laser sight cut across the grass, like a surgeon’s eye scanning, lasering the shadows in the shed, the undersides of fruit trees, he could be anywhere and nowhere at the same time.

I put the gun back because it was making me go blank, I was starting to pant, and Dawn was coming out of the house across the street calling to me, something about the police, and I backed up the driveway, moving slow, not sure what happened, but the gun was hot on my chest and my ears were ringing and she was crying, so I laid the gun down and did what they said, that’s how it happened, that’s it, I don’t know what happened, really.

Heads buried in books, Powell’s, Portland


We pass Powell’s bookstore in Portland, which says it’s the largest independent bookstore in the world and sure feels that way. Even though it’s a sunny afternoon in January all the seats are full of people not with tablets or smart phones, but real books: beards, tattooed knuckles, flannel, heads buried in books. And the store smells like books too, like stacks in a college library, musty other-worlds of wonder.

Outside, Lily has her first encounter with The Homeless, a guy in his 60s with a full, white beard, and she buys a newspaper from him and reads it while we sit in the brewery, and it seems hundreds of people are coming and going, drinking flights of beer at 2:30 while it’s sunny out, in Portland.

They’ve all dyed their hair or pierced their faces, and everywhere, I’m reminded that getting dressed can really be a form of fashion, as the guys roll their pant sleeves just so, and you can find any era from the past 50 years represented here, from Rockabilly to Punk to Death Metal, like sections in the bookstore, all thrown together.

The checker at the Whole Foods looks down at my basket on the conveyor belt and asks what I’m doing with the sushi and the falafel, seaweed rice cakes and craft beers, and I say I’m getting dinner for our hotel, come to Portland to escape being depressed, in Seattle.

The hotel room has a view of the city down below, the back-sides of neon signs and the tops of old buildings, with hundreds of windows and stories behind each of them, pink streetlights and food trucks with anonymous hooded figures shuffling in the dark, looking back at us as the fog lifts and makes everything not what it seems.

Dawn and I talk about what it means to have money without class, the bourgeois, and where we fit into that discussion, with rice cake crumbs in the fold-out sofa bed, our kids watching some cartoon on the TV that costs $2.99 for 20 minutes but it’s worth it still, because the iPad ran out of juice and we need some time.

The full moon comes out like just another streetlight, the same color, and we sit by the window watching the signal on the traffic light count backwards, a flashing orange hand that says Stop, talking back to the blinking sign on the food truck that says Open, but no one’s there.

The quality vs. quantity dilemma of blogging

In manufacturing, art, blogging…quality and quantity aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s true, you can have both (high output and high quality), but one often suffers at the expense of the other.

You take hours to craft a blog and so you only post a couple times a month…or, you post daily without putting much time into it, so it may not be your best work. (My tip: it will never be your best work, so don’t let that stop you.)

I’ve been following a guy for four years now, who posts every day. I don’t think he’s missed once, and he started about 10 years ago. He also had more than four million page views last year.

What hooked me was the fact he could post every day and manage to hold my interest, just about every day.

And isn’t that the goal, in writing, film, TV, theater…that no one leaves at intermission? They finish the book with relish…they wouldn’t dare miss the season debut…they won’t “delete” without reading.

I’ve read advice about blogging and traded thoughts here, on what’s the right frequency to post. For me, the goal in starting out was daily, to condition myself to the habit of writing and put a deadline-mentality pressure on myself, to get over the fear of it and figure out what the hell I was about.

It’s sweet to look back on the old posts because I had no readers then, it was just me and my recliner. But it’s like singing in the shower: it feels really good and sounds really good when it’s just you, but once everyone in the whole apartment complex is outside your door listening, it can change things.

My early posts are like some bands I like who started off Punk — they’re a minute or two in length, scrappy, unfinished, and leave me wanting something more substantial. But some of those bands who kept doing it worked through that, and got better. Maybe they found their voice, or their listeners found them…maybe both.

In blogging, you can go down the rabbit hole of analyzing the days of the week most people read your posts, the types of posts that get the most Likes…you can apply whatever analysis you have time to apply to do whatever it is you’re trying to do. Yes, I would like more readers but I’m terribly grateful for the ones I have, and I may not be ready for more because that might freak me out.

And of course, there’s a big difference between readers and followers. Some people Like or Follow just because they want that in return from you. But that doesn’t seem to have anything related to quality, to me.

If you’re a blogger, what do you do to hold the reader’s interest?

More on the topic from my blog inspiration here, and thanks for reading.

Running the days out like tap water

I think about Charlotte coming down the steps in the morning, her hair a bird’s nest, the pitter-patter of bare feet across the floor. When it was especially hard early on in parenting, Dawn reminded me it wouldn’t always be this way, which means they’ll grow up, and then you’ll miss it. Most everyone said that, parents with kids who were older and looked away with a kind of wistfulness, a look of love and regret.

I save many of their handwritten notes, which have a ransom letter quality to them with their backwards characters and urgent scrawls. It is a kind of urgency to first express yourself in small ways, and offer it as a gift of creation.

The girls have little jewelry boxes — there was a Christmas where we received a few of them, all at once — and there’s a small figure that turns herky-jerky to a jingle then stops, and you shut the lid. The jewelry boxes get put into other boxes and put out in the garage for some other time in the future, their presence short-lived.

I pin their drawings up at my cube at work. That’s what everyone else does, and it’s nice to have parts of them around me at work, when I feel so otherwise removed from my real life, at home. I cycle through the drawings every few months or so and keep them in a file folder in my desk, also for some other time in the future.

They’re souls unfurling in slow-motion and we all are, but with kids it seems to happen faster; their arc around the sky is on a different trajectory. All our time is scant with the old and the young and it is like tap water to me, you think you can leave it running and there will always be more.

Texting about drinking, Blogging about texting

I’m 43. I don’t really text. I could, but I don’t, and when I do, it’s pretty lame. Which isn’t much different than when anyone else texts, I think. You look back on the strings and they’re precision details about coming or going, Five minutes late, Almost there…Just be on time! (Who cares, anyway?)

But because I’m 43 I think I’m part of a generation of clumsy texters. At least my friends and me. I don’t text work-stuff and I’m married, so my married texts aren’t what you’d call Hot. More, precision details on coming or going.

No, my texts are mainly with two friends centered on what we’re drinking, formulaic, predictable like a James Bond book, not near as good: Self-congratulatory about a growler I picked up, how far I got into it, what I ate, listened to. (By publishing it, it somehow got better! Like this is so great, you can’t believe it!)

There’s my goofy friend Loren in Portland who texts in a kind of Middle English at times, with a lot of Y’s where they shouldn’t be and phonetics, but still sounds like him, just by text. He dropped out of San Francisco for Portland and will stay there forever until some place gets weirder, and that will never happen.

And then there’s my friend Anthony, who baits me to talk trash about my mother-in-law’s dog Minnie, which becomes a kind of game to discover new uses of common swear words, and pack as many as I can into a small cell.

It’s something to do in the elevator as we ride down the car from work, to resume our real lives in slivers of dialogue. I know there’s programs now where you can bark into the phone and it will spit out texts, but I don’t get that. Why not just make a phone call? Because you’re driving? Then drive!

Getting to know you

The hardest thing about starting your new blog is filling out the About page. The About page is your prompt to explain why the reader is here, on your site. I had to make it up when I began because I didn’t know — for me, the act of starting a blog was a kind of soul-excavation that can lead anywhere or nowhere. I committed myself to doing it every day for a year, thinking something magical would happen at the end.

“Learning to see in the dark” is the caption I chose for the header on my page. You get that area to help people understand what’s going on, what they should expect. It’s important, because your visitors are customers and you want them to come back. It should be clear what you’re about.

At the essence of it, blogging is a way to open yourself to the world and connect. Some choose to follow, click a Like button, comment, or just read. The blogger gets the satisfaction of putting something out there and touching someone with it, which builds a type of community — a thumbnail of a guy in China becomes a real person, to me. There are real people in my house but thousands of other people who become real on my computer, this way.

So the thousands of real people, the millions of real people, are at the edges of your laptop universe and you create the best facsimile of yourself to attract their attention, a kind of costume party in the Internet cosmos of infinity, coupled with the casino quality of statistics and chance, which makes winners out of losers and addicts out of us all.

Over the last year, friends have said they’ve gotten to know me better through my blog, and I have too. I thought something magical would happen at the end, but maybe it was at the start.


Retreat, to the dark

The backbone of a cottonwood on the clouds, a fossil
through my window –
The nail of the moon, cupping the weight of the sky,
low-lidded demon, jeweled crown.

Hands sticking out of trees,
green hands and fingers,
quiet hillsides return to the redoubt of the dark.

The dog curls in upon herself and I too
have collapsed into a ball, to hold what heat
I have and keep myself warm with my own breath

The body shakes, that’s all it knows to do,
to make it through.