Climbing cocks, steep peaks, dry tools (2)

Source: Wookieepedia

Source: Wookieepedia

Brad and I camp in the snow by an abandoned hunter’s cabin up Black Canyon with my dog Ginger, who puts her nose in Brad’s eye and causes it to swell up like a walnut because Brad’s convinced there’s foreign matter on Ginger’s nose, it’s creating a kind of inner, second lid to come out like a lizard eye.

When we get out of the tent to put our boots on they are frozen and misshapen, and I can’t feel my feet anyway, and Brad relays two stories with frozen boots as he stabs out a cigarette: one, featuring the loggers of the Pacific Northwest who’d pour boiling water into their boots because they were going to get soaked and fucked anyhow being out there all day in those conditions; the other, from Nanook of the North, how the women in the tribe would just chew the boots for the men in the morning to kind of loosen them up — Brad makes gnashing movements with his mouth to demonstrate.

And we are in a shallow valley surrounded by foothills covered in snow, some ponderosa pine, but mainly sage brush and talus slopes. The sun hits the top of a nearby ridge but it’s only moving down an inch every 15 minutes, so Brad says he’s going to climb up there to get into the sun.

I have a hard-boiled egg but like everything, it’s frozen too, so I have to roll it in my hands for a while to get it to loosen, then take a bite and suck on it like ice.

And the coffee filter from last night won’t work because the filter and spent coffee is stuck to the inside of the plastic, like adhered to it, so Brad gets his lexan spork to pry it loose but that snaps, and I’ve just come back from apologizing about his titanium cooking pot, how the handle broke off as I was scraping snow with it, not even being rough, and where we pull back the footprint from the tent there are like 80,000 tiny mites the size of a comma flipping around in the snow where we were sleeping, bedding down beneath our bodies.

I’ve been on mountains more than once with Brad literally reduced to tears, like I was starting to cry I was so scared, and nearly begging Brad without saying it Can we please turn back, and how Brad feels it’s some form of defeat, like he’s really let us down, can’t forgive himself for making a wrong turn or slight miscalculation.

And when I graduated from the Mountaineers club in Seattle, when we marched up the Teanaway valley to climb Volcanic Neck and maybe a couple others if we had time, how I told our trip leader I was just up Stuart the weekend before, and he kind of stopped and just looked at me and said you were up there last weekend?…a combination of admiration and what kind of jack-ass are you, going up there this early in season?

Which is funny because it’s easy navigating out, you just follow the avalanche route and it carves a kind of pathway for you through the trees.

We weren’t expecting snow like this in Black Canyon, though. With our warmest February since 1977 and no available snow for anyone to speak of it was a kind of novelty, how the abandoned hunter’s cabin looked like a postcard aside the crystalline sheets, how the sun hit it and wisps of wooly mulleins poked up through the insides; Brad says the Native American women used them when they had their periods, he pokes at the leaves of a Balsam root and displays the jagged leaves, says we could try digging one up and frying it.

But Brad didn’t wear the right boots for snow and he’s sick, which comes as a kind of relief when he picks me up in the morning because I think I might have a chance to keep up with him finally — he’s 56 this week but I’ll never be able to catch him. He’ll stop for a smoke and wait for me to catch up, cawing like a crow at me from up above the trail.

I build a fire in the snow which I’ve never done before, and we get too close to it, so that our boots start sagging and steam curls off, but we can’t feel our hands much anyhow, and my FitBit says I slept 4 hours and 29 minutes but I don’t believe it. I just sat there thinking about being cold or suffocating inside a cocoon that’s inside a bivy sack, it takes forever to feel for the zipper to get out, until I’m kicking and claustrophobic.

But we lose track of time before breaking it all down and clip some sage specimen for our dashboards on the way out, and make it past the mud pits without getting stuck in Brad’s new car, open and close the gate, and find a Woodman Lodge in Snoqualmie from 1902, and Brad takes pictures of me by the skinned polar bear upstairs, its hide mounted on the wall with a jagged leer and a sign saying Please Do Not Touch.

Read Part 1, “Climbing Cocks”…here.

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My empire of dirt: Cash, R.I.P.

The day Johnny Cash died was a Friday and I woke the same as any day at 6 AM to the local radio station, and lay there in bed for one, two, then three songs before I realized something was wrong. They only play that many songs by the same artist if you’re dead.

A couple hours later I saw our then-CEO who asked how I was and I remarked he was dead and he acknowledged it, then rushed off because he knew we would run out of his CDs, we had to get more.

And today the same local radio station played songs by him all day long which is too much, really too much for anyone who’s dead; I would reach for Hag if I wanted to hear old Country, but hearing him cover songs by Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails really cut through me.

In the mid 90s, Cash started working with producer Rick Rubin, of Def Jam / Run-DMC, Beastie Boys fame, to redefine his sound for a younger audience. These last albums of Cash are stark — I gave one to my dad, who was going through a divorce at the time. It’s like a swig off a bottle, hard to swallow but feels better after.

Regarded one of his last recordings, Cash covered the song “Hurt,” by Nine Inch Nails, a mash-up of angst-ridden imagery that suits Cash, he really delivers it. It’s a nihilistic, angry song and a coup for its writer, Trent Reznor, to have Cash carve out the same words, to make them his own.

About the same time in 1990, I saw Nine Inch Nails open for Peter Murphy in Cleveland. NIN was just the opening act, but their debut album was out for about a year by then, and I sat in the back of a small theater with my date, sunk lovey-dovey in our seats while everyone else stood, feeling the vibration of the bass and the music move through us, more memorable than Peter Murphy and his well-choreographed moves.

Reznor went sober and talks now about touring with his wife and kids and how that’s different, but he’s still making music, he’s made it past the drugs and the angst that comes from wanting to make it then making it, and having that mess with you in ways you never imagined.

It’s the artists who can make it through that arc I most admire, who succeed in spite of their success and hold onto themselves still. It’s courage and crazy conviction, movie-making, it elevates the artist beyond themselves and makes us think we can too.

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Just for us

Carlos Castanedas - A Separate Reality cover

Carlos Castaneda – A Separate Reality cover

The moon is hanging on by a nail and we are all bound to fall that way too,
to rise in the morning and repeat the same cycle:
to expand and recede, sometimes close to Earth,
sometimes obscured.

They make up stories about the moon because it’s so far away and alone,
we see ourselves in it:
for sometimes it is there just for us, it seems.
We think we can see it all, but there is another side.

You could go to the moon, but why would you?
Like most things, it looks better from a distance.
Like most things, it is there just for us:
it’s why we make up stories, it’s how we find comfort in the dark.

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FitBit burned a hole in my head

I got a FitBit for some reason I’m not clear on: my dad suggested it, like when you recommend something to someone to help justify it for yourself, and my wife left hers at a friend’s house who then lost it and bought another one which my wife ran through the laundry she thinks, and was entitled to a replacement through the Target Warranty Purchase Plan.

So I called the number and started the process. I never used a FitBit, had only a loose understanding of how they work. I had the kind of attitude I don’t need a stupid device to convince me to exercise.

I thought I’d just call and explain it doesn’t work and they’d give me like an RA or something so I could send it back but instead, they want to troubleshoot to verify it truly doesn’t work.

She starts asking me to perform basic functions with the FitBit and I have to lower myself to pretend, to act it out, to say Hold on, as I feign activity on the other end of the line.

And I shake my head on the phone and say Nope, it’s still not working, and she approves me for whatever is next, which I’m not clear about either.

A week later we get a new FitBit in the mail and I take it into Target, to explain 1) I got this from FitBit because that’s what Target told me to do, and 2) I want to upgrade it to a different model and exchange this device.

But this is difficult because the unit I’m returning doesn’t have a number associated with it in the Target system.

Despite, the enthusiastic Target associate manipulates the POS through some deftery others gather around to observe, to enable my exchange.

I’m about Week 2 with the FitBit now. I never take it off, except to shower, a couple times a week. Tonight, I got into bed with my book and pushed the button out of boredom, just to see where I was with my step count.

I was just shy of 20,000, which had never happened before. I thought maybe it would vibrate or I’d get a fucking email with a squirrel on it or something if I hit 20,000, so I got up and walked downstairs in the dark, naked, hitting the button to see had I gotten 20,000 yet?

Interacting with your house in the dark is like being on acid: everything is familiar but distinctly different at the same time, maybe dangerous. It’s a metaphor for the unknown, the dark. It’s with us always and where we need to be if we want to Pass Through.

I start pacing the different rooms on the first floor, thinking this is ridiculous, and realize I’m over 20,000 and it hasn’t even done anything yet.

I’m coming up on my 500th post, I think. And what an accomplishment that will be, right? (Word count: 491.)

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Don’t start at the beginning

I put my kids in front of the computer to watch “E.T.” as a generational experiment, to see if it takes. Right away, Charlotte (7) starts firing off questions: Who’s that? Where are they going? Is he a bad guy? The story has started in medias res, “in the middle of things.”

After the movie we put on music videos. Lily likes a song called “Skinny Love” and I jump at the chance to connect with her, but it’s not Bon Iver, it’s a cover by someone called Birdy.

We make a deal to play both versions side-by-side and vote on the best.

The Birdy video features the somber and talented artist drifting through muted scenes, lingering by a window with dead flies. It’s that kind of mopey self-indulgence I was into with The Smiths and never grew out of.

I say let’s watch this instead, and I put on a different female artist who goes by the moniker The Knife. It’s called “When I Grow Up,” and features a similar somber girl, but she’s walking out on a diving board above a swimming pool that’s full of dead leaves.

Again, Charlotte is firing off questions: What’s she doing? Why’s she dancing like that? Daddy, I’m scared.

This is the sign of good art, good film, good music video. In story-telling, give your readers questions, don’t give them answers. Let them come to it on their own, treat them like adults.

We get enough spoon-fed content, it’s refreshing to use our minds. Which is why perhaps we retreat to books, to film, to museums: to come to things on our own terms.

Jeff Tweedy from Wilco said they’d write pop songs and then deconstruct them, put them back together again. That’s what makes it interesting, something seems off or missing, unexpected.

The writer Lawrence Block gives his advice about fiction writing: take your first chapter and flip it. Start with the second one, instead.

What are some of your favorite first scenes from books or movies, that start in the middle? (Mine is the first scene from Episode 1 of Lost.)


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Working on leaving the living (2)

Photo credit, Loren Chasse

Photo credit, Loren Chasse

As I’m nearing my 500th post, and re-entering the job market as a writer after a 20+ year detour, I’m sharing a few stories of working for small publications in the early 90s, on the east coast. Blog title HT to Modest Mouse.

Randy said my apartment looked like a gay lived there or a Republican, which wasn’t good by how he said it even though he himself was gay, likely not a Republican but a bartender instead.

The bar was down the hill from my apartment and we went back to my place after closing, the staff, sometimes the band, and I tried to keep it down because my 80 year old landlord Jules lived upstairs with his wife Mabel, but he was dead-drunk and listless by that time of night, they never said anything.

I typed in the dark by the window and the glow of the streetlamps because it had an urban feel to it, like a real city with car alarms and shootings, a drink by the manual typewriter and a messy stack of rewrites, the type sometimes drooping by the angle of the roller like it was falling off the page.

But I was living in Allentown, PA and Allentown was dying, fast.

Enter Christopher Cross my first day, moving in. He just stopped me on the street and asked Are you an artist, which made me pause (come-on line? bum? drug dealer? gay? am I an artist, really?).

But I said I am — in fact I’m a writer and he lit up, said he’s starting a paper and looking for writers. The paper was about all the great cultural things going on in Allentown. It was called Excitement! and yes, it was in italics like that, with the exclamation point too.

He had bad skin, skin that’s an off-color like there’s a problem with the organs, a bit bluish-green, and pock-marked. But his daughter was sick, he was raising her on his own, and his eyes went soft in a way I believed him, like this paper was his one big thing now. And I really wanted to be published, so I got his number.

He said I could pretty much write whatever I wanted and what ideas did I have. So I turned to beer, because I liked it, and did an interview with a guy who was running a small German brewery called Neuweiler.

When it was published, I got a bunch of copies and read and reread it. I didn’t like it so much, but it seemed better somehow in print. Or worse, I couldn’t tell.

I had about four jobs at once, then. One of the other jobs was at a theater in town where I took care of the visiting actors: pick them up at the bus station, tend to their needs, make them feel at home in Allentown.

An older actor came into the bar one night when I was waiting tables and sat, alone. I told him I was a writer and published, gave him the paper. So he read it while he was eating and set it aside and I asked what he thought and he shrugged, It’s fine — it’s not what he said I remember but the way he looked at me, which said more.

Just because you put something in print doesn’t mean it can stand up, doesn’t make it better because it’s been published in bulk.

But writers and artists live in a world of constant self-doubt; it’s two arguments going on in your head at all times, and you only make it by squashing the side that’s telling you to stop, by feeding the mad part, by stuffing more into it to keep it going.

And like the messy stack of rewrites I came home to every night, having my name in print helped me believe, despite.

When we were out on Valentine’s Day, Dawn said it’s a life where you will never be really satisfied, like other vocations. And she said she understands (because she really does), and she let me have her story idea.


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Americans just think they can go anywhere

Our friend Uwe, who fronts hard rock cover band "Rockfever."

Our friend Uwe, who fronts German hard rock cover band “Rockfever.”

It’s part of what makes us great and OK, sometimes arrogant, self-important, disrespectful: the fact we think we can go anywhere in the world, just show up, and do what we want or buy what we want, sometimes just by pointing.

And so it goes, my mom lives in Germany and we concocted this fabulous idea, this idea to quit our jobs and just go live there for a year. Everybody learns German, we get to travel a bit, work on our novels, come back better people. Right? Richtig?

And maybe because I’m American, I just assumed this would be easier than it is. That we could just rely on the truth of our story and that would be enough to get the necessary permission to stay. But it’s not.


I will try to keep this short and clean. Our in-country assistance starts and basically ends here, in San Francisco. My step-dad John used to say countries put their assholes on the border. In this case, they exported their assholes and put them in the SF Consulate.

When speaking to dogs, children and adults it’s true: people respond to tone. It’s not what you say sometimes but how you say it. And so when the fucking SF Honorary Consulate cops a tone with me, suggesting it’s unusual or off-putting my mom is not married to a German (in fact he was English and now dead) and asks my education-level, then sort of laughs and says I sink you have a weak case, well that was a bad start.

A week later we called back to see if we’d get someone else. Dawn called, this time. Same story: even worse, in fact a tone of “what do you do for income, hippy.”

I called a third time yesterday, having exhausted the other Honorary German Consulates in Seattle and Portland, who both said call San Francisco since they’re doing the fingerprinting now and we’re not allowed to talk to anyone about visas.

And the same woman answers but transfers me to someone who sounds like she’s gone to the same school of No.

And then they go outside to smoke and put their phones on DND.


There are a variety of websites to help, at least. This one is probably the best. It links out to other sites and rephrases things in a cogent fashion. Yet there are gaps of course, because you can’t cover everything online.

At the end of the day, it seems we need to go to Germany to apply for our visa within the first three months of arriving and then, we will either know right away or possibly three months later if we can stay longer, or just need to leave.


So we’ve rented our house out for a year, turned down job offers, and even started CLEANING OUT OUR GARAGE in expectation of realizing our plan, our manifest destiny.

But having done as much due diligence as I can without killing myself, our plan is to:

1. Apply and “hope” under the Family Reunification act we’ll get permission to stay for one year.

2. Prepare a back-up plan if we have to leave the Schengen (look it up, really!) after 90 days.

  • Back-up plan is to move to Croatia or the UK (not part of the Schengen agreement), then re-enter Germany 90 days later (requires buying a car, etc.)

3. Learn Deutsch. Continue our studies at a local community college, hire tutor for the kids.

4. Hire an emigration lawyer (you read right).

5. Coordinate enrollment of kids in local German school.

This is what I didn’t like about project management, how things get impossibly complicated (almost supernaturally complicated, shit you couldn’t make up [I couldn’t, as a fiction writer] and when you talk about it [status reports] no one wants to listen or read about it because it’s painful, it’s work).

But nothing so grand as this should be so simple.

The real reason we want to go is for our kids to be different. Different in that way people who travel the world are, or at least enough of it to see things differently, to appreciate other points of view and cultures. To gain the confidence that comes with making it in a foreign place, and the attitude that yes, we can go anywhere.

Photos below of my mom’s house, some include dates/milestones in its lifecycle, built in 1494. Advice from expats, friends, artists, attorneys welcome.

"Achtung! Kinder."

“Achtung! Kinder.”

Front door, 1666

Front door, 1666

Der Keller, 1544

Der Keller, 1544

Detail by front door, 1579

Detail by front door, 1579

Door to root keller, by barn

Door to root keller, by barn

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Working on leaving the living (1)

As I’m nearing my 500th post, and re-entering the job market as a writer after a 20+ year detour, I’m sharing a few stories of working for small publications in the early 90s, on the east coast. Blog title HT to Modest Mouse.

It was my first time pitching a story to an editor and I didn’t know what I was doing. The editor was cranky and dressed Carter-era still, pit stains and thick glasses. He was kneading his forehead, rubbing it, wincing, shaking his head No, no, No.

My mom worked at the newspaper and convinced him to meet me, fresh out of college. I’d spent the summer screwing around at the beach with my friends Dan and Richard. A test case to see if we could live together in Boulder. It failed.

I described the story: a dilapidated castle, right here in southeastern Pennsylvania! Out by Huff’s Church, up Keim road. Spooky: cult possibilities, eccentric old man with idiot brother. Old man has a way of rolling his eyes back in his head when he talks, they go all white. No electricity. Offers us a beer he keeps out in the stable with the goats, not altogether cold.

Enter another figure, Bob Thorn (real name I swear): slicked back hair and pewter rings on every finger, with faces. Flies a helicopter, lands it at the castle. References to bonfires and parties.

There’s something about the earth even, it’s giving something off or sucking something in.

The editor tells me to leave and mumbles something about my mom. I have a feeling it didn’t go well — he just gave me the story back and said good luck.

I’m staying at my mom’s in the basement, trying to find an apartment. I get a call from an editor at another paper who says she has an assignment for me and can I be there at 7 PM?

It’s my first paid writing gig, for the East Penn Press. I think the cranky editor called the other editor (who’s like a librarian or my grandma, she’s so nice) and set me up with work.

I put the Beastie Boys on as loud as it will go and jump up and down.

I cover stories every week for about a year, small government stories. Very small. There are developers wanting to put in a KFC/Taco Bell/Arby’s combo at the intersection of 100 and old 22. That’s the biggest story.

The Pennsylvania Dutch farmers are there in protest but the well-groomed politicians are smirking and making eye exchanges with one another and very polite as I interview them, coiffed beards, cologne.

Melanie (my editor) suggests I find ways to make more stories out of the story, that’s what you do. But I don’t understand, there’s nothing more to say. I was bored from the get-go, just glad to be done with it.

Loren and I talk about Keim Road, in Portland, OR. The time he went there with Gene and Ted’s sister, Eve. They had the headlights off and the windows rolled down, summer. There were small, gravelly country sounds in the middle of nowhere, with long wild grass and threatening trees. All at once a blast of voices like a scattering of birds, then silence. The voices, from speakers hanging in the trees.

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Acting School

She lied about being on the pill for reasons that later became clear. She had bad hair, hair stuck in the 80s, but we were starting the 90s. And then she was diagnosed with a fatal disease, a disease I couldn’t spell or look up because we didn’t have the Internet yet.

We were in theater together, and the theater was a barn. That’s where actors belong, with the straw and the hay.

The school was in the boondocks of Pennsylvania not far from the New York state border, the cloud cover low enough to press on your neck.

I already had a girlfriend back home, but she had the nerve to say she didn’t care, she wouldn’t find out or even know, and that excited me.

Phil was our director and he had a girlfriend too, a girlfriend his age. But Phil was sleeping with this girl before she came onto me, which he confided during a long drive across the state to Philadelphia, to see my girlfriend.

Phil lied when he said she gave him Chlamydia, a disease I didn’t know anything about but got checked for, a procedure that was really crude, in the early 90s.

And I didn’t have it because she didn’t have it either, he just lied so I would stop sleeping with her, but I didn’t.

There was no part of Phil that was gay, but Phil liked hanging around with me and my two intellectual friends, Dan and Richard.

Dan was convinced Richard’s new, younger friend was a lover, and upset that Richard didn’t confide in us; he thought we were closer than that.

When Dan and I talked about being gay, he said he didn’t think he could sleep with a man, but he might be able to kiss a man, which I thought was even gayer than sleeping with a man, and then just felt weird even thinking about it, and stopped.

The three of us were friends because of a T-shirt I was wearing at a fraternity party, the night we met. They said they didn’t expect anyone to be wearing a PiL shirt (not at a fraternity party), and said We should hang out.

She had a disease called Lupus but we’d already broken up. Some part of her changed and it felt like she was using the disease as an excuse to pin me down, to get me back, like lying about the pill.

She had really bad family problems with her dad and her mom and wasn’t ready to talk about it, and I wasn’t ready to listen. She said her mom would stay up late scrubbing things in the kitchen to deal with whatever it was her dad was doing to her.

When I was on stage, after we’d broken up, there were times I would see her from the sound booth with the dull light of the board on her, looking down at me. I started worrying she would do something to me or herself.

She and Phil got married. He ditched his girlfriend and they moved off to London or something. There was no anger for anyone, in the theater. Cast members left wives and husbands to fool around with each other all the time. One stole Phil’s check book and ran up thousands of dollars in debt, then got convicted. We learned he was a repeat offender.

As an actor, you access different parts of yourself to become someone else on stage. And as a writer I did things and went places I would never go, so I could access them later too. It’s like serving the art so the art will serve you. And it’s not clear at the time why you’re doing it. I’m not even sure she had Lupus now, come to think of it.


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The first step is to turn the main breaker off

Peering inside the closet of a network computer rack

Peering inside the closet of a network computer rack

I parse out just enough cat nip for one of the cats to get off, but not both, and let them duke it out like Siamese fighting fish, all hisses and rear leg strokes fanning the guts, fangs, stoned-out faces, sudden urges to flee.

It’s a bad time to stop earning with one kid just out of braces and the other, just starting. And the CEO from the company I just left is on the cover of Time magazine in black and white profile, looking presidential. If you wonder if you’re depressed, you’re probably not.

We fall into new routines, and time passes faster than you think. There is the nap but also the half-nap, which resembles a nap but isn’t. It mimics the nap and comes after eating or reading and then leads to blogging, followed by a nap. The artist on his side slumped, drained of his art, giving all of himself with nothing to ask in return but to be Liked, Favorited, Mentioned. It’s the giving that gives me life.

There is no urgency to the day, but great order in the refrigerator for once, and today a microcosm of order now established in the vegetable bin, the well-wrapped half-onions and spinach leaves, Brussels sprouts, peppers. They’re settled in there nicely, preserved, tucked-in.

I listen to a record by Joanna Newsom many times, start to finish. It is an impending disorder, some pixie music I’m afraid only I can understand. I let the beard go and tasks that require multiple steps get put on hold after the first step, so I can save the rest for later.

Today I attend a virtual web meeting, orientation for the job-seeker firm helping me transition.

The Time article triggers strange dreams. There are references in the story I picture being pitched and I reread them for accuracy, for projects cited I worked on, or my boss did.

In the dream, I’m driving my boss’s car and there’s water on the roadway. I think it’s going to be okay but realize once I’m in it it’s not, the car is filling with water, the car is ruined. I owe some kind of apology at the end.

I realize the scene my wife will remember me in as she leaves for work, embryonic on the sofa with Joanna Newsom playing, and I have to get up and do something. We’re wired this way.


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