Who made the constellations

The days fanned out,
an ocean of stars came into view

And Crow was there too,
a star in each eye
gave him sight —
the same glow on his wings
gave him flight,

and though it took a million or more
to fill the sky
and they all look the same
to you and I,
they know the difference,
they are unique
they think,
they are unique
to themselves.

There must be a million
but it only takes a few
to make the shapes
a figure, its bows
and belts — the same
for you and me,
how many do we need?

Their stories could be told by Crow
if only we understood
where to look
and when,
and could we remember them?

And were they always there
just waiting to be seen,
or did we make them with our
minds, and why does it matter
who sees?

They can’t tell the difference,
they don’t need to be seen —
they’re an ocean of stars,
of days,
and only the crows
know what they mean.

 

 

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That was a lifetime ago in West Seattle

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Barn on Orcas Island, WA – New Year’s turning over to 08

The house just hugs you, Beth said about our place in West Seattle. Mike asked if they still had the speakers I left in the living room ceiling but I didn’t think to look. I parked a few spaces up, spotted a woman crouched in the garden and stood there for a while hoping she’d notice me but she didn’t, and it got to be so long it started to seem weird with me just standing there so I walked off, decided I wouldn’t barge in on them like that, but then I thought better of it and turned back.

Do you give tours, I asked? She looked up and smiled, and might’ve recognized me when I said my name, seven years ago we sold them that house.

And it was sketchy there for a time we agreed, her husband and I in the back, talking about what happened to the neighbors, how Jaughn was depressed and killed himself and they had to break the news to me, he’d worked something out with a friend beforehand, a sign indicating where to find the body with instructions and what to do, but his friend just stole all his things and left him there and it took a while before he was found.

It was a great house and neighborhood but a bit sketchy for raising kids. We were rattled in that first-time parent way when we had Lily — someone broke into our car at the hospital and left tiny bits of broken glass inside the car seat with a hole punched through the window, and they’d gotten our brief cases because we were in such a state we left them in the car with all our identity and SSN cards and unemployment forms Dawn had filled out, but someone dropped it in the mail for us and one day a package turned up with our wallets and keys, but still we got the locks changed, feeling some menace in the air and vulnerable in a new parent way, finding an unposted card someone put in the mailbox with a crude drawing on the cover and something scrawled on the back, someone’s kids trapped in our basement it said, and they were coming to get them.

It was a woman we started seeing on our street looking down our front yard at us staring, and I had to go confront her because she’d figured out which house was ours off the alley and was wandering there around the back, looking in the windows and through the fence; they took her kids away and now they were in our basement trapped, and could she come have a look.

After, when the cops came it was a white guy deep in his 50s with a crew cut and a thick neck who described her, a big black woman in a bathrobe — “fucking bats” he said — lives in the halfway house around the corner, he’d go talk to her. Harmless he assured us, but he’d tell her to stop — and that was that, no more notes.

And it was probably another woman I spotted in our alley lifting her dress against a fence and pissing down the sides, who caught me watching her and didn’t care, that’s when we decided it’s time to go.

I drove down to the small park by the beach imagining what it would feel like to look at the old swingset where we used to take Lily, but it was a hornet’s nest of construction, you couldn’t see anything, all of it closed off with loud sounds and guys in hardhats.

So I walked the road that winds along the beach and stopped at a bench under a sky that was changing and threatening rain, and dreamt about the people we knew who lived along that road, all the stories and characters and times.

I climbed back up Jacobsen and zig-zagged through Seaview, past the bona fide funk of West Seattle, back down the road to the water, recalling details in the concrete walls and cracks, carrying Lily on my back as her speech started to spool out and she could say a few things, pointing to the spider webs and how the sun makes the strings light up and sparkle in the morning.

They invited me into the house to look at what they’d done and I couldn’t stop myself but still felt like a lurker, not right in my own skin, in our old house — and their love for it shone through, I said.

Dawn reminded me we have a picture of it from the early 1930s we should give them, when it was used as a summer house for people who lived in the city to kick back at the beach, just up from the Sound.

I told Mike and Anthony what happened to Jaughn and our old house, and we cut through Seattle by foot in the rain, from Capitol Hill to Pill Hill, over the Convention Center and the freeway and the homeless, dropping into Pioneer Square for chicken legs and late night congee.

I thought I saved the note from the woman about her kids in our basement but it reeked of a hex and I had to get rid of it, a bad energy too sad and unfair for fiction writing even — but writers live in separate worlds of the real and imagined and have to reconcile the two to matter.

You could see where I tried to tie in the cobblestones into the sidewalk at the old house, where there used to be a pond we paved over, and it looked like it was always that way, meant to be.

The same with a stained glass pane and a red heart in the center, which looked familiar but I wasn’t sure; she found it in the yard and set it into a shed they built by hand, but I didn’t remember leaving it and it didn’t look the same now that it wasn’t ours.

 

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Dots on the hill

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Last Friday in the States until sometime next spring. Moon fattens to a claw. Danced the trifecta of drink starting with Tequila out of pint glasses sucked through straws, licking the sides, backcountry animal tongue. Took the morning walk to the ranch, the sun a messy egg, good for battered eyes.

Exchanged my map of Croatia for the Michelin one because you can’t tell where the countries start and end, but it’s the same in the Michelin one, borders are purple bands with cross marks that look like healed-over scars and probably feel that way.

Names in all caps like SPLIT, RIJEKA, TRIESTE (where Joyce lived), LJUBLJANA, ZAGREB, BANJA LUKA, SARAJEVO. Some N’s going backwards, an unnatural Yoga pose, И. Red ferry boats like game pieces on a map with dotted arcs trailing off to islands with impossible names. Thousands of places to get lost, disappear.

Finished Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, a sextet for soloists. “Implausible truth can serve one better than plausible fiction and now was such a time.”

Got Alex’s email in the UK from Drew, traced my way to Alex by way of Drew, via Dana, from Jim Kwiecinski, Chris Petrauskas, a basement in a fraternity house, the screenplay of our lives scattered over time and space.

Clouds fanned out in scallop shapes seem to breathe, or maybe it’s just me. Blades of cornfield ears shoosh when the wind stops, yield to distant engines, clanking jaws of Progress and development take the land in sloppy mouthfuls, spit out the unwanted parts, the bones.

Recalled 10 days in Germany over Christmas, getting up before dawn in the wrong time zone, hurrying into the dark and up the stone, Roman steps to the top of the valley, the vineyards, first light filling in, spotting my mom’s house below, imagined looking back upon myself here, a dot on the hill. Wrote a poem about the sound the train makes cutting through the valley, a sword, a dry whistle. Knife goes in, knife comes out. Realized I hadn’t used my senses in forever it seemed. Fancied a physical journey could allow a spiritual one.

Blew snot on the shoulder Euro-style, slipped back into the house and wrote before I ate.

Moon will be full when we arrive this time next week, the second time this month. Lands on the six-year anniversary of my first blog post, queer, not planned that way. Fiction and life more interesting when it doesn’t fall in the sequence that’s expected.

 

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Made up dreams

Charlotte's Mind

Charlotte’s Mind

The plastic hummingbirds that glow at night seem a lifetime ago since I gave them to my mother-in-law and she hung them on a hook off her deck. There’s even a sense of fall in the air, that dry rattle as the night comes on, and the dead lawns have us all confused what month we’re really in, what day it is, whether or not we really need to water.

I wriggled my way through the shitbarbs of self-doubt and loathing, what kind of writer am I indulging in these 800-word wanks, editing what dissolves like cotton candy on the tongue, and why?

But then I screwed myself up and said Go on, and I did. I wrote more, and it came out the way puss or vomit can — so much more than you’d think would be in there but true, and self-satisfying in a way.

And I got to thinking I surround myself with this mopey-dopey droll music, some guy noodling on something or other that’s got him down, it feels good until it doesn’t.

Or why it was important for me to have closure with work, to try to make arrangements to see my boss and say goodbye, but nothing’s come of it yet and why should it, he’s said goodbye already. How it’s more just a transaction me leaving, and the truth can hurt if you let it, so don’t.

Why no one wants to hear what you dreamt about unless you dreamt about them.

(Later)
Wore pants with socks and took a hot shower today for the first time in weeks, temperatures barely out of the 70s, some here starting to complain it feels cold. Northwesterners get tweeky about the weather, prone to whine if it strays too far outside their comfort zone which is slim, we’ve got low tolerance.

On my walk to see Cowboy the steer and Cruiser the horse at the ranch over the hill, we pick up some apples to throw over the fence in hopes they’ll come see us. Apples coming on sooner than normal, this time of year. A hint of ominous in that, like it’s the beginning of the end when the apples start falling in July.


Lily’s eyes look hollowed-out when she asks for the computer, where it’s gotten. I hid it under the bed. We’re having to hide the devices from our kids now. With no schedule and three TVs in my mother-in-law’s, we had to impose limits. The new, “10-10-2 policy” has a corporate ring to it that’s easy to recite: up by 10, in bed by 10, 2 hours of screen time (“10-10-2″).

I spotted a bunch of guys from the corporate HQ pooling around the meat counter at the grocery store, the butcher out addressing them with good posture. Lots of nodding, necks made out of plastic, have a nice day.

In the tent it’s me, Charlotte, Lily and Loren with our heads opposite one another’s feet, utensils in a drawer, each of us in our separate cabins waiting for someone to pull us out. I let an ant have unrestricted access to my body, track its movements across my skin, send messages to my hands saying don’t move, I’ve got this, but I don’t, I want it off me.

Charlotte cries before bed, says she doesn’t want to go to Germany — and why can’t we go back to our house now and just have a normal year? I put my hand on her knee and say, someday we’ll look back on this and be sad it’s over.

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No Christmas in Germany

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At the end of 2009 we returned from a four-month sabbatical in Germany, France, Ireland and Italy. I was eligible for another sabbatical seven years later, which would make me 46 the summer of 2017, and seemed too far away. We sometimes talked about going back, what we’d do differently, but with the kids further entrenched in school, limiting our next visit to the summer months didn’t seem like enough time.

On a visit to my mom’s in Germany last July, I proposed the idea of moving there for a year, to really try it on. We’d just have to rent our house out and I’d need to quit my job, which was getting easier to imagine as the days wore on.

We started saying it out loud to friends and family, but it didn’t become real until I had to leave my job in December, and friends of ours agreed they would rent our house starting in July, enabling us to move once Dawn finished her contract with Microsoft.

Dawn and I had a good idea of why we were doing this but it required a kind of summit, a meeting at our kitchen table one Sunday morning, for us to draw up a mission statement, to establish some guardrails that would inform our decision-making, what’s in/out of scope.

We agreed doing it for our kids was the best (but not the only) reason, fearing they would soon fall into a pattern of self-entitlement and privilege, given our surrounding wealth in the suburbs east of Seattle, many families with dual incomes and horse riding hobbies, a lot more money than time.

Selfishly, I thought if ever there was a time to write my memoir, this was it. My memory is starting to get that patina layer, which makes things look more interesting with age.

And for Dawn and I, I hoped it would give us a different perspective on what’s most important when we resurface, at the end of our time there.

In project management or life in general, bad assumptions get you into trouble. We assumed since my mom is a German resident we’d be allowed to live with her. And we assumed we could figure out the visa requirements just by using the Internet.

The best advice we got was from a friend and expat Mia, who suggested we hire immigration lawyers. It sounded over-the-top, but after several early morning conference calls, emails, even PowerPoint slides and charts illustrating the 90 day in/out rules behind the Schengen states, it was all well worth it.

We thought we could just pop over the border from Germany once our 90 day tourist visa was up, spend a few weeks in France or Italy, and then come back. But the Schengen agreement, which includes roughly 25 countries in Western Europe, binds these countries into a territory: you need to leave the territory once you hit 90 days, and once you do, you can’t re-enter any of these countries in the territory until 90 days later.

So this posed an awkward challenge given our timing. Landing in Germany the end of July put us at the end of October that we’d need to vacate. No Christmas in Germany. And where to go over the winter months in Europe? We looked hard at South Africa, but the plane fares would be hard on our budget, and our fear of the unknown, of truly exotic places, made us worry about traveling with a 10- and 7-year-old.

We went back and forth on the possibility of getting a work or student visa. Because Dawn works for Microsoft as a contractor, we thought she could make a case for being self-employed in Germany. But not really. Our lawyers advised that Germany doesn’t really support the work-from-home or remote-based model, yet. We thought if we were paying German taxes, what would they care?

Given our situation, the lawyers recommended we apply for a post-grad program. University programs are essentially free in Germany, and me getting a student visa would enable Dawn to continue working, legit.

We spent the time researching post-grad programs, but the schools were a good 1+ hour commute from my mom’s village, and did we really want to go back to school?

So after talking to the consulate in San Francisco, reading everything we could find on the Internet, and employing the Frankfurt-based lawyers, we came back to just following the rules: go for 90 days, leave for 90 days, come back for 90 days. Dawn would work some, I’d start my job search — we’d homeschool the kids, make it a family-bonding thing, wrap history into our sight-seeing, blog about it.

I never imagined doing this because I feared what it would be like to re-enter the work system, to drop out for so long without a good reason I’d need to defend to future employers. To risk all the security of what we’d built up for ourselves and our kids.

But it became less real to me, all the things we work for. And as I worked for those things I became less real, sometimes unrecognizable, to myself. Dangerous things happen to people in their mid-40s. This is my affair, my sports car.

The perspective I’m hoping we’ll find, on what’s most important, is our lifestyle: what kind of work will bring us contentment and enough money to not have to worry about money?

It’s Dawn’s dad passing away and my step-dad, both in 2008, on Valentine’s Day and Halloween respectively, that changed the course of our lives to make this possible. Had they continued living, we never would have moved in with our widowed moms in Germany or the Seattle suburbs. We would have stayed in our little bungalow in West Seattle, spent half a million on a fixer upper once it got too small.

But seeing Dawn’s dad pass like that, driving him to the ER when we knew it was time, made me look at my job and my life differently. The fact he never fully retired, didn’t make it much past 68.

On a recent trip to Eastern Washington with my kids, we saw that mirage effect on the highway, where it looks like a shimmering pool in the distance, but disappears once you’re upon it. That is the future for me. It can look however you like, but it’s only real once you’re upon it.

 

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An honest living

We unroll a map of Scotland that hangs off the edges it’s so big, can’t fit on the table. Some coarse navigating between destinations, time tables, circling forests and lochs, places they make Scotch. Late October, Scotland. October leaning into November, bad weather, winds. The Scots.

My friend Andrew pulls it up on his iPad in their kitchen and dillies the map with his finger, a circus trick. Uses broad gestures to yank it right open.

And Erica’s son Casey has a five dollar app he uses to make brickfilms, claymation, three minute movies on his phone. We see their kids once or twice a year and they’re growing so fast, each time it’s like we’re in a different part of their trilogy.

Chris slips on the grass it’s so dry, like hay.

“This goes without saying” is a terrible thing to say before you say something you know you shouldn’t say but you’re going to anyway, like “six years ago I was in much better shape than I am now,” which is true, and doesn’t need to be said.

I took to the hills with relish then and now, I don’t. My chest sags in the way of the slouch. Physicality onstage, physicality off. Ironically, felt today for the first time like I could really go back to work, had an odd thirst for an honest living. Might have been a fluke, I hope.

Went to see a Travel Nurse though I didn’t see the sense in it, but was reminded we weren’t up to date with Hep A/B, and why not throw in a Typhoid? Got stuck in each arm by an apologetic nurse and went back to our days, all four of us. Began composing a blog post for LinkedIn in my mind, my first one: a meeting of my two halves, hope they get along.

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Half a summertime ago

I’ve taken to a big steer named Cowboy who lives over the hill from my mother-in-law’s at the Second Hand Ranch, where they take in animals who would otherwise be turned into coats or eaten. But flies gather around his eyes and settle there as he stares at me and at any moment he could flick his head and his horns to brush them off, could hurt someone.

An empty beer can goes down on the deck and gets pinned under the grill and when it comes up, it’s matted with cobwebs and pine needles and hangs there defiant, an adolescent’s first beard.

There’s a girl at the bar next to me with hairy armpits in a dress that doesn’t look bad, and after a couple Aperol spritzers she starts talking about what it was like dealing weed to college students in Philadelphia — the administration protects on-campus drug dealers, they keep the kids from wandering too far and getting killed, it’s not good for admissions, security says just don’t let me see it.

Our old real estate agent Vivian is a thumbnail on a sign at a house that just got sold and I run into her in the driveway as they’re closing; she just got back from Bosnia to visit some friends, drove down through Zagreb, but could only stay a week, says she envies us taking off for nine months, could never get back into the business if she left that long.

I didn’t know Gary could play the drums, and he lowers his sunglasses in Chris and Erica’s basement and flashes a wild smile at me: Gary on drums, Chris on bass, his son Casey playing piano — I make the mistake of thinking I can pull off vocals for Helter Skelter, and can’t. Don’t fuck with Paul McCartney, no matter who you think you are.

When Donnie says goodbye he presses his palms together and says Blessings and looks at me deep, but I might cry, so I just say bye and I’ll miss you, and get on the elevator. He’s been cutting my hair for several years, since we bought this house, and has a small studio in a wedge of a room in the Starbucks corporate office just 20 paces from my old desk. I can’t stand the idea of going there during work hours for him to cut me so he suggests I come in on a Saturday, and just gets into it: no discussion about what I want, he just starts brushing and spraying and cutting, and tells me about his upcoming trip to the Amazonian basin, a 10 day ayahuasca ceremony with a 105-year-old shaman, his son filming it half his age, a Fibonacci leap. He says just look up DMT. DMT freaks me the fuck out.

We talk about his memoir, which we consume every few months in small talk. He says with each moment of his life as he writes it, he’s blessing it. And I believe him, and believe that is the way.

The moon just came out as I’m writing this. It’s a white hook in a sky of fading blue, and I texted my friend to go look. It’s true, you can picture someone fishing off it if you look long enough.

 

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Richard Brautigan is dead at 49

It took about a month for them to find his body and a whole lot longer than that for him to be discovered while he was alive.

And he is there at the roadside jotting down notes by a flattened crow,
he is there biting his beard
bent over, scribbling
his jagged verse,
feet fanning the air, claws still frozen —
one wing sticks up
like it’s raising its hand
waiting to be called on
with the answer.

And bodies are like that, they look better
when they’ve got something in them —
and here I am
lost in a development where all the names
are stamped on the rocks and it’s a maze of flags,
driveways and children,
all of them watching me with well-taught suspicion,
the parents and their garden hose and robes —
no one breaks a stare, and I’m surprised
they can even see me.

In the shadow of some trees by the road
a doe and her two young crouch down,
they stir at my feet on the gravel
and in the morning sun
I can see the veins in their pink ears glow,
they know.

The garage doors are all cartoon mouths
and the driveways roll down like tongues
to deposit the unwanted
on the sides, on Tuesdays.

They wonder about me, is he a cop or
a private investigator, a reporter?

Haven’t you ever seen a poet working?

I’m prepared to say I’m writing down things I need to do today, and that’s the truth.

 

 

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Pick me out a poem

After I ate the poet
I left the shells
piled high on a plate
translucent-pink,
done just right —

and after all that
picking out the meat,
it looked like more
than when I started,
once it was done.

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The coin of the realm

It twists and shifts with the pace
of a Rube Goldberg machine,
drops men from boats to dangle
in the sky, forest green
figurines crouching,
aiming, leaping — heroes in the minds
of boys, heroes in living form
some call sacrifice.

A plastic American flag at the foot
of a dead lawn, sun-bleached, creased,
from the Fourth of July many years
ago — on the TV, a story about D-Day,
the beaches of Normandy, hedgerows
line the farms of northern France
with mines that detonate
mid-air, could put holes through wood
with nuts and bolts —
Hitler’s buzzsaw cutting down men
on the beaches, bunching up in the sea,
they learn the details about their mission
the first time after training 21 months
for something like this —

The commander explains the business
behind the strategy, how to win wars:
every man from officer to private
understands the objective — if you lose
the leaders you have to hope a few
can make it behind the lines, can string
something together, take the enemy
position, make them surrender, open
the road from France to Berlin.

You buy with the selling of men’s lives,
it is the coin of the realm he says,
and I am in love and awe
with every one of them.

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