The long wind down

On the last day of spring I walked to the lake in the morning, just past 5. It was light like it had been that way all day. I’d been up since 4, with the sounds of birdsong and fans running, my mind doing the same. Dawn said she heard a story about ‘high-functioning anxiety’ and it sounded just like me. It felt better to put a name to it, to explain why I was such an uptight ass. “Do you get to work early every day, dressed nicely, hair combed just so? Do you bite your nails and stress out over small things, and then soothe yourself with alcohol? Are you easily irritated by children, or your loved ones…?”

When I got back from the lake I did the same routine as I do every day: I took a cold shower, got my lunch ready, set the air conditioning, said goodbye…parked my car, logged on, ate breakfast, went to my 8 o’clock sync. We had a large hole in our backyard we needed to talk to the water department about: a friend thought there could be a water line break nearby causing it. And he said the soil is that way from thousands of feet of glaciers pressing down on it over time, melting, refreezing, weighing it down to a fine, compact consistency.

Lily’s throwing a party at our house in honor of a dead rapper but I’m desensitized by it, I don’t really care. We’re perverted by all we have, and where we live: we must have some kind of disorder to succeed in an environment like this. Sometimes I want to leave it all and move to the country with an old barn and a tape deck where I can play my Smiths cassettes and be left alone, to just write, and unwind.

Dawn and I sat out back in the sun with our Aperol spritzers watching a bald eagle circle above our house. Dawn got the cat inside, and then the eagle spiraled out of view, making a coiling pattern as it did. I can’t sleep this time of year, and it’s driving me nuts: with all this energy from the sun, it’s like my battery’s overcharged.

Maybe our summer solstice is like reaching the peak of a long mountain trek and tomorrow, we finally start the long wind down.

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‘Here we were’

It was so warm outside I could write with my shirt off in the shade. The maple tree by the sports court looked like one of the figures on Easter Island with its long face, except for the bat house nailed to the forehead. The bat house had been there since the time our house was built (1992), but never once had a bat by the looks of it. 1992 was the year I graduated from college, the year the Beastie Boys released their third record, and I moved to the beach with my friends Chris and Dave. Chris bought a bag of weed bigger than any I’d ever seen, but in just two weeks we’d gone through it and had to go the rest of the summer without. I had the car my dad gave me, a 1984 Thunderbird coupe, which I used to deliver pizzas at night. A year later I sold it for $500 to a guy who played Spanish guitar at the café where I worked, but the car fell on him when he was working on it and he nearly died.

We’re only the third owners of this house—we bought it from the Youngs and they, from the Munsons. The Munsons cleared a bunch of trees to let the sunlight in, but left many of the tall ones around the edges. They also put in the rockery and chicken coop, and retrofitted the heating system to add AC, but the vents are all in the floor so it doesn’t work so well. We open the windows at night and shut everything down during the day.

After selling the Thunderbird I bought a Toyota Celica from a guy who owned a crystal shop next to my work: $500, cash. It was fast, with a leather steering wheel and a good car stereo. But a year later I abandoned that car in Philadelphia after we moved away because the city towed it, and I didn’t really need it. When they finally tracked me down I was married and had changed my name, owned a house, and they wanted about $500 in fines.

My third car was a 1990 Volvo wagon my mom gave us, which we had towed from Pennsylvania to Seattle. It took about two months to arrive and cost a thousand dollars for the tow, and when I opened the glove compartment mice were living inside and had used the service records as nesting, and destroyed the wiring for the butt warmers.

I drove that car for a good 12 years and when I traded it in, they offered me $200.

It’s Father’s Day, and because I can’t sleep this time of year I was up again at 6 pounding down coffee, irritable, scrubbing out pots other people had cleaned the night before but not adequately enough, upsetting Dawn by playing the jazz music too loud: horns, drums, and discord.

Another blind broke in Charlotte’s room and I decided that’s it, we need to replace them all. They’re from the time the house was built (1992), and 26 years is a long time for the same set of blinds. Besides, better blinds might help keep the light out, this time of year.

To calm myself I made a mimosa with grapefruit juice and cheap, Spanish wine and tried to nap in the hammock, but called my dad first. He said my uncle Jim was moving to a trailer park for seniors (55 and above), and they’d had a nice time at the beach. We talked about the weather and the heat, and I apologized his card hadn’t come yet and he said not to worry, it was just nice to talk.

Dawn and the kids went out for the afternoon and I found myself with nothing to do, walking around the house with my shirt off. I went down to the den to play a record, remembering a colleague who once said all he wanted for Father’s Day was to play his favorite Sonic Youth album, undisturbed by his wife and kids. So I did the same, and when they got home we all went out to dinner and took the long way there, I’d just gotten the car washed and the AC worked, and we had nothing to worry about.

We have a really good life, I said to Dawn.

That year I was driving to the beach, that summer: they were here clearing out trees and putting up new blinds, almost like they were getting it all ready for us. And now, here we were.

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Einmal ist keinmal, one more time

At the end of the summer, on the last days before school started, I’d go into the classroom with my dad at the school where he taught. There was a periodic table of the elements on one wall, chalkboards and formulas, workstations where kids did experiments. Dad’s classroom had an odd smell—not a bad smell, just odd. It wasn’t formaldehyde, but had the same, vinegar quality. The smell of science. In the break room dad let me get the cherry cola I liked from an old, coin-operated soda dispenser. Forty years later, and I can still remember what the bottle felt like in my hand, my thumb running across the grooves. And seeing the film Planet of the Apes for the first time while it was snowing outside, and we had the day off from school. Or the sad-looking grocery store near our apartment, called Lane-co. Or the stained glass candle holder my mom and dad made: a Polaroid of me beside it now peach-colored, from time. Memories turn into clumps and clusters like that, and the memory-bearer is the only one who can find the thread that untangles them.

In the last few visits with my grand-dad, he would tell the story about a Scottish terrier they had, the time that dog (“Scotty”) came running around the lake when he was driving off somewhere in his pickup. I can’t even remember the punchline which is funny, because he told the same story every time I saw him, each time like it was the first. Maybe I wasn’t listening because I was distracted by the fact he was losing his memory, and I was lost in my own grief with the knowledge I’d soon be losing him.

My dad said he found something from my grandfather going through their old house. It was a framed artifact from his time doing nuclear science at the power and light company, “PP&L.” Dad said that as my grandfather got older he would have gotten shoved to the side of projects, at work. It was one of the last studies he did, a degradation chart, though my dad (also a scientist) couldn’t make out what it meant. But he couldn’t part with it either, because it had meant a lot to his dad. And in that way, there was a part of his long-lost father in that frame—and a part of himself, in a sense.

Maybe this is why I write memoir, because I can’t let go of memories, and I want to believe there’s more meaning to them—or if they’re lost, it’s like those times didn’t really exist—and nor did I, as a result.

I started reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being when Dawn and I were traveling to Berlin by train in February two years ago. But I left the book for my mom in Germany, and never finished it. I’m finally toward the end now, and dog-eared this page:

History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow.

Einmal ist keinmal. What happens but once might as well not have happened at all.

I guess that’s it, when weighing the value of one’s life, I just want to make mine heavier, somehow.



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Negative space

I had to drink out of the side of my mouth to get the taste of glue out since half of me was still numb. I went back to the dentist, Dr. Chan, the first time in years, with lots of work to be done. After the hydro-scaling I got hand-scaled, and then it was time to move me, change sunglasses. And with my head thrown back and the two of them in my mouth, it felt pornographic: six of them pulling and pressing and rubbing, drilling and filling me at different pitches and tones, the suction, the doorknob they told me to bite down on, to keep my jaws open: the fact my tongue kept fighting them like a doped-up lizard and the doctor had to pin it down with his thumbs: me, realizing my hands were clasped and lower back arched, butt cheeks clenched, lips cracked: the torture scene from 1984, my face eaten by a rat—or worse, a metaphor, an imagined rat, the savagery of dentistry, Nazis, nerve sacs, small tools, my imagination. The look of my teeth on the flatscreen and my fillings the color of chicken fat, sickly yellow. Dr. Chan, filling me full of composite and topping it off with glue and then sanding it down and cauterizing it, reassuring me you’re doing great, Bill. Doing great.

Reminded of the fact I have geographic tongue, whatever that means. The image of continents taking shape in the form of some unexplained fungus that mutates over time. Reflecting darkly, this is what it means to be a writer: to feel the need to say something even if you can’t, geographic tongue. It gets around, but no one knows how or why, or where it comes from.

When I got home I went right for the beer and the back yard and sat with the cat and a small green bug crawling up my arm, reflecting on the cloud cover, the drooping pansies and peonies, reminded of an image on the eBook I’m writing at work by the header, a logo that forms a negative space that’s soothing, and why?: because the mind needs a place to go without walls, a free space, the place in between the forced imagery where we can let go, and just be.

I got it in my head I needed to fix things around the house and started with the deadbolt latch on the front door that fell off, requires a custom-sized screw I don’t have the patience to find, though I’ve tried. The kids had some gum, so I chewed a piece and balled it up in the slot and stuck the latch back on and then went out in the garage for the carpenter glue to fix the finial cap on the wall clock that keeps falling off from the cat chewing the tip (has bad teeth, chews on things to sooth).

I got that done and then went back to the recliner, put on John Coltrane and felt for my lip but still couldn’t feel it, though it was there.

The client for the eBook doesn’t like white space, wants us to fill it. Doesn’t care for nonsensical paragraph breaks even though they’re not nonsensical, they’re deliberate.

Because we all need a break,

some space to take a breath,

and think for ourselves.

(What’s so negative about that?)

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‘Time after time’

My dog is 42, but could still pass for 30. Life in seven year increments, a year at a time. Cork screwing the side of Cougar Mountain, past the Klondike marsh through the damp forest thinking about Orin Smith, former CEO of Starbucks now dead at 75: the one time I sat in his conference room on 9/11, watching the footage on his flat screens, when he decided to close all the stores so employees could be with their loved ones. How you could be a great leader and still be kind like that. A picture of him with Howard Behar and Howard Schultz from the ’90s, they all looked so young. The time they dressed up like the band KISS and lip synced a song at one of the manager conferences, and Orin played Ace Frehley, silver stars around his eyes.

We drew straws that day to see who would stay late to do the employee communications and I pulled the shortest one. Jim Morgan gave me a ride home, and we stopped at a gas station so he could buy the paper, for the headline.

The time he called after the earthquake to ask if I was okay, because he heard I was really upset. I never had a boss call before to just ask if I was alright.

Jim said there was a meeting in Orin’s office and told me and Alex to come, so we followed him in but there was nowhere to sit so we stood in the corner looking at all the senior leaders watching the flat screens, replaying the footage.

Orin nodded and smiled so we knew we were welcome. Then, that Friday they held an open forum in the ninth floor commons so we could have a moment of silence, and many of us cried. But a store in New York gave some fire fighters a hard time about bottled water, or made them pay for it, and it became a bad PR story, and Orin apologized but made it sound like the store manager was to blame, and then had to apologize to the store manager for what he’d said, and then let everyone else know he’d apologized.

I’d listen to those voicemails from my desk and then erase them, sometimes not listening to the end. And then I started writing voicemail scripts like that and sitting with executives while they recorded them, or helping with the codes so nothing went wrong. They always sounded scripted, because they were.

The VP who ran the east coast stores happened to be in Seattle on 9/11 and I helped him write a voicemail for his employees, acknowledging what happened. Leaders were expected to say something, to be comforting, because you needed that from a leader. And I remember we made reference to God in the voicemail which is maybe the only time I ever did that and probably not OK at all, but it felt necessary at the time.

Dawn and I went to the girls’ dance recital Friday and toward the end of the show one of the girls made me cry by how inspired she seemed, on stage. She was joyful, I thought. So many of the kids were good, but there was a difference with a few and it made me think of the solar eclipse, the idea of totality, what a difference it makes by just a degree or two, the difference between night and day. I wanted that vitality and joyfulness in my writing again; I kept going back up Cougar Mountain or to our local lake, or sitting under the trees out back watching the clouds, waiting. It was there for me all around. They were precious, meager moments, each one.

As I got older there was more love and appreciation for life and the years went by faster, and I decided I’d take the dog with me every time I went up Cougar Mountain, and write as much as I could. She was 42 but next year, 49.

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Teaching machines to learn cause and effect

The twitch in my eye is the result of an outdated prescription, or from reading too much online at work, I’ve decided. The reading has been on artificial intelligence, training machine models to learn unsupervised through clusters of computers tied together through nodes. Deep learning comes when machines transfer an insight from one scenario to another through layers, a deep neural network. Learning, then, can be viewed as cause and effect aimed at a hypothesis, or for making predictions.

It was around this time last year we were in Washington, DC at a Microsoft conference I made plans to fly to Germany that August. Eberhard and my mom were going back to the Austrian Alps, an annual trip they make to honor Eberhard’s friend he used to guide with who suicided himself, Eberhard says.

But I messed up the passport renewal process and my passport came the day after I was supposed to fly out and had to cancel my trip, and wound up hiking the Olympics instead. And I made plans for a business trip to Europe that October but had to cancel that also for reasons outside my control. So we compensated by booking a month-long trip to Germany in December, but it set our oldest daughter back in school, creating a precedent of absences and low grades we attribute to that. And things went sideways at work while I was gone that set into motion my leaving this past April. But the firm we hired to cover for me in December wound up being the same one I just joined.

Today, I got my trip to the Austrian Alps approved for this August and feel like I can start looking forward to it now. It will be Brad, Eberhard, and me: my mom’s not going, but hasn’t told Eberhard yet (she only has one lung now and doesn’t really like hiking).

When I got home, the dog shook and whimpered like she was trying to tell me something and Dawn says, she wants a walk. And so I changed, and around the block I thought of all this cause and effect, and wonder now if the dog knows she can get me to walk her, by whimpering like that.

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The night has a thousand eyes

The marine layer was back, and made for a moody start to our Sunday. I climbed the gravel road to the lake past the caterpillars and birdsong, a rustling in the grass and leaves. We all had to go back to the lice treatment center on Mercer Island but felt morally superior hurrying out past the others with plastic bags on their heads, knowing we had the all-clear. It’s like that feeling of buying porn or hard drugs in a public space, pressed in with others doing the same and not wanting to make eye contact, feeling debased. Lily saw a girl she knew from dance class and me, a woman I used to work with at Starbucks I had a crush on once, tried to date. She was with her kid, and older now: I quickly turned and went on my phone, but it was so small in there she had to notice.

We rode home with our hair slicked back, like Leonardo DiCaprio or a young Draco Malfoy. And then we went our separate ways: the kids to their bedrooms, Dawn and I to the back yard with our blanket, trying to relax. We just had time to kill before going out to the restaurant later, for dinner. I wanted to get there early enough we’d be sure to get a table and wouldn’t have to wait. In just an hour we went, ate, returned home—and then Dawn and I went outside again as the sun dipped down and it started to cool, and the mosquitoes came out. We undid the sofa pillows from the garbage bags (you have to bag everything for 24 hours so the lice will die), but Dawn tied the bags so tight we had to use scissors to get them open.

The film was thin plot-wise, but the special effects and acting carried it along. You could draw the story-line out in about 10 frames: it had 15 minutes of story at best with the rest, all fat. The first Avengers film (2012): Thor’s brother Loki uses a Tesseract to create a portal to Asgard and start a war, making Earth his new kingdom, starting with New York.

You could draw the story-line out horizontally, and then fill in each “pane” vertically. That was a technique I’d learned for speech-writing, storytelling, or messaging frameworks: establish a logic to help create structure.

And yet there was something so tempting about abandoning structure altogether because it felt more real, even though we needed structure to make sense of things, to understand. Life still has a beginning, middle and end, and stories are like waves that carry us up and down, giving us the sense we’ve been transported.

The ocean has no structure but the raft must, to get across.



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