Existential work theme | Field notes from the Pacific coast

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5. It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.


By the time we got to 2009, both Dawn’s dad and my stepdad John had died, and Starbucks was announcing layoffs. You could map the decline in company sales and profit against rising gas prices or competition, the economic collapse: and now it was time to close under-performing stores and reduce headcount at corporate. We all knew the date of the layoffs, a Tuesday in early February. Not much work was getting done it seemed. To consider if you’d have the same job in a few weeks forced the existential question if the work mattered so much, or if you did.

On that morning the conference rooms were all booked for that purpose, for talking to people whose jobs were either changing or going away: sitting on a bench in the hallway you could see who was on the other side through the opaque glass, each conference room with a box of tissues stowed in the corner, for the moments people cry.

And some were shuffling past pushing house plants on Rubbermaid carts, gathering their things—the news of who’d been let go seeped out, what happened to other groups. With the way it worked, you got a meeting invitation the night before if there was going to be a change to your job—but it was the kind of invitation you didn’t want, and came with a cryptic subject line, but you could infer by who was on the invite what was going to happen. For me, I deduced I’d be changing from one small group to another but still retained. And that’s what happened.

At noon our director called a meeting and we stood in a semi-circle around our workspace: a few from our group were now gone, their desks empty. There were new people from other groups who’d joined ours and a sense of relief probably, but a startled feeling too: the reminder that anyone’s replaceable, that job security (like control) is an illusion that can be pulled down at any time like a theater prop. If you equated your life to work or confused the two, then you had to accept that, it was a prop. And you’re not directing!

I liked my new manager; he was supposed to lead a meeting with our team but didn’t have anything prepared. So I rode the elevator down to the main lobby and walked outside to catch the north or southbound bus, whichever came first, to go somewhere and clear my head.

Dawn and I had already planned to take a sabbatical and move to Germany that summer, to be with my mom for the first anniversary of John’s death, on Halloween. I’d been with Starbucks 10 years which made me “sabbatical-eligible,” but we could only afford four months off, without pay. We weren’t paying a mortgage then—we were lucky, we’d just sold our house before the economy collapsed that September, living with Dawn’s mom Beth still, waiting for things to improve, but it didn’t seem they would. A few months in Europe sounded great: Charlotte was still in diapers—we had no pets, no plants to speak of.

And so I decided to do all the things I’d never done before or didn’t have time to do, like a solo backpacking trip, another big mountain climb, maybe start a blog. I did all that by August, by the time we drove down to Italy for a week, and back through Innsbruck. I posted blog journals but didn’t tag them, didn’t get a visitor for three years, according to my stats. I let the blog go for a while and went back to work, changed groups, got a promotion to a higher level. And by 2012 I realized I was depressed (it may have just been the weather) but I had to start writing again to correct that, and we planned a trip back to Germany for Christmas, the time we drove to France to see Laurent.

We were at a playground with our kids, Laurent and I, on a bench watching them, a sunny, mild day, Christmastime in the French town of Metz, near the German border. It felt like France by the look of the buildings, they all had a worn-in look, needed pressure-washing.

I said to Laurent I wondered what it would be like to move here, to live in Europe for a while. It all felt different, and great. It wouldn’t be hard for us to do that with my mom living in Germany and us not owning a house: maybe Dawn or I could get a job, learn another language, raise our kids here.

But Laurent shook his head no, said I think it’s just the way you see things when you’re on vacation, everything seems better when you’re not working.

And I thought he was right about that but still wanted to see things that way, like I was on vacation, all the time. Life was too short to live just for the weekends.

In the years to follow, 2013-14, I wonder now if I led myself down a path where I’d have to leave my job: like they’d force me out somehow through my actions, so we could go back to Europe like we did that first sabbatical. We always said after the first trip we wanted to go back again, to take more time and do it differently when the kids were old enough they’d remember it—that it might inform who they are as much as it would us. And that we could have time together as a family, with my mom—and maybe it would make me the writer I imagined for myself by having more experience, it could change me.

But it isn’t geography that changes us, isn’t distance, isn’t time. Brad talked about Alan Watts and Buddhism, the idea that time is an illusion, a made-up framework to help us interpret change. I still don’t understand that, can’t. But I wanted to change, to become the artist I thought I could be: to undo this image I had of myself through work, to have the energy and wherewithal to do more, that felt more permanent to me than “work.” That on those last days at Starbucks before I left for good, walking through the commons each morning past the company timeline, the quilts hanging from the ceiling symbolizing the company’s values: I wanted to believe I was part of all that and would be remembered, but another part of me knew I wouldn’t. That my real life was elsewhere, or trapped inside of me—or perhaps I was getting in the way of it myself. To reconcile the fact that we are what we do, to do what we love, or risk not loving who we are as a result.

 

 

 

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“These are the days now” | Field notes from the Pacific coast

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5 (at 30K!). It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.


I gave myself a goal to finish the first draft of my memoir by the time I flew to Germany, the time I went by myself to convey the animals. Because we were moving there as a family in July, I thought it made sense to get the dog and cats over first, to simplify the move later. But it was a real boondoggle, a chance to spend solo time with my mom for a week, to see what it was like there mid-May.

I read the draft on the plane in a couple hours, put it in a plastic binder with painter’s tape, the title in Sharpie, “The Last 22 Years.” It had no dialogue, no character development, no arc. Some days when I got up to write, I wrote ‘cold,’ meaning I didn’t have a plan. I wrote how it felt not knowing what to write about.

I put the binder away and tried to sleep, and when I got to my mom’s unpacked, and stowed the draft in the bedside table where it lay for nine months untouched. The story was a raw account of work scenes still vibrating with the energy of “work,” like the book from Harry Potter with the charms or unusual beasts inside, the book with a belt across it and claws, that thumped and growled when you touched it.

And so my mom and I had time in her village to roam around and meet people, and that Saturday stayed up too late in her courtyard drinking (they call it a Hof), and in the morning had to go to an art opening at the Burgermeister’s town hall, but neither of us felt like going after the late night and wine, the need to socialize with Germans in compressed space with Sekt—and a photographer was on hand, and by the time I got back to the States they’d published a story about it in the town paper—and mom forwarded the article, the two of us in the center of the photo looking haggard and fuzzy…bad res.

Conveying the animals beforehand made sense to a degree, but was expensive. We were trying to do everything right; with me not working, channeling project management behaviors I picked up at work, I got a white board for Dawn’s office where I used color coding to prioritize tasks and progress on what we had to do, held stand-up meetings Sunday mornings to review status.

We hired German immigration lawyers to advise on the rules of the Schengen and visa policies, to consult on our best chance to get a visa—and applied the same thinking we both had from our corporate jobs (you could always hire a specialist)—the nadir, the animal behaviorists we hired to diagnose why our dog was peeing indoors, how to mitigate that before we moved into my mom’s 500-year-old house, its wooden floor boards and cracks in between, impossible to clean.

We tried different drugs with our dog Ginger, to observe how she’d respond. I got her a diaper, for use in the cage on the flight over—an inverted water bottle like a gerbil’s to strap to the outside of the crate. When I got to Frankfurt, to the part of the baggage claim where you collect skis and odd-sized things, I waited for them to come down the conveyor belt. I had all this paperwork notarized and inspected by the state department in Olympia (who made it excessively hard it seemed, to legitimize themselves) but wheeling them out of the terminal there were no German authorities, no one, to question me. It seemed they didn’t care about our animals coming into their country and I thought, great.

A few weeks later one of the cats went missing but it was the one I didn’t like as much (“Ruby”)—mom emailed saying the cat was in the tree and with her collar, mom was worried she could hang herself: was it okay if mom took the collar off?—and I said yes, but in my gut, second guessed it…and mom hated us having to tell the kids but they were young enough we could smooth things over with ice cream, and that was that. They were rescue cats from a tornado in Joplin, Missouri we got as a delay tactic (me trying to avoid getting a dog), but it only worked for six months before the kids came back to the dog thing. And each of our kids got to pick a cat from the thumbnails on the website displaying the cats like mug shots, ripe for the picking, and independently each chose one we later discovered as sisters (the two cats), who came to reflect the unique qualities we perceived in our kids: one, very pleasant and accommodating, the other, “iffy”—perhaps familiars for our two girls, taking on their qualities or vice versa, as pets often do. And because they were amnesty animals we had to apply to purchase them, had to present ourselves as responsible owners: who knew, we’d be relocating to Germany, taking their collars off?

With all that time off it made sense for me to rewrite my memoir but I felt like doing so would prevent me from living the memoir I wanted to live in the moment, in Europe. So instead, I wrote this:

The girls are in the bedroom with the sun washed over them, mouths slung open. The water here is either too hard or soft, it’s hard to make a lather. I’ve been up more than 24 hours flying, eating, drinking, swimming, watching the World Cup, horns up and down the hillsides.

I ate breakfast before the airport then lunch at the airport, lunch on the plane, breakfast on the plane, lunch after landing (beers throughout), then down to the pool—a day without night crossing the IDL, defying time, going forward, moving so fast my hands and feet are swollen.

The cold water is good; there’s a recessed pool half a foot deep you can walk circles around with stones to stimulate the circulation down at the Schwimmbad. I hold the hand rail and catch the same woman I saw earlier on a bike going past with misshapen arms that hang there, make me think of dead tree limbs—something you notice, pretend not to.

The writer Sherwood Anderson dedicates the book to his mother,
“Whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives.”

I take a shower, brush my teeth, get back to bed. It’s hard to keep quiet in a 500-year-old house. The second shift birds are out now, mid-morning. Cars in the distance, the tic-tock of a clock you can follow if you want to go mad. The space behind my eyes opens to a cave where you can find things, see things, hear things, whatever you want.

We walked up to the market to look at the chicken because mom didn’t trust the supermarket chicken, but I decided against. Instead, I had to nap to feel better, to go home before we went out again.

There was a sound under the vines on the side of the house and I stood below it listening: bees. I had to go to the bathroom so I looked for a book, and there it was, Paul Auster, the same one my friend finished and recommended to me. And it made me wonder where it came from, who put it there, written in the mid-’80s, this copy unread, you could tell by the spine.

And I went from the first person to the third, to a past and future of make-believe. It was Tuesday now, Dienstag, and they decided to take a drive to a town on the Romantic Road. They parked outside the alte stadt and crossed a wooden footbridge. The town laid on its side for them, the same, still. They ordered boiled beef with horseradish sauce and red wine and held hands, looking out the window. He said, these are the days now.

After, they walked to the church to admire the paintings, the history, the faces looking up, looking down, the same story made its way along the river here too. And the faces in the paintings were drawn from real men before they made photographs. Some, imagined too.

And they go from third person back to the first, sitting outside a restaurant again, laughing about language, how my mom says to the dog Lay down, but that can also mean Lick my ass: the same as the word for humid, how it can mean gay too, if you’re not careful. It’s gay outside, today. Like the time I held my hand on my stomach after dinner in France and declined another helping saying no thanks, I’m pregnant.

I call my mom’s dog Ginger because he’s a dog too, and I think of my dog when I talk to him, but his name is Merlin. And I try to keep still on my back, supta baddha konasana, until I can’t feel my legs or tell if my hands are touching, and end with the story of the sculptor my mom met, how he came to her house the night before his big opening here in town.

Mom includes the important facts that lead to the conclusion and what to make of it: here, this man she met through chance, through distant friends in a nearby village, came to deliver pieces she bought from him, how she can’t remember why she invited him into the house, how that didn’t seem to make sense because she was in a hurry and he was too, but upstairs they went to the sitting room, and that’s when it happened: he pointed at something on the shelf and held his mouth, shook his head, said no.

It was a form from a sculpture he made in the ’60s but had to sell when he was first starting out, the only one missing from his collection, here in my mom’s sitting room—and all the way from Pennsylvania it came, and back to Germany again. And we talked about it and wondered what it meant, was it the piece of art drawing itself back to its creator? Was it just a story that can’t be explained, to remind us of the mystery of life, our role in it? Or did it speak to my step-father John, his influence over us now even in death, how he connects us in ways we don’t understand, like this book in the bedroom, Paul Auster?

 

 

 

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Too long from the dark, this deep into June | Field notes from the Pacific coast

Map of the UK, mom’s house in Germany

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5 (at 30K!). It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.


When I zipped through the photos on my laptop it was like an animated film, frames from the past 10 years. You could correlate moments in the gaps that went undocumented, the drains of your memory. Some memories were reference points before or after something else that happened. The photo of me and the family on the beach by the tree stump in that pink/gold, late August light: that was before the shit hit the fan at work. I remember because I got sick, one of those seasonal bookend illnesses that happen in the spring or fall. I got sick in a way I couldn’t think right, went to the doctor a few times but they couldn’t diagnose it. Bad timing: new boss, new projects, me, useless.

The new project was called ISOP. That stood for something, an acronym. Acronyms are important because often spelling it out is too cumbersome or hard to remember and implies a level of complexity no one has time for. A good, strong acronym becomes a kind of brand. Better yet, a project logo adds credibility, and your project can become an entity, a thing—something people get behind.

But ISOP was problematic because it sounded a bit silly, like IHOP (the pancake place) or Aesop, the fable writer. And that opened doors nobody wanted to open. It was an important project, more a program, a group of projects co-located under one PM to pool resources, keep decision-making under a common sponsor. I studied all that and it made sense in abstract, as things often do.

My boss inherited me from the guy who hired me onto the group. In the past, whenever I’d gotten moved to a different boss I always felt safe: this time I learned you shouldn’t always feel that way. The meeting, and decision about me seemed to happen very quickly. ISOP, I’d learn, was 19 projects embedded into one across three time zones (LatAM, EMEA, Asia), with systems/IT issues, business process issues, and combinations thereof. It was brilliantly hatched and scoped. It all made sense, this simplified view on a slide that laid out the issues, the urgency to act. It became top priority. Of the roughly 50 projects our department managed this was now tied for #1 and the other one I was also on, SIMS.

My boss had been a peer and recently promoted. She could do the project management work but technically, was operating as business owner. She quickly realized I could do neither. So she had to do the PM work and find a role for me to play (since I was the PM). I took notes, scheduled meetings, set up bridge lines. The note-taking was a cluster fuck because I didn’t understand what they were talking about. I took notes stream-of-consciousness style, by rote: and then I’d have to edit my notes to make sense of it all, and it was like Tom Wolfe from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test but not as interesting, not at all. Whatever illness I had got worse. I made a mistake replying to an email where I confused something one morning and she wrote back on her phone, kind of snapped, and it was like a small tissue tear, the kind that never real heals.

The project, the program, got whittled down to one we hired a consultant for. There were a lot of copies that had to be made one night (late) but I didn’t offer to make them. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t. I got another project. I got a couple more, transitioned off ISOP. My boss went on to get promoted, I had success with a project we did in Las Vegas, did alright with some others. They were really big projects, though. One time I counted the number of vendors we were overseeing and it was about 20, some with conflicting interests, different Procurement people with different motivations, different orgs. My new business owner had an end-to-end, holistic, engineer’s way of thinking about things. I was getting tired, fantasized about Europe. There was a real escape appeal to that, to remake myself.

It was time for Dawn and I to celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary at the same place we got married, going back to that mountain lodge. Mom and Eberhard came: Eberhard was turning 60, had just retired from the police force in Ludwigsburg. It was mid-May, good weather. The day they got in, I took Eberhard to the lake and we brought beer in ceramic travel mugs and Eberhard broke one but I said don’t worry about it. We stood by the lake smoking, with bald eagles Eberhard tried to catch with his camera.

And then for the next three days it was a game of watching Eberhard experience the States, his first time, and there was no shortage of good shots: he was like a dog with his head out the window: Les Schwab! Brown Bear! Safeway! These were iconic brands, America. He was a young boy on Christmas morning, aglow. I could not stop thinking about work, though. I can honestly say the anxiety I felt prevented me from really being there for that anniversary celebration. I sat by the keg watching Eberhard with the hatchet make kindling, balancing the cigarette in his lips as he chopped. I drank and tried to let go, to lose myself in the mountain clouds. Still, there was work. It sat on the edge of my bed when I woke in the middle of the night, was not good company, and nor was I.

I took the Monday off after the anniversary and drove Eberhard and my mom around Seattle. We went to the beach near Ballard called Golden Gardens, an exquisite, May day. There were young moms on the sand with their kids, reading. They were so far away from me, my mind. I knew it was all mounting, back at work: this feeling like a conspiracy, this movement to undo me, to build a case it was time for me to go.

We went to Germany that July and the Germans won the World Cup. I had a lot to drink one night and pitched the idea to Dawn after everyone went to bed: we could relocate here, we could see if my mom would let us move in…we could leave our jobs, start over when we’re done.

I didn’t understand it then, still may not, but there is some navigational analogy to all this I should have learned with the Mountaineers club, one of the vital rules about backwoods orienteering: if you’re lost, go back to where you know your location, and don’t keep going. For as much as I like the idea of coarse navigation (the idea a number of mis-steps throughout life can cancel each other out), you can also vector off by a degree and find yourself totally somewhere you never imagined because you kept going the wrong way. Maybe they all saw that and I was so lost I didn’t, but about six months later the only way was the elevator down, and out—

And at my friend Miriam’s apartment in London the following January she said, look where you are now, a year later: better? Sometimes different isn’t better, just different. You can travel far for a long time and that can change you, but you need to go back to really understand what went wrong to begin with.

 

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The expansion and compression theme | Field notes from the Pacific coast

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5 (at 30K!). It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.


Eberhard met my mom through John (my stepdad), whom Eberhard met backstage at a concert John was giving in Germany. John was English, had run a successful ‘learn to play guitar’ program on the BBC; Eberhard, like many others, was a student who got to know John through his guitar lessons on the TV in the late ’70s, early ’80s.

And my mom met John at the grocery store in the neighborhood where I grew up, west Allentown: John was in front of my mom in the checkout paying by check, and as he gave the clerk his phone number to write it down he looked at my mom and mouthed the numbers, she memorized them, called him 20 minutes later, said here’s my number if you want to go out, think about it.

So it was from that exchange at the grocery store that all those times through Europe followed, even a trip orchestrated by John to Morocco, where we both got sick and had to drive back via the Spanish coast on anti-diarrhea medication, a car full of scarves, lanterns, robes—chameleons, fated to die.

John and my mom got married in ’94 in the Pennsylvania house they called Highgrove, built by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. John gave free guitar lessons for 10 years to the prior owner in hopes he could get the house from him one day and at last, it worked.

And then they got a condo on the Mediterranean so they could start going back and forth, as John only had a green card in the States, and wanted to keep a ‘foothold in Europe,’ as he said.

The condo turned into a bigger house in the adjacent village of Port-Vendres near the Spanish border, a region known for its Catalan influence, charcuterie, sweet, strong wines, good pink/gold light for the impressionists who’d come before.

And so back and forth they went three months on, three months off, conveying the animals, collecting treasures from the antique markets of southern France. But come 9/11 and changes to everything “travel,” it got harder to fly with the animals. The normal JFK to Barcelona route got discontinued, logistics became untenable.

They put the house in France up for sale and sold the condo. And they were traveling the wine country of southern Germany when they got word the house in France had sold. The amount they got for it was the same amount someone wanted for this old house in the village where they were having lunch, Besigheim. It was the oldest house in town, at the bottom of a narrow, cobblestone road. It had views to the south beyond the old wall, to the hillsides, surrounding farms, small motorways: south was Stuttgart, north, Frankfurt. Without much time or thought they made an offer and relocated their things from France, John’s guitars, antique clocks, paintings, the deux chevaux that didn’t run, and sat in the barn until John died.

They were at the guitar trade-show in Frankfurt when they saw Eberhard again, and announced they’d bought a house in southern Germany. When Eberhard asked where, they realized it was just 20 minutes from his apartment in Ludwigsburg, where he worked as a cop. Eberhard offered to help with logistics. And when Dawn and I made our first visit to Germany in 2004, we met at the airport, and he conveyed us to my mom and John’s new house, 500 years old.

Christmastime. Dawn’s parents Dick and Beth flew over too, and we all stayed at the house—and that first night there was light snow and choral singing in the village square, I think Beth’s favorite time there.

But it was not a good visit overall, it was strange. John’s health was declining and the doctors and specialists couldn’t diagnose the problem. He was losing sensitivity in the nerves in his fingers (death, for a guitarist), had sleep apnea, pain in his feet, pre-diabetic, at risk for dialysis, and was on a bunch of medications you’re not supposed to take with alcohol, but that didn’t stop him. He’d start falling asleep at the dinner table talking, drinking wine, and then snore, sitting upright. It was funny at first (a cartoon snore, a faint whistle at the end), but upsetting.

And with only a house in Germany now and Dawn and I expecting a baby, I pressed them to consider buying a place near us in Seattle, maybe British Colombia. But John had designs on a place in Greece, was getting more and more isolated (or wanted to be, it seemed), and we got into an argument about it, Christmas Eve—and everyone else said well, maybe we should go take a walk.

There was a rift that opened that night between us and took some time to close. And later, on our way up the road to the old church for the candlelight service John stumbled on the stone steps and nearly landed on my mom or Dawn (who was pregnant), and at the time he was a good 250 pounds, six feet tall, maybe more.

On Christmas morning I sulked in my room on the third floor in that old house. It was the upper floor where the prior owner killed himself, a dentist. We didn’t talk about it much; mom just mentioned there were weird things about the house: estranged teenaged sons who worked on their motorcycles indoors, left grease stains on the floor, had drawn or painted odd symbols on the walls, vaguely occult. Mom later told me she went up to the attic one night by herself and confronted the spirit, whatever spirit there was: said OK, whoever or whatever you are I need you to come out now or bug off, this place is ours, now. And it worked. The kids later reported strange dreams after we moved in, but you could pass that off as jet lag, or kids’ imaginations.

That Christmas morning I moped, just wanting to get on a train and go away, not come back. I told my mom I wished she was with someone who really cared and looked after her, someone like Eberhard, someone more responsible than John.

A few years passed and they stayed on at that house, and the phone calls with my mom became familiar accounts of various doctors and clinics they were trying throughout the region—John wasn’t able to fly anymore, so mom would visit us in Seattle on her own. In August of ’08 mom told me some upsetting things John said to her, he was now on dialysis, and I let my boss know I had to go to Germany to see him, and she didn’t hesitate, said just go.

When we said goodbye that day, it’s like whatever fog or filters were over John burned off and he was himself again for a moment. Our French friend Laurent was with him that Halloween when he passed, and Eberhard let my mom know in the morning, said there was no point in calling at night. He made all the arrangements, held John at the funeral, kissed his head—and it seemed odd to see Eberhard like that, he seemed so strong on the outside: like De Niro, he had this rock solid persona, a perpetual wince.

There was a spirit sense at the house in Pennsylvania too, but it wasn’t the same character-type spirit as the house in Germany, more a sense of raw energy, some natural force. The house was built in the side of a hill overlooking a valley preserved as state game lands, and there’d sometimes be hunters in the fall you could see or hear from the deck. Otherwise, it was all woods as far as you could see, with a creek at the bottom of the hill. And that side of the house was two stories high and all glass, so it let in good morning light from the east.

John said the architectural technique was one of expansion and compression (a term borrowed from physics, where properties of a gas change when compressed)…and with the common area in the middle, a two-level living room with fireplace, records, books, one’s spirit could roam free, expand: yet with the bedrooms or study off to the sides, the office, deliberately smaller, you could compensate for all that expansiveness with a smaller place, compress. Everyone said the house felt good for creativity. I had musicians do sessions there, and I did my best to bang out poems—but it was more a clackety-clack of my manual typewriter, more noise than music, then. I wondered if it was that same expansiveness I needed when I hiked or walked now, for inspiration—followed by the down time in our sunken den at our house in Sammamish, where I wrote. And like a gas, could the properties of an idea change too, compressed by time or space…by letting the idea ‘roam,’ then putting force on it—zoom out, pan in?

It was a rare Christmas my mom wasn’t with us, we talked on the cell phone and she sounded aglow. Eberhard had just been there and said goodbye, but the strangest thing, he kissed her this time. They always kissed on the cheek when he left but this time he held her, and kissed her on the mouth. And then 20 minutes later he called, and asked if he could come back. Mom said he was on his way, she had to run!

 

 

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Suicide in the Alps (father figure theme) | Field notes from the Pacific coast

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5 (at 30K!). It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.


I didn’t know anybody who’d committed suicide really. There was my girlfriend Shana’s brother, his friend Pat. We’d gone to the funeral near Boston and our car broke down, got a 200-mile tow across three states and the driver said that tow is worth more than your car. Didn’t know Pat well, only met once, a week before he died: we were in Pittsburgh at some park and he was down by the river, gestured us over, looked like he was holding a mouse or a baby bird in his hand by the way he was cradling it. But it was his bandaged thumb, he undid the gauze: said he just cut it with an X-ACTO, to see what would happen. Like Shana’s brother, Pat was in the Marines so they gave him a 21-gun salute. And his girlfriend made everyone at the funeral uncomfortable, how she kept touching Pat’s face, talking to him at the viewing. It was a hard thing to confront, nobody knew how.

There was my friend Peel from college, who overdosed in some hotel in New York, probably planned it. But I didn’t feel as much for that as I should have, I’d gone cold on him. When I wrote about the loss of Peel it was more about me. Seemed sometimes death like that just makes us mourn for ourselves, like we died. Like that theory in dreams, everyone you see is really a version of you.

Eberhard wasn’t that way, though. On that last day in the Alps we went to his friend Paul’s gravesite, at the back of a small, Austrian church: there was a small plot outside for Paul, and Eberhard kneeled down and wept for his old friend. He kissed his hand and then touched the stone. He wasn’t religious, but he was deep. He seemed to feel more for others than he did, himself. In his decent English, still thick with German accent, he said Paul suicided himself. No one knew why. Paul was the reason they all came to this village in the Austrian Alps, and now it was part of my life, too. In a way, so was Paul.

Eberhard and I made a routine of hanging outside by the farmhouse around dusk each night smoking cigarettes, drinking beer. It was early August, some Catholic holiday. It was a big deal in this part of Austria, all the stores had signs saying they’d be closed. Eberhard told me the name of the place but I never could remember it, had to write it down. He said Hemingway had been there; Eberhard’s friends owned a place in the same village they rented out. We could get a room for me and Lily, and Eberhard and my mom would stay in the other. It was a three-hour drive from my mom’s house in Germany. Eberhard had a pair of mountaineering boots that fit me well enough; they were from his dead brother-in-law, the guy who ran Leki trekking poles, who died in a plane crash doing stunts. Eberhard got all his clothes and offered me some and I thought it odd, but didn’t mind. I liked Leki a lot. The name was a truncated version of his brother-in-law’s surname, the town they were from.

Eberhard was on the phone with his son Chris, who lived in Sweden near Eberhard’s ex-wife. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but could tell it was tense. When he was done I asked if Chris was okay and Eberhard winced, not really. Was he asking for help, I asked—and Eberhard said yes, but not directly.

The climb we were doing was an annual thing for Eberhard, his ex-girlfriend, a couple of their friends, all in their deep 60s. Eberhard was the youngest of the bunch, just 60. They used to guide and lead expeditions with their friend Paul—going back every August was a way of honoring him, reliving those old days.

It was going up that first day with mom and my daughter Lily, mom let me know she only had one lung, that’s why she was taking it slow. She didn’t like to talk about it, didn’t want to make a big deal, but the other one got taken out while she was under, having some cancer removed from another part of her body, and the surgeon didn’t ask permission, just took it on himself, and she was surprised when he told her, but glad it was all out now.

The hike was pretty mellow but we were at good altitude, had to take a gondola to the trailhead, and there was some fog and threatening clouds, green hillsides dotted with patches of snow, slanted villages in the distance, the sound of yak bells. Coming down, Lily wasn’t paying attention and tripped over her trekking poles, scraped her knees pretty badly but held it back, tried not to cry in front of me. Back at the farmhouse, Eberhard cleaned it out with a toothbrush and some schnapps and Lily screamed, and I couldn’t watch, didn’t have the nerve to, was glad Eberhard did.

Eberhard’s friends spoke OK English, better than my German: said even though the tread was shot on their boots, it didn’t make sense to buy another pair at their age. They were about 70, still rode motorcycles, still smoked: climbed as well as I did, scrambling over rocks that second day at some high mountain pass, stopping for schnapps offered by the Austrian Mountain Rescue—they were doing that for their annual fundraiser, for the Catholic holiday, and I thought how ironic and different it was here: Mountain Rescue, offering shots to climbers. Enter at your own risk.

Above the doorways at the restaurants and farmhouses were chalk etchings, Roman numerals like a date, with the serif on the number one in that old-style, Euro manner, drawn all the way down to the base. I asked Eberhard if he knew what it meant and he shook it off, some Catholic holiday, ‘three kings day’ or something. His ex-girlfriend admonished him, explained it was a blessing they did each January, after Christmas. That holiday was as big a deal as Christmas in some ways. And one of the houses had a boar’s leg nailed to the door, drawing flies. I wondered what that meant, but didn’t ask. Some things were better left unknown.

It was time to go, we’d packed up the car and Eberhard wanted to take us up the pass above the village, but said I should come with him first, to the old church. We went inside and I took some pictures with my phone. It was like so many Catholic churches I’d seen in the south of France or Italy: those lurid relics and statues, pretty, but macabre. You were surrounded by suffering, that was the theme. There was no one there, it had the weight of a church, all those walls had absorbed, all those years. You wanted to think that place was safe, like you could go there and get healed or make amends, but I felt better in the fresh air out back, though it was cloudy and cold, for August: and Eberhard walked the rows of grave sites and I realized why we were really there, he hadn’t said, to see his friend Paul. I didn’t ask if it was OK for the suicide, they buried him here: I thought the church didn’t recognize that, or something.

There was a picture of Paul in plastic, bleached out and pink/peach from the sun, a thick white beard with jet black eyes like Hemingway, I thought. I didn’t dare take a picture. I put my hand on Eberhard’s shoulder and we had a brief hug; he was deep inside himself, or somewhere very far away, and we shared a cigarette, walked back to the car, drove back up the mountain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What became of camp | Field notes from the Pacific coast

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5. It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.


After I got over the rock scramble it was maybe a mile back to the car, most of it along the shore, some in the forest. Most times if the tide’s in you have to cross over a logjam vs. the beach to get back to the forest. This time with the tide out I could stay low on the wet, compacted sand. Other hikers appeared from the south just starting their hike, and with the fog/mist it was dramatic how they materialized as they neared. I always thought of the King Arthur film Excalibur, those battle scenes in the fog, the clank and gore of it, close combat. The scene where Merlin transforms Uther through the Charm of Making so Uther can sleep with the Duke of Cornwall’s wife—and yields a gift for Merlin as payment, a baby boy, Arthur. Uther on a steed, galloping through fog, transforming as he approaches the castle. The awkward love-making/rape scene, 1981.

The beach, as beaches go, was always changing but remained the same. It was the memory of a generic beach, really. But this one was different, with all the logs. The logs I imagined got spit out from the river, where the river ran into the ocean and together, they worked that way: the river fed the ocean the logs and the ocean spun the logs, sanded them down, spit them back up onto the beach. It looked like a giant puzzle, emptied out and shuffled.

The first time we found it it seemed the logjam was more intense. Like higher, more logs. Each year I came back, there were less. Because the logs were wedged together they were easy to climb and jump across. Sometimes you could look down between the logs and get the sense it was a far way down, to the ground. And what awful things lived down there: surely rats, mice, snakes. Some detritus from the ocean, weathered plastics, bits of brightly colored fabric bleached out by sun.

But on my last day out, driving home later, there was none of that. I was too tired for log-hopping, I was grateful for sand. I rounded the beach at the end, where the river comes in and on the other side, you can see an outcropping of land they call the Lower Hoh, and a random shack with a light and paved road.

You come down where the river forms this estuary thing, an in-between staging area for the tidal exchange, some brackish green/blue water I sometimes drink from, but filter. And along the edges of it, a brown/gray lip of mud all around, tiny prints from the water fowl that linger there in groups; I startled a bunch as I came over the hill and in return they startled me, flying off.

And then you follow the river along a stretch that narrows from ocean beach to river shore, and you’re back against a stand of trees, a forest, and have to look for a round sign that marks the entry point for the trail back into the woods, a short hike back to the car.

There was the large tree stump from the time Loren was with us and took a picture of me and the family, and the kids were really small: all of us squinting into the sun and brown/pink ourselves: late August, Labor Day weekend, and you can tell by the quality of light it’s that late summer/early autumn sunset that’s long, golden and pink, but doomed to disappear, you can feel it. The tree stump reminded me of a tooth, with its dangly roots. So big, the kids could climb up on it, likely hurt themselves if they fell.

And there was the grove of trees where we camped that first time, probably ’97: me, Joe, and Joe’s friend Miles: the three of us goofy pranksters, Joe with his dreadlocks and Miles, one of those stubby pony-tails, intellectual glasses, guitar cases, harmonicas, would-be musicians.

We were in our late 20s—and funny, thinking back about time, and how much of it it seemed we had then, like the faucet could just keep running indefinitely. I could leave my apartment without a care for days: my Cajun friend Myki would stay there and look after my two cats, my plants…and he’d play classical music for them even when he was out, insisting the plants responded to that, and they always looked better when I returned—I think he talked to them, too.

Joe, Miles and I camped a couple nights on the peninsula and had one more night left, but didn’t know where to go—just thought we’d drive to the coast and rummage around for a spot. We stopped at a roadside place for beer, one of those places that mainly sells ice and bait, gas. We would have lingered there a while at the cooler gazing at the beer, trying to decide what kind: and we likely weren’t very sharp by that point, a few days out camping.

The old guy at the counter described a good place, said you take the 101 to Forks and turn left past the Hoh res, to the Cottonwood rec area, but it’s an 11 mile road and unpaved, so you have to go slow.

And sure enough he was right: it was a great, little trail through old growth, not long until you came to a point overlooking the river, an emerald, magic green: and then, a round, disc-shaped sign tacked high on a tree where you come out on the sand, follow it for a bit to the base of the ocean shore, and there was a graveyard of smoothened trees all jammed together, some lean-to’s established: but Miles found a killer spot just inside the forest, on the edge of the beach: and it was raining/misting but we were protected by that under a canopy of maple, and got to setting things up and cracked a beer, and wondered at the magic of it all, with no one else around.

I have a picture from that camp Joe must have given me, back when it was all film-photos: there’s the ocean behind us, the color tones all beige, gray and brown: save the fact I’m wearing one of those one-piece thermal underwear things with the buttons in the back you have to undo when you need to go, it’s bright red.

Coming back again to Oil City with Dawn or others, I’d poke around looking for that spot. It was hard to remember where exactly it was in the trees, and every year the brush was different. Once I thought I found it but it was destroyed, everything broken up, battered in. There’d been some logs where you could sit and cook, a makeshift fire-pit…but with the winter storms and surf, everything got rearranged. You had to let things go like that I knew, but it was hard not to reconstruct it.

And that time Loren took the photo of me and the family by the tree stump, it must have been the trip he told me driving out they were pregnant, and the following spring it was a boy (Arthur). And I think we were in Pennsylvania for Easter when I got the text he’d arrived.

I came to the spot where I’d always look down at the river to say goodbye, the end of the trail, the reverse feeling coming in: when I started this hike the scale of it looked different, like the river was much closer. I joked, wondered with myself if it was just really high from all the glacial runoff. Now it looked so much farther down, a really bad fall, you could kill yourself: but I pictured jumping off the edge to clear the rocky cliff walls below, as I had at times in Eastern Washington with Joe, jumping into Soap Lake, or the Potholes state park. I wouldn’t be jumping into lakes or quarries like that, probably ever again.

No, I’d come out to think through and process this strange malaise that surfaced with a singer killing himself. I didn’t even like the music that much, hadn’t listened to it in a while. Couldn’t understand why it shook me the way it did. But it felt like something good had to come from it, for him or for me, as a way of balancing things out.

 

 

 

 

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West Cork Roundabout | Field notes from the Pacific coast

Urban art — Antique Quarter, Dublin

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5. It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.


Even though I didn’t plan to read it on my hike I brought it just in case, The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. I was superstitious about what I read, how I used it for my writing. Mitchell blew my mind with Cloud Atlas, that summer before we moved to Germany. Sometimes you see a film or play or hear a piece of music for the first time and it seems like it’s interconnected to your life, like the two are inseparable. Because they are, and always are, you just don’t notice. I noticed, with Cloud Atlas. The book is a series of stories inside other stories that span time and space, but with these little hooks that connect them all. It seemed my life was like that too, and I was happy to make room for any influence on my writing I could get from David Mitchell.

It was a charmed time, never a time like that again: we’d rented our house out to friends who paid our mortgage while we relocated to my mom’s 500-year-old house in a small, German village. And for a month before we moved there we stayed with my mother-in-law Beth, only a few miles from the house we’d just vacated…with a long, country road in between…yards with goats chewing grass, fresh eggs for sale…July in the Pacific Northwest, everything green, dripping with dew.

I took long walks in the morning and evening after things cooled off. There was nothing to care for anymore: the pets were already in Germany, our things were packed, we had no houseplants. I mowed Beth’s yard a couple times and grilled most nights, that was about it. I could just walk and day dream about all that lay ahead, nine months in Germany, some things planned, many things not: all I had to do was become the artist I’d always imagined, it was time.

So I saw things in the book that felt like I could bring them into my own, the journal style, his confident voice, how much fun he had in the writing, you could tell.

In The Bone Clocks, Mitchell (who’s English) pulls in characters from Cork, which I imagine he draws from his experience living in Ireland with his family. And for me, Cork would always be that stark, brief memory coming out of the airport around midnight, picking my mom up—followed by the Christmas we spent in an old farmhouse in a town with no name, if it was even a town, in the vagueness of “West Cork,” for lack of a better name.

We’d move to Germany but couldn’t stay longer than 90 days without a visa, which we couldn’t get, and had to leave a full 90 days from the Schengen countries, which is basically all of western Europe except the UK—so to the UK we went in a car my mom’s partner Eberhard helped us buy in Germany, and drove to Amsterdam via France and Belgium, and crossed into the UK via the North Sea on a cruise-liner.

I was superstitious about what I read and various other things, that imbued life with a luster of magic, the unexplained, the possibility for the unusual, the life and world I imagined. So it was odd that day we landed in Germany (the first of August) it was a full moon—then full again at the end of the month (a ‘blue moon’)—and with the 90 day cyclic nature of things, that made it full again when we crossed the Black Sea from Amsterdam to Newcastle, and it was oddly still on the deck that night admiring the moon over the water, on the waves, warm for late October—and I fell in love with the recorded English female voice-over announcements on the intercom in our little cabin…nice to hear English again, followed by the same in Dutch, and German, in that order.

And after a month of spooling around Scotland that November we found ourselves in some remote, unheard of place our last few days to celebrate Thanksgiving, a full moon again, and me outside some vast, stone estate where we’d booked an apartment, walking the length of the long driveway beneath a canopy of bony, bare trees, tented hands…the wind gone mad, clouds whipping across the face of the moon, its outstretched, gray-blue craters for eyes.

I was far enough away from the estate I could spy the windows where I imagined Dawn and the kids on the other side: Dawn, on the recliner with a book half-reading, half-watching the same movie as the kids, the two of them with a bag of crisps, that Victorian sponge cake, consuming the remains…and there I was beneath the sky with the trees and moon, wanting so badly to consume it all, there had to be an answer, a message.

We would get on a ferry for Belfast the next day and start a month in Ireland, and my birthday would suck: we’d discover our bank card had been compromised in Edinburgh, and while laying low for Thanksgiving, someone was emptying it out at a series of ATM’s across Scotland, accruing international banking fees along the way…but I had a call with a potential publisher, they said they’d visited my blog and wanted to know more about my memoir, could we schedule time to talk? And we did from the Titanic museum in Belfast—and poor Belfast, to have to boost its tourism by something like that, by identifying with a sinking ship.

The memoir was theoretical then, but felt more real talking about it, as things often do—and as we made our way down to Dublin and over to Galway, and had our family breakdown, with crying and storming off in separate directions on a rainy beach, I realized it was time I hunkered down with it, resolved to take January “dry,” to write every day, to see how far I could get.

Mom said not to be surprised when I saw her at the airport: she had a black eye, looked like hell, but it was the dog, our dog Ginger, who’d jumped on her and knocked her over in the stone doorway, that 500-year-old house: the stone seems harder, as do the beams.

And mom was right, when we met at that little airport in Cork. It was near midnight, and driving back to our crappy flat down the long hill from the roundabout the tail lights were backing up, the cars slowing, and we saw a figure in the headlights in the middle of the road: mom said it’s a horse, a black horse right there in the middle of the highway…and as we came to the next roundabout she asked if she could get out, try to save it…but I said absolutely not, we kept going, mom kept looking in the rearview mirror, and I couldn’t help but feel it meant something more, something ominous, something exposed or gone loose, at risk, that we couldn’t save. Something lost.

It’s not always the case. Mom had never been to Ireland and was alit at the wonder of it all. That glow can form an attitude that makes things better than they otherwise would have been. And so it was—aglow like that—in some random town called Skibbereen, sunny and cool on Christmas Eve-afternoon, the last chance to get to the shops for three days, with St. Stephen’s falling the day after Christmas, the day after that a Sunday, in deep Catholic country.

I stood on the street while mom, Dawn and the kids went in the shops and I stayed outside, enjoying the magic vibe, this bizarre place, “West Cork,” a free newspaper with write-ups on a few locals, their pictures…and two out of three of the stories, the characters, I met on the street—or in a pub—and asked more about them (and they’re Irish, so they told me): and I bought a cap there, a green, tweed cap I loved so much, I wrote with a pen the name Skibbereen, ’15 in the liner but realized when we got back to the States I’d lost it, asked mom if she could look around for it but her place is really old, things seem to fall through the cracks—and I thought I’d have to go back sometime, get another one—those people I met, they could be right out of a story.

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