The wind through our windows, Anchorage

We tottered down the runway, wriggling inside the plane. Pale lead morning, 18 years since I’d flown to Alaska. That weekend before 9/11, the end of the tourist season, closing down the shops. Our kids now taking pictures outside the windows with their phones. We weren’t even married yet, that time I met Dawn in the strange town of Whittier, where her ship came to port. Playing a Black Sabbath cassette in the rental car. Spending the night in a hostel. The afternoon we rented a double kayak and paddled around the Kenai peninsula, spotting sea otters swimming beside us, splitting a bottle of wine over lunch, some island where they grow all their own vegetables, catch their own fish. Thinking this is the best day of my life, today.

9/11. Watching the plane hit the building, live. Nightmares about anthrax laced on our mail, Osama bin Laden’s face on a large spider. Thinking we should move to Alaska, quit my job, hide out in a basement there, write by candlelight every morning. Live the life I always wanted to, before it’s too late.

Charlotte eats Hawaiian, barbecue-flavored potato chips for breakfast, wraps her gum and stows it. When control is in doubt I crave it the most. I never thought I could have kids because of the unruliness of it, but when Dawn told me she was pregnant, I knew it was right. I was ready to change. You think that, but we are only capable of so much change in our lives. Charlotte gestures across the aisle, “more chips?” and I mouth, No Thanks. She nods, thumbs up. Outside the clouds are lamb coats, cotton balls. All we wanted for this time away was good memories. More of them.

Beginning our descent, the kids are slumped over their tray tables like banana peels, hollowed out. When we reach Alaska the mountains and glaciers reflect back a peach, mid-morning light. The beginning of an adventure where you enter the slot with only one way in, and one way out.

Anchorage sunrise: the wind whistles through a broken seal in our hotel window. You can see Denali today, 130 miles north. The seven-hour train ride we’ll take there leaves from a station at the bottom of E street. The old army and navy store next to the furrier, all the trading posts, tourist traps, street vendors selling reindeer hot dogs, cartoon images of bears, cannabis shops. One called Alaska Fireweed. Cheap, digital hours of operations signs. Outdated fonts. A sign advertising HOMER LAND: view lots for sale.

The wind whistles with no resolution, only constant tension. The same wind they get in the south of France that drives people to violence, and comes in threes: three, six, nine days of it.

On the TV at the hotel bar, a women’s tennis match with no sound, just captions. The Greek player is fierce and strong, but angry with herself. Too much ego. The Aussie is steady and even and I am vying for her: control. It is a psychological game, the same as any.

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Self portrait under August sky

It is a Thursday night with live music at nearby Pine Lake we can hear from our house. It is also a full moon, the night before we leave for Alaska, the coffee maker set for 3. I’ve shaved my beard and I’m bare chested, hoping the neighbor won’t see me peeing against our chicken coop. The chicken coop is broken down and abandoned, relegated as a shed, left to spiders and mice. The covered area on the outside, intended for chickens, is overgrown with weeds and dilapidated by winter snow. Weeds so big, they’ve fallen and collapsed in on themselves…a lesson to heed for those in high power.

Brad and I finished our stint on the PCT: 69 miles from Snoqualmie to Chinook Pass. No injuries, no rain. A trail angel at the end of it who goes by Broken Toe gave me a fresh peach, showed Brad the van he lives out of, traded information for possible work.

A full moon is coming and I’m aiming to see it, though the clock is set for 3 and I should be off. I’ve seen more frogs than I have my whole life, one camouflaged against a leaf I happened to notice peeing into the drain rock on the side of the house. They just started croaking, that sound like someone’s using a tool to tighten a bike crank.

I got asked about a job today and got right on it, drawing up the cover letter and polishing up my resumé. It’s a savage instinct but worth something, and real: related to caring for a family. Based on it, in fact.

The clouds look muscular and ribbed, like abs I’d want to have. They’re illuminated on the sides and phosphorescent pink-blue like abalone. It’s either the setting sun or coming moon, that time the two share the sky like changing shifts. It is the middle of August and I am 48, and there is nothing for me to complain about.

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A fair way to go

It is the hour of 4, and the light is best for where I sit on the chaise-lounge, beside the scabby hot tub that’s been dry all summer. The hot tub is kaput because the large fir popped up the concrete and upset the balance of the plumbing. It works, but leaks and registers strange error codes, makes distressing sounds. An insect paddles on its side across my drink and I gather it with a finger and flick it into the grass. I am unemployed, and the first leaves of summer have just started to fall.

Paige died. I hadn’t thought about Paige in a long time, didn’t recognize the name of the guy who emailed to tell me. Looked him up on the internet and stared a good, long time into his eyes trying to place him, 20 years ago in the south of France.

I went back to that day, to reconstruct what I could of Paige: the sound of the intercom and her voice on the other end saying I’m here with some friends…can we come up? Now that was odd because I was living in the south of France and Paige was from upstate New York, and we hadn’t made any plans to see each other. And she had six people with her, and nowhere to stay.

It was mid-morning so we went to the gas station to buy some beer. And then to the beach, where I got stung by a jellyfish and they told me to put urine on it, which worked. And back to my apartment where I assembled dinner and opened all the windows, and we danced and got drunk and passed out and woke the next day, me beside one of Paige’s girlfriends thinking we’d probably messed around, but not sure.

Paige’s friend said that night was one of the highlights of their European trip and they talked about it often. He was groping for something to remember her by, that loss you feel for the dead and desire to fill it with something, anything, to bring them back.

It was that summer I read Carlos Castaneda and the teachings of a mystic he writes about, Don Juan. There was a lot of talk of death in that book, but in a positive sense: like, how to honor and acknowledge death to live a more meaningful life. I was 27 and single and working on my tan. The Mediterranean was so salty you could float on it without trying, and I often swam at night or in the morning before the sun got too high. I had a thousand dollars to my name and no responsibility, other than watering the garden where my mom and John lived, one town over.

Mom said one time she discovered a hanging man on that walk, hung himself from a fruit tree. But her French wasn’t so good and when she tried to tell the villagers she had to augment with charades, and they all just laughed and ignored her.

On that walk between my town and mom’s, every day I passed an ornate wall on the sidewalk by the gas station but it wasn’t until the end of the summer I thought to look on the other side, and there I found a cemetery facing the sea, an above-ground one with memorials, flowers, pictures of the dead. It confirmed what Castaneda was saying in his books, that death is right there with us always—not separate—faces of the same coin.

Paige wrote a year ago, asking how things were. She was fighting breast cancer, but didn’t say that in her note. Her husband had died from a brain aneurysm a couple years prior, and they had two young girls. I got that from the obituary. How do you spin death into some positive, mystical, ever-present force to two kids who lost both their parents before they’re even teens? There is nothing “fair” in nature. Fair is a false construct that sets us up for disappointment in the laws of the universe we have no say in.

Stubble of dead leaves at the base of the hedges on my walk to the lake this morning. In the book The Snow Leopard the village people were getting picked off by the leopard but then figured out if they wore hats with faces painted on the back of their heads the leopard got fooled and death rates dropped by half. The mountain lion, a personification of death itself, unseen but ever present. An opportunistic hunter who looks for the weak or injured, who also likes kids.

Autumn’s first spiders have now arrived; the grass is starting to brown. The cat has a new collar with a bell. The night’s first bats stir. Blackberries fatten on the vine, crying pick me.

Our lives are delicately arranged like this in some haphazard fashion, an accident of beauty with an undercurrent of pain, clear in its intentions if you’re able to decipher it. A riddle with a madman’s resolution, which is none.

Fairness is a ruse, a made-up luxury of man, and there is nothing natural about it. Its cousin karma is no different. We assign beliefs to fabricate meaning and for temporary relief. The cat hugs the rocks above, and you are not to break eye contact with it once encountered. You make yourself look big, and then fight for your life.

 

 

 

 

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Your so dumb Ginger

Trapped inside a black pyramid in Las Vegas for four days, moving through the underground tunnels like mice between hotels, casinos, the convention center. Returning to summertime rain in Seattle and falling asleep to it, the sound of static, of burning wood. Waking with the realization that I really need to start thinking about a new job, now that this one ends on Friday. But knowing I have the month of August still to prepare.

I went back to Oil City, the coastal hike to Third Beach: the place I got inspired to write 50K words two years ago, and hoped by going back the trick would work again, but it didn’t. Passing the shallow cove where Loren and I had to bivouac once (and bivouac, a French word for “mistake”)—the two of us forced to camp beside the rock scramble we couldn’t cross because of the tide, socked in by the marine layer, bickering: then waking at 3 in the morning when the tide was low enough we could cross the rocks in the dark. Coming out by the river where I’d always stop and look back at the ocean, saying goodbye until next time.

Now home and training for a weeklong hike on the Pacific Crest Trail with Brad, more mileage than I’ve ever done, my fitness lower than I’d like it to be. Cork screwing the sides of Cougar Mountain wearing a full pack, hoping through all my soul searching that I’ll turn something up, and know which way to go. Recognizing I should be more deliberate about my job choices but not wanting to give too much power to the job either, wanting to reserve enough of myself still to entertain dreams of writing (which is easier than the writing itself, the dreams).

Sitting by my beach camp in a small spot out of the wind watching tufts of sand accumulate by the sides of my sleeping bag, thinking how time moves in strange patterns. Drinking river water the color of iced tea, from the root tannins: they say it’s safe if you filter it properly. We’ll see.

Beth came for dinner and brought a small black book she found when she was cleaning, a journal from one of the kids a few years ago, before we left for Germany. She read it aloud over the dinner table, a narrative written by Lily and illustrated by Charlotte, entitled Your So Dumb Ginger.

Lily described our family members one by one, and when she got to me, she said “He would have been an author if he hadn’t gotten trapped at Starbucks working as a project manager (whatever that is).”

And it shouldn’t have affected me like it did, but it did: this conflict of self and work, and how we identify. In this time between selves it felt like my previous one had died but the new one hadn’t come yet and I was blank on the inside, waiting for the new one to arrive. And why I still can’t separate who I am from what I do…the doing part can actually change the me part, for better or for worse.

Last night Lily invited a handful of friends over and all of the sudden, we had teenagers everywhere. They’re like the webworms we get on trees in these parts: unsightly but harmless. Dawn ran out for chips and pasta and lemonade, which they consumed or dropped on the patio floor for the ants. And I sat off to the side watching them, part listening, part not, mindful of the music I was playing and then more deliberate, watching them nod and bounce their legs…and as it got dark, I opened the garage bay doors and put on the red lamp, found an old tape from 1992, invited them to sit in the driveway, gave each one of them a different hat to wear, and sat on the tractor behind their circle as they talked. And Lily later said all my friends think you’re cool, which felt good. And I wondered how much it mattered to me on LinkedIn to put Author by my name one day, how much that was worth.

 

 

 

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How the house felt after the kids left for summer camp

Outside it was warm and the lupine stalks were bending down, some on their faces like mollusks gumming the ground but not making it very far, frozen mid-suck.

The dog smelled bad, a telltale bad like she’d rubbed herself in shit or the dead, or both: and it reminded me of what our captain said on the whale watching boat about wolves, you can smell one before you see it, they stink so bad.

The dog had eaten out of the litter box again but this time, she’d thrown up on the inside of the plastic cone she’s still wearing from surgery and it was stuck there, yellow and gloppy, and reminded me of what it’s like to care for an infant cleaning her off, how dependent they are, they really need you.

Taking the time to finally set up the record player in Lily’s room with her gone for camp now and dwelling there, looking at her things. All the gracelessness and beauty of growing up. Then later, finding the ring she bought for me in Mexico, I thought I’d lost. And wondering if it was a small sign of something inexplicable, this love for a child. How Charlotte expressed that for Lily in the one-page memoir she wrote for her school project—and called it “Changes,” describing the night she woke up and Lily had gone to the hospital, and what that felt like. And how she uses Lily’s name for her iPhone passcode, breaking it down into digits: 5159. “Lily.”

How I lay in bed with Dawn in the morning thinking our lives are so sweet right now, we have nothing to worry about. Though my work contract is ending soon, I’m taking the month of August off and my old job is asking me back, as if it was all meant to be.

The caterpillar on the side table by my chaise lounge out back, how it wiggles like a tiny finger with a fur coat, with a face on the tip. And reaches tentatively, to climb the metal rail beneath my arm but can’t. And winds its way around the edge of the table repeating the same task as though it’s forgotten, or thinks this time it can make the leap, to climb to my seat. How writing (or any leap of faith) can feel that way: like setting off from the comfort of the known into a space with no ceiling or floor, just belief in the unknowing. How frail that belief can feel. And yet it decides everything for us, for however much space we choose to cross in our lifetimes.

How the dog and cat sit looking at our new neighbors, as if they’re a threat to us: and I feel that way, too.

The fact that with no fences between us, our pets can roam free range across their back yard, the dog likely peeing and sometimes crapping: the cat, hunting and sometimes beheading small mammals. How they squeak like bath toys when they’re caught, and I have to intervene.

The neighbor kids are toddlers with imaginary dialogues and cartoon voices, and the dad is bent over a squealing power tool that stops just long enough you can imagine how quiet it would be without the sound, before resuming. The power tool is a beast pausing to catch its breath, to reload. It is a shrill, dry sound of blade cutting against rock. The tool shrieks and stops for a time, and far away a dog barks, a tree limb snaps, the dog stirs from her spot beneath the bush and you can hear the sound of bird song once more: the long collapse of day in rueful, joyous tones. The kids are laughing and rolling on a plastic moving thing, you can tell by the sound of the wheels lurching against the pavement, sometimes snagging, sometimes getting stuck. It is the sound of growing up in small increments and frames. The kids are out with their plastic shovels making it a play thing, beside dad and his power tool: like somehow they can all be together and coexist like that in a joyful, family balance. And it makes me miss my own.

Staying out back on the chaise lounge until the tops of the tall trees turn gold, the time when the sky turns pink. Playing old Fleetwood Mac and reminiscing about the Rosé we used to buy in France, the one that only cost 10 French Francs for five liters and came in plastic cubes with grape patterns; filling them like growlers at the local wine shop.

I stayed up until the bats came out and the clouds circled in, and put the patio pillows under the eaves in case it rained. The wind kicked up and the leaves sounded like applause and soon, I knew, it would be getting dark. Perhaps it was just the knowledge of it turning that made me feel cold.

That sense when the kids are gone that I can still hear them upstairs, a phantom nerve feeling like an amputee’s, the same as when Dawn and I would be away on a date but still feel their presence in the back seat: how much our kids define us, and help us reconcile our real, selfish selves: and maybe teach us how to be more than ourselves in the process, to leave ourselves behind.

 

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Hero’s pose

We waited and waited but it didn’t seem like the marine layer would ever burn off. Lily had a date with a boy we hadn’t met named Colin, and I texted her to come outside so we could talk. And then I interrogated her about how she knew him, his precise age, what she liked about him. That was about it. I was happy for her, and said your hair looks nice (she’d curled the ends). And after she went inside I returned to my book, hoping it would be good for her.

It’s true what my friend Miriam says about the book: a real page-turner, but leaves an uneasy feeling, how it taps into some voyeuristic drive. The protagonist is a chronic cutter, it actually describes that, a kind of sensation that makes my insides turn. How did I go a good 40 years of my life unaware of this? How is it in our culture, where we live, that Lily’s friend group is doing that? And we have to be thoughtful about dispensing razors when she wants to shave, a kind of checkout process. Or consider the ethics of disclosing to friends’ parents when Lily shares information that’s distressing about their kids. Like how the neighbor boy stabbed himself in the thigh but missed. And if that’s even true, or exaggerated. Better to stay out of it.

But Charlotte is still a kid she says (I asked for how long, and she said 18), and just got exposed to Gary Numan, the song Cars, for her fifth grade concert. Before performing each song one of the kids would recite a write-up about the song: the year it came out, where the artists were from, fun facts. Like Cars: I didn’t know Numan had Aspergers, or that the song was meant to convey some insulated sense of safety that technology represented, by way of the car: a place to retreat, to hide.

Rain was expected so I cut the grass, the first time I’d done so in a good four years. We’d let the yard guys go to cut back on our expenses, and it took me some time to remember the inner-workings of the tractor. But when I got back on it I felt in control and powerful, sweeping back and forth across the lawn, back and forth until it was smooth and clean, and I’d collected every last blade.

I’d never had the impulse to cut, never wanted to learn about it even. But it provided a release that was addictive, maybe a kind of distraction from other pain the cutter couldn’t process. There was only one person I’d known who did that: he was the best friend of a girlfriend’s brother, both of them in the Marines, barely 21. He was sitting down by the river underneath a tree and waved us down to show us something, and by the way he held it in his hand I assumed he’d found a baby bird, he held it so tenderly: but instead it was his thumb, wrapped in gauze. I think we all knew that was bad, there was something worrisome about that, but it was too late for him. I’d never been to a 21-gun salute but that’s what they gave him, a couple weeks later.

So what’s wrong with me that I’m engrossed in this book about someone else’s pain?

Charlotte wanted to watch Beat It she said (another song she’d been exposed to), but I started with Billie Jean instead, as she hadn’t seen that. And here it was: a memory so vivid from when I was her age, would it resonate? But when I glanced over she was engrossed, like inside the screen watching him mouth the words, watching him spin and jerk his hips. Could we listen to Michael Jackson now and separate what happened to him afterwards, from this moment in time? How he was so clearly at the top of where he was going, right there and then.

It’s been a strange year of change: the kind of change you don’t expect and the kind you think should come, but doesn’t. The repetition of days and sing-song quality when it feels like I’m caught in an eddy, waiting for something to happen. I sometimes think about how I must appear to others, the ones who matter most. I don’t take a lot of time in the mirror. I do my 50 push-ups and sometimes more, finish with downward dog or hero’s pose. And then I have to consider that, whether it really is.

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The long descent through the quarry

I got down on my hands and knees in the shower with a toothbrush and some baking soda paste. The web site said if the drain had a musty smell that was mold, but if it was more like a rotten egg smell, that was biofilm. After brushing for a while it went from mold to eggs and back again, so I dumped more baking soda in, a whole box full, then vinegar, glug by glug, until it formed a series of thick, gray-black bubbles that hung for a while before they popped.

Charlotte only talks about getting a new phone, what happened when she was on the phone, or other topics all relating back to phones.

Lily was having a down day so Dawn took her for a drive. There was the sound of crying or laughter in the house somewhere, someone talking to someone on the phone, or a recording of someone talking that might have been live or replay.

The dog had a cone on her head from the surgery and leaned against my ankle so the plastic on the cone bent and her chest rose as she dreamt. And as she did, I thought back to a dream where I imagined myself flying and how it felt on the edge as I dropped down and lifted up, then sailed over a wide body of water.

Outside the fox glove blooms were all bent over sad, like they knew it was time to go: some yellowing with blooms on the ground like deflated balloons. The party was over for spring, and with summer here now, each day we’d lose a little more light.

I played my music on my laptop, but this time it was all native, local files: no cloud-based stuff. And how intimate it felt, the knowledge that these were all local files. How we’d been reduced to that, the new warmth in digital media, “local.” Like I had more control over what I played.

I thought back to a time I could remember feeling more, being actually thrilled, even animated, by the sound of music, and how sweet it felt. And the newfound distance from that, that filled other parts of me with a space that was more empty than it was open, or something you would call deep. A descent down the quarry with the hopes of something more meaningful at the bottom.

At the airport bar I watched two fighters on the screen, one 25, the other 39, wanting badly for the older guy to win but knowing he didn’t stand a chance.

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