Two-faced Janus

It felt lighter in the afternoon than it should, for this time of day. January turns itself around like that. The gardener came for the first time in a while, worked his ass off raking beds, blowing down the pavement, hauling away clumps of weeds and mud. I spent 45 minutes driving in to meet my client for a 45-minute meeting, then turned around and drove back home. Worked through lunch until 2, took the dog for a walk, laid back down again for a bit. Reflected on my last job, nine months going into an office: getting there before anyone else, swallowed by the jaws of the day. The gardener was on his own, and I asked where was his partner? A lot of work for just one guy. He asked if I’d ever maintained it myself and I had, I said: but we got too busy, and now we both work from home. He said I’m Danny, and reached out a dirty hand—we shook, and I walked on, wondering what he thought of me and my dog, my sweater and my coat, our house. We’re so much more than we appear to be on the outside, I hope.

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The sandtrap

There was not much new to the new year now, it seemed. Driving across the state, I ate a bag of wasabi-flavored smoked almonds in about 30 minutes, taking it by the handful, popping them one by one, wiping the salt and debris off my hands and swearing “no more”—then repeating the process a minute or two later until it was all gone. The days are like this, though not as sweet. Even the full moon, with its colorful name, was nothing to write home about. The last of its kind, they say. I rose in the early morning to repeat the process then sunk on my couch, unable to make anything light. I went for a book, for a trigger, then opened my laptop to write. It would have been my father-in-law’s 81st birthday yesterday—instead, it was our dog’s. I gave her a new bone before she went to bed, but she didn’t seem to know what to do with it.

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Sunday’s flattened head

On the five-hour drive to Brad’s cabin I kept it cool in the car to stay awake, to keep my cold tolerance up. Driving across the state to the east, how it all flattens to farmlands and big skies, windmills, rounded-off hills. And how badly I needed to forget my ties, to escape to the hills and lose myself for a time.

On Thursday I woke to a notification saying Wintry mix starting in 10 minutes. It was no mix, but pure snow for several hours, from dawn to afternoon. We walked the land around Brad’s, a dead tree he cut down and started sawing for firewood, drying the rounds under the back deck. We saw a mother moose and her calf, a cabin under construction in an adjacent lot, the jib and pulley system to lift the logs into place, a work table with nail aprons and saws stowed below, covered in snow, all of it roofless and exposed to the elements, including the stove.

Back at the cabin, there were only a few things to do and we took turns doing them, starting with the fire, the cooking, and the music playing. Brad’s childhood friend Jim lives with him at the cabin, an arrangement that began with Jim acting as caretaker when Brad lived on the other side of the state—but now Brad’s ready for Jim to move on, and doesn’t have the heart to tell him.

The three of us played the board game Risk, Brad controlling the Americas—Jim, Africa and southern Europe—me, Asia and Australia. I won mostly by luck, holding the line at the Middle East and Afghanistan, then punching through Ukraine, Scandinavia, Iceland.

Trudging across the crunchy snow with Ginger on a morning walk, back to the county road, past the tree where Brad buried his kids’ placentas—back to the cabin for the tiger milk Brad makes with turmeric paste and the honey we brought back from the Austrian Alps, last August. We planned to drive up to British Columbia, to some hot springs on the Canadian side, but with all the snow I just wanted to bunker down at the cabin for a day.

On Friday we drove into town to the store and rented a DVD, I cooked chili, and Jim made another batch of cookies with the sour cream frosting. The internet was bad, but I kept going back to my phone to see what was there. And outside on the porch, where Jim and Brad took turns with cigarettes, the icicles took on the shape of witch noses dripping—and the wild turkeys came by the feed stand and pecked and pecked and pecked, and the snow man toppled over and the dog pissed on it—and I wondered how I’d get my car down the road when it was time to go, with no snow tires.

We drove an hour east on the last day, crossing the Pend Oreille river in a town called Usk, near the Idaho border. A town with a lumber mill, post office, bar and grill, a drive-up espresso stand that closes at 2. The look of the snow-covered fields, with strands of grass poking through—the floodplains that stretch on and on—clouds giving way to streaks of silver-blue, like the colors in an abalone shell when turned on its side, revealing pockets of pink and gold.

When it was time to go, I took the back way driving home, put a mix CD on by The Byrds, and sipped coffee for a good, long hour: no one to speak of on the roads, the snow giving way to fog, little towns with shit yards, leaning fences, a sign that says Ban School Gun Control Laws. And on and on, through the fog and the long, flat highway I hurried home to cook soup—and we sat around the kitchen table holding hands, the four of us—and I went to bed early so I could get up in the morning and write while it was still dark, to remember what I could from my time away, what I found there.

 

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The day I turned purple (2019)

IMG_6749After 10 days without drinking, the swelling in my lower gut finally went down. A balloon losing air.

On Monday I was offered a new job, and on Friday I turned in my laptop and said goodbye.

The January bugs are back, gathered by the front window wanting in. They are gray and featureless, but I don’t mind: they are the first bugs of the new year, a crude precursor to spring. Perhaps they come to needle winter, to bring her down.

It all happened so fast with my job, I sat in the corner of the office waiting to talk to HR and do a few final things. There was no grand goodbye or parting email; I just spoke with the owners of the firm and the people who reported to me, turned in my building access badge, my credit card and laptop, and walked out the back door. They’d wipe my computer clean, all the files and things I created—and it felt sad in a sense, not that I’d lose those things, but how little there was remaining after I left, after almost a year. We are both ourselves and our work, a combination. It’s harder for me to separate the two as I get older, at times more satisfying to keep them one in the same.

On Thursday I sat with a young consultant in the small break room eating lunch. I knew he was a philosophy student—like many others at the firm, recently out of college. Dawn always warned me about philosophy students: generally unhappy people, smug, at times combative. Perhaps it’s got something to do with knowing too much, the burden that comes with it.

So I prodded him on Kant because I never could take the time to understand him but felt curious, still. And he talked about the nature of perception, then linked it to AI and different types of bugs—but I couldn’t follow, and only smiled and nodded, with little to add. Then I wondered if he’d think about that lunch after he heard I’d left, and if he’d feel anything, or care. Or would I?

I lay on the sofa in our den afterwards as the sun went down, mirroring the dawn with an equally dramatic display. And sent a handful of LinkedIn requests out, scrolling through the thumbnails and names, like playing cards of different suits. Made plans to see Brad at his cabin, will need to get a new laptop, too.

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Peace and distance

On the day Bowie died, I drove from Stratford to a small town where I met Tish Farrell, a blogger friend. She made lunch and we talked about writing and traveling, and then I said goodbye and drove back down to Stratford, Shakespeare’s town. It was the first two weeks of a dry January, the pristine town of Stratford-upon-Avon, feeling cleansed by Shakespeare, a kind of god (or priest, at least). When we asked the guy who ran our flat, which way to the shops?—he pointed, through the gap in Shakespeare’s garden. And it felt like a portal to a place that’s very far away.

I went to bed early each night and woke before the sun, writing by candle, taking long walks at dawn. When it was time to go, we dropped our keys in the box and headed south to London.

We’d been on the road since late October, driving from Germany to Amsterdam by way of France to see friends—a month in Scotland, another in Ireland, the last, in England—exiting late January through France again, back to my mom’s small town in southern Germany.

With all the stuff in our used German car (two kids, a guitar, a Le Creuset Dutch oven, Legos…) and many kilometers to go, how badly we needed our space when we sprung out of the car, and into our rental—and withdrew to our separate corners, for peace and distance.

From London we drove to Bath for a final week, the light noticeably later in the day, a muddy path across the road from our cottage, birds in the morning again.

A final night in Canterbury at a strange hotel before we took the ferry from Dover to France, a last night before the drive home to my mom’s the next day.

Early February in the south of Germany, Dawn and I made plans for Berlin: and with three months left on a nine-month stay, the weeks filled up with plans as winter conceded to spring, and I milked the mornings for long walks in the woods, with scant views of the Black Forest south, windmills and farms, golden fields.

Mom wrote me at work to talk about the weather: wet snow on the rooftops, but not enough to shovel, or salt the walkways.

And I remembered that one day on the train from Stuttgart home, when it turned from rain to snow, and we climbed the road from the train station and made fresh prints along the way.

I played the last Bowie album and sat in the den with a cup of tea thinking, I love January if only for the light, for the returning birds and strange flowers that bloom on the shrubs out back, that bring us hope, and reawaken our senses. I love the months, each one: and there’s some peace in that.

 

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Launch

In the morning when Dawn starts the electric kettle it sounds like a rocket about to launch, slowly building pressure until it snaps free from the launch pad and lifts off. She pulls it down by the handle and sets it on the counter, and then pours the water to make tea. I lay in bed with the dog beside me on the floor, both of us getting up but deciding instead to lay back down. And as I lay there with the clock dinging downstairs and the acknowledgment of Wednesday, I’m content without much of a schedule. And the thought of yet another job coming soon, and another chance to remake myself.

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A different plane

Life has led me here. Charlotte climbed down the steps from her bunk bed, and went downstairs to the kitchen. The dog circled and collapsed by our bed. Outside, the wind kicked up and the rain came on.  I reflected on work, then let it pass. All was otherwise quiet in the house at quarter past nine. In no way did it feel like Friday should be here, but soon it would be. I imagined myself at the end of the day driving home, and felt a tingle inside. There was no more to think or worry about, and I slipped off in a dreamless sleep with no remembrance of the day.

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