The fullness of empty spaces inside us

I sat in the den watching Ginger chew the water buffalo horn, the wash of drool that makes it slick and hard to maw. I scratched the webbing behind my knee that’s been giving me trouble. There was a mild arousal to the sound, how it made my gums tingle. The wind was really kicking up and making for a show of theatrics, giving the trees a good grooming with limbs all over the lawns and roads. It made a frothy sound like ocean surf, a cleansing feeling, the dog chewing her bone a dull sawing sound, the grinding of bone on bone, of Roman soldiers marching, slaves dragging rock across sand. I wanted to be out in the wind to feel it coarse through me, to feel alive again for a spell. Here was only the humdrum of the classic radio hosts, the constant sound of something I don’t care about. Though it soothed, it gave the impression of contact but wasn’t the same as the real thing.

Outside on our street no one was around, though it was mid-day: they were all tucking their cars into garages and peeping out their windows at the coming storm. Three feet of snow in the mountains they said; one of the major passes closed, arctic air flowing in from the Fraser river valley in western Canada. And up our road it was like the aftermath of a German Christmas market with all the tree limbs down, the smell of fresh pine, no need for candles or incense. The tall trees were bending back in dramatic poses with their arms thrust skyward on their knees. I imagined myself at the top of a river canyon, the way the wind starts in one direction and builds, then sweeps in to cover everything. And when it goes out again how quiet everything gets, like the wind carves out its own space—then returns to widen it further, a slow scouring out, or sloughing off.

We had gone out on a date night, and the girls slept over at my mother-in-law Beth’s. We hurried to the restaurant to get parking and they asked if we were ready to order or wanted to take some time with our drinks first, and I said yes, let’s wait. I ordered the Oscar again, a filet mignon with crab on top and butter sauce—and when the waitress asked if I’d like a glass of wine I said yes, but you pick, something that goes nicely with the beef–and when she asked what I thought of it I said exquisite, and then I thought what a dick I must sound like, sometimes you change without realizing it.

In the morning the kids were still gone so Dawn and I drove to nearby Woodinville for brunch, a town built around wineries and boutiques, with a nursery Dawn likes—then I split wood when we got home, vacuumed, picked out a chili recipe, returned to the den after my walk, collapsed on the sofa: with always somewhere else to be, at times it’s just nice to be here.

When it was time, Lily joined me in the kitchen and I taught her how to use a can opener. You think kids know how to do things like that, but they don’t unless you show them. Then I demonstrated how to stir the onions and peppers in the spices while it cooks without getting food all over the place. And we got a fire going and watched the movie Wonder, soaked in the hot tub until we couldn’t stand it anymore, then laid around the sofa with the dog and cat curled up beside us. In the middle of the night I looked outside for snow, for signs of white—but it was just cold looking and still.

In the morning I walked to the lake and stood there, thought it’s open spaces like this, like oceans or big skies, that remind us of how much space we have inside ourselves—that maybe when we feel empty it’s just the wind cleaning us out to make room for something new, so we can feel full again.

Photo of Blue Glacier on Mount Olympus, Washington peninsula, August, 2017.


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The Volvo 740 wagon

Likely driven by ego, I volunteered for a new project at work. The announcement I’d be leading it came across as I was sitting in the dealership finalizing the purchase of a new car. The car is a black Mercedes E-550 with a performance engine and 32,000 miles on it, an ’08. When the salesman brought it out front I thought he had the wrong car because it looked brand new. After agreeing to buy it and reviewing the service records I deduced the prior owner was an elderly lady (Mary Jo), who died and bequeathed it to her son Rodney, who traded it in for a BMW.

Driving home in the rain on the 520 the wiper blades squeaked and I wondered if I’d made a mistake. I was shaken and rattled and spent an hour drafting a project plan for an 8 AM meeting the next day. We went out for sushi to celebrate and got seated around 7:15. The kids played with the cup holder in the back and heating controls, but I didn’t mind. They both asked if I could give them a ride to school the next day.

Since last Thursday I’ve worked every morning and enjoyed it, mostly. I’m best in the mornings, and push as much work as I can early in the day since I peter out most afternoons by about 3. I set my phone for 20 minutes and lay on my back in a semi-nap, reply to emails in five minutes or less, have a hard time ignoring them. I’ve probably gotten over-directive on email and part of me thinks that’s OK, while another part of me worries it’s not. This is the thing about power and control, they’re both pretty fleeting—like a fast car, it feels good at the time.

Charlotte, who’s taken to calling me Pa, handed me a pink slip of paper folded in fourths with “To: Pa / From: Charlotte” written in pencil, an invitation to the father-daughter dance at the community center. She rode up front in the new car, and we went back to the sushi restaurant before the dance. They cleared our table though before we were done (because I’d gone to the bathroom and Charlotte came back to check on me, so they thought we’d left), and when we returned and said we’re not done yet they acted embarrassed and I remarked to the French family in the table next to us, “this is the difference between restaurants in the States and restaurants in Europe: here, they just want you OUT.”

On the drive to the dance I let Charlotte play her favorite radio station. We sat for a while not saying anything in the upper balcony looking down for Charlotte’s friends, her legs dangling. Then I met some of her friends’ dads and liked them, and we shouted at each other over the music, and then tried to remember everyone’s names when we shook hands later and said goodbye. Charlotte and I danced to a couple songs and she smiled and looked up at me and seemed to sparkle, and that’s all I needed.

The work is good, but hard. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to manage a project, to really stretch myself. You get beaten enough at chess by some good players and it makes you better yourself. And I’ve been beaten a lot.

Sitting in the lobby at the BMW dealership waiting for them to finish the paperwork I watched the salesman take my old Volvo to another lot where it would be assessed for possible re-sale or auction, and it was like the end of a movie how it got smaller as it moved farther away, then disappeared.

My English friend Andrew texted me, you always looked like a Geography teacher in that car. It felt like an insult. He said, if I help you buy a new car the only thing I ask in return is that we both drive to Suncadia (the resort), and bring walky-talkies.



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‘Einmal ist keinmal,’ 2018

There were times I’d walk out into our garage and just stare. Stare at the progress I’d made to restore order which was rare, and worth staring at. The state of the garage is like an ocean beach, the calm that comes when it’s all swept clean. Soon enough there’s more shit though, everywhere. All manner of shit nonsensical and worn, easy to confuse as rare or valuable, but basically shit. I paid 1-800 YOU GOT JUNK $500 to take it all away: the fold-out futon with the piss stains, the recliner from my mom/John’s that looks like a stroke victim sagging, bent: the concrete footer the landscapers dug up that sat there like a broken tooth for what, six years?—but despite all that, for karma’s sake, I included an offering of a few coats that were special to me: I emptied the pockets first, the ticket stubs and receipts…and I tipped the guy and the gal who hauled it away and cleaned up after themselves, and then I went back out later to just look at it, my newfound space.

Not because I’m proud of my body (because I’m not), I’ve started cooking without a shirt on like I remember Bill Murray looked in that film Lost in Translation: one of the first times I remember seeing a male actor bare-chested and normal looking (aka flabby around the hips) which seemed odd, and made an impression on me.

And we watched Groundhog Day again, I couldn’t remember watching it before: and Dawn thought that Sonny/Cher song at the beginning was Bob Dylan, and I didn’t give her shit about it because it does.

The film has been cited for zen/buddhist themes based on the idea of the eternal return, that life is a series of re-workings—and it fits nicely with me picking up The Unbearable Lightness of Being again, from where I left off two years ago, and cleaning out the garage again for the first time since 2015.

Your life is broken down into pieces hanging on walls or packaged up in boxes, or looking back at you through the eyes of your loved ones. Whatever dreams you dream are yours most of all, and will likely go unreleased.

This is a reprise of a post from 2016 when we lived in Germany with my mom.

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Cord vs. chord, “ribbed fabric, especially corduroy”

I texted Lily a Spotify URL for a song while they were at dance lessons: my other favorite singer Mark (Kozelek), in hopes she’d find a connection with him.

For a month I drove to work with the same playlist, 10 hours of ambient music, that I made for the flight from Germany to Seattle last December. The cord that connects my phone to the car stereo makes a crackling sound but it goes with the music, makes it sound like vinyl. Everything’s falling apart.

There’s a new crop of birds in our neighborhood now that it’s February, and in the morning they call out from the treetops to one another, along with the frogs that sound like handheld nutcrackers scraping against walnut shells, trying to get a grip but sliding off.

I texted Andrew on Sunday, said today I’m going to buy a new car: how do I haggle about the warranty? He said it depends.

It was Super Bowl Sunday and on the roads, it felt like a storm was coming, no one was out. I didn’t bother to wash up and I wore the jeans I wore for 90 days in the UK a couple years ago, that have holes in the back pockets where I used to keep my mini notepad and the wire binding wore through.

The guy came out on the lot to greet me and I asked, could I take this E 350 for a couple days? He said maybe a couple hours.

I got in, sunk down, touched the steering wheel, chuckled. And then I pulled in front of someone to get on the on-ramp and gunned it, then chuckled again.

But coming back later to the dealer I didn’t feel it, didn’t feel like I had to have it. So we let it go after Dawn and I pretended to be at odds over the price, and played strange head games with the sales guys no different than a thousand couples before.

In the mornings on my walk to the lake I’ll stop to pet the moss on the pavers along the neighbor’s front lawn, try to find some lines of poetry in the sky or sidewalk.

For the first time, I started to imagine the end of our lives with a sense of romance, not dread. It all came from the budgeting, from thinking about retirement and paying for college. Dawn said she’d like to live out on the islands, always did, that’s where we started looking for houses originally, on Vashon. Maybe we could befriend my hair stylist Donnie, who just bought property there. We could fall into the island lifestyle with retired hippies: both of us could leave the tech industry and spend our Saturdays playing folk music in the den, drinking wine, hosting dinner parties. It would be the Sunday of our lives, long and slow and mellow—and in the morning there would be no Monday.


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“In the morning there would be no Monday”

Though I didn’t have the heat set high, when I came home the house felt warm. It felt warm with the aroma of life, lived in, of home cooking and freshly washed towels, kids coming of age, house plants, pets…an over-riding sense that the house felt happy and alive. Warm like a body, with life. And if you follow that line of thinking, the den (where I spend most of my time) is the heart, and the hanging wall clock its beating.

So when it died and I could not revive the clock, I became desperate. I ordered a new one on Amazon (hurry, only one left!) but when I hung it it wasn’t the same—and when the chime came on, it sounded like a video game from the ’80s. Battery powered, made in China.

After a few days of this Dawn and I agreed we’d send it back, and I returned to the internet looking for more clocks, and found Aubrey’s clock shop down in Issaquah. Aubrey looked about the same in person as he did on the internet, and so did his cat, “Tuxedo.” A low res thumbnail of Aubrey, a small Asian man holding Tuxedo to his chest, rubbing his knuckles on the cat’s head. Surrounded by all those old clocks in Aubrey’s small shop I immediately felt at ease, at home: from the corner, from an unseen place I heard him call out hello, and out he came to talk.

Aubrey does repairs and sells both new and antique clocks of all kinds. You can’t really tell by looking at them on the wall if they work or not, but when it came to the hour and they all began chiming I moved from clock to clock listening. Some overlapped with others, some sang out alone at a slightly different time.

We walked out to my car so I could show Aubrey the clock I’d brought in. My step-dad gave it to me as a present for our first house, so it was important to us. But Aubrey said it was made in Korea, and wasn’t worth anything. He could take it in on a trade and they’d use some of the parts but it wasn’t worth fixing. I had another clock, an older one but it wasn’t running: I showed him a picture on my phone and he said that one, if it was an original, could be worth a lot.

I drove home with the broken clock clacking in the back seat in its box, bent on resolving the clock problem, to return to Aubrey’s again with the old clock that might be worth something.

And as I drove up from Issaquah to Sammamish it sounded like the broken clock was chiming in its box, but I figured that had to be a mistake. And then I started thinking, with its rattling and clanking it was like taking a pet to be put down, a live thing flapping in a box like a baby bird fallen from its nest, air holes punched in the lid.

Sure enough, when I returned to Aubrey’s the clock was an antique. It would take a couple months for him to fix it and $600. Maybe we were getting ripped off, but the only other clock guy I knew was in north Seattle, and we didn’t have much time to fuck around haggling with old clock repair guys.

And there was the old grandfather clock from France in the corner of the den: if I brought in the movement and the pendulum for that, the guts, Aubrey could get that running too, and set it up for us in our house. That would also take two months (and considerably more money), but I trusted Aubrey, he liked cats, and we were friends now.

I hung the broken clock back up in hopes it might now work. Like, maybe the very real fear of being removed and replaced would be enough to kick-start it back up again.

It happened before, where I’d wind it up and gently start the pendulum, and it would run for a couple hours and then just stop again. I went about other chores and came back periodically to listen if it was still going. The chime had gone bad for a good long time now—if a chime could sound sour, it did. It’s like I’d overwound it at one point and caused strain on the striking arm, or something. The sound made you wince when it chimed, so I’d stopped winding the chime part and just let it tic.

But now not only was the clock running for a good, couple hours: when it chimed, the chime was like it used to be, a clean, bell-like sound that resonated at the end. Maybe it was the pot-holes on our road and the jouncing in the back seat, but our Korean clock worked again; it ran all through the night, still runs.

I went back to Aubrey’s with the missing weights from the old clock I’d asked him to repair. I had to dig through our garage for them, but they were there with other clock parts and objects I couldn’t identify, but looked clock-related.

Aubrey was with another customer listening to a clock apparently Aubrey had repaired, and they were testing to make sure it chimed right. It said Tempus Fugit on it, the same as a grandfather clock we had growing up. I always thought that meant Time Flies, I guess it escapes.

I told Aubrey I found the brass weights and just like last time, we walked out to my car and I showed him another old clock I’d found, but this one was a replica. You could tell by opening the back. And I had a couple other weights but I didn’t know what they were for: he said, those are for scales, but he could tell from my expression I didn’t understand what he meant so he said never mind, those were before your time.

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Poem written for my daughter on a cell phone

How hard you wanted for that moment

and lifted your chin for a scratch

and so vivid it was, as you forgot —

and the feeling hardly a memory or a glance,

the way with dreams

you’re sure it was real for a moment

but can’t be sure why, or what happened

and like the rest they get shelved and forgotten

and we go about our day

skipping across the surface of what’s real

for a moment, touching down

before we skip away

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Discreet Music | “Letter for 2018,” Jan. 31

Jan. 31, 2018,

Hi everyone, we’ve had a pretty good year here so far, we can’t complain. Mark Smith died (my favorite singer), and so did the wall clock in our den. I bought another one on Amazon but it’s battery-powered and the chime sound is bad. It plays the Westminster tune which I didn’t know by name but I definitely know the tune. We’ll disable the batteries soon so we don’t have to hear it, it sounds like a kid’s toy or a bad ring chime. I got a CT scan on my heart and it came back “0.” I had to reread the results, which said I have a >95% of not having major artery failure (too many double negatives always trip me up). Our good friend and neighbor Andrew has been helping me look for a new/used car. Today we went to another dealership to look at some “E” series Mercedes-Benz. The salesman was so young he still had acne (kid-acne). He tried to bait me with classic fear-of-loss tactics before we left and wrote my name/number down on a Post-it note and I just felt sorry for him. I’d like to buy a car from them just to help that kid out, but part of me has died and doesn’t feel so Zen about things as I once did (fuck him).

All month long the weather was a Ball of Suck. It was good for the weekend we went to Portland, but Loren is in a bit of a funk and Dawn was on her diet and couldn’t drink/eat anything really. Loren introduced me to some new cocktails with Chartreuse and gave me a handful of ambient CDs to take home, plus a Philip K. Dick novel. Next time I go down there, it will be in the new/used car and the two of us will drive to the coast and hopefully not get pulled over. There was a “super blue blood moon” last night allegedly, but when I got up at 4:30 all there was was a poached egg of a sky and I went back to bed, and thought about work. And then Lily’s alarm went off and we all got up again. There’s a bush out back that flowers this time of year, some white blooms that smell like jasmine wine. The cat’s been going out more, and today I had to let her in through the window in our bedroom while I was on a conference call.

I took Anthony out for his birthday last night; we met at an old place on Mercer Island halfway between his place and ours. He threw his back out sneezing or doing something inconsequential and we bemoaned life in our late 40s, and knocked back a couple local IPA’s, talked work-family-music. He explained Mark Smith drank himself to death, not surprised.

I ran a series on my blog called Discreet Music but lost interest in it pretty early on. My regular habit of walking to the lake for inspiration got interrupted and I couldn’t find much more to move me. Just have to trust that whatever line I’m following is right, that it’s mine at least, “I know…this…much is…true…(this much is true!).” 

I think I’ve lost a few pounds but it’s hard to tell. I stopped eating bread and have cut my beer down to maybe 1/night. I walk self-righteously out of the Whole Foods with my burlap bag and my kale/collard greens sticking out of the top. When I went to the car dealership today and they asked if I had a trade-in I mentioned the Volvo, that old dog, and it’s really like that, I have to put it down: I have to stick a rifle in its head and pull the trigger, sad.


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