‘Like frogs or rabbits’ | on living in the present, and wandering

May 15, 2017

Faint rain, imagined snow. Mid May and it’s still stew weather, heavy stouts. I have to run the heat in the morning driving in to work but refuse to wear a jacket and then turn off the heat so I can maintain my edge. In the conference room waiting to meet my client I can’t warm up, goosebumps on my arms…doing push ups in the morning after coffee, trying the cold shower wakeup thing to feel alive, resilient. This morning it hurt so bad though, the cold burned and made my scalp seize up and go numb and I thought about the book 1984, how the senses deaden over time and discomfort starts to feel normal. How we crave comfort despite, even from the ones who torture us. Rounding the turn on our road, my morning walk, a quick one to the lake to see what’s there. Yesterday a blue heron coming in to land, didn’t see me at first…then did and thought better of it, and tried a tree branch it was too big for and couldn’t find purchase, kept slipping, so I left it to its favorite spot where I first saw it fishing in perfect heron profile, a Native American print.

Rounding the turn and thinking about identity, why I walk, what I’m looking for, where I go in my head. How it’s cleansing, when I worked down in SODO for Starbucks for so many years I tried to walk every day even when it rained just to get a little light, to imagine a life for myself beyond work. The day I had to actually get in the car and drive though, when things got really bad and I called my friend Steve from under the West Seattle bridge and explained what was going on, and he said he’d meet me that night, and how comforting to have a friend like that who could give good advice, who cared.

Steve worked at Starbucks too and left before I did, he’s older: we bonded climbing Mount Rainier in ’99 with a group from Starbucks, and we tried it again a couple years later and thought it would be easier somehow the second time but it wasn’t, it was awful: there was just us and a few others and our guide made the mistake of over-confidence, which I have a hundred million times…and we followed sun cups up the mountain we thought were boot track and got way off-route in the late night/early morning start, and had to turn back and the winds were really bad, and we hadn’t staked our tents down right at camp so they were bouncing and flapping and when our guide’s wife ran up to theirs to secure it she gashed the side with her crampons and it looked like a collapsed lung…and Steve and I, a good four hundred pounds of man-weight in my three-season tent, we bounced in it all night giggling and levitating from the winds like a bouncy house…and in the morning I almost fell off a rock face from the altitude after sharing a canned beer with our guide, dizzy and overwhelmed, slipping on the loose volcanic scree.

But it was that trip coming down I resolved to ask Dawn to marry me, and understood for the first time the real difference between what they call a three-season and four-season tent. And whenever I take that poor tent out now and regard the twisted, bent poles, it’s a reminder of my ignorance and hubris—but it still works, despite.

And how Steve tried to get me a gig with his work when I left Starbucks and started out contracting, and we got into a negotiation at his office where he asked my hourly bill rate and forced me to give him a number so I did, and it was triple digits, and he about fell over and said he could hardly afford half of that but I stuck to it, and later we went out hiking up Cougar Mountain, and forgot all about it.

It seems the rain’s been gurgling the same from the gutter since October now. In the mornings at the lake there’s a tribe of fishermen who gather, many of them Asian and smiling, with portable radios and buckets or carry-on luggage they use to wheel their gear and bait, some of them smoking cigarettes…and me in my own world, how I must look to them, what they must think, if they even notice…how we flicker in and out between the past and future, lost in ourselves. What it must be like to really be in the present when there’s so much less of it than the past, or future. In the book I’m reading, the author writes:

Confronted by the uncouth specter of old age, disease, and death, we are thrown back upon the present, on this moment, here, right now, for that is all there is. And surely this is the paradise of children, that they are at rest in the present, like frogs or rabbits.

— Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, 1978.

 

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‘Blood stain from a rabbit carcass on the front doorstep’

It took me 55 minutes to walk from my mother-in-law Beth’s back to our house after dinner. It was dusk but I didn’t get rained on, I got home before dark. There’s a part of the walk that goes up a short hill with no shoulders on a country road that freaks me out, near a yard with goats that when it rains the fog clings to and gets boggy, sometimes steam comes off the asphalt. Whenever a car goes by the sound of the engine reminds me of a boat going by on the water, the wake, how it smooths back in and dissipates over time like it was never really there. The sound of the car was like that once it got over the hill and you could hear the crickets and frogs again.

The whole time I wrote in my head, picking up from my last post, imagining how I’d advance the story about my VP. The hard thing about writing about people is the fact that they could one day read it, and there’d be a reckoning if you ever saw them again. There’s a power that comes to writing I wanted to use properly. I never wanted to use the blog to talk bad about people, but I was drawn to the dark parts of the human heart, the everyday malice as a universal theme. There was plenty of that I imagined at my last job. And it wasn’t real evil per se, but to use the Dungeons & Dragons term (the role-playing game), it was “chaotic evil,” the kind of evil you’d expect from orcs and hobgoblins. Lawful evil was bad wizardry by comparison (think Saruman). I pictured myself as lawful good, identified as a paladin, but I had plenty of problems myself.

There was a valley near my mom’s house over the vineyards above the Himmelsleiter I used to walk, and it was in that valley late winter I dreamt about my VP. I can’t remember if the valley was in my dream or if I was in the valley on a walk when I remembered the dream, the two get confused. But it was there I ran into my VP who was jogging, and that was strange, because he wasn’t the kind of guy to run or work out. He was really fit, but seemed almost too smart to exercise. By that, I mean he had better things to do with his time.

In the dream I remarked on his jogging outfit but when I looked down I realized his feet weren’t real, they were mechanical. They were robot feet with rebar where the legs should be. And then I think the dream ended and I started lucid dreaming, my imagination took hold, and I pictured his eyes went blank and made a hissing sound like static on a TV—and when I woke I realized it was the robot from a Queen album cover, that bothered me as a child, an animated robot holding the band members with blood running through its fingers like it was crushing them but didn’t mean to. And I thought wow…what does that mean?

There was the last night I saw them all at a Christmas party my last day of work, and when I said goodbye how his body stiffened when I forced a hug to his handshake, and for some reason I really wanted to stay in touch, I liked him, and it was probably some father figure thing, some need for acceptance coded in me, the thought I could work somewhere and be safe, and always feel welcomed or wanted—that I could work at the same place all my working life and retire whenever I was ready. But things aren’t like that anymore.

Charlotte had a play date with the daughter of a friend who works in my group. Some crows were outside making a ruckus and when I went out to greet her friend I realized why, there was a headless baby rabbit on the front door step and Roxy was protecting it, rolling around in the warmth of the sun on the concrete and purring with the flies buzzing about, blood on her chin. I asked Charlotte’s friend to go around the back, I put the rabbit in the trash—but then I noticed the crows, and thought it would be better to let them eat it, so I walked in my socks to the end of the driveway and tossed it on the edge of our property and the angle of it in the mulch looked like something from a French cook book, or reminded me of the streets of Paris, something you’d see in a storefront window.

I replayed those scenes from work for my memoir, I ran through them like a carousel of pictures on my computer, I tried them at different speeds. I was convinced there was something more. The memories, the scenes, poked up like rock formations in the ocean. You had to wonder if there was more beneath. Or if all those memories, our lives, were hidden below unseen, and would remain that way forever.


Photo by Loren Chasse.

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Six days in hell one May, Las Vegas

I needed a win pretty badly. I’d just gotten off a project from two years that really never went anywhere. I didn’t realize there’s a skill not only to leading projects but killing them or figuring out how to get off one. I was used to doing what I was told and trusted authority, and assumed they knew more than I did but was wrong about that.

The new project was for all the real estate executives and brokers, my boss’s boss’s boss’s baby—his party, a public to-do in Las Vegas at the convention center. He was a skip-level down from the CEO. We had a couple meetings together and once I showed him the budget but he just crossed his arms and made a funny face and asked if there was anything “material” in it—and I realized it was only small potatoes, a quarter million dollars, and probably cost nearly that much just talking about it.

I was wounded from the last project but had the fire in me still. I drew elaborate charts and tables. I read the file from my predecessor, all the emails and issues from last time. The budget over-runs worried me most. Dealing with Las Vegas union people, strange charges for “drayage” (a word I had to look up), labor over-runs…I was determined to come in under. I made that clear with the vendor we hired for fabrication and install: we were basically building a Starbucks store without the plumbing and electricity, an elaborate booth that spoke to the grandeur of the Starbucks brand and design aesthetic and all its possibilities at a trade-show in Las Vegas.

The designer was new to the company and we quickly became friends, though he was unorthodox. We flew to Utah to do a first article review (to see the booth before it was done) and I confided in him I really wanted to write, and showed him some stuff he liked, and when it was time for us to go to Las Vegas we went down a few days early, and it was his birthday so we got drunk—and the next day Steve Miller played in the desert and both of us wanted to go, but neither of us felt like driving.

My VP was the project sponsor since he reported to the SVP. I knew him from another job and we liked each other. I sometimes saw him at the Costco with a side of pork or something he was going to smoke. He was down-to-earth, and I felt comfortable in his office. He trusted me, and I went with that.

On the day before the conference, my VP and I met at the convention center so he could see the booth. He’d only seen designs to that point, and I realized this was a moment of truth.

It was dark in the convention center with just ambient light coming in from outside, no one there. Some people were setting things up; we walked, made small talk and part of me worried he wouldn’t like it, and nothing could be done. His boss and all the people his boss wanted to impress would be coming the next day, and my VP would have to take the flak for my work if it wasn’t good.

And the same for the VP of Design—I wanted him to be impressed, and both of them were. But stuff happens you don’t expect, and a couple of the design elements acted weird between the change in humidity of Utah (where they were fabricated) and the dryness of Las Vegas, when the convention center air conditioning kicked on.

Starbucks wanted to showcase a couple brands they’d just purchased on the outside of the storefront but make it look like the signs were made out of chalkboards with elaborately drawn logos for each of the companies, indie coffee-shop like, “artisan.”

Rich, the designer, knew someone who specialized in making a kind of chalk art on acrylic that looked like chalk but really wasn’t, and looked perfect when I showed it to my VP but the next morning got bubbles in it, and the bubbles freaked me out, and made it look obviously ‘not-chalk’ the first day of the show.

When the Design VP came he told me to relax, and said it was all theater: get me a razor…and made deft slits in the bubbles and said see, no one will notice…and they didn’t, it was like the trickery they do with boxers who’ve had their faces bashed in, they make small cuts under the eyes to let the swelling and blood out, it looked fine.

I was in Vegas for six nights, which is like being in Disneyland too long, you start going nuts from all the stimulus, you get deadened and desensitized by it.

I started going to a cigar bar in the compound of whatever casino/hotel/mall I was stuck in and got to know the waitresses, I wanted them to see me differently, not your usual guy: a poet out of place on work assignment at the convention center for a real estate thing, for Starbucks. I tried to play it off like it wasn’t interesting, so it wasn’t.

Everything went fine. On the last day they all left early and the union guys came to tear it down and killed the AC and opened the doors, letting in the desert canyon winds, mid May, Las Vegas.

My boss’s boss called to say she had a new project for me—there was no down-time, and I was impressed by that. It made me feel important, in demand—and there’d be travel she said, to San Francisco.

The designer Rich and I got invited to my VP’s boss’s staff meeting, the kind of meeting that’s well attended, because people liked to be seen there.

And my VP gave us both praise and a big, fat gift certificate for the local steak house. And one of the direct reports there was my future VP, who’d take the place of the VP I liked, and requested me for a project not long after, which is when things started to go south.

I thought about it walking to the lake, why I’m happy to be Continue reading

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The moon’s broken head in our lawn

Though they said it was full there was no sign of the moon behind the clouds. The dog’s muzzle started to go white, we just noticed. We asked one another if they’d seen the same thing or it just happened. It was like the hair on my chest, the same thing: it went white overnight, all at once. There was a rhododendron bush out front worn down by the weight of the rain, the blooms facedown like a drunk in the lawn, the head broken and spilling out. There was no moon. The sky got a sickly pale but never came to fruition. You knew it was back there but there was no point staying up for it. The moments inside were about the same, how we passed in and out of rooms, rising and falling, passing in and out, seen by some, not by others.

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Sugar for the pill

Loren, and the deep weirdness of Portland, OR

I left work, got in the car, turned up the heat. Stopped at Whole Foods and spent $59 on sushi, beer, incense, an organic squash and head of garlic. Caught myself chewing the hair that grows beneath my lip driving home, thinking through work scenarios from emails I read at the traffic light, glad for the flexibility as a contractor I can just come and go…pictured myself getting home and changing, lighting a stick of incense, lying on the sofa. I closed the windows and turned up the heat, put Bach on Spotify and dreamt about fall. Felt it coming on, fantasized about it the way I do at summer’s end when I’m sick of all the light and need an edge to things again, the coming dead.

I went back to my book The Snow Leopard to try to awaken myself again and feel, to feel some inspiration to write, which I rely on from the best books. The author was on the edge of a snow bowl in the Himalayas at risk of getting snowed in, the pass closed behind him with no way to get back, all this in pursuit of a rarely seen wild animal, to learn more about its habitat, and what human folly is that: what beauty and recklessness in humanity.

I got a text from Loren wanting to talk about his favorite songs from a new record out, took my sweater off, it was just me and my wife beater now, the dog and cat and a whiskey, the rain coming on, starting to animate the rose bushes and limbs outside—and I went out in it and stood on the edge so I could get a little wet and smell it, wondered why I couldn’t feel it yet, the desire to write, and knew I’d be better off without a drink, but wondered at that too—if the goal was to feel less, and therein the appeal.

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The clouds above the development like medical gauze papery, multi-layered

Mannequins taking selfies, Amsterdam storefront

In the area where they’re building new homes, where before it was trees and native plants and now they’ve cleared it out, razed and re-sculpted it, planted new grass and trees to make it look like it was always there, smoothed over like a birthday cake—now before the homes were built how everything just lay there quietly in wait, the grass grown high on the meadow like it was before, with birds singing and the remaining trees cut in the shape of an amphitheater bowl looking down.

Lily stayed home sick and in the afternoon when I got back from work we went for ice cream and sat outside in the sun, and talked about suicide—a kid at her school who just did it the day before, and they were all talking about it on a group chat.

Dawn went to D.C. and her last night was a bad night with the kids, you forget what bad nights can be like after kids get older—Charlotte (9) climbed into bed with me in the morning after Dawn was gone and the sun was up, and I listened to the sound of her breathing in her sleep, and she hooked her arm around mine and one hand fell on my shoulder and gripped it, so small…but then it was hard to get her to bathe in the morning, and she needed it after a weekend of soccer games and digging up worms, running around in the yard…but she got in the bath and called me in to shampoo her and then again, for the conditioner…and I made her toast with peanut butter and honey, a big glass of milk and children’s vitamins, and she got on the bus and me, off to work…and we agreed the next night she’d sleep with me again, and asked if she could get up for her pink bunny rabbit Pinky, which she’s had since she was not even 2, from an Easter visiting my aunt Sue…though the memory gets mixed and recombined with so many others, and the attachment to that rabbit will run its course, and one day she’ll just have to let it go.

I walked Ginger to the new development but was distracted by work, caught between the need to produce and just celebrate how lucky I was, to work from home two days a week, and have so much flexibility and time.

When Dawn got home I told her about Lily’s phone and the conversation we had about it, how I tried to use it as a learning moment, the fact we were just talking about how lucky she said she felt, that she had friends with parents who’d died or were getting divorced and here she was crying like this over a broken phone, a shattered device.

I wanted for her to go on without it for a while, to be freed or at least feel what it was like to let go. I offered to take it into a kiosk to see what the options were for fixing it but she had a friend with a protective case she said Lily could have that would work even if it was shattered, so she took it to school even though I’m not sure it’s safe to touch without getting small slivers of glass in the thumb. I told her that, but don’t think she listened or cares.

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Fugue in G Minor (“keep it like a secret”)

Spring beer festival in Germany

It was hard to understand my relationship with that CD. I remember the day I bought it in Portland my last visit to Loren before Germany. I knew the record but felt I should own it on CD, I only had the files. Having the CD, the object, carried more weight. There was a kin I felt with the artist I wanted to carry with me on our trip to Europe, to see what would happen. But I couldn’t play it in the car with my family, I knew that, there was bad language and the music was hard at times. It bothered me to know it would bother other people and they’d be dismissive about it. So I saved it for the last couple months after we’d come back from the UK and spring was coming on, in Germany.

There was the forest near the place you dump your yard waste Eberhard used to take me when we first arrived and he’d pruned and cleaned my mom’s yard and suggested I could haul the clippings and dump them there in a pile, that’s what you did, he said, like it was obvious, matter-of-fact.

We got out of the car and stood there looking at it and he had a cigarette and I thought this is nice, here’s something I could do, I didn’t have much going on. I could periodically drive to the Häckselplatz and dump yard waste and it was easy and free, something for me to be responsible for.

I played the Mark Kozelek record driving there. And I kept going back every day to the forest to walk the trails. There was the impression it was farther away than it was but walking from one side to the other to the ridge overlooking the valley you could connect to the fields we used to walk with my mom and the dog, and I thought how funny, there was a metaphor in that, it seemed farther away than it was but it was really close—the same impression I had from another walk I’d take up the Himmelsleiter (“heaven’s ladder”) through the vineyard to a lookout over the village with graffiti and people’s names written there, the year—and I’d sometimes look over the town and my mom’s house in the middle, the scale of a diorama and perfect-looking houses with people waving and smiling…so strange, to see the windows along her old framework house and picture my wife and kids in there, or my mom moving about inside busy and unseen, it all looked so small.

And then from the lookout I would disappear into the trees with my dog Ginger and rarely be seen, and not keep track of time, or only do so for academic purposes, which is to not keep track at all.

I played the same record over and over again in the car we bought in Germany and drove to Holland by way of France and by ferry to Newcastle, spinning around the UK in a series of swirls like storms corkscrewing and falling apart, all our shit in the back, a kid’s sized guitar, a crate full of books, cookware, computer tablets, CDs—more clothes than we could ever wear.

I played the record again after we got back and drove to Portland to see Loren, and decided on that trip I was done with it, it was time to give it away—so I mailed the CD to my friend Walt with a note saying why (and tried not to put too much weight on it). I think the only other person I know who likes it as much is Loren, and we shouldn’t get so attached to things. It’s not that big of a deal. The problem is you start putting more on something than you should to try and save it. It’s like putting leaves in a book, they take you back for a second but it doesn’t look as special taken out of its natural habitat like that. We should let things be things and not try to keep them for ourselves. We need to love them and let them go. I just bought it on vinyl though, and will probably play it now.

 

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