The life of a dog

The sunset was now 8:51, sunrise 5:39. A thick layer of marine clouds on my morning walk to the lake, suggestion of fall by the gray color tones and ripples around the shore. Leaves starting to fall like a bunch of tired, arthritic fists. The grass dried out around the cedars, the color of sand. The return of those pink, Maxfield Parrish clouds and cooling-off nights.

I hugged Beth and said goodbye to Charlotte, and she came out on the side deck to look down at me as I was pulling away. We came close to getting in another fight but I restrained myself and thought driving home, was it her spirit I was up against, or mine? How I’d said to Beth (I can’t believe I said this), I love Charlotte but sometimes I can’t stand her. Then I wondered if she overheard me saying that from the other room and how bad I’d feel, having to explain. It was more me I didn’t like, and what I felt like she turned me into. But she was just a reflection of me, like what they say about in dreams, how everyone’s just another version of you. And why that makes dreams so troubling at times, like that scene from The Matrix with all those figures splitting into thousands of copies of themselves, it was hard to tell which one was the original.

They’re really only kids for 10-15 years which goes by fast, the life of a dog. Lily was off at camp the whole week, and chose not to take her phone—so we had no way of connecting with her, but she was at an age we didn’t have to worry so much, she was well supervised.

She hugged me goodbye on Sunday, glad to get away, and needed to. And that left me alone with Charlotte, prepping for her week-long dance classes and overnight bag for Nana’s. But we fought about stupid stuff and by the time we got to Beth’s, I didn’t even want to go. When I came back to the house it was clean, but empty. And I sat on the recliner in the quiet for a bit, imagining what would follow.


Tuesday morning I worked from home. I cooked eggs and made toast for her and she ate it all up and said dad, we have to go—and ran upstairs to get ready. I shouted after her ‘brush your teeth!’ and took the dishes to the sink feeling sad, it went by so fast.

I finally finished the Kundera book; one of the last scenes they’re putting their dog to sleep. And because I’ve done that with a pet I could relate, and go inside the characters for a time. I went in them, and they went in me. And I wondered how that would be for Charlotte, when our cat dies. To stand over the dead and try our best to comprehend. To sit with loss, and the space it occupies within us, carving us out so we can expand through our emptiness. To hold those we love tighter while we can. And to then regard these petty trifles in proportion, with a broader view. That’s what I wanted to do.

Now the spiders have grown plump and the edges of the yard are all brown. I sit in my lawn chair at the top of the yard waiting for the moon to come out, watching until it goes pink, retiring early, rising in the morning again to repeat.


Photo of Lily and Charlotte — September 2009, south of France

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An examination of spirit and self, told from beneath a sheet

When Dawn leaves town, Charlotte sleeps with me in our bed. Friday night, and she complained about the Brian Eno music, calling it spooky. So I carried the remains of that record with me up Cougar Mountain the next morning, playing it on my phone, followed by a crow…down the quarry trail where it was cool and dark…the sound of birdsong, a hummingbird drumming a dead tree. Then I flickered out; I saw myself for just a second so brief I wondered if it was even real: the angle of my body moving through time, seen from above. And for the next two hours all I thought about was this: the idea of spirit and self, how to reconcile the two.

When I flicker out it’s like I’m seeing through a dream but I’m awake. Maybe it’s the idea of a ‘mind’s eye,’ some perception that comes without our seeing eyes, a sixth sense. Whatever it is, it’s rare and brief and I’m not sure I like it.

If you believe in souls, or the idea of a spirit, they inhabit a body for a time and perceive the world through our senses.

But the problem for spirit is the self it has to room with: the part of us that thinks it knows, that tries to establish itself with the world. Spirit doesn’t care about any of that, it knows we can’t be apart (or separate) from our world: only self would make it so. Spirit doesn’t want, or need to know anything—if it did, it would only drag spirit down.

Self is the younger sibling we have to discipline, and self consumes most of our lives as it tries to grow up, modeling itself after spirit. Self is the unruly adolescent following spirit up the trail, most times getting lost.

I thought about the crow following me, the crow that used to follow Dawn’s college friend Scott around campus, that would terrorize poor Scott by dive bombing and cawing at him from above. I’ve heard that crows can recognize people which is funny, I’d think to crows we’d all look the same—as crows do to me. Yet there’s something in their ability to perceive that gives them their power.

I’ve been reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being for seven months now. It’s a book that shouldn’t take more than a week to finish. It’s gotten so that I’ll only read a page or two and then set it down. It’s taken me so long, I’ve lost track of who the characters are; their names and personalities don’t match, they’re co-mingled. And that’s fine, Kundera said from the outset it was all made up. He was trying to make a point that goes beyond the characters. He swoops in as the author at times, saying that.

There’s a recurring image of a crow in that book: some kids played a bad trick and buried one alive so it couldn’t get out, and you just see its head in the dirt. One of the characters rescues it and holds it like an infant, and I think she must identify with that crow, or Kundera’s made us believe that, using the crow as a symbol to say something more about her.

Spirit inhabits body, and when I watch athletes on TV, when I see a gymnast swinging herself through the air it’s all spirit, no body. Or it’s spirit and body aligned, with no self getting in the way. That’s how I feel when I’m mountain climbing and balancing on a steep ridge, realizing if I think too much, I’ll fall and die. It’s not my body or self that’s gotten me to the top of high mountains, it’s spirit.

And if it follows that spirit animates athletes through a body, through an alignment with self, than the same must be true for artists, who perceive so purely they can channel that feeling. Because our spirits respond to something we perceive as real that triggers something real in us, that tugs our spirits to the surface and reminds us of a connection we once had with the world but forgot.

That’s what I want to do when I write, and it may take me my whole life to reconcile the self through which I tell it. It’s what some call self-consciousness, that’s often seen as a bad thing, a click down from ‘self-aware,’ often seen as good.

If there’s a spirit in me, it’s the physical world that brings it to the surface. It’s why I go back to the lake every morning looking for something to bring it out: watching for the small changes on the shore each time, how the water’s sometimes as still as glass until the anglers break it with their lines. And how they’re often the same, the look of them huddled on the dock, flickering in and out.

The hard thing about choosing to write memoir is gambling with the likelihood that there’s no meaning to it, and hitching your life/identity to that proposition. It’s not a job for body or self, but for spirit.


Photos by Loren Chasse and his friend Mike, taken in Mexico, July 2018

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Going back to Lehigh Street

The fins on the air conditioning units were cold and bent in places and dripped on the pavement. I noticed that, and the texture of mortar between the red brick on each of the apartment units, the red berries on the bushes and the color they turned when you crushed them: the look of a slug when you poured salt on it and the color it turned as it died. We bent back the hood ornament on the sex offender’s car and he popped up in the window like a cut-out figure in a carnival shooting game. He was leaning out the window looking down at us with his dark glasses and white curly hair, smoking. We were playing wiffle ball and he invited us in to watch the Yankees, said he had a wooden Indian with candy cigars that blew fake smoke. I didn’t go in but Daniel did, and he was never right after that. It’s hard to tell if it was that, or something else (‘chicken or egg?’).

The building manager‘s name was Keimig and he was a man to be feared. We paid him the rent, sometimes late. His name was printed on plastic and fit into a spot above the mail slot and I felt the embossed letters with my fingertips, KEIMIG.

He had two teenagers who cut the grass and did maintenance. They kept dirty magazines in the tool shed under the cushion of an old recliner and sometimes let me look. I’d never seen a woman like that, and it terrified me each time I did.

At the mini market up the street they had magazines like that on display. I befriended a young boy named Stevey and taught him the art of shoplifting. We accrued cap guns, candies, baseball cards and later, magazines. We both wore puffy coats and fit everything in our pockets, walked right out of the store. Stevey had a pug nose like a pig, like the pig on the Hatfield bacon package who was always smiling.

I rode the bus into work on a Thursday and it was already warm by 7. We passed one of the new apartment complexes, and between the trees I noticed they had air conditioning units like the ones I remembered growing up. I was always going back in my head. When I actually went back for the first time and looked for the tree I used to swing from, it was gone—and the sand box I used to play in looked like a dump site for building materials. It had the feeling of being scoured out, so all that remained was a shell.

This is the abandoned feeling that comes with age, being reminded of our first discovery of sense as a child, and then mourning over its loss. Like it or not, these memories are ours alone, and most aren’t worth keeping. So the sum of your life, if measured by memory, gets reduced down over time. You build it up, but like all things it wears down until it’s barely recognizable, just a small outline only you would notice.

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The day the rain stopped

The last rain fell on July 10. They were saying that was it, it would be a long time before it came back. When the rain ends in Seattle it’s like time stops—and when it returns it’s like an old friend, you pick up where you left off. I walked to the bus stop without an umbrella (it was just a fine mist) and sat huddled in the back with the others on the bus, shifting from side to side in the dark, the automated voice calling out each stop. We would look back on this day and miss it.

At work on my afternoon walk I passed the Nintendo HQ, young workers with tats and jeans: today, two guys walking side by side, one with blue hair, the other, a beard he’d dyed red. They reminded me of a child’s story by P.D. Eastman, the one about two dogs who go camping (Fred and Ted): one blue, the other red. And I had to laugh but then I got sad, remembering reading that book to my kids, imagining when they’d be old enough to camp—and now they were, but not interested anymore. And when I counted the weekends we had free still, there were maybe four. We would look back on these days and miss them. But when they’d come home, it would be like they never left.

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Decorative chains, lucky charms, symbols in garbage pails

In the morning it looked like it had rained over night, and the mountains were socked in with clouds. I took a last walk to the river but there wasn’t much to see, and the dog wasn’t out. The dog was white, looked like a wolf the first time we saw it. But it had a decorative chain around its neck, implying it belonged to someone. The first night we got to the cabin it followed me down to the river—not in a cloying, begging way, but like it wanted company, like it was lonely. It had tipped ears and sad eyes, but looked healthy. I thought this dog could be my familiar, my ‘writer self,’ scrounging through garbage pails, pissing on shrubs.

In the night I imagined I was trying to cross a deep, gray river: the kind that’s running fast and you can’t tell how deep it goes. My dream narrator told me I hadn’t taken enough air when I went under and now I was going to drown. But I realized I was just thirsty, my lips were dry, so I took a drink of water and checked the time, 4 o’clock. We’d been at the cabin two nights and now it felt like we fit in. The leaning deck with its peeling paint, the sad woodpile picked over: rust-colored rainwater pooling in the wheelbarrow. Still, we were in the mountains and had managed to get away: just me and the kids for two nights, with no real plans.

We drove to the end of the mountain road, the parking lot turnaround surrounded by snow, snow in 10-foot walls along the winding road, ribbed, dirty looking, a 5 o’clock shadow of dirt and sand. And in the distance as far as you could see were just mountains, a patchwork of sun through broken clouds.

Lily was on her book and nervous about the drop-offs. Charlotte was in the back seat pale-looking and tired with bags under her eyes, on the edge of getting car sick. When we got to the parking lot I coaxed them out to just breathe in the air (5,000 feet!), but they refused, so I turned the car around and drove back down.

On the second day we started going stir-crazy in the cabin. It was small, which was OK, but there was only a handful of things to do. There was the walk down to the river, board games or cards…yard games outside, TV, the Kindle…possibly taking a shower, but you could only do that once a day.

I got Charlotte her family-sized Lucky Charms and she grazed on it like cattle feed. A couple of women next door were working on their cabin and had the power tools going well after dark. We played Stevie Nicks, Van Halen, AC/DC, and worse. And then we tried to agree on a movie but couldn’t, so Charlotte went off by herself to her room while Lily and I watched Indiana Jones, the first one. We made it until 11 and turned in.

When it was time to check out I got that familiar sadness at the end of a trip, not for the time but for what it represents. All those days had a number, like the Scrabble tiles we played, each with their own value.

The white dog barked at Charlotte when she tried to touch it—somehow I knew better and just nodded at him. We were like that too I guess, just passing through.

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Is, does, can, could: resolutions, one July

It’s gotten so that I can’t leave the windows open at night or it will get too cold. This morning it was 60 in the house and Dawn was in her sweater, cranky, like it was my fault. She’s at home trying to work with the kids now out of school, Lily babysitting her sister Charlotte, learning about chores. Yesterday I ran into the two of them on the road, both in flannel, Charlotte and I resolved not to fight over dinner, which would be the first time “ever,” according to Dawn. And we got through it, with the cool, late afternoon sun and the big, puffy clouds circling around us like whales…and I returned to the recliner and showed Lily how to use the washing machine, and Charlotte disappeared for a time to her room. Dawn was teary, saying in her family growing up dinner was a special time, and even though they watched TV afterwards, they were all together at least…now, Charlotte and Dawn watch reruns of The Office every night on Dawn’s laptop in the den, and I disappear with Brian Eno or John Coltrane to my room, falling asleep while it’s still light out.

I took Dawn’s car for an oil change and sat in the waiting room watching the news, all of it bad, but cheerily told by young, culturally diverse newscasters. And then to a nearby bar to watch the World Cup but it was so cold I got the goosebumps and had to turn the heat on in the car and then the headlights, it was so gray.

One of the CEO’s I knew from a project died last week, maybe 51. The first time I saw him he was back from a morning run outside a hotel in Washington, D.C. I had to gather bio’s for about a dozen executives who were meeting with Satya Nadella (Microsoft’s CEO), and knew Patrick was a runner, Swiss, down-to-earth but fiery, a true entrepreneur who’d dropped out of school and started his own business, now worth billions. He and his colleague were putting their shirts on before re-entering the lobby. Now he was dead from cardiac arrest, Dawn said.

We took the 520 to Kristi and Gary’s house for a dinner party, and sat outside with our drinks while Gary lit the grill, and I thought listening to our conversation wow, we really are middle-aged now. Friends you only see once or twice a year, catching up on work, family, real estate values…travel, vacation.

When we came back in, everyone was standing in front of the TV watching a film trailer and Gary, Chris and I sat at the dinner table watching their reactions to it, listening to the trailer music, the story cut down to a tidy package. Chris, a musician, said trailer music is its own niche: it guides you through the story’s problem and complications, but always resolves. (And if our lives follow the same arc, do we have to wait until the end for the resolution?)

As I did on most weekends, I went back up Cougar Mountain with Ginger, starting at the Jim Whittaker trailhead and winding out to Far Country Falls, then back through the quarry to Shy Bear Pass, home in time to take Dawn’s car for an oil change and watch some of the World Cup, picking up wine and fruit salad for Kristi and Gary’s house.

We talked about karma and the circular nature of things, and as June ended I read the weather for July: highs in the 60s, sunset a minute earlier now, sunrise, a minute later: how the frame narrows bit by bit, the same as what I have to report on in my life…but resolved each day to savor it, to not wait until the end for the payoff.

 

 

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‘Undead’

On the first day of summer I took my morning walk beneath a marine layer of clouds. The cool onshore flow was back, making the trees swish. The blackberry vines were starting to bud out with their green, knobby fists and in a couple of months they’d be hanging low, ready to eat. It reminded me of the time I did a section of the Pacific Crest Trail with Brad, in the deep forest of the North Cascades when we split up and I was on my own, and happened upon a bear near a blueberry patch and tried to scare it off, but it didn’t leave as quickly as I hoped, it just vanished in the brush and stopped and I couldn’t see it, I knew it was still there, waiting for me to pass. And then in the middle of the night I got spooked by the sound of something and broke down my camp and fled, running a good four or five miles through the valley in the dark, feeling like the forest had turned ominous with the look of the moon, like it had become inherently evil even though I knew it couldn’t, the only evil was in man, and I was the only one around for miles…suppose I just had the evil in me to deal with.

On my drive to work I slipped into a stupor at the wheel. I’d come to a lull with my project winding down and no others yet assigned. In my first two months on the new job, I’d written a couple speeches and a technical eBook about machine learning. I’d gone through my own metaphorical forest of fear with both projects, and come out OK. And there was more darkness and bears up ahead, but I tried to keep the fear at bay.

Lily and I went out to dinner and sitting across from her, I thought she looked different. She was changing every day, and many days you don’t notice. My eyes were burning from fatigue and when I got in the car and looked at myself they were puffy and swollen, receded in my face.

I took Charlotte to meet my hair stylist Donnie and afterwards, we went to the bakery and the record store, just like last time. I bought a Snoop Dogg CD and one by A Tribe Called Quest, and chatted again with the effeminate clerk about Brian Eno. And then we drove to the Hard Rock café to watch Lily perform with her School of Rock band: and while she was on stage singing, I realized I’d seen at least four of the bands they were covering, all in about a mile radius of where I was now watching her sing, before she was born.

And then, because I now have a Mercedes-Benz, I played the Snoop Dogg CD loud with the windows rolled down looking disaffected and cool, and got aggressive and ‘east coast’ doing an illegal maneuver to get on the I-5 onramp, using the bus lane to cut in front of another driver—and then like any good, middle-aged white boy I drove home to the suburbs thinking about what I’d cook for dinner and if I had time for a nap after I picked up the dry cleaning—

And I started taking the bus to work, the first time in years, and sat looking out the window at the developments, the fake names on the monument signs like Heritage Hills or Summer Ridge, and so on…the bus zooming past all the stops (no one rides the bus in the suburbs), wondering if it made me feel younger or older riding the bus again, disaffected, wet from the rain.

Mom says she has the high-functioning anxiety too which makes sense, and why her brother (my uncle) has a hard time sitting down and just keeps polishing things, it seems. Like there’s something beyond the dirt or disarray that needs to get fixed but just can’t be. And she’s got a tic that’s started with her mouth and me, my right eye: and I imagine with the tic and my one arm longer than the other one in the morning with my coffee walking to the lake and shuffling, with my shirt on backwards and my eyes rolled back, I must look like the undead.

 

 

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