The (non) Maillard Reaction

I’m talking to my friend Lara at work and we’re ‘behind the mountain’, the mountain being the Penguin Encounter’s central geography, where the wind is recycled and where it’s colder than the requisite 25 degrees. We’re tending to a penguin and we say ‘What!?’ a lot to each other because there’s a lot of white noise with the air handlers recirculating and because I mumble.

We decided a while back that the ‘what’s’ are not accusatory: we just talk in frequencies that our respective ears don’t exactly register, so it’s “What?” “What?” a lot when we converse. I like Lara.

I mumble. My grandma has always said so.

I mention this thing about unfortunately knowing, upon awakening, how every minute of the day will transpire–sunrise to sunset–and how that’s a bit of an anchor. We agree this is true. She has a long drive home, mine is relatively short, and you just know you have time that’s gonna be spent in different ways–that time is time–and wouldn’t you rather have it not relegated to something, and something all the time.

Spontaneity is a word where I get the vowels all switched up, and I’m fairly ungood at it.

I have this meeting I’m supposed to attend after work. And I want to go, but I just wish 7 o’clock could just be 7 o’clock somedays and without obligation.

I go to the meeting. And, from the parking lot, you can smell the grill marks on whatever three-finger cut of meat it is that Bully’s Tavern is tossing beneath the salamander. I’m with my buddy Dan; we agree that steak is most likely what we do not want although there’s that Maillard reaction thing that smells delicious. We’re here to talk about our kids, and to other dads.

The inside of the tavern is leather and low-light, jerseys and posters on the wall; you may as well just slap aftershave on the wood-panelling. I have on a beard and a riding cap whose brim, I think, shields me from the big-screen UFC that’s broadcasting from one of three televisions transmitting to our table. I have no interest in well-planted elbows or pained, bloody faces. This is the 7-8:30 bloc of time I have allotted to 7-8:30, and ultimate fighting is not part of the plan.

But there’s a framed portrait of a girl on the table,too,and she has Down Syndrome. She belongs to the guy who shrugs some opening words and she’s lovely to me in the way that she shares a face with my child in much the way I don’t share a thing with the hockey game playing on the second screen or the P—- jersey encased in a shadow box above the foyer. So we go around the table and introduce ourselves, interrupted by drink orders and the call for food (in which Dan and I keep to our word and order the fish).

We talk. This is time for talk. And it’s eight disparate dads getting together and sharing something and it’s 38 minutes beyond the expected time that I have allotted to this portion of the evening’s festivities when the bill is finally paid; also eighteen hours since I knew exactly how the day was supposed to go.

It’s nice going home, me and Dan riding in the car.The ahi was nicely seared and for nine bucks, even. We both have kids with too many chromosomes and we both liked that the fish-plate was something complete. I dropped a chopstick on the floor and had to eat the field greens with a fork. The wasabi was something experientially less because of tines having to be involved. But you make do.

I have no idea who won the hockey game, or whose temple got the elbow in the chain-linked stupid dumb death-match. There was that nice yet cantankerous guy at the table, though, who said his thirteen year-old kid had just voiced his first crystal-clear word TODAY and for the first time. Said over a gin and tonic and while I’m having a beer. In which case we really don’t know how the day is supposed to end after all, do we.

Zone

Photo on 4-19-15 at 1.40 AM

An inadvertent but accurate self-portrait. There are nights that Jenn retires early and I retire early, too, though my early is different in that it involves single digits and with numbers on the northeast corner of the clock face.

Writing is a compulsion like anything else in which my chemicals tell me I need do this. It’s like pouring a cup of coffee in the morning even when—and, as you get older—the coffee upsets your stomach. But being in the Zone is like having a purer oxygen. Or maybe less pure—I dunno—as thinking can sometimes flow better with the vessels constricted. Somehow, somewhere serotonin is involved. Write, write, write. And stay up really, really, really, and ungodly late.

The cat—she sits right next to me the whole time and maybe she’s stealing my breath. Isn’t that what cats do? When they sit on the headboard or when they’re comfortable and comfortably menacing with their hands tucked and eyes half-closed. My cat, she purrs. And I type and when I wake up right before I’m supposed to wake up, I move from the couch to the bed and I drag her along with me and she lays on my chest, stealing my breath that second time.

(She also scratches me at 4 a.m. because she’s old and she scrambles getting off the bed because she’s got some reverse-peristaltic thing to attend to, being old. Dammit, Cat).

I went to a blogger conference, and the question was: when as a parent, do you write? And this very humorous panel said ‘keep your eyes open after everyone has closed theirs?’ The other option is waking up early, and—well—no. I know that’s what all the successful writers did. Then again, Marcel Proust had opium delivered with his scones at 5 a.m., and to a cork-lined room; I just stay up late because my coffee probably shouldn’t include oxycontin and I have a job, you know.

It’s pretty dark when it’s 2 a.m. When Cayden was two, I pointed out the Children’s Moon, which is that white thing at 2 p.m. which hangs above public parks and illuminates nothing. It’s the moon for no one looking to sleep. 2 a.m. can sometimes be moonset and when children but not cats are asleep and when why the hell am I not in bed.

On this one occasion, I pressed a button, and took a random photo, being unconscious.

The Wind in the Backseat

There’s that specific stretch of Interstate 8 that is not switch-backed, but has its own particular curves and where the merges border on dangerous. The billboards are garrulous with all their product-positive words; they’re generally marked with Clear-Channel footers.

The freeway’s white and the sun that bounces off the asphalt midday is merciless. It’s all sorts of glare. A two-year-old Cayden shifts in the backseat and complains in the way only a two-year old can when the sun hits his eyes too hard, with light reflecting off the road and also cheating the downturned windshield visors.

“Stop it, Sun. You’re on time-out, Sun.”

The kid places the universe on the time-out rug and it’s something of toddling arrogance to place the Copernican model in the corner.

“Time-out, Sun.” Cayden squints. “Stop it.”

The windows are rolled down. In the rear-view, Cayde looks to the left so that the sun hits the side of his face instead. He has blond hair that becomes a sudden wind-blown corona, and with there being a new center of the universe in my backseat, also reflected in the rear-view, ancient and heliocentric astronomers slouch toward their punitive corner. Cayde is momentarily content and my hands are on ten and two.

With windows cracked, and with it being a few years later, Cayde flags his hand outside the backseat passenger’s side and says: ‘Look, Daddy—a hand kite.” We drive past through the same bleached freeway. Cayde’s hand is cupped and his fingernails are dirty as is the prescribed uniform for any five-year old. The hand he flies outside a fast-moving window directs the wind and therefore the car. The sun’s no longer in his eyes because he’s taller in his seat. There are still billboards for the casinos that are twenty miles in the opposite direction. They remark in succession (and like an old Burma-shave campaign): “Clean.” “Honest.” “Fair.” We drive away from the adverts, pass some sub-par establishments, and Cayde flies this hand outside the window, which sings up and down, transversing its crests and troughs as we barrel down the freeway and with the sun remaining in absolutely no one’s eyes.

Cayden’s right hand is probably cold by the time we find a driveway, but—pretendedly—it directed us home. The hand-kite had us taking all the appropriate lefts because Cayde was in the back passenger seat and opposite of left. The car’s stopped engine ticks and there are wheels in the driveway, us having missed all the rights.

The wind is not always in the backseat. Sometimes it’s in the front. I remember driving home with my dad in the old Ford, the blue one, which was most likely built on a Friday when joints have looser seals and when workers just want to retire to a six-pack and the blue of a television screen. Buy a truck made on a Tuesday is the adage. The truck was blue and, if riding in the front of the cab and on the passenger side, there was a constant wind that was something about a misaligned door. If you were the passenger, you were necessarily cold, especially if it was dark and if you were in the right-hand seat.

We were driving on the 52. Those stuck on semantics hate the ‘the’ we Southern Californians assign the major thoroughfares, as if they don’t deserve it, but–really–every freeway should have an article attached. The 8. The 52. The roads are as important as are the vested wheels. We drive the 52, which is a long and gradual uphill and on the uphill there are breaks in the topography and sometimes canyons. There are bridges that don’t feel like bridges until the vehicles eddy. The buckwheat remains ruddy and consistently low-growing. The bridges happen when the wind rocks the cab and the vegetation doesn’t shake, just the cars.

The Ford was past the crest of the hill; I was cold. On the right-hand side I was freezing.

Pass Santos Road, there was the approximation of a mountain overpass, else two fuzzy hills with fences and shaggy overgrowth, young grasses and a lack of lights. There were certainly a lot of Call Boxes, and yellow signs signalling a peak. You crest the hill and you see Santee and parts of El Cajon and you prefer just making the peak.

I had been ushering a poetry event. It was something my writing professor was curating and at the La Jolla MOCA. I was a student. I got to wear a button on my lapel and tear ticket stubs as extra-credit.

I missed the Ginsberg reading. He, I learned, signed books afterwards and probably when his liver was on something of a jaundiced junket. He was sallow. Yellow tie. Planted a bottle of amber in front of him when signing books. Drunk, but you wouldn’t have known it save for his fifth of an advertisement.

I heard Sharon Olds read Ginsberg’s Walt Whitman poem in requiem the next year. Garcia Lorca was down by the watermelons.

David Foster Wallace slayed and everyone was laughing and he signed books in teeny print and he wore his characteristic bandanna. He’s now dead having hanged himself.

Amy Tan, though: she was very sweet.

Czeslaw Milosz read a poem about wheelbarrows that actually topped William Carlos Wiliams’ poem about wheelbarrows. He had a lot of eyebrows, but what I remember most is that my friend leaned into me and said: “You know his son is bat-shit crazy.” Krista—she lived next door to Milosz’ son who made gun threats and while Milosz won the Nobel prize. Krista had to lock her apartment door and there were authorities involved. This may have been Chicago. I forget the details.

I was eighteen and Krista was my best friend. When shopping for a bridesmaid’s dress, she hid me in the changing room and I saw everything save for her breasts and this was a game that I didn’t know how to play. She had black lace panties. I have a thing about black lace panties; maybe it started then. She slipped a size-zero A-line over her head and we both agreed it was a very nice dress. And who wears white to a wedding anyways?

The sun—it’s sometimes blinding.

On one particular night, Rita Dove read and it was when she was the National Poet Laureate. The benefit of ushering meant the confirmed meet-and-greet and I was with my friend Keri, ebullient and unrestrained. Rita Dove signed Keri’s dirty sneaker on Keri’s request; they exchanged what, by sound alone, were their favorite words.

Keri said: ‘Latrine.’

You could see the tip of her tongue involved in her smile. “La-trine.”

I forgot what Rita Dove said. I think she wrote a poem about it. About words and how they’re maybe about shoes or something different. She signed the sneaker and she was laughing because we were star-struck kids. ‘Latrine’ is also a very funny word.

The backside of the MOCA is some short grass, requisite concrete, and there’s an ocean view. My eyes weren’t bad then. The ocean had three shades of blue that I could at that point determine, and without polarized lenses. Small whitecaps because there was a wind and, with it being the gloaming, the white was something. The husks of dead palm fronds scraped the stucco of the building and there was the occasional vegetative slap when the wind picked up. I wasn’t cold.

My dad picked me up and could I have cranked the heat. He cleared his throat a few times. I had been talking non-stop with Keri and the offshore wind was persistent; but I was mute when my dad and I crossed over the peak and when palm fronds were exchanged for lilac and heavy brown buckwheat.

The coast smells like iodine; the hills just smell sticky. Chaparral flowers bloom and it’s a dusty perfume—savory, something preferred even—but nothing that suggests movement or negative ions or the sour grass that spills phosphorescent onto the beaches. It’s not a downhill into Santee, perse, but the wind was in the front seat and not the back.

I pick up Finn now, and I keep the windows rolled down.

Sometimes I rely on my side-view mirrors for caution and I tilt the rear-view down to watch what it is that Finn does in the back seat. Finn catches my reflection in the mirror and—being watched—Finn feels a need to dance. I don’t ask him to—he just does. He bounces in his seat and waves two hands, smiles, and buh-buh-buh’s some approximation to the song on the radio.

(There’s the stereotype that every child with Down Syndrome is happy and Finn does nothing to discount the notion.

I was walking home once with my friend Jen. Her son Ben, also diagnosed with Down Syndrome, was age eight at the time and—when passing the neighborhood bar—spontaneously hugged a patron out front.

The whiskey guy laughed: “Oh—hey, Buddy!”

Jen muttered to me: ‘Fucking stereotype. I just wish sometimes…” before trailing off).

The windows are rolled down and there’s a wind and Finn revels in its catastrophe. He squints when looking to the left, when his bangs find a wind-swept vertical; he haphazardly smiles, too, when looking to the right and when his hair flies into a sudden and ecstatic part. Both our hairs are long. His eyes open and he claps. His hair is all over the place in an impractical geometry and there is an intermittent smile. He applauds every song ending on the car radio and he’s not sure when to exactly open his eyes. Or when he shouldn’t and I should.

We’re on the 125. This is the freeway that has its beginnings in buckwheat before turning into the 8 with its white concrete and before becoming the 805, which has its traffic and its trucks in low gear.

I keep the windows rolled down,and I drive this route all the time. I keep the windows down and mostly to just keep the wind constant.

On Not Crying, pt. II

It began with what I thought was sensible advice, that being: “Don’t moonwalk naked on the wet bathroom tiles, Cayde,” which is what he was doing. His swimming trunks were discarded on the floor of the Handlery Resort’s bathroom which directly adjoins the pool. You know–the one we’re not supposed to swim in because the sign says so: “Pool reserved for hotel guests only.” (I’m not a lawyer, but I figure there are so many ways you can semantically dodge penalty here). I bought a plastic cup of IPA from the poolside lounge, therefore I’m a customer qua guest. Settled. My kids can swim. Their sleeping schedules had been duly interrupted with the busyness of a weekend, and we were here to (maybe) trespass, kill some time, and speed the kids to Nod. Cayden spent the better part of two hours imitating a fish.

His moonwalk interrupted, Cayde suddenly realized the fact of his eyes. They had been open above and beneath the water in all those daredevil games he had been playing with the friends who’d joined us. Commence screams which were the sudden and dramatic response to his chemically-reddened eyes that–fish out of water–now stung.

The janitor was outside and wanted simply to mop the bathroom, but Cayde was crying and pawing at his face.

“Just a sec,” I said. Cue the moment.

There’s a few ways out of this. One involves a lot of yelling because this is ridiculous and because two seconds prior, Billie Jean almost slipped in front of the urinals, bare-assed naked.

I take the ‘science’ approach. Cayden routinely asks me insane math questions and his bed is bannered with both dinosaur and shark posters.The other day, there was a science experiment involving baking soda and pennies and he was upset when the addition of vinegar didn’t erase Lincoln’s visage.

“Dude–,” I say, and he continues rubbing his eyes, “Put your hands down, Dude.”

“You had your eyes open, right?” And Cayde nods.

“OK”–I point to the spot just above the eye and south of the temple–“These are your lacrimal glands, Cayde, and they make tears, alright? And there are a lot of chemicals in that water. When you blink your eyes, those tears make their way here (corner of the eye) and when you blink, your eyelids take those tears and flush out all the bad stuff. Blink your eyes, don’t rub. Keep blinking your eyes.”

Cayden’s naked and crying and I’m saying ‘lacrimal': all’s normal. This is how we do our thing. Cayde stops crying and,on my urging, takes a few deep breaths. His eyes are really red; he has failed as a merman. I tug on his shorts so the janitor can clean up after the hotel’s not-guests. The floor is slippery.

Cayde blinks and blinks while we’re packing up from the pool; he’s meanwhile swinging 180’s round the stairway bannisters and back, and I’m sure he’s enjoying what must be his own personal nickelodeon reel. He’s blinking on the constant and that must mean his world is currently manifesting as some weird stop-animation thing.

At Cayde’s request we listen to Fats Domino on the way home. During the big blackout a few years back, my car overheated and my phone battery died. I parked at the Handlery and had to walk the six miles uphill to get home. We re-trace this path in the car and we’re not listening to ‘I’m Walkin” which would have been appropriate, but rather ‘I’m Ready’ which has no significance at all. Still, Cayde remarks that this is a good kind of rock n’ roll and we agree and–Jeezus–Finn is still not asleep in the back.

When the car levels off onto University Avenue, I tell Cayde that, during the blackout (something akin to every building suddenly having its eyes closed) everybody was out on the sidewalks and beneath the restaurant verandas. Beers were served lukewarm because the fridges were out, no one served oysters,and the pearl of it all was that everyone was happy things were dark. It was a hundred degrees out: true story. Refrigerator pans collected water; there was a line out Servall Liquor where patrons were individually ushered inside to grab candles and sweating bottles of white.

The hot dog place is right next to Servall and Cayde asks to go there again someday, interrupting my story. We take a right and I say, “Sure.” Cayden’s eyes are puffy, and now it’s ‘Blueberry Hill’ because we’re on a mesa. Things are fine, though I’d like Finn to sleep. He was up till ten-thirty last night and I’m waiting for his eyes to close in surrender.

Cayde screams again at home because his eyes again sting and I have to again coach him to, one, not yell; and, two, quit rubbing. He’s on the bathroom floor with chlorine-reddened eyes and with a towel over his head. Finn’s crying, too, and has his arms interlocked around Cayde’s neck. He’s upset that his brother is upset.

“C’mon, Cayde–let’s splash some water in your eyes.”

Finn is beside himself. It’s important to know that humans are the only animals that overspill their ocular goblet cells with lacrimal excretions out of pure emotion alone. Science, right? Means: we cry when we’re sad. Crying when we’re hurt is something else entirely.

Cayden walks out of the bathroom with red red eyes, but he’s calm and says, “Thanks, Daddy.” And Finn’s ok, too. He was really tired and eventually his eyes just close and because he’s in desperate need of sleep. There was nothing to be sad about after all.

I tell Cayde that every blink passes a tear over the eye. Sometimes it spills over, sometimes not. Finn sleeps easy once Cayden reduces his tears to the occasional sniff.

This is how we not cry. No lesson save for: one should always and probably wear goggles.

Surgeries, Pt. 1

My cat Frida likes to stare for hours out the pet door and I can’t fathom why. I don’t even know when that particular door was installed. The house itself is over a hundred years old, so we could be talking a half-century of doggy commutes here. It’s since yellowed with age and the flap is marked with a myriad of scratches. It certainly can’t afford much of a view. The door is tamped shut, too, and with good reason. Upon moving into the house, Frida—who had until then only known the comfortable interiors of apartment life—decided the outdoors was a temptation worth exploring. Or so she thought. Twice I rescued her from a tangle of vines along the side of the garage, pissing herself and yowling in absolute terror. I figured she’d just realized how big the world really is. Which would terrify anybody.

I imagine Frida’s world is now comfortably smaller from behind the nailed-shut pet door, albeit blurrier and more jaundiced. In which case, I understand Frida’s point of view. For a while my world was plunged into a yellowed soft-focus as cataracts ripened into something ochre, and although my eyes are fixed now, my days—like Frida’s—were similarly sepia-toned.

I was my ophthalmologist’s youngest cataracts patient at age thirty.

By ‘ripened’ I mean ‘proliferated.’ Cataracts are blemishes that affect the lenses: as they grow in multitude, the world slowly loses its sharpness. You don’t notice it at the time because it happens so gradually, but the world begins to lose color while you lose focus. Everything yellows slightly, takes on an unwelcome veneer. Like a plasticizing pet door, or your friend’s poorly chosen filter on Instagram.

Remember when television sets had knobs for adjusting sharpness and color? Imagine you’ve knobs connected to your optic nerve and a random toddler has given them a similarly random twiddle. It’s like that.

When cataracts decide to ripen, it’s a slow disorientation. I discovered I was having problems when I undertook a physical exam prior to a Jackson Hole research expedition.

Mind you, my right eye has always been worse than my left. I could show you grade-school pictures wherein my right eye has a characteristic squint. I said so to the nurse practitioner but—when in socks and a slit-robe—and standing in a doctor’s office hallway, I fairly read Greek when listing the letters I saw on an optometrist’s chart. I had just my left eye open, the right properly shielded with a black plastic paddle. My posterior had a breeze.

“F-Z-…_E?”

The practitioner was confused: “I thought you said your right eye was worse.” There was something judgmental in her tone.

“Maybe I need my eyes checked?” I offered.

Recently, the computer screen had been hovering pretty close to my face. The weekly readers, too. Not out of their particular insistence to be scrutinized. It was just that my eyes seemed simply southward-bound, and that my world was fast getting smaller, too close for comfort.

I left for Jackson Hole to do some bird research that necessarily involved binoculars. I had a referral to the ophthalmologist in my wallet and a particular penchant for rubbing my eyes ten times a minute.

Ironically, I was one of the best bird-spotters on the trip and despite the fact that I could never dial in proper focus on my set of binoculars. The body: it has ways of compensating and—quite frankly—I don’t remember any of my particular tricks. Sometimes you can see well without seeing well. I picked out the osprey on the tree 300 yards away, and that juvie hawk a half-mile out and lazily floating the zephyrs.

At the same time, and back in San Diego, I had to habitually count street signs when driving home. For lack of actually being able to read them.

Jackson Hole, mind you, was beautiful. I got to experience this only ex-post facto. Only when my doctor’s referral became a recommendation for surgery, and only post-expedition; when my eyeballs were sliced open and their lenses summarily removed; when I got pieces of plastic shoved into ocular space and I finally got to see my pictures of the Grand Tetons—literally ‘the Great Breasts’—in full photographic detail like some form of geographic pornography rising high and taut above the meadows of a milk-thistled Wyoming morning.

The photos were fantastic.

A picture of when you’re younger is, of course, always a picture of when you’re younger. That’s the way time works; you can’t say ‘here’s a photo of me five minutes hence’. Seeing pictures of the Tetons, though, was like seeing pictures of me when I was older, the way time’s not supposed to work. I took a few snapshots of these lavender moths in some rapine grass and I didn’t enjoy them until a doctor had done his work and, with eyes suddenly younger, I saw things in the past suddenly present. If you follow.

My eye doctor: he did not so much give a recommendation for surgery as he did surrender it. “I don’t think you have cataracts,” he would muse while gazing through his magnifying devices into the inner workings of my eyes. “I think you have…cholesterol spots marking your lenses. Something granular. Probably’ve had them since birth.” He was the first optometrist of mine to offer this opinion. Ever since childhood, my eye doctors diagnosed me with congenital cataracts. They saw the telltale flecks, seeds that would later proliferate into a gathering of motes scarring my lenses. They said surgery was inevitable. My current eye-doctor, however, refused the diagnosis for years. “They’re not cataracts,” he’d say, “They’re cholesterol spots.”

Once he showed me a model of an eye, carefully disassembling the orb into its component parts with steady, surgeon-like fingers. The lens came apart in numerous pieces. He explained: the lens is made of flexible fibers that interconnect in various concentricities. In effect, he went on, the lens is onion-like in its structure.

(My doctor was not convincing me with his choice of analogy—onions make the eyes water and blur. When I cut onions, I can’t see).

He continued: cataracts are malicious, they enter randomly into these allium-like cells and they form little pattern save for a final one in which light is completely denied access. You’ll wake up suddenly one day, and when cataracts have set, it’s like the ceiling lamp-switch hasn’t been turned on.

“What’s different about your eyes,” he countered, “Is that your blemishes are in perfect order. They’re rather beautiful, actually.”

Go figure. My disease is worthy of a headshot.

My doctor, two inches from my face and with a retinoscope in hand, peered deeper into my eyes than would have an attentive lover; he murmurs that my eyes look like constellations. If I were asked to have read a chart at that very moment, I may have spelled out: F-L-A-T-T-E-R-E-D-? I do like my doctor, after all.

Later I visit an ophthalmologist, post-Jackson Hole, with the goal of alleviating the question marks.

“Yes, you have cataracts. They don’t seem exactly terrible.” That was the surgeon’s summation. My friends’ faces, meanwhile, had been blurring at a rate of two-feet remove per second. That was my empirical summation, and I would have argued against the ‘not terrible’ verdict.

“If it affects your quality of life, then ok.” He’s a white-coated shrug.

Ok, then. I wonder, in this world of scopes and dials, and with eyebrows raised above glorified magnifying lenses, why is a diagnosis so hard to get? Somewhere there’s a mean balancing out subjectivity and objectivity and if I, as the subject and—with fogging eyes—declare genetic foul, doctors should be listening.

“I’m not stupid, actually. I’m just going blind.”

“I want you to cut my eyes open.”

“I can’t rightly see.”

“I get lost, a lot. I can’t read a sentence six inches away from my nose.”

Quality of life: if I need to hold newsprint this close to my face, if I can smell the fiber of the paper better than I can see it, I ask—please—for some help. If end all I can’t read, it’d be like surgically extracting part of my being; I would rather an ophthalmologist surgically extract the blur instead.

The blur, at this point, I envision as gauze soaked in milk; or an onionskin, soggy, and left unceremoniously in the sink. Seriously: I want this shit tweezed out of my eyes.

I’m at last granted surgery. I am assigned a date, an anesthesiologist, and a bed where I will lie—face-up—for open-eye surgery.

(Open-eye, open-heart. Finn is born two years later and he’ll lie, too, on a surgeon’s table, eyes closed but chest decidedly open, breastbone cracked and stretched by calipers, his heart stopped by machines and laid still and bare for surgeons’ fingers to reconstruct and make beat again; I simply go and get my eyes fixed. I want to see. Findlay—he needs to live).

Here’s a moment: the anesthesiologist has already dressed my veins in cold chemicals and the ophthalmologist has dilated my eyes with constancy: drop after drop after drop. My vision has since been reduced to fog. I see only the likeness of shapes, but decided color still—like the purple of the surgeon’s lamp and the blue of the surgeon’s gloves. I am forced to see a steady series of drops glaze my cornea because my eyes are pinned open like a scene from ‘Clockwork Orange’. Consider me Alex. I’m hostage to the operating table at this point, blankets wrapped thrice around my body. I can’t move.

The drops are so constant that all I see is purple. That and the drops themselves, which form in soft-focus, maturing as they do into resolute tear-shape before disappearing into my eye. I’m meanwhile bound to the table. Van Morrison is on the radio and a doctor is moving somewhere in my vicinity, exchanging remarks with the anesthesiologist. I know about isoflourane, and I know I should probably be asleep.

I really shouldn’t be hearing about ‘Gypsie Robin’ or ‘Emma Rose.’

The doctor begins cutting and I am wide-awake.

I have a strange association, and it’ll be hard to explain. This color purple I’m seeing, it has a particular depth to it. I know it’s just a reflection of a surgeon’s lamp relative to my dilated eyes but I’m reminded of when I was a young aviculturist and I opened a wrong egg by mistake.

To best and quickest explain: I’m a bird-keeper. That’s what I mean by ‘aviculturist’. And as a bird-keeper I habitually candle eggs with a bright light. The light illuminates the goings-on inside the egg—vessels, embryonic movement, etc. Sometimes the egg is dead and it’s summarily pulled from the incubator; the egg is generally opened afterwards to find out what or where went wrong.

So one day, I pulled an egg. It was supposed to be dead, but when I capped the shell with a pair of tweezers, I immediately saw purple beyond the cell membrane, a pulsing purple I can only describe as alive. It was a horrible mistake. Generally a dead egg is non-descript in color but there, floating in magenta, was an undeveloped bird embryo, breathing through vessels still, looking up at me in a suddenly mortal WTF. I’ll never forget that shade of violet, that abrupted vitality.

Why the surgeon’s lamp is the same purple, I don’t know, but from within a violet field there are issued continual eyedrops. I’m still puzzlingly unasleep.

Dear God, I’m actually now witnessing a needle being inserted into my eye. I don’t sense it, I observe it, and I’m not sure how I should be feeling. Turn off Van Morrison at least, please. Caravan is over. This becomes the strangest of phenomena. My eye’s supposed to be unseeing, but there it is, a silhouette of a needle exaggeratedly thick two nicks away from my expanding pupil. I’m not asleep and there’s a shadow against the purple. I’m seeing something inside my eye. I’m braced against the wraps, I feel the pressure, but all’s violet and there’s nothing I can do.

The surgeon actually says at one point: “This is not good.”

Really? I can’t speak. I actually watch as my new lens is shoved into place, roughly. The lens—a synthetic disc–unfolds and suddenly my world is in better focus. The drops still rain in continuous fashion, but the old lens has since been discarded and the new lens unfurls slowly, like a starfish arm curling curious, finding place within my eye. Everything is still purple. This, I guess is a color that incision suggests.

When I awake from anesthesia—and easily—never having been completely under, I’m fine. The nurses don’t have to steady me. I’m familiar with my ride home and I walk out the door just—well—fine.

I inform the surgeon that I’ve remembered every moment of the procedure. He says that he doesn’t believe that accurate, and he frowns. Doctors have a lot of ego, and I’ve grown to know this more of recent. I remind him that Van Morrison was playing on the radio and I say this while shrugging on my brown wool coat. Anesthesia makes you cold, not dumb. I list off the songs. I have an eye patch on, but I’m not blind. He frowns further.

I lift my eye-patch in, of all places, a Jack in the Box drive-thru. I never go to Jack in the Box, but I’m there and there are neon signs. The fact of neon is a complicated chemistry and what runs through tubes is something in a vacuum. I think there are noble gases involved; also cheeseburgers.

I see true purple for the first time in years, and oh my God: why does my cat stare out the backdoor? There is purple outlining the drive-thru window and there are tacos here. The windshield reflects the order-board in an amazing andluminescent yellow. I momentarily forget the stars.

The constellations were in my eyes; they were removed.

On Not Crying

I’m dying so I change my hat. I was going to wear the straw one with the lavender grosgrain band but I leave that one on the bed and wear the wool one instead. The one Delaney’s widow got for me from Ireland because it had to be from Ireland and because Delaney was Irish.

Laney’s been a year dead, and some change. I’m thinking I’m joining him, although I have new glasses to pick up next Wednesday and I really want to get my kid before this whole exeunt thing. No—really—I’m dying. It’s 10 o’clock and I’m supposed to pick Finn up around three. We snuggled in bed this morning and I haven’t figured out yet just what’s wrong with me. But—yes—I’m certainly dying and there’s some twenty minutes of freeway I need to navigate. So I rest up the hours it takes to get rested up and because I want my kid. It’s all very logical; I set my alarm. I really really need my kid and that’s my goal.

It’s vacation, but I haven’t slept in yet. Meds, holy shit. I’ve been warned about the six-week thing, and I’m on my back. I pick an old dress from Jenn’s bottom drawer and it still smells like the thrift store . It’s what I slept with all day. It’s orange and she fits it again, perfectly. This May marks twenty years. I’m not in trouble, and I’m perfectly sober, and I just can’t figure out what’s wrong with me except for this whole dying thing. I still wake up and plan to keep doing so.

I can’t explain that I’m hungry but hate eating currently. Don’t want coffee. I can’t decide if the fan is off or on; it’s off and it takes me two hours to turn it back on. I’m not depressed. I drive impeccably and I choose roads that make me happy. I know I’m working through something.

“I need to lay down.” And Jenn is understanding.

I get my kid and I’m so happy driving home. I can’t help but keep from not crying.

Pills

Cayden is obsessed with the digital sphygmometer that is blister-packed and hanging to the left of the pharmacy counter. A sticker on the front of the package shows a digital metric of a heartbeat—or maybe a blood pressure read-out (I’m not a doctor)—with systolic and diastolic peaks and valleys. It’s something topographic at least. Cayde is interested and traces the up and down lines with his finger. We wait; the pharmacist is exasperated with the customer in front of us who’s pushing a stroller and seeking medication that was apparently picked up yesterday. The pharmacist—she has red hair—sighs into the customer service phone and declares she needs assistance.

“Spanish-speaking, please,” she sighs over the PA.

Cayde turns and says, “Hey, Daddy…” which is his usual perambulatory way of saying he has a question, else some seven-year old insight.

(On the drive to CVS, it was ‘Hey, Daddy—did you know that T. rex had feathers?’ Which is true, and Cayde mentioned as much because we were playing an ‘Animal Trivia’ game. He knows I’m a bird-keeper and he fancies himself a burgeoning paleontologist; he picked up from some BBC documentary that dinosaurs were simply birds in the evolutionary making and because dinosaurs came first, he thinks he has me trumped).

“Hey, Daddy,” he repeats.

“What? T. rex had feathers? We already covered this, Dude. I know.” The pharmacist is beyond impatient.

“No. Daddy.” And Cayde raises his arms and makes a triangle above his head.

“So this is what music looks like when you play something on a high frequency, and then it does this in the middle”—he holds his arms out flat—“And then there’s the low part.” And it’s more difficult making an upside-down triangle, but he tries.

Cayde’s mistaken the sphygmometer for an audiometer. Amateur. At least he’s confused the heartbeat with music, which—come to think of it—is not really a mistake at all.

On the drive to the pharmacy, Cayde requested Spotify and, probably trying to please his dad, he asked for Kevin Drew. The album streamed and the song ‘F-cked Up Boy’ came on while we played ‘Animal Trivia’. Cayden read the song-title on the dashboard computer, filled in the ‘u’ blank, and immediately informed me that it was inappropriate. But we were already parking, so the ignition killed the song before I could fast-forward; and then we were in line and waiting for medication.

The queue for the pharmacy begins in the skin crème aisle. I’ve always wondered if there’s a tonic for feeling comfortable in your own skin, else a similarly designed analgesic to treat the otherwise. It could be in the next aisle over. I’ll have to check someday but, in the meantime, the lady in front of me is very confused that she can’t pick up her scrip. Red Hair pharmacist is frustrated with the language barrier.

On the PA again: “Spanish-speaking, please.”

“Daddy—are we here for your pills?”

I scratch my head distractedly; look sideways, and I pretend to consult the lesser PhDs, like Dr. Scholl and the who-some-ever Johnsons, who stare back at me for a second from the fluorescent-lit shelves. Oh, certainly I could use some foot powder. Um.

“Sure, Monkey. Yeah.”

This is a recent thing—the pills—but also Cayde recognizing the pills. And right away, because he’s smart and he’s already manufacturing science experiments in his room. I’ll explain the difference between a sphygmometer and an audiometer later, to correct him for being seven, but in the meanwhile he gets things.

My grandfather was institutionalized when he was 37. This is family history I only now know of, my grandfather’s exact age at least. I’ve known of his time in the mental ward and I’ve always had the picture in my head of a van retreating down a road, my grandfather in it. Always: a dirt road, a tire gate, avocado leaves greening the manner-way and thin tires (anachronistically thin, surely, for it must have been mid-century when he was carted away; cars were low and tires thick), tires that rolled and spindled into the cinematic distance. There’s a cow forever and stubbornly in the periphery.

The cow’s a dumb addition my mind inserts to create something bucolic of the scene; also, my grandpa was a dairyman.

It’s surely something we don’t talk about so I’m lost on the details. And I’m never sure if this is supposed to be something I think about in sepia.

My granddad’s son watched the van disappear down what was probably a long asphalt driveway, and not a dirt road. He saw it in color.

There’s a way that sons see their fathers, as something both impenetrable and yet castles to be sieged, so, with my grandfather in retreat and ferried down the driveway, and with my granddad most likely laying down in surrender, there being a bed in back, and him not standing up to his misaligned chemicals or, rather, the need for it all to just be turned off, my granddad’s son saw his dad go away and there was a castle fallen and my granddad’s son suddenly didn’t have an Oedipal opponent or someone just comfortably smoking away in the Great Room and damn it all, this is how children develop adult-sized holes; Jericho rides away in a van and it’s stamped ‘Edgemoor Mental Facility.’

I played a game of chess with my uncle when I was seven. My uncle was obviously much older. It was a long match and my uncle ashed his cigarettes into a Pepsi can while chuckling at my persistent game of pawns. He eventually won.

It’s said we—my uncle and I—resemble each other, and my grandpa all at once.

Walls are re-built. The body does this naturally with its own proteinase mortar. You build walls around infection to prevent further hurt. So, like I said, I don’t know much about the day my grandpa was taken away. It’s sepia-toned to me, and everyone who saw it in color has the appropriate scar tissue and says nothing. We don’t even ask each other, “How are you?” Because that’s just way too fucking personal.

“I’m bored, Daddy.”

I’ll admit—it’s been a long wait. Cayde’s poking at the merchandise and we’re due at a birthday party. Lady with the stroller is genuinely confused and her baby can’t be more than two weeks. She has a sister? (friend?) with her and they consult worriedly in Spanish.

Red Hair shoos them aside with a wave of her Jamberried fingers. “Next!” she says, smiling at me. A clerk with jangling keys appears and in order to deal with Stroller Lady. “Que?”

Cayde looks up at the pharmacy marquee, squints his eyes, and points to the subtitles.

‘Farmacia!’ he announces. (It says so, right above the counter). ‘That means pharmacy in Spanish.” Cayde prances off to worry some more blister packs and nuisance the diuretics. I think he just schooled the register clerk without even knowing it.

Red is relieved to see me, thinking she has just had an ordeal. Behind her is a machine that auto-fills benzodiazepine bottles. It hums and clicks on the regular.

Red calls me ‘Hon.’ We transact. I give my birthdate to Red as is required when you are requesting chemicals.

“June four, 1977.” Cayde reappears to reconfirm his status as the mathematician qua scientist of the family. He holds the ledge of the counter and, barely peering above it, he proclaims to Red: “1977. That means my Daddy’s thirty-seven. Star Wars came out that year.” If nothing else, I’ve trained him well.

The machine behind Red pours pink pills. There’s an audible click and a white cap is screwed shut on an amber bottle. There are people in white coats floating about like pharmaceutical ghosts and I have no idea what their jobs may be. Seems the machine has everything covered and the front desk just gets mad at not being understood.

Red: “Come back at three.”

It’s only ten-thirty. Machine must have a lot of work to do.

The birthday party’s in Lakeside, where my grandpa owned dairies, later real estate, and it’s where my mom and uncle and five other siblings grew up. The party is, in fact, oddly close to my grandpa’s old house. It’s at an indoor playground in an anonymous corporate park. The park is a lot of white asphalt just north of a very beige quarry. Red clay is closer to where I am and striated in cliffs up north. The quarry sits near where the San Diego River dips underground in a geographical phenomenon I still can’t figure out. Close by there are the palm trees that I remember being planted when I was five. Full-grown Queens that had their crowns tied until the roots took.

I exit the freeway early so that we can drive through Santee—where I grew up—and so that I can point out the important things to Cayde. He’s been very interested in me as a seven-year old—what television I watched, what foods I ate. A drive down Mission Gorge Rd. makes me a seasoned tour guide.

“We’ll get you an apple fritter from there someday,” I say, pointing to Mary’s Donuts, which is a sturdy concrete building in the middle of Santee’s new architectural bent. Everything else around it is looking like a Safeway; Mary’s is the one stodgy throwback. They serve good coffee there.

Speaking of: Wellbutrin and caffeine don’t mix. Not for me at least. Ads end with: ‘You may suffer from…’ And what are listed are the affordable side effects because ‘suffering’ is the strong word that gets you on pills in the first place. I’m nauseous—a little—and I’m still figuring out the whole homeostatic thing. At least my body is; sometimes I feel I’m me from the neck up and everything else is a hitched-up trailer.

Let it figure itself out.

‘Side effects include’: nausea, tremors, inappetance. I have all three, so, as I’m pointing out Mary’s to Cayde, I certainly don’t pull into the driveway with its faded parking lines and weedy side-lot. A cruller would be cruel. Caffeine jets the Wellbutrin into a strange place and although I’m perfectly safe to drive, there’s this frenetic yet harnessed energy all at once. I want to round its corners, but you can’t ask the barista: ‘Leave room for IPA.’

We pass the Ottavio’s which is not Ottavio’s anymore, but a Fillippi’s.

‘That’s where we used to get pizza, Dude.” ‘We’ meaning a ‘we’ that doesn’t include him so I shut up for a minute. The road bends and it whitens. There’s a Creation Museum on the left hand side of the road. Goddamit, there are dinosaur models.

Cayden points out that T. Rex didn’t live in the same geologic period as the Stegosaurus, both of which menace the topiaries in front of the Museum. (Cayden’s smart). The plastic T. rex doesn’t even sport feathers, a fact that is quickly pointed out. Meanwhile, I have absolutely no problem with faith and,with there being a drive-in movie screen next door to the plastic dinosaurs, we talk about movies instead.

“We need to see a drive-in movie some day, Dude.”

“I liked Big Hero Six.”

“That was a good one.”

“Are we almost there, Daddy?”

The highway planes into a flatter part.

“Soon, Dude.”

I was worried about pills flattening me out: the thought that there would just be days, and never good or bad ones. Just days. Before, I couldn’t stand the thought of prescribed numbness. But this is a good day and I can feel it despite the pills. In which case the medicine isn’t exactly working. Genetically, I’m a red-head—a C-16—therefore I’m almost immune to anesthesia. It’s science. So: fuck you, pills.I win.

In three months I’ll be 38 and outside the window. I drive with my hands on the wheel and drive past the quarry. Cayden and I remark the machines that dig the earth and they’re rusted and probably still the same ones from when I was younger and when I used to pass this upside-down river every week.

“Daddy—I can’t wait for Fun-believable.”

It’s where we’re going and it sounds like an advertisement for Prozac.

“Me neither, Dude.” I mean it. I truly mean it, actually.

Afterwards, after the party I mean, we take a drive. And—because we’re near to my grandpa’s house—I idle the car at the base of a long asphalt driveway.

“That’s where your great-grandpa and grandma lived.” Cayde’s impressed because there’s a house there now very different from what used to exist. A satellite dish, an RV out front. The landscaping is currently terraced whereas before my granddad had just planted sea fig.

I drive onto the dirt road circumferencing the property and try to show Cayden the pepper tree that I used to climb. But it’s gone. There’s a stump and a sapling, though.

We drive bumpily on the dirt road until we again meet asphalt. I suddenly remember Posthill Rd. which is across the street from my grandpa’s house and where there used to be avocado groves.

I click the blinker and tell Cayde to hold on.

He says, ‘I can’t wait!’ and braces against the seatbelt.

He says, ‘I can’t wait’ a lot so I’m in my own personal Groundhog’s Day. I probably repeat myself too—actually, I know I do, and usually in the negative—but we launch the car down Posthill Road and through the switchbacks, past the stratified and half-quarried rock, on down to the highway. I know this road and we hit the 67 dramatically; but then we even out, and more evenly we drive back home.

Thaw

Cayden suggests an experiment. He has two vials of water, one smaller than the other. They are capped neatly.

“I’m gonna put these in the freezer. Which one will freeze first, Daddy?” I give him the correct answer. I say something about volume. Thirty minutes and one game of Battleship later, I’m right.

On to the next experiment.

“But which one will THAW faster, Daddy?” and Cayden runs out the door to place same-said vials in the sun, on the outdoors table which is lattice-work and resisting rust (because of the drought more than anything).

It’s sunny out; so is my disposition. Cayden sets the kitchen timer. We put Battleship away and I guess we just wait.

I woke up earlier in the morning with Finn singing. He does this. He doesn’t have words, but he matches syllables with his own manner of sounds. If I say: ‘ Findlay Cooper’ with my usual made-up brogue, he’ll say, ‘Dum-dee-da-da.’ It’s a comfortable echolalia and something I like to wake up to. Finn sings, and he talks. In a room of excited peoples, he’ll gesticulate like mad mimicking all the things we do when talking to each other.

One time I told him I didn’t want him.

I don’t like to admit it, but it’s true. There’s anger and there is grief; also words accidentally freed from icebergs.

In Cayde’s room we play guitar. The vials are out in the sun, Cayden is explaining magnets to me, and I’m cross-legged on the floor with my friend’s Mitchell. Finn has planted his hand firmly on the fretboard so my C#m is muted. I’m playing Pixies’ ‘Where is My Mind?’ which is appropriate because I’m due for the doctor, and also a refill. Cayde momentarily pays attention, so we take a minute to figure out the lead guitar bit on the Playskool xylophone.

“Cayde: just do blue-green for four counts, then four on orange-yellow. Dude—Jimmy Santiago had the easiest parts, Cayde. Think of The Ramones.”

Cayden knows The Ramones. He gets it, finally, and he taps a yellow mallet on blue and green in time with my strumming. Finn decides to let go of the Mitchell’s neck and air-guitars his own song while bouncing at the knees. He turns in a circle and says exactly eight syllables.

We make music.

Meanwhile, I’ve forgotten how to play guitar. Passing in between songs, some that I’ve written and most I have not (and there also being the fact of Finn dancing) I land on a forgotten chord: the D minor. Three fingers in the same array as when you would pitch a curve ball. At least,I think. I’ve forgotten pitching, too, because my beard is gray and now Cayde wears my old baseball tees.

(The Beatles ‘I Want You’ starts on a D-min).

Cayde breaks up the party because the kitchen timer is going off. He darts off, then returns with his experiment in hand.

“Look, Daddy—they both thawed out.”

Torque

My hand was too hot, so Jenn readjusted her hand-hold when we walked to dinner a few blocks up.

I have hot hands, which the palm-reader labelled as ‘passion hands'; the pre-natal masseuse said the same when she allowed me to pass fingers across Jenn’s back, Jenn seven-months pregnant.

My co-worker laughs: says ‘worst super-hero power ever.’ Because I admitted that, when my hands are at ten and two, I fog up my windshield driving to work. True story.

I passed a parked Datsun on the way back from the park today with the kids. My immediate thought was, ‘Man–those Datsuns had torque.’ Which was stupid: I never took physics and fuck if I know what torque is.

My friend’s step-dad tricked out a Datsun and–in neutral–the thing suggested climbing a hill.

My friend–he said something about torque.

There’s that hill in Santee and the Datsun did its thing. Gears tightly wound, the yellow car with knocked-out windows inched up a slope with a disengaged gearshift.

Finn walked the perimeter of the park today. He got really mad when the dry-brush got in his way and he yanked at the clinging branches. He walked a full mile.

I looked it up: torque is something about the ‘moment of force.’ I still don’t know what that means.

I swept up Finn and told a helmeted Cayden to stop on yellow, please–the egress ramps where the sidewalk dips next to the picket fences and where the concrete is white.

‘Mind the alleys, Dude.’ Cayde scootered about. Parked when he should’ve.

‘Moment of force.’ Finn was close to falling asleep in his stroller and Cayde asked: ‘What’s ten times two?’before speeding ahead of my answer.

Leaving the park, he picked up a discarded watermelon rind and threw it into the grass.

‘Worms will get that.’He has an understanding of how things work.

At the corner of Thorn and 32nd, just past the DeLuca’s Pizzeria where we agree we haven’t been that much recently, Cayde slowed because there’s another yellow. I had the flap up on the stroller’s canopy and Finn was pushing a hand against the plastic window to meet mine.

“Why, Daddy,” Cayde asked, “Do we sleep a long time but the dreams are short? Why doesn’t sleep feel as long as it is?”

I swear he asked this.

I paused, and not only because the curb was yellow. My kid turned back in my direction with his silly angles and with his helmet askew. Those teeth, adult in a kid-sized head, and that question.

“Let’s keep going. Alley’s clear.”

Finn had purple eyes but stayed awake until we got home and Cayde ditched his scooter on the driveway alongside his helmet. Skulls and crossbones on the helmet, and that strap I can’t ever adjust right.

Oh. ‘Moment of force.’ My dad drove a Datsun and–torque–I now fucking get you.

I changed my hand-hold with Jenn on the way to dinner. Passion hands. That’s what the palm-reader said. I like that, so yes.

Doris

I’m incontrovertibly happy, which–disclaimer–is not a FaceBook trope or anything. I just am, and my inner misanthrope has his arms crossed and hates me at present.

There’s sour-grass, iceplant, and aloe blooming at once. Let’s blame it on that. The misanthrope can take a break for a while.

I pull into Rady’s for Finn’s weekly Speech and say hello to the parking lot attendant, Doris (I called her Mae in an earlier post; I was lying—it’s Doris). If ever I had to choose a Higher Power, it would be her. She’s maybe sixty, sixty-five. Small in stature, she’s an African-American woman with spider-woven cheekbones and an unwavering smile. Whether rain or sun, she invariably wears an over-sized windbreaker and a straw hat cinched by means of a drawstring beneath her chin.

“Hi, Honey. Good to see you.” She always pokes her head through the window and waves to Finn.

“Hi, Baby. Hi!” Her smile is the warmest.

(Often I wonder if people remember me in the same fashion I remember them, and: do we, would we, recognize each other upon meeting for the third, fourth time? I always think I’m somehow forgettable. Doris remembers me, I remember Doris. It’s obvious every time we see each other).

I take the ticket—I should step outside the door and give Doris a hug–but I park my car instead.

This morning:

“Do I seem better?”

Jenn puts a knife down on the cutting board and nods her head.

We’re both smiling. I say, ‘Ok.’

Doris says: “Always good to see you, Dear.” These days, I believe her. And I like being called ‘Dear’ and ‘Honey’ by someone I don’t exactly know, especially when it’s spring and there’s no flowers sprouting the asphalt outside the parking lot booth.

Speaking of: I get this parking stub every session. A crossbeam rises, I park. Some bored receptionist asks if I or anyone I’ve known has been to Africa or Central Asia recently.

“No. And no.”

My ticket gets validated meaning I’ve somehow been granted free time. ‘Free’ time, as if it’s a commodity. Do you ever wonder why it is you get charged for taking up time and space?

Doris’ shift is done by twelve and I often see her climb into her Corolla for the ride home. I pay the new girl three dollars, and I’m allowed out. The crossbeam lifts, Finn falls asleep, I return home.

I always wave to Doris, but she never sees me. We leave, and apart.