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School Pictures

Cayde sat opposite the couch from me mired in spiral-bound notebooks and three-ring binders. He had one ear bud in, the cord of which trailed to the computer, and there was the small tintinnabulation of EDM playing incessant 6/4 time while Cayde typed on the keyboard. His face was illuminated by the laptop screen, underlit like a boy playing with a flashlight beneath the covers, eyes and nose done up in alien shadow. I studied him from across the way, surreptitiously, so as not to interrupt him with my gaze. In between keystrokes he’d reach over and pluck a few grapes from a plate next to him, else crunch on a pita chip dipped in hummus: just a boy doing his homework, without rile. He could almost be described as inexpressive, which made studying him that much more an objective exercise; me tracing the lines of his face with my eyes; following those rounded cheeks down to the jut of his chin; remarking his brow, smooth, yet to be furrowed with the worries of age. The block of his hair fell weightily to the right and threatened need of cutting. Behind Cayde, the living room window reflected the night’s Spanish homework, now beyond my reading level, but Cayde’s eyes flickered along comprehendingly, and the window flickered as quickly, displaying flashes of light and color while Cayde parsed through the various screens.

It occurred to me suddenly, that though Cayden was wrapped in his custom makeshift nest of cushions, pillows and blankets, obviously at home and content; that though his mom and dad were in the room and reflected in the window screen as well; that I didn’t know exactly who Cayden looked like anymore, that I could’ve been looking at a stranger across the playground. Perhaps it was the under-lighting, the martian glow provided by the computer, but suddenly eleven seemed a world away from every myriad age Cayde had been up until this evening, back when his features were recognizable morphs: my eyes, Jenn’s nose, his grandmother’s cherubic cheeks. Now he was just Boy, caught somewhere in between features, on his way to something pre-adolescent and independent of his heredity, if briefly. As if his genes were unloosed and given free expression for a moment, allowed to rearrange to their own liking.

I cocked my head and tried looking at him from a different angle, trying to take him in. I was reminded of the time I visited the Grand Canyon when I was in high school. I was with my friend Ryan, and we were perched on the East Rim overlooking one of the canyon’s sprawling vistas. Unlike anything embossed in miniature on a postcard, the Canyon was immeasurable, irreducible, and no matter of perspective allowed the eye to capture it at once. So, too, looking at Cayde was like trying to minimize something far too expansive to take in at one time. I searched his face for something essential, something recognizable, that would frame him in the moment, as readily as the windowpane behind him squared his figure on the chaise, the reflections in the glass haloed his head in illuminative graphics. He continued typing on the keyboard, occasionally shaking the bangs loose from his forehead; I studied his mannerisms, still careful not to disturb him with my stare, and slowly Cayde emerged, by nature of his small movements. It was like watching a painting come alive, a two-dimensionality wrest its away into the unlikely third, and it was the gestures, the particular way in which Cayde reached for his grapes or the way in which he adjusted the laptop screen, that reminded me of my boy. Still, I couldn’t see myself in him, his mother for that matter either.

On cue, Jenn tapped me on the shoulder from her perch behind me on the orange recliner. “Take a look at these.”

“Hmm? What?” I asked, woken out of my reverie. “Oh,” and I collected a portfolio she had handed me.

“School pictures.”

I slid the photos from their sheath, and there was Cayde’s face in multiplicate, matte and frozen in smile.

“Doesn’t he look like my dad?” Jenn asked. “Like young pictures of him,” she elaborated.

“I dunno,” I said, squinting. “I was just wondering that I don’t know who Cayde looks like anymore.”

Cayde looked up from his screen, face still illuminated in silver light, and deftly held up his hands between philtrum and his chin. “From here to here, I look like Mommy,” he announced, before returning to finish his Spanish.

His self-awareness is sudden relief and once he closes the laptop, the light-show turned off so that there’s just the nothingness of the window behind him, I in part recognize him again, and he looks up at me which are my eyes, surely; headlamps are passing vagaries in the street and Cayde is occasionally silhouetted, and we look at each other with shared eyes and I slide the school pictures slowly back into their sheath.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Think, Feel, Behave.

“Coach, two,” I say to John who’s barking at his boys in a Ugandan accent. He nods assent while I toss him deuces.

I sit against the chain-link behind Cayde who’s the itinerant goalie, pink shoes and leather gloves.

Cayde glances at me, then returns to the game, which—considering the practice lot’s vicinity to the street—is really just a keep-away game from the cars. He tugs at the thumb of his left glove with front teeth and readies himself for another drive.

“NOW NOW NOW!” and Coach John urges his mid-fielders forward toward Cayde’s cage. There’s the inimitable sound of a ball being punted, then the sound of Cayde crashing to the grass with an <oomph> having deftly caught it.

“Alright, Cayde. Let’s go. End on a good one.”

I shake the coach’s hand.

“Gotta pull him early, Coach.”

“Awight. YOU GO GOOD.” Coach has no volume button. I’m being instructed to leave early, well, though I asked permission. Story of my life. I have a deck of cards in one pocket, a pen in the other.

I show Cayden to the car, which is parked to the side.

“Where are we going?”

“Not sure yet.”

We drive.

“Why’d you cut seventh period, Cayde? And why’d you destroy your phone?”

(This is all my fault).

“I dunno. BUT they were the worst mistakes I ever did.”

There’s a green light on 30th, so I turn. I know about worst mistakes, so I take pause while the intersection clears.

“Lemme get this straight: you like photo class, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Why ditch it?”

“They’re only talking about how cameras are made and boring stuff.”

“Oh.”

I look at Cayde and smile.

“That’s not boring stuff, y’know.”

The lights on University are Green and we circle aimlessly, like the universe is telling me to ‘go’ but I don’t know exactly where. It’s six p.m. and most the reputable coffee shops are closed.

I clear my throat.

“My friend Brad teaches photography, and the first thing he teaches his students to do is to make a camera out of a Quaker Oat box.” I downshift and park.

We exit the car.

“You see, Cayde,” I say, as we leave the car tick-ticking its heat, “It’s not about the instrument. It’s about YOU.”

We’re in front of the North Park Observatory, where Cayde and I saw one of our first shows. A Starbucks is built into its lobby. We’re going to Starbucks.

“Whaddya mean?”

“I’ll tell you. First you tell me why you destroyed your phone. Then we can talk.”

(A note about the Observatory: I took Cayden here when he was ten. Phantogram show. He was excited to be with his Dad. I remembered a TV episode from years back—Black Sheep Squadron—and, TV lieutenant to Major Pappy Boyington: TJ told Pappy he was unsure if he loved his dad, that it was getting in the way of his flying. Pappy told TJ that it was ok if he didn’t love his dad. Hearing that, TJ could fly again.

‘Love you, Kid—Jeezus, just settle down.’ And Phantogram came on, and we struggled to the midsection; Cayde fell asleep on my shoulder while the amplifiers played in clip, and I thought, ‘Fucking TJ. Just love your Dad already.’ Me and Cayde walked home, and Cayde narrated the entire walk back to make me remember why I’m a Dad , and why it is that he will never ever be a TJ).

“Why’d you break your phone?”
“I was angry,” we are dealing gin rummy over a hot chocolate and an Americano. We have met the barista. His name is Tomaso. I instruct Cayden to always introduce yourself to your ‘server’.

(“They’re not your ‘server’, Cayde,” scratching my beard, “You have no idea what they might be outside of serving you a drink or a movie ticket or your groceries. Introduce yourself, always. ALWAYS know their name.”)

“I was angry. It was stupid.”

“Thoughts become feelings become actions, Dude. I know it. You gotta stop at the ‘thoughts/feelings’ part.”

We play gin. The rhythm of the game allows me time to think. Cayde’s gotten pretty good, so I have a worthy partner. ‘Bout being a Dad? You make this shit up as you go, and no matter how smart you are, you need time on the ropes to wipe the blood off your face.

“I’m sorry you….”

Cayde lays down ten cards. “Beat you, Daddy!”

I have no time to finish.

“Yes. Yes, you did.” I swipe up the cards.

I quietly lay a pen down on the table. “What’s this, Cayde?”

“A pen.”

“What does it do?”

“It writes things and makes essays and stuff.”

I shake my head.

“Try again.”

“It writes?”

I shake my head again while I replace the pen in my front pocket.

“It does nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

I re-shuffle the cards, and my Americano is getting cold.

“It does nothing. It sits in the goddamn store until someone buys it and uses it. THEN it means something. It’s why you probably shouldn’t have destroyed your phone; there’s a nice camera on there. It’s now like an unbought pen. Lemme show you something.”

It’s near eight at the Starbucks and the baristas are starting to stack chairs and express steam from the machines. The neon lights have come on.

I walk Cayden across the store.

“Look at our coffee cups.”

“OK.”

“Gonna teach you something. ‘Taught this in New Orleans. Look at our coffee cups. OK? Now let’s walk across the store and look at them again. They’re different, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s walk here.”

“They’re different again.”

“Exactly. Now if I had a pen or a camera, I would take either which one and *note* how things are different while staying the same. I haven’t moved my coffee cup, but it looks different because we’re looking at it from a different angle.”

“…”

“Tomaso is cleaning up the floor. What color is his apron?”

“Green.”

“How does that make you feel?”

“Green?”

“No—gimme a word that describes green.”

“Plants.”

“His apron is not a plant, but you called it a plant. That’s metaphor, and we’ve just seen how things can look depending on where you sit in the room.”

“Yeah!”

And I point to his forehead.

“That’s your brain working, Kid. Nothing in this room has changed, except that we’ve moved around it. Good thing I’ve got a pen to write it all down: the simplest, stupidest of all things.

“Don’t wreck your camera. It’s got worth, Dude. Learn how it works, but learn how better to work it. ‘S all important, every part of it. And—seriously—Think. Feel. Behave. In that order.”

I’ve not entirely lost Cayden at this point, though I’m in part talking to myself. We close out the Starbucks and we hold hands on the way to the car, cards neatly tucked away into my pocket.

Think. Feel. Behave. Think. Feel. Behave. Ad infinitum.

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Gunslinger

goodGunslinger night.

Cayde and I just watched the rocket launch out of Vandeberg and have a date to play a few rounds of 7-card before bed. I never ‘let’ him win.

“Is there a strategy to this game?” Cayden asked me one time.

“Yeah, Kid. I’m using it right now, and you’re not gonna win until you figure out what it is I’m doing. By the way, I know you have a seven in your hand so don’t count on me giving up my eight.”

Hard-knocks.

I think back to when Cayde and I used to play Connect-Four; Cayde was maybe five. Cayde would stick his tongue out and make the wrong Tetris time and again—we’d pull the lever and make the chips clatter to the tabletop.  Then, we’d reset and repeat.

I remember the first time he beat me at my own game, having finally learned to think at least two moves ahead (and play a diagonal board, dammit). Could’ve been embarrassing to lose to a kindergartner, but instead I was really proud.

“Let’s go get some food before we play tonight,” the rocket launch fading into the chambre sky, lights muted by a column of clouds.

We stop at the taco truck after stopping at the mom n’ pop for some graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate.

“Dude—the taco diablo,” I say to the cook who’s leaning his head out the window, “’S spicy shrimp?”

“Yes, my friend: spring mix, cabbage, mozza, shrimp and pico.”

“How spicy is spicy?”

“Whatchoo want, one to ten?” I pause, so he just answers for me: “I give you a four.”

“Whoa, whoa—before we agree, whaddya use for spice?”

“Oh—there’s a spicy salsa on the side.”

“No, no—what makes your shrimp a 1-10?”

“Oooh,” he smiles—“Habañero, my friend.”

“Let’s make it a five to start then,” and we give knucks.

Cayde and I make rangetop S’mores when we get home, and I attempt the taco.

It’s a weak five, the cook having buried the shrimp in mozza to suppress the heat.

I return to the truck, Morricone music faintly playing in the background.

The cook smiles and leans his head out the window again, like Frank Morgan peering out the Emerald Gateway in Wizard of Oz.

“Heey—you’re back my Friend.”

“Dude—the taco was excellent, but sling me a nine at least. Less cheese.”

I pass the test: he smiles, retreats to his rangetop, and starts making me some real shit.

“There you go, my Friend,” he passes me a nicely wrapped tortilla. “I’ll see you next week.”

I love cooks—you just gotta know how to play their game.

“Alright, Cayden,” I say dealing the cards. “Didja figure it out yet? The strategy?” We play through half the deck before I gracefully play a five-card straight and lop-side the scoreboard, 100-10. Cayde twists his mouth. I re-deal.

“I go first, Kid,” and I start the game with trip fours. The game goes back and forth and I’ve got some kings and aces in my hand, am looking to go out with a flourish, like the rocket from Vandever, which earlier had sparked brightly in the sky before sneakily appearing further south on the skyline.

Cayde has seven cards in his hand, and I have five—he looks consternated and pretends to be frustrated at the discard pile. I just need an ace to run away with this one.

Cayde pulls a card, frowns. He rearranges the cards in his hand as if rethinking his straights and trips. Morricone music plays again. He discards a three and—just as I’m about to pick up a fresh card—he says: “Hold on, Daddy.”

He lays down a straight and a trip at once, depleting his hand. Like we were playing gin rummy versus seven-card. Card shark shit.

“You have aces in your hand, Daddy.”

I let my hand crumble to the carpet. Two aces, two kings. I’m down fifty points immediately.

Cayden smirks, and I’m proud as can be. He not only swept the leg, he guessed my hand.

“Nice job, Kid.”

<exeunt>

 

 

 

 

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Eleven

It was bound to happen. My long-standing title of ‘Daddy’ has shed a few letters, and now I’m simply ‘Dad.’ I’m lucky: I existed as ‘Daddy’ up till now, right up to the moment Cayde wiped his feet on middle-school’s doormat a month ago and started speaking the new slang. I can forever be Daddy in my heart, but—if I am to call Cayde to breakfast, or invite him to play a game—I’ll from now on be met with, “OK, Dad.”

“I’m feeling nostalgic, lately,” I told my old therapist Patricia. She smiled and nodded over the rim of a coffee cup.

“That’s nice. It’s a golden sentiment.”

I disagreed with her choice of crayon; nostalgia is not gold, it’s sepia. As in a faded photograph.

“Well—no, Patricia.” And I scratched my head while looking at the carpet. ‘Nostalgia’ literally means ‘the sadness of returning home’ and I feel it all the goddamn time.” I demand concision with words: nostalgia is bittersweet, like a fine chocolate that nonetheless discomforts the palate.

“I never knew that,” Patricia said, her own cup of bitter suddenly metaphor in a room where I was sad and happy at once. Nostalgia is an ambivalent emotion, the palate divided.

It’s Cayde’s eleventh birthday today. My kid, my first-born. I do feel nostalgic, but I’m preferring the photographs I have in memory, their substance and not their sepia tone.

I always think to a moment I had with him when he was three. We were sitting on the playground structure and I pointed out the Children’s Moon—the moon that’s awake in the daytime.

“That’s for us, and when you get older you’ll see the moon at nighttime.”

So many memories of my Boy, all of which I’ve written down. I’m no longer Daddy, the Children’s Moon is no longer the only lunar presence, and may my current sepia be his forever golden. I love you Cayden. All my writings belong to you. May you treasure them.

 

 

 

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Memento Mori

When driving through University Heights today, I ventured past the Buddha Bookstore, which I used to frequent when living on Florida St. The store is a Far-East curio with teakwood furniture and cathedral relics lining its walls. Assorted glass cabinets display ornamenture and jewelry, porcelain elephants and monkeywood sculptures. Hardtack tables sit clothed in damask.

On occasion, I’d purchase items from here: a birdcage or an altarpiece, something to pair with the orchids I grew in my apartment living room. I was always greeted handily, though my purchases were small. One day, near store closing, a bracelet caught my eye. It was a simple piece, a series of ¼” teakwood skulls strung on an elastic band. My mother-in-law had just passed, so I felt the bracelet would be a fitting memento mori.

“Can I see this bracelet?” I asked the lady behind the counter. She walked over, smiling an ‘of course’, and attempted to open the cabinet with a set of keys. None of the keys worked, and—flustered—she confessed, “I don’t have keys to everything. I’m closing for the owner tonight. If you check in tomorrow, I’m sure she can help.”

I returned the following morning to be greeted by a spry, red-haired woman who instantly asked me if I needed assistance.

“I came back to buy a bracelet today,” I replied. “The cabinet was locked last night and I couldn’t buy it then.”

“Oh,” the lady frowned, “Which bracelet?” and I pointed to the skulls behind the curio glass.

The red-haired lady twisted her lips, and said, “Oh. Hmm.”

After a pause, she said: “I just promised that to a woman that came through a half-hour ago. Who did you talk to last night?” She was visibly uncomfortable.

I described the lady I had spoken with, her close-cropped hair and be-jangled wrists.

“Oh,” the owner said. Incense smoke curled upward from its burner, various Buddhas smiled down from their cabinet perches.

“Oh.”

“…”

The red-haired lady unlocked the cabinet and handed me the bracelet.

“Here,” and she placed the bracelet in my palm while holding my wrist with her free hand. She looked me in the eye and lowered her voice.

“It’s yours. The lady that spoke to you died last night. If she promised it to you, then it’s yours.”
I whispered a ‘thank you’ and slid the bracelet onto my wrist. Memento mori. The red-haired lady mustered a smile and opened her mouth as if to say something. She decided against words, and primly turned away while the doors chimed in a new customer.

I still have the bracelet—the skulls at least. The elastic band snapped one day and teakwood heads rolled on the floor like a clattering of marbles. I fastidiously picked them all up and sealed them into a Zip-Loc bag, which I now keep in a dresser drawer. How tenuous everything, skulls wrapped in flesh and hair and fragility, we made to be unmade, this the final truth.

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Tic

Early in his career, Dr. Oliver Sacks treated a patient with Tourette’s Syndrome. The patient–let’s call him Brian–was afflicted with both physical and verbal tics. Brian had difficulties holding a job, and didn’t fare well socially. He, however, had minimal success as both a table-tennis player and part-time jazz drummer. When playing ping-pong, he’d tic and manage unexpected shots that his opponents couldn’t return. Similarly, when he was behind a drum kit, Brian would spasm, hit a hi-hat unexpectedly, else suddenly change meter on the snare; he would have to improvise off his “mistakes” and dynamically shift his fellow players into different and sublimative direction.


Dr. Sacks treated Brian with L-Dopa, the same drug he used with Parkinson’s patients. L-Dopa served to manage the tics and Brian was able to find gainful employment, maintain social relationships. Still, Brian lamented, his table tennis game was mediocre, his jazz drumming flatter. Wistfully, he missed his disease and its overcompensations. He felt he was missing part of himself.


Dr. Sacks adjusted his treatment. Brian was allowed to come off his drug on weekends so that he could tic again, and relinquish his jazz drumming, table-tennis playing other life. During the week, he would return to L-Dopa so that he could function at his job and operate normally.


I related Brian’s story during therapy this week. I’m bipolar, so take prescribed medication to mediate the too-highs, the too-lows. I wish to God I was unipolar, with only mania to address, but I’m not. My highs are paired with lows; sometimes I’m so happy, I climb atop the roof to be closer to the stars. Sometimes I’m so low, the stars extinguish themselves behind closed eyelids and I’m prone for hours, days. I can’t do part-time medication and I have to face the fact that I’m willfully taking pills to prohibit me from mania, my ultimate undistilled happiness. It’s a cruel joke that my best happiness exists in psychosis, but it is what it is. Time to improvise better on the jazz drum, to fashion a new shot with the table tennis paddle. I can do this.

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Sober Sunday

I’ve reclaimed Sundays for myself, which is a long forgotten pasttime. Years ago, Sundays meant itchy wool sweaters and choke-neck ties, church pews and the smell of bergamot and stale coffee. Now I prefer urban jaunts where communion is a bowl of spicy noodles; where church exists in the crosswalks and coffee shops; where sky is the only cathedral ceiling I need.
I attended a meeting today up at Twiggs, then drove across town to North Park Nursery. There was a sad selection--could’ve depressed me because to see the nursery so bare hints at inevitable closure–but I bought some upright Mother-in-law tongues to match my posture. It’s important to stay upright when there can otherwise be an overwhelming and existential sag: it’s proof of resilience, of acceptance over exception when meeting life on life’s terms.
I’ve yet to transplant the Sanseviera, but it sits next to my guitars and typewriter. It’s Sunday, I’m sober, and church is what it is: the accumulation of moments experienced mindfully, a sunny day, and the over-arcing realization that I ultimately am a part of all this.

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What is Real and What is Not (unfinished vignette)

“I just pretend it’s not real,” Josh says. “I mean it’s not my family. It’s not my girls.”

The chaparral is flaxen in color. The spring has already been glaringly unkind and things are not green. There’s dry grass and the backdrop of boulders, both very present as we sit in our lawn chairs on an Easter afternoon.

Grasses hollow as they dry, becoming insubstantial straw; boulders meanwhile exemplify what’s solid.

Just ten years ago, within the same landscape of granite, my aunt’s fruit tree drooped with limes and the society garlic gave up onion blossoms. The surrounding hills were verdant and we exploded the suburban lawnscapes with teenage abandon, wielding guns and guitars while playing music loud.  Now we are tame in comparison, and have kids of our own.

Earlier in the day, the kids held an Easter egg hunt, scaling the trees and bending the shrubs in anarchic joy. My eldest, Cayden, dangled from a tree limb, having found the Golden Egg.

“I found it, Daddy! I got it,” and I held my breath, hoping he wouldn’t fall.

“The guy was, like, fetal,” Josh says. He cracks a beer and sets it aside.

Josh hits the marks of ‘tall, dark, and handsome’. He’s my cousin’s husband, clean-cut and athletic with angled jaw and high sculpted cheekbones, something of laconic. He works for the California Highway Patrol.

“He was just curled under the dashboard, like he was asleep.”

Josh doesn’t even blink. There are boulders behind him as backdrop, and we adjust our chairs to get out of the sun.

I ask: “How do you deal with it all?”

Josh shrugs.

“It’s not real. Well, when there’s kids involved it’s more real, I guess.”

He pauses. The guy, fetal, beneath the dashboard, crashed himself into an apostrophic position, beneath the ignition block. The guy actually crashed twice, the second collision relegating him to a mortal trifold.

Josh talks at length: “I don’t think about it. I mean, the accident happens at 2 a.m. and I have to pick brains off the road.” And he says this all, nonplussed, while the kids celebrate their brimming Easter baskets and wrestle in the grass.

“I’m surprised at how cold the brains are—I have gloves and all, but I can still feel how cold it is, you know. There are body parts everywhere.

“Then the sun comes up and the crows start picking at the brains on the roadside, and there’s a piece of skull in the middle of the highway.”

We collectively blanch. The kids are  meanwhile laughing among the geraniums and trading candies.

“But you know the one thing that bothers me? The one thing—the only thing–that gets to me?  There’s a slug, suddenly a fucking slug, crawling across that piece of skull in the middle of the road. And I ask: ‘Why is there a fucking slug in the middle of the road in broad daylight?’”

________________________

 

I won’t forget. My dad and I were in the kitchen and a vat of stock was coming to a simmer. I was teaching my dad how to make chicken soup: sustenance stuff.

Earlier in the day, there had been conversation in the living room. A shooting had occurred—on any day there’s a shooting—but this one triggered discussion. I think it was when Gabrielle Giffords got shot outside the Tucson Safeway. The topic ventured from gun violence to  war.

My dad—he was an OR tech in Vietnam, and not a field soldier. He was always and safely behind cyclone wire so far as the story goes, always in triage, never in the jungle. When he arrived at his station, it was Christmas and celebratory firecrackers syncopated the night air. Carols played from within the base’s breeze-block hallways, but, beyond the fenceline, there were sounds of gun-pops.

Explosions can be confusing. What constitutes a firework versus gunfire is probably a matter of semantics. It’s all saltpeter, just with different intent.

“You weren’t ever in the bush, right Dad?” I asked amid conversation.

I’d only heard stories about him being a doctor to the American soldiers but never shoulder with them in the bivouacs. He talked about white phosphorous burns and brain surgeries; operating rooms behind reinforced walls; refrigerated sheds where amputated limbs were kept. Still, he said nothing about the uncertain jungle, which was decidedly, probably, worse.

My dad cleared his throat in a two-note fashion, looked down.

“Well, we all had our turn in the bush.”

I never knew this, he had never said as much, and I felt awful seeing his eyes go unseeing for a minute.

My youngest, Finn, is the one kid in the family who shares my dad’s blue eyes. His eyes are constellations of sorts, blue with pixellations of white. They’ve not seen much; Finn is four. My dad’s eyes are lighter, clearer, but years older and endure the recess of having seen more.

I love my dad, so don’t press him to elaborate. Later, though, we’re in the kitchen making soup. We’re at that point in the stock-making process where we have to skim and clarify the pot of liquid, rid the bones and spent onion peels. A soggy sachet d’epice barely skates the surface, the thyme leaves separating from the stems.

I don’t ask: “What did you see?” That would’ve been inappropriate.

I’ve had eye surgeries, awake, and I have memories of needles inside my eyeballs. These are things I’ve seen, but anesthetically; things I’ve seen that are procedural, and traumatic in only a very local fashion. They’re not events that happened outside the aqueous humor of my eyes, but in it. How we see things is different.

I settle on asking: “What’d you feel, Dad?”

He pauses, says finally, sighing and placing a spoon on the range-top porcelain. : “I dunno.”

He looks up, has his own skull stories. “I was scared.”

Dropping to a whisper, and with things suddenly and incontrovertibly  real, he says: “I was very, very scared.”

 

 

 

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Starlings in the Slipstream

Outside the Store, cowbirds and starlings dot the pavement, scavenging crumbs as they would other birds’ nests, ekeing out existence as robbers and cowards.

The starling was introduced into North America by a courtier of the English language, a patron of the arts who released two of every bird mentioned in Shakespearean language into Central Park as homage to the quill. The starlings proliferated and flew in murmurations across the country, gathering in numbers, thieving nests as they went.

And now they’re on the patio outside where, against better judgement, I toss them shreds of tortilla and watch as they look at me expectantly with varied colors of eyes.

“What do you have for me?”

“Are you my friend?”

And they’ll probably fly away with sated belly to fight a mockingbird—and you don’t fuck with mockingbirds—but they’ll do it anyway, just evolutionary subsistence and existence, the two sometimes being the same.

In the canyon, in the morning, I wait for the woodpecker to announce itself, rapping its head against the eucalyptus; I also watch the crows and wait for the hummingbirds. I’m depressed. I’m at the nadir of my bipolarity and I’m waiting for the lift, which is an exercise in patience, just like watching birds.

I’ve tried to describe this, but words fail, so I throw my tortilla crumbs to thieves and watch their rapid eyes dart as if in some cautious thankfulness.

What is wrong with me? I commune with the crows and the alley cats on my daily walks, hug the plants. I have made friends with the homeless people I meet, crouching down to talk to them, listening to their stories while they wait for sunshine and for the stores to open. My friend Doug—he says—I look better, right? And he gestures to his beard which actually is trimmed smarter than mine, and I give him knucks and we pore over the morning paper.

The other day I found Doug crying, and it wasn’t because of his situation or his friends downtown (which he’s told me in detail about), but because National City is now passing out carts to homeless people so there’s no more necessary thievery of grocery carts downtown, so that starlings of people can stop robbing Vons and Ralph’s of their carriages, and he reads this all in the morning paper. He offers to buy me a steak with his EBT. He is a good man.

I’m depressed. Doug points out the G7 conference on A-1, and I blanch. It’s hard for me to deal in this new world, and someone so used to Orwell, Huxley, DeLillo, and Wallace.

The can collector on 31st offers me a good morning and I’m happy to oblige a return. His life is harder than mine. He asks for a light, and I have some matches from Doug. The guy opens an Altoids can to demonstrate some effeminately-wrapped joints, and I light one for him as he roots around the cannisters. We all need our comfort.

Starlings in the slipstream. Starlings like a daydream. We can all exist and subsist and all at once. Love each other. Be thieves of love and murmurating participants in a bustle of wings. Love, and love.

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Theory of the Crows

crowsSitting in the canyon watching the crows find the bare branches to perch, And it reminds me everyday of the crow that found sill on my younger son’s birthday, it leaving a feather outside the window while we received his diagnosis.

There’s the theory of the crows, and that they’re harbingers of something, collectively called a murder. Black, and it’s how I felt on Finn’s birthday, as if I offered up bad seed, as if I did something wrong.

There’s free-floating guilt, and I have a lot. Continuous performance, a continuous fight against genetic inheritance. My mind is both vacuous and busy at once and if I could edit the sad parts.

Finn was born six years ago. On the radio, on NPR, they were reporting about genetic testing, the new eugenics, and I punched the ‘off’ button. Truth is, as hard as the crow tried to deliver an omen, I birthed a unicorn.

My baby’s six years old now, my beautiful child.

This lady comes into my aisle—Jane—and she has with her a boy with Trisomy 21.

“I have an angel, too,” I say, and I’ve forgotten I’ve already told her so.

“Finn, right?”

“Yes—he’s six today!”

Jane’s son reminds me of Finn because, opposite his diagnosis, he’s long and lean. He’s tall for his age, yet wears spectacles. I’ve not seen him smile yet, which I’m sure he does, but he follows his mother like a rooster child. He’s beautiful and we shake hands.

I cherish beauty, more than anything else. I want to die of Stendahl’s Syndrome. My son—he provides. He wanders into our bed most nights come 2 a.m. and sleeps next to Momma. Almond eyes closed shut and thin flaxen hair. Blond eyelashes and long froggish legs always kicking against nothing in particular. Like I tell Jane: ‘he is my angel.’ Just no wings, curiously pumping feet, and a thumb resolutely stuck in mouth.

“I love you, Finn,” I say all the time. I watch the crows that don’t affect me anymore save for their raucous cries and curious behavior. I watch tem and don’t mind if they leave me a black feather. They are harbingers of nothing, just curious like my boy. I want them in my life, spread-winged and beautiful. Black angels in the eucalyptus trees.

Black angels, bad seeds: all of this my projection on things wherein life is otherwise perfect. Finn has taught me a lot. Six years old and magisterial.

I love you Finn. Happy birthday. Happy birthday.