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Gnatcatcher Fighting Himself

I’ve been obsessed with this nesting gnatcatcher that has declared war on himself in the side-yard. It’s said a good daily exercise is to look in the mirror and challenge yourself to say, ‘I love you.’ The gnatcatcher deplores his reflection—he finds it in the chrome hubcap of my car and expends way too much energy fighting it. I hear him tink-tink flurrying himself at the hubcap, striking the reflection with his bill and outstretched wings. He gets knocked backwards, does it again. Ruffles his feathers, then rears at his visage ten more times before letting up.

It used to be I did the same thing. “April,” TS Eliot said, “Is the cruelest month.” And I’m not inclined to disagree because April has historically been hard for me, but May always seemed the drop-weight of the calendar, a plunging anchor right about mid-year when the gray sets in in San Diego and when—during my Penguin Years—the lights would lower in an eventual return to Antarctic darkness.

I’m better now.

But it would get so that my blood would hurt mid-year, and I’d be spinning off into depression after the manic months of February and March. I’d look into the figurative hubcap and fight my own reflection. I’d go radio-static.

FB memories is an interesting tool for me to gauge my mental health. Like in Memento, where the protagonist would tattoo himself daily to remember his day, I write down my stories to placehold a time, to memorialize the days and months. I’m very purposeful on social media: all these stories, these songs, have reason behind them. And when the memories appear on FB, I quietly measure my mental health against old cycles. This may seem overthinking things, but it’s really a good tool concerning self-awareness. Sometimes I don’t know I’m manic until I’m in it; sometimes I don’t spot a depression looming until I see my annual tendency toward radio staticity.

But, again, I’m better. I’m not the gnatcatcher fighting his reflection, nor have April nor May been cruel to me. I currently revel in the light rain that accompanies my morning walks and remark the blooms, which are mine alone at 5 in the morning. I am serene. I am content. I am opposite the bird who sees himself and expresses his discontent. May this continue.

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Lent by God and Gardeners

On one of my walks this week, I saw an astroturf lawn being watered by a sprinkler, and briefly I thought I was in Los Angeles. AA Gill wrote that in LA, everything is “[l]ow creeping faux family friendly, built in a vernacular of amateur whim and sentimental detail, patched onto functional boxes with occasional touches of eccentricity.” He continues to say that “the major architectural direction is lent by God and gardeners”, and that “the overall sense is of hasty impermanence, a city thrown up on a whim while they thought of something serious to put in its place.”

But North Park is not Los Angeles. Excepting the sprinkler watering refined, green plastic (in actuality also watering a bed of blooming and triumphant agapanthas), North Park is more like Pasadena with its vintage Craftsman homes, gables, and porches.

I pause in front of poet Maggie Jaffe’s old house on Granada, the one that used to be hemmed in by deep hedgerows and planted with citrus. Many nights I spent there with sheafs of letters and poetry, itinerant scotch, and the company of compatriots, every room in the two story house lined with books, every room potential for a Mary Shelley-style soiree, writers retiring to individual spaces to pen their novels and craft their poems, inspired by bound novels and carefully selected furniture. Now the house is naked and without greenery, a seemingly disused basketball hoop perched on a dead lawn, a sign saying ‘in escrow.’ Memories.

There is a crow that rides the spokes of an abandoned bicycle, with a flutter of wings circuitously jumping the rear hub, centrifugal, turning circles on the wheel in corvid enjoyment while the city wakes up, a low sun reflecting off eastern clouds and turning the palms golden. The squirrels in urban rodent fashion trace the telephone wires with tails flicking; they grip the cables and chatter at every passerby, chastisement of the less arboreal. They are responsible for all the broken fruits on the pavement and somehow survive the buzzing power lines while practicing their thieveries, scrabbling from wire to tree, tree to wire and, with scratches of nails, bursting across the pavement in mad scrambles.

A woman in a blue parka walks a bloodhound who’s snuffling the pavement looking for urban truffles. His ears drag through puddles from the morning rain, nose working overtime in houndian fashion, eyes down , tail pumping happy else intrigued by the smells invigorated by the brief rainfall. “Good morning, Pupaloo,” I say because I say good morning to all the animals when I walk like some modern day St. Francis—the people too-because for us early-risers, there is something special about the dawn and why we’re awake when everyone else has yet to percolate their coffees and toast their bagels.

I recognize all the buses now as they vacuum up their early patrons, accordion buses with whooshes of air brakes to interrupt the cloisters of bus stop culture, disparate peoples surrounding benches and smoking their first cigarettes, drinking cuppas while they wait. Nomad Donuts where the patisseriers are rolling the first crullers, down to a sleeping Carnitas’ where I met my friend Sara with her culinary tattoos, where when I was down one day and where the sign proclaimed, ‘Sold Out’, I still got foie gras poutine and a smile.

Past Influx where Holly walks out and says, “Good Morning, Thom,” and she opens the Qwik Stop for me and I help her grab items from atop high shelves and unload groceries from her truck.

A sit outside of Alexander’s where they still feature the walnut gorgonzola pasta that Jenn and I shared on our first Valentine’s Day in North Park, pregnant with Cayden. The Lynhurst, the North Parker, Saguaro’s, Paesano’s, St. Pat’s and St. Luke’s in quick succession, Pigment with blades of mother-in-law tongue in the front window, the army surplus building, the bridal boutique and the Ray St. galleries. All these places, all the memories that I have—a decade’s worth—living in a city where I know everyone by name, my peripatetic wanderings past the edifices and storefronts, the gardens and gables. All this: my North Park, and—like the crow riding the spokes of the abandoned LimeBike—I turn circles in the morning, round and round the neighborhood enjoying enjoying my home.

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When a Bee Sees a Flower, Legs Ready

My order is wrong, but I don’t exactly mind. I always order the tonkatsu with double dumplings, which at this point is an extravagance for me. You work with animals long enough, you start residing in the right-hand section of the grocery store longer than you used to, actually remarking the leeks and the raddichio with a reverance once reserved for the particular marbling in a ribeye or cullotte. You start to understand sentience, and even as sentience is extended fastly to plants (!), it just feels better having flesh be something you scoop from an avocado. Julia is the night manager at the ramen house, and she tells the nearby server: “I was expecting the ruckus anarchism tonight.” In between slurps of noodles (down a few dumplings), I can’t help but quip, “Excuse me Julia, did you not notice my particular ruckusness? I’m currently ruining your establishment as we speak.” I’m sitting and enjoying the lava stone fires, and she laughs as I rearrange my chopsticks, my bookbag contents spread around me. I DID have two ladlings of ghost chile sauce in my bowl, so there’s some whiff of mischief. I work on the egg–it’s really sweet–and experienced in eggery, I know there has been some kitchen mischief as well. Trick#1: braise the egg in soy and brown sugar, crack the shell with back of a spoon mid-simmer, and let the egg absorb both salt and saccharine. Madhur Jaffery, who cooked James Beards’ hospice meals threw in rosemary as good and strange measure; also shiaoxing. Trick #2: slow-poach the egg in its shell–takes twenty minutes at sous-vide temp–then rest the egg in a marinade. Either way, you get an egg you won’t find at Denny’s. If you think about it, the drive-in, diner shit is a hundred years old; global cuisine is much older. Michael Pollan makes a point: eat Old World stuff. Tomatoes and olive oil, as example. Basis of Mediterranean food culture–the combination of ingredients are symbiotic, meaning one ingredient heightens the other in health benefit. It took a co-evolution of plants and people to figure this out, which is why Old World food is better.
I push aside my bowl–too much meat in it. I’m at a corner stool, and Julia is still floating around, tamping down the apparent ruckus that has yet to demonstrate itself. I ask for the check, and I thank her. “Hey–first full meal in a while.” She smiles, “You fasting?” I look down at myself, then back at her. “No,” I laugh. “It’s just been a rough week, so thank you. It’s actually been a fantastic day.” I draw from my reserves and from how I thoughtfully cook as a philosophical thing. “Julia I’m great,” I say. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and I know that you are what you eat. The bill comes back, and it’s a fraction of what I owe. I tip big and duck away. Julia writes me a note on the receipt, which I tuck into my pocket, and I smile at her on the way out.
Tomatoes make EVOO healthier, vice versa. There is the mutualism of butterflies and plants. There is echanged acknowledgement, like when a bee sees a flower, legs ready.

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Duchenne Smile

“Oh, is this your bench?” she apologizes, and I poo-poo her.

“It’s not MY bench, perse, I just like to sit here. Please don’t leave on my account.” I thumb back to my right. “There’s also an Adirondack chair around the corner in the weeds where I can sit for a spell.”

She has dramatic eyes: orange and plumbago above a plain surgical mask. She is pretty, I can tell.

I pet her dog, which has the broad and intimidating head of a pittie, but is puppy-breathed sweet. Brindle with tail wagging.

“I’ve seen you,” she says.

“Oh yeah?”

“31st and Thorn, I think.”

“I’m all over this joint” I say, waving vaguely to the city, which I have fastly considered my home.

This is becoming more and more a thing: I get recognized for simply being the perambulist of Altadena, the outskirts of North Park. I have made so many instant friends, it’s crazy.

“What’s your name?”

“Pam.”

“Nice to meet you, Pam,” and we don’t shake hands because we’re mummified in masks and decorum., but she smiles.

A Duchenne smile has two components: a contraction of the zygomatic major muscle, which raises the corner of the mouth; and an elsewhere contraction of the orbicularis oculi muscle, which results in crow’s feet.

Pam’s smile meets the Duchenne requisite: the orange and plumbago make a sunset out of her eyes. Though I can’t see her mouth, I know she’s grinning.

There’s an opposite, you know: the Pan Am smile, which involves the zygomatic muscles only. You know who showcases this grin? Beleagured flight attendants, threatened chimpanzees, and Botoxed out injectees.

A chalk drawing outside the Art Studio says: ‘What if six feet and a mask made us all closer?” I love this sentiment. There’s a certain kindness these days, more ‘hellos’ and waves. Duchennes smiles for days, which you can see above masks, smiles reaching the eyes.

We’re all in this together. May your smile crest the edge of your nosepiece, may it show in a twinkle of the eye. Blessings.

Nice to meet you, Pam.

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Convos with Chris.

Convos with Chris in the morning can be like this:

“Are you a better man today, Chris?” I ask Chris, which is our way of greeting.

“You know it, Thom.” And I get my ginger ale, and because the store is empty, we talk while leaning elbows over the counter.

“Whatcha doing this weekend?” Chris asks.

“Got some writing to do. Isaac Asimov was asked if the world were to end today, what he’d do,” and I pop the tab to the Bundaberg.

“Know what he said, Chris?”

Naw—what?”

“He said: I’d type faster.”

Chris leans back and laughs: “Got a question for you” and points. “You’re always walking and thinking,” and he gestures in a circle, “Is this, like, predetermined what you write? Like, do you figure it out, then put it on paper?”

“A little bit. I get a sentence or two, and then,” I make a swooping gesture, “It’s flow. Taking the walks is readying the flow.” There are a thousand bottles behind Chris on the shelf; I haven’t bought any.

“If I knew Braille, Chris,” I say, “I’d write with my eyes closed.”

Chris has hands that are hidden in his sleeves, but suddenly they’re out.

“Thom, it’s like video games, like, the reality ones where you have to think and build and it’s on the fly. I’ve always got a PLAN,” he emphasizes, “But there’s a point you gotta think or act on instinct or something.”

“Exactly.”

“Do you play chess?”

“Yes.”

“Me and my brother Sly play,” and Sly is the reticent son who mans the shop in the evening, hair knotted behind his head, never a forthcoming word.

“Chess is big at our house,” Chris continues, “And Sly once set up a chess board in the house and said: one move a day. He and my Dad play all the time.”

“One move a day? I like that.”

“Yeah—he’s like a mathematical genius. He said, ‘Let’s slow our play.’”

And I snap my fingers, and swig my ginger—“That’s a brilliant idea, Chris.” And for two seconds I think.

“I’m gonna do that with my Kid. He’s already beating me at cards. I can’t take the humiliation.”

Chris laughs.

“But slo-chess…I like it. What’s your favorite piece?”

“Oh—the knight. I like the ‘L’s. My dad calls the bishop ‘The Minister.’ What’s yours?”

My eyes do a chessboard, and I think to all the little men moving their moves.

“The Minister,” I say, “Like what your Dad calls him.”

Because moving fast and moving slow requires the middle, which is, as the Bishop goes, diagonal.

Chris and I knuck; at home, I set up a chessboard, magnetic, one that I inherited from my Grandpa, the pieces clicking into their starting points. Click, click.

“Cayde: I’ve got a new game.”

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Maui Rob

I met Rob in Maui where we would spend the nights in conversation beneath a frangipani tree, the night air sticky from the nearby ocean. We were both staying at a resort on the northwest side of the island where you couldn’t avoid golf courses, and where Falkland pines were the transplanted windbreaks necessary to hem in the drives from visiting tourists. The pines were foreign to the lower, more outspread plumerias; the shorn grass even moreso.

Rob may have been a golfer; I didn’t ask. He was an insurance adjustor, or at least some other bland-faced profession of small report. Rob, however, was also a meteorite hunter and this piqued my interest.

“What was your favorite rock hunt?”

“Definitely Siberia.”

This was the Chelyabinsk Meteor that was broadcast on social media five years ago, when windows exploded their sills and hundreds of people got injured from shattered earth and shattered glass. Rob was quick to take a leave of absence from his job and make a plane to the Ural Region of Siberia. The meteor had broken up in the atmosphere, meaning chunks of space rock had fallen into ‘dark flight’ after first lighting up the sky. There was a flash greater than sun, than a burst wave that pounded the ground. The meteorites fell strangely unignited into the snowfields, thousands of rocks making holes in the ice drifts.

“I holed up in a hotel, hired a bunch of locals. Took out a five-figure loan from the bank. Trick was: the local scavengers searched the divots in the snow. The holes were either made by foxes, or by meteorites. I had a line of a hundred people bringing me rocks within a day.”

We talked about this while the ocean breeze rolled in, plumeria-perfumed. It seemed almost inappropriate, to talk about harvesting the cold distillations of space while shirt collars were open and the beach nearby. I thought of all the villagers trudging through the snow in felt Valenki boots, hauling stone for Rob from Arizona. But Rob was excited about his geological wherewithal: chondrites and regmaglypts, which he explained in detail. The things you can be passionate about, but also commodify. Like, you can own space that greets the earth with aplomb, and capitalize on wayward rock. It was very confusing to enjoy his company, but I nevertheless did.

I don’t know what this post means, save for my constant ambivalence when it comes to meeting people. Everyone has a story, a zeal, which guides them, sometimes lands them some modicum of success. When not talking about space debris, Rob informed of his son who had been diagnosed depressive, had feelings of suicidal ideation, who himself was a wayward rock. We’ve all got some story: Rob was going to guide his son through the Road of Hana on the last day I spoke to him, an attempt to salve his son’s open wounds. I hope it was a good earth-bound trip.

Love each other, and find stories in one another.

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Fine Standing Still

“Dude, we suck,” I say, gripping an orange ball and glancing at the scoreboard. We haven’t broken one hundred, collectively, and we’ve only a few more frames to go. Cayde’s even requested bumpers, though he’s twelve and should be able to bowl straight enough to avoid the gutters.

But it doesn’t matter. The lane keeps breaking down, enough so that we’re now bowling for free; we munch mediocre pizza in the green light of the East Village Tavern and enjoy each other’s company.

I’ve always liked non-sports sports. Pitch, scrum, gridiron: whatever. Hand me some darts, a shuffle-puck, or a bocce ball instead. The halfways sports that are about communion over commiserate broke-body battle; I’ll take a trip-twenty over a touchdown any day of the week.

“Shuffle-puck?” Cayde agrees and we slide spinning discs over an over-fast board back and forth. Thunk. Thunk.

“Do you want more sand on the board?” the register-guy asks.

“Naw—this is kinduv fun.” It’s like dancing on a newly waxed floor. Thunk.

Eventually we get the hang of it, throwing hangers and knocking each other’s pucks off the board. We’re better at this than bowling. It’s a delicate game where restraint is key—finessing the board like a jazz drummer brushes the snare, discs caroming into certain space, spinning on their axes.

I beat Cayden handily. But he beat me on the last frame in bowling AND decimated me at gin rummy last night. ‘Never let your kid win,’ I say, ‘Let them win on their own merit.’ When they win, you win, too. I mean, in solitaire there are no high-fives.

I danced with Finn earlier this morning, in the kichen, spinning centripetal while listening to Father’s Day music. I famously can’t dance: I’m the itinerant maypole while all those dance around me. A disc spinning in place like on the shuffleboard table. Dizzy standing still.

Jenn and I went out last night to a restaurant where my friend Michael played jazz guitar, and people were whirling in close orbit, swing dancing, smiles on their faces, bows in their hair. I wish I could dance, but there is the interplay otherwise—bad bowling even—and letting others dip and sway. On this Father’s Day, I’m fine standing still.

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My Simon

“Dad, can you pick me up?” the text message read, “This is not my jam.”

This was a complete turnaround from an hour prior when, excitedly, Cayde triumphed: “This is gonna be the best birthday party ever! A bunch of sixth graders beating each other up with swords!” It even sounded fun to me: an anachronist society hosting a bunchuv of boys to ‘Lord of the Flies’ it out with cloth-covered swords and shields. I would have dug it as a kid. My cousins and I used to roam the neighborhood, after all, playing ‘guerrila warfare’ with toy guns and camo fatigues, seeking each other out in an elaborate game of hide-and-seek, replete with faux firefights and friendly snacks afterwards.

I honked the horn at the park, and Cayde came bounding over with a cup of Chex mix, barely turning over his shoulder to wave goodbye. Kids were wailing on each other with play swords in the background, ‘Tis but a flesh wound!’ and Black Knight tomfoolery.

“What’s up, Dude? Not your jam, huh?”

“Naw,” Cayde said picking through his cup to select the rye chips, “After a while it just seemed…”

“Seemed what?” I asked, pulling out of the park’s roundabout and clicking on the blinker toward home.

“Abusive.”

“Abusive?”

“Yeah—just didn’t seem right. I played for a little bit, then just sat out to watch.” He munched laconically on a Chex crisp. Cayde was not exactly bothered, but there was something nagging his heart, and I chose to let him work it out.

“I get it.”

“Just not my thing,” he repeated, which initially surprised me because he spends hours on Fortnite, with all its electronic glyphs of skins and guns and friendly combat.

There was a look in his eye, which spoke suddenly of his fast maturation, adult even, hair falling across his forehead in a weighty block. He shook the hair out of his eyes and contented himself sharing the Chex with me.

Cayde is growing up, and his empathy is growing along with his inseam. He is an itinerant non-reader, but his emotional quotient is encyclopedic.

To wit: Matthew, his non-binary friend reveres him as an ally; Isaac his Lilliputian buddy on the playground came out to him as bisexual before even whispering a word to his parents. The friends he brings over are black, Latino, girls and boys—he gets along with everybody and eschews racism with the heart of a seasoned protestor. One night at bedtime, I had to assuage him when he found out MLK’s house had been firebombed way back in the Sixties.

“How could they DO that?” he cried, “MLK’s kids were in the house.”

Cayde is sensitive to cruelty. He asks me about Gandhi, he is aware of Stonewall; he worries about the bombing in Yemen and the loss of life.

“It just didn’t seem appropriate,” Cayden summarized, thinking back to the party where kids gleefully pounded each other with sticks and played out their aggressions. “I mean,” he said polishing off the last treasure rye chip, “It’s better to be kind.”

And I reached over and patted him on the knee, my heart swelling with infinite pride, with us pulling into the driveway where no hate exists.

“Indeed, Kid.” If Lord of the Flies was the du jour, my kid was definitely Simon. Peace on, my little bodhisattva.

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Melissa

“My name’s Melissa,” they said, while wearing short shorts, a mesh jersey and a three day stubble. Melissa had descended from San Francisco, six years into a meth and drink habit after some fifteen years of sobriety. Their lover had died, and so went off the rails.

I was on my morning constitutional and listened to Melissa’s travails. The cops had harassed them the night prior, and Melissa was suffering the ordeal wandering the streets of NP at five in the morning.

“The worst part,” Melissa sniffed, “Is they kept calling me Sir. I am a transgender female. MY name is MELISSA. I am a Miss.” Melissa had dirty hands and a dirtier headwrap. They were obviously high, but I continued to listen, and acquiesced to buying them a grape soda from the corner store. (“I’m diabetic,” Melissa imparted).

Tonight, come midnight at my meeting, Melissa was there! Across town, as dirty, but also cleaner. “I just graduated from the McAllister Institute and I’m twenty days clean. I want to talk about gratitude,” Melissa said.

When I shared, I reminded Melissa that I had met them before, and that I was grateful my Higher Power acts on me and leads me to people. (I said a lot of other things, but those are reserved for the Rooms).

Melissa gazed at me, then said, “Yes, I remember—you were kind to me. I was high that day, but I remember.”

The meeting continued, then halfway through, Melissa tapped me on the knee with a grubby hand—“Hey.”

I looked up at Melissa’s myopic eyes and they whispered, “I’m leaving for Portland tomorrow, but—” and Melissa slipped a necklace off their neck bearing a ‘One More Day’ talisman, “I want you to have this to remember me by.”

I took the necklace and solemnly slipped it round my own neck. “Thank you,” I mouthed.

I left the meeting early and sat dumbly in my car for a moment before driving home. I slipped the talisman from my throat and hung it on the rear-view mirror where it caught the light of a street lamp. You never know who you’re going to meet, or when you’ll see them again.

Melissa, I’ll always remember you, and be reminded what it means to be ineffably, indefatigably kind. May you do well, and Godspeed Miss.

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Dougie

My name’s Thom, by the way.”

“Doug.”

I pass by Doug every day on my morning constitutional, and today I sat down with him to talk.

“How’s it going, Doug?”

(I give him some bus fare).

“I’ve got a job lined up. Gonna paint some lady’s bannisters. Should take me a day. I’m a painter by trade. Should earn me $200!”

“Good for you.”

Doug is homeless, circulates the Park and 30th Ave. with a neat suitcase and a fresh white ball-cap.

He tells me he’s awaiting the sun, that he’s looking forward to seeing his favorite dog come round the neighborhood. A beagle named ‘Toby’.

He tells me he was the eldest child and that he named all of his own beagles. ‘Penny’, then ‘Nickel’.

“I got so embarrassed taking them to the park. They’d get a squirrel-scent or a rabbit-scent, and then they’d take off.”

“They’re hounds, my friend—it’s what they do.”

“I’d have to run after them. I’d get so shameful.”

“No shame in running after something you love. You’re good, my friend.”