Murph and the Fata Morgana

Passing through the furthermost finger of Hospitality Point, where there are cobbled jetties populated with pelicans and cormorants, a gray whale erupts the waters and draws sudden breath.

“Do you get seasick?” Yippers asks.  He’s actually Yip—Keith Yip (though everyone refers to him as Yippers)—and he is piloting the boat.   We’re a two-boat caravan, actually: Yip and I have a pelican en tote, the boat ahead of us has three sea lions and a team of videographers from somewhere out of country.

I cock my head in a fake ‘lemme think for a sec’ but immediately reply, “I dunno.”  Truth is, I’ve never been out on the open ocean.  Harbor excursions, sure, and kayaking in the same-said point we’re now exiting, but never a venture too far beyond the breakwater or past the white buoys that bob in cautionary stop-sign fashion: ‘Now Entering the Ocean.’

This is ironic because I’ve lived on the coast all of my life and have worked at SeaWorld for half that.  Yippers registers surprise at my greenness, and he has stories about weathering violent waters in half the world’s oceans; in comparison, I just had a pretty good day, once, catching the surf at Tourmaline and landing a sunburn. Regardless of our experience gap and there being jury out on whether or not I have sea legs or—more importantly—a sea-agreeable stomach, Yip and I are on a mutual mission: we’re releasing rehabilitated animals back out into the ocean.  He’s the charge of sea lions; me, the pelican. 

There’s linguistic play here.  Sea lions are pinnipeds, which, when you boil down the Latin, means ‘feather-footed’; my pelican is obviously and fetedly plumaged. In which case, it’s a return-to-the-ocean celebration for all manners of feathered things. 

The sea lion pups: they were nursed back to health after having been rescued–debilitated and dehydrated—from San Diego shorelines; the pelican was, too, but just stubborn on return, flying back to SeaWorld often and needing a final deep-sea release to remind him of his home out and among the waves.  We named him Murph.  Because of the Law and all.

I’m not seasick upon exiting Hospitality Point, and it’s a grand gesture that a gray whale arced its back in acknowledgement.

Fifteen minutes past the wave-breaks and there being only horizon at this point—blue sky met by the denser blue of water—we cut our motors for a minute.  There’s something of a curiosity eddying the waters and we round the boats to witness.  It’s a shark—rather half of one—something dredged up from somewheres deep, floating and purple at the top of the waves.  It’s a carcass of something in the cow-shark family—neither Yippers nor I can exactly identify it—but it’s come a long way to surface seeing as it most certainly was a trench-dwelling thing.  What’s amazing is not only the fact that we came across this rarity (and quite by accident) but the play of sunshine in that aqueous moment.  The light is of remark: directly overhead and soundly noon-ish.  We can see down and beneath this open-mouthed carcass and approximately thirty-feet below the surface.   With the motors of our SW boats extinguished and us just floating, there is the lapping of water against the hulls—unmistakable in its hollow, slapping sound—and there is thirty feet of vision revealing a virtual cyclone of blue sharks swimming below.  They circle, scything tail fins cutting an underwater ballet made up of simple and practiced pirouettes.  Occasionally one breaks formation to nab at the cow-shark which is certainly done but still the conductor in all of this; the carcass gives up meat.  We remark this in wonderment because it’s nature in its most present tense and we’re accidental witnesses to it.  Yippers hauls the carcass halfway onto the boat—for a picture, at least—because in our awe we also want to document this and report back to the shark experts at the SW campus: ‘What’re we seeing exactly?’  What type of shark is this?’

We eventually leave the cow-shark to its posthumous stay atop the waters.  Our photos have been taken, our curiosity piqued, and it’s now half-past noon.  We’ve already seen a gray whale and, in a rafting moment, the spectacle of shark eating shark.  The boat plows forward and, while lurching at the bow, I repeat to myself over and over like an excited school-child: “This is amazing this is amazing…”  The salt and iodine run their negative charge, and grebes dive into the swells with red-feathered bottoms disappearing suddenly shy of the boat’s edges.  The grebes: they take advantage of the boat’s surge and pulse downwards when the boat’s wake lifts upwards.  I see bottoms of feet and the constant disappearing act the grebes manage, ducking just short of recognition before becoming a trail of bubbles, pink toes folding in accordion-fashion, green-water enveloping them.  Occasionally they surface and it’s a wide-eyed something (the boat’s very much the intruder here) and with crest feathers exaggerating their surprise, pupils pinned, they simply dive again.  It’s only a clumsy gull that actually takes to the boat’s wake, dumbly shaking its feathers and clapping its red-spotted bill.  Clap-clap.  The gull is smart and lazy all at once, certainly expecting a meal out of this, expert at looking unperturbed in the white-froth aftermath of a motor.  There are flashes of metallic fish to the sides of the boat but otherwise the ocean is calm.  The gull constantly preens its feathers in the incessant back-spray, and, in doing so, is fairly ridiculous.

Murph taps at the front of the crate with his hooked bill.  We’re almost home.  In the boat ahead of us, the sea lions bark.

The boats stop twelve miles off the coastline.  To my eye, it seems a random place to stop, because—left and right—it’s just anonymously blue.  In actuality, though (and were you to cast a weight on a mile-long string over the boat’s rig) we’re suddenly much further out than we were mere minutes before.   Below us, there’s an unexpected and precipitous drop.  The ocean space beneath our hull is now thrice as deep: there’s a trench evident by SONAR; it can otherwise be known by aid of a precisely illustrated and underwater topographical map, which we don’t have at present. This is all to say, we’re actually SOMEwhere despite an above-water feeling to the contrary.

 The gulls wheel overhead as if circling an abandoned FunYun packet left on the beach; we bob up and down, though on a very specific coordinate in the middle of a blue nothing. We’re miles away from the shoreline yet the gulls don’t seem to know it. To them: the skiff equals shore.  We don’t have fish, though, nor Fun-yuns today. 

I begin feeling a slight bit nauseous.

Motors are cut twelve miles out.  Twelve miles to the right of us is La Jolla, out of sight at present, and where I went to school; there are limestone cliffs there that run sheer on down to hidden beaches. Unlikely eucalyptus trees cap the in between ravines; there are otherwise seasonal sedges that can cut the hand in wintertime and softer springtime flashes of mustard grass and sea fig.

(La Jolla is pretty.  Some guidebooks translate ‘La Jolla’ as ‘the jewel’, which is an appropriate and tourist-friendly description.   It’s a misnomer, though: ‘la hoya’ equivalents to ‘the jewel.’   ‘La Jolla’ translates more properly as ‘The Hole’, perhaps in reference to its coves, or perhaps also to its mostly hiddenness: an oceanfront made up of reclusive pockets despite the fact of its famous mile of shoreline—public and well-visited—just north of the SeaWorld campus).

Twelve miles out, though, guidebooks don’t matter: La Jolla serves as a triangulation point, this time the easternmost one.  Usually it serves as the westernmost one, which I say only by nature of having been generally inland-bound most my San Diego life; also because I spent a lot of time on La Jolla’s cliffs looking out west to the horizon where our boats are currently staid. 

The horizon is actually only a mile distant.  There’s a simple math to this, but a math confounded by the arc of water which is big and refusedly measurable. It means I’m twelve times away from what I can see from the shore, and further out than I imagined I could be.

There’s a sudden whale-spout and Yippers and I take note.  We don’t see the exhalation, rather hear it.  I’m fighting the nausea that occurs when a boat stops.  The skiff is floating atop the waves rather than cutting through them and the loss of momentum has my stomach something of a bolo bag: bloated and certainly changing shape.  I’m without Dramamine.  

Yippers is at the wheel, my head is resting on my knees, and the whale spout sounds north and to the right of us.  We both instinctively look. 

“Lookit that, willya,” Yippers says, quietly.  We do, expecting another Grey Whale.  An exhalative cloud breaks the surface, plumed.  Then there’s another.  Two backs arc out of the ocean: leathery, smooth.  The respirative spray dissipates and seeming miles of backbone course the surface.  We are in awe as they slip at last into the ocean.  There are telltale caudal fins. 

‘Blue whales.  Those were blue whales.” Yippers whistles. It’s a moment.  My stomach, in knots, flattens briefly.  There’s a long-ness to a Blue which is an incomparable sight:  the Gray in contrast is warted, knobby and small, should you consider a school bus small; the Blue is a feat of flesh, aquiline and steel-colored.  Rivulets of water eddy about those last fins upon surfacing, telltale signs that there are twenty extra feet of caudal mass piloting some submerged tail flukes. 

This is the largest animal on the planet.  Nothing else has been as big.  When you see one, you know:  rivaling creatures fashion tar pits; there are skeletons on display in Natural History Museums.  But the Blue is big and effortlessly so.  And we’re seeing two at once.  In sheer cardiac-size, there are two VW Beetles afloat in sacks of blood and corpus pumping yards from our boat. One feels diminutive, thimble to a large and impossible embroidery. I forget my stomach.

Murph is increasingly impatient. I can see the hook of his bill through the carrier’s wire grating, poking curiously through. He’s necessarily tucked back in his nook, the encumbrance of his beak and gular pouch taking up the majority of the space, but I peer in and see his eyes, comically on either side of his narrow head, like soap bubbles halved and affixed to his face, a googly-eyed something. He doesn’t blink. The gray-brown tuft atop his cranium is erect and comical, too, a millenary mistake; it will be yellow come two years from now but at present it is a dusty color and more of a cowlick than a coif. It grazes the roof of the carrier.

“It’ll be just a few minutes,” Yip says as he rests an arm on the boat’s throttle. Across the water, camera crews—they’re from the UK, I think—are readying cameras, adjusting light diffusers and reflectors, a busyness of charcoal scrim shades and tripods, to capture the imminent release. The boat neighboring ours has three carriers, one sea lion apiece, arranged in a row at the back of the skiff. I can’t see them from where I sit, arms still wrapped around my midriff in pretend insouciance (I’m feeling every air bubble in my stomach), but I can envision their sea lion faces, vibrissae at attention and eyes all of dark soporific liquid. They are the epitome of cute, canine, with pointed faces unlike the harbor seals which also frequent these waters. Their distinctive ear flaps are nominal things, like the ends of balloons tied off, and the auricles rest back on their skulls.

Jody is Yipper’s counterpart on Boat #1, and she has donned a SeaWorld jacket and gone from contrapposto to camera-ready as the videographers give her the signal. Microphones are on point. Though we are only a few yards distant, Jody’s words are lost in the oceanic lull. Sounds are erased out here in the soundless deep. The opposite of white noise. It’s a clear afternoon, one o’ clock now, and the marine layer is non-existent. The sky is cloudless, the sea not glassy but ripe for Fata Morgana as the horizon is thermally inverted; there is a band of haze above the mile-distant water.

“Sea lions…health…why we do…best part…back into the ocean,” I catch part of Jody’s address. I know this speech: I’ve heard it many times and have experienced its import in full. Releasing healthy animals back into the ocean, back into the skies—back into whatever blue, is the best part of a rehabilitator’s job. This is my first time with pinnipeds, but I’ve let loose hundreds of pelicans; ducks; a number of gulls, egrets, and Great Blue herons. The main culprits for debilitation in my line of work are twofold, and they are opposite: savvy and lack thereof. Pelicans fill their pouches with fish and what better place to find food close to surface than at the end of a fisherman’s line. Savvy, kinduv. I’ve disentangled scads of Pelecaniformes from nylon and barbed hooks, twists of wings and pierced gulars like grotesquely knotted marionettes.  Snip-snip, scissoring wires and bolt-cutting hooks. As to the lack of savvy: the majority of pelicans that come in are juveniles who have not learned to fish, nor have found the convenience of the wharf or bait station. They plunge-dive fruitlessly, especially when the waters are warm and fish have run deep, and wind up emaciated for lack of nourishment. Two kilos sometimes—a third their weight down before becoming torpid and land-bound.  Murph is the latter. Well actually a little of both.

Murph had grown accustomed to our faces (in ‘My Fair Lady’ style). After a stint of rehab, he was released not once, not twice, but thrice–each release further away from the SeaWorld campus. And each and every time, he would stubbornly return to perch atop the outdoor pens, floppy feet slip-slapping the chain-link mesh, forever eyeballing the food trays of capelin. Let me in, let me in! He knew where to go—where to go to “diet” at least. He’d  be allowed readmission once his weight dropped enough to warrant another round of calories. Murphy’s Law: free bird doesn’t like freedom.

The moment has come. I see Jody kneel to release the pins on her pinniped carriers, so I ready myself at Murph’s. The grates swing open for the sea lions and, on cue, the pups hobble out in goofy-flippered fashion. They wriggle with their little hind ends until at skiff’s aft, then slip into the water seamlessly as if transforming instantaneously once aqua-bound. They are streamline and grace. I hope for similar grace with Murph, perhaps a winging away in low camber over the water. The pups meanwhile, take to the sea with aplomb, poking their heads above water in quick reconnaissance—a perhaps impish good-bye—then as quickly disappear. There is applause.

“OK, Murph—your turn.” Yippers looks amused, still leaning against the helm. It’s not often we take to the Trench to release birds—it’s usually sea dogs and dolphins. Murph misses his cue as I swing the gate open. He slaps his feet—once, twice—then cocks his head. I have to wrest his beak gently and coax him out. He half-opens his wings in complaint, then acquiesces as I slide him from the carrier. Yip emits a chuckle. The cameras are staid, so there’s no documentation as I pin Murph by his humeri and steady him over the ocean. I have one hand on his bill, finger slid in between his mandible and maxillae to allow him to breathe. I half hoist him outwards and let go. I hope for some drama, but Murph just plops unceremoniously into the deep and sits. He bobs impotently and paddles his feet as if treading water (though he’s perfectly buoyant), goes absolutely nowhere. I imagine he blinks, but I see only his back, and it takes him gumption and a good three minutes before he decides to—’well, guess I gotta go’—scoot. He swims eastward, which is at least opposite SeaWorld, and toward the open sea. Then he stops and again bobs. It’s the most undramatic release ever, but though lacking theater, Murph is at least where he belongs. There is that.

We ready the boats to leave, camera equipment and refractors folded. I’m thankful to feel the thrum of a motor: movement will settle my discombobulated stomach. Carriers are stowed, and the sea lions have disappeared. Only Murph remains steadfastly motionless as the skiffs rev into an about-face and head southwestward. Twelve miles return trip—should take an hour or so. Another twenty minutes and we’d be in Mexico waters, the golden bull ring coastal and Tijuana glinting like a rhinestone tiara. Yip accelerates and we pull alongside Jody and crew as we cut across the glass. We leave a wake, the only whitewater this far out, until—seemingly out of nowhere and behind us—appear tiny crests in the distance.

Jody is the first to notice as she’s not piloting, but rather taking in the view. She signals to Yippers who peers over his right shoulder and smiles. “You’re in for a treat,” he drawls, and slows the boat some. He knows this is my first time—that, and he’s never tired of oceanic wonder despite his veteran status—so doesn’t explain, just keeps peeking over his shoulder. “You’ll want to lay down in front,” he directs. I oblige, taking my place on the bow, and look over my shoulder, too, as the crests materialize and outwardly multiply. Soon the horizon is glittery with flecks of white, and—wow—there are scything fins cutting the water, blunted gray triangles cresting and falling sinuously in the water. They look like penny arcade horses, operating as if on rigs, up-down, up-down, fast approaching. We collectively decelerate, our own wakes slo-churning twin trails. We are beacons.

Quick as silver, they are upon us! Hundreds—literal hundreds!—of dolphins fast-tracking through the sea, metallic bombers with hourglass signatures on their sides. “Commons,” Yippers laconically says. Delphinus delphi, and a super-pod of them! They overtake us and we gas the motors slightly to keep up. I cross my arms beneath my chin and lay horizontal with the water. There are dolphins within reach, all pulsing aquiline muscle, just feet from the bow. In, out, through: they dart intrepidly, no time for acrobatics, blurs of gray and white just speeding in one collective direction. I see their caudals pump up and down in meter, their blowholes occasioning a quick exhale-inhale, backs occasionally cresting the surface, eyes determinedly open against the flow. They move like the hands of kahiko dancers but in fast-motion–perfect sine wave–graceful, lithe, and exceedingly able.   

I am dumbfounded. I remember something seemingly unrelated, something from adolescence:  I saw the Grand Canyon when I was younger; the endless ravines of silt and ash and sedimentary rock; the limestone and basalt. It was too much for me to take in, sitting on the East Rim and looking out across the Canyon, the whole thing didn’t fit my eye. And I’m used to things fitting in a viewfinder: <click>. I like taking pictures. But the Canyon scared me, kind of like looking at the sky and knowing it goes on forever, and feeling suddenly infinitesimal. Things just too big with nothing to define the corners. And I feel like I did as the young canyoneer, when surrounded by the dolphins in their vast juggernaut forwards, not knowing which direction to look. One can only be in it.

The dolphins are echolocating something it seems. They swing right, slightly east, but unwaveringly south. Jody and Yipper exchange shrugs, and off we tack to follow. It’s apparent we weren’t their destination. We have time; we adventure. The dolphins lead us on a diagonal, then a straight ahead for about twenty minutes. We’re not too far off course and the contagion of dolphins has us not caring either which way. This is a gift.

In the distance is a shape? THIS is Fata Morgana now, striations of lines, not static though. Whitewater reflected up and down in the sky, floating waves—something is moving. Black specks rise and fall relative to the horizon. What is it? As we draw closer, the image snaps into focus. We are approaching a froth of water in the middle of nowhere. The black specks grow wings, and there is a flurry of activity close to surface. It is a feeding frenzy, and every animal in the nearby area has somehow been alerted. There is probably some shallow-dwelling school of sardines or mackerel in transit which has piqued the interest of not just the dolphins, but sea lions, harbor seals, and their aerial neighbors the pelicans. The sea dogs somersault in the foam creating hundreds of individual splashes, and the dolphins, as well, are leaping and twisting back and forth, their acrobatics finally at play. Pelicans fold their wings tight to their bodies and plummet, seemingly buckshot from the sky, their pouches fully open and extended to swallow the water and whatever fish with it. They break the surface post-dive and wing upwards, so there is a yo-yo of aviiformes, plunging and rising, plunging and rising. The gestalt is incredible, and we stop our motors at a respectful distance to gawk.

Yippers gives another low whistle, and we are otherwise mute. Pods of dolphins are descending from all directions—not just the pod we followed—and how could a school of fish be so big as to sate so many appetites? The scope of the frenzy is big, Taj Mahal big, Mt. RUSHmore big—it is monumental and just as beautiful, the animals competing in a mutual trapeze, a real life Cirque de la Mer. We watch the water until it calms slightly, a boiling pot turned to simmer, and—respectfully—we idle away slowly, our senses having been satiated by this accidental and serendipitous feast. We tack left and return home.

‘How could this be,’ I ask myself, ‘That so much splendor was afforded us in three short hours?’ A gray whale, two blues, a trench-dwelling shark, a megapod of commons, and the menagerie of every feathered and finned thing in the surrounding environs descended on one spot: it was as if Poseidon himself was orchestrating a thank you for returning his children to the kingdom, a languorous Murph included. Speaking of, I look over my shoulder to see if our wayward pelican is hot-tailing it in pursuit of our wake but—no—just the erstwhile gulls again as we approach terra firma.  They clap-clap their bills, vermillion spots on their maxillae red flares of greeting. Again, no FunYuns, sorry.  We dock anonymously enough, empty crates and full hearts. My stomach is even normal, and my legs have proven seaworthy. I de-boat comfortably, take one last look at the horizon. That faint black speck could be Murph. Maybe? The day has proven that, if anything, more fantastic things can happen.

Postscript: Yes, Murph did return. One day later.


Day 120

“Dare I say, Grant” and Grant is my house manager—a genteel Bear with a dyed-blue mohawk currently combed down over his pate—“Dare I say, Grant—today is a good day.” It’s been a while. Grant lights up because he has seen me disappear into myself the past couple of weeks, and he has been kind to offer “whatever help you need.” This is what the House is for. We’re all on disparate journeys and there is an undercurrent of loss, heroes in the perhaps making , maybe not. We do what we can and there is a congenial mirth, a camaraderie even as we can sometimes be ships passing in the night.

Grant smiles and my roommate Tony is correct. Damn if Grant doesn’t look like a thirty-five-year-old Haley Joel Osment—something about the eyes and the cherubic cheeks.

“Glad to hear,” he expresses, “That’s really good news” and there is a slight Arkansas twinge in his voice, which is left over from a childhood in the South. Something Delta. Appropriately his chosen drag queen name is ‘Delta Variant’ and I can’t help but laugh (I’m Felicia Salume, by the way—it’s a House game). He offers some prosaism about sobriety, and it is true that I have 120 days, but that’s not what I’m really celebrating. I just feel good for once. I don’t take my fourth months for granted, mind you, it’s just that I can’t drink so I don’t. Simple for right now, which is a feat for someone who almost fetishizes complication. (David Foster Wallace, of a similar bent, was dumbfounded when writing ‘Infinite Jest’: ‘you mean these needlepoint samplers ‘one day at a time’ and ‘you are where you’re supposed to be’ actually work? He had respect for the Rooms in ways that the more exploitative Chuck Palahniuk does not).

The night prior I spent at Jenny’s, which is sometimes difficult. Our once Hygge home has been recontextualized into the confines of her apartment and it is familiar to the point of nostalgia. Nostalgia is an oft misunderstood term: it’s not as saccharin or amber-hued as it’s made out to be. Nostalgia literally translates to ‘the pain of returning home.’ And it is painful, everything in its right place but not, us decantered into what is now Jenn, me the wine diamonds at glass’ bottom. There is the sofa and chaise, the erstwhile chair, an unsatisfactory light though, which, like an existential dimmer switch, never fails to depress my mood. Venetian curtain blades clack, Cayde usually has the TV too loud, and Finn sing-songs his content. Despite the low light and the white noise, I manage to photosynthesize here, which can’t rightly be said for the struggling fiddleleaf in the apartment corner. Make gray cells green, this my family.

There is the wafting of Jenn’s perfume, and I wish to venture into her closet and cast my arms around the empty dresses hanging there. I don’t, but the want is there, an almost need to pretend her decolletage, her neck, her hair (!), her lips to my ear, and it’s a wantonness that has vegetative root in my gut. But I don’t. “Oh, Thom. I never needed your poems,” she has said. She never needed them, but they are there and will always be should she ever desire listen. I am a poem and she was the finger drawn circular along the goblet rim that made me sing. I am the wine diamonds, she is the wine. Together we are a volume, just now a volume separated. Alone together, together alone. I will always love her.  

I photosynthesize in the apartment, like an areole awaiting blossom, hoping to grow sunwards and away from the otherwise gloam. It has been stubbornly dark of late, the Escitalopram not punching the synapses, no lightning pulses of serotonin. I sit in the garden at Amethyst errantly wasting cigarettes and ruminating once unfathomable things. I read Virginia Woolf. My pocket is full of stones. I read Anne Sexton: I am like a watercolor. I wash off. I read DFW: a man jumps from a burning building not because he is suddenly afraid of falling, but because the alternative is so much worse. I think these things. I think that love is a burnt match skating in a urinal. I think love is pecuniary. I think I’m forever unrequited. I think Kurt Cobain’s last album was supposed to be entitled ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’.

Still, I photosynthesize. Cayden and I have a ritual of feasting and watching adult content on television: Breaking Bad, American Psycho. I fucking hate Jenny’s stove (electric range be damned) but I bang out tikka masala calzones and tournedos and tagliatelle. Cayde’s never eaten so good. We lay on the couch in opposite directions on the couch, legs intertwined. He intermittently farts. “Jeezus, Cayde,” and it’s as if we’re back on Herman Ave. I bathe Findlay and he dresses himself in undersized pajamas and wears some ice cream for dessert. We snuggle in bed because he asks for me and he grips my hand like he used to, rubbing his palm over the blade of my thumbnail. His breathing slows and he inserts a thumb into his mouth, eyes closed in parabolic slits. My eyes are staid and open and my heart opens to receive this, the light, the grey cells green. I miss my Boys. The loneliness and love are competing tendrils growing inside of me. There is something splenic, a phloem for black humour sprouting from my gut. There is love there too, something more sanguine and housed behind my ribcage. My body, it is a confusion. Oh, Jenny, I miss you, and I know you wake up, too, and wonder how it is we are so alone. Alone together, together alone.

But today is a good day. Four months since my orange chair purgatory back in the Hygge home, resolute bottle of vodka, records spinning on repeat. My friend had come down from Modesto and kept me company for four days. I was numb, bordering on a counterintuitive happiness, like the euphoria before dying, dying which, I reserved for later. (And die I did mid-January, then again early March). I spun Death Cab on the Crosley and sang with my friend: “Lushing with hallway congregation, my best judgement/ Signed its resignation/ I rushed this. We moved too fast, trips into/ The guestroom.” Moving too fast; also in torpor. An occasional bath which my friend insisted, sitting with my knees perpetually drawn up, hugging my body. I stopped going to work. All this four months ago knowing I was going to disappear somehow. But today is a good day, 120 days since.

Grant tells me he’s happy for me, and I believe him. Corpses are unsettling. I’M happy for me. I paw the air in expectation of the usual malaise, but it’s not there. The sun has not yet burnt its way through the marine layer, it’s gray, and the light is peeking. Challah, I think, fresh from the bakery. A bread pudding for the House. I am planning. This is good. Hillcrest is not yet bustling, its rainbow crosswalks untraversed and the storefronts still half an hour till open. The Hub is not a hubbub, University is whooshing with the air brakes from early morning buses. I sport a gray blazer and burgundy pants, sunglasses and headphones. I am in my uniform, I am me. I’m rested, but not too rested, and there is a difference. Pigeons alight; the crows are not so urban this antemeridial hour. Challah, butter, chocolate medallions, milk, chicken breast for the poaching. African black soap. A ginger beer and a Newport. I could be telemetrically transmitting all of this, a collection of datapoints, my thoughts are so concise. The sun makes its appearance and I decide, no, this is not a fluke. I’m, dare I say it, happy. I text Jenny and Cayden—I do every morning—to wish them well today. I tell them I love them. Cayde thanks me for the calzones and I promise to put them on rotation. It’s the least I can do.

My dad says I have necessarily fucked up Cayden for life. He says ‘broken home’. My dad, he is Hermann Kafka putting a young Franz out on the balcony and locking the door. I am ashamed. Cayde has endured a lot, but he is resilient and we have a particular love that is a tornado cellar through all of this. Getting better, as today, feeling photosynthesis and stretching toward the sun, we regain. When first I went to the hospital, he cried, said, “You don’t understand, Mom, he’s my favorite.” I don’t believe Cayde has a favorite, I don’t. Still, the father-son bond is strong and by nature of our early cementing, there is the hope that all this will make us stronger. What better way to teach a son than to teach him redemption? I wrote:

“And never mind the change in weather—though I prefer afternoons of high nimbus and when the sky is a Crayola-blue—I look forward to picking up my kid everyday. Especially on Wednesdays when he’s home early and I’m the one to gather him from class. I didn’t grow him, per se, I was not his avenue into this world, but he’s me in part; and more importantly he takes that piece of me and makes it better because he is that kid who’s remarkable, who could’ve invented the rainbow or something and wouldn’t be any less remarkable than he already is.

I see his blond head at the curb, which is the cue for my heart to do it’s jump-thing. It’s the jump-thing every time, because seeing him is recognition and love at once, and there’s that emotional spike, that adrenaline, when chemicals understand they must be employed like fireworks when I rest eyes on him, him my kid.”

I do not lock him on the balcony where I currently stand, cold and lambasted by my own father. Cayde is warmed by the thrumming of my still hummingbird heart, the heart I’ve written about, which vibrates more than it beats. And if hummingbirds do not take sustenance every quarter of the hour, they fall into torpor. May these last few years just be that: a temporary torpor. Today I’ve found flowers on which to sup, and though I’m heartbroken as fuck, I’m probably more me than I’ve been in a while. It is today and I am making bread pudding. I will go to self-storage, avoid the minefields of wedding photographs, and loot the place of its kitchen gadgetries. The House needs bowls, a mixer, my roommate needs a spice grater for his teas—I have all these things. It is today and I have a plan.

The woman at the bread counter—she could be Zoe Kravitz—is hurried and is almost taken aback when I ask her how she is before placing my order. “What’ll you hav—oh, fine, ok.” ‘How are you?’ is as important sentence as ‘I love you’; I didn’t ask it of Jenny enough, I regret. Oh, I regret. “How are you this fine day?” I ask Zoe. And I claim to be “Fantastic as always,” which I always used to say when ringing groceries at my now defunct job. It’s not true—a few short days ago, I felt the weight of rocks in my pockets—’rockys in my pockys’ as Cayde used to say when collecting stones—but why explain that I was the ghost of Woolf begging Jenn for some magnanimity, a life preserver to save me from holing up in the Lafayette and drinking into Oblivion.

 “What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.”

Zoe remarks that she is fine and asks my order again. Challah, it turns out, is only baked on Fridays. Right—the double helping of manna on Friday to last through Shabbat on Saturday. I forget. So I get brioche, which is not the same, but I have a loaf of something—give us this day our daily bread. The sky is clear outside and I venture down the block to Whole Foods for chocolate medallions and Dutch cocoa.

A text comes through: it’s Alex, my therapist reminding me that I have an appointment tomorrow. I’m not sure yet she can handle me; I’ve a history of outsmarting therapists in an almost willful manner. I’m tired of being left out on the balcony by authority figures, and authority figures are not just parents or clergymen, but the residents of wingback chairs in cloistered rooms. The quiet measurers of the mental abacus. I just want to be enough. Grade me but give me an ‘A’ necessarily, please. A kid looking for affection needs a good grade to get it. Alex—she is looking for me to identify the negative belief I have of myself. Ironically I ask Jenny (codependent much?). She delivers a good answer and I just revealed it: I don’t deserve love lest I perform and perform well. Continuous performance my poet friend Maggie used to say, the exhausting and forever tap dance for affection, validation. I am hole and not a whole unless I am filled by an other. I have bad self-sustain. I can be indignant, blindingly arrogant in self-defense, when no reward comes down the pike. It is bruised ego. It is Franz knocking on the balcony door looking for an answer, looking to be let in. I’ve been failed too many times looking for a love unconditional. I am trapped because I’m led to believe that I must meet certain conditions to earn unconditional love—it’s a paradox. “Thom, I never needed your poetry.” But, goddamit, if there is one true thing: I’m a fucking poet and that’s not an act. It is true, though, I write the bones so you can see my skeleton—see me stripped, just SEE ME and hopefully love me. Maybe I’m not simple enough, no I’m not simple enough, and in trying to write down the bones, I sometimes fail to get right down to the skeleton and I wear a bone suit instead, which is not the same; it is another form of donning a cloak. “You hide behind words,” I’ve been accused. But I’ve lied only by omission, by overcomplication. “If you tell the truth, if you’re so confessional, why don’t you write about the alcohol?” it’s been parried.  Ouch. Stymied. I’s always been there actually. I just hid it in plain sight. From my first big blog entry:

“ Like the pool water finding form on the under-lobes of philodendron leaves, guilt just precipitates, finds home.  Doesn’t matter what I have or haven’t done; that guilt I always feel when disciplining Cayde becomes something real, and it finds deposit in recollections of my guiltiest moments.

I’m sorry I yelled at you, Cayde.  I’m sorry for yesterday.  I’M SORRY FOR THIS EVER-PRESENT RED CUP, the lack of stars, and this highway which is long and too curvy and which makes you throw up.  Sorry, Cayde.  It’s all my fault.  Tomorrow we’ll do better. Sorry I punched a dent into your wall at age 2 and that you actually remember that.”

From the same piece:

“Later, at the Best Western in Mariposa, I watch the traffic pass on the 41.  I’ve sat myself down curbside with a plastic cup of juniper ale.  The cars pass and their brake lights are something beautiful: streaks of red down the highway.  The sky is not what you’d might expect crowning the Yosemite Valley.  It’s muddy and flecked with very few stars.  Not exactly what I was hoping to show Cayden.  The Milky Way is still something he hasn’t seen save for the telegraph points present in our San Diego sky, the stars that barely suggest the galactic sweep hidden beyond our view.  I remember the first time I saw the Milky Way in its full splendor, the moment it really hit home that we were looking outwards through the cosmic arm of a giant spiral.  The stars set slowly in their great arc as satellites traversed the same curvature–just more quickly–and there was the sense that orbits were relative, and circular.

Cayde will not experience that this trip.”

From a later piece, when experiencing anhedonia following a detox:

“I wonder what Cayde thinks; I wonder what anyone thinks. It’s not every day you suddenly disappear. Cayde bustles down the path, Winnie the Pooh still sagging beneath the beltline. I had checked out, checked myself in. It was one bridge crossed, but there were multiplicities of them stringing canyons. It was Luke embarrassed by his aluminum horse and wanting two legs back. It was Sad Bill sad trying to row his skiff to shore. It was me drinking six pints in quick succession at ten o’clock in the morning hoping that at least one would hit its mark; that one would banish this oppressive and governing mortality; that one would finally correct the misaligned chemicals and quell the constant feeling of simultaneous explosion and implosion.”


“Cayden’s neck is long like mine, and, with head tilted back, he looks somehow more adult. I remember when he was two, when I explained the Children’s Moon to him from our shared vantage point in the backyard fort. It was the only moon he was awake to see then, a white and limnal disc in chambray sky. I offered him this, the proxy moon, when he was two, its nighttime counterpart a year later; I gave him the moon done up in chalk and silver.

Cayde loses the bee in the burgeoning sun and squints up at me. His right eye is still closed, bangs insouciantly caught in his lashes. He’s the love of my life, there among the bees and pea gravel, in front of a house with unknown residents.

He’s the love of my life. I feel nothing.”

My bridge is only halfway crossed at this point, toxins having evacuated enough room for the nothingness to otherwise settle in. It’s to be expected. The serotonin is gone from my system, a string of chemical pearls unstrung. There will be thirty more days of this leadenness, time to write everything down in absence of feeling, words as proxy for actual emotion. There will be thirty more days, minimum, before the silver light comes back on.”

These things I have written. These are my truths. I didn’t say them simply, but I said them.  Do you still like me? Ironically, do you like me more? I continuously perform. I’m gonna have a helluva session tomorrow. But today is a good day. I have challah (Whole Foods had it), I’m Lyfting to storage, I’m gonna wade through pieces of me, and find my potato ricer at least. Pommes puree for dinner. Herb-butter basted pork chops and charred broccolini. That should round out today. And I’ll call Tammey as usual, and write. Last I left off, I was in Kava Bar’s side room at a meeting, an upturned euphonium as Christ’s corpus, listening to fellow alcoholics explain the Miracle while I felt the lack of thereof. It was the longest day and I almost didn’t survive. A cliffhanger certainly. But I’m here. Hello, World, how are you? May the day be filled with love and hope. Onwards.


Day 105

Depression is palpable despite it being a coruscation of neural flashes and otherwise ephemera. Ask anyone who has pawed the air upon waking, 6am maybe, with the uncertain question, “Are you here today?” Depression will always answer and with its particular plummet: it is a plane and it is definitely crashing.

6 a.m. and I have slept in my clothes again. The open window lets a chill into the room—fresh air at least—which my grandmother’s quilt is unfit to quell, and I am cold as the ceiling fan blades do their slow rotor. It is here today, this depression, just as it was not five days ago; the inconsistency is baffling and serves to somehow make the depression worse. Were it present every day, there would at least be comfort in its erstwhile reliability, like the ibis returning to the Nile on the annual, harbingers of the coming floods. No, this depression is trickier: it wings in according to its own almanac. Waters rise one day only to recede the next. I have dealt with the waters before, and when they were constant, the pills not working and my fingerprints something of erasure having soaked in the baths for so long. This time, this 6 a.m., I am surprised by the flash flood. It is not supposed to be like this, for I am well, considering—I look down at my hands and the fingerprints are intact, which means the self is intact, and I haven’t been one with the waters in weeks. I almost felt ashore, the Escitalopram and lack of drink slamming  me onto the silt, shipwrecked  but hull intact. No, there has been a breach and fuck if I’m all wet: It is a ship and I am definitely sinking.

I walk to get coffee, every step just one step that’s not falling down. It is cold, not bracingly, but enough of report that the coat doesn’t work and I pass by my friends in the ‘Rare Society’ steakhouse parklet who have endured the night in cardboard and tatters. A man, he pushes a grocery cart in the middle of the street and it is full. Sundry clothes, the requisite bags of cans, something almost architectural protruding above it all like some junk parapet. He provides pathos to the morning: “Why?” he shouts. “Why? Why?” and he is broken and cannot rewind. I feel him with every ‘why’, the question we ask as placeholder for lack of a more specific query. In the moment there are no answers—not even questions for there to be answers to—and my bones are bone-sharp buried within. I am particularly cynical this morning. There is no tenderness, and I inwardly snarl that ‘tender’ is at heart just a pecuniary word. The world offers me nothing, and this is not a way to start one’s day, transactionally bereft. I need something, some miracle of magnaminity because I am an alcoholic. For me to drink is to necessarily die. When you know that dying is the option and that it doesn’t seem necessarily unfavorable, an alcoholic brand of suicide seems tenderness of a different currency. As is, my pockets are already lined with stones, and it would only take a river. I am a car, and it is definitely crashing.

I get my coffee. I lean against an available trash can and have what will be one of too many cigarettes today. Cigarettes are markers of time, as were drinks. Smoking is an addiction of chronology moreso than chemistry for me, time a catenary in between rolls of lit paper. I know there will be too many today, as time is tauter this morning, and of nagging essence. I don’t know why or essence of what. It just is. I refer to the mathematic I have in my head as to how much alcohol it would take to kill me, and know that it is doable. I know that 44 is a viable die-able age. I am a watercolor and as Anne Sexton wrote in her passing, I know I will wash off. It’s ok, this tacit permission.

The man in the street has ceased yelling ‘Why?’ Perhaps he found an answer, or perhaps he found a new question. He has filled space momentarily, the town crier slipping down the avenue. I put out my cigarette and trudge back toward Amethyst. It is safe there. Amethyst is an oasis painted orange despite its aubergine name and I pay a relative pittance for its haven. There are six steps leading up—I count—and I am already tired of counting. For example, this is the 105th day of my sobriety. For example, this is four months since Jenny left. For example, this is all a negative integer approaching zero. I’ve forgotten my calculus but I remember the language of approach and there’s something to that, something about never getting there. It’s ineffable and zero is something in a bell jar. Whatever. The bell jar can be smashed.

I resist sleep. I slept for the better part of three days earlier in the week and one must have a plan in between lifting one’s head, then refunding it to the pillow. Never lifting one’s head is cheating. It’s principle. Again those pecuniary terms. ‘Tender’, ‘principle’, ‘refund’. ‘Debt’ is pecuniary, too, as is ‘amends’ and to settle one’s account with the existential registrar, the pillow must be resisted. Procrastination is too easy and is also sign of hidden anger, resentment toward a task, resentment too toward the assigner of said task. I don’t know who is the taskmaster here, who wags the figurative finger, but it’s pointed in my face and I heed the call-up. Resentment is to be avoided at all costs. This much I’ve learned.

I light another cigarette on the back patio where there are aloes and grey-green succulents of substantial tooth and flesh. Flowers have not yet sprouted but it is February; the sourgrass has not yet exploded chartreuse. Dandelions are busy doing their thing all pappus and stalky and I sit unimpressed by it all. Four fifths of vodka. This has suddenly presented itself as an option to be reckoned with, a Winehouse proportion certainly, but one as blithely offered as, “Coffee, or tea? One lump or two?” The other option lies at the end of a pack of cigarettes, and the telepathic push necessary to move the clock arms forward. To have these options even be options in the first place, and for them to make the scale beam horizontal, is absurd. I demand a recount. First rule: don’t believe all your thoughts.

Recount comes one pack of cigarettes and thirteen hours later. I receive an official job offer from Whole Foods, I actually eat something of substance—creole shrimp atop a bed of macaroni and cheese—and subsist. By the numbers: four ventis and three ginger beers quaffed; two phone calls to my therapist; four to my best friend in Arizona who, by her account, wishes she could just give me a hug already; and two meetings. The first one I attend is out of necessity, heeding the alcoholic wisdom that meeting-makers make it. And making it this morning takes on a deeper significance when thoughts venture into mortal absurdity and within the brain is manufactured impasse.

(My roommate said something funny this morning if I can break the Fourth Wall momentarily: when I finished the sturm und drang of this piece’s beginning, he simply said, “You could’ve turned off the fan.” Perfect Beckett wisdom—touche. The town crier shouted, ‘Why?’; Tony essentially asked, “What for?” He could’ve also said, “Penguin dust! Roman coin soup!” It would’ve made the same difference) .   

The second meeting of the day is of greater report. The Kava bar sits on University Avenue on the easternmost edge of Hillcrest, before the Avenue takes a precipitous drop beneath the Georgia St. Bridge and into University Heights proper. The Kava Bar is as it sounds: it is a bar, there is a bar top, there is a barback proffering brews. Minus a jukebox and the obtrusive glare of TV screens, the establishment is much like any other brewhouse in Hillcrest; it’s just that kava, despite its mollifying properties, is non-alcoholic. Kava, which comes from the Polynesian word ‘awa’ for bitter, is root extract from Piper mythisticum. Like alcohol, though, it hits the Central Nervous System as well the liver. It is imbibed to abate anxiety, to provide a calming effect, and ameliorate the symptoms associated with benzo withdrawal. As can be intuited, kava is very alluring to alcoholics: it’s alcohol but not. The fact that it is mind-altering has the community in a quandary: is it a viable replacement, or is it verboten? This is not the first time alternative drugs have been the debate among the Rooms. Some die-hard old-timers eschew even prescription anti-depressants. They instead champion the ‘miracle of the Program’ alone as ameliorative: a straight, no-chaser brand of relief. But even Bill, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was known to chemically wander, campaigning at one point for the use of mind-expanding psychedelics he said, to heighten understanding of the Higher Power. I just know, I’m disallowed from all mind-altering substance and, as resident of Amethyst Landing contractually obligated to place my hand over my glass were kava to be offered. Ironic then, that I find myself at Kava Bar for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, eight o’clock on the longest day of my sobriety.

The Room is through a wood-paneled door adjacent to the bar, and really it is like being in a brewhouse again having to wave down the barback for a drink with a fistful of dollars. I get my cold brew and walk through the door into a cinema of candles and folding chairs. The room is dark, but not too dark, and the votives act as footlamps as if in some primitive theater. Everyone  is underlit, which adds not only to the ambience, but to the cast of anonymity: one can make out details, but details which don’t lend themselves to a full gestalt. The man next to me, he has a spike through his ear; the woman in front of me has an embroidery of hair. I stupidly wear flip-flops with my brown peacoat. I find a seat in the back opposite the stage where the Leader is currently speaking. Behind her is a curiously illuminated stool atop which sits an upturned brass instrument, a euphonium maybe. There is a potted plant. An open door leads to a utility closet.  

The Leader speaks not in a hushed tone, but reverent nonetheless; her cadence is perfect so that even when her story goes sideways, there is no faltering, and the redirect is a gentle and rhetorical entreaty for forgiveness—“I’m an alcoholic, please excuse me my distractions.” She is a good speaker and exudes the serenity people who have witnessed the miracle do: we’re antennae to it, we alcoholics, and can gauge when a person has finally and lastingly approved of themselves. To hit a valley, then climb a peak necessitates going twice the distance, and the accumulation of experience along the way rounds the voice; in the Speaker’s mouth therein lies a pearl.

I am rapt. As Cheever says: “the tonic or curative force of straightforward narrative is inestimable.” (He is also attributed with saying we tell stories when in danger or pain, to wit: “I expect as I lay dying I will be telling myself a story in a struggle to make some link between the quick and the defunct”). In the Rooms, we all harbor and–Lord-willing–share our stories for we are all very afraid, even when we are seemingly not as with the Speaker, for in our bodies is an incurable disease that cannot be excised. It pervades our spirit and guides us into alcoholic thinking as with my thoughts today. It ravages us, has us as the town crier shouting an interminable ‘why?’ while pushing a grocery cart of regret, the salvages of a life.

I am rapt. I close my eyes even. I am not praying, though I could be. The votives, the liturgy of the Room—it is like a church, people in half-light, the euphonium our makeshift corpus. No, I am not praying; I’m just accepting the tonic that is offered in the otherwise Kava Bar in Hillcrest in San Diego in this, my 105th day of sobriety. I am relieved I have made it to nightfall. My bed is two blocks away. The fan, Tony, is still on.

It is my turn to tell a story, to link that quick and defunct, and I admit this to be my hardest day in sobriety. I didn’t elaborate the machinations of my thinking as I do here, except to say that ‘to drink is to die’, which at surface seems hyperbolic, and in my stupid flip-flops appears moreso—like prophesy coming from a pig—but it is a necessary way to think, this all or none ruminating. ‘I can die’ is the same as ‘I will die’, semantics be damned. If I didn’t think this way, I’d risk everything in a heartbeat. The pull is that strong. So I say it, my mortal algebra, but then tell a story of gratitude.

You see, I am bipolar as well as alcoholic, and both afflictions (for lack of a better word—they both are in the DSM-V) have their genetic roots. My paternal grandfather was alcoholic, though sober when he died, and my maternal grandfather was what they called at the time a ‘manic-depressive’. As fate would have it, they both lie in mausoleum crypts across the street from one another. One day, in the height of mania and when I was newly sober and dwelling on a Pink Cloud, I visited my grandfathers, kneeling in turn at their final resting places. I did not offer funereal flowers, nor lamentations of any sort—I thanked them instead for what they unwittingly gave me by nature of their twisted genes. My maternal grandfather inadvertently lent me God’s address when he passed on his bipolarity—to be manic is to know this—and my paternal grandfather gave me a disease, certainly, but he also gave me access to the Rooms, a members-only club, through which to salve the spirit.  A Room, I went on, is a place to be vulnerable and ‘vulnerable’ stems from the Latin ‘vulnerabiis’ which literally means to wound oneself. We metaphorically draw knives across our arms in good faith; healing necessitates there be injury, It is a sacred ritual of sorts and, as a seasoned AAer once told me in a veritable twist of the kaleidoscope, “You see, we don’t HAVE to go to meetings; we GET to go to meetings”, which is an impassioned way of recognizing the sacrosanct nature of the Rooms, the holding of space for others and the space otherwise being held for us.

I finish as I begin: “My name is Thom and I am an alcoholic.’ This ends Day 105; the depression it abates, and, as always I carry onwards.


Day 90

I was in the middle of my dorveiller last night, awakening at midnight for a spell before retiring to second sleep. As it was 12 and yesterday a fade-away, I thought to the morning ahead before realizing the day’s significance, which is twofold.  There, wrapped in my Grandma’s quilt with my lemongrass tealights effusing their citrus, I remarked that this is my first Valentine’s Day in twenty-six years where Jenny is not (expressly) my valentine. It is also the ninetieth day of my third? fourth? but most successful attempt at sobriety. Alki wisdom says Day 90 is the bellwether day for continuing sobriety, the day we have it somewhat figured out. I don’t know about that, about having things figured out, but I do know what Valentine’s Day is. It remains, perhaps counterintuitively now, my favorite holiday.

 A cartoon this morning interpreted the arrow through the heart as a ‘vital organ being wounded’ and a bouquet for what it is: truncated and dying flowers. The comic IS accurate, perhaps cynical. One can also say that Valentine’s Day is the day that Captain Cook was stabbed in the heart and neck by Hawaiian tribesman, else the day that seven of George “Bugs” Moran’s made men were massacred in Chicago’s North Side.  I don’t celebrate those things, though Cook was an Imperialist and the Capone-killed mafiosos were murdering criminals. This is the dark side of the holiday; the holiday is about love. Before the protestations of commercialism  with its glut of red-sequin candy boxes, before the trite aphorism ‘Everyday is Valentine’s Day’ gets uttered (which I happen to believe), may it be realized that February 14 is earmarked to celebrate the greatest human emotion of all; that we red-letter such a day is no less than a grand acknowledgment of our synaptic firings and coursing bloods and breathless esprits acting in great concordance.

There are seven types of love (according to the Greeks), so Valentine’s Day is necessarily a multifaceted celebration. I’ve written about them before but to recount: there is philitia, intimate and authentic love; eros, romantic and/or sexual love; ludus, flirtatious or playful love; pragma, committed and compassionate love; philautia, self-love; storge, unconditional and familial love; and—most importantly—agape love, which is love of everybody.  May you have experienced all seven at some point, or aspire to. I have, of course—and through the span of twenty-six years—shared most these with Jenny. I usually bar philautia love, for it is love of self, but today, the ninetieth day of my sobriety, I change my perspective: to engage in philautia love is to engender all the rest.

In January, I admitted to Jenny that my thoughts had grown explicably dark, that suddenly alone, I had morbid ideations. I know how much drink it would take to kill a person, and I had a loathsome and terminal thirst. This is not to say I was suffering from cravings—haven’t had but one in ninety days—but rather that I was abstracting my death by Erlenmeyer milliliter. I figured it would take four fifths of vodka and, if need be, a saccharin chaser of ethyl glycol. Thankfully—and though any therapist worth their mettle would raise a flag and an eyebrow at me having elaborated the ‘hows’ of my undoing—the thoughts were fleeting, if specific. I later told Jenny that I was failing the Mirror Test—the ability to still love oneself in the mirror—and that I was necessarily going through a self-loathing phase, that I had lost touch with anything philautia. “Does it get better?” I asked her, and she assured me, yes, it does. She had a head start on the grieving cycle, so, as I do, I chose to believe her.

Time will heal, the cliché says, but what the cliché doesn’t elaborate is the outright Hell one has to go through before a wound begins its hemostasis. Blood seeps, sometimes flows, and without seeming remedy. Add alcohol to the mix, rather the sudden lack of it, and Hell is realized in its iciness, like in Dante Alighieri’s ‘Inferno’: one is like ‘a straw in glass’, frozen and refractively distorted. For me, I thawed sometime in late January, after a spate of false starts, but I was finally able to pass the Mirror Test again. I wrote and cooked my way out of it, doing two things I truly love to do, so as to fill the hours and melt the ice till it became flow. Ice cubes liquesced in glass; right angles softened. A turning point: I offered my friend Billie, who I have great philitia love for, a plate of food after some failed attempts, and he finally accepted. “Know why I didn’t take food from you until now?” he asked. I mumbled something about being ships passing in the night, but he replied, “No—I couldn’t take your food because your heart wasn’t in it.”  Billie is a keen reader of the spirit. “Game sees game,” he famously says. It should be said, Billie was also the one who preemptively warned me of the Hell to come in late December. I believed him then as I believed Jenny in January.

Throughout these months, one thing was constant aside from my imperishable love and equally keening sense of loss: the calendar page. At Amethyst, the manager strikes each day off the calendar with a pen, veritably erasing another twenty-four. Or, to look at it in a different way—if we’re to twist the kaleidoscope—to mark the GAIN of another twenty-four. Another day of sobriety, which is the point of being in a sober living residence, or, to use a more dated term, a ‘halfway house’. I’ve always disliked the term ‘halfway house’—halfway to what? Are we half-people? Half-dead? Maybe, but in sobriety we choose to act contrary to our diagnoses, our proclivities, which would otherwise have us–and have had us–acting contrary to our values.  The point of the Twelve Steps  (and I still don’t know in what capacity I will work them if formally) is to recognize one’s defects, work with a Higher Power to innervate personal growth (and, trust me, a Higher Power can just be mathematical as in yourself plus one [a friend, the Book, the Spirit, God, whatever]), and to make amends where amends are due. To, lastly, practice these principles in all our affairs. That’s it. You don’t have to be a Believer, though it’s hotly contested in some circles of Twelve Step programs (of which there are many: I belong to two groups—it’s not just AA we’re talking about). This is all to say, a sober living residence is, if anything a SAFE place, to engender the process of returning to full self from some halfway, else rock-bottom, point. The return to self through acceptance and contrition–the Lazarus miracle coupled with some Psalm 51 (David forever the poet)—is the ultimate act of philautia love.

Philautia love, you’ll remember, is what I claim to be the engenderer of all other types of love. It’s a prosaism that ‘before one can love others, one has to first love themselves.’ Not inequitably, mind you—one can teeter into narcissistic gandering at one’s own reflection—still the Mirror Test must be passed. I remember staring hard at myself in the full-length looking glass of my spartan room, come late January, taking inventory both literal and figurative. Like an Alice, I almost wanted to pass through the mirror toward something Wonderland, where a backwards me existed, else something temporally distorted and prior to October 14th, the day Jenny left. But though glass is technically a slow-moving liquid, it resisted my touch—I couldn’t find passage–and I rested against it with an arm outstretched. I was very in the now; I looked myself in the eye and accepted it—whatever IT is–the way one does the fact of water, the product of melted ice, and felt thaw. Blood flowed, but not out. The spirit—which comes from the word sprit, or breath—saw rise, and my thoughts of glycol and firewater dissipated. There was something self-love in the moment; I didn’t forgive myself—not then, not yet—but I felt half-alive on my side of the mirror and not half-dead. And, though she wasn’t in the room, I felt great tenderness for Jenny. I have told her she did the right thing by leaving me, and that was really fucking hard to say, but for her it was an act of both storge and philautia love: it saved everyone involved, everyone including me.

Tenderness and time begets a timely tenderness. Jenny and I are at a Pax Hofmana as I call it, a time of no war, no strife. We’re in each other’s’ lives—there are the necessary boundaries—but there doesn’t exist stalagmites of ice separating us, nor hoarfrost decorating the underleaves. Aside from my early and ill-conceived resentments at having been abandoned—resentments I realized were ultimately deflective and undeserved, mea culpa—the fact of us has been what in November Jenny called our ‘time of being alone, together’. It’s as if we share one space while simultaneously standing at two physically disjoint points: a near Lynchian paradox of geography and self. I visit her apartment a few times a week. Sometimes I relieve her to parent the boys for a few hours, other time she’s stayed. I made her a fillet and a tartiflette for what could’ve been a Valentine’s dinner; we enjoyed the Super Bowl together yesterday with the kids and Jenny’s (and my) longtime friend Aurelia (Gidget). We remarked—the lot of us—that this was just like family. Correction, as Jenny said: “This is family.” Storges love. Jenny and I sat side by side on the couch and I was very aware of her presence though I didn’t upset things by wrapping an arm around her as she did Gidge. It didn’t matter: you know how you feel when there are electrons positively charged in between two peoples despite being inches apart? I felt that. It reminded me of when Jenny first visited me in my first detox. I wrote in ‘Bridge Over Dry Waters’:

“ I sat in my hospital bed regretting what I’d said to Jenn that morning. That I didn’t want to fucking be sober. We had sat in the courtyard on a bench next to the penniless fountain, the geometric fountain with its recycled water and white noise. It was a hands folded visit, though secretly we were both pawing the air as if testing the elements, deciphering the wind’s direction and the air’s particular viscosity. Still, we had a practiced geometry, and our bodies were touching in align, shoulder to knee, and again recombining at the feet. ‘I don’t want to fucking be sober’ was my way of saying, ‘I can handle this.’ The fountain with its lack of currency, the plastic wristband I wore, said otherwise. But it’s like the song says, before I die I want to make one lie come true.”

Jenn may have looked crestfallen as I expressed my great ambivalence; I didn’t check to see. I instead felt our bodies touch as once they did the night we almost kissed on the Spruce St. suspension bridge. I’ve since securely fastened my padlock to the bridge’s cable (author’s note: like the love locks at the Pont des Art), figuratively stenciled our initials, but bridgefall is always the threat. Cables can snap and pediments can fall.”

That was five years ago. In that time, we still have a practiced geometry, even if not touching at shoulders, hips, and feet; and—yes–we did have bridgefall. Still, the lovelock remains fastened, even as the suspension cables swing over the precipice of divorce. My tune has changed, too. I DO want to fucking be sober. Before I die may that one truth remain true.

And I texted Jenny this morning to wish her a Happy Valentine’s Day, that she was still my valentine despite everything. How can she not be? To be a valentine is to be a participant in any of the various forms of love, and she has my love in a multiplicity of ways. We are family, we are friends, we are a lot of things. Yesterday Jenn put her arms around me while I was making a bisque in her kitchen, and she said, ‘Thank you. This feels so normal,’ and I could only smile over the celeriac. We kissed politely and my heart felt pragma: COMmitted and COMpassionate love, ‘com-‘ being the prefix meaning—very importantly– ‘together’.

Why Valentine’s Day remains my favorite holiday.


Day 86

I am not my diagnoses AND I am responsible for my recovery and amends (to use the word ‘but’ vs. ‘and’ would diminish both the right-hand and the left-hand clause of this sentence). I contend there is something essential at my core, which is beautiful and diffusive, like the stamen of an autumn crocus–the saffron flower–and I also contend that said stamen can be plucked mercilessly before harvest. I can be an impotent blossom.

Jenny knows my core, which is why we were married for so long. And I have also had my core hidden when wracked with illness and substance. I metaphorized it as such in ‘Amethyskos’, a piece I wrote at year’s beginning:

“And joie de vivre is what I maintain at the core, though the core is necessarily hidden by an ever-shifting mantle—it sometimes takes a keen and dedicated geologist to know that the core even exists. People in my life have tired of the constant need for excavation. Wouldn’t you be? By my wife’s admission, she didn’t know who she was going to get on any given day. Manic one day, at the bottom of a glass the next. This does not make for a solid foundation, the mantle doing its tectonic shifts while the frustrated geologist tries to keep a read on the core. At some point the geologist has to run for shelter lest the ground give way. Pack up base camp, we’re out.”

In this metaphor, it is obvious that said geologists are my loved ones and familiars–the tired excavators–many who I’ve sadly lost in the past year as the event of my unraveling. The core can be decimated by virtue of eruption. To wit:

“The core can be explosive, too: just ask a volcano. Better yet, ask Pliny the Elder, the famous Vesuvian victim of whom Plinian volcanic eruptions are named. According to Brittanica:

In this type of eruption [Plinian], gases boiling out of gas-rich magma generate enormous and nearly continuous jetting blasts that core out the magma conduit and rip it apart. The uprushing gases and volcanic fragments resemble a gigantic rocket blast directed vertically upward. Plinian eruption clouds can rise into the stratosphere and are sometimes continuously produced for several hours. Lightning strikes caused by a buildup of static electricity are common close to Plinian ash clouds, adding one more element of terror to the eruption.”

To the friends and family who have witnessed my eruption in real time and who have strategically relocated base camp: I don’t blame you. It is in everyone’s Bill of Rights to think and feel in the manner that they do; it is none of my business what you believe is me. In the sturm und drang of my Plinian self, you may have thought—or you may think—Jenny has been too kind, that I am a lightning-charged ash cloud in need of dissipation. That the terror just need subside. It hurts knowing all of this—I’m only human and have a keening fear of abandonment—but it is what it is. I can only say my sorries, and turn my ash into rain-wet fertilizer.

The good news is that I still have my family, to whom reparations are due. They have radically accepted me and continue to love me despite all. Both Jenny and I look forward to Chapter Two, knowing that we’re always going to be each others’ plus-ones. Where ever I go in life, she is a necessary part of me, and vice-versa.

Yesterday we lunched at Brockton Villa overlooking the Pacific Ocean—an early haunt of ours–then retired to a sun-spoilt blanket for THE conversation, the entire gamut of emotion being on display in the company of water and lawns and seabirds. It was brutiful (to quote Glennon Doyle), intimate, tear-stained, smile-some, endearing.

We are good. That is what is important.

Many people ask if there is hope of reconciliation after half our lives being spent together. The answer is ‘no’—we agreed amicably to the terms of our divorce—but most importantly we understand each other and do not carry around anchor-some buckets of resentment. That is testament to the foundation of communication and compassion we have laid down over the past two decades. I have acted against my virtues, so this is of no small feat. I carry with me much shame—it is my burden—but I’m on a heroes’ journey of redemption and transformation. A return to the core, a return to the essential me. Thank you to those who have stuck around. Much love.

Day 86 of sobriety.


Day 78

I have a paper crane on my nightstand. Within its folds is written a poem. Though I penned the poem, it will never be re-read, not even by me. The crane will remain folded, wings out in a clumsy curl, and shall sit sentry in the shade of a peperomia left of my Iris statuette. I know what the poem says, and that is enough.

Jenny delivered the terms of our impending divorce while we waited in line at a Mexican drive-thru. I took pause; I agreed to nothing. There was a white building façade across the way and the sound of boleros playing through the window, a syncopation of utensils on the flat top. I wanted a cigarette.

My friend Sarah sent me a post: “It is tempting to construct a poetic list of all we’ve watched slip through our hands, but what’s the point? We already know it and we grieve it daily. Even if we speak of a future when “things will go back to normal,” our cautiously hopeful tones belie reality. Inertia has propelled us forwards, there is no going back, there is no “back” to go back to. Normal means something different now.”

Jenny remarked the canciones, noting what absurd things we’re going to remember at times like these. The lyrics of boleros often reflect themes of bittersweet, unrequited, betrayed, or eternal love. A Mexican accordion wind-bagged its lament while we waited. ‘Tink-tink’ continued the aluminum spatulas.

“¿Qué me dirá la noche si no sueño contigo?

¿Qué me dirá la lluvia si no tengo tu abrigo?

¿Qué me dirán las horas de esta madrugada si tú no estás aquí?3

¿Cómo le explico al alma que sin tus besos se puede vivir?

Pero, ¿que me dirá la luna cuando salga a buscarte

y no encuentre en mis ojos la misma claridad?

¿Cómo le explico al aire lo que no puedo explicar?”

She says, “We’ll still love each other—it’ll just look different now. It’s time for us to be apart together.”

And, from the post Sarah sent, “That said, melancholia is oft amplified by circumstance and the circumstances of my year have been harsh and punishing. I find myself asking, “when will I feel normal?” but in reality I recognize that the normal from before has expired; “normal” is an impossibility, there is only “new.”

‘Expire’ is to breathe out, generally one’s last breath. I’ve witnessed things give up their spirit, accompanied by the telltale death rattle. The new that follows is an immutable and ineffable stillness, a transformation indetectable.  The curtains that hang over my heart—they are still. They do not billow outwards like the bellies of sleeping cats. My bed discounts even me. It’s empty of paired weight.

The inside of the paper crane: its stomach is a lyric written in pen while I was languoring in Residence. I like to write things indelibly; the paper cannot by itself digest my words. Protected from the sun, the words will not see erasure, erasure being something I fear the most. A pencil line robbed of its essence while yet in a communicative mode. Made into mere palimpsest.

Jenny has one photograph of me left in her apartment that I know of, and it’s a fitting one. The picture has me poised over a notebook writing what I know to be a letter to her. I was coming back from an exhilarating trip to the Arizona Canyonlands where my friend Ryan and I had been fearless minotaurs, yawping our way through labyrinthian gorges and gullies. We were still in the afternoon of our youth, before the sun hit its meridian, before sex and rust and drink and the idling tea meal of mid-life had yet to be realized. I was penning my joie d’vivre. I was writing about how Ryan and I had turned on a footlamp and danced in front of it come nighttime, casting giant Peter Pan shadows on red rock faces. I was writing about the purple-bruise rainclouds and lightning. I was writing about a water that used to buoy me. I floated once–I did–before charged waters, their ice cubes with right angles, took me.

 I signed the letter ‘Love, Thom.’ It was twenty-five pages long. Twenty-five years later, I would still sign the letter exactly the same because it is a fact I love Jenny. But twenty-five years later, my last lyric to Jenny remains an unread scrawl secreted in a Yoshizawa fold, lost forever to her eyes. Ryan, who I fear I’ve lost too, did tell me I was going to lose everything.

The crane base—it’s a preliminary fold with both the front and the back sides petal-folded upward. At some point it must be turned inside-out in order to resemble something new.

“There is only new” as the Sarah post said. Change is inevitable, even if unwanted. I didn’t want the terms of divorce delivered with my bean and cheese. Again, I said nothing in response. Didn’t want to. I wanted a cigarette for my corrupted lungs to expire. The Mexican accordion, it just wheezed:

What will the night tell me if I don’t dream you?

What will the rain tell me if I don’t have your shelter?

What will the hours of this early morning tell me if you’re not here?

How do I explain to the soul that without your kisses it can live?

But, what will the moon tell me when it goes to fetch you

and doesn’t find in my eyes the same brightness?

How do I explain to the wind what I cannot explain?

“We’ll still love each other, it’ll just look different.” That is “the new” and without my kisses Jenny’s soul can surely live, though in my hopeless romanticism I’m sometimes loathe to say so; I don’t know if she dreams about me. She is her own person with her own head and heart, and what orchestrations they compose belong to her. I can only say and write ‘Love, Thom’ and still mean it. I told her ‘she’s free now’ and I meant that, too.

I used to think I was unlovable, that people only love that I love them—and overwhelmingly– not that they actually love ME. It’s faulty thinking. I don’t need to elaborate about my past, or how I’ve acted when feeling unloved; the empty-hearted acts and the way I’ve performed in my pretend theatre of one. I just realize that I have acted selfishly sometimes, and without fear of recompense. I existed solipsistically not taking cue from the as-sentient players sharing the stage. (I hope that makes sense).

My “new” is less solipsistic. By necessity it is more peopled than before if you consider the fact that I now live in a landing with twenty-odd occupants. Sometimes we pass like ghosts in the night through the common areas, but regardless we are community. We have commonalities, albeit different manners in which we ‘trudge the road of happy destiny’. Some fouetté, some slog as the word ‘trudge’ suggests. I’m in between, a minister of funny walks. I’m recovering from substance abuse; managing otherwise and myriad diagnoses and traumas, while simultaneously mourning a marriage lost. My walk is inconsistent, sometimes painful. And there is no medication to kill all the pain: one hot piss and I’m out on the street. Which is fine—“there is no “back” to go back to.” There’s only ‘now’, which is only one letter away from ‘new’.

‘Now’ is necessarily my crane base; I just need to do some novel folding in order to transform. Jenny (and Bill and my aunt and my Residence counselor and sundry others and and and) have told me two things: 1) stop living in the ‘back’—you know exactly why you hurt and can identify it in great detail—and start with the now, the ‘new’; and 2) stop trying to resolve things in your head. I should listen: my past trespassers and trespasses are just that—past. They will inform the ‘now’ but they are not the now. I contend that the past informs the present but as Jenny has said—and not flippantly—“your parents, your childhood, Jason Ponder, your brother, your work, Delaney. We get it. What about this moment forwards? Start there.”  Ever the approval seeker, I’ve always wanted to be seen and heard, to be validated. Thing is I’m also the steadfast ruminator and even when things are acknowledged, even given validation, I go back to chewing my cud in bovine retreat. Cows: they are comfortable until they get the shock rod to the skull, and goddamn if I don’t love being comfortable.

As to my head: it is a fine one, but disconnected sometimes from my heart. I seek to fill the gap in between the two—the ‘hole’—in search of a ‘whole’. Thing is, you can’t solve matters of the heart with the synaptic orchestrations of the brain. I’ve been told I “sound fucking ridiculous” when attempting to do so. And my Residence counselor—she said, “You hide behind your words and stories. I’m not hearing ‘you’.  We poets famously do use words to describe other words, and remark things that are like other things. We can also get wrapped up in metaphor—inexact language—as easily we can use too exact and disaffecting a language. Kerouac has said, ‘Someday I’ll find the right words and they will be simple.’ That’s a worthy goal. I’ll add it to my ‘new’ list.

The words to the poem in the belly of the crane, even if petal-folded into invisibility—they are ‘new’, too, and simple.  Maybe because they were the first last words I wrote to Jenny, whereas ‘Love, Thom’ were the last of the first. Either way, questions remain. From the Sarah post: “How does one digest grief [in a manner opposite the way my words remain undigested in the paper bird]? How do we metabolize trauma, collective and individual? How precisely do we sit with, in order to move through?” The post goes on to offer suggestions. “We throw plates just to watch them break; we make things with our hands.” Opposite but not exclusive actions. And that is what’s  the new if not inexplicable normal.  As Marta Gomez sang: Como lo explico al aire lo que no puedo explicar?”  I don’t know, but I’ll certainly try.

Love, as always, to Jenny. Day 78 of sobriety.


Day 60

Day 60, but there are no laurels for the resting. Truth is, it’s harder today than ever. The only self-congratulations I can muster is that I’m dry and not looking for the next drink. To be dry, however, is not to be sober: there’s a qualitative difference, just as there is a difference between ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’, ‘anger’ and resentment.’ Shame and resentment are fossilized things; anger and guilt are their precursors. Anger is actually useful, as is guilt. To wield anger properly can result in the construction of healthy boundaries. It can also foment a call to action: change the situation in which you are hurting and being hurt.

I’m not good at this.

I’ve always had a bovine and ruminative streak, a tendency to let anger ossify into bone. I wish I could be more…plastic, a skeleton made from softer things. As is, I’m prone to resentment, sometimes unmerited, and this doesn’t help anybody, especially me. It makes me unlovable—to others and to myself—and if there is anything ANYTHING I want in this world, it is to be loved. I think we’re all alike in this sentiment.

I had a girl. If you have not already figured out, or if I have not told you, I do not any longer. And the words ‘I had’ are already problematic: they suggest I once owned something, and love is not about ownership. It is about a beautiful and willing togetherness, of which there is no greater thing. It is being tender at the bone, of sharing soft kisses and soft vulnerabilities, of delighting in the other person’s person-ness. And I love Jenny. As relentless as life can be in its erasure of things, Jenny remains—and will always remain—the ineffable and better part of me. For this I twist the kaleidoscope on my newfound and devastating loneliness to say, “Jenny still resides here”; I am forever an ark to her everything. She will always be with me, the twenty-six years of our togetherness compounded to an eternity in my otherwise wretched, wretched heart.

What is hardest—and there are many things here that are hard, the least of which is waking up—is that I am at fault. We have default mechanisms we employ to muddle through, to avoid the executioner’s hood, and were I to continue manipulating things as I have been taught, have—worse yet—refused to unlearn, then I could paint a less grisly portrait of myself. But I am forty-four years old. Certainly, I am an adult child, but it’s time to do away with childish things. I have to be at fault; I *am*at fault. When I was left by my lonesome in the house, I cocooned myself in resentment, that ugliest and most useless of emotions. I sat in the remaining orange leather chair, spun records, and drank with impunity. I pitied the fact that I had been made a corpse when—truth be told—I had already been one for years. Corpses are to be mourned and mine had already been bewailed. And grievers they need move on, which tidily they had.

I came to my senses in Residence. Not to say I had some great epiphanous moment–I just gave up on most my resentments. Resentment is an emotion, just the wrong one to have. I mean, what’s the point? I replaced resentment with numbness, sought out tenderness where I could (another default mechanism of mine), and wholly frustrated the counselors with evasive and non-emotive language. “You’re hiding” they said. “Your walls are up.” All true. I had lost everything and couldn’t shed the necessary tear. I really wanted to, but dead men don’t cry. And poets, especially dead ones, we use words to describe other words, one of the many ways in which to appease. To avoid. To hide.

One thing I can’t hide from. I am an alcoholic.  As I told my Dad, my alcoholism is not a moral failing and certainly not a choice—this in answer to the question ‘why?’. I have asked myself ‘why?’ aplenty—still do on the daily. I can explain things in terms of acetaldehydes and amygdalas, preorbital frontal cortices and dopamine: I know every neurochemical reaction that takes place the second alcohol passes my lips. But to reduce things to just ’bad chemicals’ is not sufficient. Am I composite of trauma? Absolutely, the major trauma being emotional neglect; my inner child is not well-attached. But I refuse to excuse my behaviors wholly on trauma, just as I refuse to solely blame them on pathology. I am left with the ‘why?’, the needling questions of free will, the want to just be a normie and goddamnit why can’t I be? The better question, of course, is why can’t I, and couldn’t I have, accepted my lot and just put down the drink when there was so so much at stake.

I n the end I don’t and can’t blame anyone for asking ‘why?’ to a question I myself can’t answer. What people think of me, what anger they harbor, is none of my business though it hurts like hell to still knowingly be the object of resentment. And though it was and is my greatest fear in life to be abandoned, a fear which has been realized, I cannot be angry at anyone except myself. I said being at fault is the hardest thing in the world for me, and I fucking meant it.

Sixty days in, wrapped in my grandmother’s quilt and typing, I am left with this nagging thought: There’s something which I am either willfully or unintentionally missing and why recovery is so hard. It’s all about FEAR: Fuck Everything and Run, else Face Everything and Recover. This is what I learned at Casa Palmera. And there’s a lot I have to—and will—face. It’s hard to muster the resolve, though—I need purposefully sprain an ankle to keep myself from running. At least I am abstinent—that’s one thing I can be thankful for. That and the fact that I am not white-knuckling my recovery this go-round. It’s been remarkably easy to just not drink, else look forward to a time that maybe I can. We junkies have a way of saying, ‘This time is different’ when asked about re-discovered sobriety; we after all–and as the Big Book says–are necessarily ‘liars, cheaters, and thieves” when it comes to our disease.  It’s no wonder when people don’t believe us, else say “I’ve heard that one before” with rolled eyes when a “THIS time” is proclaimed.  Sad truth. Every ‘this time’ has potential of becoming an even worse ‘next time.’ Me? I’m a chronic relapser. There have been many ‘next times’, never so far a last time.

I’m sorry. Actually, with Jenny I say ‘I’m contrite’. It’s a stronger phrase, more penitent, more expressive of guilt. At the beginning of this confession, I mentioned guilt can be helpful. It can help us move in a different direction. I’m tired of slowly and surely sinking downwards. I’ve found that rock-bottom is not rock-bottom really—there’s always a rock bottomer—and I gotta reverse my direction for fear of going underground. I can’t lose more than I already have. Wearing my wedding ring on my right hand is symbol and constant reminder of that. It’s gotta stop. Please God, make it stop.   

Forwards to Day 61.


A Balboa Park Story

Urban Retrospectives - Portland, Oregon Bridge Series at buyolympia.com


That day I had written a letter to the Girl in the City of Twelve Bridges, which I would never send and still have not. It doesn’t have to be; the words became manifest of themselves as if by some conjuration of the pen. Imagine unfolding a paper crane to find within its creases the word ‘yes’.

Come nightfall, the moon was full and there was the fact of trees. “This is the center of gravity” I had written before slipping out the gate. One may make lesser predictions, lesser proclamations. Simply: a round object dimples a swath of fabric. There is not a pull, not a push, but a weight.

The violinist played in between two eucalyptuses. He was rosin and sonor and I was accidental witness: the night had taken me deep into the grove where earlier I had written my cantilevered somethings. “Dearest, that’d you’d know me among the cables, the winged walls, the dozen and beautiful expanses.”

The violinist was a Chagall, floating in the moonlight. I stood hands in pocket, listening, and could there be a moment of greater gravity, I of any greater resolve, poetry would simply rest its nib unwritten.

I made my leave before the player stayed his bow. I walked home as if on vapors, which I would do again, later, petals in my mouth this time, the night a wine-soaked answer to those as yet unsent words. This is the language of gardens, of their accompanying trees, the perhaps tower: it is a language of reply. It is the shout into an empty portico and the voice, different in its return, resounding the desired ‘yes’, and—oh—the ‘yes’ again.  



Amethyst "The Essence of Purple"

I don’t know what it is about University Heights, but its dog walkers are decidedly less friendly than the canine coteries I’m used to greeting down Thorn St. Maybe North Park is the fairer neighborhood –though only two miles distant from University Heights’ center. Maybe it’s just that I exude a little less St. Francis of Assisi these days, more St. Francis de Sales.

The entrepreneur Harvey Bentley used to run an ostrich farm in University Heights proper, milliner that he was, so could the neighborhood corgis sport sartorial feathers instead of doggy sweaters, maybe we could have the old hood back in spades, with dog-walkers the new ambassadors of chi-du-flipping-chi.

“Good morning! How are you?”

“Bon, bon.  Is that egret your lab’s bib and tucker?”

“No—it’s a nice ostrich coque. Good day!”

 As bonus, if the ostriches could reprise their role as rideshare. Bentley’s flock doubled as a fleet of feathered taxis: two-toed, two legged carriages that one could pay monies to ride. Imagine being sidesaddle to a Struthioniform, loping down a yet to be paved Park Blvd. How do you say ‘step on it?’ to an ostrich with a penchant for every now and then burying its head in the sand.  But ,“Your taxi. Your ride” goes the Yellow Cab slogan; I want mine with Bette Davis eyelashes.

The ostrich farm was adjacent to a trolley station, which is at the lip of the Valley. Back when, riders could be captivated by amazing panoramas of the river gorge, a scene now ruined by the rows of Big Box stores in all their urban ubication. A river still runs through it, just one that overflows on the regular and menaces the hemlines of Saks’ pret a porter section. There is no trolley anymore to shuffle along the valley’s edge, to bear witness to the riparian tide of water and concrete, instead there’s Trolley Park which is proof yet again that places are named for the things they replace. 

The trolley has a neon afterlife regardless, gas discharge tubes of red and blue sculpted into the shape of a tram overhanging Park Blvd. Unlike other signs on the Hill, the streetcar generally lacks errata: there is no Bo-levard or -ormal Heights, the Ne gases sit their Geissian cylinders with namesake nobility, beautiful and inert. Maybe the sign is now LED, in which case I’m all wrong. Irrespective of the science, the trolley is a suspended something and it sheds light on the Twigg’s coffee shop, which—like a caffeinated Isidoro—slings the joe with attendant religiosity. Ask for Lindy: she has the curacao hair, which has her looking more barback than barista, but she tends to the eucharistic practice of coffee communion, Torani instead of Jameson. Would that she or any of the other baristas flair-tend when the Javanese Blood of Christ is involved, than there could be the overturning of tables. Or at least the palming of cups.

“A flat white stirred with an ostrich feather?”

“The Trolley Car Special with cable dust cacao?”

“A Cortado, silky, and served on silk?”

The latter would not invite too much rebellion—besides its ruckus of Struithiforms and streetcars, the University Heights bluffs housed a fully-fledged silk mill back in the day. On one side Of Adams were the ostriches–across the avenue were William Hilton’s silk throwers and their moths. The Mulberry Mafia (as they are not known—I like to make shit up) was soldiered by housewives in fibroin arms, cottage industrials who grew Bombyx larvae in their backyards. Buffalo Bill had nothing on these moth aficionados. Acherontia, I hardly knew you. The Bombyx moth salivates protein, so essentially that kimono you wear so seductively? Well, it’s moth spit.  This is generally not recorded on the garment label. And—an aside– satin can be silk; silk is not satin. Moody Blues ‘Nights in White Messaline’ just doesn’t have the same ring, though, and oh the slaver (already knew it was drivel).

Back to the dog-walkers. I’m up in the crepuscular hour, walking as if part-canine myself (albeit one on a self-led leash) and I’m juggling a Peperomia plant in between my cold hands, left-right and back again, shoving exposed fingers into pockets whenever possible. It’s cold, which is to say it’s not really—this IS San Diego after all—and meanwhile my DC friends are making snow angels and posting pink-faced pictures on the interwebs. I’d be walking a dog were I to have one, but that’s a different story, one that belongs sorely in a Country and Western song. I pass an ostrich mural, an ostrich plaque; there’s the trolley sign as yet unlit and here Adam Avenue’s myrtle which has long replaced the mulberry. Myrtles are everywhere—they veritably hedge in North Park, my old hood—and they are the doggy messaging boards in absence of fireplugs. Pee-mail, my friend calls it, and the yellow spots in the lawnscapes are estrus-scented telegrams. I say hello to a Lhasa Apso, which is to say I say ‘hello’ to the owner whose smile doesn’t reach the eyes, if indeed there is a smile under that mask somewhere. Duchenne would’ve checked a ‘no’ on his clipboard. The radiator plant in my hands is a cold weight; I see a Frenchie across the street; the talk-box announces I am now crossing Lincoln.

 I visit the Chevron, which is of no historical significance, but it has cheap coffee and Tiller John’s homespun adages. (Actually, when Tiller John is there, he usually waves off my two-dollar offerings and says ‘Happy whatever’).

“How’re you, John?”

John hems a minute and pronounces ‘well’ with superfluous syllables, something High Tider, and pauses before delivering his nightly saw.

“I’ve been shot at and missed; I’ve been shit at and hit.”

“That’s a good one, John. Imma remember that.” I’m unconsciously mirroring his accent. Soon I’ll be rhotically warshing my clothes by the crick.

“And happy whatever,” he summarizes, waving the coffee along with a whisk of the hand. I cradle my Peperomia beneath an arm, and hoist the coffee as ‘cheers.’ The radiator plant—and I have no radiator—cleans the air as it should expelling oxygen over the Special Dark bars. Peperomias are known as good air-cleaners. I should smoke indoors and give it a run for its money. As is, I just burn the Nag on the nightly and keep Sir Walter Raleigh casketed in the bureau drawer.

“And curse Sir Walter Raleigh/ He was such a stupid git.”

Actually, John Lennon, he wasn’t. in inspecting the executioner’s blade that would behead him with two whacks, Raleigh quoted: “This is a sharp medicine but it is a physician for all diseases.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Speaking of, you can still purchase Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco at Urban Glass, Park Blvd.’s local tobacconist and veritable menagerie keeper of hand-blown wares. It is a compact galaxy of swirling constellating things: borosilicate one-hitters, Medwakhs, shishas, chillums (none of these are for tobacco, by the way, but I digress). Follow the constellations and northwest. There is an orange building with a white door, two stories by architectural surmise, twenty-storied by manner of its residents.

This is Amethyst Landing. I carry an amethyst in my pocket. Amythesko from the Koine Greek, which translates to ‘no drunkenness’. In effect, this variety of quartz is a shield from intoxication—the Sobriety Stone. Ancient tipplers used to fashion vessels out of amethyst so as to avoid the more negative consequences of their imbibition—keeping togas out of the trees (how’d that get there?), avoiding the cloacas (watch over me, O Cloacina, Goddess of the Toilet), and keeping one’s peos in one’s perizoma (you get my drift). Anglican bishops wore Episcopal rings of amethyst as well in reverence of the Apostles’ sobriety at the Pentecost. And, the Chinese? It’s a Feng-shui ward against the hazards of daily life, which a heady dose of C2H60 can certainly engender. I carry an amethyst for all said reasons, maybe too little too late: I wound up, after all, at the Landing carried a lifetime away from my Honorary Mayordom in North Park proper. In North Park, I was affectionately called Mr. Fantastic, but I was ferried on vapors. Bacchus? Yes, I have his address. He lives in New Amsterdam—small pad but a helluva rent. It only costs you your dignity.

Amethyst Landing is opposite town from Trolley Park, about a mile distant as the crow flies or—as is more appropriate to UH–the ostrich runs. It is cattycorner to a grocery store and downwind from Tiller Jim’s aphoristic flatus. Christmas Trees still wink in the windows as it is not yet the Epiphany and we can thank our house manager’s liturgical upbringing for that. The corners will look bare come the twelfth night of Christmas, but being We Three Kings’ Day there’s supposed to be a feast. I think. I’m not Pentecostal enough to know though I carry the amethyst; the liturgical order of things is lost on me. There’s the Epiphany, the Descension, the Ascension, seven days, ten days, forty days: it’s like Jesus is an elevator with only three buttons. I’d be a poor operator. I do know some things, though. Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior brought myrrh, frankincense, and gold respectively. Two of these are resins and, should you poll the residents of Amethyst Landing, they are not the resins on the usual curriculum vitae. In which case, we can celebrate the Feast of the Wise Men and still pass a urinalysis test. (I should probably mention Amethyst Landing is a Sober Living home).

The Landing is on Centre St, and I don’t know why the Imperial spelling except maybe to appease the Briton tucked away inside all of us. 4070 is the exact address, and numerologically speaking that number has to do with diligence and dullness. Well, if you believe in angel vibrations and all that. But ‘diligence’ and ‘dullness’—these are pretty alki terms. I mean, according to the Big Book we all “trudge” the road of happy destiny, which sounds about as inviting as clogging one’s way through a fouetté, but “we are not a glum lot” the Book goes on to say. We just require diligence and that, in a different and more abstemious numerology, is quantified by Days, sometimes hours. David Sedaris has racked up about 8000 days thus far and to—O God—go back to one, he laments, is the unthinkable mathematic. Speaking of math, you thought subtracting from zero was hard–there is an as difficult trick to adding from less than zero. To wit: Sir Anthony Hopkins has pushed the abacus to 47 years of sobriety; Sir Elton John claims 32; the decidedly UN-Sir Russel Brand just hit 19. Call them the professors emeriti, but they all started in Negative Integer Land, a pretty rough grade school were there one. The playground is not made of asphalt or tarmacadum, it’s straight-up the stuff of rock-bottoms. All of the aforementioned claim ‘fear of death’ as their last and greatest dissuader, as in: “If I didn’t quit, I was gonna die.”

This is not foreign to me. Before hailing a black Mercedes out of the Del Mar hinterlands—a death cab if ever there was one—I signed exit papers at La Casa Palmera, a tony rehab in San Diego’s North County. It was against doctor’s advisal. I had to sign my name under the medical admonition: ‘with consequence of relapse or death.’ At that point I didn’t care. I signed with a maybe flourish, scored a Steel Reserve at the Del Mar Chevron where Tiller John was decidedly not in attendance (though his aphorism, “Shit at and hit” was highly appropriate to the moment), and rode home, my alcoholic breath fogging the window in blue concentrics. I was prepared to sleep on the stoop, I was prepared to take a Shun to the ulnar; I fought with my wife, I slept on the couch. I’ve been figuratively sleeping on the couch ever since. There is no comfortable bed my size—the one I made for myself is the unfortunate fit. And, well shit, I’m not a good carpenter.

The beds at Amethyst are single-size, or whatever you sleep in when still a child. I’m so far from a queenie with an attendant wife. These, after all, are the riches of the poor and save for my semi-precious amethyst, my life is not exactly opulent. I get my $2.75 Lindy Special at the Twiggs before the cold-cathode lights switch off, before the trolley sign gets all happy-red and blue. No cortado for me; I sip my cuppa while telling the folks in the Twiggs’ Green Room that, yes, I am still indeed an alcoholic, just one with another 24 hours. What else can I say? I’m doing the New Math. (About 1200 hours as of this writing, which I can demonstrate in spent cigarettes, ginger beer empties, and about 220,000 steps through the greater Hillcrest/University Heights area).

Next door to Twiggs is the Buddhist Temple cum Library/gift shop. You can buy singing bowls here, of which I have one–I just haven’t given it voice in a while—and I think there’s meditation on Saturdays. Don’t ask me to sit still longer than one ‘ohm’ requires, though. I need to move, much like Einstein who hiked the Alpine lowlands—characteristically sockless—with his ever-present pipe, with his mind simultaneously empty and full. Call it moving meditation—it’s an exercise measured by footfalls and not curated breath—a simple joie de vivre in blue suede shoes.

And joie de vivre is what I maintain at the core, though the core is necessarily hidden by an ever-shifting mantle—it sometimes takes a keen and dedicated geologist to know that the core even exists. People in my life have tired of the constant need for excavation. Wouldn’t you be? By my wife’s admission, she didn’t know who she was going to get on any given day. Manic one day, at the bottom of a glass the next. This does not make for a solid foundation, the mantle doing its tectonic shifts while the frustrated geologist tries to keep a read on the core. At some point the geologist has to run for shelter lest the ground give way. Pack up base camp, we’re out.

The core can be explosive, too: just ask a volcano. Better yet, ask Pliny the Elder, the famous Vesuvian victim of whom Plinian volcanic eruptions are named. According to Brittanica:

In this type of eruption [Plinian], gases boiling out of gas-rich magma generate enormous and nearly continuous jetting blasts that core out the magma conduit and rip it apart. The uprushing gases and volcanic fragments resemble a gigantic rocket blast directed vertically upward. Plinian eruption clouds can rise into the stratosphere and are sometimes continuously produced for several hours. Lightning strikes caused by a buildup of static electricity are common close to Plinian ash clouds, adding one more element of terror to the eruption.

Funny, Pliny the Elder is among my favorite beers, rather was. And too much imbibition of said substance produces figurative molten flows, atmospheric lightning. It’s all about acetaldehyde and dopamine, amygdalas and cortices if we’re in a science mode. That joie de vivre when flair-tended, shaken, and stirred can make for something volatile.  Same volatility when the brain inflames and serotonin and dopamine are dysregulated and you wind up shaking the hand of God, as in a manic episode.

But, let’s not get so reductive. It’d be like explaining away a rainbow as a simple phenomenon of optics, or love as just a bag full of agreeable chemicals. There’s gotta be something else going on. The heart says so in defiance of the head. I mean, how do you account for coincidence? Best explanation I heard is that coincidence is just God’s way of remaining anonymous. Like how the amethyst in my pocket was likely found in igneous rock, a result of volcanic activity now here to shield me from further and deleterious eruption. I’d probably be at any other given Sober Living were it not for the name Amethyst Landing. I told my house manager so today. He’s the one, remember, who’s keeping the Christmas trees up till Epiphany, and don’t we all want epiphany in some form or other. I hope the X-mas firs get replaced with miniature bodhis. I could use some enlightenment.

Speaking of, the amethyst is vehicle for insight: at that Buddhist gift store you can purchase prayer malas made of the purple quartz. The mala is the Eastern equivalent of a rosary except instead of saying a ‘Hail Mary’ or an ‘Our Father’, you recite a specific mantra as you finger each stone. The beauty of a mantra as that it is self-chosen. No liturgical mandate. Though—in  defense of the Our Father—I dig: “and forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors.” That’s a neat collapsing of Steps 6 through 9 in AA if we’re using more modern parlance: ‘Humbly asked [insert Higher Power here] to remove all our shortcomings’, followed with the chaser ‘Made direct amends.’ I like Step 9 because who doesn’t like being debt-free, whether of the school of Bill or no, in the existential scheme of things?

Sign me up; I’m sorry.

Sorries can be confessed at four churches in University Heights, two of which are named after St. John, patron saint of love and friendship and writing. St. John of Chevron who, you’ll remember, was ‘shit at and hit’ as his particular martyrdom does not necessarily accept confessions (though he does accept Mastercard) and, at last check, distributes cigarettes over simonious indulgence. Cigarettes are currency in some circles, mind you, but won’t buy you out of Purgatory. Its guardian, Cato the Younger, doesn’t smoke—he predates Lucky Strikes by a few centuries at least and chose a knife to the gut as his form of suicide, not the slow burn of an errant loosey. So Cato is out when it comes to nicotine simony, but one can still pray outside his gates.

A good prayer: [Higher Power], give me the strength and direction to do the right thing no matter what the consequences may be. Help me to consider others and not harm them in any way. Help me to consult with others before I take any actions that would cause me to be sorry. Help me to not repeat such behaviors. 

Succinct, and I would say it on a mala. As is, I worry the amethyst in my pocket while cruising University Heights and appreciate having landed at the Landing (though there’s no place to park my ostrich). Seven steps lead up to the front door, and there’s probably something significant to that what with there being seven seas and seven seals and—of course—Seven Deadly Sins.  My sin of gluttony—and I went out on three fifths of vodka before checking in to residence—is the sin that would have me at home on Purgatorio’s Sixth Terrace. The penitent glutton of T6 is supposed to be forever deprived of the bounty which otherwise dangles from the terrazo’s abundant fruit trees.  There are no trees at Amethyst, though, save for those of the Christmas persuasion, and the scale proves I’m not going hungry.

Yet in Purgatory I remain, among the dog-walkers and café-goers; the ghosts of winged moths and two-toed birds; the cable cars, its trolley barns; Medwakhs, malas and the shot at and missed v. the shat at and hit. To which, I say good morning to it all, and good evening. Amethyst, show  me home.


From Point A to Point B, and the In Between

“Well,” I say, pocketing my phone, “I guess it’s you and me for a while, Hurley.” And Hurley looks up at me, panting, with his juggernaut of a head and white muzzle; he snorts approvingly in true canine fashion, then resumes his wavery gait. Chocolate Lab, hip dysplasia, withered haunches, obviously lost. His owner isn’t answering the phone, so Hurley’s ID tag just jingles uselessly as he wanders the streets of Burlingame, me the sudden and accidental shepherd.(By the way, this story begins with Hurley and ends with me cradling a woman on the sidewalk with a busted skull. The New Year has been strange).Hurley is old, but has good teeth and gums, so I figure him well taken care of. He’s a worthy companion, if slow. Reminds me of walking with my grandpa on the beach, were Hurley wearing loafers and having the ability to cross his forepaws behind his back: laconic, a bit myopic, but determined to stroll. We cross all the side streets and I’m hoping Hurley’s taking me home. He sits occasionally and I see all his ribs, which is in juxtaposition to the rest of his stalwart forebody, still muscled, and I’m hoping he has the stamina for this jaunt through the red sidewalks of North Park. He won’t stop panting. <whew> he says, figuratively, and eventually we find a driveway that he slouches up before he collapses at the backdoor. He looks at me as if to say, “What? This is where I was going the entire time.”(The owner called back; she was thankful. Apparently Hurley had taken his first detour in YEARS through Switzer Canyon before haunting Burlingame).

So, speaking of Switzer, I’m walking back toward home and the chaparral is fragrant and full; it is midday and the canyon is flanked on both sides by endless pedestrian sidewalks. 30th Street, which runs down the middle, is zoned for cars as well as bicyclists, with there being spray-painted cycle signs in the middle of the thoroughfare designating it safe for vehicles whether two-wheeled or four. I have my Airbuds in, walking on the east side of the street; a couple across the way, is walking opposite. They are septuagenarians by the look of it, holding hands, and I automatically say, “How sweet” because it is a crisp New Year and I appreciate love in its myriad offerings. The air and mood is interrupted suddenly by a hurtling bicyclist, fixed gear, who—as opposed to riding in the swath of concrete designated to him and to him alone on this particular stretch—is flying down THE SIDEWALK with a hundred yard view ahead of him. (It is a straightaway). I take out my Airbuds the second I see this jackass, hear him yelling: “Outta my way! Bicycle!”The husband sidesteps left, the wife is confused and doesn’t move effectively to either side, and the fixie jerk, with no brakes and no wherewithal to hop off the sidewalk, plows soundly into the woman knocking her onto her head. She crumples immediately, like a load of laundry onto the sidewalk, and when I come to, the husband and the bicyclist are yelling at me to call an ambulance. I fumble with my phone and navigate crossing 30th while some cars are starting to pull up. The wife isn’t responding, and the husband has his own phone on point; between the two of us we had emergency services on their way stat.I join another onlooker, who—from her car—produces a terrycloth towel; together we cradle the wife’s head, moving it as little as possible, and apply pressure to the back of her head. She is bleeding and her eyes remain closed.

“What happened?” she eventually asks while the husband deals with 911, and while the bicyclist is doing his best to sound contrite, though meanwhile panickily calling his friends: “Dude: I hit this woman on the road!” The lady and I holding the wife’s head gesture for him to get the fuck out of the way, he making things all the worse by the minute. “What’s your name? What day is it? What city are you in?” And the lady who cradles the left side of the wife’s head while I cradle the right, says: “The ambulance is coming. You’re going to be asked a lot of questions again. Don’t worry—you’ll be ok.”The wife’s name is Barbara. She is dressed in a lovely pink sweater, her grey hair neatly coifed; her fingers are bleeding from having hit the pavement, and the back of her head is bloodied from taking a fall. I am angry as hell at the bicyclist, and I say through grit teeth when he is offering his hundredth apology: “Shouldn’t have been riding on the sidewalk.” Especially with a fixie. When the police show up, I hope the worst for him, which is not a thought that often escapes my head, let alone my mouth.The ambulance arrives; the lady and I are relieved by the EMT’s. Because things can never be that simple, a man rides up on a bicycle and begins yelling at the cops: “Damn, Man! I’ve been saying this road is dangerous for bicyclists, and goddamn drivers ruin everything!” The cop holds up two fingers, Jedi style, and says, “This is not what happened.” The interjecting bicyclist takes offense, starts calling the policeman racist, and rides out into the middle of the street where—promptly—he almost gets hit by a car.Barbara is loaded onto an ambulance and whisked away; police are left at the scene with the bicyclist who can’t produce an ID, and I just wait my turn to make a statement with blood on my hands.Somewhere Hurley sits at a backdoor, having had his own adventure, content with streets he crossed in the company of a shepherd; Barbara is concussive somewhere when just attempting to get from point A to point B, and how the New Year begins is a conundrum to me.

7Amber Lovin, Irini Udl and 5 others1 CommentLikeCommentShare