31 January 2010

Slipped My Mind, Again - Part 2

Jason dreamed. He was shaking with rage and leaning out the window, watching Maria's back recede down the street. They had argued, or so he thought. He could not recall ever having fought with her like that, at least not to where she walked out with him watching from the window. Still, it was so real, so sharp and clear that he thought maybe it had happened truly and he was just now remembering it. He shouted after her; her back did not turn nor did her pace slow. Jason swore hotly, drew himself back inside and slammed the old wood sash down hard into the sill. The impact conspired with age and cold to shatter the top panes of glass. it was the old style glass, the kind that broke into nasty shards. Talons of glass popped out of the sash. Jason instinctively flung his hands up, catching a long shard in his left hand. He tried to drop it. The razor sharp edges slashed his palm all the way across. Blood gouted out to run onto the floor, and Jason shouted, stumbling to trip on the edge of the carpet. A second shard of glass dropped from the frame and slashed his right wrist. A crimson arc scattered in the air, spattered the wall and Jason thought he was going to die. Bled to death by his own bad luck. He watched the walls go black...
I clench my fist but feel no sensation
The walls around me spin and sway
A flash back image in my vision
I remember

Maria pulled her car over to the curb, a sad weight in her diaphragm as she glanced up the block towards the brownstone in which she used to live. It wasn't her intention to have come here this afternoon, but it had been weeks since she had heard anything from Jason, which wasn't like him at all. 

 She pulled off behind two cars ahead, blocking the street, crunched together, victims of inattention and slushy pavement. Two men stood by the cars. One  had his back to her, and stood behind the open door of his vehicle. He was waving angrily at the other man, who stood beside his car, door open, with a hand on his hip. He was shrugging. Maria wasted little time on the accident, quickly out the door to stride up the street.

Her boots crunched and squeaked, feet slipping over the winter residue on the sidewalk. She flapped her arms for balance, trying to watch where she was going and simultaneously look up at the house. She saw a small black rectangle laying on the snow near the curb, but it was the gaping hole in the window that really got her attention. Her breath rushed sharply over her teeth, making her wince.

Broken? Why is the glass broken? Maria wondered. Jason had never been the type to let things like that go, she remembered. Attention to detail or perhaps over-attention to detail was a trait that was endearing at first, then turn to gall. Her stomach knotted up.

There was a sudden silence behind her. Maria turned her head to see the two men exchanging slips of paper. Their voices had dropped, and in the lull, she heard the faint strains of music drifting down from the window above. Slow, sad piano curled around her heart and squeezed. She bit her lip, trying to decide whether to just go up and see him, or call first. The piano tinkled like ice slowly breaking, as her hand reached for the cell phone in her coat pocket. Speed dialing the number, and the shrill tone of a phone joined the music in a discordant symphony. It rang once, twice, three times...

...and Maria lowered her head, for the first time seeing clearly the black rectangle lying almost at her booted feet. It was a picture frame, bent and cracked. The glass that had been in it was shattered, little fangs of it still clinging to the black metal of the frame. The photograph inside was stained with melting snow, nearly obscuring the faces of the couple in the picture. Maria's heart thudded over sluggishly in her chest. Bending down to brush away the slush, she gasped. She knew the picture. Jason and herself, together and smiling, taken at a friend's wedding three years ago. They had been happy once, long ago and far away; the picture was proof. The sad knowledge stung her eyes with tears. Picking up the picture, she looked up to the window. The phone was still ringing.

Maria's heart accelerated as it hit her again: the phone was still ringing. Jason hadn't answered, nor had the machine picked up. Her stomach knotted up as she bit back on a wave of nausea. Leaping to her feet, she scrambled up the steps and tried to open the door. It was locked. She began pounding on it, shouting for Jason. The two men in the street looked up, startled, as Maria slumped to her knees. The phone fell from her hand, and in the brief silence she could hear the ringing from above and the music. It sounded to her like a dirge.
Oh, ohhhh
Your name has slipped my mind again
Oh, ohh
Your name has slipped my mind again

Passages in blue are lyrics (used without permission) from "Your Name Has Slipped My Mind Again" by Ultravox.

30 January 2010

Slipped My Mind, Again - Part 1

Something stops me from seeing too clear
A misty haze floats round the room
The murmurs make it hard to hear
The voices and the words

Jason shivered, slick with sweat. It confused and amazed him to be hot, cold and numb all at once. His lips cracked again, trying to smile but the splitting skin made him wince, which turned into a cough that ended with a mouthful of saliva and bile over the side of the bed. He moaned, or something like it, a wounded animal drone that echoed off the blue-tinged plaster of the bedroom walls. It momentarily drowned out the tinny singing that leaked from a clock radio, lying on its side atop the night stand on the right side of the bed.

A minute passed, stretched over the armature of a cold hour. Jason opened his eyes again. The fuzzy blotches shimmering over his watering eyes slowly snapped into soft focus on the window opposite his bed. What he thought were ghosts turned into off-white curtains, tinged yellow with age and lazily drifting in the breeze. Breeze? Jason murmured, a raspy croak sounding loud over the low hum in his ears. Breeze? Why...breeze? S' winter, I thought the window...closed? It's freezing outside...He wondered if he should get up and check.

Another minute passed before Jason awoke again. He found himself staring at the ceiling and breathing in the miasma of stale bourbon and vomit. Jesus, it's cold... A slow blink or three and the problem of the window floated to the oily surface of his mind. I didn't close it...did I? I did, I did...shit...I broke it. 

The days seem to drag away
My speech is sparse and tends to slur
I wonder what happened to my friend to day
Can't hear the words

Lifting his head ever so slightly, pushing back at the syrupy dizziness that overwhelmed him, he squinted at the window. It was broken. A jagged hole was nearly in dead center of the lower light. Pearly light was spilling in, along with a few flakes of snow. The sill had a light dusting of snow, along with a smallish drift on the floor in front of the window. 

Faint street noises wafted in on the icy air. Jason groaned again. The effort of keeping his head up was too much, and it dropped back to the mattress. A faint spasm of shame rippled through his frame as he recalled how the glass was broken. He passed out as the bedside phone began to ring, a plaintive bleat from its hiding place amongst the empty bottles.

Oh, ohhhh
Your name has slipped my mind again
Oh, ohh
Your name has slipped my mind again

Maria sat very still, an alabaster statue in the winter light bringing out the sharpness of her cheekbones. Jason, its done. I'm sorry, I...just...I've had enough.

Jason had often teased her about those bones, saying it made her look like a Russian empress. The backhanded humor of it nauseated him now, given that she was ending their relationship by fiat, by royal decree. He choked back on a million things he wanted to say, forcing out instead a rather weak, Enough of what? The empress pinned him to his seat with a terrifically cold stare.

You know what, Maria snapped.
No, I don't, I don't...came the stammering reply.
Are you serious? How could you not, we've argued this a million times...she paused. A million or more...You made everything else more important than us, and I can't, I won't live it anymore...

Jason could not hold her glare. He turned his head, gaze searching the people passing by the coffee shop window as if he would find sympathy or an irrefutable comeback. The city ignored his desperate silence. Maria stood up to leave. Her coffee stayed on the table, barely touched and rapidly cooling off. I'm sorry...Jason sagged. Her hips hovered beside the table, Jason could see them from the corner of his left eye. He gasped, remembering those hips under his hands. He turned his head further away to hide his eyes. Maria sighed, made as if to say something else but thought better of it. She turned abruptly on her heel and was gone.
It's hard to focus in this light
I'm growing warm and feeling dull
The heartbeat pounds with vicious fright
There's something to remember

Jason struggled not to weep, but the sobs burst forth, magma spewing from the soul. The sound woke him up. His vision was flickering, and he thought he might be going blind, something not totally unexpected given the amount of alcohol and pills he had consumed. A few wet breaths later, and the flickering resolved into the ceiling fan turning lazily overhead. Its blades were reflecting light off the ceiling in an oscillating pattern. At least I'm not blind, thank God, Jason muttered. The phone began ringing again, and below in the street a car horn blared followed by the metallic crunch of vehicular impact. Judging from the sound Jason thought it might be close to the front door of the brownstone in which he lived. Angry voices welled up through the hole in the window, and he passed out.

To be continued...

Passages in blue are lyrics (used without permission) from "Your Name Has Slipped My Mind Again" by Ultravox.

29 January 2010

Winter Poetry Slam: Ft. McHenry Meditation #6

Limbs waving wildly,
Raking the crystalline blue,
Soul drifting skyward.

28 January 2010

Winter Poetry Slam: Ft. McHenry Meditation #5

Gray sky, geese above,
Beauty manifests itself
Twenty bright wings!

27 January 2010

Winter Poetry Slam: Ft. McHenry Meditation #4

Lowering sky, pewter
Lone gull skimming leaden waves.
Welling tears, lost youth.

26 January 2010

Winter Poetry Slam: Ft. McHenry Meditation #3

Seawall underfoot
freighter thrumming cold harbor,
Sadly, cannot board.

25 January 2010

Winter Poetry Slam: Ft. McHenry Meditation #2

Grey squirrel, rustling leaves
Sun shining as watered gold.
Embrace the ice!

24 January 2010

Winter Poetry Slam: Ft. McHenry Meditation #1

Crystal skies, chill gust
Leaves tumbling, swirling around
My autumnal heart.

23 January 2010

300: It IS Madness, Not Just Sparta


That is the number for my post today. 300 posts in a little over 1 year of blogging. I was taken aback when I sat down to write, because I had lost track, and looked up at the dashboard to see '299'.


There is nothing inherently special about the number 300. It gains importance only in relation to the context in which it is applied. That, and the human tendency to attach significance to numbers big, round and/or even.

300 grains of sand? Not much. 300 pounds of platinum? Well, that there is something else!

I look back on all the posts I have created, and wonder: how many are grains of sand, and how many are a pound of platinum? It would be hard to quantify, again because of context. I have a deep attachment to the posts I have written about my children and their loss, for example. I also am quite fond of the ones that have a humorous take on life. The fiction pieces I am quite proud of, they are a catalog of that which I did not know was me. To borrow an analogy, if the house was on fire and I could only save one or two prized possessions, I cannot say which ones I would grab. Because...well...I cherish them all.

"The Sicilians would rather eat their children than part with money. And they are very fond of their children!" - that's Kathleen Turner in the movie Prizzi's Honor, and I hope I'm quoting that correctly. Even if not exact, it conveys what I mean*. I would not want to give up any of the things I have written, or retract them, or erase them. These words, these posts, they all represent bits and pieces of that which make the "Me" of me.

All that I have written, from the scared to the brave, from the fact to the fiction, from the hardheaded to the insightful...it's all me. I did not know this when I began writing everyday, long ago and far way in the galaxy that was October 2008. There was no mighty occurrence, no event in specific that got me started. At least, none that I was aware of at the time.

That came later.

What I didn't know then, but do know now, is that for most of my life I had a voice that was trapped in my head like a fly in amber. And like that fly in amber, for most of my life I felt paralyzed by the medium around me. I could see, feel and  hear...but could not effectively respond. Fear. Shyness. Anxiety. The feeling that everyone thought I was the biggest goober in the known Universe, and that if I opened my mouth all I would do is prove them right.

Consequently, I gradually became frozen, figuratively trapped in that hard matrix I called my life. For many years, I told myself it was okay, I could live like that because it was safe. Like many lies, if they get repeated often enough that assume the patina of Truth. My Truth became my amber, and the memory/desire to be more than I was faded under each succeeding layer added over the years. Emotional ossification set in and I learned to not struggle, because struggling just made it worse. The fossil record began to complete itself.

It is, as we all know, a dynamic universe. The general framework remains the same, but a lot of particulars change and mutate and evolve, and just do not stand still. So it was in my life. A lot of emotionally charged events have taken place in my life in the past six or so years. Some of them I have chronicled quite plainly here in this bowl of verbal gumbo, some of them have informed what I spill upon these electrons without showing their faces directly. Some I have not yet worked up the courage to write into being, I'm still sorting through the mental soil of my own private archaeological dig.

The bones are there, I can feel them. In my dreams, in my prayers, in the hot furnace of my heart...these things stoke the fire and force me to give voice to that which I always held in my mind, for fear of ridicule or condemnation.

No longer. No longer...there is more room out than there is in, and I'm hearing my voice for the first time in years. I'm more grateful than I can say that you have chosen to listen along with me.

*And before anyone gets their undies in a wad, I would never, ever want to really eat my child. Shame on you!

22 January 2010

Hold On, Let Me Check...Uh, No?

Rare is the day that I do not see something interesting on my way driving to and from the Big City wherein I earn my daily bread, and last Monday was no exception. The parking lot of the building where I work slopes down to a busy road, and when leaving I often have to stop and wait for traffic to clear.

Idling at the bottom of the slope, on a bluish workday evening, I was absentmindedly staring across the road when a bright pink blur passed in front of my car. It was a Dodge Intrepid, and it was a brilliant shade of Pepto-Bismol. Clean, too.

Wow, I thought, you don't see that very often. A courtesy shuttle for a "gentlemen's club", perchance?

So I turned right out of the parking lot, and found my car right behind the Bismolmobile. It sort of looked like a taxi that had been retired from service. I was looking for any faded taxi sticker marks or company name when I noticed the bumper sticker on the back. There it was, big as day, and it read:


I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. Nope, still there.

I'm slightly sad to say, I did not honk. But only slightly.

I hadn't been that bemused since a few years back, when I saw a guy wearing a shirt that announced in big, bold caps: DON'T ASK ME FOR SHIT! Roger that, Sparky, you needn't worry that I'd ask you for anything, least of all THAT...

21 January 2010

With These Hands I Keep The Wolves At Bay

See that? That pretty yellow bowl o' goodness? That there, my friends, is a top notch Sanity Preservation Device. Yeah, yeah, I know it looks like a bowl of soup*, but it helped me maintain my mental well-being during a long, lonely weekend last. 

What's it called? you may ask. Go ahead, ask. (waiting) Well, I'm glad you asked! It is called Curried Potato & Carrot Soup. I made it all by myself, no cookbooks were harmed during the making of this meal. It was on Saturday after a fruitful day of photo taking outdoors, and I was getting hungry and tired and a little melancholy as the sun went down. I eat alone most of the time nowadays, and that leads to feral behavior and sloppy manners. Saturday night, I wasn't in the mood for that so I forced myself to be disciplined and act civilized. I reckoned a little cooking therapy might chase the wolves away, or at least distract them.

As it was, I had some leftover broth from a big batch of seafood chowder. It wasn't enough for a meal all by itself, but in combination with some chicken broth it had potential for a big pot of soup. The chowder broth was based on clam juice, water and half-and-half. Perfect for a winter night, I think. The next big idea was the potatoes. I had some big Yukon Gold 'taters in the pantry, so I cubed them up. Joining them was two carrots, cut about the same size as the potatoes. To start things off, I diced some onion small and sweated it in a pan with a little olive oil. Once they turned translucent, I sprinkled in about a teaspoon of my favorite curry blend and Oh, my! The saffron in the curry turned the oil a deep yellow with gold highlights. Man, that was beautiful!

Long story short, I sauteed the potatoes and carrots briefly with the onion-curry mix, poured in just enough water to cover, and simmered until the potatoes and carrots were almost done, about ten minutes. Then I stirred in the chowder broth, letting it heat up and blend in while I made a salad. It was such a lovely shade of yellow, I gazed at it for a while because I didn't want to disturb it.

But I was hungry. So ate it. All of it. Licked the bowl.** Verdict: It.was.excellent. The wolves fell behind a bit.

The pretty blonde you see above? That is Sanity Preservation Device #2. I woke up Sunday morning still in a bit of a funk. It was grey and raining outside. The euphoria from the curry potato and carrot soup had worn off overnight, and I was feeling wolf breath on my heels. As I lay there in the early morning light, I had it in mind that I should make some bread. I wasn't sure why, I just felt like I needed to do it. Reading a recently bought book on bread making must have been the inspiration, and I had just purchased some flour and yeast.

So even before I showered, I was in the kitchen, mixing the flour and water and salt and yeast. The first time I had made bread in nearly twenty years. As I stood there, no radio, no computer, nothing but me, the dough and my breathing...I felt lighter, calmer, steady. It felt good, like I was getting some breathing room. Over the course of the morning I let the dough rise three times, and finally popped in the oven to bake while I ate lunch. The smell alone was worth the effort. Mmm, mmm!

I had the discipline to let it cool down enough and set up, which was worth the wait. The first two slices were so good...later, I snacked on some drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper. To have with dinner, I slathered two slices with olive oil, salt, pepper and minced garlic, then broiled them to crisp. Face-on-the-table good, my friends!

So why am I blathering on about all my kitchen doings? Because making good things to eat, with my hands while listening to my intuition, pretty much saved me from a serious bout of cabin fever. The satisfaction of honest labor well spent allowed me put the wind to my heels and leave the wolves far behind.

Join me for a bowl and a slice, would you? What helps you keep the wolves at bay?

*Even though it looks a bit like chowder, it is really a bowl of soup. It has chowder in its pedigree, though.
**Not really. That's the feral behavior I mentioned. I did swab the bowl with some bread. Yum.

20 January 2010

Curios and the Man

Spiny Norman peers down at me, the same Mona Lisa grin he has held for years plastered on his face. I say plastered, and its quite the joke. He is made of plaster, you see.

Spiny Norman is a little plaster gargoyle that occupies the top right hand corner position on my bookshelf-entertainment center combo unit. A cute little thing, he was given to me many, many years ago as a gift. He had no name when I came to possess him. Reckoning that this lack could not remain unaddressed, I cast about for a suitable moniker. Inspiration came in the form of Monty Python's Piranha Brothers' sketch, featuring 'Spiny Norman' the hedgehog. Eureka! 

As I said, Spiny Norman has been with for years, through four job changes, one layoff and intense personal turmoil. He even survived a fall from the desk, losing only few small chips and having one chunk glued back in place. The lines are faint, and the smile is intact. Hmm...not unlike myself, methinks.

He also shares the shelf with a few other artifacts sifted from the sands of my life. As of this writing, from right to left, the other occupants are: small ceramic sake bottle; antique clear glass bottle, also small; antique folding ruler with brass hinges; one rubber stamp of my architects' license seal; leather bound hip flask; small ceramic pot with lid; a photo of my daughter at one year old; and a photo of my first son, days old in the NICU. The shelf below all that is occupied by more photos of family and a small amount of books. These artifacts, they comfort me.

The sake bottle is speckled light gray, painted with a stalk of bamboo and leaves rendered in blue. A former colleague of mine gave it to me as a parting gift, upon finding out he had been let go from the company. A nice man, he was. I wished him well.

The glass bottle I found on a building site I was inspecting. It was uncovered during the excavation of some foundations. It appears to have been hand-blown, with bubbles in the glass and a slightly crooked neck. There was even a tiny bit of cork remaining in the top. My best guess is that it contained medicine, or perhaps liquor.

The folding rule belonged to my paternal grandfather, and was given to me by my father. It has brass pivots and a deep honey brown patina from years of use and old shellac. My dad remembers his dad using this tool, and it was well cared for I can see. My grandfather could make a lot of things with his hands, the by-product of having learned about five different trades in five decades of service to the railroad that employed him. I wish I had even a fraction of that ability, and seeing that rule gives me inspiration.

The flask is stainless steel, and it is engraved with my initials. I was given this as a parting gift, also by a former colleague, but this time I was the one leaving. Fortunately, it was by my own volition, and it touched me to know that someone cared enough to mark the occasion with a gift. I have yet to put whisky in it...it looks too nice for me to use!

The small ceramic pot I acquired at a crafts fair, some years ago. It was made by a potter/ceramicist from the Seattle, Washington area. The exterior is slightly rough, blackish-gray in color, and has a lid. The inside is glazed a deep, brilliant red (Chinese red? Vermillion? Not sure.) and I have been meaning to fill it with pebbles. The potter also made some exquisite vases, but the pot was what I could afford. I find its quiet humbleness to be attractive. I would have liked to buy another, but is a small shame that I misplaced the potter's business card and cannot recall his name.

The photographs speak very well for themselves. Family members, some still of this earth and others off the mortal coil, I find it very comforting now to have them with me. Pictures like these used to weird me out. I could never shake that feeling of being watched, and I have always been a creature of solitary inclinations.

Things do change, as we cannot escape the dynamics of a universe in motion. With all the terrible tragedies and magnificent joys I have experienced in the past few years I have also come to like having the company of the people and things that contribute to the work-in-progress that is Me. My ego is finally letting go of the notion that I am a rock and island. I do know for sure that I cannot make all of this life by my own energies. The pictures, the objects and artifacts serve as touchstones imparting their own invigorating vibrations. When I need regeneration or a reminder of the love that built me*, I fill my cup at the curio cabinet, and know that love and strength are found in many places.

Relics. Artifacts. Mementos. What contains the love that built you?

*Paraphrased from "I Should Be Born" by Jets Overhead. A song most excellent!

19 January 2010

Weapons, Money and a Good, Quiet Place


The sound of gunfire and cash registers often intrudes upon my dreams, and I wake with a shudder. A choked whisper, to whom I don't know: That is the sound of America. "Bullet The Blue Sky" by U2 echoes in my head, that breathy part at the end where Bono sings about the women and children running into the arms of America.

Guns and money. Power and influence. I try not to be cynical...but I can't escape those feelings about life in these United States. The constant media chatter, money politics, Global Enforcer and Savior, the pressure to "be productive" (whatever that means), the pressure to conform (ironic in a country that prides itself on being free), the pressure to be a income node. Jump the hoops, climb the ladders...and sometimes seems like one big Ponzi scheme. This constant noise of a competition society, where every thing is a game, or gets treated like a game. Gotta stay sharp, be the leader, stay ahead of the competition, always be in first. Must Be A Winner. And if you don't agree, You Will Be A Loser and therefore persona non grata to the rest of the True Americans.

I'm tired of being told I need to be on a power trip, to always be outdoing my peers, because that's "healthy". What's the reward for all this? Money. Or the opportunity to keep making money, which I have been hearing for quite some time is what keeps us all liquid, safe, and free to consume. You have to spend money to make money to get money to spend money because if you don't then the natural order of the universe is upset and the people above you who make money off your effort won't be able to make even more money and you will become Suspect in the Eyes of Society.

Power and influence: the manifestations of guns and money. I'm exhausted by it all.

I bring this up because I want to know: whatever happened to just wanting to be content? To do ones' own thing without the constant need to acquire and consume?

Saturday I had the luxury of about four hours' outdoors, camera in hand and backpack loaded with maps and books on birds and trees. The weather was warm for January in these parts, partly sunny and comfortable. Even the wind cooperated. I spent this time traipsing around two of my favorite nearby state parks, taking pictures and looking for birds and animals. The leaves are all down, so plenty of vistas were there, not usually seen later in the year. It is the first time I have seen these places in the middle of winter, and it was beautiful, and calming. I could hear water rushing over stones, crows and songbirds calling out and the faint whisper of leaves tumbling over one another in the breeze. Far off on the other side of the river, I heard at least three or four passing freight trains rumbling alongside the water. Believe me, a train horn heard while deep in the woods is a sound well worth waiting for.

I heard a large pileated woodpecker, banging out a solemn drumbeat on the side of a tall poplar or hickory tree. I was blessed to see a small herd of deer, about ten of them, ambling through the woods. I think I disturbed the deer, they heard me lumbering about and didn't seem to want to know that I held a camera and not a gun. We peered at each other across thirty yards of bare underbrush, until they scampered up the hill to look for cover and keep an eye on me.

Later in the day, while taking pictures of ice and reflections alongside the river, I realized I had overcome my dreams of gunfire and cash registers. My gut had unlocked, my breathing was easier and I felt content to stand there on the riverbank, inhaling the scent of stone and water. Peering through the viewfinder, the black outlines of trees on the obsidian mirror of water that reflected the sky, I could see that better, quiet place. I pushed the button...

It is there, just on the other side of the pressure to make us what others want us to be. It can be seen, it can be accessed, if we know to look and where to look. My experience has taught me that it isn't to be found through the latest whiz-bang technology, or hidden in haystacks of money, or in 'free market competition'. I find it in the sound of water over stone, the cry of a hawk, and in light, reflected. It fills me when I breathe deep of the green good air along the course of a stream in the bottom of a ravine. This is my country, my good, quiet place.

With a little luck, we might be neighbors. Where is your good, quiet place?

18 January 2010

Grace for Pizza

At dinner last Friday night, I may have been privy to a small miracle. I said grace before I ate.

I know that is far less than the Shroud of Turin, or blood oozing from the marble eyes of statued saints, but it is wondrous for me. It is also puzzling and unsettling. I haven't said grace in over twenty years gone, and I am at a loss to explain why I said it last Friday. I'm not devoutly religious (understatement is a sideline of mine), I am nominally a Lutheran (although Zen Lutheran might be more accurate) and it was no high holy day of which I am aware (and no, I was not high, either). So what gives?

I'm not sure. As many long-time readers know, I have a serious God problem I have been dealing with over the last few years. The thought of me offering up a prayer of thanks seems a bit of a stretch.

But there I was, in my favorite local casual eatery of the counter-service Italian variety, head bowed over a big fresh salad and a prosciutto pizza. I didn't say anything aloud, but in my head I was giving thanks for having the food to eat and the means to procure. I was giving thanks for having made it through another busy and stress-filled workweek. I was giving thanks for being safe and sound and not being in the middle of misery such as has been inflicted upon the poor citizens of Haiti. I was giving thanks for being able to give thanks, if that makes sense.

So I opened my eyes, took fork in hand and set to upon the salad. Fresh and green and crunchy, it was the perfect starter for the pizza. One bite of the pizza and I had the feeling that, yes, I should be thankful for it. It was crisp and hot and chewy. It was just what I needed right then and there, in that moment. I chewed placidly and settled into that contentment that arises from having basic needs well met.

In the middle of my second slice, I stopped chewing and sat up straight in my chair as I was seized by the sudden illuminatory thought: To whom or what had I been offering up my thanks?

You see, not once in my recitation did I mention the names of God. I say 'names' deliberately, because in this context I am including all manifestations of a Higher Power. I start there, because my upbringing is in the Christian tradition, but am by no means implying that is the only tradition that my be applicable to my situation.

So I'm at the table with a mouthful of excellent pizza, a head full of theological fireworks, and wondering where came the prayers. Then I smiled and felt the grace come back. Savoring the taste of the crust, the cheese all warm and melty, I realized I didn't have to identify the focus of my attention.

I was warm and without hunger. Full mind, full belly: that is enough. Give thanks.

17 January 2010

Winter Poetry Slam: Cinco

When spring comes around
Heavy with flower and fruit,
Will you blossom, too?

16 January 2010

Winter Poetry Slam: Quatro

Ice wind, rain falling
In the silence between drops
Hear the childrens' cries

15 January 2010

Winter Poetry Slam: Tres

Sweating fever dream
Their names echo from the walls,
My arms lay empty

14 January 2010

Winter Poetry Slam: Dos

Leaves falling, swirling
wind turns chill, your memory
cannot hold my hand.

13 January 2010

Winter Poetry Slam: Uno

Southward the geese fly
Mournfully, I hear their cries
Broken heart holds you

12 January 2010

Road Work

How could something he had passed so many times be such a puzzle? It was that sign, the big one not too far off the beltway interchange. Huge for a simple road sign, it said:

Columbus 420 miles
St. Louis 845 miles
Denver 1700 miles
Cove Fort   2200 miles

For being so big, it was remarkably devoid of truly useful information. Unless, he muttered, one is going to Columbus, St. Louis, Denver or...Cove Fort? Where the hell is Cove Fort? And why would I want to drive 2,200 miles to get there? Silence, except for the hum of tires on worn and weary pavement. A radio turned up enough to listen, but not enough to hear. He sucked air through his teeth, knowing the answer.
Because There is a hell of a long way from Here. And There is maybe where I want to be. Sonofabitch.

The dashboard glow was getting brighter as the car followed its lead into the west of the setting sun. Another frantic steel salmon in the red glow of a taillight river. The low sky was a dusty peach, and above a huge platter of steel-gray clouds, high and thin, was creeping its way towards the light. He was entranced by the image, mildly bothered by not having his camera. The scene made him shiver, from an excess of beauty and dread. The traveling sky, as metaphor for...this? cracks a wry grin on his face. Beauty always losing out to the beast. Too bad.

The car rolls along down the low grade towards the bridge over the river, bottoming out high over the water below. Tonight, as always, he is mildly surprised at just how high the bridge seems to be above the river. The river itself seems modest, not like the deep canyons out west, and a pale shadow of the worldbeaters like the Amazon. Even with its smallish hills and demure demeanor, it appealed immensely to his sense of place. He could orient himself, get his bearings simply by thinking of the river he had come to call his own.
At least, that used to be the case. Lately, the river only served to intensify the longing he felt to move, to go away...ride the river of his mind and heart and let it carry him wherever it would. He laughed, knowing full well if he rode this river, he'd only end up almost right back where he started, just a short drive from his home. And where was the adventure in that? He sighed. None, none...

He downshifted as the car bottomed out on the perigee of the bridge, gravity tug slight as he prepared to accelerate up the hill. Slingshot of the earth, car poised on a reverse bowstring, he fancied it flinging him at the speed of sound to the west. What a trip, he said, What a trip that would be. I could get out of here, no strings, no questions, maybe move so fast the pressure in my head would be left here in the valley.

To be washed away by the river.
He pushed the accelerator hard, trying to edge away from a maniac truck coming up behind him. They always did that, carrying too much inertia from the downslope on the opposite bank. It was game of sorts, they barrel down the hill, he would wait to get just above the bottom of the curve then hit the gas. He took a weird satisfaction from seeing them fall behind, too much mass, beaching whales on the asphalt river. He smiled smallishly, quickly fading as it hit him just how pathetic it was when this was entertainment.

Christ in a Cadillac...what has become of what I used to be?  Cove Fort flashed into his head, neon letters and a big red arrow pointing west. By the side of the highway of his mind, an old man in worn overalls and a tattered leather hat stared at him, shaking a grizzled head and pointing down the road.

The driver blinked and gasped. What the hell...? The split in the highway was coming up, one fork off to the left leading to the place he slept but couldn't call home. The main branch continued off to the right, heading west. The road was gilded by the dying peach-gold rays of the sun, and the stream of tailights waggled like fish in the river, throwing off sparks. He felt the tug, the impulse trembling into his hands and for slow second the car drifted to the right...I could go to Cove Fort, right now, just drive, and probably no one would know or care until I was out west where the "wind blows tall" just like Tom Waits said...

...I could...
...I could...

...but I won't.
The impulse died. The car drifted back to the left, another timid fish forsaking the deep. One hand reaches up and wipes away a bead of moisture from the corner of his eye. Cove Fort, or freedom or whatever it was...would have to wait.

11 January 2010

Silence Profound

Setting foot, chill winter's path in sleepy crystal light
Murmur of river to the left, steel hulk of train to the right
Squeak and crunch of snow beneath boots, exhaling fog
Atoms of the mind slowing down, lungs crackle with air

In the company of crows, and a young spirit holding his hand
They walk this frozen day just because the path is there
So weary are they of the stale air of television and close walls
Each step brings peace of mind a little closer, a little sharper

They chase shadows and laugh, the ducks chuckle to hear the joke
She the child that becomes anchor and sail for the soul
Too exhausted of this world and petty concerns that so distract
From art and love, the very blood of our veins, life of our hearts

The crow calls, the path is empty except for the young soul and the old
A finger to lips, saying "Hush, child" pointing to the trees
She cocks an angel face saying "Why, daddy, why?", they turn facing the sun
and he smiles, the cloth of exhaustion snatched from the table of his heart

"...because the ducks, the crows, the very river murmur to us, daughter,
and if we are quiet enough...shh!...the voice of God."

photo credits: irish gumbo

10 January 2010

What Up, J-Money?

 "Dude, don't harsh my mellow..."

The bearded chap pictured above showed up in the Gumbo mailbox earlier this week.  He arrived in a thickish packet along with a few other pages of printed material. Now, me and JC, we ain't exactly best buds, but neither do I have a quarrel with him. Most often when I receive this sort of junk mail, I skim it to the extent that I can identify that it is indeed junk, and I then toss it. I've always had a weird curiosity about religious artwork of all types, and I was bored and a little intrigued, so I kept it to read while eating dinner.

It offered me some insight, but left me scratching my head. The first page, photo below, actually warmed my heart. I was able to set aside some of my usual cynicism, and take the passages for simple, heartfelt statements that, in truth, have some relevance to my current life situation. Read on:

Not bad. Not overbearing, none of that in-yer-face, fire and brimstone, goin-to-hell type stuff that really turns me off. I don't need someone telling me I'm a sinner; I already know that. So it was nice to read something that basically says, "It's going to be alright, I'm here with you." Though it was taken from the Bible, it reads as if it could have come out of any major faith. I thought that was pretty cool. The header on the next page said the following:

I suppose it is, isn't it? Very nice, I thought. Munching on my red beans and rice burrito, I turned to the next page. And wouldn't you know it:

And here I was scrambling around looking for a financial planner I could trust, when all I really needed was the red patent leather Bible I received on my confirmation day. It's right there on the shelf...

To drive the point home, naturally, they kindly provided some examples, just so you know its genuine...I love that the second to last number is so oddly specific:

32 cents, 'cause the good Lord is all about balancing the books.

Even though I have what seems to be a low success rate when it comes to prayers, I don't begrudge nor do I discourage others from praying however they want for whatever they want. 

But why, why, why does it always seem to end up being about money? I'm happy that some folks who seemed in need got what they needed, but...why not...peace of mind?



"Hey, J.C.! What's up?" Wait, it's just Cheech Marin...

 Jesus: "Give that back, you big meanie!"
Satan: "Neener, neener, neener!"


We are soooooo busted...

09 January 2010

Burning Bridges

I think I'll set my car on fire and crash it into Hearst Castle.

Cooper startled himself to realize he had just said those words aloud. He laughed and then hiccuped, grinning sloppily to his traveling companion, which just happened to be a half-empty bottle of bourbon. The bottle was buckled in to the front passenger seat, To keep it safe, Cooper told the open air washing over his unkempt hair and five days' worth of beard. Bloodshot eyes rolled back under puffy lids as he laughed like a drugged hyena. The thought of the bottle as passenger struck him as particularly funny, but the laugh petered out into a wet sob through clenched teeth. Cooper struggled to keep his lids open, swerving a bit into the other lane. Loud horn and a one-finger salute from the passing car, and Cooper sat up straight and waved cheerily.

Hope they don't know I'm drunk. The thrum of the pavement wobbled up through the steering column, buzzing into Cooper's sweat-slick palms. He stole another glance at the bottle, a solitary tear rolling down his left cheek. At least, bottles don't die. They don't slip their leashes and get crushed by a truck. They don't yelp like banshees breaking glass, and they don't bleed, all over your hands and the stains on your pants as you cradle their heads while the eyes go glassy, and that awful cough as the last breath leaves their lungs...and me, crying on the sidewalk in front of a house I'll never go back to...

Cooper reached up and smacked himself hard on the cheek. He opened his eyes as wide as he could, like he was permanently surprised. Whereinhellis that damn cassel? slurring to himself as he swerved to the right. He could have swore it was just outside Carmel, but he wasn't seeing it. The GPS map on the dash showed a ridiculous little target, a bullseye where the castle was supposed to be. Cooper squinted at it, lines blurring through the corn liquor haze.

Shit. Iss a lot farther 'n I thought. All the way down to San Simeon. Shit, shit, SHIT.

The cool wind was sobering him up, a prospect he found quite distasteful. He reached over with one hand, unbuckled the bottle and grabbed it, holding it up close to his face. The label swam in and out of focus, and Cooper closed one eye to focus better. He laughed again. Buffalo Trace. What th' fuck is a Buffalo Trace? The picture of the buffalo on the bottle stared impassively, offering no comment. Cooper raised the bottle, took two long swallows and then tossed it out the passenger side window of the speeding car. An arc of bourbon rainbowed across the dash, amber drops cascading down the cracked and fading vinyl.

Woops. Time to Armor-All that fucker. Cooper belched and tried to focus on the sign coming up fast on the side of the road. "Bixby Creek Bridge" it said, but the car was moving so fast and his vision so blurry, Cooper couldn't tell the distance. It must not have been far, though; up ahead he could dimly see the big white arc of it bounding across the hills. He suddenly became obsessed with the bridge, deciding he had to see it.

Fug the cassle, Hearst don't need my money or my sob story. And I don't have any gas to burn.

Cooper stared ahead as clouds oozed off the face of the sun. The bridge lit up like electrified dinosaur bones, an unearthly white stark against the deep green of the trees. Cooper pushed the accelerator pedal to the floor, the engine began to moan. The bridge was coming up fast. He gaped at the canyon on one side, the sapphire void of the ocean on the other. The car bounded down the road, a shadow of the greyhound Cooper had put to rest. The car slewed across the lanes, and Cooper began to weep. The canyon and the ocean waited patiently, while he tried to regain control of the car, and he couldn't stop babbling I don't know which way to go, I don't know which way to go, I don't know which...while the sun retreated behind its shroud.

08 January 2010

Word Up...Your A$$

Those wise pop prophets of the '80's, Missing Persons, posed the eternal question:

"What are words for, when no one listens anymore..."

But what I want to know, is why even when we try to listen, words can still screw us up? How can something that appears to be so rational and precise be the cause of so much confusion and heartache and general mayhem?

Thoughts, anyone?

07 January 2010

Whisky In the Glass

I've a strong feeling it was drinking whisky what made me realize in part, that I was growing up. Good, hearty whisky, in a glass just made for my hand.

I don't mean the little nips like I used to take out of the decanter my parents had, the one that looked like an old fashioned fire wagon and sat on the end table we used to have in the living room. The bottle was beveled glass, and green-gold in color. It had all the little knobblies on the sides that just screamed 'classy'; classy for the mid-seventies, I guess. The bottle was where the coach would be, and the glasses sat in a little rack that I think was supposed to represent the horses. The whisky? Well, the whisky may have been complete shit, I wouldn't know because, well, how much of an expert on whisky can an eleven-year old boy be? All I know is, that we kids weren't supposed to drink it, so naturally that's what I did. I stole a swig every now and then when the 'rents were elsewhere, sucked it right out of the nozzle on the top, I did. Then coughed and gasped my way back to the bedroom wondering why in the world would anyone drink the stuff.

Yet, I never swore I'd never do it again.

And it wasn't the clandestine drinking I did as a teenager, swigging off a bottle of swiped by a friend, and huddled down between the cars in the school parking lot so no one would see us. Or while perched on the rustic throne of a picnic table at a local playground. Or sitting in the scrub woods of some nearby waste ground we used to use as a bike track. Jim Beam or Jack Daniels was the order of the day, because after all, they were the Dipstick of Masculinity when it came to a bunch of slightly misguided young males with more free time than common sense. You were The Shit if you could chug a few swallows of 'Jack Black' without coughing or puking.

I coughed once or twice, but never puked. I suppose that makes me The Sort-of-Shit. Nah, maybe just a dipstick, who once again wondered why anyone drank the stuff.

There was a gap of many years, ironically enough starting when I went off to college, that I didn't drink whisky. Beer was the order of the day, most days. The occasional shot of tequila found its way to my gullet, but not very often. Then one day about ten years ago, it got all up in my snoot that I like scotch. So I tried it, and found out that it was, most likely, what I had sipped so long ago (when I wasn't supposed to do). I was still trying to understand the attraction. The biting smokiness, the sting of the alcohol, the fumes that sometimes made me cough and shudder. There were some I sampled that only politeness and academic interest kept me from immediately spitting right back out. Additionally I had paid, sometimes a bit steeply, for the 'privilege' and did not want to waste it.

There was this evening where I was sitting at my desk at home, reading and listening to music, feet up. On the desk was a bottle of single-malt scotch that I had received as a gift. I was feeling quite 'old school' with my pour of a finger-and-a-half, and thinking myself quite fine. "Down the hatch!" and the shades of my past grinned in anticipation of the cough and shudder...

...but that didn't happen. Instead, I came to know that I was, whether I liked it or not, a 'grown-up'. I liked it, with nary a grimace or shiver.

In that swallow, I tasted the sting and the smoke, the sweetness and the bite. As it swirled in my mouth and warmed my gullet I realized I liked the prickliness of the whisky. I liked that it wasn't really that easy to drink it, if you expected it to be soft and accommodating. I liked that you have to treat it with respect, and even then it can sometimes reach up out of the glass and smack you. It was a drink that you had to accept on its own terms, good and bad, if you wanted to get full enjoyment out of it. Then came the epiphany. 

Holding that glass, feeling the warmth and the tickle of fumes in my throat, I realized that this acceptance of the thing on its own terms, to get the enjoyment? Well, that right there is a description of life. Life. 

I have gotten better at accepting life on its own terms, the joy and the bitterness, the salve and the sting. It dawned on me, finally, that embracing the contradictions instead of fighting them leads to a fuller and more satisfying experience. 

Not unlike a wee dram of whisky now and again, enjoyed in quiet contemplation. It means I'm growing up.

A question, dear readers: What was your grown-up epiphany?

06 January 2010

Trivial Pursuits

It's about 8:00 in the evening as I write this, sitting on the couch in my living room. Quiet here, except for the drunk monkey stompings of the neighbor kids upstairs. At least, I think it is the kids. It may actually be drunk monkeys. Stranger things, my friends...

It is quieter than usual, though. The radio is silent because the streaming audio kept cutting out, I finally closed the window on my laptop screen. Maybe I should by an actual radio receiver, instead of relying so heavily on the internet. Fookin' internet, Thief of Time and Purpose...

Does it depress you to eat food prepared almost entirely in the microwave? It does me, sometimes. Not tonight, though. I'm a little proud of myself. Tonight, I heated everything up in the microwave, but aside from the can of corn I had, the rest of my homey little meal was fixed from scratch by lil' ol' me. I had some leftover rice (with herbs and garlic) and a container of homemade bolognese sauce from the freezer. This weekend I planned ahead, and made extra of most things. Something immensely satisfying about having really good food ready in a few moments, and know that it wasn't ultra-processed glop-in-a-box...

Did I mention that it's quiet, tonight? That makes me tired, and sleepy...

The refrigerator is humming again, I know I've written about that before. This time? It doesn't sound so lonely. I think I know why. I saw a ghost today, and he followed me home...

It was music that did it. I was trolling through my iTunes today for aural relief of work-induced monotony, and in the middle of  "Fire" by Jimi Hendrix I looked over and my brother was there, smiling at me and playing some bad-ass air guitar with that ridiculous musical grimace on his face. He grimaced a lot when he played, he knew it, but couldn't help himself. We made fun of it, but somehow I knew he wouldn't have been the same player if he hadn't, and anyway I couldn't play guitar worth a good goddamn. I can grimace musically with the best of 'em, anyway, so that's what I did sitting there with the ghost of my brother...

Later, when I left work, he was in the car when I got in, and I wasn't surprised. I reckoned he was going to come back for an encore. I looked over at him as I started the car, he grinned and we took off into traffic. On the ride home, we made up lyrics to the songs on the radio, shared some inside jokes and made fun of the other drivers. Arriving home, we reminisced and laughed like bastards when "Anarchy In The U.K." by the Sex Pistols came on the radio. We played that cassette so much when we were teenagers that the metal film flaked away and the labels rubbed away to nothing. The ghost watched quietly as I finished making dinner, and I sat down to eat, catching up on e-mails...

I only teared up once, when I stood up to put the dishes in the machine. My brother's ghost put his hand on my shoulder as if to say goodbye, and when I turned to say it he was already gone. Across the room, his picture looked over at me, the little silver urn that holds a fraction of what he was, gleaming in front of the photo. I'm not sure, but I think I saw something wispy, like a bit of fog or smoke, swirl around the top. My brother, he just looked on and grinned...

Ghosts. The fodder of a million nightmares, or welcome salve for a broken heart? I know what I think, how about you?