31 August 2010

Summer's End

The end is always a little surprising, and a little expected.  Mostly its wanting it to be over but not having the energy to care, to get riled up.  Which is good.  Maybe.

It's like a Sunday of 31 days.

It's that sensation of waking up with a hand on the car door handle, and not comprehending if you are getting in or getting out...with no recollection of where you have been.

Me?  I'm not sure.  I'm standing in the middle of a sun-baked meadow, wishing the treeline was closer.

No.  That isn't it.  I'm just...I don't know.  Any suggestions?

29 August 2010

Elegy: Summertime Walking

Shade, we walked hand in hand
Breathing deep of ourselves
in the green gold of the day

Aloft on humid breeze,
thrush call, and your laugh
the same to my ear.

Soft fingers on my face,
My god, your kiss on my mouth
There in the heat of the day

With tears falling from granite,
I, stepping into the light, and
you, left behind in shadows.

27 August 2010

Gumbo News Network Op-Ed Page: In Which I Address the Subject of Breasts

Let me state up front and categorically, I do not have breasts.  So anything that follows is written from the perspective of observation, research and study, not from that of possession.  So, to the point.

While watching the local news tonight, noshing on a delish BLT sandwich, my attention was gotten by a "coming up on Channel 11 News: the link between breast feeding and Type II diabetes" announcement that the fine folks at the station assured me I didn't want to miss.  Fair enough, I'm a curious type, so I stayed tuned.

I thought the story would be about breastfeeding reducing the risk in the child.  Not an unreasonable assumption given the documented benefits it has for the wee ones.  As it turns out, a new study appears to indicate that mothers who breastfeed for at least a month or longer significantly reduce their risk of developing diabetes later in life.  Now this is pretty good news.

So I am watching this news story, and the anchor woman is intoning the report while a collage of images is run across the screen.  Stock footage of moms and babies,  doctors in lab coats, women breastfeeding in a variety of settings, and...wait, rewind that.

Women breastfeeding their infants in a variety of settings...progressive, right?

Not quite.  I never saw the actual activity.  Why?  Because the infant/nipple interface was always obstructed by things like a vase of flowers, or other strategically placed object.  Oblique camera angles were utilized.  Sharply focused shots of said vase in foreground with unfocused outline of mother and child in the background.  It was as if they were going to do every thing they could to report on the subject without resorting to the subject itself.

They may as well skipped the images altogether.  Because doesn't it seem ridiculous to talk about breast feeding in a visual medium without using images of what is being talked about?

I can only imagine the contortions the media outlets have to go through to editorially justify the content.  I'm sure there are all sorts of rules in place that supposedly govern these situations.  But come on, it's breastfeeding, not sex or some other activity many people might claim to find objectionable.  This is a particularly goofy form of censorship.

Question:  am I the only person on the planet who is capable of separating the sexual aspects from the nurturing aspects vis a vis the female breast?  Am I the only person who thinks it is possible to discuss one without involving the other?  I hope not.  Maybe I'm weird, but when I see a mother breastfeeding her child, I see an act of singular beauty and femininity; I don't think "Huhhuh, boobies, huhhuh!"

I got the impression that someone was really scared about backlash.  I'm not suggesting that 'anything goes' all the time, every time', but for cryin' out loud, people, this is a completely normal, nurturing activity that has nothing to do with "gettin' busy"*.  It occurred to me that the problem is not so much in the mind of the viewer, it is in the mind of the censor.  Has it not occurred to them that selective editing such as that only increases the likelihood of generating the kind of attention and questions they are seeking to avoid?

"Why is that baby's head blurry, daddy?"
"Mommy, do baby heads always disappear behind stuff when they do that? And what are they doing?"

It also struck me that this reluctance to be open about the topic says a lot about the minds of the beholder.  To go to such lengths as they did to show without really showing, implies that somewhere, someone thinks there is something wrong or objectionable about breastfeeding.  It implies a sense of shame about something which we shouldn't be ashamed of. It amazes me that a news cycle that has no problem showing burning vehicles, combat footage, chalk outlines with bloodstains, and freely talks about murder...treats a suckling infant like a bearer of moral turpitude.

Don't get me wrong;  I appreciate a nice pair of breasts in the way that the average hetero male** seems to across the board.  I like them and find them inordinately intriguing, but in the right context, one that is far away from the nurturing act of breastfeeding.  I think it is a sad indication of a societal mindset that automatically assumes a worst or more distasteful viewpoint whenever we acknowledge that (gasp!) our bodies have parts that do things as nature intended.  And that says more about misplaced priorities than it does about the ability to appreciate beauty.

Why do so many people seem to freak out about this?  Nursing and sex may both be primal activities***, but they are very different.  Can we at least stop acting as if they don't exist?

*Yes, I concede its gettin' busy that produces infants, i.e. the feeders, in the first place. But the point is its a normal activity with its own beauty, rooted in the cycle of life.
**I say 'hetero male' because that is the only gender-associated viewpoint of which I can speak with any authority.  It is certainly possible that other viewpoints find them just as attractive.
***Some may say "Yeah, well, defecation is a natural, primal activity, so should we show that?"  My answer is no.  Not because I refuse to acknowledge its existence, but because pooping is gross and boring.  Not much beauty there.

26 August 2010

Devils' Advocate? Me?

For all the arguing and pontificating and frontin' I have done, and sometimes still do, I am a terrible advocate for myself.  I can talk at length on just about anything I know (and often on things I don't), but the one subject with whom I have the most difficulty...is myself.

Teller of tales I am, and the only story I cannot write is who I am.

More accurately,  I have a terrible time talking about me, with giving people a way to know me.  Maybe this is because in large measure, I don't know me.  This condition has been magnified in the time since I was laid off back in June.  Rewriting a resume, or defining the "brand" that is one's self has that effect.

I can get excited about all sorts of things.  I can be engaged on any number of topics, sometimes with more feeling than reason.  I tend to be a person of causes or positions rather than ideologies or dogmas.  Those causes or positions can change quickly, often driven by shifts in emotional winds rather than anything demonstrably logical.  Which is ironic, because I also tend to cling to logic, especially when under pressure to get things done or solve a problem.

Growing up, my Big Bro and I developed a facility with language that seemed to be ahead of the curve relative to many of our peers.  We both had this ability (for better or worse) to just start talking about something, anything, and eventually make ourselves sound plausible and engaging.  This gift of language* could be practical (such as talking ourselves out of trouble) or useful (such as chatting up the ladies**) or exasperating (such as talking ourselves into trouble), but it was always a near-endless source of amusement.  My brother and I often marveled together, in private, at the amazing things we could say and have people buy it, even when we knew it was hot air.***

This deeper realization of mine comes at a time in my life where I am actively looking for honesty, in myself and in others.  I do this because I have realized it is too exhausting and resource-intensive to constantly build facades and fit molds made by others.  To be successful at that, though, requires enough content about which to be honest.  It requires faith in ones' own self, thoughts and feelings.  Faith that the Self is strong enough to stand on its own, that it is okay being the individual that it is, rather than striving (and failing) to constantly meet the expectations of the universe.

This explains, perhaps, my dilemma.  The past two years have really taken me down a peg, undermining what little faith I had in myself (misguided though it may have been) to the point where I don't trust me.  I have received a ton of advice that I need to have confidence in myself, I need to believe in myself...and I have done that in the past.  But I also know that the ego can tell itself whatever it wants to hear.  The ego is free to disregard objective reality, if that reality doesn't match expectations or desires.  The ego is free to lie to itself.

This is why I have a difficult time advocating for myself.  Am I saying that which is really true, or is it all smoke and mirrors?  Mirrors in the funhouse of the mind, distorting and misdirecting.  A near-impassable thicket of reflections and illusions constructed of beliefs, not always grounded in facts.  I'm looking for a way out, even if it means I have to talk about myself.

*Uncharitable wags might say "gift of bullshit".
**To be fair, Big Bro was waaaaaay better at that than yours truly.
***Big Bro had a motto: "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit".  He. Was. Good.

24 August 2010

Trigger Finger

Bobby Sack lay on his back to stare at the ceiling, a flaking moonscape inhabited by flies and malevolent shadows.  Day four of his self imposed exile in the shitty Bangkok hotel room he hadn't wanted to enter and now couldn't bring himself to leave.  To leave the room meant to enter reality, and Bobby had no confidence in his ability to handle it.  The Glock pistol in his left hand had its own gravity, but even the heft of it did little to shore up the tottering remnants of his depleted courage.

Not now.  Not after his year of Continuous Firefights.  The echoes still knocked around his head. 

Bobby coughed around the stub of the cigarette smoldering between his lips.  He wasn't worried about falling asleep; the darkness behind his eyes lit up by the wavering flights of tracer rounds in a murky green atmosphere, Bobby rarely closed the lids.  He reckoned he would kill the the butt, then he would doze.  Standard operating procedure in a combat zone, he thought, and a weak grin brushed his lips.

Waves of dizziness washed him ashore on the sheets soaked with sweat and humidity, which the room's air conditioning never seemed to conquer.  He had grown accustomed to the jungle damp.  Out there the humidity was like another change of clothes, a set of overalls you could never take off, so the body just got used to it.  Here, in the room, Bobby found himself getting pissed.

"What the fuck, it's a goddamn hotel, a real building, in a real city, and they can't get the goddamn a/c to work?" he muttered to the ceiling.  A faint sheen of sweat metastasized on his chest and legs.  For a disconcerting moment, Bobby felt his skin melting into the bed sheet.  The sensation was so unnerving he jerked his left arm up to rub the underside of his bicep.  The pistol hit the headboard with a brittle crack.  Bobby jumped at the sound, his heart thudding under his sternum like a maniac drummer.  He sat up as if electrified.  His breathing sounded too loud to his ears.

What's wrong, Bobby?

The voice of his girlfriend in his head, grey eyes looking into his as he gazed at her upside down face.  His head was in her lap.  They were on the porch at his parents' house, back home in Virginia, two days before Bobby was due to leave for Myanmar.  She had looked so beautiful, and sad in a small way, and Bobby had reached up to touch her cheek before he answered.

Nothing, baby, nothing that wasn't wrong before he had replied, and her face grew blurry as she bent down to kiss him...

...and Bobby woke up in a dingy Bangkok hotel room,  four days out of the field and facing a long flight back to a place he wasn't sure he knew anymore.  Or could know.  It was, after all, the Real World, and that was a country very different from the one he had left.  He shuddered, gasped and watched two small tear drops splash onto the butt of the pistol.  They looked greasy in the wan light trickling through the blinds.

Bobby stood up and walked over to the window to open the slats.  Traffic light from below and garish neon above from the megacomplex stretching down the crowded street sparkled on his sweating face.  He could see his reflection in the glass.  The reflection a ghostly representation to Bobby's mind of the person he used to be.  The person whose true self had evaporated somewhere in the middle of a hot Burmese delta, washed away in a torrent of blood and thick river water.  The ghost looked cold, Bobby thought.  Odd.

An ambulance came warbling down the street, pushing its way through the viscous traffic behind the angular escort of a Humvee.  The top was down on the Humvee and Bobby could see three soldiers in the back.  They carried rifles but had no packs, something Bobby found curious until he remembered he wasn't in Myanmar anymore.  The ambulance and the escort turned the next corner up and out of sight.

"Shit, I'm not there.  I don't want to be home, either" he told himself, "but where else I'm gonna go?"  The words echoed slightly in the room.  For some reason, the echo sparked a flare of dread inside, pooling in his left hand.  He looked down at the pistol as his fingers unconsciously tightened on the grip.  He raised it up to stare at it.  The black circle of the barrel seemed to be not just black, but utterly nothing.  A small, man-made black hole that sucked up every scrap of gravity and light.

Staring into the little tip of nothingness, fingers tightening on warm metal, it occurred to Bobby that the problem with a gun isn't really squeezing the trigger; the problem is letting it go.

22 August 2010

My Daddy, My Template

Let me state up front that never in my life have I wanted to be a template,  nor did I realize that I could be a template.  That is, until now.

I have read in more than one place, and have heard from more than one source, that I as the father will be the template by which my darling Wee Lass will form her opinions thereby and make judgments thereupon, on the all the male figures in her life that are destined to come after me.

Whee.  Lucky me.

I don't say that because I wish to shirk my duties or responsibilities as a father who loves his daughter more than can be described in words. Far from it.  What it does do is make me very nervous.  I flashed on it tonight, after an episode of whining from Her Majesty that left me gritting my teeth and in less than good temper.  It left me feeling bad, too.

My time with her is precious, because, well, life is precious and when it is constrained by arbitrary boundaries such as the ones that leave us at seeing each other far less rather than  far more, it becomes all the more crucial to enjoy every minute.  It is imperative to not waste the resource.

So that is where I found myself, irritated and impatient at running smack dab into the semi-structured illogical, non-cause and effect universe of the six-year old girl-child mind.  Kids know how to push buttons, and mine were being hammered.  For every decibel my voice began to creep up, I felt my self-respect starting to go down.  I'm an adult, I should be able to handle this with no problem.

I can only hope that Wee Lass does know I love her, even when I'm being a cantankerous ijit.  I hope I can set a high and good bar, so that she knows enough in the future to only give her heart to a man who knows just how lucky he is to receive it.  A man who will treat her with respect and with love to the ends of the earth.

A man that knows, no matter how she can wind him up...he is fortunate that it is he whom she is winding up.

21 August 2010

On Not Cracking the Seal

You know those little paper seals, the bands, that you find on whiskey bottles and spice jars?  The ones that resemble (sometimes) the band on a cigar?  Sometimes, I use a knife to slit them neatly before opening the container.  Sometimes?  No, all the time.  I have no idea why other than a ragged edge on the seal offends my admittedly less-than-delicate aesthetic sensibilities.

Is that weird?  I can't offer an objective opinion on the matter.

The bugs chirp and whirr outside as I type this sitting at the dining table.  The refrigerator hums a low sound while the ice maker clatters and thuds once.  The television is off.  The iPod is off.  The streaming audio is off, as Wee Lass has gone to bed and I didn't want to disturb her.  I could listen to something on my headphones but I find myself too lazy to make the effort to dig them out of my briefcase. 

Man, that is lax, is it not?

The seal on the bottle I mention because shortly after Her Royal Cuteness went to sleep, I sat down in my chair and suddenly everything got quiet.  A brief pause, like a cosmic inhale and hold.  In that sliver of time between the onset of the quiet and the resumption of normal auditory events (i.e. bugs, fridge, etc.) there was an intense rush of dislocation in my thoughts.  There was an image of a table, two chairs and me with my feet propped up in one while sitting in the other.  It was twilight.  On the table was a bottle and two glasses.  The bottle, unopened. 

Sharp loneliness settled in on me.  It seemed I had been waiting for someone, for quite some time, and was beginning to feel they weren't going to show up.  Worse, I flashed on the notion that maybe, just maybe, this person was never going to show because I had only imagined that someone would be coming to visit.  Someone I wanted desperately to see, and in my befogged desperation I had convinced myself that they were going to arrive.

The daydream me was struggling with the unsettling thought that it was all just wishful thinking.  The daydream me eyed that unopened bottle as it took on the aspect of a lifeboat...or an escape hatch.  I could hear that soft rrrrrrrippp as the paper band separated under pressure from the nervous hand.

The bubble popped under the metallic ratcheting buzz of some unknown insect, loud and sharp as if it were clinging to the window pane in the dining room wall.  I shook my head and disabused myself of 'liquor-as-life-raft' temporary solutions to ongoing problems.  The air conditioning whirred into life and really brought me back to earth.  Such a mundane, domestic noise...and probably exactly what I needed to hear at the moment.  Just like the creaks in the floorboards, the noise awakened me once again to the solidity of the four walls and roof I am lucky to have.  It sharpened my focus.

After all, perching in my "writer's chair" I can look to my left and rest my gaze on the door to my daughter's bedroom.  It's a five-panel, rail and stile type door painted white, with a polished brass lockset.  It might as well be a hardened steel vault door, for the preciousness of the occupant inside the room.

That room is a second home for my heart, and for that I won't waste time cracking seals that best remain whole.

20 August 2010


Being a tough guy is overrated.

I don't mean tough in an obnoxious hard ass way.  I mean that implicit toughness that allows us average XY types to go about our daily business sans freak outs and breakdowns.  Toughness that is a mask we wear to role play and get our jobs done.

Wait...I said jobs...I don't have a job.  What do you say to that? Hmmph.

See?  Toughness.  It's what has made it possible for me to survive the heartbreaks, tragedies and setbacks I've undergone in the past seven years.  True, there were plenty of times where I felt myself cracking.  There were plenty of times where I was on the bed or in the shower bawling my eyes out.  Those episodes were demoralizing and cathartic.  In the aftermath I always felt ashamed to be so out of control, and relieved that I could get it out of my system.

Purging myself in that fashion made it possible for me to keep up the toughness when I really needed it.  The facade could be maintained when I had business to conduct, or even while doing simple things such as shopping for groceries.  Lately, being tough has kept me going at least at minimum speed.  The engine ticks over with just enough impetus for me to keep up the job search, think through new pathways my life may take, and to be in the present with my Wee Lass.

Being tough has a price.  It takes energy.  It takes dedication.  It takes resolve.  Three things in short supply in this, my third month of being 'between employments'.  I can't always keep the mask on, and if there is a saving grace to being out of work, it is that I have plenty of alone time to let the mask slip.

This does not equate with feeling good about it.  It is a stupefying blend of that low morale and catharsis I alluded to earlier.  An unpleasant but necessary thing, I guess.

Another facet to this toughness, is that it isn't always a bad thing that tears off the mask.  I find that beauty will often have the same effect, especially beauty as manifested by Love.  I was reminded of this tonight as I tucked in my daughter at her bed time, a simple act which nearly brought me to my knees.

I indulged her tonight, letting her play computer games for a bit longer than usual.  I noticed her starting to slump a little, apple cheek on delicate hand, with a few yawns.  She shut down the games unprompted, looked at me and said "I'm pooped."  We shared a chuckle, and because she had earlier done her bedtime ablutions, we picked two books to read before turning in.

She was sleepy, so the usual bedtime shenanigans ("IwantwaterWhere'smystuffedanimalsTurnethpillowoverDaddy!") were limited in scope.  She snuggled into her pillows with her face toward me.  The bedside light had a soft glow on her face as I brushed the hair back from her eyes.

Sitting there at the edge of her bed, I brushed back the last strand of her hair and in the light I could see a faint spray of small freckles on her cheeks and dusting the bridge of her nose.  She didn't look angelic or otherworldly; that would have been cliche. What she looked, though, was simply beautiful.  Beautiful in an honest, open way that made my heart catch in my chest.  Beautiful in the way a sunset can look, or morning light refracting through the crest of a wave.

Beauty to bring a tough guy to his knees.

Faint and dizzy, I rested my hand on her cheek, sitting quietly until I could catch my breath.  The mask cracked a little, tectonic plates slipping past one another in my heart.  I leaned in to say goodnight and "I love you, sweetpea" to which she murmured sleepily "I love you, too, daddy."

In that instant, as it always happens, I felt weak and invincible simultaneously.  Hearing words like that enables me to take off the mask, set aside the armor, and rest.  It enables me to feel human, and blessed that I had anything at all to do with creating such beauty.  Blessed, indeed, that such beauty loves me in return.

19 August 2010


White gold days
soaked with humidity
browned by sun
staggered by loss

But a breeze blows
lifting weary head
taking the heart along
on the saltwater wind

Breakers over the seawall
washing the soul anew
as the water engulfs me
filling me with you

filling me with memory, and love.

18 August 2010

More to Clean

There is a room in the house, a room unused for days at a time.  The house itself larger now than it was then in those flush days of cheerfully made decisions.  "Salad days" the old-timers call them.  The man shuffles his way through another empty room to stand in the doorway of the hollow/not hollow space.  He holds a small book and a sleeved CD in one hand, the other hand massages his temples.  The man pauses and considers that the salad days are over, if they ever were, and the space he would have eaten in contains no furniture.

The salad days are over.  The rain stopped coming for visits, and the creek beds are sere and forlorn.

To say that the room is empty would be a misnomer.  To say that it is desolate is true, in the same way that mesas in the desert appear desolate.  Tortured terrain, dry, sun-baked and littered with rocks.  The room has a single bookcase, the only representative of the species furniture.  The floor is crowded with a few boxes, but mostly stacks of books and magazines awaiting a home.  Mesas of paper populating a desert of unrealized hopes and wishes.

The floor is faintly gray under an irregular patchwork of thin dust.  The man sighs and reminds himself to clean it.  He swallows hard on a weak bittersweet backwash of plans and predictions that he once mistook for certainty.  The dust had no place in the original scenario, it was unnecessary, it would have not collected because the room would have been thrumming with activity.  There would have been music, and the unpredictable squeaks of the office chair.  Light would have poured through the windows, providing light to match the strength of the creative ferment arising from the occupant and books and computer.

He sighs and forces himself to cross the room.  The scrape of his feet on the wood floor is loud in the silence, accompanied by reverb off the plaster walls and ceiling.  Diffracted through the venetian blinds, a faint glow of cloud-swathed sunlight trickles weakly through the tree out side and washes the room in pastel luminance.  A bird warbles softly, which makes the man long for a home that is complete.  A nest, safe and dry.

The man places the CD and book on the top shelf, and tries to ignore the piles of books.  He avoids looking into the far corner.  There may be a phantom, there, the wispy outline of a desk that may never be.  A desk, the man reminds himself, he was counting on to provide a port in the storm of his life.

There is room in the house, mostly unused, and he avoids spending time there.  Keeping the door closed on memory and desire is a strenuous job, but necessary.  The house is bigger than it looked, and emptier, than it was in those salad days.  It holds dreams there, and desires, but rarely is there enough energy to clean.

Tomorrow, he says, I'll dust.

17 August 2010

Curious Case of a Punk in the Daytime

Jason's last thought as he considered throwing the kid over the railing was I can't believe he called me 'boy'...

The kid was scared, rightly so, because he knew his ass was about to meet the river the hard way.  Eyes wide like dinner plates,  cheap beer breath washing over Jason's face in a series of gulping drafts, little whimpers escaping his lips.  Jason stared back.  His fists had a death grip on the belt buckle and a balled up wad of the dirty wife-beater the punk was wearing.  There was a small tearing noise; the fabric was beginning to rip.  Jason tightened his hold.

"Hey, man, leave him alone" said one of the kid's friends, "He was just messin' around."  Jason pushed the kid harder into the rail and turned to look at the one who had spoken.  There were two other boys on the bridge, one brown-haired, the other black-haired, eyeing Jason like they saw a werewolf.  They were both dressed almost like the kid: tank top, baggy jeans and some kind of Converse-type knock-off sneakers.  All three of them had skinhead haircuts.  Jason marveled at how much he loathed chumps like them.

More knuckleheads from the same shop Jason though in a blaze of contempt, can't even be original in their fake plastic rebelhood.  He bared his teeth; the friends flinched and took a step back, nearly tripping over the bike laying in the roadway.  Jason growled.

"Step on the bike, and you're goin' over the rail with your buddy."  Their eyes widened, like deer in the headlights of Jason's glare.

"I've had enough of this bullshit,"  Jason spat and turned his gaze back to the kid, "because I'm pissed.  Yell shit at me once and I can ignore it.  But three times?  Hell, no."

Jason lifted his arms.  The kid was trying to stand flat, but his heels were coming off the ground.  He was shaking, hard.  Jason grinned, a wolf about to pounce.  A tired wolf.

"Plus, your asshole buddy here, he said 'Hey, give me that bike, boy!'.  You think that's funny?  Showing off for dipshit friends?"  Jason snarled, lifting the kid off the deck.  "DO I LOOK LIKE A BOY TO YOU?" he shouted and tilted the kid's head over the side of the bridge.  The kid started to cry, pleading for Jason to let him go. 

"Hey, m-m-an, d-d-on't do it, he was just kidding! We weren't gonna steal the bike!" wailed the black-haired kid, "C'mon let him go!"  The sound of the river below the bridge deck was unusually loud.  It reminded Jason that in some spots, the rocks weren't that far below the surface of the water.

Jason was about to heave the kid over the rail, tired of all the noise and disrespect.  Of all the indignities he had suffered in the last month, for some reason being called 'boy' by a liquored-up pre-pubescent who wasn't shaving yet, well, that was the last straw.  Almost as if there was nothing in his life he could do without someone heaping on some shit.

The kid was looking at him with wild eyes, whimpering, and there was a thin string of drool running down the side of his face.  Jason said "Tough shit" and made to finally dump the kid over the rail.  The kid, in turn, screamed loud, a piercing screech.  Something clicked in Jason's head, a little voice whispering Let him go, man, not worth it, not for some dumbass punk with a mouth bigger than his brain.

Out of the corner of his eye Jason saw the two friends rushing at him.  Just before the kid became airborne, Jason shifted backwards.  The kid fell forward, and Jason used the momentum to pivot and slingshot the punk dead-on into his buddies.  There was a meaty sound of bodies colliding, and all three of the punks collapsed in heap on the gritty concrete of the bridge.  The brown-haired one smacked his head into the deck, and screamed in pain.  Jason bit his tongue to stifle a laugh, then felt a wave of regret wash over his tired body.  he took a step towards the pile of bodies.  They all flinched as Jason bent down to stare at the kid, the one who had called him 'boy'.  He grimaced.

"Don't ever call me boy, again, got that?"  He pinned the kid to the deck with a cold stare.  The kid just nodded, twitching like bait.  "Good."

Jason stood, walked to his bike and got on.  He stifled a laugh as he realized he had not removed his bike helmet during the whole ugly incident.  Stupid kids probably think I'm crazy he thought, adjusting the chin strap, but maybe that means they will leave me alone.  He pushed off, low gearing it as he made his way up the hill to the trail head.  Behind him he heard the kids muttering curses, sounds of people standing up and brushing gravel off pants.  He didn't look back.

15 August 2010

Summer of Love, Lost

You, the madeleine
to my Proust.
Form of peach,
soft in my palm.

Caress and peel,
your skin, my hands
Gasping memory,
your taste, my tongue.

In summer windows
the sky turning purple,
brazen sun sets on me
as I swallow you

and weep, slightly.

14 August 2010

An Erstwhile Country Gentleman

It was a long drive into the midsection of my home state, out closer to the mountains and deep in to farm/horse/cow/vegetable territory.  It was part scouting mission, part stress reducer.  The walls were starting to feel a little close which meant it was time to move.

The destination was really no destination, other than a broad loop through the countryside adjacent to the east side of the Catoctin Mountains*.  By a quirk of circumstance,  Frederick County is home to three old covered bridges, all within about 15 miles of each other.  Visiting them all makes for a nice diversion.  Two of them even have places to picnic nearby, one even has a park.

The iPod on the dash, knapsack filled with maps and camera, cooler with sandwich and a drink.  I was all set.  It has been years since I had been on a spontaneous road trip.  Back when I was a teen aged Gumbo, some friends of mine and I would go on them all the time.  All you needed was a car (them) and gas money (me) and voila! Instant fun.

So it was today.  Driving the car, setting the course and singing badly along with the tunes.  A prime opportunity to shake off the cloud o' gloom that has been hovering over me lately.  I find it a great way to clear some mindspace.  It is also a pleasure to be on the road without an agenda or a timetable or stuck in with the other rodents in rush hour.  For me to say "I'll get there when I get there" was an enormous relief.  The bridges were all that and a bag of chips.  Very picturesque, although some brighter sunlight would have been better.  Not to worry, still took some good pictures.

Once up near the mountains, my course was mostly on side roads, winding through a small town and past farms and pastures.  The sky was cloudy, but no rain.  I saw a plethora of horses, cows and old farmsteads.  Say what you will about manure, but sometimes the smell of it is oddly comforting**.

Did it make me want to become a dairy farmer?  Only a little.  What I really enjoyed was the openness and the relative quiet.  There is something magical and soothing about the sound of water over rocks, wind in the grass and the sight of old barns.  If I could, I'd buy one of the old, abandoned farmsteads I saw (amazing "tin" roofs) out there.  I'd buy for the sheer sake of being to look out the window and up at the mountains in the morning.  I'd live there for the sake of the aroma of new mown hay.  I probably wouldn't raise any livestock, except maybe chickens, but I would grow a lot of alfalfa and hay for local sale and fodder for the other farms out there.

I'd buy it for the sake of finding that room with windows on two sides, that overlooks a shade tree or maybe a creek, where I could put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, after putting on a pot of tea.  I'd open the window in spring to feel the breeze and smell the air.  I'm guessing there would be an old dog at my feet, and a expert mouser of a cat sitting on the porch.

I'd buy it so I could have some room to think and breathe.  I'd buy it so in early summer, I could invite you all over for a cookout and a party.  And we'd all have fresh peaches for dessert, and laugh as the juice dribbles down our chins.  I'd buy it so we could watch the fireflies come out a dusk, and think life a fine thing indeed.

Join me, please?

*Gumbo Fun Fact: Camp David (the presidential retreat) is in the Catoctins.  Whee!  I did not see the President, however.
**I speak here of cow manure in grassy pastures, not in the pens of factory farms or the like. And let's not even discuss pig manure. Yikes.

13 August 2010

Have Nails, Don't Have a Hammer

Instead of writing this morning, I read a book and fell asleep.

Instead of writing this afternoon, I took photographs and looked for a job.

Instead of writing this evening,  I fled the house and went for a bike ride.

In short, I feel as if I accomplished nothing.  My head is bursting with thoughts, ideas, tirades, screeds, dialogues, poems, outrage, anxiety, resignation, joy, fear...and I can't get it to settle down.  Everyone and his brother is telling me I need to write every day.  This creates anxiety when I fail to write.  Rather, when I fail to write anything of consequence.  This I haven't felt motivated to do because of my life situation, and because I keep reading amazing, wonderful things that others have written, and I think to myself..."It's been done."  I know, I know, I'm supposed to disregard that notion.  I'm supposed to believe that I am the Shizznit, my voice matters, I'm interesting, I have a "unique" perspective, blah, blah blah...

That may be true.  I cannot trust myself to offer an objective, realistic assessment of the writing I do.  Often it's too close and I fail to spot the flaws.  Other times I suffer from the old problem of not wanting to risk rejection, because these are my ideas.  Ideas are important to me.  Perhaps I place too much stock in the ideas being the measure of the person, and this is the root of the problem.

I once told myself, back when I was consumed by the brashness of youth, that without ideas, I am nothing.  Without ideas I have nothing to differentiate myself from slime-molds, rocks or chimpanzees.  The body is a meat suit that exists to transport the brain and manifest its wishes and reactions.  It is the mind that is the repository of everything that matters.  The vault that holds the ideas.

The crisis: I have relied on ideas for so long, trusting that I would know what I am doing, and look where I am.  Jobless, lonely and wondering what in the hell I am going to do next.

Because I don't know. I have no ideas.

There is a line in a song* by the Avett Brothers that says "Decide what to be and go be it".  The phrase has been swirling around in my head for days now.  It sounds so simple.  I wish I could decide what to be.

For me to decide what to be, I have to return to the ideas I have had and have been having about myself, and what I want.  It pains me, makes me anxious, to sift through the ideas in my head and be excited by what I find.  The excitement is great.  There is, however, no trust.  My notions of who I was, who I wanted to be, have been tossed out the window by what has come to pass.  What once was light has become weight.

Tonight I sit here with my laptop, pounding the keys in an attempt to shed some weight.  There are many things I want to be, many things I think I want to be, but what of those are the things I need to be?

I'm clutching a handful of nails, and cursing my lack of a hammer.  Tell me, who do I want to be?

*Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise from I and Love and You.

11 August 2010

Gumbo gets Inked!

What a fine way to get Wednesday going!  My story "Running Lights" is featured today at Indie Ink!  Please take a few moments and check it out.  While you are there, browse the other writers and artists, drop some comment love.  Good stuff, people, good stuff!

10 August 2010

'Lie to Me' Tuesdays: Short Fiction

Gumbo Fun Fact: The following is a revised version of a story I posted to another fiction/prose blog, back in January 2009.  it was for a writing challenge for short, short fiction.  I can't recall which blog, but I rediscovered the original in my archived material, and thought it worth another pass.  Originally titled "The Death of Gordianus", I made a few edits and present it for your reading pleasure:

Full summer in Rome and the white-hot disc of the sun was just past the zenith. Gordianus blinked rapidly in a futile attempt to rid his eyes of sand. The buzzing of flies was thunder in his ears, almost drowning out the roar of the crowd. Gordianus could feel the infernal insects crawling over his chest and belly, their tiny feet like feathers on his blood-streaked skin. He thought it would have tickled if he hadn’t been in such agony.

Gordianus corrected himself: only part of him was in agony. He glanced down to what was left of his belly. The tiger had fought hard. The evidence lay in the sand, bloody and clotted underneath lumps of flesh. Gordianus could not feel his legs. He made to stand and the legs moved not at all. His back was broken. A wheezing sob escaped his throat, which spasmed as he sucked in a lungful of gritty air that scoured his raw windpipe. The fallen gladiator coughed weakly and spat into the sand under his right cheek. Wet and hot, he could see four fat beads of blood. The drops congealed on the sand, hard and bright as the eyes of a tarantula.

Gordianus felt a wave of dizziness wash over him. Cold crept in as the blood leaked out of his ruined abdomen. He wanted to wipe his face, but found his shield arm was pinned, trapped under something large and furred. Swiveling his head, he turned to find his face mere inches away from the enormous fangs of the dead tiger. The mouth was gaping open slightly, a thin foam of bloody spittle trailing out onto the sand. Gordianus could smell the remains of its breath, a fetid combination of wet iron and rotting meat. A huge paw rested on the sand between them. He resisted the urge to reach out and shake it. The eyes of the tiger were half closed as if awakening from a nap. Just beyond the thickly muscled shoulders, the blade of a heavy sword jutted out from between two ribs, the iron cross of its hilt stark against the sky. Gordianus realized his last blow had been lucky. He must have hit the lungs even as the tiger was ripping into Gordianus’ belly. “My friend”, he thought, “If only we had been sleeping, lying on the plains of my homeland. I am sorry we have come to such a shameful end.”

The gladiator’s eyes began to dim, and he knew he was dying. He lolled his head back, seeking one more glimpse of the Colosseum that had become his second home. He waved his sword hand feebly in goodbye; the approaching slaves thought Gordianus was trying to send them away. They hesitated, in awe of the fighter. His mouth twitched up in a small smile, shuddering as the final breaths left his lungs. As his vision went black, he mouthed a prayer, beseeching the gods to rest his soul with the others trapped among the stones of the arena.

The tiger said nothing, mute and unseeing, Gordianus’ hand resting on its massive paw.

08 August 2010

Broken String

Clash played on the stereo,
teenage wreck party long ago.
He sat, girl in lap, laughing
as I mouthed the words.

Coolness was his light,
Basking in it, my lot.
Heard him saying
"That's my brother"

Affection just made it
through the buzz blanket
wrapped around my head:
In that moment, I belonged.

Clash on the stereo tonight
all guitars and sneers
and me mouthing the words
to his picture in my head

No beer tonight, too pathetic,
Besides I want the clear memory
of him unvarnished, unaltered,
of that guitar in his hands

Mouthing the words again,
theater of the mind lit
by his crooked grin and
woodpecker laugh.

I know the songs,
"Know Your Rights" with guitar!
and by all rights, my brother,
you should be here

Touched by madness,
Loved by gods and mortals,
a vibrant broken string
uncoils in my heart.

In memory of my Big Bro.

07 August 2010

The Dropoff

There's that scene in Finding Nemo where Marlin and Coral find themselves face-to-face with a huge badmutha of a barracuda.  The barracuda is hovering there in open water like a demon.  This image hasn't left my head since I saw it for the first time years ago.  I tell myself its only a movie, but my subconscious says otherwise.  This time of year, the demons hang close, reaching out to pull me into the deep.

As many long-time readers already know, it was in August seven years ago that my preemie infant son died, about 2-1/2 weeks after his twin sister had passed away.  The road out of the badlands of grief has been long and difficult.  The heart of summer has never been easy for me since that time, although I had begun to achieve some balance.  It had been a delicate balance with constant adjustment.  This balance was lost and any peace of mind was lost last year.

Also as many readers already know,  my Big Bro suddenly passed away last August just one day after my son's date.  So the dog days of summer began then, and continued this year, with a horrific 1-2 punch to the heart and soul of me and others.  Suffice to say it is understatement to call August a 'difficult' month, emotionally. This August has been particularly bad.  Well, this summer in general has been bad. I've been brittle and melancholy and snappish and exhausted and out of it.  Now I know why, although I'm always surprised now at how I'm surprised by these feelings.

I feel as if the road out of the badlands has been a steep climb up with a sudden plunge into the abyss.  I find myself clinging to the precipice as tightly as I can, but my legs are dangling out over depths that fade from violet to purple to black.  Over my shoulder, I can see that barracuda hovering above the inky black, eyes and teeth aglitter in the pale light from above.  He darts in now and again to test my defenses but hasn't gone in for the kill.  I flail and swing, hoping to fend it off for another day.

I'm not sure how long this state of affairs will last.  Part of me keeps fighting, and that part is exhausted.  Another part just wants to let go and get it over with.  All of me wants to get away from the dropoff.  It is mighty cold and lonely when you miss your blood, so much.

05 August 2010

(She is my) Firefly

Evening light falls through the windows in gauzy shades of salmon and peach. It shines infrequently and never fails to get my attention.  My imagination fancies it to be the color of her mind and heart, when she thinks of me.

I stood transfixed before the accidental rose windows of my dining room.  It was a soft mackerel sky so beautiful I wished it would last forever.  I do not recall how long I stood there.  Eventually the crick in my neck persuaded me to move.  I walked into the kitchen.

The kitchen, like the dining room, is on the northerly side of the house.  The quality of light is almost always good.  Perfect light for an artist,  or a chef,  or maybe even a photographer.  This is what I tell myself when I cook and eat and read,  standing at the stove or hunched over my laptop keyboard while sitting at the dining table.  Tonight, my humble kitchen finally looked like it really belonged to me.  Just a feeling I had basking there in the light.

I digress.  This wasn't to be about my navel-gazing ways.  It was to be about my daughter,  and something she said earlier in the day.  My reminder was a jar I had resting on the windowsill.  The jar is about quart-sized.  It once was packed full of banana pepper rings soaking in vinegar brine.  I have a weakness for peppers matured in a liquid acetylhalide* matrix, so the jars are no stranger to my household.  I had kept this one thinking I could do something else with it.  Turns out I was right.

My daughter and I had spent a fine day together.  We visited a nature center, watched some television and played card games.  Before I took her back home,  we were discussing what we had seen: geese, ducks, a fine display on wolves.  She was sitting on the couch awash in the north light.  Suddenly she looks at me and says:

"Daddy, this weekend night can we catch some fireflies?"
"Of course we can, sweetie, I already have a jar" I replied.
"Yay! I want to see the glow!"  She seemed quite pleased.

So I am standing in the kitchen, running my hands over the cool glass.  Visions of me and her running around in the backyard, giggles and delight unbound.  I was daydreaming about love and fireflies, and the fragile vessels in which we contain them.  The fireflies were swirling languidly about in the jar.  Their warm glow suffused the room with golden radiance.  

My heart was in my hands, filling up with love spilling over from her.  In that moment of grace was everything I had been chasing for months.  I smiled.  I set the jar down carefully on the sill, reminding myself to do the same with my heart.  The holes it carries, like those in the lid on the jar, will let love breathe along with the fireflies.

We will catch them, and know love. 

*I totally made up the word "acetylhalide".  I'm such a dork.

04 August 2010

Mirror, Cracked

My eyes rove the terrain
of you, my home country
discovered when the world was new
and we celebrated our founding

I cannot look at your hands
without feeling them on my skin,
a violin played by a master
pulling notes from the void

I breathe your scent
and think of orchids,
I hold your hands
knowing the souls of roots

That was then, this is now,
in the evening of our days,
I kiss your neck, the taste
of tricyclics in your sweat

And your eyes, blankness
on and off like a switch,
Ghosts in the mirror
pleading for your return.

01 August 2010

God, Stephen King and Irish Gumbo Walk into a Bar...

Not really. We did enjoy a bike ride together, in a sense.

For the first time in months, I am reading a book for more than five minutes at a time.  The book is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King.  Stop rolling your eyes and sighing, I know, I know, I was supposed to have read this long ago.  Cut me some slack, I've been busy. Lazy, as well, but let's not discuss that, shall we?

It was Mr. King who roused me off my lazy arse this day. I refer to him as Mr. because writing 'It was Stephen who...' seemed wrong, somehow. I do not know him personally, although that has rarely restrained my informality in these posts of mine. No, it had more to do with that he's Stephen King, an author of accomplishments so well known the lower reaches of I have yet to even touch.  I'm not in that league.*

While there is much to like in On Writing, he wrote two things in particular that grabbed my attention.  I'm going to take them in reverse order. The second one shamed me into heading out the door, but it was the first one that garnered more think time.

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others:  read a lot and write a lot."  This was the second thing, the firestarter if you will.  I quote him here because of its brevity and its power.  Yes, it may seem obvious,  but how many of us do those things?  By reading, he didn't mean the backs of cereal boxes or five minutes skimming paragraphs in a book on top of a stack of books, destined to be half-ignored.  By writing, he didn't mean a paragraph of hastily scribbled ideas on a torn sheet of notepad paper and cryptic words in the margins of an impromptu day planner.

He meant reading books,  many books.  He meant paragraphs and word counts reaching into the thousands.

I hung my head a bit.  I don't recall having read a book to completion in maybe two years now.  My writing output used to be,  as many of you probably already know, within the range of the professional.  I know I have not written everyday in so long I can vaguely recall ever having done so.  Somewhere back there, the wheels fell off the bus.

I became restless at this revelation.  Action was needed, but desire to write was lacking.  I resolved to go for a long bike ride.  I put the rack on the car, put my bike on the rack and headed off to one of my favorite parks,  one with plenty of paved trails that I could easily ride with my hybrid tires and sore butt.  I was hoping for some solitude.

I must have missed the memo,  because it seemed to be "Large groups of people picnic and party day" at the park.  There was a Baltimore Ravens fan club and a very large church group,  packs of mountain bikers and at least two separate birthday parties.  Fortunately, it is a big park,  and the trails were surprisingly empty.  That did not mean there was no one to see.  On the contrary, everywhere I looked I kept seeing the one grouping of people I was least in a mood to see: happy couples.  The place was lousy with them, walking on the road, in picnic shelters, wading in the river.

Call me a curmudgeon, but all that togetherness was mildly irritating.

This was in large part due to the first thing in On Writing which I mentioned above.  Let me quote it in full:
 Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.  They don't have to make speeches.  Just believing is usually enough.
I was taken aback by this because I understood it, deeply and in a way almost painful.  The quote is in reference to the support he received from his wife,  but it spoke to a broader idea that whacked me in the head like a rubber bullet.  Seeing all the couples strolling together,  some hand in hand, only hardened an already painful truth:  I lack that kind of support.

I've been fortunate to have known that belief more than once in my life, but things change, they always do.  Waves from the ocean of life keep pounding our shores and the edges begin abrading, pieces fall and get swept into the undertow, never to be seen again.  It is true that some things don't seem to change much, but nothing and no one is invulnerable.  Certainly not I.  My ego has finally admitted it.  My pride continues to choke on it.

I attempted to put the notion aside to concentrate on the bike ride.  I was successful for some time as I dug in and pedaled my way up false flats, admired the gently flowing river and the butterflies amongst the leaves.  I felt so good just being in action without having to consider every move I made.  Blue patches of sky mingled with green leaves in the sunlight, lulling me into a peaceful mood.

Then God showed up.  A big rock smack in the middle of the pond.

He wasn't there in the sense of poof! suddenly He is riding alongside me on a bike.  God arrived, as He often does, in the guise of a question posed by my subconscious.

Why is it, the little voice said,  that so many other people get to be with someone, but not me?  Why, God, is it so?

I refrained from yelling an epithet and kept on pedaling.  Now was really not the time to get into another running argument between me and Him.  It was such a beautiful day, and I was enjoying myself.  This pretty much guaranteed at least there would be a brisk dialogue. 

In my head, I couldn't see a face, just a presence.  The presence appeared to be sitting in a leather club chair.  The faint aroma of cigars was in the air.  I heard the tinkle of ice in a glass, followed by a sigh.  God spoke.

"Who says you are alone?" the voice said.
"I do.  Because I am.  You of all...beings...should know that."  I murmured without turning my head.
"Ah, yes, I do know that. Omniscience has its uses."  

A pause, more ice hitting the glass.  I think I even heard crunching noises.  I stifled a giggle at the notion of the Creator of the Universe chewing ice just like my daughter.  The presence spoke again.

"My addled son, you may be alone right now, this is true.  But you know how I work.  Mysterious ways and all that.  You really believe it is hopeless?"

I gritted my teeth before responding, "Do you really want me to answer that?  Nothing seems to be working according to any plan I have ever had.  I've been wrong or misguided so many times now I've effectively given up on wanting to want anything." 

The professional pessimist in me was taking over. 

"Surely you've noticed all that bitching I do about being lonely."  It was true.  I was irritated at myself for opening that door again. God or whatever it was just chuckled, stood up and made to leave. He said "Will you do something for Me?"  I heard a the faint squeak of an old wood door being opened.

Who says no to God, especially when He is being polite? "What?" I muttered.
"Be patient...Don't give up on the things you love, just because you think love has given up on you."  The door creaked shut, and then He was gone.

By now, I was approaching a narrow footbridge, so I halted the bike and dismounted to get some water before I walked my bike across.  A set of park service historical signs was opposite me on the other side of the path.  Next to the signs was a young couple on bikes,  talking softly to each other while they read the displays.  I sighed.  I twisted the cap from the water bottle and drank.  The tepid water was faintly bitter in my mouth, or so it seemed.  The couple rode off down the path in the opposite direction.

It wasn't the water in my mouth that tasted bitter,  it was the joke I had just heard.  A joke with a punchline I didn't exactly get, swirling around in a jaded mouth.

*In comparison, I may as well be on another planet.  Maybe the Pluto of planets in the Solar System of Writing.  Except Pluto is no longer a planet. Jeez, that made it worse, didn't it?