when you were only shadow and wonder, I asked an absent God to show me your face in a dream. Because the thought of missing the moment, the signs, the signals, of walking by you and not feeling that sense of instant recognition crushed my fragile heart.
But in that dream you were often unknowable, infinitely unfamiliar, a blur of features and colors outside my feeble ability to comprehend. Or worse, an amalgamate of every love and lust, imprisoned in comfortable names, fragrances, walking with recycled steps, singing reprocessed songs, and I would wake in fear, convinced I could never know you the way I was certain I had to know you.
But here in the time after, in the same room together, my old heart loving you the way only old hearts can love, I marvel at my good fortune, the life I never expected or knew I wanted unfolding in remarkably ordinary days and nights. You rise from the sofa, a half finished novel in your hand, take the three short steps that separate us. I look up, expectant. You smile that crooked smile I adore, kiss me softly on the head.
It is more than enough.
I’d been excited to read it, the book he’d written about playing poker, being in the big one, the tournament of tournaments. Not that I actually played poker, card games, games of chance, though that would lend credibility, but still I was interested, intrigued, curious (another list in threes) as to the hows and whys (only two?). His fictions struck me as nearly perfect, and though perfection itself is boring, near perfection, like the no skip album, is a treasure.
We won’t talk about that one book, the second effort, where I could only finish 113 pages before admitting failure. It isn’t the fiction’s fault. I completely blame myself.
But there it was, the last of his books I didn’t own, hadn’t read, right in front of me in the hotel room, purchased from the big store in The Big Apple, 16 miles of books. From the first page it was a struggle. Pretentious and dull, overwritten and deliberately (it seemed to me) difficult. Zero flow, Unfunny jokes, and so little writing about what I thought the writing was supposed to be about I checked the cover and blurb over and over to be sure I was in the right place, reading the right book.
And then came the heart stuff.
That pressing pain not so much immobilizing as terrifying. A pain that shouldn’t be, one that had no physical point of origin, but yet seemed to be cracking my sternum from the inside out, waking me from sleep, making the previous days of frequently being hunched over, gasping for air, dizzy, sweating, filled with confusion, seem like a welcome walk through light rain.
So many long sentences to say something so simple. My chest hurt. My heart wasn’t working right.
But it isn’t simple, is it? It is horrifying in its complexity and significance. And while I sat in the taxi, the driver speeding through the 2 AM empty mid-town streets, beseeching me under his breath to not die in his cab, I couldn’t shake the disappointing thought that the last book I would read was so awful.
Silly sure, but in my mind a cruel twist.
Of all the books to read last, I’d picked a complete dud.
I didn’t die, which was wonderful. There have been many more books, but the thought remains in the back of my brain, and from time to time it pushes forward. There will be a last book, a last song. There will be a final kiss, a final I love you. There will be a last sleep, a last sunrise. We know this and we don’t. We understand this and we don’t.
We want this and we don’t.
The idea occurred to me several times before, but I’d never had the courage. And honestly, this was the first time an opportunity presented itself when I was actually in a relationship, when any initials I carved wouldn’t have been and exercise in imagination. Cowardice disguised as confidence. One day, RSC hearts KEC or ABC or HIJ will mean something more than a long list of letters inferring a long list of never been lovers.
Which is exactly as pathetic as it sounds.
But she was different. Or I was different around her, which might be saying the same thing.
She liked winter rains, the sort that iced your eyebrows and lashes, made walking dangerous, filled with ankle twisting, bottom bruising obstacles. And she preferred silence when given the choice, her feet up on the sofa, across my lap while I read a book, no words shared for hours.
I also liked the rain, but preferred the October variety. As for silence, well, I didn’t believe it existed. There was always some little noise, a scratching in the back of my brain, which I trusted, if only because it helped me feel substantial, genuinely present.
One warm afternoon late in September, we hiked into the woods along a favorite trail for almost an hour (autumn leaves scattered across the ground, reds, browns, and my favorite yellows piling up, begging to be stomped or kicked about), rarely speaking, until we came upon a massive oak, somehow left unmarked among the aspens and elms lining the path, all etched with layer after layer of scribbles that stood out like scars on skin.
We stood in front of the tree, marveling at its unlikeliness.
“I can’t help but think,” she started, then paused. “No, you’ll think I’m being silly.”
I shook my head, somehow stopping myself from adding phrases which would only detract from the moment. I adore words, but I often say the wrong ones at the wrong times.
“I feel like this tree appeared out of nowhere, in this moment, in this place, just for us.”
I pulled my knife from its leather sheath, then walked forward, keeping my eyes on the tree, convinced she was right and if I looked away for even a moment it would disappear. With my free hand, I touched the bark. Deep, rough grooves touched back, and for an instant I thought the tree quivered beneath my fingers. I pulled away, looking up at the branches far above my head, swaying gently in the light breeze. A pale blue sky seemed impossibly far away. I tightened my grip on the handle of the knife, turned my attention back to the trunk, and selected the location to make my first cut.
In my head, I imagined the task already complete. I could see each letter already formed, rising out from the wood, tangible evidence of our connection, hers and mine, our shared adoration and affection. I wanted to say one word out loud, shout it, but it came as a whisper- love- because I did love her, and I believed she loved me.
I imagined other outings we’d take, coming back to this tree, staring up at the crudely carved initials somehow meant to represent us, hoping our love would last as long as the tree itself. Someday, we would bring our children, spread a blanket on the ground, share a picnic lunch and stories about the inevitability of our meeting, the permanence of our devotion. Our timeless love.
I wanted to cling to this image, but before I could lock it away in my head, store it like a memory my heart sunk and I knew.
What a ludicrous notion. I suddenly wanted to be anywhere but here, in front of the magnificent tree.
Before I could compose my thoughts, she stepped up beside me and put her hand on my shoulder.
“I don’t want you to do it either,” she whispered.
I slid the knife back into the sheath, put both hands upon the oak and wished it well.
Without looking back, we headed down the trail together, towards the parking lot where we’d left her car. A cooler in the back seat held cold water and some good chocolate.
Fifteen steps down the trail, she slid her hand into mine.
The afternoon I met Craig Arnold was a stressful one. It was my first day at the University of Utah (I’d just transferred from SLCC), and I was trying to pull a fast one. I had not taken the prerequisite for English 5520 (advanced poetry writing workshop), but regardless, had put myself on the waiting list. I’d been writing poetry for most of my life, and thought I had some skill. But that didn’t mean the professor was going to agree with me and allow me into the class.
Thirty one years old, Craig was a PhD candidate, the English department’s golden boy, about to have his first book published. He was the Yale Younger Poet of the Year for 1998, and from the very first moments, of our relationship I wanted his approval.
Craig asked me to email a writing sample, and if it wasn’t crap (his word), he’d sign off and let me stay in the class.
The workshop was small, 12 students, and my presence would kept no one else from joining the class, but I stressed over the writing sample for days. I highly doubt he gave it all that much thought, but he told me the poems were passable, that there was some potential.
“It’s not all bad,” he said.
In the workshop setting he was absolutely ruthless and absolutely always on point. Never before (or since) in my writing life have I felt like someone genuinely wanted my writing to be successful as when Craig was ripping apart my poetry.
It was never personal, and looking back it was in that class where I learned criticism had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the writing.
I am grateful for that.
Craig was also in a rock band called Iris. He played guitar and sang terrible songs with really odd lyrics. I saw them perform at a coffee shop in downtown Salt Lake City. Forty people were there, some of whom were likely annoyed that their late night coffee came with the added price of listening to live music.
And he had literary groupies who stood in front of the stage, sang all the songs, hung around after the set just because. Of course Craig soaked every moment of attention.
At the end of the semester, we gathered at the apartment of one of the members of our workshop to celebrate, drink beer, say goodbye. Craig’s book was coming out soon, but all he wanted was to talk about the female body builder roommate of our cohort (her photos from competitions were all over the walls), and how many times he’d had sex that day.
Three times in case you were wondering, and with a wink in my direction, he implied he was ready for a fourth.
But that was his personality- Brash, bold, confident to the extreme. And oh, how he could write. His poetry blew me away. My favorites were his narratives. One in particular was composed in couplets that flowed seamlessly from end rhymes to slants, rich and eye. His stories were precise, and his writing clean, tight.
That night at the class party, five or six beers into a twelve bottle night, after I spent fifteen minutes complaining about my lack of writing success, my envy at his, without the slightest guile he shook his head and said “your day is coming. Be patient.”
The most important thing he taught me about writing poetry- Form is the vehicle, not the destination, which altered the way I approached writing, changed how I used words.
I saw him sporadically after my graduation. He’d show up at the library where I worked, and we talk about what he was doing. He always asked about my writing, and I always lied, telling him it was going great.
A little over ten years after our first meeting, I learned he’d gone missing while hiking on the small volcanic island of Kuchinoerabu, Japan. Searchers found traces of him on a trail near a high cliff and it is presumed he fell to his death.
I had not spoke to him or seen him in at least 8 years, but losing someone I thought of as an important guide on my writing path was hard.
I don’t know what made me think of him today or why I felt like I needed to write down a few of my memories.
Craig could rub people the wrong way, and there are likely more stories about the awful things he did than the positive ones, but he was always good to me. I admired him for his fearlessness, his talent, his friendship.
He only gave us two collections of poetry, but they are powerful and worth your time. Check them out here–
All of us have people who influenced/impacted our lives, changed our direction for the better. I’m curious about yours.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine tagged me in a Facebook post, challenging me to share a list of ten albums that had the most impact on me, and that still got regular play. I’ve made this sort of list many times in the past, and have my *go-to* albums I usually pull out whenever someone asks for my favorites.
I fully intended to do the same with this challenge, convinced that these records still were representative of my current tastes. I stood in front of the stacks of records and CDs, pulling out the albums I wanted to use. I made a mental note of them, made my first post.
I wrote a few paragraphs detailing why this record was important to me, how it has affected my musical appreciation and the sorts of music liking this record opened up for me.
So far so good.
Day two was much the same- an album, a description, an hour spent thinking about what that music has meant to me. Then my father commented that while he loved the album in question, it was not his favorite from the band. I was about to argue in defense of my choice when I realized it wasn’t my favorite either. In fact, it might have been my third favorite. At that moment, I realized this list was going to be very different from others I’d created. I no longer had interest in a list of favorites, but rather a list of records that pushed me forward.
Any mental notes I’d made about the remaining albums were tossed aside. With a different perspective and mission, I went through the records again. At least four of the titles I planned to use didn’t remain on the revised list. Some I never expected to be on the list suddenly needed to be there.
In the end, I think this current list is a much more accurate representation of my musical education. One realization, I talk a big game about my varied musical tastes, and while I do enjoy all sorts of music, my favorites reside in a very narrow style window. Which means I need to give more attention to other genres, styles, and see if one of those albums might push its way onto the list. Some are very close. Some I haven’t owned long enough to see where they take me.
It was a very fun project and as I always love listening to music, a great opportunity to spend ten days listening to the stuff that had the greatest impact.
Here is the list if you’re interested. It isn’t in any particular order.
Big Country- The Crossing
The Cure- Pornography
The Police- Synchronicity
David Bowie- The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
The Nocturnes- Aokigahara
Russian Circles- Station
Siouxsie and the Banshees- Peepshow
Nine Inch Nails- Pretty Hate Machine
If asked, what sort of list would you make?
I met a friend this morning at one of my favorite newish restaurants. Eating out for breakfast is among my greatest weaknesses, and I really should do it less. I’ll add that to the list of things I need to change.
I’ll make the joke myself- It’s a long list.
This friend and I, we are neighbors but haven’t interacted much, and really are just getting to know each other. Because of that every topic of discussion is new and littered with tiny little land mines. I shouldn’t have been surprised when the conversation went great. We negotiated the dangerous places with the practiced ease of humans who are decent at adulting, and don’t let little things offend or anger them. Neither of us tripped any wires. Nothing exploded. It was really good.
This morning, before I left, I anticipated some of the topics we might discuss, and gave some thought as to how I wanted to present my opinions and stories. I sat in the drivers seat of my car, and an image of my 25 year old self came to mind. That person was convinced his opinions and beliefs were rock solid, and would be slow to change if they ever did. That concreteness gave my life meaning, defined me as an individual and gave me a place as a member of certain groups, political or social.
Ideologies are interesting things.
The person I have become sees things in a more fluid manner. I’m less convinced of or concerned with the rightness of my opinions, more willing to listen and change than when I was younger. I don’t think that is a unique perspective, but it was a strange moment of clarity, one I didn’t expect to have this morning.
I liked how that felt, the freedom (to use a word I really dislike) fluidity offers me, and the opportunities for continued growth that perspective allows.
I’ve come to understand that my personal beliefs have nothing to do with the rightness, the actuality of anything. Sure, it’s nice when facts and what I think align, but the person I was (and most of us were) years ago would easily have equated that accidental alignment with an affirmation of everything and anything I thought about.
I’ll add that understanding to the list of things I don’t have to change about myself. It’s a shorter list…
Breakfast was delicious, by the way.
I arrive for work at the usual time. Fifteen minutes of chit chat with the dinner chef, George (later, he’ll earn the nickname Jorge Flambe’ after burning his eyebrows off lighting the convection oven), before daring to walk into the dish washing room where I’m certain my friend Darrell has left at least three trays behind for me to finish.
It’s not that he’s lazy (though I know he takes an hour nap each morning between the two breakfast rushes), because I’ve seen him work. And I want to believe it isn’t because he dislikes me and wants me to start my shift with something unpleasant. I should just ask him outright, but I’m only 18 years old, and the thought of confrontation still fills me with dread.
I’ve talked to Joel about it. He works with Darrell each morning. Also, he’s my best friend.
Joel says they often run out of time, and certain things take priority- The pans that must be ready for the next shift. The line that cannot be covered in debris when George comes in to work. The floor that must be swept of all food and filth or the head chef will be angry (though the thought of an angry Stewart almost makes me laugh).
So I swallow my frustrations and clean the leftover dishes, rinsing them with water so hot it scalds my skin (I’ve lost sensitivity to the point I have to test shower water with my elbow, unable to trust my fingers). Then I send them through the *sanitizer* before making my way back to the kitchen where a massive pile of green beans waits to be cut.
I pull a tape from my pocket -Nothing’s Shocking, by Jane’s Addiction- put it in the grease covered tape deck and press play. George hates this music, but allows me the honor of the first selection each shift. He gets to play all the classic rock he likes when the restaurant opens and the bus tours arrive.
On bus tour nights, I’ll be running between the dish room and the grill for the entire five hours the restaurant is open. There are only two of us and when 85-170 people descend on the dining room, George can’t cook all the burgers, fish, and chicken by himself.
I’m the jack of all trades- Dishwasher, food prep (I make the best cheesecakes, Cajun potatoes), short order cook, errand boy. Sometimes it is overwhelming, but most of the time I enjoy the routine. Even the days I get yelled at by the asshole who runs the front end become comical stories, and we all have our tales for sharing.
This night there are no buses at the hotel, only a few guests here for a midweek mountain getaway, and we are not anticipating much of a rush, so we talk more, laugh more, pause between tasks. George tells the same jokes, and I laugh at them like this is the first time I’ve heard them.
The tape ends and George puts on something atrocious by Aerosmith, and since I’d rather chew nails than listen to this, I excuse myself to run silverware to the dining room. The lights are still out and I don’t hear the usual bustle of servers getting ready for opening. Puzzled, I return to the kitchen.
“Hey George, isn’t John supposed to be opening tonight?”
“I think so.”
“Well, it’s quarter to five and there isn’t anyone out there.”
He replies with a string of profanities, then walks to the office to call the asshole who runs the front end. He shuts the door. I pour myself another coke from the soda machine. It is one of the perks, free soda. Also, we get one free meal a day, and 2$ a night lodging at the hotel. It’s a good gig, really. One night after my shift, I made a steak and cheese sandwich with the trimmings from the beef fillet. Best. Sandwich. Ever. I figure retail on it was close to 25 dollars.
I hear some muffled talking, then George’s raised voice. A curt goodbye and he is back in the kitchen.
“Someone will be here by 6. You’ll have to be host and server until they arrive.
I’ll have to what? I’ve never waited a table in my life, and how can I host and serve?
“George, look at me.”
I motion to my working clothes- A dirty pair of jeans, a stained apron, a grimy black Brian Head t-shirt, shoes covered all sorts of yuck, a greasy baseball cap.
“It’ll be fine. And we likely won’t get anyone in that first hour anyway.”
By the time I wash my hands, try and make my hair presentable, it is 5:05 and one couple waits at the still locked door. I swallow my nerves and unlock the restaurant.
“Sorry folks, We’ve had a bit of trouble this afternoon. Two for dinner?”
They don’t appear too upset and reply kindly to my inane questions on the way to the table with the best view.
I hand them menus and offer bland suggestions as to what they might like. The woman looks me over, most likely noticing her server is covered in kitchen filth and smells like deep fryer oil mixed with stale sweat.
“I’ll give you a minute to look over the menu and I’ll get the drinks.”
I smile, turn and walk briskly back to the kitchen. George laughs at me as I overfill the glasses and spill all over the floor.
“You’re making more work for yourself.”
They order the baked chicken. I check on them twice after taking their order, bringing them refills and a basket of poorly cut bread.
I’m still too nervous to stand still and wander back and forth from the front desk to the kitchen, sure it’s taking way too long for the food to be ready and the couple will walk out very soon.
Finally, the chicken is done. I carefully carry both plates to the table and place them in front of the couple.
“Can I get you anything else?”
No, everything looks great.
I retreat to the host desk, hoping there is no one else waiting. From my stool, I can see them cutting into the vegetables, the meat. They seem pleased.
George wanders out from the back, gives me a wink. Just then, John arrives.
“Sorry guys, I totally forgot it was my night to open.”
“It’s cool,” I say, hoping I’m not letting on how glad I am he is here. “Just the one couple and they seem alright with my service.”
“I’ll take over from here, but I’ll bring you the tip.”
Back in the kitchen, I finish making a pan of potatoes, put them in the oven. The Aerosmith tape ends and before I can put in some Oingo Boingo, George slaps in something from Supertramp. It could be worse.
Ten minutes later, John comes up and hands me two bills. Both ones.
They tipped me two dollars on a 30 dollar meal.
John laughs, tells me to keep my day job.
I didn’t write last week. My wife took the day off (Valentine’s Day), and we spent some time hanging out, watching movies, eating too much chocolate. I planned to write, I really did.
Then, on the way back from some adventure or other, we stopped for a warm beverage at a place near our home. Waiting for our order, a breaking news story on the television caught our attention. Another school shooting had taken place, this time in Florida. I didn’t want to write after that.
I’ve spent most of the last week shifting through all sorts of emotions, and I’ll be the first to admit that many of my responses were irrational. I got into snarky debates with old friends, commiserated with like-minded allies, had flat out angry arguments with acquaintances and friends of friends. I stated opinions, backtracked on them, then restated them later. And while I certainly was not at my best, I watched on social media as people said far worse to each other. What an ugly event, and how unfortunate that tragedy brings out so much extra awfulness in us, in me.
Answers continue to elude me. I’m trying to be patient, to pay attention, to hope (but)…
…the tone hasn’t become any less terrible this week, and the rhetoric being tossed out, the flat out lies being spread about children sickens me. I honestly do not care what political ideology people cling to, and I certainly don’t pretend to have all the solutions or be correct in my assumptions (facts in my favor or not), but the vile behavior of adults towards young people is inexcusable.
Disagree with their political aims, but do so in a constructive manner. The world is certainly a callous place where most of the time what we want or need is irrelevant to it. Not ever situation turns out the way our kids might want, and we want them to learn to be resilient, but deliberate cruelty disguised as political debate destroys any opportunity for understanding or growth.
I still cling to the belief that humans are at their core, decent creations, and that at our best we can accomplish difficult things.
I also believe that the way to a happy and fulfilling life is pretty basic-Take care of yourself. Take care of each other.
That’s pretty much it.
One month before the placement of twin seven year old boys in our home, Sheryl and I took our last vacation together before becoming parents. I’d never been to San Francisco, we both wanted to go, so we went. It sometimes seems like only yesterday.
I don’t think I had the slightest idea how my life was about to change, or how insane being a parent would be/is. Looking back, I wouldn’t change one damn thing. I’ve got great kids who are less than 6 months away from graduation. I love them. But once again things are about to change in a huge way, and as before, I have zero clue about the how.
Anyway, here are three pictures from that trip. It was a really good time. Also, don’t pay any attention to the plastic bag in the last picture. It isn’t really there. You’re mind is playing tricks on you.
Christmas is almost upon us and I honestly don’t have much to say about writing, reading (arithmetic), or tacos.
I do have something interesting (at least to me) to share. If you’ve read this blog much, or know me in the slightest, you know I have a passion for music. I love all sorts of genres and sounds (and am willing to try just about anything. I love suggestions) from the melodic to the chaotic. I also enjoy interacting with musicians, following their social media feeds.
One person in particular, Brian Cook (Botch, These Arms are Snakes, Russian Circles, SUMAC, Mamiffer, and more) runs some very fun and interesting accounts. His Twitter is great, as is his Instagram, but my favorite is his Tumblr page. He answers questions, shares funny photos (often of his ass, so be warned) and is currently posting every record he owns, one at a time. The best part- He has a personal relationship with so many musicians so each entry reads like a band bio. Anyone with an interest in hardcore, punk, metal, post-metal, post rock, indie bands, pretty much anything really, should check it out. He’s only on the letter B so there is a long, long way to go. So many records!
Anyway, I’ve been so engaged in his posts, I’ve decided to join the party and share each and every album I own as well. I won’t have as many crazy stories about musicians, tours across Europe, long hours in a van sharing music with band members, and I will likely be embarrassed by several of the albums in my collection (I’m posting them regardless), but I think it will be a cool experiment.
Also, it is a good way to play records that often get forgotten, which is too many. One could argue that I’ve too much music if that happens, but that person would no longer be my friend if they dared argue that point. I’m cutthroat people. Harsh.
So check it out, follow if you have an Instagram. If you don’t (who are you people), create one. Comment, like, tell me how crazy I am and how having such an eclectic musical palate isn’t a good thing (it is really. You know this).