A Love Affair

Some of my most potent memories of the time I spent in college are of lazy mornings that turned into lazy afternoons that turned into lazy evenings in which a book that had grabbed me would completely consume me for those hours.  My tape-player would cycle and recycle Sunny Day Real Estate or that one Portishead album or the eponymous Stone Roses album or REM’s Monster and I would read and read and read.  

I didn’t give up my illusions – I still pined for a partner, I still imagined myself receiving awards for my brilliance, I still imagined traveling foreign lands, I still imagined romantic lonely cabins in the deep woods.  But I did give up, for that moment, for that day, the drive to be productive.  I believed, I think, at the time, when I was youngish, that there was plenty of time for partners and productivity and accomplishment.  I believed I had time.  I would lie in bed, soft light through a basement window, or on a blanket in a park under a tree, and I would give myself over to the book that had me at the moment.

I read widely, and prolifically.  It started when I was a child with access to the little book shelf my father built into a random wall in the basement across from my bedroom that contained my mother’s science fiction collection.  Lots of Isaac Asimov.  But when I got out into the world, I looked deep and hard for books that brought some kind of connection, some kind of transformation.  I read about fictional poetry scholars falling in love.  I read nonfiction accounts of adventure driving across the Americas.  I read about seagulls finding themselves.  I read about the backrooms of Parisian bookstores.  I read famous things and obscure things.  

I drowned myself in used bookstores, using only the eclecticness of book covers as a guide to finding the next thing I’d absorb.  Each book seemed to me to be the truth.  Each one that spoke to me seemed to speak the truth.  I wasn’t discerning.  If it was transformative, I bought into it.  Which is a dangerous way to live.  Many books, like many ideas, feel true but really aren’t.  Ayn Rand is a good example.  

But for the most part, this tendency of mine was part of a larger inner exploratory drive that seemed to inform my decisions.  I loved science.  I loved art.  I felt like in poetry there ought to be some kind of universal truth, just like in the stars or oceans there ought to be some kind of blueprint to describe the whys and hows of being alive, or at least a way to ecstatically transform oneself into . . . well into something more beautiful, more perfect.  In retrospect, though misguided as the many things of youth might be, the pursuit of that kind of transformation was in and of itself something beautiful.

I think grad school killed it.  There were so many things we were supposed to be.  We were supposed to make the next new great thing.  We were supposed to produce and produce and produce.  The thing that made for success was constant and unending production.  And really, maybe grad school in this sense is just a metaphor for growing up.  We grow up, we find careers, we find mates, we make children, our lives fill with the things that disallow spending all day reading a book.  

But maybe more than those things, I just didn’t see the possibility of transformative experience in books anymore.  It is possible to make a living, or have children, or be a partner and still carve out a day for reading a transformative book.  I think I just didn’t feel like I deserved it anymore.  At some point, maybe slowly over time, I came to feel like I wasn’t worthy of ecstatic transformation.  How did that happen?

I don’t really know.  It is a tangle that has only recently become visible to me by the brutal auspices of shocking and deeply penetrating loss.  That I allowed it to happen is clear.  Whatever influence has come from those around me and from my own illusions of what is important in life, drifting away from myself in this way was allowed by me.  There is value in understanding how we come to be the way we are, but that is a topic for a different essay.

Here’s a story about the power of loss:  

When I was in my twenties I found work at one of the world’s most unusual museums.  This museum was four parts violence reduction education for children, three parts glass art museum, and three parts blind nationalism.  I worked mostly with exhibitions and art handling, but one of my jobs was to be an assistant to the museum founder, the inimitable and indomitable IJB.  He made up the J, to his middle name – not standing for anything, just because it made his name sound more commanding or important.

He’d call down to my little office, which was literally a converted broom closet and roughly tell me to come up and bring my note pad.  I’d jump to – abandoning whatever work was in front of me – and race up to his ornate office.  Then I’d sit quietly across from him, taking notes, asking clarifying questions, putting gears in motion of how to complete his requests in the most satisfactory fashion.  We worked strangely well together. 

IJB was a retired publishing magnate, the originator of TV Guide among other things.  He’s years passed on now.  At the time I knew him, he was a firecracker, full of life and vigor well into his eighties.  His one rule in life, and at the museum, was that nothing could stay the same.  Constant evolution, constant betterment, was his mantra.  He’d dream up ideas for new exhibits and I’d make little mockups made of foam-core that would turn into room sized mock ups made of overlapping sheets of 11×17 printouts.  He’d bark instructions and I would jump – in fact everyone around him would jump.  

Over the months I think he came to trust me a little.  Maybe he saw our relationship as something of a father/son kind of arrangement.  His meetings started to include impromptu life lessons.   He’d tell me the story of going bankrupt not once, but twice during his rise to wealth.  He’d intentionally call me up to his office before taking a call, then have me sit and wait quietly while he spoke to whatever wealthy acquaintance he’d be extracting donations from, following up with pithy bits of wisdom.  “Now that,” he’d say, “was a truly wealthy person.”  He’d smile.  “You might think I’m wealthy, but don’t ever sit on your laurels,” he’d bark.  “There’s always someone out there that makes your wealth look pathetic.”

One day while examining the latest iteration of a mock-up I’d produced for an exhibit whose theme was DNA – how DNA scientifically proves that all people are related, that we are all one people, and that we shouldn’t fight wars, and so on – he turned to me and said, “Do you know what it costs to run this museum?”

I shook my head, innocently.  

“Twenty-five thousand dollars a week.  This,” he said both menacingly and triumphantly, “is what it costs to have this museum.”  I don’t remember saying anything.  “Do you know why it’s here?”  More innocent head shaking.  “It’s here because I died.”

Before I could say anything to that he launched into a story about going to lunch one day, and afterward walking down the sidewalk minding his own business when he suddenly had a stroke.  “Right there on the sidewalk,” he intoned.  “Struck down.  Right there on the sidewalk.  And,” he said, “I knew right then that my life was over.  All of it, the publishing business, all of it.  Gone.”  

Again, I don’t know what my response was, but IJB just smiled.  “I knew right then,” he said as though he’d unlocked a buried treasure chest, “that God was asking me to make this museum, that this would be my legacy.”  There was a silence possible in his richly decorated sanctum that would be hard to replicate.  “Always evolving, Jay,” he’d say.  “Always moving.  I lost everything, but am blessed every day.  I am grateful for every day.”

Now, IJB was a man who understood the power of a good story, and how much of his story for me that day was apocryphal, I’ll never know.  But it’s important not to dismiss the power of loss.  Some losses are acute, some accrue over years, but there is power in the shaking up that happens when losses descend.  

In my case, I feel shaken awake.  There isn’t some universal truth that has been revealed, but a reminder that wonder – which is really a kind of joy – can only be produced by allowing for a multitude of truths.  I remember now, what it feels like to spend a day reading a deeply transformative book, for I have just done so with Lulu Miller’s amazing amazing Why Fish Don’t Exist.  In it she writes:  Far better things await outside the tunnel vision of your goals


And what does it feel like?   It feels like falling in love.


I made this painting when I was 20. The drumbeat was loud.

In The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows – a compendium of newly and creatively nominated, but ubiquitously felt sorrows – John Koenig writes of ‘ioche,’ the anxiety of being an individual:

You never really get used to the feeling of being an individual.  How strange it is that you’re born alone and die alone.  That you alone must carry your own body, and your own name.  Nobody else can feel the pain you feel, or hear the ringing in your ears, or will ever be able to share an unforgettable dream.  You alone manage this particular storehouse of memories, being the only one to remember certain things, or the only one to forget.

There is a war between those that think aloneness is sad, and those who think it is exultant.  Plucky internet memes attempt to convince lost and ambling souls scrolling the back corners of the internet thought desert, that being alone doesn’t necessitate loneliness.  Rather, they say, aloneness bears the fruit of solitude.  Solitude is beautiful, they say.  And it is.  Certainly. 

Solitude breeds ideas that cannot stand to be stirred by many hands.  Solitude is for looking long and deep into distant clouds to find shapes and forms and stories previously unimagined.  Solitude is for finding peace amidst such conflict as we draw to ourselves in these times. I would write a love song for solitude, if I had any talent for such things, but the medium wouldn’t allow it. There is a reason that sad indie folk singers croon of hearts yearning for connection. And I love me some sad indie folk songs. I have whole Pandora stations devoted to such things.

My kids give me all kinds of crap for being a lover of sad indie folk songs.  Why?  They ask.  These songs are so saaaad, they opine.  Because sad songs bring such joy!  Obviously.  Musician Phoebe Bridgers, who is much more articulate in her (sad indie folk) music than in this interview says:

“Some people who misunderstand sad music are like, “Why?  Why would you want to, kind of soak in that feeling?” … There’s a weight lifted because it’s just someone that you look up to laying all this out, that you relate to.”

I really struggle with the weight of expectation and aloneness.  I know connection with others is critical to mental health.  That’s a known fact.  But does that mean that our lives are incomplete unless they are fully intertwined with another?  There isn’t anyone out there writing sad indie folk songs about being full of joy on your own.  It’s the reason there are so many dating apps and is a facet of just about every song, book, film or TV show you can think of.  

Find a partner, the ancient drum beats.  Find a partner.  

Society desperately wants us to be melded with another.  Identifying one’s self as half of a whole is a kind of social passport.  Having a partner is nearly a requirement to be a successful politician.  Our tax code generously rewards two person households.  As recently as the 60s and 70s a woman couldn’t get their own bank account without a husband.  “Oh,” the room exhales.  Someone has verified you as a person by attaching themself to you, attesting in the deepest way possible to the validity of your reasonableness to join civil society.

But I don’t really give a shit about society, these days.  More and more, society doesn’t really give a shit about me.  In today’s world, banks couldn’t care less what your marital status is.  In the Trump era, whether you’re married or not is the very least concern about social fitness.  The tax code hasn’t changed, but boo-hoo, we have to pay taxes.  You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.  I can say with certainty that spending time with someone who doesn’t really like you anymore is a waste of time, no matter how much pressure there may be, from within or without, to be half of a whole.

Still, the drum beats like deep tones in a racist colonizer flick where white heroes are lost in the jungle and just start to realize by ominous, rhythmic sounds that dangerous natives are near. 

Blue eyes whip around – where is that frightening sound coming from?  

Boom.  Boom.  Boom.  Fiiind a paaartner.  Boom.  Boom.  Boom.

Raise your machete.  Back toward your blonde safari partner.  

“Chad?  Do you hear that Chad?”  

“Yes.  They’re close now.  Get behind me Karen!”

Boom.  Boom.  Boom.  Fiiind a paaartner.  Boom.  Boom.  Boom.

Still, I am torn.  Does having a partner complete an otherwise incomplete person?  Is that feeling – and I feel it every day, all the time – the true expression of something deeply real about being a person?  Or is it yet another leftover relic of messaging I’ve been bombarded with from a time before I can remember by society, by my parents and family, by the amplification of my own inner echo chamber?  

My own inner echo chamber is probably the biggest culprit.  I remember in my early twenties, I would fall asleep, alone, and look out the window into the night sky and sing in my mind a line from a Sting song, which begins simply:  A-nother night finds me alooone.  Poor me.  I remember thinking, during this same chapter in my life, how brave it was that after her husband of 50+ years died, my grandmother stated, in no uncertain terms, “If I can’t live with Bayliss, I’m not interested in living with anyone else.”  And she didn’t.  And I think she was pretty happy in her later life before dementia led her down darker, falser paths.  

And I know.  I know.  I’m emerging from a long season of loss and grief.  This isn’t the time for making grand pronouncements.  This journal is love letter to my kids – so that if they’re interested, they might know their father better.  So kids, here’s something I struggle with and always have.  I even struggled with it while I was married.  I struggle with knowing whether there is something fundamentally missing from a person who is without a partner and if I should then heed the drum beat calling us to find a partner . . . fiiind a paaartner.  

Or if I should fight it – strive to overcome a false sense of emptiness unnaturally put there by all the forces that have shaped me.  To be held by someone who truly cares for you is a marvelous and wondrous thing.  But so is waking up without obligation next to a purring cat who is simultaneously the softest thing in the known universe and the sharpest thing.

The sharpest and softest thing in the known universe in an unmade bed no one will care is unmade.

I believe, more and more, in the power of intention – that we draw to us the things we ask for and work toward.  It’s overly simplistic, but I do think intention has power.  It shapes our vision of how to walk in the world.  On this one, I’m torn.  “Wait and see” isn’t a very strong intention.  But kiddos, it’s what I’ve got.  So it will have to do.  

Long-term impermanence

Loss is a crucible carefully laid with mortal things.  Truthfully, we’re so very lucky to have things in our lives that will inevitably succumb to the furnaces of loss.  Love, friendship, mentors, the beauty of new life, full motion in our joints, the gorgeousness of sunsets.  

When I was twenty, my paternal grandfather died of cancer.  Like my father, he went before his time.  He was an excellent man.  Like all of us, he was flawed, but I can say with certainty that in his later life, at least, he had things pretty sorted out.  He spent a great deal of time loving on his grandchildren, of whom I am so very fortunate to be one.  His dying came to me as a shock and I resolutely didn’t have the emotional tools to handle it.  

When someone is dying, the world of the family gets very small.  The family members in charge and those who, like I was, can only watch, do a kind of dance with doctors and nurses and hospice workers and pharmacists on the tiny dancefloor of what’s left of a life.  It’s easy to get swept up in treatment options and medication tweeks.  Around a month before he died, I was, by chance, with my dear Aunt Laurie.  I remember talking with her about Grandpa and was rationally going on about the medication and treatment dance, when she gently stopped me, and pulled me close to her softness and said, “Jay, do you realize?  Grandpa Bayliss is going to die.” 

The little morsel of emotional reality she offered me was such a blessing.  She pulled me into a hug I will remember my whole life and I just cried.  Because what can you do?  When the small dance fades and all that’s left is loss, what else can you do?   I still didn’t have the emotional tools to navigate that loss, and I made a lot of bad choices in the ensuing years as a result, but when finally, it was time to heal, that moment was a lighthouse penetrating my heart’s melancholy.  

If you’re a human, you’re dealing with loss.  But you’re also dealing with joy and beauty and struggle and achievement and you’re watching season four of Stranger Things with your kids even though it’s just a little bit on the too-scary side.  Loss might feel like a storm, but there are harbors.  One of those harbors for me has always been building things.

I build all kinds of things, but the kind of things I love to build most are things that will likely last longer than the span of a human life.  

It’s a compelling time span.  It’s far, far shorter than, say, even the most recent of geological epochs.  But, perhaps it’s as long, or longer, than the span of a civilization.  Ruins count whether they’re the detritus of some ancient European civilization or found concrete structures built by unknowable human hands long since departed from this mortal coil, left to weather in the woods somewhere.   Definitely longer than the lifespan of a car, but possibly as long as the lifespan of a car frame – all that’s left of an abandonment at the edge of a river from a time before when people used to do that kind of thing.  Longer than a career.  Shorter than the lifespan of the oldest of trees.  Longer than the time it takes a baby to turn into an adult.

I love growing trees and garlic.  I love writing a great story.  I have a deep and abiding love for some of the T-shirts I’ve accumulated.  But there’s something extra sweet when I have the opportunity to build something beautiful that lands in this long-term impermanence zone.  I had that opportunity this summer.

If I were a better writer, I’d weave a long, entangled story from these disparate threads:  The first bottles of wine my father purchased in the early seventies.  The fortunes of the Conrad brothers as they built a banking empire in this part of the country.  Various times in my life where I’ve taken laboring jobs out of necessity.  The eternal optimism of builder and architect Ray Thon, the father of a dear friend to my family.  The stout archaeological labor of my industrious children.  

Here’s what I can tell you about Ray Thon (pronounced like ‘tone’).  A month before he died from congenital heart disease I ran into him at the eye doctor.  His face was red and flushed with the effort of walking in from the car.  His face was animated by the light of someone who is beating the odds for how long a tenure in this world should be for someone with a ticker as flawed as his was.  He was making everyone in the fluorescently lit office smile with his never-ending ebullience.  He had been a bomber pilot in the war, flying dozens of missions over Europe, again, beating the odds of ever coming home from such an occupation.  He spent his life building beautiful things as a builder and an architect.  I’m told that in 1958 he collected a truckload of bricks from the old Conrad National Bank in Kalispell after it burned down.  The Conrad National bank was founded in 1892, and I don’t really care about the Conrads or their history, but they did build a pretty nifty bank building where the First Interstate Bank now sits.

Ray also built a lovely lake cabin at Bitterroot lake.  At some point between 1958 and now, he dumped this load of bricks out at the lake.  I imagine that it started as a pile.  Eventually, though, it became fill.  By the time my kids and I got to it this summer, many of the bricks were buried in the rich pine-needle soil that surrounds the lake, and needed excavating.  

Meanwhile, back in the 1960s, my father met Gary Thon, Ray’s son, and they became lifelong friends.  One of the things they shared was an early passion for really good wine.  There are still a few bottles of 1970 Bordeaux in the cellar, to be drunk as a celebration of my parents’ wedding anniversary.  There are a few 1974s and 1978s from my brother and my births.  When we open one of those, as long as the cork is intact, they smoke.  It’s a real treat.  

Ray was not the only brick collector around.   In the 1980s, when the old Edgerton school came down, my father collected several pallets of those bricks.  He methodically scraped mortar off each one.  He scraped thousands clean – several pallets worth – at one minute per brick.  A few years later, my folks built a house and had wainscoting made from this brick.  With several pallets of the brick left, my dad and I hatched a scheme to build him a wine cellar clad with the very same bricks.  

It’s a small room in the basement, not nearly big enough to contain his collection, but it’s a fun place to be.  It smells of old bricks and old wood.  We made the ceiling from some barn wood we found in a giant burn pile at my mom’s brother’s farm across the way.  There’s an arched entryway into the crawlspace under the house.  It’s rough.  I was twenty with no masonry experience.  There’s mortar all over the place.  The joints are uneven and unfinished.  There’s no trim.  The arch is, well, recognizable as an arch.  It’s still a fun place to be.  

I think Gary was always a little jealous of my father’s bricked-in wine cellar.  But he also learned a thing or two from my dad’s experience.  A few years ago, he built himself a house at the Bitterroot lake property.  There’s a large, high-ceilinged room in his basement intended to be a wine cellar big enough for his whole collection.  He wanted bricks – his dad’s bricks.  I needed work after spending a year working for actual masons.  It seemed a perfect marriage.  And so it was.  There weren’t enough bricks or time to do the whole thing, but the accent wall is gorgeous and is something I’m very proud of.  I hope it’s there, a testament to our families’ love for one another, reflecting Gary and his family’s passions and echoing his father’s legacy long after I’m gone.

Elysian Fields

My father passed away this week.  He was sick.  I’m really sad about it.

These essays began in December with a lofty description of how I feel about it.  Dementia seemed like such a surreal condition.  His world was impenetrable.  His last, thankfully brief, slide into decline was unexpectedly abrupt.  In the end, his disease, whatever variety of dementia-causing brain disorder it might have been, turned out to be a wasting disease.  

His last days mirrored his father’s last days:  Propped up with a pillow behind his head.  A steady stream of morphine keeping him comfortable.  His body, a hollow shell of soft, translucent skin covering only bones.  Care-takers using a little sponge on a stick to moisten lips he could no longer direct to close around decades-old teeth.

David and I both took our children to see Dad in the days and even hours before he passed.  I think the kiddos were very affected, though as bona fide members of the teen/tween class they were characteristically quiet as to if the experience was moving or not.  Seeing Dad in that state sure affected me.   Much more than I was expecting.

We got the call early on a Tuesday morning.  Mom went to pick David up and I met them at the nursing home.  I was twenty or so minutes ahead of them.  So I sat alone with his body, so clearly bereft of the soul of the man he was.  Off-white polyester hospice-provided sheets surrounded his slim form.  Someone from the nursing home had placed his hands folded over his chest before I arrived.  I don’t know what heaven looks like, but as I sat there, next to him, I imagined his own Elysian fields.

More specifically, I imagined Elysian summer lake days.  I imagined perfectly smooth water, little white clouds floating in a sun-soaked sky.  I can hear his loud and strong voice yell, “Hit it!”   Then his confident lurch, step-starting on one ski out into blue beyond blue waters.  His father at the wheel.  Though her journey to these Elysian plains will be decades hence, in the boat he can see looking back at him the bikini-clad visage of my mom, youthful and smiling.  

I can’t stop crying when I think of his beautiful soul water skiing into eternity.  I can’t.

I am surprised by this.  We all knew what was coming.  We could see it happening.  There wasn’t a mystery – plenty of preamble.  Yet, the difference between him being in the world, and him not being in the world is profound and remarkably stark.   The feeling part of me can’t register that he’s gone.  

My earliest memory of my father is him sitting at the edge of my bed, playing guitar and singing to me.  I think he did this for David, too.  He sang Puff the Magic Dragon, and Little Boxes, and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.  The last weeks before he moved to the nursing home, Mom couldn’t get him to bed, so I would come over and settle him in.  We got his blankets sorted out, until he could finally relax his body.  Then my mom would go to bed and by the dim yellow light of the bedside table I would read to him until he fell asleep.  We read tall tales – Paul Bunyun, John Henry.  We read poems by Emily Dickenson.  Sometimes he didn’t want to be read to and we’d just be there together, circling through time together, the loop closed when I read and tell stories to my children at bedtime.     

I would stay, after the light was turned out, until I was sure he was asleep, just as I did for each of my children once upon a time.  In the dark I would try and divine his dreams – a convoluted miasma of images and portends: crouched over a yellow dappled green leaf of a grape vine.  The smell of soil and moisture, everywhere.  Paperwork, which dominated his life, threatening the peace of his slumber.  

And silence.  I would sit in the dark next to the fading light of my father and wish for him that the maze of dementia would just be silent for a few hours as he slept.  Just a few hours of peace.  Now, as much as I wish he could be in the world, I hope beyond hope that he’s there, on the water, tow-rope handle in one hand, floating as if flying – the confines of his frail body left behind.  At peace, at last.    

Being a Person is Hard

It’s rare to be given a book, these days.  My world is populated by Library books that are sometimes so overdue that the Library sends me ominous missives from collections agencies and then I have to pay for replacing those books at the Library the next time I’m there.  My personal expense spreadsheet has a stand-alone category for Library book fees.  Some people feel compelled to get right with God.  I routinely find myself compelled to do my very best to get right with the Library.  I’m not proud.  

But to be given a book is a precious thing, a true gift.  Recently, my dear, dear cousin gave me a book.  I don’t know what strand of connection between us compelled her to do this, but it is one of the most precious gifts I’ve received in a very long time.  

Here’s a snippet from the first chapter:

“Because everyone loves someone, and anyone who loves someone has had those desperate nights where we lie awake trying to figure out how we can afford to carry on being human beings.”

It’s one of those books that reaches in and grabs you by the shirt-collar and says, ‘Hey!  I see you.  And I know you.  And I know it’s fucking hard.  And you’re OK, even if your shit sucks, even if you inhabit emotional fall-out shelters that protect you and hide you away at the same time.  You’re a person and that’s a goddamn amazing thing to be.’   

I have many things to be grateful for, I know I do.  I wake up every morning free of pain, having slept more or less the whole night.  I have strange, but not unpleasant dreams.  I live in a place that, while it suffers from gross ideology sometimes, isn’t wracked by war or scarcity.  I have good work, with good people.  I have a wonderful cat, marvelous friends, a beautiful house, a lovely family, and most especially, I have incredible children.  I am lucky.  I know I am lucky.  

But this book acknowledges the also true thing – that being a person is hard.  

There’s no way around it, loving other people is hard.  In this chapter of my life there are twin poles of lost love swirling and swirling and swirling.  These two people cover most of my life.  In fact, the last two years without them are the first time in my life that at least one of them isn’t present.  They are my father, and the mother of my children.

My father is still with us, but has entered the last waiting of hospice.  The mother of my children is so remarkably estranged from me that she will not sit two seats away from me at a school meeting for one of the kids.

I remember summer nights when it stayed light enough to play outside with my dad after dinner.  He’d throw grounders or pop flies in the side yard.  The sideways light played havoc with those grounders.  I got hit in the nose and knocked out by one at shortstop in a game when I was very little – Pee-Wee minors.  So I was always a little scared of the grounders.  I remember the sweaty, leathery feel of the old glove that was handed down to me.  I remember throwing the ball back to him as hard as I could, knowing it never phased him.  He would have been about my current age.  I wonder if the seeds of the disease he’s dying from now were present, even then.

I remember the yellow streetlight of languorous evenings, drunk from multiple pitchers of Michelob, riding bicycles side by side home from the bars.  The air, softened by evening, but still heavy with mid-western humidity flowing around and through us like we were made of the same stuff as the wind and the night.  

The loss is an ocean.  It is dark and long and deathly quiet.  

These two wounds circle in a tight orbit around my heart.  One is piercing, white hot with blue and green aches woven throughout.  It is a pain drenched in buckets of sadness, wrapped in the sweetness of nostalgia:  pure, tellable, and re-tellable memories of A&W root beer and step-start waterskiing.  The other is hard red and the deep black of empty space.  It is an inexplicable loss that only invites one internal recapitulation after another without hope of resolution or even peace.  Shame hangs like coal dust suspended around all the sides of it.  One is spoken of often with loud voices of sympathy and condolences.  The other is spoken of never.  

I have so many regrets around both.  I regret not spending more time getting to know the man my dad was.  By the time I really got around to it, he was already struggling just to stay present.  We’d ride together to the green boxes with both my trash and his and I would wonder why we couldn’t have deeper, more vulnerable conversation.  We could talk about classic rock.  We could talk about road repair or the vigorousness of windbreak hedges.  Now I know he was just trying to stay in the present moment, just trying not to let the gaps overtake him. 

I regret not being able to stop the long slow descent from joy to estrangement with my ex-wife.  I regret the ways I am broken that hurt her.  I regret not advocating for myself better when the ways she is broken hurt me.

Love and grief are mirrors of each other.  A dear friend says, of his parents, that grief for their loss, present every day, though now many years passed, is a tribute to their memory and the importance of their role in his life.  I find this immensely beautiful.  I loved my dad.  I loved my ex-wife, too.  Those loves played important roles in my life.  Losing them hurts.  I know I should honor that somehow, but I’m a fucking person, and it’s hard to be a person.  

And so, beginning with chapter one, the pages get all wrinkly.  The thin, clay-heavy, paperback paper of the beautiful book my beautiful cousin gave me isn’t up to absorbing even one tear, and there are many, many tears.  ‘It’s OK,’ the book says.

“It’s idiotically difficult, being a human. Our hearts are bars of soap that we keep losing hold of; the moment we relax, they drift off and fall in love and get broken, all in the wink of an eye.”

Wet, cold, and spiky.

When I sat down to write this essay I tried very hard to describe what it feels like to have a ten-year-old Lodgepole pine covered with melted snow slap you in the face with one of its branches.  It’s like, well, it’s hard to describe.  It’s wet, for sure.  And cold.  And by the way, you’re standing in a snow pile up to your thigh and there’s a half inch of melt water that has been in each of your boots for long enough that it’s getting warm.  The slaps are also a little spiky.  It doesn’t hurt, but you notice the spikiness. Are there two ‘i’s’ in ‘spikiness’?  I’m not getting a red spell-check line, so it must be right.  It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s a little spiky, and it only happens because you’re walking through a part of the forest that burned a decade ago, and the new Lodgepoles are just so dense that in order to get through the landscape, you have to push one branch after another aside as you post-hole hike over and around ankle-breaking downed trees that are, yes, hidden under the snow.  There are so many branches to push aside that inevitably some of them flip back and slap you in the face.  

It’s a good time for reflection.

See, the morning started easy.  We set out from the car along an improbably long and well-maintained logging road.  We were basically already at the top of the ridge.  The road was clear, hiking was level and easy, feet and gloves and, well all of us, were dry.  How did we end up in this demented Three Stooges of the Wilderness episode trading blows with trees?  

Upon reflection we decided that we’d gotten there by virtue of a kind of path that happens sometimes in life.  We made one decision after another based on good information with the best of intentions.  Each decision was the right call.  Yet each decision slid us farther and farther away from that easy, level, dry road.  There was a little snow, then we were post-holing to our calves occasionally, then we were up to our crotches from time to time, then we were in slush-drenched Lodgepole pine-saturated bush-whacking hell.  It just kind of happened.

We’re all familiar with this kind of slide into disaster, or fiasco.  There’s a great episode of This American Life about it.  What made this hike such a clear example was that at each decision point, our decision wasn’t a branch in the road.  There weren’t forks.  There was only one decision that we kept making – forward? Or back the way we came.  There wasn’t the possibility of doing this or that or this other thing.  It was:  Do the possible benefits of going forward outweigh the certainty of going back the way we came?  The farther we went, the longer it would be to back-track.  The sunk costs built to a point of no return.

Many things are like this.  Does the possibility of the movie getting better outweigh the possibility that whatever might be going on in life otherwise is better?  On that note, Mom, if you take your five-year-old to the Muppet movie Labyrinth in the theater, you might expect to spend some time in the lobby with a scared toddler.  (Ok, I just looked that up, Labyrinth came out in 1986, which means I was eight . . . a very tender and sensitive eight apparently . . .) 

Books, movies, concerts, rides at the Fair, weddings, any event with small children or the very elderly, road trips, college courses, nineteenth century Arctic expeditions, political rallies, relationships, open-water swims, jobs, cooking adventures, and on and on – we face this decision routinely.  I don’t know about the world at large, but I can say that more often than not, I choose to continue.  Setting a movie or a book aside unfinished is, to me, like a superhero move.  Forward!

The consequences are often, well, consequential.  Last summer I took my beautiful, innocent, and it turns out, extremely resilient children on a road trip to the Puget Sound to visit some relatives for their annual clamming event.  That was the week my oldest was finishing up a mission trip to Portland.  Ah, I thought, I’ll make this work.  I drove my other two kids down to the Columbia River Gorge where we spent the night in the grossest hotel in Oregon.  It was last June.  Remember the June where temperatures were in the triple digits all along the West Coast?  That June.  

No problem.  We cross the desert of eastern Washington.  We pick up Bayliss, then we cross the desert of eastern Washington again to visit relatives.  My car doesn’t have air conditioning.  When we get to Seattle, it’s clear that every human with a car is trying to escape the city.  After hours in the desert, hours in traffic, we make it to Anacortes island where a very good time is had by all.  Unfortunately I realize that I’ve left my very expensive, very hard to replace fancy anti-snoring retainer in the hotel along the Columbia River. 

I call the hotel.  Improbably, the cleaning staff has found it and they’ve got it.  Send us a stamped, addressed envelope and we’ll mail it to you, they say.  Sure thing.  No problem.  Monday morning, we’ll do that.  We’re scheduled to spend that Monday in Seattle, but it’s 110° and everything is shut down.  We decide to bolt for home.  Making great time, the first open post office we come to is in Ellensburg.  It’s 9 am and only 85 degrees out.  The post office doesn’t have a great option, and it is in the Dollar store as I’m looking at bubble mailers that the idea comes to me.  We could just detour there, and pick it up in person.  A quick Google search says this will add only six hours to our trip.  

I try to explain it to the kids.  It’s six hours versus, like, a grand for the retainer.  Even with the best of intentions, there’s no way the hotel will successfully mail it back to me.  This is a now or never situation.  Ellensburg happens to be right at the junction where we could head south and make the pick-up.  I buy spray bottles.  There will be soda at every stop, I say.  We have the seventh Harry Potter book on tape to listen to.  

I probably should have turned back and just gone home.  I probably should have.  But I didn’t.  We drove back to The Dalles, and then back to Kalispell.  It turned out to be waaay longer than six extra hours.  Those electronic signs outside banks recorded that it was 115° from 10 AM until 8PM that night.  We left Anacortes at 6 AM and got to the Flathead at 12:30 at night.  I was pulled over for speeding around Paradise and the officer didn’t even look at my registration before he let me off with a pity warning.  Needless to say, this is one of those road trips that will be emblazoned in my children’s memories for ever and ever.

And, selfishly, I’m kind of glad.  I remember long, brutal car trips across the southwest where we hung T-shirts in the windows to try to stay cool, and I kind of feel like it’s a gift to my children to occasionally endure such things.  (In case you’re wondering, the seventh Harry Potter book takes longer to finish listening to on tape than it takes to cross the desert of eastern Washington three times.)  

Which is exactly how I felt when we finally got through the bushwhacking portion of our little morning outdoor adventure in the trees.  The landscape on that side of the ridge was gorgeous.  Our feet turn out to be waterproof.  There was a danger of twisting or breaking an ankle, but none were.  Optimism is so hard to muster in these times and pushing forward is a kind of optimism.  It’s not always the right call (re: Labyrinth), but if the payoff is a beautiful memory, and as long as it’s not a 19th century mission to find the Northwest Passage, I’ll probably keep choosing to push on.          

Comfort/Not Comfort

The things we fear will come to pass.

The thing I fear most, is, of course, losing my beautiful children.  May they live long and beautiful lives.  But I will lose them.  My most profound hope is that my children grow up and away – that they grow adventurous and curious about the world around them, and then step out into it.  It is a dark world they’ll venture into.  It is also a world filled with kind hearts and warm light.

I am like Oliver.  I hate change.  My natural impulse is to seek the comfort of familiar things around me.  Oliver has a coat that is so heinously disgustingly stained and frayed and holey that I don’t let him wear it to school.  Anyone who knew me when I was a sophomore in high school would be able to report that I have absolutely no business telling any of my children what they should or shouldn’t be allowed to wear to school.  But this coat.  For real.  It’s super gross.  Filthy.  

Still, he loves it.  He loves it so much.  It’s like a warm blanket of comfort that wraps him in a familiar hug when he puts it on.  I would never throw that out, but still, I make him not wear it to school.  I do this mostly for the same reason I would not let him go to school with snot running down his face.  It’s just gross.  But a part of me does it also because I want him to learn how to move away from comfort.  I want him to learn how to change gears and pivot to something else.  I don’t know if I can teach him the value of setting comfort aside, but I can require him to wear a different coat to school.  It took a few days, but he gravitated to a different coat, one which is much cleaner, but also one that brings him comfort.  Not the same comfort, but a kind of tolerable comfort.

When my parents lost me, I allowed the part of me that fights comfort to win over.  It was a battle then, and in some ways, it has been since leaving home to become an exchange student when I was 17.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that was it for my childhood.  There wasn’t a home to go home to, life didn’t pick up where it left off as I had been expecting.  My parents rented their house out and left for a year abroad a few weeks after I got back.  A few months later I was in college.  I had given up any extra time with the comfort zones of being a kid. 

I have always done this.  I have always battled my internal desire – the true character of the flame that is my heart – to grasp onto comfort.  It’s not something I talk about very much, but it’s a very defining characteristic of what makes me, me.  I’m not sure if everyone experiences this internal battle or not, but I think it’s a common enough human experience to set aside something safe for something that promises adventure, growth, greater reward.  It’s why entrepreneurs take great financial leaps.  It’s why writers publish writing.  It’s why we travel and why we struggle to speak broken French in foreign places.  

It’s why, when I was 17, on exchange in Indonesia, I found myself sitting alongside two fellow teenager exchange students from Germany and Belgium on the worlds smallest commercial flight over the jungle of Borneo.  There were other passengers, I suppose, but the plane maxxed out at a dozen or so, tops.  That plane ride was memorable.  I distinctly remember leaving my stomach perched precariously in the sky behind us at various and sundry altitudes.

On the ground, we staggered into the little hanger, where we collected ourselves.  There was a plan.  Greg, the Belgian, was our de facto leader, as he was the oldest.  Kjell, from Germany, was our junior teammate.  I was somewhere in the middle.  We found and reclaimed our equilibrium and were disembarking when an old man who had apparently been on the flight caught our attention and did the thing that is customary in Indonesia – he asked us where we were going.   This translates the same as ‘how are you?’ in English.  You can either answer truthfully, or just politely say, ‘we’re going places’ the way you might say, ‘I’m fine,’ in the US.  I never once saw Greg do anything other than answer truthfully, and engage.  This drove me crazy.  His excessive friendliness with every Indonesian we met inflamed my anxieties about not knowing things like where we were going to sleep that night.   But it was also endearing – even my 17 year old self could see that.  He was a people person, and loved the innate friendliness of the vast majority of Indonsians.  

Having just reconnected with my innards after the flight, I wasn’t in a place to protest.  “Oh,” said the old man, “you’re going to Derawan islands.”  Yes, we nod and smile.  “Well,” he says, “I’m going there too.  You should stay at my house.”

This might seem a little forward, but was also super common.  Sure, we said, that sounds nice, knowing that this man was probably not going the same way as we were, that he, too, was just being polite.  Eventually we made our way from the airport to the little river-side village.  I don’t remember how we got there – probably a taxi.  In any case, by the afternoon, I distinctly remember walking on the side of the road, my inner comfort-seeking meter going crazy because we still hadn’t figured out where to stay that night.  

There was a plan.  The plan was to get on a boat in the morning.  This boat would take us a few hours down river to the coast of Borneo.  East Kalimantan.  From there, we would hire some local fishermen to take us out to the Derawan islands, at which point there would, no doubt, be some adventures.  We had snorkeling gear.  

But where to stay the night?  Greg was upbeat, sure something would come along.  I was sick with worry.  Kjell was solid.  I was a year or two younger than Greg, and Kjell was a year or two younger than me.  Even so, that German didn’t seem perturbable.  My desire for comfort and safety always lost, two to one.  

Just then a jeep full of guys pull up.  “Hey white dudes (my translation),” they say, “where are you going?”  Remember, that just means hi.  Unless you’re Greg.  “We’re looking for a place to stay for the night,” he says, jovially.  “No problem,” says the guy in English, then he switches back to Indonesian.  “Come stay at my house.”

No, no, no.  This is not right.  Greg is accepting and Kjell is smiling.  They’re loading into the jeep.  I can either follow them or be left alone in a strange town in a strange village at the edge of the jungle in Borneo.  I follow. 

This is the same year a dozen international workers were taken hostage by separatists in Irian Jaya, the Indonesian side of Papua New Guinea. It was all over the news in Jakarta. The government didn’t miss a chance to point out how horrible the separatist rebels were.  The hostages were held for months.  Later, the Indonesian army would “rescue” them.  Two were hacked to pieces by rebels, nine were rescued.  The twelfth was the baby one of the Dutch women was seven months pregnant with.  (Imagine spending your second trimester as a hostage in the jungles of Irian Jaya…)  At the time of our trip, there was no resolution, they were still hostages.  And while Borneo is definitely distinct from Irian Jaya, I was pretty sure we were about to become hostages.  The guy took us to get some street food, then we went back to his cousin’s house.  We sat around and made small talk.  

Then the guy smiles and points to a wire running up the wall and outside.  “Satellite,” he says.  “I take it from my neighbor.”  A little TV is flipped on and a little box is fussed over.  On the TV a movie pops into focus.  It’s Caddyshack.  We’re in a stranger’s house, in a tiny village on the edge of the jungle in Borneo watching Bill Murray blow up a golf course on pirated satellite.  This would not be the most surreal part of the journey.  

Night falls.  We’re shown to a room, that by US standards would be pretty rough, but by Indonesian standards isn’t that weird.  There’s one big mattress on the floor, and it’s for all three of us.  Again, this is perfectly normal.  I once shared a mattress with five or six host cousins.  You grab yourself a little piece of the mattress for your head and that’s about it.  We did.  We slept.  When you sleep this way, you wake up stiff.  There’s no way around it.  But we woke up.  We weren’t killed in the night.  The guy welcomed us to the morning with a big smile, then drove us to the boat.  

Marveling that we weren’t the latest CNN headline, I gratefully took a chair on the top deck of the boat that would take us down river.  There weren’t many other travelers and my memory of this trip was that it was blissfully uneventful.  Red water underneath.  Jungle palms and greenery passed by lazily in the tropical sun.  

Not long into our trip, a voice said, “hello.  Where are you going?”  It was the old man.  Even though we had told him we were going to Derawan islands the day before, he asked again, and we told him again.  “Ah, yes, yes,” he said.  “Derawan,” he said.  “I am going there too.  You should stay at my house.”  

As we were all on the boat headed to the coast, we were less able to dismiss the offer, but we still assumed this was politeness.  “Yes, sure,” we said.  “That’s nice.  Thank you.”  It was the kind of thing that happened.  Indonesians were always making offers and saying yes when they really meant ‘no thank you.’  It was a part of the culture I never did fully get used to.  But even I could tell it was a time for politeness, not making overnight arrangements.  

The boat took us lazily to the coast.  The weather changed.  The ocean breeze felt amazing after the jungle heat.  It was still hot, but the breeze lifted all our spirits.  The old man helped us find a fisherman to take boats out to the main island of the Derawan group.   We split the ride with him, two to a boat.  He said, “I’m going there too, you should stay at my house.”

When we got to the island, the old man said again, “Here, follow me, you should stay at my house.”  So we did.  He didn’t really seem like a stranger at this point.  He took us into the little fishing village on the island, and sure enough, he had a pretty nice house with an extra bedroom that we would end up spending the rest of our trip in.  He was an incredible host, and was something of a head honcho in the village.  

He was actually building an addition to his house that he planned to rent out to tourists.  The other side of the island hosted a very high end resort, the kind of resort that you only get to find out about if you frequent restaurants that don’t have prices on the menus.  The typical way tourists got to this island was to fly into a different coastal city and be transported on giant speed boats with multiple outboard engines.  

As I said, the old man was an incredible host.  He fed us and housed us with a warm and genuine smile.  With giggles and laughter, his daughters and nieces woke us in the early morning to the sounds of karaoke – exclusively sad love ballads.  He commandeered his son to take us around the islands in a little fishing boat.  His son was a quiet and incredible tour guide.  He didn’t speak a word of English, but seemed pleased and content with our meager Indonesian.   

It was amazing.  In every way possible.  We swam with manta rays.  We watched the sun go down over the unfamiliar ocean.  We reeked of sunburn, salt and sand.  Our lives were so very very far away.  Nothing made sense for those couple of days.  One night we slept under the stars on the hull of the boat parked at an island where the four inhabitants’ job was to collect turtle eggs.  

When we pulled up to the island, we were surprised to see a cadre of guys walking around the beach past us carrying very large rifles.  Most were shirtless and all were wearing camo fatigues.  Our guide hopped off the boat and went ashore.  He chatted with them for a minute or two before the lead guy in fatigues smiled and waved at us.  We waved stupidly back.  

Needless to say, the sight of this group passing by was alarming and when our guide got back to the boat we looked to him for answers.  He looked out at the guys on the beach, who were headed around to the little hut where the turtle egg collectors lived.  Then he looked back at us and said the only word of English we would hear him speak during our entire trip:  “Pirates.”  

He didn’t laugh about it.  He wasn’t pulling our leg.  He wasn’t being dramatic.  He said it for informational purposes only.  “What?!” was our united response.  “Yes,” he said, “they are here to steal turtle eggs.  They are in the army.”  Okay, part-time army, part-time pirates.  We watched them go up to the house.  Then we watched them leave clutching large bags and continue around the island in the other direction.   

I couldn’t take it.  The part of me that screams for comfort, that begs for the familiar, the part of me that understands what Oliver feels when he sneaks his disgusting coat to school, that part of me took over.  No more going with the flow.  No more.  No more.  I got down off the boat and waded to the shore.  My companions followed at first, but I stalked off around the beach the other direction.  I wouldn’t be able to stay at this island if the pirates were camped out on the other side of the island.  I had to figure out if they were leaving after they had gotten their booty.  If they were staying, we were leaving.  There would be no vote.

I didn’t think it through.  I simply didn’t think.  I just walked in the other direction.  Walking leisurely, you could circumnavigate this island in five minutes.  Two and half minutes later I found myself walking around a bend and right into the group of pirates.  Nowhere to go.  No sneaking around in the vegetation, just oops, right up to them.  The lead pirate walks up to me, gun on shoulder.  “Hi,” he says, “where are you from?”  This is the same greeting I’ve met a thousand thousand times.  It’s the second most common greeting in Indonesia.  “Jakarta,” I say.  “Oh,” he says, “you speak Indonesian?” “Yes,” I say, “a little.”  His gun glints in the afternoon sunlight.  It’s hard not to just stare at it.  The fellow doesn’t seem to notice.  He’s smiling expectantly.  “I’m living in Jakarta,” I say, “but I’m from America.”  These seem to be magic words.  “Aaahh,” he says brightly and knowingly.  He leans on the hard ‘K’ sound and rolls the ‘R’ like he’s never said the letter before, “Amerrrika.”  I nod and smile.  He tries on his best English.  “New York,” he says.  “Yes, I say, that’s right, New York.”  All Americans come from either New York or Los Angeles.  Behind me, one of his lieutenants shoots a sea bird.  My conversation partner doesn’t seem to notice.  “Where are you going?” I say.  This is me being polite, but I really, really want to know.  “Ooh,” he says with a polite dismissal, “just here and there.”  “By boat?” I manage.  Also well within the realm of politeness to ask about mode of transport.  “Eiyah,” he says, “by boat.”  An awkward silent  moment passes between us.  Then he smiles and says goodbye.  Then he and his crew pile into a little boat that takes them out to a bigger boat.  Then the bigger boat pulls away.  I watch it until I can’t see it any longer.  I am relieved in a way I can’t remember ever having been before or since.

I walk back around the island the way I came.  Greg and Kjell run up to me when they see me and hug me and they are pale and look like they might throw up.  When they heard the shot, they imagined me on the receiving end of it.  They were in the throes of horrible imaginings when I walked up safe and sound.  I told them about the bird, and about the men leaving.  We could stay at the island after all.

In fact, it turned out that the reason we weren’t robbed or worse was that our guide was the son of the old man who was friends with the commanding officer of the pirates.  They recognized him immediately, and we were never in any danger.  That old man.

The rest of that night was all kinds of incredible.  We built a large fire on the beach.  We visited the super nice guys in the house who are apparently used to being robbed of their livelihood.  We saw an actual wild komodo dragon visiting the trash pile behind the house.  That night we quietly watched turtle mamas climb out of the sea and deposit their eggs in the sand.  We looked to the stars and imagined the same stars above our homes and families a million miles away.  We rolled up t-shirts for pillows and slept on the gently rocking boat.

I don’t hope my son has occasion to run into actual pirates.  But I do hope he finds adventure, and a little bit of good trouble.  I hope he has occasion to look at the stars and marvel how the same stars that rise above the places he calls home rise over strange and beautiful foreign lands.  Most importantly, I hope he meets light filled people – there are so many more out there than we can know.  I hope he becomes one of them.  

I hope that when I lose him, finally, it’s because he’s out there finding himself.

My fellow travelers Greg (in back) & Kjell (in front).
Turtle tracks.
Shy komodo.
This was our guide around Derawan. He was an exceptional human.
We spent many long hours on the open ocean on this little craft. It was magical.

Found in Translation

I’m a lover of poetry and work hard to include it in my life. The algorithms over at Evil Corp know this about me. When my insta account makes suggestions for me, alongside clips of old Friends episodes and, randomly, snippets of Family Guy – which I’ve never watched before – I am inundated by many various and beautiful pages dedicated to poetry. It almost makes me dislike our evil techno-overlords just a little less. Most of these pages are variants of Mary Oliveresque poetry. My favorite, by far, which I have actually started actively following and interacting with is an account called, ‘Mary Oliver’s Drunk Cousin.’ Here’s a selection from that account:

Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This

When I go to sleep at night
I count all of the Nicholas Cage movies
I can name by heart
I count the ideal number of
Chocolate chips in a cookie (9)

I count the times I said no;
Prioritizing my boundaries over politeness
And the times I said yes;
Prioritizing hope over the unknown
I count the number of freckles on your shoulder
And all the days since I first started counting them
I count every time I laughed
And then, as a bonus, I add in the times
I made my own self laugh

I tally up all of my wins
So I can beat the
Part of my brain that holds
The sum of my losses
At its own game

~Lyndsay Rush

I love the combinations of beauty and irreverence in this person’s poems and selections. There’s something humanizing about that tonal mixture.

In this time, in this season, I think it’s incredibly important to find these moments of poetry. I’ve linked to www.themarginalian.org before, and I’ll do it again here, just as an aside. If you ever feel out of touch with what’s good in the world, Maria Popova will lead you back to the safe harbor of poetic history and the aesthetic mind.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about found poetry – little snippets of beauty written in the ways we write now. I have started thinking about my Wordle attempts as little haiku-like poems. The novelty of winning has given way to attempts to build the most interesting sets of five-letter words. I love the way my imagination, vocabulary, and the rules of the game come together to create these little poems. Here’s a recent one:


By far, my most favorite found poetry comes from an old friend, who happens to be Japanese. I follow her on Instagram, and she writes her posts in Japanese script, which, even in the digital form, I find to be as beautiful as it is unfamiliar to me. Like the rest of us, she has a tendency to post about the same three things – kids, food, and her personal hobby, which is a kind of body-building that I’m not familiar with.

Sometimes I can tell that she’s posting about something beyond just what’s happening in a day. I use the “translate” feature and have Instagram remake her posts in English. It’s always remarkable. Her translated writing hovers just beyond the horizon of understanding, but lands squarely in the continent of meaning. This is the province of poetry. Here’s a recent selection (line spacing is by me):

My son is in first grade and is using surface.
His homework is drop to the cloud
And make a power pole with the sound function.
We, the Showa generation,
Are thrown away by the rocks when we feel crisis.

I love how my friend’s heartfelt tone comes through in the translations. These are messages about the challenges and triumphs of mid-life: of being a mother, a wife, of wrestling with the gifts and restraints of growing up with a particular kind of heritage. They are humane and intimate. I sometimes wish I could participate in the original meaning. It’s kind of like looking at Plato’s shadows projected on the cave wall, or maybe it’s more like looking through a vaseline smeared camera lens. The true meaning of her words is softened, beautifully distorted. Here’s another:

Say no to can’t.
As a parent, you never want to be raised that failure is not acceptable.
Hoping but not expecting,
That’s the way to raise them.
I’ve been doing a lot of terrible things that I can’t even write on Instagram,
Not just martial arts.
I really just can’t say.
I walk naked all over the city is the first word.
Ever found out you’re trying to lie to a guy you like and make him fall.
It also caused a massive damage to the company.
(I can’t say this is about level 1 so I still have level 100 lol)
But I’m alive.
I regret nothing of it.
That’s why everyone should do it more.
Trying is challenging,
So I believe it’s justice even if I don’t break my tongue.
Aftermath ↓
Today I had a model interview for my son’s internal development.
I was not a cute kid who was fine and dignified because of gymnastics,
but my son is a man who doesn’t care about the world or anything.
What do you want to be when you become a middle school student?
“Are you shopping?”
Do you want to study hard?
I don’t think I’ll be able to do my best because I’m so tired of a son
Who can say this is amazing lol
I didn’t even think I said, “You’re amazing.”
As expected, I was told that I’d do better with my duties,
But I’m not feeling well in Shitomachi today,”
And my mother was depressed.
Everybody is different,
Can’t even say it

It’s time to talk about Station 11 – book or TV series. They are both lyrically beautiful epic poems dedicated to the part of us that reaches – grasping – for some kind of knowing what the heck it means to be alive. In these stories, the phrase, scrawled on a car, turned wagon, transporting a caravan of post-apocalyptic actors and musicians: ‘survival is insufficient.’

Things don’t have to be apocalyptic to need these moments. I am so grateful for these little quanta of meaning. They battle, like small slivers of light, kicking and slashing through the dense obfuscations of our drives to work, social media rabbit holes, in-law relationships, red-tape navigations, robocall deceptions, weekend working sessions, crowded Costco checkout lanes, hot water heater malfunctions, after school transportation schedules, popcorn in the couch excavations, identity thefts, construction season stops, and on and on. There has to be balance. We cannot exist merely to pay bills. Survival is insufficient.

Mixed Fractions

My youngest is sitting at the table, weeping.  He’s shaking with what I imagine is frustration, overwhelm, with a side of anguish.  His body convulses slightly.  Big silky tears are smudging a math worksheet dense with pencil lines, eraser scuffings, and mixed fractions. 

To be fair, multiplying mixed fractions is a super pain in the ass.  First, you have to convert the mixed fraction to an improper fraction, like this:  2 1/2  X 7 2/5 = 5/2 X 37/5.  Then you have to multiply across both the numerator and denominator.  5/2 X 37/5  = 185/10.  Then you have to convert it back into a mixed fraction 185/10 = 18 5/10, then you have to reduce, if possible – 18 5/10 = 18 ½.  It’s a long, grueling process if you’re new to fractions.  I might have given a class of fifth graders four or five problems for homework, but he’s looking at twelve.  Hence the anguish and overwhelm.

And, of course, the day is compressed.  I have promised we’d watch a particular movie this week and the only time we have available is this evening.  My youngest almost never has homework.  It is a problem of unlikely convergences.  My oldest needed driving to play practice in Whitefish, and well, this is how these things happen.  Now we’re crunched for time if we’re going to get homework, dinner, and a movie all packed into the evening before a reasonable bedtime.  

I’m trying to reason with him.  “Just start,” I say.  He knows how.  We’ve demonstrated that he knows how.  He’s just not.  In my mind I’m imagining every job I’ve ever had which features an endless line of unpleasant work that just has to be mustered through.  The driveway which feels like it’s the size of a football field, but never-the-less has to be cleared of snow one shovelful at a time.  The edge tiles that must each be cut and laid one at a time.  The endless lines of drip-irrigation that must be unrolled one at a time, each dripper hole punched, each hole filled with a dripper.  This is an important moment for him.  Slogging through work that is doable, but seems insurmountably endless is one of the features of life. 

“I caaaaan’t,” he wails.  “You can,” I reply robustly.  “You’ve got this.”  “They’re so long, and there’s too many of them!”  He replies.  “OK,” I say, “I’ll send your teacher an email and say you just weren’t able to do the problems.  But we’re not watching that movie tonight if you don’t do this work.”  “Nooooo!” He cries, “I don’t want thaaat!” 

What does he want?  Aside from not having to do the work.  It’s made clear to him that he must do the work.  He has all the tools.  He’s capable.  “If you had started working diligently, you’d be done by now,” I point out, which has to be the least helpful thing to say ever.  “Here, let me help you . . .”  But he pushes me away.  “Nooo!  Dad!  Go away!” he screams.  He doesn’t want my help.  But he wants my help.  “But kiddo . . .” I try again.  “GO AWAY!” he stamps his feet and bangs the table as he’s yelling at the top of his lungs.

Yelling at me like this provokes the kind of incredulous anger I always regret losing control of later.  “Listen to me, young man,” I say with my seething teeth clenched.  “You will not speak to your father this way.”  Fuck me, I’m speaking in the third person.  At least I have learned enough by now to walk away for a moment.

I look back and am defeated.  My beautiful child is hunched at the table, sobbing.  I sit down next to him.  I take a deep breath.  “Kiddo,” I say, summoning all the cruel times in my own life I’ve ever had to do something repetitive and awful for the sake of just getting it done.  “Don’t look at how far away the mountain is.  Just put your head down and take one step at a time.”  This is my version of the Taoist chestnut, ‘The journey of ten thousand steps begins with the first one.’

Through tears, his voice choking and hiccuping, he says, “Dad – you’re the mountain.

Oof.  A vice clamps on my heart and now I’m ten.  I’m at my grandparent’s house.  I’m hiding from my grandfather because, well, he just seems scary.  I don’t remember any specific incident, but I’ve polled my cousins, and they all concur that when we were young, he definitely radiated an ‘I’m in charge, better not cross me’ vibe.  By the time I came to be a young adult, he was one of my most trusted confidants, a wealth of advice and wisdom, and also kindness and gentleness.  I don’t know if he changed or if I changed.  It’s a great mystery of my childhood.  

Trapped in my memory are also night-before-due evenings when my own father would review my highschool English Lit essays.  I remember struggling with wanting to be done, knowing that if I let my father in on the process, we’d be working and reworking it a mind-numbing, frustrating number of times. Also knowing that if my father edited my work, I’d get a much better grade.  That man could spot a grammar error from twenty thousand leagues.  So I know the feeling he’s experiencing – just wanting to be done, come what may.  But now I also know the feeling that compelled my fastidious father – if I don’t teach this child how to work, he’ll struggle later.  

The trade-off is always, at what cost?  I can’t just let these things skate, what’s my job as a parent if not to teach my child how to take care of things that need doing?  Watching my child puddle into his chair and onto the floor, I’m torn.  

“Dad – you’re the mountain.”

I’m both deeply proud and deeply ashamed.  I’m proud because here is a child who, with alarmingly brisk readiness, has expressed a pretty complex emotion.  I try to raise children who are both willing and able to talk about how they feel.  But there’s shame too.  It’s complicated because I’m a human being, with human failings.  And this is the child that tallies and remembers all the failings. He’s also the child with whom I’m the most likely to lose my shit.  And I’m a big guy and can be scary when I’m mad.  Though I can say with some degree of humility, it’s not often, but every time I’ve ever lost my temper with this beautiful child I’ve regretted it, and count those moments as my life’s biggest mistakes.  And I’ve made some doozies.

I try to teach my kids by example what to do when a mistake is made, which isn’t as easy as our society would have us believe.  If you ask someone what to do when they make a mistake, they’ll probably come up with one or two actions – say sorry, or try to fix it.  But making a mistake is a much larger, richer, process that requires a great deal of thought and humility.  Here’s what I teach my kids, and how I try to live, when a mistake is made: 

1.  Acknowledge a mistake has been made.   2.  Own your part in making the mistake.  3.  Acknowledge the damage done to the aggrieved party without minimization or rationalization.  4. Express genuine regret via an authentic and unconditional apology.  5. Do whatever can be done to make it right.  6.  Explore all the lessons making that mistake has to offer.  7.  Work to ensure that the mistake doesn’t happen again.  8.  Work to forgive yourself for making the mistake and move on.  

That’s a lot of stuff to do after fucking up.  

I teach my kids that not every step on the list can be undertaken.  Some mistakes can’t be made right.  Sometimes an apology will make it worse.  Some wounds we will always carry.  I can confirm this through hard-won experience.  Sometimes the best we can do is work towards healing.  To greater or lesser degrees, we all come out of childhood scarred, and I am aware that in a small way, this essay is part of me acknowledging the failings I’ve accumulated – a tiny chunk of atonement.  

What I can do is talk openly with my beautiful child about losing my cool.  In quiet moments, usually at bedtime, he will ask me about it, and he tells me how afraid of me it makes him.  I sink into owning my error, acknowledging the hurt and fear that are a result.  I ask how he feels.  I listen.  I walk through the steps.  I apologize with a sincerity that burns like magnesium in water.  What I can do to make it right is only to ensure that the memory of dark moments see the light, to make sure there are bright moments for comparison and context.  I get better, over time, at having a softer response to the mind-shaking disrespectfulness he is able to conjure.  The tween years are legitimately trying.

Step eight – forgiving yourself – is the hardest.

I fear an imagined future where he withdraws from me entirely, a memory full of hard words spoken over tear-damp math worksheets – the long, loving bed-time make up sessions inadequate to the task of fending off the fear of future hardness.  I shudder, imagining a cold, empty gulf growing between us, mirroring the vast emptiness between his mother and I.  It happens all the time.  You see it all the time.  I crouch behind this fear.  I name it in the darkness where it lives.  I pull it to the sunlight.  Unlike so many of my fears, this one doesn’t diminish easily.  It lurks behind every decision I make that impacts my children, which is basically all of them.

I let him work on his own, and he buckles down to do some real work.  I’m proud of him and tell him so.  It kills me that he won’t get a perfect score on the worksheet and I know it, and I know he knows it too, but I refrain from hovering, or requiring endless corrections.  His effort is significant.  He eats his salad.  Tears begin to dry on the now nearly indecipherable worksheet.  I offer him an ice-cream bar for dessert.  We turn on the movie.  We snuggle.  I hope it is enough.  


Ahhh, the warm glow of a fire . . . and Disney+.

Where to start?  My instinct is to start this next thought with a Brene Brown quote or a Rumi quote, or even better, a Mary Oliver quote.  This is where my brain goes.  Somewhere on Themarginalian.org website is the perfect quote.  We’ll get there in a minute, but I think, instead, I should start with Disney+.  

[Spoiler alert – if you haven’t seen Toy Story 3 or the Disney+ show Loki, and you might want to some day, you’ve been warned.  And if you don’t know that Iron Man was recently killed, the rest of the essay won’t make a lick of sense, and you should probably stop here…]

Like many thinking, rational humans, I am somewhat ambivalent about the fact that this one, megalithic company has so much power to influence not just society at large, but my children specifically.  And if I’m being honest, this company has enormous power over me and my emotions and how I experience the world, too.  One of the most moving cinematic experiences I’ve ever seen, or hope to see, is at the end of Toy Story 3 when the group of toys you’ve come to love and cherish are headed toward certain destruction.  Woody is doing the thing he always does and is frantically trying to come up with a last minute plan to save everyone when he and the rest all realize that there isn’t a last ditch plan, that they’re going to be destroyed.  They all reach for one another and hold hands to face their end the same way they’ve spent their lives: together.  I’m crying right now while I write this.  It gets me every time.  It pulls and tugs my heart strings even knowing they’re saved in the end by a funny and apropos deus ex machina moment.  Fucking Disney.

I’m going to start with Disney+ anyway – specifically the show Loki.   (Side note: this essay is the direct result of a very, very interesting texting conversation I had about this with my eldest child.  Proper props to him for effectively explaining what was going on.  Turns out you have to be 14 to understand the vagaries of the Multiverse…)  I wasn’t ready to really understand this show until very, very recently.  Now, if you know me at all, you will know that I came out of the womb ready for time-traveling, interdimensional, kung-fu fighting hijinks.  What I’m talking about here specifically is the romance in the show between Loki, and the alternate reality version of himself, Sylvie.  

There’s a whole bunch that could be written about the potential weirdness of a situation where a person falls in love with another version of themselves from another dimension.  I mean a lot.  Because it’s weird.  But for a moment, for the sake of this essay, I’m going to treat Loki and his variant, Sylvie, as consenting adults who are neither genetically nor phenotypically related.  I mean, if you put up with Game of Thrones, this is an easy pill to swallow.

Another side note:  How nice is it that there’s a love story between two main characters in which their apparent relative age on screen and in real life is approximately the same.  The male character isn’t ninety three and the female character isn’t twenty one.  (Hack, cough, cough Sean Connery, cough, cough Harrison Ford, hack, cough.)  In real life Tom Hiddleston is 41 and Sophia De Martino is 38.  This is one of the things that makes hating Disney hard.  I digress.

What’s great about this series is that you can’t really watch it on a surface level.  In a lot of Marvel movies, the psychological machinations of the main characters is either so cartoonish as to be uninteresting, or essentially irrelevant to the plot.  And a lot of those plots are pretty basic.  There are bad guys who are messed up and try to take over the world.  The good guys kick enough ass and make your garden variety superhero sacrifices and the world is saved.  I was way more moved by the plot device where Woody and Buzz and the gang were going to get destroyed than I was about losing Iron Man.  Again, I digress. 

In the show Loki, to understand what’s happening with the nature of the timeline, you have to know what’s going on in the hearts of the main characters.  Owen Wilson plays Mobius (super obvious metaphor), who, in the name of helping him to understand the other Loki variant (it gets weird) essentially provides ongoing therapy for Loki throughout the entire series.  The point of these sequences where Mobius is asking Loki why he does what he does – to uncover the roots, the genesis of his pain, the neglect and the desire for external validation is the same as the point of therapy:  self-awareness.  Loki is a character who has spent his whole life hiding from self-awareness.  He doesn’t trust anyone and is so reliably untrustworthy that characters around him just assume he’s always lying to them.  The consequences of avoiding self-awareness are dire and multifaceted.  This is a reality that I have only recently begun to understand about my own life . . . 

But back to Loki.  It’s extra potent that Disney chooses to follow the story arc of these two specifically middle-aged characters.  I don’t think it would work with young glamor stars. Someone over there is listening – really listening – to Brene Brown (yes it’s Brene Brown quote time), who says:

… we all grew up and experienced to varying degrees, trauma, disappointment – hard stuff.  And we armored up.  And at some point that armor no longer serves us.  And so, how is not talking about this serving you?   It’s not serving you anymore.  And now the weight of the armor is too heavy and it’s not protecting you.  It’s keeping you from being seen and loved by others. This is the developmental milestone of midlife.  From late thirties until probably your sixties, this is the question.  This is when the universe comes down and puts her hands on your shoulders and pulls you close and whispers in your ear – I’m not fucking around.  You’re halfway to dead.  The armor is keeping you from growing into the gifts I’ve given you and that’s not without penalty.  Time is up.  It’s not a crisis.  It’s a slow, brutal unraveling.  

I’m pretty familiar with this kind of unraveling . . .  

But back to Loki.  Loki’s untrustworthiness is a kind of self-loathing.  He can’t care about anyone else because he doesn’t care about himself.  It’s a shortened, carefully choreographed, tidily packaged, Marvel kind of revelation, but there it is.  Loki can’t fall in love with Sylvie – or anyone for that matter – until he figures his own shit out.  Not only that, he won’t even be able to have real friendships. There will be no late summer nights drinking wine, jumping in lakes for him.

And if, in season two, they are to have a real shot at a relationship, Sylvie’s going to have to jump on the self-awareness bandwagon, and Disney is going to need to create a character who can provide her with some therapy.  Her childhood has some pretty heavy trauma, and her relationship with Loki is going to be a messed up attachment train wreck unless she faces and comes to terms with the trauma she grew up with.  Which, like many kids of course, was having to hide in time from agents of the Time Variant Authority in the moments right before complete apocalypses, always on the run with no parenting or meaningful connections in her life, so . . . yeah. Her choice to free the multiverse and betray Loki at the end of season one only makes sense if she’s choking on emotional armor scrambling for any kind of foothold outside herself.  

Questions I have for season two:  Is the multiverse inherently chaotic?  Can you have free will if your timeline is deterministic?  If you do liberate the multiverse in favor of free will, can it behave harmoniously, or will it inevitably lead to war and chaos between alternate timelines?  Can humanity be happy under the thumb of an unseen, yet oppressive force who never-the-less provides order?  But most of all, I’m interested in whether Disney is going to do the emotional heavy lifting and let Sylvie come to terms with her own emotional armor?  There isn’t a chance in hell for a healthy relationship with Loki otherwise.  My guess is that Loki, the character we’ve invested several movies and much more time with, will get the benefits of surviving with his self-awareness intact, and Sylvie will end up sacrificing herself to rectify mistakes she’s made before achieving, albeit too late, the kind of self-awareness she’d need to be in a healthily attached relationship with Loki.  Such are the dreams Disney+ is made of.