River of Fire

I’m twenty one and am laying on a Ernie Tanaka surfboard just off the coast of Oahu.  I bought it off a college student at UH who didn’t know what he had.  Some of the old guys who knew me from the before-work morning set off Diamond Head alerted me to the board’s provenance.  It was around seven and a half feet long.  Not a longboard, but not a short one either.  It was unique.  I surfed on it for a few months and then passed it on when it was time to leave the islands.  A part of me wishes I’d kept it, but it almost doesn’t seem like it was mine to own.  It fit me as well as anything has ever fit me: my first bicycle – a beat up old red dirt-bike with only coasting brakes, my first car – a beat up old 81 Honda Civic held together with caulk and duct tape – my collection of 60s era fantasy and science fiction magazines – my pair of faded black Summer Solstice Triathlon swim trunks.   I don’t have any of those things any more, either.  This surfboard was comfortable

This is my only surviving image of that Tanaka board. I found this guy half-buried on the beach one day.

It’s morning and I’m on the water with my buddy Drew between waves when not much was happening.  I’m on my belly paddling somewhere when all of a sudden the heavens open and I’m in a trough of some kind and a gentle tropical breeze like a thousand little gusts grabs the water’s surface and a billion billion little wavelets catch and release yellow fire and I’m surrounded by the warmth of a deafening chorus of light.   

In my memory I can see my hands slicing into and through the cacophony around me as though in slow motion, knowing I’ll be leaving for home in a few weeks time, knowing that my future might not bring me back again, knowing instinctively that you can’t ever tread the same path twice, knowing that there could be no way to preserve the moment other than as a memory.  I concentrate with all my will to burn the moment permanently into my soul.  There it has remained for 23 years.  It is one of my most precious and personal memories.  It is a North Star for how I experience beauty.  It is a high-water mark of my mortal experience.

And rarely do I ever come close to experiencing that degree of intense, burning beauty.  I’ve been to the tops of mountains, along coral reefs, at the edge of blooming deserts, in endlessly throbbing night clubs, at the edge of vast tropical rain forests, on the precipice of ancient ruins.  I’ve seen my own children born and held their slimy squirming bodies as they take their first breaths and held the hand of a beautiful ancestor in his last moments, feeling his pulse fade away.  These experiences have been powerful and moving, and I honor them, don’t get me wrong.  But never have I come close to the kind of transcendentally transformative experience of pure simple beauty of that moment on the water in the Spring of 2000.  

Until last weekend.

In these essays I’ve been trying to eke out some kind of truth or lesson or idea from the meanderings of my middle-aged mind.  Not this week.  This week it’s just my best attempt to describe a moment of sheer, crazy-inducing beauty.  

We’re standing on a frozen lake.  My cousin and I spent the morning fording a river in pack-rafts and hiking with full packs on snowshoes, six miles into the Wilderness.  The lake creates a long valley –  more of a canyon really, running east/west for around three miles. We made it to our camp spot in the early afternoon and spent the next few hours setting up an amazing winter camp.   The sun is setting at the foot of the lake, while we’re closer to its head on the north side.  

The mountains like sentinels.

With only a few hours of light left in the day we turn to building a fire near the edge of the lake in a spot where the snow will be thin under the fire, but a few feet away it is deep.  We dig chair shapes in the snow near the fire and place our foam pads on the cold surface like the most rugged La-Z-Boys imaginable.  After the hike that day, these “chairs” feel amazing.  We have a campfire, good company, snacks of various kinds and deliciousness, and the mountains opposite rear up, gleaming like giant knights in new armor made of snow and stone.  The moon, nearly full, rises through the spears of jagged cliffs into a pristine blue sky.  This is pretty. It’s also cozy, but it’s not the moment.  

Returning to the La-Z-Boy lounge after the sun finally went to bed for the night.

Exhaustion sloughs off us and we notice after a bit that we’re in the shade.  The sun has gone around the corner of the mountain.  But there’s a line on the lake ice, clear as day, where the sun still shines while retreating.  We decide to put down bags of trail mix and jerky and go follow the sun set across the lake.  

A few steps take us to the line.  Of course, we’ve all seen the sun set before, but this line where the switch takes place – slicing from cool blues and cold to bright yellow and warm is unusually compelling.  Day and night are in a dance – retreat, advance, retreat, advance.  It hasn’t snowed in a few days, so the ice has been blown mostly free of snow.  On the shore, post-holing into 18 inches of snow is how you get from the tent to a place to pee.  On the lake, it’s scrubbed clean with a rough wind-blown texture, which makes following the sunset easy.  It’s ironic that the very most beautiful moment of a weekend that was generally characterized by struggle is also the easiest moment of the trip.

The line between day and night. Which must be followed.

If all this weren’t enough, the ice of the lake was also singing.  We figured the ice was around ten inches thick, but the day had been warm, and the ice was cracking and shifting subtly beneath our feet.  This created periodic thwommm sounds which were shaped and amplified as though in the sound chamber of an ancient Spanish guitar by the natural acoustics of the canyon.  The effect was beyond magical.

And then we stumbled on it.  The river of fire.  Some weeks or days before a single cross country skier had transected the lake.  In doing so, they compressed the snow where their track was.  Compression made that little track both smooth and resistant to the forces which eroded the snow around it.  The sun was setting, relative to us, right at the western end of where the track disappeared into perspective.  

Two thirds of the way across the lake, already soaked from head to toe in mind-numbing beauty, we discovered the track.  

It’s probably hubris to try and describe how beautiful a moment that was, and the photos are cool, but don’t do it justice.  We’d already had an amazing day, and the night would continue to impress with giant sparks of firelight wrestling with Orion for supremacy in the cold night sky.  Later we would hear the low mournful howl of wolves echoing through the canyon from far away.  We would feed my cousin’s portable wood stove in a repetition of millenia-old night fire tending rituals.  There would be stories of love and loss and The. Most. Delicious. Ramen. Ever.  But that moment, when the river of fire overtook us as the sun raced to bed, stands out in stark relief.

It took me three days to physically recover from how taxing this trip was, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.  It stands out as one of the most personally moving times of my life.  To my dear, dear cousin who put up with my smoke-stuffed up nose – he recalls my snoring in the night was, “like I was fighting with sleep itself,” my slowness on the trail, my physical ailments, and all the other things he put up with to drag my sorry ass out there, I extend my deepest gratitude.  He is a person of such quality unlike any other and I feel truly humbled and honored to know him.

And like that morning so many years ago, I have commanded my neurons to permanently record the event.  I will hold it close to my bones and seek comfort there, and may it be my last breath that ever compels me to let it go.

All that’s left of my F&SF magazine collection. It was neat.

Fair Police

A while back, my mother made a collection of aphorisms that my grandmother knew, or had heard from her mother.  There were around two hundred of them.  They are wonderfully old-fashioned and marvelously saccharine.  I don’t know if it’s the times, or what, but I’m sure I wouldn’t know that many.  Among them, one has stuck out for me:  “If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.”  This feels true, but I don’t know if it is always true.  Some losses feel so potent, we’d wish them away in a heartbeat.   

What I can say is that I am a very, very lucky parent.  I know this deep in my bones.  Like any family, ours has challenges and we face frustrations every day.  And like everyone, I face a great many challenges in my own life.  I acknowledge that not every problem is a “first-world problem,” and that many which get griped about on social media truly are.  Again, I’m not here to judge.  

The following essay is an examination of one kind of frustration, and is not intended to judge, or compare other people’s challenges, or even to compare among my own challenges.  It is not my intention to indict what other families do.  It is simply something I’m thinking about right now.  Okay, disclaimer over.  Here’s the essay.

One of the things we spend the most time and energy on in my household is: The Rules.  It was many years ago that the invocation of the “Fair Police” came to be.  To the great consternation of those in charge, when the Fair Police showed up, suddenly everything had to be fair.  The Fair Police spawned much gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, terrible puns, and general discord because, of course, life isn’t fair, and no parent can dole out justice in a completely fair manner.  The Fair Police are a plague upon this house and are swatted away wherever practicable.  Yet, the specter of unfairness swirls in the hallways and corridors of this gentle domicile like the unwanted several-day-old after-smell of a dispatched skunk.   

Fairness, as an idea, seeps into every corner of our lives.  My youngest typically goes straight to pointing out things that aren’t fair.  My oldest has adopted a hyper-stoic posture about fairness in which he will routinely say with blithe matter-of-fact teenage sarcasm that, “It just doesn’t matter, it’s not fair and that’s the way it is.  We just have to accept it.”  He doesn’t yet grasp the subtlety that by saying things like this, he is in fact still invoking the Fair Police – perhaps more so than if he was just out and out whining.  

Nowhere is there more invocation of the Fair Police than around the dreaded ScreenTime.  As the kids have gotten older, ScreenTime has become an ever more urgent topic for the Fair Police to consider.  Other kids get unlimited ScreenTime, don’t you know?  It’s not fair, we got ScreenTime yesterday, but not today.  Can we pleeeeeease have more ScreenTime.  My favorite is when they offer the “carrot” that if I relent, I won’t have to deal with whining any more.  Sooooo problematic.  Recently it got so bad that my youngest, in response to a school assignment in which he was tasked with writing a short persuasive essay, wrote a whole paper on why they should be allowed 20 minutes of ScreenTime each and every day.  It was his best writing to date, and he clearly put his whole heart and soul into it.

Which isn’t to say that we’re Luddites here at Casa Cummings.  We watch movies and TV together all the time.  The microwave popcorn spawning undiscovered ecosystems in the corners of my couch are testament to the amount of time we spend watching screens.  But, in my humble estimation, there’s a difference between watching the latest Marvel movie together as a family in the living room with seltzers and popcorn and my child up in a room somewhere playing endless iterations of Balloon Tower Defense.  Call me old fashioned.

What to do?  

On the one hand, 20 minutes of unfettered (though parentally monitored) personal ScreenTime seems more than reasonable.  On the other, I think beating your head against the wall would be a better use of time than Balloon Tower Defense.  Still.  I’m no stranger to wasting time on video games.  Far from it.  When I was 14, I could beat the whole game of Metroid on the original NES in 45 minutes flat.  Is Balloon Tower Defense any worse than defeating King Hippo on Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out?  Something in me says that it is, but I can’t seem to find any logical explanation as to why…

One of the things that came with the Fair Police was a proclivity to strictly and literally interpret the Rules.  This seems to be an inherent attribute that children develop – especially eldest children.  My mother recounts that when we were kids, she asked my brother to please stop banging on the table, his reply was to immediately start banging the table from the underside.  Hilarious, I’m sure.

So the problem is two-fold.  First, do I allow the requested ScreenTime?  Okay, okay, I relent.  To my dear children, if you must waste life’s minutes defending your tower, so be it.  The bigger problem, however, is how do I implement The Rules in such a way as to avoid a visit from the Fair Police?  It occurred to me that there is a profession for which a kind of language exists to prevent just such abuses.  Why, that would be the legal profession.  

My father was an attorney, and by all accounts a very skilled one.  He was a master of language which precluded misinterpretation and accounted for all variables.  As a younger person, it was impossible not to notice the detritus of his life, surrounded as he was by briefs, discoveries, memos, injunctions, depositions, not to mention the volumes and volumes of Montana Code Annotated my brother and I moved in the days before the internet when his office changed locations.   Since I was small I have always been amazed at the language lawyers used.  It’s so . . . weird.  But also kind of marvelous.  

I’m not an attorney, and as far as I know I don’t need to be a member of the bar to attempt to use some of this language to outline the rules around ScreenTime in my house. I just thought it would be fun to try.  Also, my inner draconian loves this.

Article II

All residents not yet of the age of majority as outlined by the laws of the State of Montana and who reside at the domicile whose physical location is: __(my house)__ shall be entitled to twenty (20) minutes of ScreenTime per calendar day.

Definitions:  ScreenTime shall be defined as time spent with a personal digital device such as, but not limited to, tablets, smart phones, desktop computers, laptops, or televisions, and will pertain to any activity which engages the visual senses.  

General provisions:

  1. Homework & Studying:  Overriding preference shall be given to the completion of homework and studying for exams, quizzes, or other scholastic tests of knowledge. 
  1. Family Events:  Overriding preference shall be given to the attendance of family events.
  1. Chores:  Overriding preference shall be given to the completion of any and all assigned chores whether such chores are assigned verbally or in written list form.
  1. Privilege:  Article II is designated as a privilege and may be revoked at any time for cause by, and only by, the head of household.
  1. Screen mirroring:  Screen mirroring or otherwise projecting ScreenTime shall be allowed at the discretion of the head of household.
  1. Educational Activities:  Time spent on screens utilized for the purposes of participating in educational activities such as, but not limited to, remote learning activities, typing practice or Math 180, shall not apply to the 20 minute allotment outlined in Article II.
  1. Shared Family ScreenTime:  ScreenTime as part of family time shall not infringe on the 20 minute allotment outlined in Article II.
  1. Time keeping:  Residents of this household shall use a timer or other reasonable method for keeping track of their ScreenTime.  Time shall be kept on the “honor system.”  Abuse of the “honor system” shall result in the revocation of Article II.
  1. Transferability:  ScreenTime is available upon the day it is issued, and shall not roll over to subsequent days.  ScreenTime is issued to individuals only and may not be shared, traded, bought, sold, or otherwise transferred between individuals.
  1. Auditory use:  Auditory applications such as, but not limited to, music or podcasts will not carry time limitations.
  1. Head of Household:  Final jurisdiction for arbitration of any and all disputes regarding the applicability and implementation of any and all provisions contained within Article II shall lie with, and only with, the head of household. 

Lessons of Catan

What things cost in Settlers of Catan.

Dim yellow propane lamps bounce 19th century rays of soft light around wooden logs of the little cabin I’m sharing with four other large dudes.  The antiquated atmosphere seems to accentuate how dark and cold it is outside.  We’ve just finished a giant, thoroughly scrumptious pot of chicken chili.  A crackling wood fire sends essential heat to the occupants of this cabin, but also dries multitudes of paraphernalia hanging from well-placed nails in the rafters. Each nail holds the damp detritus of gear towed by sled over nine miles, up a thousand feet, by cross-country skis into the back country near the North Fork of the Flathead River.  The cabin is small, cozy, luxuriant.  

I’m sitting at a wooden picnic table in front of a travel-sized version of Settlers of Catan waiting patiently as our fearless leader, who brought the game – generously packed those nine miles into the wilderness – explains the rules and offers advice to the uninitiated.   The rules of Catan are multitude, but I’ve played a million, million times, and I think I probably have a good shot at taking the game.  I break into his explanatory exposition, exhorting to the noobs how critically important initial settlement selection is.  Our leader nods sagely.  He is a patient man.  He continues his diatribe on the finer points of trading sheep for wood, and etc.  The game is about to begin.  

I would take a moment to briefly, and vaguely, so as not to incriminate anyone other than perhaps myself, mention the existence of grown-up imbibements at this juncture.  This is not an aspect of the game I have ever navigated when playing with my children, but that’s the thing about grown-up imbibements, they often convince us in the moment we’re something we may not be.  Never-the-less, I feel ready.  The amber glow of everything acts like a sedative, but I’m pretty sure, given a decent set of starting conditions, I can win Catan in my sleep, so we’re good, I convince myself.

I get the roll to start the settlement selection process.  Going first isn’t great, because it also means I have to go last for the second pick.  Pros and cons flit in and out of my mind.  To this point, my own personal beliefs about Catan have been that the initial starting locations of your settlements pretty much determines the outcome of the game.  It’s generally a resources game.  More resources equals winning.

Then, just as I’m about to place my first settlement, our leader, and Catan host, says something that I will not be able to shake.  ‘Here’s another piece of advice,’ he says.  ‘Don’t fight what the game is giving you.’

He means, if the resources you’re accumulating suggest a certain course of action, follow it, don’t fight it, holding out for some resource you think you need but aren’t getting.  Don’t hold out for something you’re not getting.  Holy crap.  If I had a nickel . . .

I’m thrown back to a different time, bending low over a row of cruciferous vegetables searching for big answers and also a podcast to pass the time, and landing on an amazing episode of Freakonomics where the hosts of that show discuss the concept of the Fallacy of Sunk Costs.  Essentially, this idea says you shouldn’t evaluate your future decisions based on how much time/effort/money/etc you’ve sunk into whatever it is you’re deciding about.  Be future looking.  Be honest.  I take a good hard look at the broccoli.  

I realize that not fighting what the game is giving you is a version of this – though much more compact, more relatable as advice.  It means that if you are getting a bunch of sheep, wheat, and ore, even if you’ve invested several turns in the attempt, stop trying to build settlements (which need wood and brick) and start buying development cards (which need exactly one sheep, one wheat, and one ore).  Before this game, I would have given this line of action very short shrift.  Almost no one wins by buying a bunch of development cards.  

I slowly build my empire.  Six points, then seven, then eight.  I can get to nine on the next turn.  Meanwhile, our leader is following his own advice.  He buys development card after development card.  I think this is imprudent, but I try not to be a dick about it.  Now he has the largest army (2 points) while the thief is in almost permanent residence on my properties, cutting off my resource flow.  

I’m taken back again to a different time, when I was on the high school policy debate squad.  A few years before my time, an extraordinary duo from my high school went all the way to final rounds at nationals.  There is a legendary (apocryphal?) story of a round of debate in which this duo, arguing on the negative side, ran into an affirmative case that was so incredibly esoteric and just out there, that they had almost nothing in their toolbox with which to fight it.  Their ultimate triumph came from following this very rule – don’t fight what the game is giving you.  They ditched everything except ‘topicality’ which is an argument that the other team loses because they aren’t debating the prescribed topic.  A brilliant, if risky, move.  Also an ultimately a successful one.

All of which is much like the outcome of our game of Catan.  Whether it’s the soporifics of substance or ambiance, or whether it is simply pride, it comes as a surprise to me when our leader, who had “squandered” his precious resources repeatedly buying development cards, claims victory at 10 points.  What a great lesson.  Don’t fight what the game is giving you.

I roll over and over this now as I think about the business I’m starting – what are the skills and talents I have that I love to use?  I mull what the game is giving me as I think about my dad going into a care facility and what that means for me and my family.  I think about the relationships in my life that have come and gone – what was I holding onto that the game was telling me to let go of?   And I look at my beautiful children and wonder what I might have to offer as a parent that I can lean into instead of trying to make up for the mistakes I’ve made.  

Ultimately, I think not fighting what the game gives is about grace and bravery.  It’s about having grace for yourself and others when things don’t go how you planned/expected/hoped, and having the bravery to move into the space you do occupy. Read what the game has handed you, and fully own it – be brave enough to redefine what success actually means and to redefine the paths to that success. Then put your shoulder into that path.   In my life I’ve always subscribed to the kind of paths to success Olympic swimmers embody.  Push with relentless persistence and hope for the best.  A better way, perhaps, is to learn to pivot to something that fits better.  I’m not a great pivoter, I have always resisted change, but I’m not that old a dog – there’s always time to grow and improve.  

All of which isn’t to say that unbounded persistence is necessarily bad.  Brute force resource accumulation did get me to that ninth point, which isn’t a slack game of Catan, but not before the player who leaned into what the game was giving them got to ten.        

Receiving a fifth place medal in the 100 yd backstroke from an actual Olympic gold medalist swimmer in 1996. About the highest I ever achieved as a competitive swimmer.

Snagennif Paradox

From the deep vault. I think this is the cast of “Our Town.” Ca. 1994.

“I th – th – think maybe this is a b – b – bad idea . . .”  

It’s two in the afternoon on a Saturday.  Dusty, yellow light filters through large windows.  It’s the time of year in the Flathead when you can’t go hiking or skiing and a winter’s worth of accumulated gravel is still on the road.  I’m sitting across from a class-mate and we are performing a science experiment.  Cups of coffee is the dependent variable.  Heart rate is the independent variable.  I’m fifteen.  This all makes perfect sense.

Resting before us on the laminate table top are three pots of coffee.  Lids have been removed to more quickly cool their contents.  We have a watch and a notepad.  When the coffee is sufficiently cooled, I start drinking a cup every two minutes.  My partner takes my pulse.  Numbers are recorded.  Many trips to the bathroom are made.

The waitress doesn’t even blink.  Two people want three pots of coffee?  Okay.  It’s probably not the strangest thing she’ll see this day.  Depending on when she came on shift, and how long she’ll be there, she will have seen young people, still up from the night before, hazily watching creamer swirl into their coffee.  Later, she’ll see families in for a late brunch with babies screaming and throwing things.  She’ll see transient guys spending a few cents on bottomless cups of coffee just to get in from out of the cold.  That evening, she might have to find space for twenty-three members of the cast of the local high-school play.  She’ll serve order after order after order of deep-fried mozzarella cheese sticks.  

We are of course, at Finnegan’s.  Or, as a dear friend once suggested, Snaggenif which is just ever so much more fun to say.

It was just a diner, but it also was much more than a diner.  It was the epicenter of every teenager’s world in the 1990’s.  At least, every teenager I knew.  Not to romanticize, but it was just true, we didn’t have cell-phones.  If you wanted to know what was going on, it was a good bet you could find out at Finnegan’s.

Nights sometimes stretched out indefinitely there, like some kind of strange David Lynch film.  On some weekend evenings, you could show up at nine and maybe not leave until, well, until your friends had to go home.  Those of us with generous, or even no curfews, sometimes stayed until the bars closed.  As a youngish teenager, it wasn’t generally a good idea to be hanging around Finnegans when the bars let out at two AM.  Drunk adults took over then.

But at 10:30 on a Friday night?  The place would be lousy with kids just barely old enough to drive.  We didn’t really have anywhere else to go, especially during the cold of the school year.  And we apparently had vast stretches of time to blow, drinking coffee and just hanging out.  

There’s some pretty good science around the perception of time, and how our minds remember experiences, but one observation is that humans tend to remember things as going by quickly when our experiences didn’t include a great many novel events – that is, if nothing much happened, our memories tend to catalog those experiences as flying by.  The converse is true.  If a remembered event contained a great deal of novel experiences, our memories record those times as stretching on and on.  

This, then, is the paradox of my Finnegan’s memories.  My memories of these nights is that they were long, sprawling, nearly endless occasions.  However, people came, people went, but not much happened other than the banal delivery of new pots of coffee or baskets of cheese sticks.  Why then are my memories of this time so expansive?  We literally sat in diner booths for hours doing nothing that my adult self would register as noteworthy.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as another change has happened in my life.  In the last year it has become increasingly the case that I am with middle-schoolers.  Among other things like the pungency, the mess, the braggadocio, the microwave burritos, is a kind of verbosity I had sort of forgotten about.  These kids talk non-stop.  There is never not anything to talk about.  

Which isn’t a complaint.  I do find the verbiage exhausting at times, but I also think what they find interesting to be absolutely fascinating.  I’m honored, if not grossed out, when they include me in their expository extravagance. There are so many facets to what they go on about, but most of it is about who did what at school.  

That’s clearly the answer to the Finnegan’s paradox – it might look to an outside observer (my present-day self) like nothing was happening, but like my kids, we were probably talking –  communicating – non-stop: lingering for hours under yellow fluorescent lights, breathing far too much second hand smoke, drinking way more coffee than is good for any one person, creating, breaking, recreating, rebreaking, re-recreating connections.  

I don’t remember what a pot of coffee and an order of mozzarella cheese sticks went for back then, but whatever it was, it was well worth the price.

Generations of Ghosts

My “Sonata Chime” Mantle Clock from the Seth Thomas Clock Company. ca 1914.

I’m a sucker for nostalgia, especially when it comes to things.  It’s a streak in me that winds around my every sensibility and has undue influence over the decisions I make.  I hold onto shoes far longer than is reasonable.  I’d much rather use a rugged old heavy toolbox that came from my great-grandfather than a lightweight flexible one from Harbor Freight.  Growing up, I was surrounded by the things built, bought, or plain scavenged from previous generations. Rocking chairs, beds, blankets, old china, wood stoves, prints, juice pitchers, you name it.  There were new things, but new things were relegated to a position of disposability.  If the new electric pancake griddle crapped out, toss it, get a new one.  No big deal.  If the several generations-old green shag carpet needs replacing, well that requires convening a committee of cousins on how to replace it in the most aesthetically similar way possible.  

This attitude was definitely born of the pre-WWII era.  The generation of my grandparents had an outsized influence on the generations to come, and certainly on me.  Their attitudes were formed by twin understandings.  On one hand, this generation grew up during the scarce times of the Depression, followed by the scarce times of the War.  They lived by the motto: use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without.  On the other hand, they lived during a time before cheap plastic crap.  Their bicycles might have been heavy, but they were sturdy.  The same was true of everything built before the War, from bookshelves to bed frames.  I don’t know if the members of my family from that generation actively venerated well-made old things or not, but they certainly kept well-made things for a long time.  Part of me wonders if it’s simply a matter of, if you wanted a warm coat in the thirties, your choices were:  wool or wool.  Stuff was well made because there really wasn’t an alternative, and all the better if there was a serviceable old version that could be brought into use.  

Meanwhile, I love building and fixing things.  My cat needs a way to get from the basement floor up to the cat door at eye-level?  Build a clever ramp.  Need more counter space in the kitchen?  No problem – just build it.  And of course there are shows for that.  My absolute favorite are the YouTube videos of people who “rescue” old rusted swords and knives and axes and make them beautiful again.  I can disappear down that rabbit hole for a long time…

The Venn diagram overlap of these two sensibilities came to a crashing head recently.        

The other day, I was admiring an old wall clock at my brother’s house.  We got to talking about how hard it is to maintain these old clocks, how our community does have a fellow who repairs old clocks, but that his talents are a rare commodity and when he retires, we’ll all have to send our clocks to Seattle or Portland to get them fixed.  Ah ha!  A little light-bulb went off in my head.  I maintain an old clock too, and it was long overdue to be oiled.

It’s one of my most prized possessions, though a quick search of the interweb shows that it’s not really worth that much in dollar terms.  I’ve noticed that the value I put on old, well-built things is usually far in excess of what they would actually fetch on the open market.  This clock came to me by way of my paternal grandmother, who, in turn came by it from her mother, who received it as a wedding gift from her brother in 1914.  

That brother would number among the more than 26,000 Americans who perished in the Argonne region of France in the last days of WWI.  This little bit of information is a good example of what drags me so deeply into the singularity of nostalgia.  When I look at the clock, accurately ticking away in my living room, I am in direct contact with those lives who also looked into its silvered face, who also dusted it’s adamantine shoulders.  When I wind it’s mechanisms, my hand is operating the same levers my grandmother operated and her mother before her.  It’s as real as I think ghosts can be.

I pull the clock from it’s overlook and set it out on the table.  I’ve laid a towel on the table so no little dropped parts will go bouncing off the edge.  In a fever-dream a week before, a few clicks on Amazon bought me a little bottle of synthetic clock oil and a book on how to repair clocks.  The book is dense, written by someone who doesn’t write books.  It has interesting information, but is far less handy than the hours of YouTube videos I have watched in preparation for this moment.  I take a deep breath.  Am I really going to do this?  Am I really going to put this object at risk of my, admittedly, shaky hands?  I am.  I figure, the worst that can happen is that I’ll have to take my clock to the old clock repair dude to be put to rights.  

I open the back of the clock.  The innards stare back at me.  They look insanely complex.  After a minute or two, the chaos settles down and I can see two different sections – the chime and the movement.  The chime runs the chime.  The movement runs the movement of the hands.  I realize that if I can successfully get the face of the clock off, I won’t have to take out the movement.  The chime also looks easy to remove, though I decide not to this time.  

This is the guts of the thing from the rear. Chime is in the foreground, the movement is behind.

Ever so carefully, I pull the pin that holds the hands to the face of the clock.  Then I slip two washers off followed by the minute hand and finally the hour hand.  I lay them out on the towel in the order I pulled them off.  Then, from the inside of the clock, I find the three little brass screws holding the face to the wooden body of the clock.  I find my long skinny flathead screwdriver and begin to back them out.  When it seems like they’re almost free, I carefully grab the heads of the screws with my needle-nosed pliers as I turn them the last little bit of the way so they don’t fall into the clock’s innards.  With a click, the face comes away from the clock.  

This is what the movement looks like from the front with the face off.

My goal is to clean and oil the little spots where there are gear bearings on the front and back plates of the movement.  YouTube has told me that the little applicator on my bottle of oil will put too much oil into each bearing.  Each bearing hole is around 1.5 mm in diameter – oh so very tiny.  If too much oil is applied, it will spill out and down the face of the movement.  Because of physics this dripping will pull all the oil out of the bearing and the bearing will dry out, leading to wear and ultimately the end of the movement.  

I get out the needle I use for extracting kiddo slivers.  If I’m careful, I can lodge a tiny droplet of oil on the end of the needle.  Then, ever so gently, I apply that drop to the bearing.  It is insanely pleasing to watch the oil suck into the bearing and hold there.  Every day contains multitudes of beauty.  This is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a long time.  The movement, which sits right behind the clock face has a dozen or so bearing points.  Caught in a robust flow moment, I fill each hole.  None leak.  The bearings look good.  

This is a bearing about to be oiled by that tiny little drop. Getting it right is sooooo satisfying!

I only drop the needle into the depths of the clock body once.  The clock is like the TARDIS from Doctor Who – it seems much larger on the inside than it looks from the outside.  There are many horrible places my little needle could land when I drop it.  It finds a merely moderately inaccessible spot to land.  My heart pounds in my neck as I carefully fish it out with the needle-nosed pliers.  Clock repair people have a special tool for applying oil to bearings, which I swear silently to myself that I will acquire before my next foray into the heart of this beast.  

I oil the couple bearings on the chime, which I don’t ever use, and sigh deeply.  A few anxious minutes later, I have the clock face back in place.  What’s left is adjusting the hands to show the correct time and setting the internal pendulum in motion.  A day later, the time is holding correctly.        

About half the time, I wake up in the morning to a very quiet house.  In the stillness of the first lights of day, the only sound, aside from the small breathing sounds my cat makes, is the ticking of this old clock.  It is a heartbeat.  It is the sound my grandparent’s house made when all was still.  I feel that sound as a permanent childhood memory.  The ticking of the clock sends me straight back to that living room – the light from the big south windows, scrolled edges of the sofa, yellow reclining nap-chair, baby grand piano, agate-topped coffee table, my grandmother setting the table for lunch, my grandfather stirring pea soup.  

I wonder about the living room my grandmother would have remembered, hearing that sound.  What stirrings of daily life held residence in the corners of her memory?  Did she hear that clock and think of her mother fussing over dinner, her sister fussing about having to practice the piano, the hours of joy she found playing the same.  Did she think about an uncle she never met?  Did the sound bring her peace, the way it does for me?   And of course, I hope, beyond hope, that my own children will absorb this sound as a memory of my living room – games played, meals eaten, fires built, episodes of Star Trek watched – and with that memory I hope they feel connected, as I do, to generations of ghosts that came before.  

Invisible Chasms

Bayliss just a few days old.

        Our paths lead us through and over chasms of light and dark.  There really isn’t another way.  Some are deep and wide and perilous.  Some are lightly filled with honey-meringue and joy.  Some look right, but aren’t.  Some look brutal, but are really blessings.  All of them are invisible until we traverse them.  And thank goodness.
        A common thing a young adult will hear from slightly older young adults:  “You just can’t know what it’s like to have a baby until you have one.”  And it’s true.  No matter how much you don’t want it to be true, it is.  Sure, some of us are more prepared than others.  If, for example, you grew up as an older child with a baby in the house, you have a leg up.  I most certainly did not.  On the night of the birth of my first child – two nights after labor began – I found myself alone in a drab Philadelphia hospital room.  In my memory it is like any other hospital room from the Netflix show Stranger Things.  
        Mother had just undergone surgery to bring our beautiful child into the world and was passed out on drugs.  The nurse said many things very quickly that I didn’t catch or at least caught and released, and then left with a click.  Then there was just me.  And a baby.  And the baby started crying.  And I looked down at this beautiful child with horror.  My first day as a parent – the person who is supposed to do whatever it takes to bring comfort to their brand-new, completely dependent being.  
        I panicked.  I called the nurse.  “Yes?” she said.  “Um, the um, the um . . .” I said.  “YES?” she said with growing annoyance.  I’m sure she was busy.  “I, um, he’s um, he’s crying.” I stammered.  I was holding him – cradling really – and rocking back and forth.  The only thing I could think was that I didn’t have useful nipples, and so what could I do?  The nurse said with annoyance, and I’ll never forget this, “Yes, he’s a baby.  They cry.”  “But, I, um. . . how do I . . . ?” I was going into shock.  “Babies cry when they need something,” she said.  “Can mom nurse him?”  “No. No.  She’s . . . um . . . she’s . . . um . . .”  “She’s sleeping?” It’s like I needed her to speak for both of us.  “Um . . . yeah . . . what, um . . . what do I do?”
        This question:  What do I do?  What can you do?  When you don’t know and you’re thrust into the ring, what can you do?  I have a friend who signed up for fight night one time because you got paid $50 for even just stepping into the ring.  That’s a chasm I’ll never cross, but I recognized the fear in his voice recounting the tale.  That fear was in my voice over the phone to the night nurse.  “Change his diaper?” she suggested.  “Um, yeah . . . um, I . . . um . . .” Another deep sigh.  “I’ll send someone up.”
        That chasm seemed dark, but fast forward a few years and a couple kids later.  Without stepping across to another invisible chasm, I will say that it was decided to do cloth diapers.  And I am now a cloth diaper wizard.  I can capably change a cloth diaper in an airplane bathroom.  Ain’t no thing.  Chasm crossed.  I can turn around and look at it, see the crenelations and spires, trace the outline of every blind crevasse, every dark night filled with worry.  This chasm is straight up invisible to the me who hadn’t crossed it.  There’s no getting around it.
        I wondered recently what a list of invisible chasms would look like – a list of things that were unknowable until experiencing them.  It would have wonderful and exciting things on it like kissing, taking a plane on your own, visiting a place where a very different language is spoken, learning to drive, training for some physical feat that is very hard, seeing the rings of Saturn through a telescope.  

        Seeing the rings of Saturn is a great example of an invisible chasm that seems like it shouldn’t be one.  We’ve all seen pictures of the rings of Saturn a million times.  Why would it be different through a telescope?  Because it is.  It just is.
        But this is life.  And life consists of jagged and ugly crossings:  losing someone close, getting divorced, losing a beloved job, car wrecks, persistent anxiety.  You’re in the emergency room and it’s all going to shit, and there’s nothing you can do.  So much of these kinds of chasms are about enduring loss.  
        We can’t know what loss is until we are faced with it.  As a young person, I didn’t even know I was accumulating things that could be lost later:  Love, friendships, exuberance, ideals, passion, trust.  My grandfather died when I was barely into my twenties.  It took decades to unwind that loss.  When my marriage unraveled a few years ago, it felt like a ghost hand reached into my guts and tore out the best parts of me.  Watching my middlest – when he was all of two years old – disappear into an operating room surrounded by people dressed as aliens ready to attempt to make his little heart function correctly was terrifying.  What really matters is what we do with the chasms.  How do we catalog a life?  Should we even try?  
        Our options are limited.  Denial was a popular response of my younger days.  This isn’t happening.  Everything is OK – take the Calvin and Hobbes route – live and don’t learn.  Usually this is unconscious – a defense mechanism.  I have never met a person who was intentionally in denial about something hard.  We can self-medicate.  Another popular choice of my youth.  Again, we don’t usually understand what we’re self-medicating for until the self-medicating becomes its own difficult invisible chasm to cross.  

        What’s magical about being a person is that we can choose to look down into the gaping vastness.   At a certain point, if we’ve crossed enough of these chasms and, importantly, haven taken the time to look at the crossing, we can start to relate a little.  Take a minute to look back over your shoulder at the space you’ve crossed, or even to just look down because the chasm you’re in will span a lifetime.  Once, a friend confided in me about her experience with chronic anxiety, about sitting in a stairwell outside work trying to breathe and cry and just pull it together enough to put one step in front of another.  I’ve never had that experience.  But I know what it is to be ugly-crying your guts out and then have to go be a person.  Some don’t, but everyone has the opportunity to if you’ve ever chosen look down at the crags and crenelations.  And there’s a shining, beautiful path that will take you by surprise until you’ve experienced it – what it feels like to endure a loss, not on your own, but alongside another who loves without judgment or criticism.
        There’s another invisible chasm which is like the zeroeth chasm on the list.  Looking hard into those dark inner topographies is critical to experiencing joy.  Stepping into the suck makes the bright chasms sparkle and shine.  My memory of my first kiss is ever so much more sweet because I choose to look hard into the loss around last kisses I’ve known.  The joy of attending my eldest’s Christmas choir concert is brought into relief because I choose to feel the loss of my grandfather’s piano playing at the annual Christmas sing.  It can’t be any other way.  You don’t get to have honey-meringue without brutal emptiness.  Knowing this is, in itself, an invisible chasm.
        Some chasms are the result of choices we make and don’t know the ends of.  They are like strings held on one end, blowing unpredictably in the wind on the other.  We have some agency after all, though I would guess less than we think we do.  Others are simply a part of being a human – the mile markers of biological existence: walking, puberty (gah), aging, the final chasm we all will get to cross: dying.  I hated puberty.  (Who loves puberty?)  Getting old sucks ass.  But I wouldn’t get rid of any of those experiences for anything.  Old Dr. M.E.K. had it right when, after my grandfather passed, he said as he was helping our family navigate those final days, “He’s experienced the last part of his life.”  I love that.  Dying as a final part of living.  To quote a Shins song: “the years are short but the days go slowly by.”  May there be ever so many more invisible chasms to cross between now and then.      

Bayliss this year.


        Silver, dancing light penetrates the dark, thick night air.  We’ve all had dinner.  We’ve all had our second shower, according to both custom and necessity.  I sit on a plush rug.  Not far away, sounds of night – a miasma of insects buzzing, food cart hawkers, motorcycle traffic, the beep of bajaj – filter into the living room from a section of the house that isn’t roofed.  I don’t specifically remember, but there might have been Teh Botol.  There probably was Teh Botol.  In my memory it’s a weeknight, maybe a Tuesday.  I’m happy that there is something my host-brother, Uyi (far left, above), and I can share.  
        Why, it’s Kung-Fu, of course.  One night a week, one of the couple television channels that Jakartans had access to in 1995 would play a Kung-Fu movie.  I suspect the movies were produced in Hong Kong, but I’m not sure.  What I can say, is that these movies were filmed in Mandarin, dubbed into English, then carried Indonesian subtitles.  Aside from the obviously utilitarian feature of helping to teach me the language, I found these films fascinating and beautiful.
        My favorites were the ones set in a deeply mythologized Chinese past.  If you’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you’ve seen the Hard Rock Cafe version.  These films we watched were the Somers Bay Cafe version.  They were low budget productions: chintzy sets, gaudy and over-the-top costuming, uninspiring plots, terrible dialog (which, in fairness, could have been a problem of translation).  But the thing which made them incredible was the fight-scene choreography.  
        Pretty much any life situation could land in an all-out Kung-Fu fight.  Taking a walk by moonlight with the pretty village magistrate’s daughter?  Better get out your Kung-Fu.  Fight scenes were long and involved.  There were many considerations to take into account.  How many villains are there?  Is the main villain attacking or has he sent less-experienced lackeys?  What style of Kung-Fu does the hero have?  The villain?  Which style is stronger?  Strength alone doesn’t guarantee victory.  Which style is more ancient, more honorable, reflective of highest virtue?
        My absolute favorite was a movie where at one point the hero is trapped in an ancient cave.  He knows a respectable style of Kung-Fu, but has been bested by the villain, whose style is seemingly unbeatable.  The cave appears to be his last resting place, but no!  Inside the cave are ancient and wise stone tablets that allow a person who is true of heart and spirit and who already knows a style of Kung-Fu to learn an unfailingly powerful style in only a few minutes of study.  The hero, of course, learns the style, escapes the cave, bests the villain using these new/old techniques and saves the day.  
        I don’t know why this memory is so compelling for me.  I tell the story of it any chance I get, and this plot line appears in the Crimson Hen tales coming down the pipeline.  But all I have of it is a memory – a twenty-five year old memory.  I have spent hours Googling what I know of the plot, but I haven’t got enough to make a successful search.  It’s essentially a discrete thing which is unGoogleable.  
        Over tea with an excellent friend the other day we got to talking about this kind of tangible object.  He told a story of a long lost pop music CD he brought back from Italy as a teenager.  He can describe in vivid detail the album art, but nothing useful enough for a Google search.  I’m sorry for the fact that our memories remain stuck in the ether, but I am also so glad these memories exist.  They bring a kind of pastel, washed-out color to the world that can’t exist online.

        In the movie, “While We’re Young,” Ben Stiller’s character pulls out his phone after the group can’t identify an unimportant fact and says, “oh, hey, I’ll look that up.”  Adam Driver’s character – who is playing the part of the hip young up-and-comer – stops him, saying, “no, that’s too easy, let’s just choose to not know.”  It’s a kind of hearkening to a simpler, apparently cooler time when no one really knew anything.  But, there’s a difference between choosing not to Google something and coming across something that can’t be.  
        It struck me later that this is yet another way our lives are different now.  Of course, unless you’re Taylor Swift or Elon Musk, we all live most of our lives in an ineffable, non-searchable mode.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  The Kung-Fu movie in my memory is a thing which should be searchable, but for whatever reason, isn’t.  In the not-so-distant past, every new definable consumable was a found object, either the product of amazing serendipity or the careful curation of sources – like dictionaries.  My mother would jump up from the dinner table, finger in the air with an audible “ah-ha”, and race to the dictionary when a word came up for which there was difference of opinion as to its correct definition.   My brother would come home from college and we’d compare notes:  what, if any, music had you found through whatever random late-night college radio program you might have listened to, or zine you’d stumbled across at Rockin’ Rudy’s back when it was just a record shop?
        It wasn’t necessarily the internet that ended this way of being.  MTV did a fair enough job of beaming whatever was new and hip straight into our suburban homes.  Just one episode of 120 minutes with Matt Pinfield and you’d heard enough contemporary music trivia to fill a very large hole.  But where MTV was a preprogrammed fountain of culture, the internet is really the ultimate democratized searchable bringer of all things.
        And, of course, I wouldn’t change that.  I really like being able to use Google Earth to find street-level pictures of the house where I spent a formative year of exchange in Jakarta as a teenager.  But it’s nice to think that like Harry Tuttle, the renegade heating engineer in the surreal dream movie Brazil, there are objects of our memories that defy search algorithms.  It’s a small thing – a little humanizing, snow globe of memory that is part of the fabric of me that I cherish.  

It’s actually #10, but that’s the house! So cool. Thanks Google! Map data © 2022 Google Earth.
Street food cart vendors. There on the right is a sate ayam cart – my favorite! WikiCommons.

The Thighs of Bees

        “…in the darkness binds them,” echo the ominous words of Tolkien regarding the One Ring.  I have just finished reading this chapter to my middlest son.  In doing so, I am but one in a long expanse of parents engaging in a timeless exercise – reading the Lord of the Rings to their children.  This line, though, has always struck a chord.  The One Ring, and the terrible places it pulls its bearers, is a kind of metaphor for the dark inner expanses a person can unwittingly visit.
        These places are locations created by our innermost emotional landscapes.  The same chord that the little line of poetry accompanying the One Ring’s lore strikes is also plucked by Francis Bacon’s, Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X.  It’s a painting that describes a moment of darkness none of us get to avoid.  We need Tolkein, Bacon, and so many others, we need them to help us navigate things we don’t understand, emotional topographies we traverse, but cannot map.  Luckily, it isn’t only the dark corners of our emotional chasms that defy attempts at description.  It is our brightest as well.  
        From the back of the passenger van, twelve hungover collegiate geology students sing along with Stevie Wonder’s, Superstition.  There is unabashed seat dancing.  In a dark theater at two in the morning a full house of invitees to the premiere of Star Trek: Generations treats a movie screen to a standing ovation.  Overflow crowds in Philadelphia’s Independence Mall who don’t have tickets to the main event stand enraptured as the unseen, but amplified voice of the man who would become America’s first black president unfurls a vision of hope and change like a newly designed flag hoisted on a heretofore unimagined and improbably beautiful vessel.
        What do these things do that regular language cannot?    
        There is a kind of unknowing which is pervasive to the human experience.  It is deep and wild and brutally unfair.  It leaves those of us who sense this unknowing like weavers without looms or bee-keepers without hives.  It is all around, everywhere I go.  This unknowing is linguistic in nature, emotional by character.  I came into this life not knowing how to navigate the vast nomenclature of emotional strata that a human life – my human life – can contain.
        And you probably did too.  We – most of us – cannot say with words what we’re feeling.  Those words we do have are insufficient.  There aren’t words that can encapsulate what losses we suffer, what triumphs of joy are possible.  For this unknowing, there are consequences.  We all pay for it in different ways.  Our lives so often have the characteristic of a good surgery – an activity where anesthetic is necessary.  I sure swallow my share.  Vast swaths of us sway in the thrall of robot controlled pop country radio, life’s-minutes-consuming online tower defense exercises, the latest Marvel adventure, mega-church, Fox “News,” Insta-scrolling.  
        However, as dark as this time feels, I believe that for as many of us who appear locked in the thrall of emotional anesthetic, there are as many who would not be.  I also meet these people every day, I even sometimes turn aside those blue pills of everyday noise myself.  The most interesting, the most surgingly important actions we will take are what happens when the pop-radio station is turned off.  What are we left with?  Where can we go?  When a person decides to trace the topo lines of their own emotional landscape, what happens?  
        In all her work, a common thread that Brene Brown advocates for is dismantling the protections we wear in the world to keep us safe from emotional landscapes that would threaten to drown us.  More specifically, to let down the armor that protected us in our earlier life, but which now no longer serves.  Giving up this armor – the anesthetic that keeps emotional radars keyed down – is uncomfortable in the way that fever is uncomfortable.  Few of us want that.  An inspiring, if fictional, character who desperately wants that is Commander Data.  Data, as an android, is a character who has no emotional landscape, but where most of us look for paths around the overwhelm, Data is a being who desperately searches for one.
        I imagine the two of them meeting – not in a bar –  Brene Brown claims sobriety as her superpower and Data isn’t a human being who can get drunk, but maybe they meet in an antiquated tea-room.  Something about old oak, honey-scented candles, and steaming cups of Earl Gray feels like an appropriate setting.  After some cursory pleasantries, I imagine Brene Brown marveling at the attempts Data makes to create an emotional landscape where one does not exist.  He paints.  He creates poetry, music, engages with literature, and on and on.  His searching is beautiful.  Meanwhile, I imagine Data being at a loss to decipher Brene Brown’s life’s work – her attempts to bring awareness for the vast masses to attenuated emotional landscapes that we all so adamantly tranquilize.  Why wouldn’t a human, filled to the brim with emotional potential, choose to access that?  Why would a person choose to shut that off?  Where’s the overlap in the Venn diagram there?
        Curiosity is a life preserver that can buoy our heads above the overwhelm.  Curiosity is the back-brace that can support a lack of language that might describe unfamiliar emotional topography.  Curiosity can replace defensiveness and shut down self-doubt.  Curiosity can compel a person to seek creative ways to explain joys and darknesses.  Curiosity is the gateway drug to awe and wonder.  Curiosity – real, vibrant, searching curiosity –  can swell a heart.  Why does the Grinch turn the sleigh around at the top of mount Crumpit?  His heart can’t grow three sizes that day unless upon hearing the Whos singing down in Whoville, he first asks the question, “How can it be so?”
        What does it mean to be a person who has suffered unexplainable loss?  Mary Oliver answers:
                To live in this world

                you must be able
                to do three things:
                To love what is mortal;
                To hold it

                against your bones knowing
                your own life depends on it;
                and, when the time comes to let it go
                to let it go

        What does it mean to feel drowning in joy?  On the facing page of the same collection of poems, Mary Oliver answers again:

                But joy does that,
                I’m told, in the beginning.
                Later, maybe,
                I’ll come here only
                sometimes and with a
                middling hunger.  But now
                I climb like a snake,
                I clamber like a bear to
                the nuzzling place, to the light
                salvaged by the thighs
                of bees and racked up
                in the body of the tree.

Why do I love reading Tolkien to my child?  To teach him, for the better I think, how to welcome wonder.  So that when he’s on his hands and knees, ugly-crying for a loss in his life, he’ll have an inkling of how to summon a kind of language that might help him navigate the expansive topography of that loss.  And make no mistake, I will read Mary Oliver to him as well, so that when overwhelming bliss finds him, he might remember the light salvaged by the thighs of bees and he’ll know how to sink in and revel in the exquisite warmth of the joy he’s found.


J. R. R. Tolkien in the 1940s. Wikimedia Commons
Francis Bacon: Study after Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953. Creative Commons
Stevie Wonder in 1994. WikiCommons
Kirk hands the Star Trek baton off to Picard in StarTrek: Generations. 1994. Creative Commons
The 44th president of the US. WikiCommons
Brene Brown. 2012 Creative Commons
Link is to her talk with Tim Ferriss – minute 35. Holy. Crap.
Commander Data. Photo by the author.
Dr. Seuss working on the Grinch. 1957 Library of Congress
Both poems are in this volume by Mary Oliver: American Primitive. 1978. Photo by the author.

Ceaseless Phantasms

        I asked my father the other day if he was hungry for lunch.  He paused for a moment, considering what I had asked him very carefully, then pointed to an empty part of the room and said with sincere suspicion in his voice, “who are those two people?”  My response as I got up to make some sandwiches was equally sincere: “I don’t know dad, who do you think they are?”  “Well . . .” he replied, giving the question real consideration.  “I just thought you might know.”
        This is how we communicate now.  It’s a perfectly typical interaction on an otherwise unremarkable day.  There is an unrelenting distance between the way he perceives the world and the way I do.  One of the things that caring for someone with advanced dementia teaches you is that really, there is no one true version of reality.  The difference between the kind of reality I share with my father and that which I share with all the other people in my life is only outcomes, and even then, that’s a tenuous link.  I can communicate with my brother or my mother or children or friends in ways that create real meaning in the world and lead to positive outcomes.  I can say to my mother that I’ll take dad to the PT appointment at 11:15, and it actually happens.  This doesn’t mean our realities are equivalent or even similar.  
        If you say to my father, “want to come outside to take the dog to go potty?”  He’s likely to ask which piece of property it is that needs surveying.  The consequences of intersecting with his dementia in this way are many.  If you were a friend of my dad’s in the before-time when he was a successful, and exquisitely sharp legal instrument able to leap complex real estate deals in a single bound, and then met him now, your reaction would be shock.  I work with him every day, so there is no shock.  There is only a long, slow, coming to terms.  And daydreams: horrible, horrible imaginings.
        Working with this beautiful man every day, I am forced to imagine myself in his condition.  I imagine the little bundles of plaque slowly aggregating around my neurons, white, slime-like little snots that tighten and strangle the connections that give my life order and meaning.  They move through neural tissue with malevolent purpose. They attack tiny defenseless capillaries without respite. For my father, the onslaught has been brutal. What remains is mostly perseverating echos of his legal career.
        Perseverance is the circle, the loop, the unending circuit.  It’s a groove that has no exit, that he can never leave.  Perseverance is maddening.  It also has a character that I have struggled all my life to adopt.  Perseverance creates a kind of compulsion, a kind of dedication to an idea, or an action that will not quit.  I’ve made pottery, hand-blown glass, paintings, sculptures, ill-conceived art installations.  I’ve written short stories and even a book or two.  I’ve remodeled, remolded, restored, repainted and repaired in countless iterations.  I’ve never worked with such dedicated zeal as that which my perseverating, dementia-addled father brings to his completely hallucinogenic legal projects.  His persistence is staggering in scale, and utterly horrifying.
        Current best practices in caring for a dementia patient advises caregivers to not fight the surreality of behaviors. To go along with mental wanderings. Keep them safe. Don’t agitate. Don’t fight the nature of their reality. I’m all in for this. It’s clearly what he needs. It means living in a dream world. Who are the people involved in setting up the entertainment business? Just who is going to do the survey work on Bird island? Have we dealt with what the FBI want? What about the IRS? There are answers in the documents missing, missing, missing from the filing cabinet.
        I pray that like my grandmother and now my father, if my fate is to wrestle amyloid proteins, my dementia would not leave me angry or dangerous. I hope, I pray, that if this becomes my fate, that because one of the things I’ve tried to dedicate my life to is making things, my family will be able to set up an easel in the corner and set out some acrylics and just leave me to make strange, otherworldly, perseverating paintings. This is the best possible imagining I can make: to see myself standing there, in front of an easel, hashing out my perseverance on canvas the way my father stands in front of the filing cabinet, sorting through documents, just sure there is a missing power of attorney or an incorrectly signed last will and testament.
        The advantage, of course, is that paintings, unlike legal problems, don’t have to make sense. Paintings that make no sense are routinely celebrated and beloved. Think Kandinsky – whose project was to paint what music would look like. Think Newman – whose project was to recreate actual forms of thought in color fields. Think Dali – whose project was to explore dreamlike surreal landscapes of the mind.
        Canvases will line the walls of my care facility. Nurses will all evaluate them seriously, giving sincere feedback. My children will replenish stocks of blank canvases and paints. When I start to forget to wash my brushes, a stockpile of cheap new ones will be requisitioned. Endless playlists of sad, male folk-singers will be queued and set to play for me. Lord Huron, Sufjan Stevens, Nick Drake. Toward the end, someone will have to help me operate a toilet. I will genially wear sweat pants and genuine-heartedly compare my feeble efforts to the gigantic amazingness of Matisse’s end-of-life cutout compositions. Grief and pain will be lessened because my grooves make something useful. I don’t have perceptible rendering skills as a painter, so my works will be expressive, Dubuffet hack-jobs. Objects and people roughly outlined.
        My mind won’t be able to help me unbuckle a belt, but flashes of imagery will persist and pierce the deepest depths of the illness. Cold winter nights when there’s a ring around the moon. The improbability of a group of birds all turning together en masse. A single majestic dark crimson Japanese maple against the blue sky. Sunlight filtering dappled through forest canopy. A lover’s thigh curving into the cold winter bed sheet shadows. Distortions of shallow sun lines under water. And color. So much color. Colors swirled into colors. Made real. Unceasing phantasms of the darkest, at last loneliest, terrible journey made real.


Wassily Kandinsky: Gelb-rot-blau. 1926. Creative Commons
Barnet Newman: Vir Heroicus Sublimis. 1951. Creative Commons
Salvador Dali: Temptation of St. Anthony. 1946. Creative Commons
Lord Huron. Creative Commons
Sufjan Stevens. Creative Commons
Nick Drake. Creative Commons
Henri Matisse: Blue Nude II. 1952. Creative Commons
Jean DuBuffet: Joe Bousquet in Bed. 1947. Creative Commons