On the Road

The trip so far has been grand. Filled the old moving truck up to 21 feet, me in the Carolina heat huffing and puffing and pushing those bulkhead doors closed, the neighbor kid Dalton’s big hand squeezing around a metal lock to seal it.

And then off, just us three and Stella in the car, suddenly divorced from our possessions save the few in the back. We motored through beautiful West Virginia and puttered into Columbus to visit Zeus and Lora and their playful cat who chased wadded-up paper that Rio threw joyfully. The next morning Rio got to ride on the back of Zeus’s motorcycle and wanted it so badly to extend to a loop around the city.

And then up and over to Chicago to see family: cousins and great aunts and we took the El and mingled with the Lollapolooza crowd who inkily strutted across Millennium Park while Rio and his cousin Nathan ran across water in the fountain.

Next more family: this time in Minneapolis, us taking the ridiculously nonlinear Northern route, past dairy farms and friendlies. We took in a play our young niece starred in and then bolted to South Dakota to some time without friends. We found a motel in Sioux Falls, and after Rio and Annie went to bed I drove to a “cool bar” Yelp found me and it was sad: loud televisions and huge tables and lonely drunk people. I was reading so I was fine with the gloomy environs, although I was disheartened by all the wasted space: big but empty. But the bartender was friendly and gave a good pour.

Then the Badlands: there were so many motorcyclists in Dakota because of a national rally in Sturgis that it was like the air was buzzing with flies. It’s funny, those tattooed big-necked guys on iron horses with jean-clad hair-teased women on the back: so rebellious and quintessentially American. I ended up digging their freedom on the roads. The Badlands was other planetary, those brown spires rising from naught, the grasslands where buffalo still roam, literally. We ended up finding a free campsite in the park and set up nice, us befriending our neighbor Chris and Rio finding the resident ten year old across the field. Chris had outfitted his car for him to sleep in by removing one of the back seats, and he’d been traveling for 111 days across America taking back roads only and spending just $7 once on accommodation, the rest of those nights in his car.

The evening ended gracefully but then the torrential storm started. The lighting and thunder spoke their rumble crackle and the rain soaked our 20-year-old tent until we were laughing at how wet we were at 3 in the morning. Annie took the hit for all of us, sopping up the moisture as Rio snoozed across her belly.

“Take the back roads!” Chris had enjoined us, and we woke early the next day, shook the cold off our bones and followed his finger across northern Wyoming, cruising over Rockies on a one-laner and resting our heads finally in an overpriced motel in Cody, Wyoming.

Such soaring prices and congestion around Yellowstone had me temporarily cursing Chris, but then that corner of the Northwest, heading out of Yellowstone and along the Grand Tetons; surely one of the most beautiful places in the world.

And then, finally, tonight; a word of mouth arrangement grants us a home in Salt Lake, the owner gone, her hospitality ours.

Last time I drove across the country was probably 20 years ago. It’s different this time, doing it with a family, but the vastness of America still surprises me, as does her rugged splendor and open hand. Even the highways sometimes extended themselves to me, the ribbon of the road like the next chapter unfurling.

Wondering about Tonight

I wonder sometimes if modern communication has alienated me. I have leftover goodness that doesn’t know where to go. But then I take stock: my son is beautiful and thriving, my love and I are solid, I sit all right on life’s saddle. And so I count my blessings. Last night my friend told me of “cuddle puddles” she found at some weekend festival and how liberating it felt to be affectionate and warm with like-minded people: safe-space freedom. I reckon it’s possible to build that all around and on a multitude of dimensions.

Humid as Hades here. The crickets and cicadas are singing, I’ve got two dogs in the house. Rio is talking downstairs about some character. Annie is out with girlfriends, and I’m finding a sweet spot in a rough patch.

Kali sometimes she has her way. But she also prepared me by breaking me, opening up a new alleyway that wasn’t there before. A portal in the rubble. Some way out, or in, or both. So even though there’s been chaos amid the change, I enter there. Rather than curse the sky I bring my hand to my heart, take a step, and on the bridge with the river below and the fireflies flickering I see that my world, with its blessings and its cursings, its exquisiteness and wretchedness, is only met by the wider world’s version of the same. Our narcissism is laughable because the plight is so widely shared; the individual sob story is in truth a universal transformational one. I wish there was a better word for transformational but I haven’t found it yet.

I can wait for a rescue or instead see that my mustang is something I can ride even while feeling like I’m falling off. The mane of life is reachable, and when I sit with acceptance of wildness I find myself more agile with its intemperance. “Flow like the river,” we tell Rio when he gets caught on the rocks. This could be a cliche except that a river is ever changing, second by second, so any assumption about what a river  is is contradicted a moment later. Life like water moves through rapids and stagnation, at times a muddy sluggard and then suddenly a clear agent. It’s tempting to use cheap tricks to bring existence back to some neutral point, neither ecstatic nor despondent, but really what’s so hard about being joyful? I understand the difficult part but not why we make the easy part hard — fear sometimes shows up even among goodness and steals the beauty away. I don’t understand this and probably never will.

But I am also not entranced by it. At times I can fold that up into a tiny paper football that my finger boots out the door.

Anatomy of Change

The shift was long in happening. There were many nights along the bridge with my fist upheld to the sky. “Why are you making it so hard to find the next step?” I cursed.

“Relax, give us a little time,” the gods said.

I held on to the ficklest of faiths as one foot sought landing while the other lifted off the rock that was my life in Bynum and at The Sun.

For some reason I had to live in that reaching. And it hurt! Dark stories plummeted toward me: economic insecurity, depression, crises of self-worth. I convinced myself I was walking the right path, and yet the road was blocked.

I considered the purpose of suffering. The fear of ending one job and not knowing the next  made me taste a sliver of the financial fear so many live with every day. Instead of cursing my suffering could I see it as opening to a broader understanding of what suffering actually is?

And the depression: situational, not chronic. I am lucky like that. Still, the symptoms were there: Why get up? Numb my free time. Shudder at the shiver that crept up the back of my neck whispering, “This is it?” Around me, people struggling regularly with the darkness. They live in the pool while I normally dance around it, serving them snacks and cocktails but never stepping in. I’ve always known that when the wind finally blows the doors open, satisfaction sidles up.

Could the blues in my bones be welcomed because of the wider compassion I gain?

And then the doors did open: the job, back in Oakland. The road unwound before my eyes. As I drove down the hills, the bay in front of me, tears of gratitude dripped down a face that was smiling. And my dogged faith that the time it took had divine purpose was not in vain.

Following Orders

I was told to close my eyes and write. As family happenstance glides by, I resolve to let my fingerprints leave their mark on the page. Ears are working fine: our dog lies down heavy and Rio just asked Annie for some food. He’s been sick and we’ve been faithful. It’s been warm, and when we watched the Beasts of the Southern Wild last night, I understood that apocalyptic weather is now our canvas, and that we can either read stories on it or rewrite the script.

Yes, sigh. But then: a blue wildflower sprouting early looking beautiful in yesterday’s mid January bake. 77 degrees in winter here in North Carolina: the farmer’s almanac is shuddering.

For a moment here, fear took over, me not believing that I could see this through. It’s not performance anxiety so much as disbelieving my own intuition: the layers have gotten good at chiming in, their silly chorus so loud and ostentatious. Because really when I let myself feel the creative, the funny, the irreverent, the erotic, the joyful: I bounce. Why do mental stories outnumber the communal ones and then squawk so riotously? I’d rather be a vagabond on a bench.

I question the notion of heaven: that each of our choices is tallied somewhere in some thick record book. That’s too much pressure on the passing second. And who is really going to judge us when we die?

I’m not sure what lives under my skin; with gray days like today, I sometimes forget all the falling petals, bright origami with messages inside.

Divinity is actually no story at all.

River Repartee

A few days ago my seven-year-old son Rio and I walked down to the river for our daily summer swimming ritual. We passed a few guys chatting by their cars in the parking lot and made our way to our favorite swimming hole. There, Rio spied a fishing tackle box and asked me whose it was.

“It probably belongs to those guys we just walked by,” I said as I took off my shirt.

Just then Rio spied two men upriver and called out, “Hey guys! Is this your tackle box?”

“Yeah,” one of them yelled back. “Thank you!”

Rio turned his attention toward me. “You said it belonged to those guys in the parking lot. You were wrong.”

“You’re right, bud. I don’t know everything. I’m a human being just like anyone else.”

He eyed me and nodded. “Yeah, you don’t know everything. I mean, you don’t know, for example, very much about . . . bunnies.”

Shoes

I was in fifth grade and had just moved from one side of Los Angeles to the other with my mom and sister following my parents’ divorce. It was November, so I arrived at Cleveland Elementary as the “new kid,” an identity I couldn’t shake the entire year.

I’d noticed in my first week that slip-on Vans shoes were popular among the cool kids, and I was convinced that a new pair would help me fit in. My mom conceded and went to the shoe store, where I eyed the light blue/dark blue two-tones that everyone was wearing.

“Yes, those are popular, but there are also these; they’ve just come in,” the salesman said, pointing to a pair of Vans with a  blue-green Hawaiian print.

At first I said no; I just wanted what everyone else had. I knew that conformity was the quickest way to acceptance.

“But those are so good-looking!” my mom piped in. “You should definitely get them.”

I remember my stomach clenching in the face of the decision. I didn’t want to be the new kid: the one who was living in a new house with a newly single mother and a new latchkey that burned in his pocket. I wanted to be the kid who hadn’t moved, the one with old friends in the neighborhood and two parents at home. Or at least the kid with the same shoes as everyone else.

And yet: the allure of the exotic, the different, the beautiful. They beckoned from the shelf, those Hawaiian-print shoes.

“Let’s get them,” I said impulsively.

The next morning, I was even more nervous than usual. The shoes looked so new I kicked them against my bedroom door a few times to create scuffs. I rode the bus feeling like my feet were covered in flashing lights. Would anyone notice? Would everyone?

I got off and found my new crew of friends who appeared to reluctantly be accepting me into their crowd.

“Look at those shoes!” one of them commented, and immediately they all looked down and laughed. “Those are lame!”

I put those shoes away after school that day and never wore them again. Not once. I think of them every now and then and feel an ache above my ribcage: at how sad those unworn shoes looked in my closet; at the thought of my mom, how little spare money she had and how much the new pair of shoes must have cost her; at the kindness of my mother wanting me to have that particular pair because she could tell I liked them and she wanted me to have beautiful things; at the salesman, who was probably just trying to do his job (what did he know of fifth-grade fashion politics?); and at my twelve-year-old self, who wanted so badly to fit in that he regretted for months that fateful moment when he’d strayed and listened to the louder voice that told him to choose the bold, relegating him even farther to the school’s margins. How long it took him to find solid ground.

And yet I simultaneously feel relief that I am no longer that child, the one so prone to doubt and insecurity, a boat with a broken rudder with no way to navigate the channel. I inhale and exhale something sweet knowing that that need to fit in, and the loneliness of not, gave way to a stronger calling to honor my quest for the exquisite; that as I write this, I’m wearing a shirt that has bold green and blue designs on it that look abstractly Hawaiian. I’m grateful that I have learned to leave the port of safety and push forward even when convention yells at me to turn back.

Two Hands Clapping

The dogs are panting. My house is empty except for three overheated canines. It is their nature to breathe these chants. Some days I want to curse them and say, “Leave me be! My partner and son are gone; let me float totally free.” But then I find the walk with them brings clarity: above creek I hear the crickets and see the fireflies. Their joy, free of leash on country road, makes me feel beneficent. If I were worthless they would get no freedom: floor-bound chez moi. But here we are, a veritable clan of creatures, trotting and smiling, a sniff here and there to investigate what the path has to offer.

But then the dogs fade to the background. I stumble into the nougat of me, unfiltered through duty and company, the twisting crawling snail that I must celebrate: see; see through; see into. Inside is an emptiness that wants to fill up — some nascent piece of me that still wonders about those breaking moments from childhood and fantasizes about replaying them. But rerun can’t provide the inflate — I must find air in these very moments.

One day I found my voice. It was wavering at first, but I spoke up and ears turned because I had something to say. Part of me was afraid of this light; I’d developed an innate instinct to self-dim. But then I met Jack Hirschman. He had a peculiar habit: after he finished a poem at a public reading, he’d back away from the mic, raise his hands, and join them in resolute claps. A casual observer might have thought it tacky for him to celebrate his own poems. But if you looked closely, you saw that Jack wore a slightly surprised expression in these moments, as if shocked but delighted by what had come out of him, by what his words had done to the night. It was not egoic: he was honoring what was moving through him. Jack taught me that getting out of our own way is sometimes the most noble act.

After one reading in North Beach, I watched Jack slip out of the bar. The crowd and praise is just too much, I thought. I peeked out to the window to see where he was going. I found him on Kerouac alley, throwing a tennis ball against the mural  — his own little game of toss and catch. He seemed so enraptured and childlike then, as if inhabiting his truest self and thereby transcending constructed ones.

The Man in the Park

The line between forgiveness and blame is creek narrow.

The other day I went to the local dog park with the shepherd Stella, the son Rio, and the ten-year-old friend Xavier. As we walked through the first gate, I asked Xavier to close it behind us. At the second gate, Rio was lingering and Stella was pulling, but  the three of us made it in.

Apparently, Xavier had forgotten to close the first gate and I’d neglected to close the second, because out of the blue a man walked over and yelled “Hey! Close the gates, man! You left both of them open! Jesus!” His tone was so sharp and aggressive my head literally tilted back.

“I will,” I replied. “But you could have said that a lot more kindly.”

“This is a dog park, man!” he screamed. “The rules are pretty fuckin’ simple!” As he shouted these words he took a few steps towards me.

As his words shot through the air, two dogs close by began to attack each other. It was one of those dog scraps when playfulness is not in play. The owners pulled their dogs back, but it was clear that the aggression of this man, and the one that was rising up in me, was not lost on the creatures around us.

For a moment I thought about dropping Stella’s leash and decking the dude. At least, so I thought: I have no idea how I’d really do in a fight. The last time I’ve had a real physical standoff was in fifth grade with a kid named Joel. I can’t remember why we fought, but I do recall that the lead-up was palpable enough to have the word “Fight!” screamed across the schoolyard and a circle of kids to surround us, egging us on. The fight was over in about five seconds: Joel clocked me with a hard right across my temple that sent me down to the ground in a crumple.

So I’m basically 0-1, with a loss by knockout. But I’ve thought about fighting plenty: heroic scenarios where I save the weaker from ruin. Truth is I’m usually quite tame in public. But I’d like to think I’d do pretty well in a fight: I’m not big, but I’m scrappy, and all those years of helping friends move and throwing Rio in the river and hauling beautiful things Annie has found has left me pretty solid.

But, on this day, right as I considered returning the man’s aggression with some of my own, salvation came from those around me.

Rio asked, “Why did that man talk like that?”

“I guess he never learned to talk to people,” I said.

A passerby muttered, “You got that right.”

We stayed at the park for about 30 minutes. Now that we have Stella, Rio likes to talk to other people about dogs. You know: compare notes. He likes to run with the dogs, too, and on this day one particularly beautiful tan-and-brown hound kept bounding over and nuzzling us. “She loves us,” I told Rio, and we rubbed her ears. She’d dart off and then return, tail wagging.  I leaned down to look at the hound’s tags: GRETCHEN.

Just then a woman approached me. “I just wanted to tell you that you didn’t deserve that,” she said. “I know that guy, and he’s…very unique. Let’s just say that his dog is his life. He was probably afraid she’d run through the gate, but, still, he didn’t have to talk to you like that. He might even apologize.”

As I walked around the park the next thirty minutes, eyeing this man occasionally, I thought about how quickly I can damn people for their transgressions: I’m compassionate until I decide someone has stepped over a line. My optimism and openness then drains. It’s like the game is suddenly being played by other rules, and I’ve spent years honing my responses to what I consider the agreed-upon ones. My friend Bruce once told me that we should respond to people only when they hit a shot over the net; when their volley goes out of bounds, it’s not our responsibility to hit it back.

And yet I thought about how much earth I’ve moved when I initiate apologies, even when I’m fairly certain I haven’t done wrong. To break the ice takes courage, and sometimes the gesture is what is pivotal: spirit of forgiveness sparked, the potential violator feels safer to speak. In this life with grey lines so often drawn, to persecute with certainty is a liability.

So I considered walking over to the man and seeing if we could find some peace. After all, I did break the park’s rules, and who was I to judge Mr. Aggressive for less than perfectly alerting me to my transgression? I could wait for Godot imagining that some perfect apology is going to come my way, but my real experience has proven again and again that transgression is a difficult but natural state. At times I am the transgressed: for certain I have been the transgressor. In other words, I must welcome the fuck-up and aspire to forgive.

But, on this Sunday morning, I felt too stubborn. I wondered if he would apologize, but it never came, and I couldn’t find the strength to cross that transom. We walked to the car, and as I drove out of the parking lot, I saw the man leaving the dog park, with Gretchen.

Artifacts

My mom and I were talking recently about the resurgence of traditional names in American culture: Eva, Hazel, Virginia, and Ida are back! As I gushed about how sensible it is to hold on to your dated clothes for the next cyclical trend and ranted about the cinematic remake of every good movie from my childhood, my mother got quiet for a second: “Yeah, all the names have come back — except mine.”

Yes, it’s true: Doris seems to have resisted the redux. My mom complained but also understood: she’d never really liked the name Doris. I was shocked when I was a kid staying at my grandparents’ house when I found my mother’s old high-school yearbook: “It’s been great to know you, Dottie!” her classmates had scrawled in the autograph section. I knew even then that my mother had never really liked her name and had done what she could to escape it.

“Bertha hasn’t made it back either,” I offered weakly.

So it goes the ebbs and flow of what’s hot and what’s not.

It got me thinking about other fashions that have fallen by the wayside. Recently at work, a photographer sent us a thick envelope of images that were clearly all from the seventies. I appreciated the grainy quality of the film, the large hair and sunglasses, and the preponderance of stripes. Among these gems were several photographs of men with mustaches. They looked so normal! When a guy sports a mustache these days it’s like a joke for Halloween that he shaves off the next day. But for these guys, and for most of the men I knew growing up, including my father, the mustache was a critical part of their eternal and dying quest to look good. My dad’s mustache was so ubiquitous that when he shaved it off we squealed “Ew!”

Occupy Upper Lip!

What else has gone wayward? Surely the smoky bar, which disappeared the day California passed the first anti-smoking ordinance, bless her heart. I certainly don’t miss coming home from a night reeking of cigarettes I didn’t inhale. But I do miss the cultural reference: the smoky bar was a place where anything could happen; where reality was obscured by slants of smoke and adults cavorted in some sort of divey harmony.

Last night, as I rose to clean the kitchen after Annie had cooked me and Rio a stellar meal, I flashed for a second on the mid-century man: “I’ve worked all day! I don’t need to do a thing!” I fantasized about  standing up from the table, walking out the door, and making a beeline to my friend Jeremy’s house to watch basketball and drink beer. Yeah, damnit! Dinner, clean-up, bedtime, dog care: why should that be my concern? Surely Annie could handle it. I thought of my mother in law, who’s always been impressed that I even know how to do the dishes, let alone iron shirts. But then I came to my senses, remembering that cohabitation and shared duties actually build collective freedom because all parties are invested and passing the baton and finding time to sit on a chair and do nothing, which these days I consider the closest thing to nirvana. So I cleaned the damn kitchen. Well. And then I recalled Annie’s standards and wiped a few extra corners. I had a wifebeater on. And a goatee.

The Adventure of Misadventures

Me and the kid. Photo by Anna.

Leave it to me to romanticize any undertaking, even if it’s a just a drive to Charlotte with Rio.

I had long wanted to watch a professional basketball game in North Carolina, and I noticed that my beloved (but terrible) Sacramento Kings were coming to Charlotte to play that city’s team, the Bobcats.  People I know are sometimes surprised to learn that I’m a sports fan, but I see no contradiction between reading poetry and reading box scores. I grew up in a sports-centric household. My father loved baseball and would tell me stories from that sport’s long history: how Ty Cobb used to slide with his metal spikes flying; how Nap Lajoie was a great hitter even though he batted with his hands in reverse position on the stick. My father was an ardent fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and one of my fondest memories of childhood was going to Los Angeles Dodgers/Pittsburgh Pirates games. My father taught me how to keep score in the game’s printed program, and he and I would always bet $5 on the game; if the Dodgers won I was elated; if the Pirates won I usually cried.

My father was a very busy man, often working late or traveling on business. But for many years he coached my Little League baseball team. He would work on the batting order for our next game the night before, explaining the strengths and weaknesses to me of each hitter as I wondered where he would put me. My father was a great coach — thorough, committed, smart — and we were champions almost every year he served that role. When my parents got divorced and we moved across town from each other, I kept playing baseball but he could never make it to any of my games. Years later Papa told me that his boss had always rolled his eyes when my father would leave early to go to coach; in that corporate environment, choosing family commitments over work was frowned upon. To this day, I am grateful to my father for his sacrifice. I’m also thankful to baseball  — a remote man came whisker-close when a ball was in play.

All that said, I deplore that sports is such a big, commercial business: here in North Carolina, to find a new basketball coach for one of the local colleges, last year that institution conducted a nationwide search and created a review panel to hire a coach that ended up getting paid a six-figure salary — so many financial and mental resources are put into sports. But I am shamelessly a fan of the heart of it: athletes working for years on their game, physical prowess being honed and tested, the fact that anything came happen in the spontaneity of live action. Last-minute victories and unlikely heroes are not public-relations stunts.

And so I bought two tickets for the game, envisioning a night of father-son bonding and adventure. I even booked us a hotel for the night, since we’d be driving two hours to get there. Rio was excited, but early on, he began chipping at my fantasy. For one, he insisted on rooting for the Bobcats, even though he literally has no connection to Charlotte. I explained that I had lived in Sacramento for five years, that he might consider engaging in something I explained as “solidarity.”  When that failed, I tried to bribe him with promises of a Kings cap, but still he wouldn’t budge. At one point before we left, I told him I was disappointed he wouldn’t be cheering alongside me. Annie looked on with humored interest. Rio replied, “That’s not fair for you to be disappointed in me for that. It’s my heart, and I can do what I want with it.”

Attaboy, right?

The evening went exactly as I hadn’t planned. Rather than getting there two hours early to check in and eat at the mom-and-pop pizza parlor I’d picked out, we hit stop-and-go traffic. We arrived at the hotel with ten minutes to spare to find a drab high-rise with a mediocre room with a stunning view of the freeway.

Inside, the game was a yawn:  The arena was only half full. About halfway through, Rio, still cheering for the Bobcats, said, “Instead of watching this game and sleeping at the hotel, I want to drive home right now and be with my mama.”

Ah, the lure of the maternal breast.

But we stuck to our (my) plan, and we watched the lackluster game and headed back to the hotel where I watched bad cable TV after Rio fell asleep. I derived a strange satisfaction from watching no show for more than five minutes, the click of the remote like some twisted lever of pleasure.

The next morning, we talked up the big plate of pancakes we’d get at the cafe, but the one I’d chosen ended up being closed for renovation. We settled on bagels and drove out to a park where a tow truck blocked the entrance for 20 minutes. I sat there astounded by the lack of fortune. But we finally made it to a green field which is all we really need and Rio and I jumped around and found that wide open space when past and future fall away and just the smudge of wet grass on the knee is enough. When sweat well-earned marks a path well-chosen. Wasn’t it in Deliverance that Burt Reynolds’ character said, “Sometimes you’ve got to get lost to find your way”?

Holy those moments when linear lines get erased and quandary steps up and says Bounce the ball and don’t worry about where.