At the Keys

Eyes closed, fingers on the board, Letting what is around me and inside me come through me. Warm house. Sleeping son. Sleeping partner. Dog sits on the rug by the fire. Dryer turning, offering its warm sound. Inside: also a pearl. Not sure from where; why I found it today. Why now but not always? What is covering it when I feel a void instead? I remember reading how Eckhart Tolle just sat on a park bench one day, spending the entire time watching the people pass in front of him and the leaves shimmer in the wind, and how he just smiled, suddenly aware of life’s bounty. He said he stayed there all day and was never the same after.

And so my eyes are still closed now, because somehow I worry that if I open them the pearl will go away. I’ll look at what I’ve written, critique it, erase it, doubt it, and then the long line of anxierty that stretches toward uncertain futures will light up, and the thick roots of regret and pain that go into the past will surge again. No, I want to compose from this open place, where more truth than I can edit in or out resides.

What is it that I did today that brought me this gift? Nothing unusual. Perhaps just a bit more patience, a bit more restraint, a bit more kindness than was necessary. I apologized to someone today for saying something cold and mean. I listened to my son’s complaint instead of dictating it away. I kissed a dog. I wrote a friend and told her I needed her help. I sat down here, even though I didn’t know what I was going to say and believed I’d find something waiting to come out. I believed in my mind, and in my fingers, and in my knowledge of these imperfect vessels called words. I believed I could keep the barking voice … no, now I want to open my eyes to erase that, but I won’t.

I remember that on the first day of ninth grade, I learned that an eleventh grader had killed himself the day before. The whole school was shocked, and for first period I had an English class with a funny, charming man named Mr. Vedro. He told us to pull out ten sheets of paper, a pen, and to just write. To not hold back. And I filled those pages with my confusion, not caring about traditions or arcs or lessons. I wrote the pain. It was not pretty. But I still have those pages in a box under my bed called “memorabilia.”

There is so much talk in writing about editing, about revisions, about going over and over something until every word sings. I believe in that. I often help writers with my pencil when they haven’t done enough with their own. I cudgel my words into neater packages. But sometimes I just want to let the first truths drip onto the page, to believe that their crude essence holds something worth their unwieldy weight. That sometimes a pure chunk unfettered can do the job of fifty leaner phrases. (Already, I want to modify that: I’ve already thought of a better way to say it. But I’m keeping my eyes closed, and the delete key is too risky up there in the corner. So I need to write myself out of it. Kerouac once said that On the Road was so multilayered because he was writing it on a typewriter and therefore couldn’t erase anything. If he lost track of his narrative he had to write his way back to it. That’s how his trip had so many turns. Some Asian cultures call this “fish soup,” telling stories in wide, roundabout ways, all the ingredients thrown in.)

This is not my preferred way of being; I like order, tidy lines, doing one thing at a time, well. But tonight, I didn’t know what to say yet wanted to write. If I didn’t let myself go completely I wouldn’t even turn on the machine. And so I will open my eyes in a few moments with a promise to correct only misplaced keys and stray punctuation but nothing else. To have faith that sometimes the channel is opening, and delivering words that don’t need distillation.

Graffiti Wars

The bridge near our house no longer hosts passing cars, but it does host lots of other activities: kids learning to ride bikes; teenagers tripping on Saturday nights; dog walkers and shit talkers and even stilt-walkers when a nearby festival strikes.

The bridge is the gathering place for our town on almost any major occasion: we host a Fourth of July fireworks show where locals roll their grills down for a potluck barbeque and banjo pickers circle up with fiddle players and jam bluegrass until the rockets fill the air. Also notable is Halloween when thousands of people stroll along the bridge to wonder at the hundreds of pumpkins that local artists carve and place along the bridge’s cement ledges. These are no run-of-the-mill Jack o’ Lanterns: artisans use special tools to thin and shave the pumpkin skin so that the scene created resembles an intricate woodcut, the candlelight illuminating it from within.

But the bridge is also the scene for a drama that unfolds 365 days a year: graffiti wars. With the preponderance of loitering that takes place on the bridge, it’s no surprise that spray cans get sprung and silly phrases get gunned across its grey walls. Most of the graffiti is proprietary in nature and largely inoffensive: “Go Tar Heels” or “Steve was here” or even “Eminem Rules.” Still, occasionally someone will write something obscene, usually scatological or sexual in nature.

When these “bad tags” strike, there are usually three responses. One pings around the e-mail list that serves the area. A message will be sent detailing how sick the citizen is of the graffiti and how it’s time to do something about it. Someone will mention the possible formation of community patrols. Someone else will furnish the Sheriff’s department’s phone number and the criminal code for vandalism. Of course stopping graffiti in a public place is about as easy as dictating the river’s roiling rapids.

The second approach is less punitive, more realistic, and more positive: it entails spray-painting “good tags” to combat the negative ones. I’m not sure if these come from teenagers who are doing Ecstasy instead of whiskey or from steadfast Bynum bridge walkers, but there are countless tags that are unapologetically cheery: there is a “hope” and a “happiness” and a pink dragon and even the green footprints of a mythical platypus that local lore says sometimes hops onto the bridge.

The third approach is my favorite, and it happens without a word. At night, a loose network of ragtag community activists embark on guerrilla missions to alter negative comments into positive ones. To my confusion and horror, I once ran across the word “Catpoop” scrawled across the bridge’s floor in thick red letters. The next day I bought a can of red spray paint and returned that night to the site. I figure “Catpeople” may be enigmatic but at least it’s an improvement. Really all I had to do was change one “o” to a “e” and add “le” to the end. No one was probably the wiser. “Fuck It!” in black was quite easy to change to “Rock It!” (I even had the black paint in my storage shed.) But others are trickier. There was one that said, rather bluntly, “My favorite things are pot and porn.” Rather than figure out an alteration for that honest admission, someone just crossed it out, which seems just plain lazy to me.

Some tags defy categorization. I like to think of them as cultural commentary; they are not offensive but not innocuous either. “I am not addicted, just committed,” made me chuckle, and think. My current favorite has sat unscathed for several months right in the center of the bridge in huge white letters: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” When I got home and settled onto my couch next to the warm woodstove after my walk, I wasn’t sure how comfortable to get. I call that provocative, which I almost always applaud.

The tags that stay in my craw are the ones I want to change but can’t figure out how to. Right now, there is one I’ve stared at for quite some time: “Fuck bitches. Make $$$.” I abhor this one, for obvious reasons, but it also captures the misogyny and materialism endemic to our culture. Does the tagger deserve credit for inadvertently making a sociological statement? I think not. But I won’t mess with the tag until I’ve found a way to doctor the message.

A friend once asked me, “If you found a sidewalk of fresh cement, what would you write?” I don’t know what my final message will be, which is the same reason I’ve never gotten a tattoo: I’m wary of trying to unify the multitudes. But I do know I’ll keep using my small arsenal of paint cans and the cover of night to transform ugliness into tiny patches of hope.

Chasing Windows

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

Sometimes I just want to see the world like I did that once.

“That once” wasn’t just one specific time. It’s all the times I’ve seen, really seen, the splendor of life right in front of me. I remember last winter: I had just lit a fire in the wood stove, and it was casting its amber glow. Rio was drawing, Annie was reading, and I was watching them. It occurred to me that I was witnessing clearly what I actually have in my life: a home, a family, health, love. There was no questing for more, no castigations of why not, no clouds of regret or self-doubt. No, I was watching a beautiful scene in a film unfold, and it was from my own life.

Ah, but how quickly it fades. Even though I have enjoyed almost 365 days since then with Annie and Rio in this very house, the number of times I’ve caught this same glimpse and really felt it in my bones seems paltry. I often think my own experiments with bending reality — I have a few tired tricks I use — are simply attempts to get me back to this blessed view.

Recently I was driving around a college town, worry on my mind. I was waiting for a light to change and saw two students smiling and laughing as they stood on the street corner. I recalled my own days in college towns, how much easier the world seemed to me then. I was more insecure, sure, but I had less weight on my back; there were days I could just fritter and float. As I drove off, I had the urge to return to those streets; to take the place of these young men and have a view of the world that was perhaps more naive but bright.

The most pristine vistas are the childhood ones, the ones I’m still trying to climb back into. The poet Coleman Barks describes “those two minutes at the end of the day when a golden light would fall across the floor. . . . I would lie down in it and hug myself. One time when I was doing that, I told my mother, ‘Mama, I’ve got that full feeling again.'” For me, such moments came when my grandfather and grandmother would drive my sister and me “down the lake” to the tiny fishing cottage they’d built there; as soon as we hit the gravel road I’d lean forward in my seat to get a glimpse of the water through the trees. When the lake finally appeared in slivers between birches I’d feel a joy I’m not sure I’ve ever relived, even though I still return to that lake every summer and relish it with as much gusto as I can muster.

One of the pleasures of having a child in one’s life is getting to re-experience some of this wonder. When we visit the same fishing cottage these days, I watch Rio’s face closely in the rear-view mirror to witness it register some of the same anticipation I felt as a boy. But it’s not his job to serve as a hope chest for my mislaid dreams. And I can’t be a kid again, just like I can’t return to that college town. But Rio gets me close; and there is some simple pleasure in nostalgia, that bittersweet proximity to experience that memory grants us.

Perhaps the best I can do is to be patient with the pace of beauty; to not fret that the spot at the window may only come to me now and again. And to not curse the ephemeral nature of joy but rather to say thank you for even experiencing it. Otherwise I’m relegated to a life hunting shadows.

The other night I took Stella for a walk down to the bridge after Rio and Annie went to sleep. The evening was unseasonably warm, and a faint orange marked the billowy clouds blanketing the sky overhead. The river was rushing high due to recent rain, and I could see the lights of our little town through the trees. Stella was off leash and smelling this and that, and suddenly I felt a swell of satisfaction, of just knowing that I love and am loved, that these wayward ingredients somehow make a feast. I called out to Stella and she came running, and I hugged that darn canine and inhaled her musky scent and felt a warm quiet rush of the unadorned goodness that life sometimes slips in my pocket.

Throwing Faith

The morning started off as I like it: alarm firm but not rattling; opening my eye to slumbering sweetie and son; sliding my feet off the side of the bed and taking a moment to sit; then up for fifteen minutes with my homespun latte and the paper fetched from the dewy grass before Annie and Rio get up to join me.

I cherish my routines, partially because I feel lost without them. When left to walking without tracks I often land upside down in the air. I need ritual’s ruler to set my hash marks for the day.

Then: busy, rushed-before-school madness, Annie and Rio leave, and I again enter a few moments of silent, untethered bliss. The long shower, almost too hot, then another moment on the couch before I leave, just a few seconds really where I notice my breath and feel a tiny splash of nothing before the thoughts rush in.

But then my faithful Honda Accord, two decades old — the one of 200,000 miles and minimal repairs, the one that still looks good after all these years — decides to throw her automatic transmission. I know it the instant I hear the grating sound when I put her in reverse. I manage to get to work without backing up, but I know this problem isn’t going away.

When I get to the office, the day starts as usual, but then my colleague Holly comes back from an errand toting a little black puppy she’s saved from the middle of a busy street. Everyone is oohing and aahing, and I think, This damn thing looks so familiar. I keep noticing how serene and self-possessed she seems for a five-month-old canine, those intelligent eyes and that curious scamper. And I recall how just three weeks before, Annie had asked me, as we discussed our extroverted and only child, “Should we get a dog?” This came on the heels of Rio telling us, as we took care of our friend’s dogs for a weekend, that he wished they were his.

But I push this all to the back of my mind, certain that I don’t really want the kind of change that having a dog would demand; besides, this dog is so damn cute and well taken care of that someone will surely answer the many “found dog” messages Holly has put out around town. Just for kicks, though, when Holly sends out an email later to the whole staff with some pictures of the little lab/border collie pooch, I forward them to Annie. In minutes she writes back and says she’s “ready for a dog.” Oh my.

I tell Holly of our (mild) interest and head home, making sure to avoid any situations where I’ll have to back up. I stop by my mechanic and ask him to take a listen. He winces. He checks the transmission fluid and declares, “You’re pretty screwed.” Seems a fix here is going to run me the cost of the car. For a moment I entertain a daydream: I have driven secondhand family cars for so long that when I sit as a passenger in anyone’s new car I feel like I’m beholding the dashboard of some kind of spaceship. Isn’t it about time I bumped it up and got a little fancy? I deserve it! But then I remember annoying facts like cost and I’m wondering how the hell I’m going to get to work this week. But then my mechanic says, “Well, as luck would have it, one of my customers whose ’94 Civic she just spent a good chunk of change on wants me to sell her car. She suddenly decided to walk onto a new car lot and drive away in one. So this car has got to move.”

I take a look: nice black colt, small and solid. Price she’s asking is below blue book.

So let me get this straight: a few weeks after my son and wife explicitly state their wishes for a dog, one appears near the tire of my colleague who just happens to be driving down that certain street on that certain Thursday morning. Said dog woos the entire office but no one is able to possibly take her except us. On the same day my car decides to die but another car that looks in a strange way like said dog appears beside my mechanic’s waving hand.

Is this what Rob Brezny had in mind in last week’s horoscope when he told us Aries to “be alert for a new most beautiful thing”?

I wish my acceptance of the unexpected came more easily, but my brain is adept at boiling questions down to tidy lists of pros and cons. With the car, I couldn’t find a good rational argument to say no. But the reasons to not take the dog were legion: 1) Who wants another being to tend to when we already have a six-year-old? 2) Who would take care of the dog when we went out of town? 3) Did we really want to be weighed down with another, possibly 15-year-long, responsibility? 4) All those damn books and videos and training classes!

The reasons to take the dog? There was really only one: love. My mind’s list chortled at my heart’s measly offering.

But then a funny thing happened. First, we found a way to experiment with the warring sides of brain and heart: we agreed to take the dog just for the weekend, no obligation. A test drive. We told Rio we were merely looking after Holly’s new puppy, which, um, didn’t yet have a name. (Poor guy didn’t have a clue.)

At first, Rio was intrigued but dispassionate. He probably figured it wasn’t worth it getting attached to an animal we’d only have for two days. And what I found for myself was a wild weekend of swinging moods. When I played and cuddled with the tender fur ball I swooned with the idea of her being “ours.” But when her little razor teeth pierced my skin and Annie and I started looking at our backyard and talking about fences and leashes and doggie doors and our neighbor’s ten outdoor cats, my neck muscles began to stiffen and I felt my blood run hot beneath my skin. I’m already a below-average multitasker with my hands full raising Rio, loving Annie, tending to my creative and spiritual life, working, and helping take care of the house. Who had room for a dog?

Annie seemed to fair no better, so by the end of the weekend we opted to let Rio in on our quandary. We explained what we were facing, and we truthfully weren’t sure what he’d say about this puppy whose boundless energy had intimidated him and whom he’d had no part in choosing. But his face lit up as the possible reality dawned on him: “Oh my gosh! If we could keep this dog I’d be the happiest kid in the world!” When we asked him why, he confided almost in a whisper, “She might make me feel better when I’m feeling sad or lonely.”

That was it. For all the logic of my rational mind’s lists, it paled when standing next to what my heart was increasingly certain was a more durable truth: that this animal would be a benefit to our family, another live body in our already rich experiment in love.

What is the anatomy of a decision? Sometimes it is merely determining quantifiable variables, almost like a mathematical equation, and seeing what they equal. But on other occasions, there is an incalculable x factor whose value appears almost like a dancing figure in the mist. When I choose to surrender to this mysterious invitation — when I throw my faith toward the vague notion that there is a method to the universe’s madness — then I often get to hold its juiciest parts.

As the weekend drew to a close, I remembered that in one of my journals from a year ago, I had drawn with Rio a series of domestic scenes: him and me, Annie and him, the three of us together. And in one, I had sketched a caricature of me in a field with the word “Rio” playfully scrawled in the sky above. Looking up at me from a spot next to my boot was a dog that looked just like Stella.


On a flight I was booked on recently, the gate attendant announced prior to boarding that we would carry a fallen Marine in cargo and his relatives on the plane. A sergeant from Spokane, she told us, had lost his life in Afghanistan.

Everyone stood up and walked to the wall of windows so they could see the proceedings. Perhaps earlier in my life I would have not watched to make a poltical point against the war, but many of my formerly rigid angles are now rounded corners so I rose to see something I’d never been in the position to witness.

Down on the tarmac, two decorated Marines approached a Delta Airlines luggage container. They pulled back the heavy canvas flap that hung in front of a large, rectangular wooden crate. This was no shiny mahogany coffin — it was straight from overseas, in limbo here in Raleigh, the sergeant’s brethren doing their best to honor his sacrifice. The two men carefully unfolded an American flag and placed it on top of the crate, and then they stood up rod-straight and hand-saluted the sky from their brows. Two women stood close by, dabbing their eyes with tissues, the wife and the mother it appeared. A third Marine with his beret at his chest held vigil beside them. Then a Delta Airlines employee walked up and hoisted the crate onto the conveyor belt, which took it slowly up toward the stowage cabin.

When the coffin finally disappeared into the plane’s belly, everyone went back to their devices or children. We soon boarded the plane, and as I walked in I noticed the two women and the Marine sitting in the first row of coach.

I kept glancing over to them during the flight. I thought about the responsibility of the Marine delivering the sergeant’s body back to Spokane, the airport there most likely hung with sad banners. What exactly would he say? A veteran I talked to later said the man most likely did not know the fallen sergeant personally — he was fulfilling the role he’d be trained to do. I wondered about the wife, and the mother: their shock and awe at the hole suddenly gaping.

In spite of the multihued strands of folks coming through our house, I don’t have one close friend or family member who has recently served in the military. I feel almost embarrassed to have strong feelings about war when I am so divorced from the military. And yet most of the men and women I have met in the military, at least those of my generation, have a sense of sadness and resignation in their eyes, not much of the glory that I’ve sometimes seen in World War II veterans. Are cheery old war stories just propaganda? Or was service truly more glorious once? Is it that nostalgic hope that keeps today’s soldiers going when their sense of security has slipped away on the fuzzy lines that make our frontier?

This morning, I looked at a photograph in the obituary section of the newspaper of a local soldier killed in Afghanistan. I paid attention to how I felt: did I have a different response to him than I did to all the other photographs of people who had recently passed away? I did, partially because the soldier was so young and also because his death seems so unfair — he had such a sweet face, and I imagine he had good intentions when he went off to fight in a war that in reality has been misguided from the start. (To imagine channeling young soldiers’ willingness to serve and their quest for self-worth into something fruitful! The Iraq War veteran Paul Chappell has spoken of his dream of a military corps trained to respond to the planet’s growing number of natural disasters, their boots on another nation’s soil a true blessing.) For all the pomp and circumstance behind the slogan “Support our Troops,” the politicians who send our young men and women to fight ill-conceived and poorly executed wars are in fact exploiting our troops rather than supporting them. Part of me doesn’t want to honor this soldier’s life more than I do the other people on the obituary page precisely because I’ve seen my own government use our heart strings to orchestrate further military misadventures, which not only leave behind human devastation but also demand huge infusions of public money that could instead be funding our own crumbling infrastructure. Maybe I’d feel differently if our wars solved global problems instead of exacerbating them.

And so I must sit with a steely resolve to fight against our military machine and a simultaneous feeling of tenderness toward the foot soldiers who serve it. And I also must point to all the people who make sacrifices for important causes. I will always respect devotion, but I don’t place the U.S. military’s sacrifices on any sort of higher plane. I am not against formally acknowledging the loss of military life, and yet there are also all the uncelebrated organ donors and fathers jumping in the way of incoming cars and peace activists losing their lives to bulldozers and even those sacrifices that don’t end in death but are nonetheless noble, the sleepless nights of vigil beside a dying sister’s bed. They, too, deserve yellow ribbons.

When we finally touched down in Atlanta, the plane bustled with impatient energy. The pilot came on and announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen, when we come to a stop, please stay seated and allow the sergeant’s family and the accompanying Marine to deplane first.” As the trio rose, the plane erupted in applause, and I clapped too as I felt a quick choke and a tear sneaking out the corner of my eye despite my best bravado.


Not my Pinewood Derby car...

My fallout with the Cub Scouts began with Mussolini and ended with a Pinewood Derby Car.

I was nine years old and living with my parents and sister in Los Angeles. My father was an avid reader and World War II history buff; he’d often sit on the couch by the fire, thick book in his hand, oblivious to the fact that I was spying on him from just feet away, trying to get as close to him as I could.

I think my father regarded my sister and me more as miniature adults than as children. He took us to R-rated movies years before our time and regaled me not with nighttime stories of magical creatures or superheroes but rather with the finer points of Nazism and fascism. He told me how Adolf Hitler used to intentionally arrive late to Nazi rallies, the crowd’s impatience roiling into nationalistic fervor once the Fuhrer finally took to the stage. He told me about Mussolini, El Duce, how he adorned Italy with statues and posters of himself and trained black-shirted fascist youth in anthems and songs.

One night I was at my weekly Cub Scout meeting; we had just finished reciting the Cub Scout Promise, and as we lifted our fingers to our brows to give the Cub Scout Salute, it suddenly occurred to me that all of my pack mates were dressed the same: identical blue uniforms, identical gold scarfs around our necks; identical merit badges adorning our breast pockets. When I returned home from the meeting, I announced urgently to my parents, “I’ve got to quit the Cub Scouts!” When they asked why, I revealed, as if it were obvious: “Because they’re fascists!”

My parents didn’t disagree; in fact, they told me I could quit, as long as I finished out the year. After all, I had the Pinewood Derby to look forward to.

I was excited about the Pinewood Derby. Each Scout would arrive home with a small wooden rectangular block, four nails, and four plastic wheels. Our task was to transform these materials into a sleek racing car that would speed down a slotted wooden track against other Scouts on the appointed night.

Unfortunately, shortly before my Pinewood Derby packet arrived, my parents announced that they were getting divorced. On New Year’s Day, my father unceremoniously moved out with little more than his personal belongings, leaving my sister, mother, and me behind in a house that suddenly felt too big.

I remember one evening I was walking through the dining room when I sensed someone in the room. I took a few steps back to see my mother sitting alone in the dark. “When is Papa coming back?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said, and she burst into tears.

But my mom was also a fighter. There were torrential downpours in Los Angeles that winter, and one afternoon my mom called my sister and me downstairs. She showed us how the water level on the back patio was rising so high that it was threatening to seep through the door, which would spell ruin for the house she and my father were about to sell. She made us get into our raincoats and handed us both outdoor brooms, and the three of us spent the next several hours pushing the water away from the door and toward the patio’s overtaxed drains. The water almost leaked in, but in the end we saved the house.

So I had no reason to think my mother and me couldn’t make a winning Pinewood Derby car. We worked on it in the breakfast nook; my mom wore a blue bandanna around her head, and I remember the smell of sawdust as we used our rudimentary tools to turn the block of wood into a race car: one handsaw, sandpaper, one paintbrush, and paint. In the end, it was a simple vehicle: triangular in shape (not a curve on it), and painted a chirpy orange and red.

The night of the Pinewood Derby, my mother was busy, so I caught a ride with my friend Greg Magnuson and his father. Mr. Magnuson knew me from sleepovers and was, I believe, aware of my parents’ recent divorce. When we entered the school gymnasium, I was struck immediately by the preponderance of Dads there, most of them showing off the cars their sons had supposedly made. I sensed from their prideful grins that they had been the ones most likely wielding the lathes.

I quickly found my pack mates, and we stood in a circle sizing up each other’s cars. It went well at first, but then one of my friends asked, “Hey, what did you guys do about weights?” Simultaneously, my friends turned their cars over to reveal that they had all somehow added weight to their wooden cars; some had carved out notches in the wood and glued in melted-down fishing weights. Others had used duct tape to fasten coins to their cars’ undersides. I had nothing.

As it turns out, you were just supposed to “know” that a heavier car meant a faster car on the Derby’s gravity-based track. My mother and I couldn’t have known this; it must have been some inside information shared among fathers. In a fit of anger, alienation, and panic, I threw my car down onto the floor and ran out of the gymnasium in tears.

I didn’t know where I was going, just that I wanted to get away from this world I didn’t feel part of. I ran until I started to tire. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. There was Mr. Magnuson, who brought me towards him and whispered, “It’s OK, Tim. Come on back inside.”

Mr. Magnuson and I walked back to the gym, where we found my car and the races I was scheduled for. I lost three times in a row, even the consolation round.

In the days and weeks and months and years that followed, I did what we do with a painful memory: I pushed it down, let a thick skin grow over it, forgot about it. Until about two decades later. I was in my late twenties, in the midst of a surge of cathartic writing; I was feverishly composing a series of rants and screeds to my father, cataloging every crime he’d committed. I even sent him some of these poems.

But in the midst of this wreckage, I stumbled into a more-tender memory, the one of Mr. Magnuson and the Pinewood Derby. What lived with me from that night was not losing the races, nor my father’s absence, nor the fact that my mother had been with me at every step of that boyhood ritual except the final one, when I needed her the most. No, what stayed with me was the feel of Mr. Magnuson’s hand on my shoulder, the way it felt to turn into him for that tiny second.

Last week, I returned home to Bynum after being out of town for a week. I was flying in late, so when I got home, Rio was already asleep. The next morning, I went into his room to wake him up for school. I sat on his bed next to him, and he must have sensed I was there, because he lifted one eyelid and directed his gaze up towards me. He slowly brought his arm out from beneath the blanket, reached up to my face, and gently placed his hand on the back of my neck. More than any painful memory or imperfect moment, I believe it is these points of contact that make us who we are.

How Punk Rock Saved My Life

I found punk rock right when I needed it. My parents had just gotten divorced, and my mother, sister, and I had moved from West LA to Pasadena in November of my fifth-grade year.

I was so nervous the first day of my new school that I sauntered down to the bus stop, promptly threw up in the bushes, walked back to the house, and begged my mom to let me stay home. She complied, but the next day I faced a bus full of strangers.

Fortunately my mother had found out that her real-estate agent’s son was a fifth-grader on the same bus. As eyes bore through me, I focused on the only kid sitting alone and said, hopefully, “Are you Matt?”

“No, I’m Rob,” the bespectacled stranger replied, but he seemed glad to have someone fill the seat. He appeared as confused as I was; he’d just moved from North Carolina to California and was also new to the school.

Rob and I became fast friends. Some days I’d get off the bus at his house; some days he’d disembark at mine. We both got used skateboards and started listening to K-ROQ, the local alternative music station. Rob and I craved acceptance but also knew we were too proud to pander to the “cool crowd.” So we naturally eschewed all that characterized them: Journey and Van Halen; long, feathery hair; hooded surf ponchos, Vans shoes. Instead we found punk rock.

What drew me to punk was not the fashion nor the speed of the music but rather its confident attitude that the alienated could collectively form a tribe. Even though I looked and spoke like a normal middle-class kid, I was angry inside: pissed that my parents had gotten divorced; pissed that I had to come home to an empty house while my mom worked; pissed that my mom and my older sister were arguing so often that the knobs on both their bedroom doors were loose from all the slamming; pissed that I’d had to say goodbye to all my friends and come to a new school where the coolest kid was a boy nicknamed “Chingi” who liked to start his morning by hitting me across the side of my head with an open palm as he walked down the bus’s aisle.

And so my radicalization against the man began. Rob and I listened to songs that derided conformity and celebrated the unique. We favored the “straight edge” bands who rejected drugs, alcohol, and racism. We’d hop our skateboards and cruise down to the record shop, where we’d scour the used bin for good vinyl. When I got home, I’d finish my homework (still the good boy; it’s my nature), close the door, and blare my punk. I sang along with Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye when he screamed, “I can’t keep up! I can’t keep up! I can’t keep up! I’m out of step with the world!” And I remember goosebumps rising as I sang along with 7 Seconds:

“Hey it’s 1984, With a glimpse of what’s in store,
It looks like things are up to us.
No talk, just action in the streets,
That’s what it’s gonna take,
No calm youth in the U.S.A.

It’s summertime, American riot!
I can’t complain, unless I try it!
The heat is here, a teenage warning!
To those who fear, here’s your warning!

The songs were like anthems to our disaffected souls. By eighth grade, we were doing what we could to signal our membership to the tribe: Rob started sporting t-shirts with President Reagan’s face crossed out in red, and I was sporting a buzz cut and wearing flannel. I relished it when two six graders giggled in disbelief at how naked my scalp looked under my razor-shorn hair.

Somehow Rob and I convinced one of our parents to drop our skinny asses at LA’s Olympic Auditorium, a dirty downtown joint famous for its raucous punk shows. I remember feeling nauseous as we waited in line for tickets, hoping there was a “chicken exit” like I’d sometimes seen at amusement parks beside particularly scary rides. The aggression of the scene, so energizing in music and lyric, scared the shit out of me in person.

When I think about conquering fears, walking through those doors that night was a seminal one. Finding the mosh pit was a close second. I had never slam-danced before, let alone really danced at all, but there I was, all 98 pounds of me, twisting and turning my way around an emptied-out circle where daring young punks did rounds, bumping into each other forcefully until they’d had their fill. From afar, it may have looked like 100 angry kids who’d lost their minds, chaotically flinging themselves at each other, but inside there was a strange grace and a code of honor strictly followed: you didn’t intentionally try to hurt anybody, and if someone fell to the ground you immediately picked them up. I think I understood punk viscerally that night; we were all trying to release our frustration so that it didn’t implode in our guts or explode through our fists, and we needed the music and our brethren to help us do this.

Now that I am a father, I’m faced with helping Rio find his own methods of transmutation. He gets angry, often, because he’s a little firecracker, and he sometimes doesn’t know what to do with his strong feelings. At times, he’s lashed out physically, and this has landed him in trouble. Other times he has said hurtful words. I try to show him ways to release the frustration in non-destructive ways, because the last thing I want him to do with his emotions is to swallow them whole, letting them fester and ferment into the bitter juices of resentment.I’ve already started teaching him how to “rock out.” These days, I score it a success when he stomps into his room, turns in the doorway to face the house, and screams, “Sheeeessshhh!”

A few weekends ago, I myself was feeling hot, frustrated, and hemmed in. I got some good cold beer, took off my shirt, and started pulling out some of my favorite punk-rock music. I held an imaginary guitar across my chest and stood before an invisible microphone. I went on to perform my own hour-long show, to no one in particular (although Annie told me later that she peeked in and smiled once in a while.) Though the songs were almost thirty years old, I still knew every damn lyric, every damn guitar lick, almost like they were inside me. As the beer disappeared and my arm went up and down in strums and the sweat broke out in rivulets, I felt like a teenager again — now out in the open instead of behind closed doors; now in my own home instead of in my mother’s; now raising my own son who faces his own angst and the conundrum of finding ways to release it  — but I swear I felt a live wire between me and the long line of those who sing loud and thrash hard rather than swallow deep and steep in silence.

Up and Leaving

A few weeks ago I walked out of the cabin where Annie and Rio were playing on the couch, climbed into my car, and got ready to drive to nowhere in particular. I paused for a moment before turning the key to ask myself what I was actually doing.

It’s not that Rio and Annie were bothering me. In fact, we’d been having a great day up at the lake in Connecticut. The truth I came to is that I needed a break  — I knew it from a tightness just under my skin — and physically removing myself from my family is the best way I’ve found to do this. Some might disengage on the sly, turning to the phone, or the television, or the computer; others might cruise along on autopilot, pretending with a nod here and an “uh-huh” there to be listening, all the while living internally in another world. No, when I’m on, I’m on, but then I need to hit the off switch. In those moments, mobility calls.

I hesitate to play gender games, but I wonder if there’s something male to this penchant for departure. Pablo Neruda once wrote, “It so happens I’m tired of just being a man. . . .  / A whiff from a barbershop does it: I yell bloody murder. / All I ask is a little vacation from things: from boulders and woolens, / from gardens, institutional projects, merchandise, / eyeglasses, elevators — I’d rather not look at them. . . . / I stroll and keep cool, in my eyes and my shoes / and my rage and oblivion.”

It’s one thing to take a harmless “little vacation”; it’s another to avoid difficult situations by orchestrating great escapes. I’ve left many a room with a slam of the door right when the going got tough. I remember one day when I was 13 and over at my friend Sam’s house. He and I were fledgling punk rockers and wanted our appearances to match our burgeoning fuck-you attitudes. Sam’s grandfather had been a barber and still had his razor. We convinced him to give us “buzz cuts,” and I asked for a “number one.” I arrived home that evening with a cut so short you could see my scalp. My mom couldn’t hide her disappointment. “That looks terrible!” she exclaimed, and rather than fight or reason it out I left the house with a slam and a scream, spending the next hour on foot on Pasadena’s sidewalks, cursing the meddling world and yet feeling freed from it through my ambling.

Rather than deal with my mom, I just left; how many men had I seen do the same at critical moments, finding some odd errand to do or simply retreating within their own homes to basement workshops where they’d tinker on projects no one else seemed to take as seriously as they did? Although most of the fathers I know now are more communicative than many of the men who came before us, it seems the penchant for sequestering behind some safe wall lives on.

It’s hard for me to know when this yen for distance will arrive, but I know when it comes: I start losing patience and interest in my loved ones and jump at chances to leave the house, as though the milk we’re out of were some precious lifeblood. What men do on these outings, whether to the store or to the shed, is largely mysterious, even to them it seems. Tom Waits has a great song, “What’s He Building in There?” to which I respond, “I’m not quite sure!”

Perhaps the point for the man is less the activity and more the time away: there is a power to severing proximity’s cord for a while, feeling for a few moments as though there is nothing tying us to the world. I wonder if this is partially evolutionary: sure, wives and children need us, but not in the biological way they need each other. I remember feeling almost jealous of Annie when she was nursing Rio: he needed her milk in a way that nothing I had to offer could compare. Could men’s sudden exits actually be a defense mechanism springing from their fear of being left?

Perhaps the best I can do is to make these sojourns out into the world interesting, to gain something other than just the fleeting pleasure of separation — to have something to share with Annie and Rio when I return. You can’t believe what I found! isn’t a bad sentiment to aspire to. And on the other hand, I’ve also learned that sometimes I stand to gain when I resist the urge to leave; that the maddening details of home are not always hassles to flee but rather messy treasures that family life offers up.

If I’m really honest, I’d say what often prompts me to leave is not difficulty or fatigue but more often intimacy; in the mornings, just as Annie and Rio start to cuddle, I usually leave the room to get my day started. I seem in these moments uncomfortable with the closeness that comes so readily to them. The fact is, they’ve practiced their intimacy, while I too often avoid it. This makes no rational sense, and when I’m able to catch myself and stay in the room for just a few extra minutes, I experience a familial love that often patches whatever holes I have in me.

Rilke wrote a beautiful poem that grapples with the push-pull a father faces:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

I hope that Rio sees a man who seeks both the promise of distant churches and the opportunity for growth in the house he lives in. May he learn to pull off the great balancing act of embracing both.

Family Legends

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

I’ve had a number of memorable aunts in my lifetime, but only one was a badass who rode a motorbike: Aunt Cindy, who was married to my Uncle Richie for many years when I was a kid.

I’d see Aunt Cindy every summer when my parents would put my sister and I on a plane to Connecticut, where we’d spend the entire summer living with my grandparents. We’d spend part of the time at their house in Newington and the rest at their small cabin on the shores of Bashan Lake in East Haddam. My grandfather had started camping at Bashan Lake with my grandmother and their three kids in the 1940’s, stopping by the mansion of the landowner Mr. Smith to pay him a few cents a night to put up a tent. Gradually my grandfather worked up the courage to ask Smith if he could pay him a monthly sum in exchange for the right to set up a permanent cabin. When my grandfather got the go ahead, he built a tiny cabin up at his house in Newington and brought it down in sections to the lake, where it still stands today.

I liked Newington, but my sister and I would eagerly await the moment when we’d see my grandmother starting to pack a cooler full of food and my grandfather gathering his fishing gear. Even their dog Sam would howl in anticipation as he saw my grandfather heading down to load the station wagon. On weekends we’d usually be joined by my Uncle Richie, who lived next door to my grandparents with his wife Cindy. Richie, my mom’s brother, had become a paraplegic in his early twenties after doctors mishandled the removal of a tumor that had grown on one of his vertebrae.

Richie was a renowned fisherman on Bashan Lake. My grandfather had fitted their boat with a special chair for Richie, and we’d lower the vessel in and out of the water with a winch and chain. I’d accompany my uncle on most of his fishing expeditions, and we’d almost always return with a string of bass or trout.

Fishing became the tie that bound me to my uncle; with Aunt Cindy, the strands were numerous and ever expanding. Her curiosity and joy for life naturally aligned her with children. While other adults in my past might appear muted and gray in my memory, Cindy jumps out in vivid technicolor. She drove a baby-blue Chevy with a CB radio on which she was always talking to truckers. She rode a motorcycle whose color matched her car. She loved “fluffernutters,” spreading peanut butter and marshmallow fluff onto toasted bread and letting the two layers melt and commingle before biting in. She had red hair and a smoker’s laugh and a flowery bathing suit that looked out-of-place on her stocky body. She called my grandparents “Ma” and “Pop” with a sincerity that transcended “in-law.” She played the guitar and sang beautifully; she once told me that old posters from her hometown in Pennsylvania advertising shows with her band in it used to say “with a voice like Joan Baez” next to her name. Some nights Ernie Olson a few cabins down would host bonfires, and Aunt Cindy would bring us and her guitar and spend hours leading the group of revelers in song while we tried to stay invisible in the background, incredulous that we were getting to stay up so late.

As a kid, I knew nothing about her relationship with Uncle Richie, other than that they seemed like best friends. And so I was surprised at age 13 when my mother told me that Cindy had left Richie and that they were getting a divorce. I never saw her again.

But last week, Annie, Rio, and I were up at the cabin (a yearly summer ritual), and I saw my cousin Billy, now in his forties. We started swapping Aunt Cindy stories — he told me that she showed him how to properly smoke a cigarette; that she’d patiently tried to teach him how to play guitar. He also reminded me that she served a pivotal role in keeping the cottage in the family back in the early 80s. What  happened was that Mr. Smith and his wife had died and passed the land on to their children, who considered selling the entire lakeside property to a developer. Cindy initiated a series of meetings with neighbors who over the years had set up leases with the Smiths and built cottages that now lined the lake. Cindy researched home-owners associations and finally cobbled together a group of residents who pooled their money and convinced the Smith children to sell the land to the association instead of to the developer. Thirty years later, the Wildwood corporation still stands, and the cottages thrive.

“I wonder where Cindy is now,” Bill mused. “Imagine if we could find her and invite her down here — how much she’d love to come back to the lake, and to see how we turned out.”

As I sat there looking out at the lake, I wondered if Cindy could even imagine that my cousin and I would be standing here all these years later, at that place she once fought for, getting all misty-eyed over her. If not, I wish I could tell her so, because sometimes the best way to remember who we are is to hear who we’ve been to other people; an experience that one person might have forgotten may loom as transformative in the life of another. One night Cindy woke me up at two in the morning and with a whisper and a flashlight led me down to the fishing boat. “We’re gonna get some bullheads,” she told me, and my eyes widened at the thought of catching this scary-looking cousin of the catfish who fed nocturnally along the bottom of the lake. As she rowed us out under the light of the moon, I felt raw and awake to the once hidden night.

Many Rooted Trees

My friend and I were talking about the musician Gillian Welch and how she, despite her California upbringing, has always felt she had bluegrass in her veins. Welch was adopted, so this inkling was not outlandish; in fact, it was borne out when she discovered she did have blood ties to the South. But it got me thinking about the sense of being rooted to another place or time.

I told my friend about Shumba, a young white American I knew in Sacramento who had lived in Zimbabwe for a few years. Shumba had felt so at home in Harare that he learned the local Shona language in weeks; at live music shows he found that his body moved in motions it already seemed to know. He was such a good dancer that he was invited up on stage one night by the renowned Zimbabwean musician Thomas Mapfumo; the crowd was so taken by this long-haired white man dancing and singing African-style that for a few months Mapfumo made him part of his show. In fact it was Mapfumo who took to calling him “Shumba,” which in Shona means “lion.” Shumba told me about one time when he entered a rural village, and the kids started pointing at him and yelling, “Umlungu! (White man!)” Shumba’s first instinct was to look around and think, Where?

I had another friend at this time who displayed more of a chronological displacement than a geographical one. “English Jason” was a Brit who worked as a newspaper archivist and was the good friend of my housemate. Jason looked and sounded like a character straight out of a Evelyn Waugh novel: long swoop of blond bangs hanging over a boyish face; baggy knee pants; a tweed jacket over a perfectly pressed shirt and tie (even in the heat of summer). Jason would come over and watch old movies and drink good Scotch with us. Jason was single but yearned for a woman who would appreciate his penchant for books and walking instead of driving. This was not an affectation: Jason spoke without references to modern commercial culture and eschewed current vernacular. He told me that his favorite year was 1934 and that he truly felt he was meant to live then.

I wonder if we all have, in varying degrees, these callings to other places and times. I know that when I lived in Tunisia with a host family as a high-school exchange student in the late eighties, I felt strangely at home in the bustling souks as the muezzin offered his prayers from the mosque’s loudspeaker. The first time I heard live Arabic music I felt something rattle deeply in my bones. As the summer wore on and my skin turned bronze, I was often mistaken as a Tunisian; by the end of my time there, my Tunisian father admitted that he’d been shocked by how familiar I looked when I first came off the plane. “We were expecting an American,” he joked, “and out popped someone looking like an Arab!”

Questions of appropriation live just beneath the surface here though. I may have resonated with Arab and Tunisian culture, but my identity and lifestyle were undoubtedly American; when a burly security guard tried to kick me and my Tunisian friends off the “tourists only” beach, I had no problem stepping up and claiming my Western status as I tried to convince him to let our group stay. The author Greg Tate has a book called Everything but the Burden that examines white Americans’ zeal for African American culture: they may wear baggy pants and sing along with hip-hop songs, he argues, but at the end of the day they never have to actually deal with the realities of being black.

Still, as I consider how the Lebanese singer Fairuz always brings bumps to my skin and the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti brings a swing to my hip and the Persian poet Hafiz brings a calm hand to my spinning head, I wonder if honoring the callings from different homes is in fact an effective antidote to alienation; perhaps the soil literally under our feet isn’t always the most grounding. Plato long ago hypothesized that we were once born into a tribe that over time was splintered across the globe. He suggested that one of our missions is to rediscover our own lost people. Kurt Vonnegut’s concept of the “karass” is similar to this. Perhaps the tickling of Fela’s saxophone is an invitation back into some primordial circle.

Folks in AA talk about the folly of “pulling a geographic”: thinking that moving from one place to another will make their demons somehow magically disappear. I get this, but I also think there are regions, cultures, and eras that speak to something in us, and that seeking these out over the course of our lifetimes may be integral to feeling whole. A few weeks ago I watched a band of twenty-somethings from New York City jam old-time Southern music so masterfully that the old timers in our little North Carolina town shook their heads in disbelief and then promptly got up and started stomping their feet. No wonder the band called itself Spirit Family Reunion.