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.


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.

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.

On this Spring Day

The flowers have arrived. It is the beginning of the party. Everyone is looking their best, having just emerged from the winter doldrums. The wind stops by and shimmers some skirts and shirts and then is off. Wisteria wine is served, and the bumblebees catch up on the months underground.

Rio and I and Stella head out to the path by the river, and it’s so lush I’m ready for snakes but only the thought of them arrives, even that making Rio and I shiver. It was a lazy morning, the kind where time seems to halt and become a giant vessel to climb into.

Now Annie and Rio are making cupcakes, and I look at a poster of Obama next to our window and I think of his graceful words to two parents grieving their murdered son and I think of Ram Dass in Fierce Grace how he reached out to those who had lost and opened up his hand which had inside a flash of light and I come back to my general belief that the world is good. I can get hot under the skin, and I’m a brittle pane of glass if I haven’t breathed in a while. Yet one big inhale and wellness clears its throat and says Glad you’re back.

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.

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.

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.

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.

What the Dragonfly Says

I start my day at the roses, hundreds of yellow and red suns bending toward the sky, and as I walk I let my shoes move until they stop, leaving me in front of a yellow bloom quivering in the still morning air. As children exit school buses with field-trip glee I stop to smell her, and she is a funny rose, not like the others—almost dank: musky, cold cave. And so I lean to find another but then I decide to stick with her, to dig nose in deeper. I smell an old tool shed, a mossy oak branch under slick wet leaves, a bouquet I was a breath away from missing. “You are beautiful” I tell her, so loud the children laugh but I don’t care.

I meander past trees and worker bees and find my sweet friend for our lunch at the park. We circle and square for the patch of sunlight we know we will find. A dragonfly flutters about and lands beside us. But then he’s off to cypress heights and I imagine for a moment the view of the park from the tree I see him settle upon.

Back home I listen to the sounds of aboriginal music and between songs I hear the high-pitched chirping chorus of the birds in my next door neighbor’s tree and I think, How easily I forget to listen. And I swear the sparrows are singing in harmony with the didgeridoos coming from my speakers, rising into crescendos just as the song reaches its refrain: “Keep your face to the sunshine and you will not see the shadow,” the singer says, and the birds suddenly… stop. And there is a dull ache in my ear saying all of this is not possible, that the bath water gets colder the moment you think it’s perfect, that the fragile strand that connects us is too fine a fabric for this cut-and-paste world.

But I can do nothing but choose this: the faith that we are all beacons along a path that in the end, is the sound of us rising.

And later in the day I walk along the river, and I see a dead fish decaying in the shallows. Just as I say “shoot” a live fish jumps airborne in front of me, five times thudding back into the river with the loudest splash of life. “Holy shit!” I say and smile and think: Exactly. Holy. Shit.