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The State of Man

anger

Well I feel lying and waiting is a poor man’s deal
And I feel hopelessly weighed down by your eyes of steel
Well it’s a world gone crazy
Keeps woman in chains

—Tears for Fears, Woman in Chains

Men go crazy in congregations
They only get better one by one
One by one, by one
One by one

—Sting, All This Time

 

Son,

It’s a strange land, the modern masculine. There’s been progress but there’s always the urge to lurch backwards. Now feels like one of those moments. There’s still much that needs to change. 

I don’t fit within the narrative well even though I’m all the “right” things. See: White. See: Male. See: Straight. I don’t follow Jesus though. So, maybe not ALL the right things. As I navigate, there is conflict, isolation. I’m more observer than participant. At least that’s what I tell myself.

I was raised by my mom and she taught me to respect and protect women. When I was young one of my best friends was a girl. There’s my sisters, too. I am eldest child by a decade and my mom needed help. I changed their diapers. I fed them. I helped herd them, wash their faces and hands.

Women are people. Women are family. When I lose sight of this, it’s brief. There’s too much love for me to stray far. This is not true for all men.

My mom is sitting on the toilet and we are one still, soon to be two. That’s when a man’s arm reaches through a small window that is ajar, in up to the shoulder. He is trying to touch her. Grab her? Just scare her? She screams with the lungs of a professional singer, which is powerfully loud. I jerk inside of her.

This is the first time I witness a man wielding privilege. Of course I do not remember this. And yet I was still witness. I do remember the next.

We are at the grocery store and I’m slightly ahead, sliding my fingers along a shelf edge, wreaking pricing havoc. She lets out a gasp and I turn to see why. Her face is shock-rage but she stands still. I ask what is wrong and she stumbles for words. How is she going to tell her child that a man just grabbed her pussy? She says a man just goosed her. I don’t know what “goosed” means but it’s clear that it is a bad thing.

Then it’s when my mother and I are walking back to the motel after spending the day at Disneyland. A girl’s screams. I can see a teen-aged boy in a pool dunking a girl underwater, his teeth framed by smiling lips. She thrashes, but the pool is too deep for her to stand. A woman sits in a lounge chair watching what is happening without reaction. Their mother? The boy relents, but only for a second as the girl breaks the surface and gasps. Then she’s under again. 

Mom grabs my arm and looks me right in the eye. “You keep walking up to our room. Don’t stop,” she commands, shoving our room key into my hand. I keep looking over my shoulder as I leave and stop walking before I lose sight.

“HEY, MOTHERFUCKER, STOP,” she booms and the boy visibly jerks. “WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING? LEAVE HER ALONE.” The boy stops, dumbfounded. The girl pops up scream-crying and swims away to shallow water. “SHE’S TERRIFIED, ASSHOLE. SHE CAN’T BREATHE.” The girl shakes her head in agreement as she trembles and sobs.

The boy yells back, “FUCK YOU, BITCH, WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?”

Then it’s high school. I’m on the bus across the aisle from a semi-friend and he’s flirting with a girl seated in front of me. The bus stops. He reaches out and shoves his cupped hand between her butt cheeks, and then up, as she begins to stand. Her face is straight shock laced with confusion, hesitation. I am shocked too, but other boys laugh.

Then it’s in the car next to mine, a man driving is leaned over, punching the woman passenger in the face over and over, his face ugly with rage. Cell phones don’t exist yet and I’m getting on the freeway, they aren’t.

That’s my memory’s excuse. Maybe I just drove next to them and didn’t do a thing.

Then there are the retellings.

Like when your mother tells me that she and her sister run to their bedrooms when their father comes home from work. He is drunk and, dammit, dinner isn’t ready. Next time it will be something else. There’s always something. Then the sound of their mother’s punishment finds its way to their rooms. 

Like when a lover tells me she was drugged and gang-raped when she was 16 and I am swept into the emotional devastation that holds her captive and makes her cut, makes her drink, makes her fuck men that harm, makes her try to die, makes her lose custody of her child.

Like when my sister tells me she was drugged and gang-raped years ago by boys who are high school classmates—the same high school where one of her best friends, Michelle Montoya, is raped and then murdered by a janitor. They find her body in wood shop, her throat slashed.

Like when I’m told a talented woman I know but never met in the flesh committed suicide because she’s been violated too many times in life and can’t stop the pain.

It’s also the aching disappointment I feel when the first question a man asks about a girl I’m seeing is, “Is she fat?”

When I pull out an unusual amount of cash from my pocket and a man’s reaction is, “Man, you’re nigger-rich!”

When a married man’s phone is filled with pictures of swimsuit models that he and his married friends send each other in texts. “Check out this one,” he says.

When I hear a man say, “Fuck Black Lives Matter, they just need to go to jail. Stop breaking the law, stop resisting. Problem solved.”

When I mention that the armed white men who took over the nature preserve in Oregon are found innocent of any wrongdoing by jurors and a man says, “Good, they stood up for what they believed.”

When I hear a man say, “This shit is nigger-rigged.”

When I hear a man say, “He’s such a Jew.”

When I catch myself objectifying women—I like tits just like this, ass just like this.

When I notice subtle fear tickling up my back when black or gay men outnumber me.

When I admit I’m attracted to strong women but also fear them.

When I watch the nation elect an unabashed sexist bigot to the most powerful position in the world. Just for spite’s sake.

There’s scores more. More than memory can serve in one pondering. Even if it were possible, even if I could recall each instance clearly as I write this, the pervasive weight of it all would break me.

Here at the coffee shop, a late-aged white man just asked the barista, “Hey, how about a smile?” She doesn’t react, doesn’t even acknowledge him. “Whoa, guess not.” he says, looking at his late-aged white male friend. The friend laughs, replies, “there’s not much to look at here today. Where’s what’s-her-name, you know, the redhead?”

I stare at them and seriously consider making a scene—the kind that escalates quickly to violence, especially in this political climate. But I don’t. I settle for a cold stare but I think my distain is lost on the two. I think what they just did is lost on them. 

It’s the water they swim in. It’s the water they were born in. It’s likely the water they’ll die in.

My mom would confront them. She wouldn’t hesitate. She wouldn’t consider safety first, she’d just roar. She’s beyond worldly events now, but if she were still here, her fury would be epic. So much of her life was survival and struggle. I’m glad she doesn’t have to witness the present.

The cognitive dissonance today is deafening.

I wonder what my perspective would be if my father would have been present. I wonder what my perspective would be had I not been molested by an older neighborhood boy. I wonder why, how he became that way. I wonder if I forgot some things purposely. I wonder about a man that also lived in the trailer park, the one I was introduced to by the older boy.

There are fragments of memory, suspicions. But memory is fickle, especially concerning things that don’t want to be remembered.

What did I lose? What did I gain from my childhood? Do I hold women too high? Do I hold all men accountable for the trespasses of a few? Is my heart too soft in places and too hard in others? Do I, in some twisted way, hate myself because I’m a man? There are no saints, but women have left me far fewer scars. I know this is not everyone’s truth, it’s just mine.

But historically speaking? Well, it tells its own tale. Our culture is traumatic and carves a particular wound on us, yet each outcome is unique and complex. We are all perpetrators, victims, and enablers of variable degree. Men have just led the way.

Like how I was abandoned by my father, and how now I’ve abandoned you, in a sense. Divorce causes collateral damage, son. I’m so sorry. You didn’t get to choose the consequences.

I hope I can make up for it, that I don’t lose you to resentment and rage. We need more men in this world who are gentle and kind, not brutal, their hearts bled cold by loss and the desire for control.

I love you.

Photo credit: Welcome Images
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Worst Case

Consequences

Son,

My heart aches for you. I’m smothered in guilt. What world have I brought you into? Its spring has been wound too tight and you are vulnerable in ways that I cannot protect should the world go awry.

Deep down I feel it. Too many dominoes are falling. 

We inherit blessings and curses from our families and spend our lives dancing with them. Sometimes the dance is graceful, sometimes it’s a mosh pit. There are no wallflowers. Everyone dances.

One of the curses I received is the ability to catastrophize. It puts one in a constant state of worst-case scenario calculation. It’s a distortion. Now, add that predisposition to an ever-growing surreal cultural landscape and hope is a flashlight on a moonless night.

What’s real? What’s fact? What’s truth? Trying to navigate is a feat miraculous.

It is a time of fear, upheaval, and unwinding that wears a lead coat of uncertainty, son. A long road lead to here but September 11, 2001 was a tipping point, not only for America. It was a shock that we replayed over and over until the images seared the mind of every soul.

Then came the rationalizations and consensus, much in secret. Choices were made, principles sacrificed. Agendas freed, opportunities exploited, countries felled. Blind revenge-patriotism burned across the land, seeding a potent shift. The police were armed for war. Money fell from the sky and we gorged.

A trajectory was set.

Then the truth cracked wide. A financial crisis too massive to contain ripped through the make-believe and stabbed with a blade enchanted by pervasive fraud and greed, it’s injury mortal. The future we pillaged to build reality roosted on the present. The world’s diseased heart became a void.

More rationalizations. Choices. Moral sacrifices. In the panic, denial moved from scaffold to foundation while necromancers cast spells of undeath. What was conjured walked but did not breathe—the Many, forced to sacrifice more and more while the Few feasted and grew omnipotent.

Then Hope and Change transformed into a slogan and there were token victories. But positions moved ever polar and divisiveness bloomed. Heels of resentment dug in, drew lines, built barricades.

Then Snowden unveiled another truth, a secret lidless all-seeing Eye, the apparatus complete, still growing. It was benevolent, It was to protect us, they said. Concern and outrage but a spark—there then not. Criticism quickly surrendered to resignation as calls of alarm became victims, examples of Power’s dominion. The Eye would stay open.

Hope dwindled into a farce, the scent of Change just an air freshener.

Silent disillusionment fermented then soured over the years that followed. Demons thought slain rose from the remains. Calls for action that pandered to extremism and threatened privileges became a soul strategy. Effigies of fear and rage and yearning for the past sang lyrics that stoked the hearts of millions.

Yet we were told things were better. Recovering. Growing. But for who?

Son, Power doesn’t listen. Power rules. Power feeds itself. Power plays different characters but is simply a pendulum that swings to and fro. Power never surrenders the throne, it is overthrown by others seeking what it holds or it rots from within.

We wanted Change and it was time to choose. But Power divides, weakens the whole. Power, as it always has, dressed itself in two.

A new surrogate of progress. Those who favored predictability, those who weighed novelty over principal, those who were complacent, those who were resigned, those who leaned on strategy, those who were still unequal, rallied behind their savior.   

An unwieldy proxy posed as an outsider, an obscene wildcard. Those blinded by anger, those whose hate had been repressed, those whose privilege had been slighted, those who felt impotent and yearned for yesterday, stepped out of the dark and flocked. They were empowered by his wreckless light and their bitterness unfurled.

But most of us slept, drugged with apathy.

The stage was set. We chose. Rage and revenge won the day, claiming an illusional victory.

Power remains and plans to harness its champion. Power forgets the greatest threat is always within. Lust blinds, betrays.

Consequence is clear, its bite sharp. But only in hindsight. A gateway to nightmares untold is open and I’m afraid for you, my precious son.

I hope I am wrong.

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disturbing

The consequences come, they always do
At first a tiny trickle, then KA-BOOM

We’re senseless, our denial endless
The elected busy fighting for power
Wasting time, yo, it’s the last fucking hour
The electorate pissing, moaning
Jerking off in the Facebook shower
Sold on serving elites as a noble cause
Following profits and frauds, demagogues
Take a knee, grovel, invest, pledge and plea
And worship work, waiting till break to go pee
And build that nest egg…Ha ha! Seriously?

Our burdened children will howl in dismay
When the whole shebang is in disarray
In the darkness bright as day they’ll say,
“The stupid assholes saw it coming but
all they did was argue, blame, and pray.”
We’d rather be consumed with who is gay
The big tits and ass on the Hi-Def display
Foaming at the mouth, shouting DON’T TOUCH MY GUNS
Anti-Vaxing while eating gluten-free buns
Reason and our wisdom lost in an idiot-fog

Dead inside, murdered by ego and pride
In lies and fiction we run and hide
Ashamed to admit something’s wrong
History, a circle-jerk double dong
Easier, better to just follow along
Keep robbing tomorrow to pay for today
Just like with the natives, then the slaves
Jim Crow, segregation, and the KKK
Selective memory, Columbus Day
The exceptional American Way

Take another hit off the bullshit pipe
Taste it now? That’s not the kind bud, harsh, riiiight?
I’m warning you now, don’t believe the hype
We never stopped building pyramids, fool
Yeah, you’re just a tool, they hide in plain sight
Now they’ve become nation-corporations
Stroking the shareholder’s expectations
Without their guidance, they say we’d be lost
To abandon them, nope, too high a cost

I’m sorry, never mind, just forget it
Don’t get upset, it’s probably nothing
Hey, did your bejeweled iPhone just ring?
Wait, I know the lyrics to that, one two three
“Go on, buy a new thing, buy a new thing
Sweet honky Jesus, the comfort it will bring”
A catchy ditty, our anthem, you see
A birth to death dream-song inside a meme
This, all of it, the story our culture sings
Without it, without it, what would we be?

Don’t worry, I ain’t preachin’ or dissin’
The same la la la is playin’ inside me
I still wrestle and sometimes lose to it
I’m just hoping you’ll see the truth of it
Keep waking up, fuck, there’s no time for tea
Call it out, yank the curtain, just like me

Photo credit: Meet The Chumbeques/Flickr
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Fatalism

Fatalism

Groomed, sedated
Molded, mated
To task oblivious
To ritual vigorous
Contagious, viral
Ego’s denial
Addict’s fate-spiral

Brutal dysfunction
Unending destruction
Suffering’s instruction
This, the work we cannot see
This, the phantom machine
This, the vision
This, the world we weave

Momentum, inertia
City, Suburbia
The damned utopia
To Moon, Mars, other stars
Its romantic scent blows
This, how the story grows

We sew the meme
We break the Beam
Beautiful, glorious
Us, laborious.

Photo credit: Bro. Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ/Flickr
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On Not Writing

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I’m not writing. And now I am writing about not writing, which is writing. An author/filmmaker once told me that not writing is part of writing. So, it’s all writing?

I’m pissing like it’s a hobby, like an amateur. It’s all over the toilet seat and running down to the floor.

All this thinking but not writing makes Jack not know the shit from the Shinola.

I tell people I’m writing a memoir but I spend more time thinking of the book title instead of typing words. Full of Fuck. Stories Not My Own. Lesser Deaths. As if this will conjure elevators where there are only stairs. I want the finish without starting.

FACT: I am not irony deficient.

Is this how my art manifests? I mean, are acts of contradiction and internal struggle just my nature? This is when I walk the hot coals of self-help platitudes.

Just do this, be this, think this.

I divorced to do this. I sold a house to do this. I quit a 24 year career to do this. I did these things so I could live a true life. Didn’t I? What the fuck am I doing?

I remember driving my great-aunt to my house for Thanksgiving the first time writing and I would be associated. We weren’t close, such had been the Irish side. Yet this legacy of disconnection seemed downright warm and welcoming compared to the nonexistence of the Italian side, thanks to a father who was too busy playing a trumpet for Stan Kenton. That, and the kind of familial shame only the Catholic Church could create with the birth of an illegitimate child.

Auntie Vee was a shrunken, eggshell-frail woman that had been taller once, much taller. Such was the Irish side, but osteoporosis had taken her spine and turned it into a permanent question mark. It looked like she was bearing a crushing but invisible burden. This too was a characteristic of the Irish side.

She lived alone, never married and no children. Alone is how the Irish side finish their lives. She wore polyester pantsuits. Never dresses, not even in the few photos we had of her before my birth. My mother suspected her aunt was secretly gay. But mom’s gay paranoia extended to anyone, possibly everyone, even her only son.

As we fussed with a special pillow-wedge to support her back I could see worry growing in her eyes. I’d almost died in a motorcycle accident two years prior at the ripe age of 17…driving and I was something to worry about. Her fear looked like it could turn deadly so I stuck to the surface streets and drove slow. Who wants Thanksgiving turned into an awkward holiday tragedy? Turkey. Football. Some bullshit about Pilgrims and Indians. That time I killed my great-aunt.

We only saw each other occasionally during the holidays so I filled the familial void with a lot of talking about nothing. I talk a lot when I’m nervous. She broke my blathering with a blunt question.

“What do you want to do?”

“As in a job?”

“Yes.”

“I think I want to be a writer.”

“Well, you are awfully young to be a writer. You have to live a while before you can write,” she replied. Her tone sounded like a subtle put-down, a family tradition my mother had warned me about.

And so it went when conversations drifted — people would enquire what I’d like to do beyond the grocery job that I hated. I would inevitably answer, “I think I want to be a writer.” It got to a point where I’d snicker inside after saying those words. A self-loather’s repertoire is nothing without denial of the heart.

Predictably, the follow-up would be, “Have you written anything?”

With shame lumping in my throat I’d have to answer that I hadn’t, that it was more of a dream than anything else. Faces would get all screwed up in confusion. It was a lovely contradiction and part of me would hurt when I would admit that — the part of me that wanted to write. Needed to write. But I kept that part caged and gagged with a gimp ball.

It didn’t matter if my great-aunt’s opinion was right or wrong, whether or not it was a conscious clip of my self-esteem. A childhood of feeling unworthy leads down a path of self-betrayals. Among those betrayals, some near lethal, writing remained a calling that I would refuse.

I read about Michael Heizer recently, an artist that has spent his life building a monolithic magnum opus in the remote Nevada desert. It’s art of a scale and purpose that runs straight into the arms of insanity. The stuff of pyramids and great walls. It is not dedication, not discipline. It’s compulsion.

I’m jealous.

His madness makes me wonder about flow. Attempting to fish with bare hands or comprehend the subatomic is probably easier. Words coalesce and then wink out. Others appear, morph, build upon themselves. It’s strongest when I am driving, something to do with objects in motion. A silent part of me tries to break through into consciousness. The world fades. Did I just blow a red light? Shit, I missed my exit. Where am I going again? It’s dangerous.

When I stop so do the words.

Maybe I should ride trains, that’d be safer. My homeless uncle did. Mom said he went all the way to South America. She also thought he was the headless body my child-eyes watched being loaded into a corner’s van.

I mean, was it her brother? Did he want to die near his sister, if only to have a final semblance of connection to the family that shattered in his youth? By eerie coincidence, by being at my friend’s house that early morning, by us looking over her backyard fence, a fence that just happened to face the train tracks right where the body lay, did I, his family, bear witness? When I told my mother what I saw was I his unwitting herald?

She never saw or heard from him again.

I thought once I sincerely chose to write sparkly inspiration would shoot out of my fingertips. The momentum would carry me like the smell of failing brakes down a steep grade. All-consuming flames of want would possess my motivation. Words would involuntarily gush out all my holes make a mess on the floor, just like the staggering compulsion of Michael Heizer’s acts of art.

My journey is almost never that. When it is it’s fleeting. Mostly it’s The Narrator and Tyler Durden. It’s Morpheus and the bad actor hero. It’s making love to words while cage fighting them. It’s awkward pubescent foreplay. It’s fuck it, then continuing. It’s rabbit turds.

Then there’s the rationalizations, the acts of avoidance, the self-hate. Bits of bullshit wrapped in bent logic and worn as hats:

Writing will never sustain me, put food on the table.Writing won’t take care of my son’s chronic illness. What do I know of writing? No one will take me seriously without a college education. Better to take what skills I have, fluff them up, and peacock my soul to someone else. Better to find a lover’s story to lose myself in, to sail upon a romantic boat of distraction and attempt to compute incomprehensible people math. I’m failing. I’m lazy. I’m a petulant child. I’m a fraud. 

I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be a writer. I don’t know what I want.

Intention, planning, strategy…these things have foiled me consistently in life. The Do = Be = Have equation doesn’t work. It’s focus is external. It’s methodology requires a sense of incompleteness, an everlasting yearning for attainment.

A few days ago I woke with a strong sense of direction that comes from somewhere beyond intention. It is an occurrence that is so rare it feels alien. All I know is that big changes come when I experience this. I don’t want this feeling to be fleeting, dissolving undefined.

Now I want to delve deeper, to listen intently. I tried a visualization technique I learned recently that helps with clarity. It seems like woo-woo shit I’m always suspicious of but there is science to back it.

I’m standing on a beach, facing the ocean. The waves come and go. I concentrate on what’s troubling me, how it feels, where that feeling resides in my body. It’s a deep ache, a heaviness that smothers my heart. I reach into my chest and it pull out. In my hands an oozing tarry black substance hangs with an uncanny heaviness. I throw it in the sand and wait to see what happens, letting whatever comes next to unfold without influence.

A wave crashes, swirls around the blackness and drags it out to the sea. Another wave crashes, it’s foam-laced edge sliding up the beach to my feet. As it retreats a sword lies in the sand, sliver blade and gold pommel catching the sunlight.

A friend said that in Buddhism swords represent decisiveness. I don’t believe in Buddhism.

Photo credit: Edna Winti/Flickr
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Disenchantment

Stars

A star here
A star there
Luminous plots
Outlines of purpose
Constellations of reason

By these we set sail, but

Fiery, when they fall
Sometimes a flash
A disappointment
Sometimes cataclysmic

A shaking
A shattering
Of belief
Of trust
Of meaning

The brightest fall
like pulled threads
Unstitching lesser suns in turn
Emptying the sky
Leaving us to wander
To sit with the dark
Until new stars are born

Photo credit: flickr/Mike Lewinski
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Lesser Deaths

Trauma

To wreck, to wreck, to wreck
Did I build this ship to wreck?

—Florence And The Machine, Ship To Wreck

Long before I lost people who I loved, I lost myself.

My younger years were punctuated with lesser deaths that thwarted a more grievous death in the making. There’s some kind of “hair of the dog” joke in there somewhere. I’m not sure what kind of luck it is, but it tastes cosmically ironic.

The scars, evidence of crimes committed against myself, are carved into my flesh. A permanent testament. Undeniable. Irreversible. Unlike the accompanying emotional scars, they can’t be hidden in the folds of my mind or be resolved. They simply are, and always will be. I am not allowed the comfort of forgetfulness.

The body will tell the story the heart and mind resist to acknowledge. This I know is true.

September, 1986.

I remember worrying that I would not graduate from high school as I lay in the dirt on the side of a rural road. A deep coldness crept over my body and my senses had a strange disconnected quality but imminent death wasn’t a consideration. My friend, who was riding on another motorcycle behind me, had just driven away the one I had crashed. It was his, but technically it wasn’t—it was stolen. Before he left he told the blond-haired woman standing over me (whose car I’d almost hit head-on) to not let me look at my hand or let me move.

I didn’t want to move but now I definitely wanted to look at my hand.

The tip of my right middle finger had its flesh ripped away revealing porcelain bone. There was no pain.

Shit, I thought.

As I lay waiting for help, I watched popcorn clouds that dotted the grey sky above in an uncanny uniform fashion. It was too perfect, artificial. How does that happen, I wondered. Then paramedics materialized out of the air. One started cutting my clothes off and one interrogated, shaking me and demanding to know my name. “Who is the president?” Snip, snip, snip. Aw, man, I just bought this jacket. “What year is it?” Snip, snip, snip. Fuck, not my new jeans too! Cabot. Reagan. 1986.

I hadn’t worn a helmet.

Why is she here, I asked myself. I could hear my mother’s voice before I could see her. I only remember the unconsolable horror and grief that had hijacked her face. Our house was a mile away and my friend had driven the stolen motorcycle there to stash the bike as much as to deliver the bad news.

One of paramedics asked “what the hell is that?” as they slid a spine board underneath my body. Apparently I had landed on a long-dead dog or sheep or whatever. The remains of my death’s doorstep were too decayed to identify.

Surgeons burned many hours to save my life.

Besides my finger, which required a skin graft, I had deeply lacerated both forearms. I had lacerated my liver, bruised my pancreas, ruptured my spleen, destroyed about 3-4 feet of my large intestine, damaged the small intestine just beneath my stomach and broke a bone in my right wrist. I also made a sizable withdrawal from their blood bank.

Ask anyone who has been in death’s embrace. The worst thing about almost dying is not dying.

I woke up on a ventilator, the most agonizing life saving device invented. I’m sure the eternally damned are issued one upon arrival to Satan’s wonderland.

I was less a spleen and half my colon. A drain stuck out of my skin to drain the fluids oozing from my repaired liver. My remaining colon had been rerouted through my skin just to the left of the drain. My initial panic to the news of my colon’s relocation set off all the medical equipment alarms but turned to uncomfortable relief when the doctors said the colostomy was temporary.

I went from 180 to 133 pounds and spent a week and a half in the ICU. Docs said the only reason I survived was the fact that my heart kept beating. If anything, I’m persistent I guess.

August, 1989.

I was roommates with my best friend and his wife. They were first cousins. This was arguably wrong, but definitely abnormal—at least for California. Their paternal grandfather, a Hell’s Angel, was in charge of dealing meth for Northern California.

To say I started snorting meth wouldn’t be shocking, would it?

I remember going to the grandfather’s house. Bad juju, man. I could feel it the moment I walked over the threshold. Everything was a little darker. It felt present, like something watching unseen. All the walls but one in the living room were lined with authentic old-fashioned slot machines. I didn’t count, but there were at least ten. We sat at the kitchen table as his younger and chemically weathered girlfriend grabbed a bulging, gallon-sized Ziplock bag out of the freezer and asked us casually, “How much do you want?”

Family tweaked for free. It was a fucking Merry Methmas whenever we wanted. I never met their grandfather and I never went back to that house.

And then one night I had the brilliant idea to put meth into my ridiculously large convenience store soda like a chef’s seasoning. It ate through my weakened and surgically altered stomach and intestines like battery acid. Paramedics wheeled me out of the bathroom on a stretcher the next morning after my body forcibly purged black blood out of my mouth and rectum at the same time. I performed this dramatic exit at the Columbia School of Broadcasting, where I was toying with becoming a radio personality.

The docs opted to cauterize the bleeding with an endoscope. They get you pretty high before the deep throat.

After, I had a friend’s state-of-the-art portable CD player and LL Cool J’s album Walking Like A Panther to keep me company as I recovered in my hospital room. I was feeling good, even after all the blood I had lost. My pee was dark as grape juice though.

“How long has your urine been this color?” a doctor on morning rounds asked, unable to hide his panicked shock. “I dunno, a day maybe? I feel fine.” Nurses flooded the room and began jabbing the veins in both arms to attach a parade of IVs so my kidneys wouldn’t fail. My body was rejecting the blood transfusion.

The docs shrugged as to the cause. Something about antigens maybe, they offered. Anything other than broaching the possibility of giving me the wrong blood type.

I was probably pissing a gallon an hour as they replaced each of the saline bags as soon as they emptied. Plastic urinal containers hung in lines on either side of my bed. My ears and eyes were all that I had left to expel blood from—bodily feats I had no wish to experience.

June, 1990.

I was visiting a friend in unbelievably hot Phoenix. They had to shut down the airport when the temperature reached a record setting 122 degrees, melting the runways. The record still stands.

I witnessed Captain Picard being kidnapped by the Borg, who had just begun their invasion of Federation space and I felt a pompous satisfaction that I was watching Star Trek, The Next Generation’s season finale days before my friends in Sacramento could. I found out you stay inside during a dust storm. I bought Brent Bourgeois’ first solo album and a fanny pack. I had a burgeoning meth habit—despite my past consequences.

We were driving to a party in Tempe and I knew I wasn’t going to make it. Days prior, I had snorted the last of my meth stash with the intention of it being the last time. It would be, but not how I intended. The night before, I hardly slept because my stomach hurt so bad and I had the chills. It was a familiar feeling but I denied it with all my might. Even that morning when I noticed the black, tarry, and uniquely putrid streak on the toilet paper, I denied it.

I said I needed to go to the hospital. Everyone laughed. I barked at them that it was no joke. I was bleeding internally again.

“I am bleeding internally and need to see a doctor immediately,” I said to the effeminate man sitting at the ER receptionist’s desk at St. Luke’s hospital. He rolled his eyes and pushed some forms at me to fill out. Nausea jumped up my throat and I told him I needed something to throw up in. Now. He pointed to a small trashcan at my feet, startled. I snatched it just in time as black blood shot from my mouth and nose violently.

As I fell to the floor, I remember the look of horror on his face as he shrieked like a little girl. I didn’t have to fill out forms.

Within a few of hours I was in surgery. They followed the road map of two previous incisions: the first to save my life after the motorcycle accident, the second to allow me to use my rectum as it was designed instead of crapping involuntarily into a plastic bag attached to the side of my abdomen. The path is a straight shot, sternum to pubes, except for a tight turn around my navel.

What started as a thin footpath then a two lane road would now heal into a superhighway.

They cut out the ulcerated tissues, improved the intestinal plumbing and removed what the surgeons described as “a ton” of scar tissue. I wonder sometimes how much more of myself can actually be discarded and leave me functioning normally. Probably zero.

The rest of my Phoenix stay was spent in a hospital bed recovering, alone and far away from my home, family and friends. I had Stephen King’s The Stand: Complete and Uncut Version to read and air conditioning. It was better than the terminal alternative.

I waited to be picked up by my friends at the Oakland airport for almost an entire day after the docs in Phoenix released me to go home. I worried that they forgot. No one answered the phone at the apartment we shared. I sat waiting, depressed and lonely, on the space between the up and down sides of an escalator near the airport’s entrance. Hundreds of faces past me while I waited. Some stared, most ignored.

A feeling of being utterly lost grew in my mind like a creeping shadow.

The sun was low when my best friend’s wife found me. I hadn’t been told she was pregnant when we moved in together. It was obvious now. She burst into tears and gave me a hug. Her embrace felt good but I was too disconnected emotionally by then to truly comfort. I’d end up having a brief affair with her. I think the real reason we did it was to hurt the one we both betrayed. We were paying him in kind. The worst kind.

I pretended to be happy as we walked to the parking lot. Friends poured out of a beat up white van to greet me. They told me the van broke down on the freeway and how one of them stashed a bag of pot behind a tree while they fixed it, afraid that a cop might stop to see what was up.

Then they couldn’t find the pot because they were too stoned and there were too many trees. But hey. There was still beer and acid, if I wanted.

Someone certainly had meth but that was strictly off the menu now. I knew I wouldn’t be allowed a fourth strike. I don’t remember if I drank but I desperately wanted to escape from my empty and lost feelings. So I took a hit of acid. It ended up being a bad trip at the end of a bad trip. Poetic.

Late that night the muscle aches began as I came down off the acid. It felt like a sword was twisting in my gut. I told myself I needed to get away from my friends.

It’s true that meth almost killed me, but not the conventional way. You would have never guessed that I used. Had I not been in that motorcycle accident and suffered the injuries that I did, the consequences would have not been immediate. It’s probable that I would have eventually binged on meth for days on end, scratched sores into my flesh, lost teeth, and burned out my brain’s pleasure receptors. Shit, it was free and in endless amounts. It’s not a stretch of reason.

Did the dog’s hair almost kill me or save me? It’s a riddle, but clearly my spirit animal is a cat.

Fed up with all that LSD
Need more sleep than Coke or Methamphetamines
Late nights with warm, warm whiskey
I guess the good times they were all just killing me

—Modest Mouse, The Good Times Are Killing Me

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
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Through a Keyhole

keyhole

my
mother
was
my first country
the first place I ever lived

-Nayyirah Waheed

Mother’s Day.

A day whose origin is wholly 20th century American. More than ever it is commercialized, turned into a day of material obligation and expectation—of chocolate and flowers and cards, of restaurant dinners…sterilized of authenticity. A tool for profit.

And yet it holds sway in deep ways.

It’s easy to forget the sacred in today’s world. We are overstimulated, isolated. Busy. Always busy. Our familial foundations awash, diluted by the buzzing mundanity of modernity.

I imagine for some a kind of blessing.

Then the day.

From the radios. From the televisions. From the publications. From the Internets.

Don’t forget Mother’s Day
Don’t forget Mother’s Day
Don’t forget Mother’s Day
Don’t forget Mother’s Day

We are left staring at our consequential maternal reservoir, pleasure and pain in all its iterations leaking through the dam’s cracks. What should been allowed to flow as river though our lives, in then out, now threatens to become a deluge.

Sometimes we scramble to patch the leaks with romanticism. Sometimes demonization. Sometimes escapism. In these extremes we dodge the complexities of the human condition. To face and reconcile the light and the dark, to acknowledge and embrace both equally is a birth itself. The heart is pushed through a keyhole. There is pain. Blood is shed.

For those that don’t this day is not welcome.

The footing of our lives begins with two people. This, the first chapter of our origin story. Much of it is penned maternally…nine months, give or take—a connection the masculine is only capable of being witness, even if they are brave enough to embrace it fully.

The inexorable intimacy of those first words marks the soul, both mother and child, regardless of outcome. Regardless the theme or count of the chapters that follow.

Mom died the third of May, 2011. The day before she called me while I was working but this time I didn’t let her call go to voicemail like I had so many other times. Somewhere within me I knew. 

I rushed to her house and called an ambulance. I was the last to speak words to her, to see her conscious.

This is gift and curse.

But oh, those precious words were wasted helping to explain medical protocol to her. I didn’t say I loved her before they put her under sedation. She’d never wake up again.

Mother’s Day came five days after. After. My grief was too fresh for that first one so it didn’t register. But they’d all be after now.

The next couple of Afters were difficult. Anger, shame, longing, resentment, forgiveness, regret—a court trial for all the words said and unsaid between us. These Mother’s Days would be the exclamation points in the processing of my grief. They were violent tugs on the unspooling of everything about her that lived within me.

The Afters since passed by with relative ease. Or did they?

This year is different. Something I hadn’t expected happened in February. While at a retreat organized by the Hoffman Institute, I drained an abscess of rage and resentment towards my mother that I had no idea existed. She’d caused me deep pain, pain subconsciously denied for decades out of adoration and fear, a wounding gone septic.

It explained much.

It explained why I wrecked my body in my teens, and then more times as a young adult. I had no insight to the source, let alone a path to vent what was held inside me. All I had was pain. So my subconscious sought somatic means. I expressed my anger and resentment left by her trespasses with the only thing I could control. I’d break what she held precious.

I wouldn’t be her perfect little boy anymore. I’d shatter him, scatter his pieces. I’d leave him permanently scarred, a breath from death. Over and over. This resolved nothing of course. My body expressed the pain but the suffering remained.

At the retreat my body had a second chance.

I was armed with a wiffle ball bat, a giant pillow before me as I sat on the floor. I was instructed to think of the things that had happened in my childhood that I resented my parents for while hitting the pillow. They told me to hit hard. They told me to separately imagine my mother, my father, my stepfather before me. They told be to tell them everything they’d ever done that hurt me and to do it ruthlessly. Curse at them, call them awful things, they said. Do not stop.

There were 38 others in the room doing the same.

None of us wanted to do it. We were scared and embarrassed, ashamed of what was held within. But I was committed and did as instructed even though I was more focused on my surroundings than the task. The enthusiasm and technique varied between us but what started out reluctantly began to thaw as the physical exertion took hold.

I thought it’d be dad I would be most angry with. He abandoned me as a baby, leaving absence as his only presence. My stepdad would come next and then maybe, maybe, some would be left for mom.

That was until I started thinking about her.

It was glacial at first, but my surroundings began to fade and then my inhibition. When I thought of mom my swings hit harder and hot tears began running down my face. My accusations turned into growls then howls. My emotional moorings slipped, slipped…then fell. A fury ripped from my lungs that rose above the chaos around me, the force of it blooming into a stabbing pain behind my eyes that threatened to cleave my skull.

“FUCKYOUFUCKYOUFUCKYOUFUCKYOUFUCKYOU FUCKYOU FUCKYOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOOOOU,” I roared.

I wailed, snot running unchecked down my face, my swings hitting the pillow, whap whap whap whap. I didn’t stop. I couldn’t. The avalanche of rage had turned involuntary. I could taste blood in my screams. I choked back vomit. My arms burned, sweat stung my eyes. I did not stop.

For 15 minutes we did this. A five minute break spent with my chest heaving for air and then again. Three sets in all.

Each time we’d start I’d think, there can’t be more, and then and I’d lose my shit. Again.

By the last round my voice was a rasp. Every scream felt like breathing fire but the sound only held the power of an old man bitching. I screamed anyway. Mom was gone now, lost in the emptying remains of my decades-long stuffed emotion. My swings into the pillow were slower, spaced. A rhythm.

My heart was through the keyhole.

I buried my face in the pillow. We were only halfway through the last round but I was tapped. Something new was rising.

At first it came as a whimper, then a sad cry that turned into a grievous wail. I choked and spattered on the mourning that escaped past my lips. An instructor came to my side and asked why I’d stopped. My reply was lost in tears.

“You’ve got to keep moving,” he said. “Keep moving.”

So I rocked as I knelt, face still planted in the pillow as grief and loss gutted me. My racking sobs filled the void.

“FIVE MINUTES LEFT, GIVE IT ALL YOU GOT,” the instructor commanded. And with that I found the strength to sit up and hit the pillow again as snot swung from my chin. I wanted to be sure. I wanted to be bled dry.

For the past few months I’ve felt good. Dare I say happy? I mean, to notice this is a big deal. Things are still tough. The same challenges face me. Doubts are still lingering, fears still nipping, but I’ve changed. Some of my shift is profound…yet subtle. Its gravity only detected in hindsight.

So when I started feeling sad and not knowing exactly why a couple of weeks ago I was at a loss. The anniversary of mom’s death is coming up, is it that? Maybe. Not exactly, but in part maybe. What is it then? What’s different?

The anniversary came and went without an answer. Then Mother’s Day came and I felt uncomfortable so I started writing. In that stream of thought, the words you are reading were born. Basically you are reading my process. This plus this plus this. What’s it equal?

I’m different. Mother’s day feels different because I’m different.

From the space that emptied during the retreat a peaceful grief flowed for the mother who’d brought me joy. Nothing specific, just longing. I fought it at first with my go-to coping mechanism: comic relief. I was afraid that I’d end up with my face in a pillow again, writhing in the jaws of grief.

I gave it up to the words. I always follow where the words go anyway. They’d know.

I shed some tears along the way. They were good tears.

“All we can hope for as parents is that we’ve done more good than bad.”

-Mom

Photo credit: Chris Evans/Flickr
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Change

floating heart

Change is a land I choose to roam

Sometimes the ground traveled is welcoming
as if it consciously opens itself before me
Sometimes it offers itself reluctantly
sharp-edged and uneven
Sometimes it’s a chasm that stretches
as far as my vision can imagine
Sometimes it’s quicksand
swallowing my will
Sometimes it’s a rock that I sit upon
my legs weary

Always I ask myself
Is this new land or old?

Most among the soul-family that I shared the Hoffman Process with were high-functioning professionals, driven people full of purpose. I hadn’t been allowed to indulge in knee-jerk social labeling (none of us were) until the end of the retreat. We were instructed to not say what we did for a living during our time together. It made sense. Culture teaches us to stratify worth and establish identity through a bended lens of “success”. The compulsion to compare is crippling and we were all trying to heal.

I felt small as each stood before the rest at our graduation and revealed what they “do”. I had no “do” and only two dollars to my name. I’m a writer, but it’s not a “do,” it’s who I am, have always been. I’ve never made a cent being who I am and have only spent the past five years living my truth.

What’s a career anyway? Why identify with and pursue a life that isn’t a reflection of our authentic self?

I’d forgotten that despite so-called status, we were all here because of some sort of life dilemma. While the severity and type of crisis varied, we all were looking for some transformative change. Shame kept me from taking the podium until almost the last of us had spoke.

“My job is doing whatever the fuck I want”, I tried to say triumphantly. I immediately regretted the words. Whatever you want? You don’t know what the fuck you want or where you’re going, I thought. I’d whitewashed my authenticity in a charade of rebellious pride.

I said more things after that, but I was out-of-body. I don’t remember my words. Someone else was speaking from my lips.

Had I been authentically vulnerable, this is what I would have said:

“I waited until the end because of shame. I’m a writer and I don’t know what the fuck I am doing. I’m lost. I’m fucking 46 years old and I’m lost. I mean, I don’t even know how I’m going to eat when I leave here.

I’ve learned a lot, I’ve healed, I have tools now to help me navigate. But…I’m afraid it will all be lost in the scramble to survive. I’m afraid I’ll abandon my true self in managing the crisis that is my life.

And I’m tired. Bone-deep weary. I was taught only how to survive. I was taught how to navigate minefields, not avoid them. I don’t know how to function outside of crisis. If it isn’t present, I will create it. And I hate it. It’s insidious.

It’s my darkest pattern. I know this. Especially now. As much as I’ve grown in the week I’ve been here, I can’t beat it on my own. Maybe that’s defeatist, maybe self-prophetic. It’s just the truth of how I feel.

I am terrified of leaving here, of leaving all of you. I have crisis waiting for me to return home and I don’t want to be swallowed by it.”

I’ve figured a way to eat now: a way of survival, a foothold, just wide enough to hold on to but precarious enough to steal all effort to maintain.

Old land, desolate of meaning.

There was always the odor of strife in my family home. An earworm song of crisis played, at times so loud the walls shook. Worry was tidal. A cliff’s edge lurked behind every door. And in this way my mother raised soldiers. She taught us how to survive. She taught us the art of eternal struggle.

It’s sewn within. Involuntary, like breathing.

There’s nothing quite as maddening as being compelled to do something that I know doesn’t serve me. Effort that is meaningless at best, destructive at worst. Especially when it’s required in order to survive. Especially when I know that’s also a childhood bedtime story read to me out of compulsive tradition.

Survive.

Survive.

I’ve lost so many years to survival. When do I start living?

I’m at a point where, again, survival has consumed my vision. I feel choked for breath. Old memories rise, pulling unwelcome feelings to the surface. The deep groove of yesterday’s spiral-patterns beckon to be played. Frustration and despair weigh my thoughts.

Choosing change is complicated. Part of it is intentional crisis—I knew I wouldn’t start dancing unless I jumped right into the fire. Part of it is a Mutiny of the Soul, a call for authenticity that refuses to be ignored. Part of it is societal enlightenment, a book that affirmed the murky feelings that haunted me. Part of it is a need to sever the generational suffering I’ve inherited, a legacy that I do not want to pass to my son.

And part of it is time. If I’m lucky, I have half a lifetime left. But no matter how much time my meter holds I want spend it thriving, not just surviving.

It requires heaps of imagination that I’m not sure I possess, Herculean leaps of faith that I’ve never had in myself, rebellious courage to carve a life outside the margins of our soulless societal metrics.

It means failing. Epically. Repeatedly. Uncertainty is my bedfellow and doubt my pajamas. The fiddle of my old patterns plays incessantly in the background. It feels like repeatedly launching myself at a cement wall hoping, begging that this time, this time, I’ll stick.

I guess that’s why I’ve denied myself for so long. Lonely is the frontier of thought and spirit that has always called from the purity of my true self. It’s a journey that requires navigating two worlds, a foot in each. One foot is blind, stepping onto terrain that creates itself only the instant before footfall. The other shackled to the mechanisms, the operating rules and imprinted legacy of a dying land that is brutally unforgiving of dissent.

I want, dare I say need, help. I ache for the unselfish support of visionary mentors, not deadworld teachers, coaches, counsellors, clerics. There is no future in the lies of tradition.

The temptation is to attach shame to this need. This is a need I am supposed to fulfill myself. This is a need born from weakness. Right and Wrong beg to war over the thoughts. I struggle to simply accept what I feel at any given moment, choose to be present, aware, not deny or diminish or judge.

If this is all just part of change, god, I’m ready for the flourishing part. Or at least the part where the wise guide takes my hand. I feel silly. Shouldn’t I be the wise old man now?

Can I create a way to provide for myself and my son that allows me to be a present father and pursue my life as a writer? Can it be done without compromising principals? Will a call to spirit for help be answered? Because, shit, my call is more like a scream.

I know abundance exists even though I was taught the cupboards might be bare tomorrow. Yet the din of survival robs me of time and imagination.

Change means breaking patterns, abandoning beliefs, confronting the programing that holds me hostage. It means admitting that the greatest oppression lies within.

None of that is comforting.

Photo Credit: A. Pagliericci ♦/Flickr
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Home

life’s story

Nostalgic scents stirred as I inhaled your words
Memory’s touch grazed over every sentence,
felt the warm presence of yesterday’s sunlight
as echoes of old footfalls sighed from every chapter

I feared your life was a book in which I would be lost
but as I read your pages they only lead me home

Photo Credit: Tom 7/flickr
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