Thursday, December 3, 2015

Crying On a Cliff

The benefit of the barbed wire fence line is that I could follow it in the pitch black, all the way from the road until its end at the edge of the cliff. I marched as deliberately and quickly, yet quietly as possible. It became a stressful challenge as I got within a hundred yards or so from the cliff, to walk even quieter yet artfully continue to chase the sunrise to my place of hiding.

Like a history lesson of photography, the black and white trees and rocks so slowly turned to dark and then light grays, then sepia and finally washed out palettes that gradually gave place to brilliant ones. My smoky breaths became more and more faint and my shaking and shivering lessoned bit by bit as the minutes and hours climbed past.

I began to cry, first quietly and then gradually as loud as I could go. I didn’t cry in my own voice. I was a liar. A fraud. A murderer. I’d stolen another’s voice, purely to kill innocents. I kept crying. Why couldn’t my pain be heard and attended to? It was as sincere a lie as I could make.

Then I finally heard movement. I could hear it, but I couldn’t see it. It got louder and closer. Maybe it was a killer, bigger and deadlier than me. Why couldn’t I see it? I sensed it was almost on top of me and I still was blind, in the dull colors of almost daybreak. I lifted my weapon, ready to strike out at either predator or prey.

I turned facing forward again and there he was, just three feet in front of me and staring me down. He only could get so close before I spotted him because his disguise was so much greater than mine. But mine still was convincing enough to keep him confused and guessing, unsure if he was staring at something living or just the base of an empty tree.

His dull golden eyes shined at me and he snorted to clear his nose for a better scent. He bared his fangs for just the briefest moment and I almost fired. Then he lowered his head and quietly vanished into the sage brush as quickly as he had appeared.

I had a dozen chances to fire, but I was here for a deer and not a coyote. He had a dozen chances to lunge and bite, but he was here for an injured fawn crying out in distress, not an empty tree base that didn’t smell quite right.

I finally spotted his low form again bobbing with each almost silent step. He joined with a second coyote, with as good a story as mine to tell. They disappeared, following the edge of the cliff, watching the same brilliant greens and blues as I did, suddenly coming to life around us.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


I will always feel and see the scar by my left temple from where he either hit me or threw me down. It happened too fast to remember which. There was a blinding burst of white and then my face was touching the kitchen floor and blood already pouring into my blinded eye. I scrambled and stumbled and tried to run, but he easily smashed through the bathroom door and we were immediately tripping and falling over each other until he landed on top of me, hands around my throat and screaming, "I'm going to fucking kill you" while mom helplessly brought her fists down on his back. No dignity.

Dad told me a few years later he was at that time actually terrified of me, despite having 50 pounds on me. We both had terrible, violent tempers. Fear was precisely what I was going for. Back then, I openly insisted there was no such thing as god or love. Like dad, I had bloodied many faces and had my own face bloodied more times than I can remember. I believed the most a person could hope to attain in life was to be feared, as I confused fear with respect or strength. Its nothing of the sort. I was so ridiculously lucky to have a change of path and heart. Dad was lucky to have the same. Some dignity regained.

When my now engaged daughter was still in diapers, we in Oregon voted on the death with dignity measure, to allow doctor assisted suicide for those suffering the most. It is surreal to see how a father who once inspired such fear and hate and then eventually forgiveness, today lays with a tube in his throat, helpless and silent, powerless as a baby. Before he took the most recent turn for the worst, he was already entirely dependent on the nurses at home, daily changing his catheter and taking his vitals. Even when I saw him still conscious and responsive in March, he could not walk or talk. I hugged him in his hospital bed and told him I love you and he mumbled back I uh ooh.  Reduced to diapers and baby talk. Where the fuck is the dignity?

I never passed on the raising of my fists to my now adult son, although he has seen the lingering, clinging hair-trigger temper burned into me by so many fists from my past. Like ghosts across three decades, they refuse to let go or stop swinging. I envy my sons calmness, patience and self-control. I am proud of him, but also proud of myself for having helped raise him on a far different path than my own. A more dignified path.

When our parents pass, it often forces us to examine our own brief time and influence here, as it should. You wonder what lasting good that one mans life could ever forge in such a short span. Like a blink of an eye, it is suddenly already over and our footprints look and feel almost immediately erased and meaningless. But in truth, like ripples in a pond, our influence continues to spread out long after all sound has died and every light has faded.  Even now, a once violent man, since redeemed, does not continue to fade away all alone and forgotten, but is tenderly and vigilantly watched over by a loving wife and another of his sons. Therein hides an elusive but everlasting dignity.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

"Pas Peur"

A few weeks ago, Amy and I started going over some other countries we might like to visit next year and she nervously said she wanted to stay away from places more prone to terrorist attack and agreed Paris was one place that would probably be fine.

As America is still reeling in horror at the attacks in France yesterday, I remember that one of the benefits of having so many friends on Facebook is that I get to see the broadest variety of reactions to everything in the news, from the mundane to the outrageous and tragic. Some call for yet more prayers, while some angrily call for an armed response. Others take the time to type out or read heartfelt sentiments, in either short posts or long blogs, while many others just change the colors of their profile pictures. While the many contrasts in such different responses are stark, all but the most extreme feel as if they have some validity to them. They also feel too damn familiar.

When yet another mass shooting or terrorist attack once again spins up the quarterly or even monthly news cycle, the first thing I notice in the subtext of comments and reactions is a desire to speak out something, anything, so as to not accept it as the new normal and resist it being something to become desensitized to and care less and less about. The next thing I see is an obvious fear that if over 120 can be murdered by ISIS in the streets of one of our more powerful, vigilant allies, it could happen here in America. Suddenly our humanitarian cries and John Kerry and this administration calling to draw in an astounding 85,000 Syrian refugees next year and 100,000 by 2017 has less supporters than before. Just 24 hours before the attack, the President tragically said that ISIS is not gaining strength and that we've contained them.

I admit I recognized the subconscious fear it could happen here when I for the first time in a long time remembered the job offer I got a while back from one of our federal agencies that specializes in protecting our borders. I wonder if there is more I could and should do. I also admit my response falls somewhere between the "just pray" and "we need to hunt them down".

Here is what you and I do not want to hear: this ideological war will not abate or be "contained". The horrific and specific attacks on civilians will increase. The shocking nature of the slaughters and beheadings will continue to spiral upward and will be posted on YouTube. Our saying that "we care" and posting pictures of candles will not even remotely slow that bloody march in the years to come.

This administration has made some important progress against these militants in the last eight years, but they've suffered some terrible setbacks as well. Maybe unfortunately, they also felt it important and useful to initially abandon the expression "war on terror". The terrorists have not abandoned that war.

Like others, I am writing to speak out against the encroaching temptation to become inured and numb to these events. I want to say something that is meaningful and important. Yes, let us pray for the families and friends of the over 120 people murdered, but god help us if that is all we try to do.

When "only" twelve people were murdered in Paris in the Hebdo attacks, it was up until then the deadliest attack in France since 1961. Just ten months later, it is now paled and entirely overshadowed by a slaughter of innocent civilians that is over ten times in size. Shortly after the attacks back in January, thousands of Parisians gathered in the streets in solidarity and one perfect, succinct sign stood out above the others. Regardless of your feelings on how we should respond, in the face of the horrors assured to continue in the years to come, it is something we must all agree upon so that both our enemies and we ourselves see it written and hear it stated out loud, again and again.

Pas Peur.

Not afraid.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Future is Awful, but the Ratings are Wonderful

Howdy, subscribers! It's currently June of 2024 and according to what's now trending across the worldwide Teleweb, the biggest question on everyone's mind this election season is whether or not Secretary of State Chelsea will outdo her mother Hillary to become the second Clinton to rule in the Big House (formerly known as the "White House").

The hacker group Anonymous is again partnering with TMZ to promise election cycle excitement with their regular summer release of all the candidates private Teleweb surfing histories. Several of the highest rated candidates, like Kanye West, try to get ahead of the scandal by announcing, "of course I watch a little My Little Pony porn, who doesn't?"  America nods in agreement and changes the channel.  Kayne goes up 4 points in the polls.

Opposing front-runners in the new Christpublican party, like Josh Dugger, weep openly at their press conference that sure, they too have a serious problem being sicko "My Little Porny's", but their wives remain dutifully by their sides. America yawns and changes the channel. In an unexpected twist, the hackers at Anonymous give another press release stating they were kidding, as they honestly had not gotten to breaking into the candidate's filthy Teleweb histories just yet and "thanks for saving us the time by confessing".

Incumbent President Trump cuts the ribbon at the new D.C. mall attraction, Trumpland®. The highest ride towers several hundred feet over the Washington monument and thousands of Trump fans excitedly waddle in or drive in on their Hoverounds. In a first, the U.S. Supreme Court (owned and sponsored this year by Taco Bell and their delicious Monster Extreme Burrito Supreme) awards a full transferal of trademark and copyrights to Trump for his newly revamped version of "Donald Duck". The embattled and now financially struggling Disney Corporation announces they will decline further court appeals. Donald's Donald goes online to quack his Tweet, "Total Loothers!"  America laughs and changes the channel.

It rolls into November, just days away from the election and the new question on everyone's mind is the provocative and absurd new Starbucks "Hoppy Hellidays" cup, now all in black and Santa skulls. For the first time in almost 20 years, in the ensuing fake outrage, every Teleweb server crashes for Facebook (now a subsidiary of Taco Bell). The secret council of the Illuminati Facebook board decides to leave the stupid Telewebsite down until January.  

Detached from their digital teat, most of America weeps openly and wanders aimlessly in the streets. Many are begging for a sign and direction of where to now aim their outrage as Social Justice Warriors on the Teleweb. Most of the traffic halfheartedly redirects to the already insane ramblings of the comment section of TMZ's telewebsite.

On a more positive note, the producers of The Walking Dead promise this year that their close work with genetic scientists around the world should finally reveal history's first actual zombies by 2025! 

The upcoming "The REAL Walking Dead" reality show promises to be a big hit on the Teleweb, with the first season's runners and survivors being none other than America's beloved royal family, the Kardashians. President-elect Kayne is unavailable for comment.

The producers also reveal that some of the real, dead toddler Walkers will be prominently tied up and displayed at Trumpland® in the "It's a Small, Awful World After All" attraction. They also assure us that these adorable Dead only have about a 40% chance of breaking free and devouring the living theme park visitors. It's an exciting gamble, as these cute little deadlers will supposedly be genetically modified to outrun Hoverounds. A full 96% of Americans agree that even if this happens, by now we pretty much deserve it.

In a surprise announcement, the NRA (now a subsidiary of Facebook) claim there is nothing to worry about with the Walkers as they unveil their national "Free 9mm with every Hoveround" program for everyone above the legal concealed carry age of 8. The next day, two people are injured at Trumpland® on the fan favorite "You're Impeached!" log ride from accidental firearm discharges.

America absentmindedly drools a little and eagerly awaits the next distraction or outrage.

Change the damn channel.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Sunny Day

The sidewalk before the Westhampton Methodist church, covered in their own stark shadows and that of the luscious summer trees about them, spoke of the momentous and sunny day that would last for several more minutes. The unpredictable June clouds would immediately billow in and cover the same sidewalk with rain, but the undamped spirits only rose higher.

The unassuming, Clark Kent-esque figure stood with knee just slightly bent, as if to help meet halfway with the three inch heels on the beautiful brunette beside him. Her pale blue skirt and jacket were something. The grandmother’s veil would be something else, something borrowed. The joy in her bright blue eyes were something perfectly new. The excitement and pride in those witnessing were something so many countless ages old and yet thankfully every day renewed.

The slight, metal rimmed glasses would last only a few years before replaced by the thick, black ones issued to every sailor, the ones that would drag him and the brunette far across the country more than once. By the time they handed his new spectacles to him, just years away from these headiest moments that never have quite enough pictures, that tiny Clark Kent junior hiding inside, behind the pale blue skirt on the momentarily sunny Westhampton sidewalk, would be joined by his blue eyed little brother. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

I Hate Writing

The little boy clung tightly to his mother's hand, sure of her navigation past the treacherous crosswalk dividing their Navy base housing and Vallejo Elementary School. He hated having to hold anyone's hand, but knew there were times it made sense, and that it usually made sense to not fight the wiry, 5' 2" mom who demanded he grab her hand.

She was a beautiful mom, hard to dismiss, with her attitude and vocal demeanor. She was confident and outspoken, but her beautiful blue eyes were surprisingly accurate replicas of his own, so he knew she must have at least some deep wisdom to follow. She dragged him up to the counter for check in and asked if she could enroll him in kindergarten, despite his age. At four, he was already reading and could write a little, but they insisted he was too young, and to try back next year.

A year passed and the same pretty mom dragged him again to the school and enrolled him, albeit a year younger than most of the rest. He immediately had trouble. A year younger, and scrawny for any age, the walking attitude loved the stories and activities, but the little one had trouble assimilating with the others. His tried and true resolution to conflict was to carefully apply teeth to others arms. This was, and probably still is, against the rules. He also refused to pay attention and reveled in disrupting the class, apparently intent on inciting rebellion in others three foot tall.

The kindergarten teacher had had enough. It came to his favorite time of the day, story time, but she walked him to the back of class and told him that only kids were allowed to hear the stories and not animals. "Only animals bite others" and they are clearly not allowed to join in all the reindeer games. Shocked and dejected, he stared back with unreasonably, anime sized eyes and his mouth shaped like an "O". He refused to cry. He was still in charge of his biting decisions. And then and there, he chose story time over ever biting again. At least in anger.

Mom was less than happy with the animal comparison, however accurate, and met with the teacher to say she wanted to pull him from school. Finally, the teacher relented.

"He is the only one in my class who can read and write. Please don't pull him out. We have a boy named Sam, who is incredibly shy. He never wants to participate. Your son pulls him aside for every lesson and helps him with it. Can I suggest something? Could you go over the lessons each night with him, so he can continue to help Sam?"

Mom finally relented in turn. She agreed to go over the lessons each night with him, as this was one hour less of him getting into trouble elsewhere. She did not mention having to hide the delicious Wonder bread on top of the fridge and his scaling the counter to steal it, but it was close in mind.

Time progressed nicely, with nary an incident in the first grade. Second grade was another matter. The teacher quickly sized up the problem children and decided she in reality only had one genuine one. It came time to read and most of the kids were stumbling over "Dick sees Spot run." The precocious six year old was having none of this. When it was his turn to read, he read. Oh man, he read. He read just as fast as he could. Too fast. The teacher stopped him and insisted he read slower, for the other kids. He tried. Miserably. He read what he thought was normal speed. Then the teacher gently encouraged him.

"Damn it! I told you to read slower!"

The class froze. Teachers are not allowed to cuss. Even second graders know that, for pity's sake. The little boy smiled, more than satisfied that he had incited some small rebellion, even if only in his own mind. She sent him home with a note to sign which he accidentally misplaced. He proceeded to ask mom if "damn" was a bad word. Then he went back to school and asked every kid on the playground to share what words they knew to bring back home for interpretation. "Jackass" was cleared by mom as borderline, as it was an actual animal. "Shit" and "fuck" were less borderline and she encouraged him to stop bringing new words home, as he knew damn well they were bad.

Fast forward to the fourth grade, albeit much trouble could be described for the third one. Dad decided to drag him and the rest of the family members much further than the crosswalk, from sunny California to middle America, just a few miles short of the Canadian border. Father was granted a special education teaching position on the Belcourt, North Dakota Indian reservation. The fact the scrawny boy was white was already intolerable. But they tested him and because of his scores, put him in with the sixth graders. As social experiments go, this one went terribly. He was already a year younger and smaller than his fellow fourth graders, but the sixth graders were practically twice his size. At least he was still the smartest kid in class. This granted him quite the honor of getting his ass kicked every day for being too smart and too white. Luckily, he was already unstable and knew how to turn a bad situation around until it was truly worse. The daily calls on brawls and bloody pitfalls were a decent sign this scrawny square peg needed to go into a different hole.

Fast forward to fifth grade. Escaped back to New York, the still scrawny boy easily won the class spelling contest, much against his will. Then it came time in the school assembly for each class champion to go on stage to compete with the others. They called his name. He refused. Those fellow punks about him chuckled and he refused even more. They called his name again and the teacher insisted he go up. He insisted she shut up. He didn't go on stage, but he did get a nice little write up. These would increase with alarming regularity.

There is much to be said about grades six through ten. Not particularly good things. There were a lot of suspensions and a lot less winning of spelling bees. The A's turned to B's to C's to D's. He was great at math and paid attention in History because it intrigued him, but English and writing were his least favorite by far. Then he tried daily substance abuse and not attending. The D's turned to F's.

Finally, the surprisingly still scrawny ninth grader sat motionless before the impending fatherly advice.

"You've been held back for non-attendance and refusing to do your homework. But I have a solution. I can send you to military camp. Apparently they are free and I can just sign you up. Or... or I can send you to a psychiatrist. Or I can kill you. I can make other kids. I am still of age."

This really happened.

The scrawny teen thought this over carefully, trying to decide which would cost him the least effort and most chance of survival. Father suggested another alternative which was this college English teacher would tutor him for the summer, so he would not stay back a grade. He thought to ask if he could still be an asshole and drink and smoke between classes, but decided it wise to squelch that.

Then summer came. It was hot and miserable, but at least dad was planting him in a chair each day and droning on about about spelling, comprehension and some other crap. Then he instructed him to write.



"I hate writing."


"It's boring and stupid and useless."

"Those are great reasons. Now, shut up. You want your voice to be heard in the world, but you feel like it is not. With writing, you can make sure you are heard correctly. You can rewrite and edit everything until you are sure you are heard and not misheard. There may be a hundred ways to say something, but only one way to truly say it best. With writing, you can do that."

A light bulb went on. Maybe it was a real light or metaphorical. But it went on. And he started writing a little. And then writing some more.

And now, thanks to laptops and the internet, they can't shut him up. Not even the second grade teacher with all her best blurts and cusses. And he passed his finals and proceeded to the next grade.

Now, he is old and gray and taking his first real college course ever, on creative writing. His father lies three thousand miles away in bed with a trach tube attached. It has been quite a while since dad could speak, let alone write. The little boy will forever remain grateful that his father sat him down every day that miserably hot summer and convinced him there is another way to make oneself heard.

Monday, July 20, 2015

We All Go Home Again

My mom just called me at work two hours ago to say that dad was in the ICU and just had a heart attack. She called yesterday to say he was already in the hospital, taken to the ER last week because he had gotten nicked from his catheter insertion. While there, he got pneumonia and it quickly spread from the lungs to his body.

I do not know how much more time he has. I would like to hope it is a while longer, but I also know he has suffered for so many years now, trapped in his body.  I think if he is ready, we will know. But it is still surreal to think that before long he will no longer be in this world anymore. That this world will have one less person, someone so near to me.

I can only do what he instilled in me so well, to write. I know we are all helpless in this, he being the most. I can only type in the vain attempt to yell out against it all.

As I just pulled up to my house, everything looked a little different. It isn't of course, it just feels that way. As I pulled into the driveway, I was reminded of a famous saying my dad told me when I was little, "You can't go home again."

The title of Tom Wolfe's novel, the main character realizes, "You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."

I always thought it a bit ironic dad told me this so earnestly, as it was something which he obviously struggled with for so many years. He epitomized wanderlust from my earliest memories of him. I do not know if he felt this even as a young man, but it certainly was strong by the time we had left my birthplace upstate New York to move to the Great Lakes Naval base in Illinois when I was three. We moved just a year later to Mare Island Naval base in Vallejo, California. And then we moved almost every year after that, from California to North Dakota and New York again, to Florida and then Oregon.

Like so many, his saying that we cannot go home again was more of a sad resignation than an affirmation. He would often speak fondly of memories growing upstate New York and setting high school track records. And he wanted to go home.

We fled North Dakota, trying to escape the racism and physical abuse, as well as valiantly trying to outrun the substance and domestic abuse. I still remember the excitement we all had seeing his parents pull up to our temporary new home in New York. Even if only for a moment, we felt like maybe we were finally home again.

I do not know if the famous Wolfe saying began to cement more into his mind at this time, but we could not outpace whatever we were running from. I am grateful my parents stayed together through all the fighting and troubles, but we bounced every year to a new house on Long Island, hoping some peace could be found in yet another greener pasture. But it was never enough.

By the time I was 16, my dad told me we were moving to Staten Island, because he was afraid I would end up in jail or dead if we didn't leave. I swore to him I would disappear into the city and they would never see me again. After a short time, he convinced me to go with them to Florida instead, where his parents had moved. Once again, there was the excitement of seeing the grandparents and feeling like we were a little closer to home again. He bought me a plane ticket weeks before they drove down, because he said he was afraid I would not survive there that much longer.

On their drive down, they stopped in North Carolina, looking for the dad my mom had never met. They discovered his brother, who quickly called her dad in Portland, Oregon, to arrange a meeting. They warned me that he was a devout, born again Christian. I told them to warn him I was a filthy mouthed, pot smoking atheist.

I could write a book just about what happened in the next 24 hours, but I probably won't. I went from avowing there is no god and if he did exist, I hated him... to becoming a believer. I did not tell anyone for the first day, as it was so personal and hard to even believe, let alone explain. They woke to me ripping my confederate flag off the wall and dragging it, the bong that dad had gifted me, along with a garbage bag of everything else out to the curb. Then I told him we were going to go searching for my brother Paul, who he'd kicked out of the house weeks earlier for being a Christian. He said like hell we were and after a couple hours we were in the car and on our way. Just a few days after that, my dad sat with me in the living room and said the sinner's prayer. I made Paul lead him, since I sure didn't know what the hell to say.

And from that day on, every one of our problems miraculously didn't disappear! We fought as much as ever, trying to find purchase in faith and forgiveness, as ever unsure of our way. We continued to fight each other as dad and mom fought to keep the family together. I've written at length of the trials we endured and caused. I left their home just a few years later on the worst of terms, with broken doors and almost yet another bloody fistfight. All of it just months before I was to be married and move with Amy back to Florida, to enter full time ministry at the same drug rehab home I had spent time in myself.

When Amy and I came back to Oregon, there was still so much patching up to do between me and dad. And we did. So incredibly slowly and deliberately. My favorite memories of dad were in these years, spending time alone hunting and playing cribbage. And talking. Just talking. I've always loved being the class clown and if I could ever say something witty enough to make dad laugh, I had done my good deed for the day. And I knew there was a pride in his knowing so much of my weird sense of humor came from him. And we talked about our faith, with all its doubt and struggles. And they would worsen and deepen for me terribly as my health problems increased over the years.

But our faith remained. We discovered that you cannot go home again, but you must become home. I can only hope he knows how much of that he helped instill into me, despite all my unbelievable rebellion and independence.

Driving home in a daze this morning after getting the call, I thought about when grandma, dad's mom, had died. How he suddenly knew that bizarre feeling of someone so loved simply no longer being here. And then a few year's later he experienced the same feeling when his dad passed. That strange realization that you are now the patriarch, still not completely sure of your place in the world, while it is expected of you. 

Dad lies unconscious in ICU right now, three thousand miles away from me, but surrounded by love. My mom, his loving wife of fifty years is by his side. Even while he was dragging us at least three times across country, never quite outrunning himself, he still fought to make us a home wherever he went. Mom is still tenaciously hoping and praying that he will recover enough to be released, as she promised him he could pass in their house and not a hospital.

Whatever happens next, dad is almost home again.