Retirement

          The golden age of action movies happened in the early nineties, and Steven Segal was a demigod. I forget which, but in one of his movies, he wrote “fear of death is worse than death itself” on a mirror with lipstick as he stalked one of his villains. The villain came along and read it, became petrified with fear, and then died a few moments later after getting his balls blown off by a shotgun.

***

          I retired at age thirty-seven. Just to be transparent, I should tell you that I’m jerrymandering semantics quite a bit: my former supervisor would use a different word than “retired,” and I’ll eventually need to make more money, so my retirement is finite. However, regardless of labels, right now, I’m on top of the world. Decades from now, when they ask me about the best time in my life, I’ll tell them about the 2016 holiday season. I’ll tell them about how I lost my job right after my birthday and I’ll make mention of the fact that I walked into October with the biggest shit-eating grin that’s ever been worn. I’ll tell them that in the twilight days of this year, my life changed permanently.

          I’ll need to catch you up before you’ll understand fully. For the last sixteen years, I sold my soul daily to the oilfield. The money was good, but I loathed my occupation—it felt like socially accepted prostitution. My true opinions had to be smothered in ignorance and kept quite as to not startle the rednecks, and every professional moment was a lie lived. I went to work day after day as a sheep dressed in wolf’s clothing just so the rest of the pack wouldn’t sniff me out. “Hey, look over there,” they’d say, “that man isn’t one of us. He’s different and he writes things just for fun. He thinks too much. Get the tar, get the feathers.” My discontentment was a palpable thing. It grew and grew through years of accretion because I hated what I did for a living and I hated the people who worked alongside me: assholes in zipper-free wolf suits. I snapped a couple years back. The unhappiness was a whole bale of hay on my camel’s back. I made some changes and I faced a few things honestly. I went back to school and I started to write for real. I kept my job to pay the bills, but I was just going through the motions. A layman would say that I didn’t give a fuck. My performance was laughable but I was still the best at what I did because, frankly, my left testicle was smarter than my competitors. And I waited. I just waited and waited for the end to come. Every day was purgatory while I waited for the axe, and then when it finally came, life exploded: it exploded in a good, cathartic way, like the victorious bombs of flame that blossom in fanfare at the end of every Chuck Norris movie. I’m walking away from the oilfield in slow-motion as my past life burns behind me. I won’t even blink when the wind from the explosion tousles my action-hero hair. Boom bitch, I win.

          Just to be honest, I’ll put in writing the valid point you’re saying to yourself right now: if you hated your job so much, why didn’t you just quit? The short answer: I was a coward. After that many years of indentured service, I became institutionalized just like a Shawshank inmate. The outside world was a scary place full of uncertainty and murky paths. My job, even though I hated it, seemed like the lesser of two evils so I never mustered the courage to leave on my own. It’s pretty pathetic and it’s hard to admit, but if you’ve lived a lengthy life, I’m sure you can relate. I’m sure there were things you should’ve done that you never did because fear of the unknown kept you “safe.” So don’t judge me too harshly.

          Even though I wanted what came to me, those first few days were hard. Losing my job was like breaking up with a bad partner. You know in your heart that he or she is the problem, but he or she is too narrowminded to admit it. He or she thinks that you’re the problem, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and you never get the validation you need from you ex. It’s frustrating. There were tears and middle fingers held high, appalled laughter and regret and happiness, all mixed together like a confused soup. However, I had my family. When I lost my job, it felt like a too-taunt cord was severed quickly, it felt like freefall. Life was frightening chaos for a while, but it didn’t do a damn bit of harm because my girls came in and set things right. My cold teenage daughter warmed with love and encouragement. She supported me. Cacti rarely bloom, but when they do, their flowers are extra special. My eight-years-old daughter told me that everything would be okay. That’s her truth because for her, everything really is okay because I always make it so. And my wife came through. She asked me how long it would take to graduate if I didn’t go back to work. She asked me how long it would take to write a book. Those questions felt like mana from above and my vision always clouds when I think about her support because I might’ve crumbled without it. There’s really no way to fail when I have those three girls pushing from behind.

          I don’t care if this reads like a cliché, but I’m one of the lucky ones, and not just for the obvious reasons. I was just one of thousands who lost his job. The oilfield is dying. Some people who’re still in it will tell you otherwise. They’ll say that it’s coming back, that the bust is turning to boom, but they’re wrong. Sure, it’ll come back for a while early next term as commodity prices and greed surge, but it’ll be short lived. The oilfield is a feast or famine world, as many know, but what they don’t see is that the feasts aren’t as good as they used to be, and the famines worsen as the generations pass. Three steps down and two steps up still leads you down. This impending “boom” is nothing more than a final gasp before a drowning industry goes under. Who knows? Maybe I’m a bit too fatalistic, and maybe big-oil can kick to the surface three or even four more times before death comes. Whatever. The important takeaway is that death is coming, and most of the displaced cogs like myself don’t have my advantages. They don’t have means or education, they don’t have dreams. The oilfield is their life; for me, it was a means to an end. I didn’t lose any of my identity when the axe fell, but I know men who have. Just last year, if you would’ve walked up to one of these men and asked “what are you?” most of them would’ve lead with their job title. If you do something for long enough, it becomes part of you, you become it, and when it’s taken away, there’s nothing left besides feelings of inadequacy and depression. I despise the oilfield as I mentioned and I have similar feelings for the archetypical oilfield-man, but I also have boundless empathy for all the good people who’ve lost and who’re anguishing. Right now, there’s an entire demographic suffering through an identity crisis, but luckily, I’m not part of it. I’m the crab who clawed his way to the top of the bucket and escaped.

          You see, throughout all those days I sold my soul, I never let the oilfield get into my soul, if that makes sense. I never acclimated to oilfield culture, I was never assimilated. Even before my birthday, this is how our conversation would’ve gone:

          “What are you, Jesse?”

          “I’m a father, husband, writer.”

          “Okay, but what do you do?”

          “I make sure my family is good and I write things. I work in the oilfield, I guess, but that’s about as important as my job replacing the toilet paper when it runs out.”

          See what I mean? The secret is this: fuck it. Fuck all of it. Work to live, never live to work because that’s not living. Don’t get tied up in your day-job because what you do to buy toilet paper isn’t who you are. Don’t feel bad if you’re just now getting it; plenty of people never do. The trenches I escaped are still there. There are still people working there, blaming their woes on my departure and giving birth to rumors. Those fools are just crabs still stuck in a bucket, jealous of my freedom, clawing at their coworkers with negativity as they long for escape. They’re just like I was: they hate where they’re at but they’re too afraid to seek greener pastures. I know how that feels, intimately. But that’s not my reality anymore, and I have a plan.

          Plan “A” would be to take a year off and plow through my degree, earning money as a freelance writer along the way, and then lock down a remedial job of some sort while I earn my master’s. Maybe I’d publish a book along the way. Plan “A” is super sparkly, but it’s not too realistic. Plan “B” is to take a full-load for the spring semester and take just six months off work. I’ll find a job if I need it and it’ll only push back my graduation by a semester or two. This is where I’m headed. I have an internship at a local newspaper set up for the spring and it isn’t a stretch financially or morally to go through with it. It’s painfully exciting. Plan “C” is by far the most realistic: get a job, peck away at the degree. Wait to be a writer, wait and wait longer because it’s safe and secure and that’s what the fear says to do. My resume is on point and I’ve already turned down a few jobs. I had an interview this morning for a position that’d be a step up from the one I just left. Things went well. It has the six figures we’re programed to chase and all the benefits that lead away from unsure dreams. I have another interview the first week in January. This job would be a step up from the step up. I set these things up and chase things I’ve already had because I’m afraid to jump; I’m climbing down the cliff slowly.

          But what happens when one of these jobs is offered to me? It isn’t unrealistic to think that one of the two could be mine, and they’re both perfect. They’re local; they’re in a field that isn’t dependent on barbarian controlled fossil fuels; they pay ridiculously well. Will I be able to turn one down, and even if I could, should I? “Actually, sir, never mind. You can keep your perfect, realistic job because I want to be a writer when I grow up. I don’t need all your stupid money and benefits because I’m an artist damn it!” Right… that’s bullshit. My hypocrisy is alive and well, and of course I’ll take the money. Of course I’ll go back to selling my soul, albeit to a different devil, because principal and freedom just look good on paper. I like to travel and I like brand names and I like the crust of the upper-middle class because it tastes better than generic foods from the grocery store. But jumping on a job is just probably what I’ll do. I have until January seventeenth to make a final decision regarding my spring semester schedule, and that leaves me where I am, right here, right now: In the best months of my life, telling myself that the possibility is finally a reality, that maybe I can be a writer without waiting. There: you’re all caught up.

          This is going to sound trite, like a middle-aged man pining for younger years; I promise it’s anything but. I never had a young adulthood. My wife and I were married before she was legally allowed to drink, and we had a baby on the way. I went from living in my dad’s house with nothing more to my name than a burgeoning drinking problem all the way to living in my first mortgaged home with a new car. It took me about three months. A baby will light that proverbial fire under your ass. The point is that my wife and I skipped that whole “find yourself in your early twenties” thing. We didn’t travel the states in a piece-of-shit station wagon, we didn’t try to find some little town thousands of miles from home that we could call our own, and we didn’t spend the time trying to find our passions. The missed romance of such formative years is regrettable, but it wasn’t all bad. We got a head start on life—for it, we have investment properties to show, a nest egg for periods in life just like this one, and a lifetime of adult experience that many of my peers are just now jumping into. So, it is what it is. I’m not going to make some vain attempt to recapture a part of life that I missed: I’m just going milk out of these winter months as much enjoyment as possible because I feel like I deserve it.

          During these holidays, I have true freedom. The fall semester just ended, so this period is the first time in my adult life wherein I have nothing to do. No class, no job. And oddly enough, this period is the first time in my life that I don’t have a boss. Seriously. I went from living with a parent directly into a career so there was always an authority figure looming. There was always someone who could call and ask me to do something. But not right now. I’ve untethered myself from my cell phone. The first time I left it behind, I took my youngest daughter to the park. I told her that I didn’t bring my phone on purpose. I told her that I wasn’t available to anyone else in the world besides her, and the smile I saw was love painted into an expression. Hell, that single moment was worth all the stress that came along with my severance. And that’s how I’m living life right now. For me, for my daughters and wife, for the fucking moment. I’m watching cartoons and eating Lucky Charms. I’m working out like a beast and growing my beard in accordance. I’m cleaning and cooking (as it turns out, I’m quite the domestic diva), and for once, I’m writing daily. The twenty-five hundred words you just read equal only half of what’s come out of me today, and it honestly feels like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s wonderful. These three months will surely turn into halcyon days of remembrance and I’m not going to make the mistake of cherishing them less than I should while I’m living in this temporary-retiree paradise. And that’s why I wrote this. These five pages I just banged out are nothing more than a sticky note reminder, a string tied to my finger: Jesse, you have what you wanted. There’s no excuse to be unhappy. Don’t worry about what’s coming because it’s manageable, and just enjoy this time off because it’s okay, and it’s deserved.

          However, I need to write something for you as well, some nugget of verity. So, here it is. Steven Segal was right. All those days I waited for the end were far worse than the end itself. There were months and years of “something’s got to give” feelings before something finally gave, and when it happened, it didn’t carry with it the pain I saw coming. The world didn’t end and I didn’t lose who I was. My family didn’t reject me and I wasn’t instantly homeless. I wasn’t shunned by the rest adulthood like some beggar pariah and I found the support I needed and the tools that’ll take me forward within myself. Everything, every bit of it, has been awesome. So, if death is coming for you, if an end of your own is forthcoming in the near future, just deal with it when it comes. All the days between now and then are for living, and that’s not something you can do if you’re not right here, right now, where you’re supposed to be.

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Belize

          I’m not a travel writer, but I’m a writer who just traveled so I should probably let logic take the tiller and write about my travels… I just swam with fucking sharks in Belize. For real. Our boat stopped out in the reef and we moored to a cemented anchor. I’d like to say that the ocean smelled fresh just to paint the perfect picture, but it didn’t. It never does; it depends on which way the wind is blowing. Sometimes the breeze is a clean thing, telling your nose about new life and a refreshing swim. Sometimes the breeze is dirty and pungent, and it talks about the death and decay down below. The ocean is half life, half death. Our reef was huge—the world’s second largest—and we were surrounded by the sea; two fathoms of water that stretched on and on. Greens and blues you only see in the tropics. Life swam beneath our boat. Sharks and rays and barracudas and all kinds of creepy shit that bites and stings. The man said to jump in, so I jumped in. I landed somewhere in the middle of the food chain.

          I’m a decent snorkeler, but irrational fear controlled my lungs. In out in out, quick and quicker. The man noticed and suggested a lifejacket when I got back to the boat. I could just lie on it if I needed and relax. It’d put Styrofoam between me and the teeth. Hell yes. I swam back out floating on top of my orange security blanket. I calmed down. There was a small nursery shark that just moments before was doing an awesome impression of Jaws. There was a peaceful ray flapping her wings in the sand (I assume she did it to look majestic). There were two barracudas lurking in my peripheral, holding still and playing the cat in cat-and-mouse; I showed them my lifejacket. The man swam down before my eyes and coaxed an eel out of his den; he breathed with his huge gills and proffered translucent teeth. Holy shit it was wonderful; it was like snorkeling in the movies. The man was our docent through house-sized outcroppings of coral. Explorers in an underwater canyon, we swam left and right through schools of curious fish and other tourists, pale on bottom and burnt red on top. My fish of a daughter would swim under me and then away, a fearless eight-years-old beast on a mission, and then she’d swim back all the while trying to tell me something through her snorkel. I’d just nod, smile, wave.

          Our reef was a barrier reef, one that protects all of Belize from the predatory ocean, but the barrier had a channel in it: a submerged portcullis in the reef wall. We swam across it and I felt the tug of the ocean pulling me out like the ensnaring song of a deadly mermaid, but we made it across easily. Life and wonderment lived everywhere and we swam through it for close to an hour. We got back to the boat and the man said it was time to go to “shark ray alley.” That’s where they all are he said: the big ones. It was a short boat ride and as soon as we moored off, they came slithering in. Dark shadows, wraiths of the seas, swam everywhere. The white noise of the engine pulled them close. Guides who don’t follow the rules bait the sharks with handfuls of fish food and the beasts know that one way or another, when they hear an engine’s purr, food is getting in the water.

          Look. I know that my fear of sharks is ridiculous, but I don’t care. They grow teeth like I grow hair, they’re cold and stoic like serial killers, they’re hungry and carnivorous, and they do that creepy sideways swimming thing. Sharks are bullshit. Saying you’ll face your fear is a shit-ton easier than actually doing it, so I’d been trying to get out of our snorkeling trip for days: “Terra, you’re allergic to shrimp, so maybe you’re allergic to the ocean. Terra, I promise that I’ll freak out and ruin everybody’s day. Terra, this is dumb, so let’s just stay in our rented condo and lock the doors.” Granted, these were nursery sharks, but a ten-foot nursery shark doesn’t look anything like an animal that belongs in a nursery. And the man said that he’d seen the occasional reef shark. Um, that’s the type of shark that attacked James Bond in Thunderball. Fuck that. But when the man said jump in, I jumped in… There was a big asshole right underneath our boat, growing teeth and swimming side to side right at me. I tried to show him my lifejacket but then I realized I jumped in without it. Shit. On he came. Luckily, he turned away when he was about ten inches* away from my face (yards*). I was scared shitless, but that youngest daughter of mine wasn’t. She kept complaining about how the man had told her not to let go of the life ring that was tethered to the boat. Who the hell complains about that? Who the hell thinks that holding onto a “life” ring while floating above a murderous school of monsters is a bad thing? My daughter. She wanted to swim off on her own so she could name and tame the sharks; she’d cuddle them into submission.

          I was nervous. Everyone was nervous. Even the man didn’t like this part of the trip. He stood safely out of the water and kept yelling “stay by the boat, stay by the boat!” But about halfway through the experience, my fear vanished. I don’t know if something broke in my brain or if confronting my fear diluted it down into extinction, but either way, I simply wasn’t afraid of the sharks around me. We eventually got back in, all extremities accounted for, and I started making small talk with the man. So, has anyone ever been bitten? He laughed, and then he told me the “after the tourists get back in the boat story.” He pointed down to his leg to show off his puckered foot-long scar. He’d taken out a group of Polish tourists a few months prior. They brought with them a translator. They were snorkeling along shark ray alley when the nursery sharks rose from the depths en-masse and formed a feeding frenzy, stoked by the man’s outboard motor and its diner chime. The translator, ever the center of attention, dove down below the frenzy and then swam back up right in the middle of it. That Pollock would’ve made my daughter proud. Can you imagine what it’d look like to do such a thing? I can. I see this roiling bait ball of death centered perfectly in the salty openness. When you dive down, you see the ocean darkening beneath you in gradients of blue. The sandy white floor shimmers below like a mirage. As you swim back up, you watch the swirling ball of beasts get bigger and bigger as you pick up speed, pulled towards death by your buoyancy. Then you come up in the middle, surrounded by rasping grey skin and bloodied teeth. Terrifying.

          In a feeding frenzy, sharks lid their eyes to protect their vision—they just bite blind and randomly in the churned confusion. The translator in the middle was taking hits, bleeding in the water. And that’s when the man jumped in (and incidentally, that’s why I call him “the man”). He grabbed the translator and pulled him out of the melee. He kicked the sharks away (in my mind, I picture Chuck Norris kicks just destroying shark faces), but one shark was a bit to wily. He bit the man right in the calf. The man knew that if he tried to pull his leg free, the shark would thrash and he’d lose a chunk of muscle, so he just waited patiently for the shark to let go. That’s the part that blows my mind: the man was swimming away from a shark feeding frenzy, he was pulling with him a bleeding Pollock, and when a shark tried to eat his leg, he just waited patiently until the ancient predator decided to let go. He got the translator back to the boat and then took everyone to shore. He got some stitches and then he healed and then he went right back into the water. There’s an aphorism in there somewhere.

          The man finished his story just as my once-dead fear of sharks started to breathe again. He took us back to shore and I tipped him with the colorful money that seems to be everywhere else in the world except our country, and we went back to our condo. The rest of our trip followed suit. We drank bottomless mimosas by a saltwater crocodile lagoon; we gorged ourselves on soursop ice cream and conch ceviche; we parasailed over a flock of manta rays. I’m sure the proper group noun for manta rays is something like “school” or “pod” or some other nautical nonsense, but it shouldn’t be; things that fly do so in flocks, and we could see those creatures flapping their wings underwater even though we were soaring high above with a parachute. And when we landed, a sting ray, the manta ray’s nimbler kin, jumped out of the water and flapped his wet, leathery wings until he splashed back down. Our guide that day was a bona fide Rastafarian and he looked exactly like he looks in your mind right now. He yelled out “Ay man! You saw that ray mon? Ya mon!” His dreads bounced around his head like pasta as he did his Rasta dance. As he was unhooking my harness, he leaned in close and made a joke about why the sting rays jump out of the water: “because they be getting excited mon.” “The be getting BJs from the other fish mon.” “Ya mon!”

          We finished the parasailing day by eating at a truck-stop that’d be hard to stop at with a truck. It was out of town a bit: twenty minutes in our sputtering golf cart along a muddy single-track. The food was fresh and local. Five converted shipping containers encircled a few park benches and tables. We ordered spicy noodles and chicken wings and then sat below an umbrella until the rain pushed us to the bar. It was a sign. We drank beers and plotted our retirement. Now, before I continue, I’d like to type out a little disclaimer: I don’t eavesdrop intentionally, but I do it nonetheless and I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. I was born without the brain part that lets most humans filter out background noise. It’s a handicap. Chewing noises, too-loud laughs, obnoxious conversations happening anywhere around me: I hear them all. I’m forced to listen to every conversation I hear like some unwilling voyeur. My mind categorizes all the conversations and then files them away for moments like this one: There were two other couples sitting at the bar. Couple number one said “we just moved here” and then couple number two said “why?” and then couple number one said “Trump.” Holy shit! Here they were. Here were two Americans who’d said that they’d move if he won—he won, they moved. Two disenfranchised Americans, two patriots without a nation. My wife cheered. And she cheered rightfully because couple number one had the collective balls to move out of middle ‘merica and into Central America just to honor their convictions. It doesn’t matter which side you’re on. Objectively speaking, couple number one won. They stayed true to their word and they got paradise while the rest of us liberals are stuck here at home with nothing more than the “I-told-you-sos” that we’re about to dish out.

          Our last day came and we flew back to Texas to sleep for a night before making the connection to Durango. I had mosquito bites and a new cold. I won’t lie: I thought about malaria and the Zika virus more than once. I imagined being “patient zero” and about how horrible it would be in Durango once my exotic disease decimated the town’s population. But that hasn’t happened yet and I promise to keep covering my mouth when I cough. Our lives have gone back to normal, but the first three days back in my home felt special. True, they were hard—we were stressed after so much time so close to one another, and we came back to a Colorado winter—but those days reminded me how ridiculously good we have it here in the States. The conch ceviche in Colorado is outrageously expensive, but we have doctors and teachers and infrastructure (all three have debatable efficacy, but that’s irrelevant). We have freedom (sort of), we have rights (most of us), and we have opportunity (if we’re lucky). It’s not perfect here at home but it’s a lot better than it is in Belize. So, even though I too have an urge to pack it all up and head for foreign latitudes, maybe I (and all of us) should just suck it up. And that’s good advice no matter which side you’re on because the present day winners will be someday losers and it’ll just go back and forth forever. We Americans are fond of fighting back and forth on a constrained field, a ceaseless game of inches (just think about our favorite sports). So maybe we should just jump into our nightmarish political cesspool, into our regressing culture, and face it straight on like a sideways-swimming shark. Or maybe moderation is where it’s at: leave sometimes, travel, get prospective. But come back. Come back to fix what’s broken instead of moving someplace like Belize where there’s lots of sand to stick your head in. Running away to paradise is still running away. And that’s where I’m at right now. I want to fly away on a special airplane equipped with windows you can roll down just so I can stick out my hand and flip off everything behind me, all the uncertainty, but I’m just going to write instead. I’m just going to be a travel writer when I travel and a writer-writer when I’m stuck here in this small office and I’m going to face life and fear with my craft, because unlike my lifejacket, writing isn’t something I can leave behind when I jump in.

belize

Respite

There’s a place in Key West that uses ice cubes made out of coffee in their iced coffee; my caffeine has never been so undiluted. A couple cups will give you that chemical aftertaste that lets you know you’re awake. It’s like unalloyed crack. Down the street, there’s this slightly obese guy who dresses up like Darth Vader and plays the banjo after the sun sets. He’s throwing distance from a skinny man who dresses up like Spider-Man and plays the sitar, but I don’t think that they’re friends. They’d be mortal enemies if their two fictional worlds existed together in some other dimension, and tourists only have so many dollars to dole out for a picture, so competition would dictate that they’re advisories at best here in this dimension. By day, the streets ruled nightly by busking superheroes are given over to wild chickens. I know that they’re wild because they shun my attempts to pet them and they speak some odd form of chicken dialect that differs from that of the domesticated hens that I have cooped up in Colorado.

The Gays and Russians also deserve mention. Each group seems to rule Key West alongside the strutting roosters. Rainbow flags outnumber those with stars and stripes. There are drag queens everywhere, and they’re just as delightful as you’d expect. One even called me “sweetie” as I walked past her haunt with my wife. It felt natural and unforced (I’m obviously a sweetie) so I said hello and kept walking. The local paper told me that Russian mafia owns most of the local T-shirt shops which is strange because Hollywood paints them a bit more nefariously. The Russians are a bit cold though, cold and ubiquitous. There’s so many of them that the “all sales are final” sign in the Salvation Army thrift store is translated into Russian. I walked by plenty of Russians and not a single one of them called me sweetie, but in their defense, I was a bit reticent to offer up my own terms of endearment. But I nodded my head to a guy wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Putin’s face. There was something written in Russian underneath the picture, but I couldn’t read it (the only thing I can read in Russian is “all sales are final”). Who knows, maybe those odd backwards letters said something satirical and maybe I missed out on having my first Russian friend. I’d like to think that his name would’ve been Vladimir.

I’m a bit sad as I type this. My iPad is glowing lambently beneath my fingers and I’m on the plane headed home. It’s a home lying dormant under a pall of snow and my foray into the tropics was too short lived. The wife and I went to celebrate belatedly our thirteenth wedding anniversary. We went to escape the cold and tedium of home. We needed a break. If not for the children we miss and the fiduciary responsibilities to which we’re enslaved, we wouldn’t be on this plane. Key West is perfect and I don’t doubt that we’ll live there sooner rather than later. We rode our rented bikes all the way around that island as we fell in love with the idea of calling it home. We walked with the butterflies and greeted the sunset with tourists who spoke in countless tongues. We ate out, we dined in. I prepared exotic fish and couscous in our vacation rental which we ate after appetizers of charcuterie; aged cheeses and expensive smoked meats paired with dry crackers and capers. But the meals prepared for us bested mine.  We ate shaved filet, served raw with aged Parmesan. We ate soba noodles with pickled vegetables, Philly cheesesteaks, fish tacos, and tart Key Lime Pie. We checked every box on the quintessential tourist check list. We went to the southernmost point in our country, cooked our bodies on the sand until we looked like parboiled crustaceans, and we went to Earnest Hemingway’s house by way of pilgrimage. There’s a fountain outside his front door and I dipped into it the tips of my ten fingers knowing that he had probably done the same at some point. There’s a Catholic Church just down the street boasting a font of holy water, but I know that I wetted my soul with the real stuff.

To me, our trip, and the piece you’re reading now, represents a necessary respite. Time spent in warmer weather away from where you were is nothing less than a panacea. I finished a semester of higher education not long before we left, and I start another one the day after this plane lands; I’m in a liminal state of peace that’s about to end. And it’s far too soon because I swear the classes I’m taking are guilty of language abuse. They force me to use all of these flowery words as tools of analysis. I write and write and dedicate my words to political science or anthropology or argumentation and the papers I turn in cause to shrivel up and die any creativity that might be put to prose. It’s almost like if one were to look closely enough at my college papers, numbers could be found hidden amongst the letters, numerals betwixt the consonants. I’m drawing lines with my diction when I should be painting pictures. But I’m not doing that now. I’m writing just for the joy of writing, and during this brief period, I’m doing things just for the joy of doing.

In these last few weeks of nothingness, this wonderful winter break which foisted itself up like an island in my life, I’ve done all sorts of odd and rebellious things. For one, I grew a beard. And I mean a real beard. As all that coarse hair took root in my face, atavistic, primal urges took over. I felt the need to fell trees and wear plaid shirts. My wife said that I looked a bit Amish though. Whatever. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t also feel the need to churn some butter or drive before me a team of horses pulling a carriage. Before I finally shaved it, a liquor store attendant even tried to give me a high five after yelling out “hell yeah Chuck Norris!” And when I finally did trim it back, I took my time and used my clippers to make myself look as ridiculous as possible. I cut here and there to create an old west look, and then there and here to look like Hulk Hogan. I had a Magnum P.I. mustache long enough for a laugh and then shaved it off before anyone was the wiser. It was by far one of my better bathroom experiences.

The pilot just turned on the fasten seatbelt sign for our final decent. I can see that sea of compressed sodium, of burning argon, in the countless bulbs below which remind me of our species’ industrious nature. There’s no end to it in sight. I know this’ll be my last chance to write something non-scholastic before summer dawns, so I’m going to end this piece with utter disregard for a cogent conclusion. I’m going to write about kombucha:

Kombucha, if you don’t know, is a nonalcoholic fermented tea that can be found in any organic grocery store. It has that perfect blend of pretension and deliciousness; snobby asses such as myself can’t get enough of it. I even went so far as to start making it myself for a few months. I’d brew a huge batch of exotic tea on the stove like some hippy witch over her cauldron. I’d mix in the sugar and let it cool. It has to be cool because the next step is to add the “scooby.” If the tea is too hot, the scooby will die; it’s this slimy, snot-like jellyfish thingie which floats on top of the sugared tea. It’s comprised of a bazillion bacteria cells which I’m sure share some sort of collective conscious (my auto correct just tried to change “bazillion” into “bagel lion”). You just let it sit there and do its thing for a few weeks. It metabolizes the sugar and carbonates the tea, filling it with billions of probiotic little creatures which you then drink like some death crazed giant with no regard for the life forms you’re quenching just to quench your thirst. You can then remove the scooby and put it in another batch. It’ll grow and grow until it’s a gelatinous beast that’s capable of carbonating any amount of tea. At the height of my production, I had four BPA free containers of the stuff fermenting in my pantry. My scoobies were like little malodorous pets with which I shared a symbiotic, albeit high maintenance, relationship. But I eventually gave it up because my scoobies died while I was away in Alaska. They ran out of sugar. I let fall my end of the symbiosis. It’s better to buy the stuff one bottle at a time anyway. It lets you flaunt your esoteric tastes in front of all the strangers at your local organic grocery store.

As a side note, I just realized that my iPad isn’t in airplane mode. I’m just going to leave it as is because I’m straight up gangster. Anyway, how odd is it that we humans use cultures and bacteria in our food? We do it with yogurt and cheese although I have no idea how it works with either (I’m pretty sure sorcery is involved), and I’ve done it myself with kombucha. I bottled up another life form, fed it, let it fill my tea with gas, and then consumed the end product. That’d be like aliens scooping us up, caging us, feeding us, and then eating our farts. Shit… We’re landing. Tomorrow, I’m going to start my classes and catch up on work. You won’t hear from me for a while, but I’m glad you took the time to hear from me today. We’ll talk again the next time I take a breath after swimming down deep in the things from which respites are needed.

Key West

No Pets Allowed

I have a knack for finding dead or dying things by my mailbox. If you’ve been following my blog, or if you’ve read my books, you’ve read of Kismet. If not, she’s an ugly bitch of a kitten I found mauled and close to death on the ground by said mailbox a few Halloweens ago. I have this latent flaw deep in my emotional foundation which causes me to anthropomorphize pathetic creatures. I don’t yet fully understand it, but when I see something weak mewling at my feet, I see myself. I see redemption lying there, covered in blood and desperation, and maybe if I can save it, I can save myself. The urge is a palpable constriction in my chest. That kitten brought tears to my eyes and milked hundreds of dollars out of my wallet. I spared her, and to this day, she hates me. She’s since spawned her own brood, and now a whole new progeny of my flaw is running feral through the desert as a testament to that which dwells in my head.

 

A few weeks back, as I walked up to my mailbox, a hummingbird tried to attack me. At least that’s what it felt like. The little bastard flew at my face with his lance of a beak and nearly skewered my eyeball. I shooed him away with a manly scream and a flick of my hand. He left. I turned and got my mail, but as I walked back to my truck, I saw him on the ground, teetering on a precipice of consciousness, in nearly the exact same place I found Kismet. So of course, my chest got tight. There’s nothing frailer than a hummingbird. And this one, mostly black wearing a band of shimmering purple feathers like a breast plate, pierced something far more vulnerable than my eyeball with his lance.

 

I picked him up. He was lighter than I expected a living thing could be, almost as if I held feather covered nothingness. I could see the thing in my hand, but it felt as if he didn’t exist. He looked at me with his black orb eyes. I crumbled. I ran quickly to my truck and got a water bottle. I took off the green lid and filled it with a bit of water. Upon my hand I set it. I inched it closer and closer to his head until finally, he stuck in his beak and took a few drinks. His dart like tongue flickered in and out just below the water’s surface. Little plumes of blood blossomed in the water as he drank. His beak was such a fragile thing. How had I considered it to be a lance? This was no weapon he wielded. This little thing couldn’t hurt me. What could be the harm in holding it?

 

He tried to fly and made it aloft into the air for a few moments before crashing back down. I picked him back up. I offered more water. He looked at me. His little lids narrowed into a distrusting squint. Son of a bitch; that little humming bird hated me just as much as Kismet did. Damn it, I was only trying to help. I had no idea how to fix hummingbirds. For fuck’s sake, I didn’t even know how to fix myself. Why couldn’t he just drink and then be free? I could’ve gone home where I belonged. He could’ve flown off and spawned a whole squadron of lance wielding asshole hummingbirds. But I kept trying anyway. Every time I picked him up and offered water, he’d fly a little farther. On the fourth time, I took him into a shady copse of trees which was much further away from my truck than I should’ve walked. He fluttered around in the air with humming wings for about ten seconds before landing on a bush. He was a remote control helicopter with dead batteries. And still, as he perched on what would soon be tumbleweed, he looked at me with those tiny baneful eyes. I knew he was going to die, all I did was try to help, and this is what I got. You know what? I hate that hummingbird too. I hate my inside, I hate the part which makes me want to help, I hate that which makes me need it. I walked away. After it was all over, all I had to show for it was a few pictures and an ample quota of sadness.

 

I got back into my truck and tried to head home. I’m still driving. I’ve learned that you can’t make a loving pet out of Kismet. I’ve learned that some things are best left where they lie. I’ve learned that I shouldn’t externalize that flaw because it can’t be filled by veterinary bills or misplaced sentiment; I’m learning to fix myself. And now, I’ve adopted a policy held to fast by the hotel in which I’m typing this: No Pets Allowed.

Hummingbird

Terra

A library should be an organic thing, sans electronics. It’s not that I’m nostalgic for the old days when such cathedrals to literature held only that, but somewhere deep down, somewhere visceral, I know it’s the truth. The library through which I wandered in high school smelled like musty paper and brown wood. The carpets were earth toned. There were posters on the walls which touted reading’s importance. There was a card catalogue and the Dewey decimal system. True, there were microfiche machines against the wall, but I only used them to feel like a detective. I came for the books. I came for all the countless titles which held truths which our teachers wouldn’t share. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t find something infinitely more profound; I found my soul mate.

 

Emily Clark (who was a far cry from my soul mate) was a tutor. She sat at one of the brown round tables by the entrance next to an exotic beauty with a mischievous smile. Said beauty had this glowing mane of brown hair and a large forehead. Her grin was small, with her lips pressed together as if she was struggling to keep her thoughts from showing on her face. She was diminutive and firm and I couldn’t breathe for a moment. I walked over, with my long hair and pot reddened eyes, and stared at Emily with an “introduce me right fucking now” look on my face. Emily sighed and did. Her name was Terra. Emily told her my name while wearing a “dear god don’t talk to him because he’s as crazy as they come” expression. I remember it so damn vividly. And that’s odd because when I think back, there are two, maybe three other people who I can remember meeting for the first time. And they’re all dudes with whom I almost went to jail. Multiple times.

 

I’d see Terra in the halls and I’d do whatever it took to get her attention. I’d devolve into a simian cave dweller beating on my chest. She thought I was weird. She started dating one of my best friends from the second grade. He stopped being a friend. Instantly. I went on with my life, or the lack thereof, while she went on with hers. I graduated, two years before she did, and left for Oregon. I flittered around my late adolescence and failed at everything. But I made it back home to Alaska and hunkered down in the darkness of my father’s house and started my debauchery in earnest. I sunk lower and deeper into a quagmire of what some would call sin, and I reveled in it. I constructed a reputation that one usually only sees in movies, and I was proud of it. But one night, as I sat on a stolen couch in a stolen house drinking stolen beer (long story), I stopped breathing once more as Terra walked in the door. She was with my best friend’s sister, Robin, and some douche bag with blonde hair and a tight necklace sporting those stupid beads surfers wear. Who the fuck dresses like a surfer in Alaska? Anyway, Terra walked over with this full smile that made me quake, and asked what I had been up to. I wasn’t proud of my reputation any more. Instantly. I said I was in school. I was, sort of. I said that I painted runways for the air force. I did, sometimes. But I didn’t say I was a reckless drug addled nobody. A girl like Terra didn’t need to hear inconvenient truths like that. I made sure to get the blonde douchebag puking drunk and he was forgotten.

 

Robin put in a good word for me. She said that I had a nice car (how I got it is irrelevant). She said that I could play the drums and sing and that I was funny, which was almost 66% true. And somehow, via earthshattering luck complete with trumpeting cherubs, Terra and I started dating. She became the first girl I actually dated. True, I had dated plenty of “girlfriends” before, but none of them had ever listened to Emily Clark’s sage advice, and they learned the hard way that I wasn’t ready for anything more than a partner in crime. Terra took me to her home. She introduced me to her parents, to her family. She loved me, and for the first time, I loved someone other than a blood relative; it was hard for me because I felt so damn tarnished. But it worked. Our burgeoning relationship flowered into something real. I distanced myself from who I was and started painting for real. I traded in my brush for something in the oilfield. And then one day, Terra gave me a ninety-nine dollar gold ring from Fred Meyer hidden in a bag of Lemon Heads. I was standing in her mom’s small one-roomed cabin in the middle of a cold winter as Christmas approached. I cried and my very being exploded. Holy fuck, did that mean what I thought it meant?

 

I proposed in February. I spent two thousand dollars on that ring and she has it still. Sure, I borrowed most of the money, but I repaid that debt quickly, and we were engaged. We were pregnant soon after. I bought a house. We moved in. We got married in a tawdry ceremony in an Elk’s Lodge basement. Our gaudy union has outlasted some of the more extravagant affairs which we’ve attended since. Terra was five months pregnant at the altar, and her homemade wedding dress didn’t hide anything. Our honeymoon was two days long, and I remember the apologetic look she gave me as she puked into the toilet in our room at the top of the Hilton. I ran her a bath and laughed it off. We fought through some epic bullshit which was all spawned by my latent belligerence, but we made it. Catelynn came in the December following the December containing my Lemon Heads, and that little girl saved my life, but I’ll write that story when she’s old enough to hear exactly how bad things were.

 

We’ve since lived in New Mexico and Colorado, and had yet another monster named Kinley, who is a miniature, slightly pudgy (but cute), version of her beautiful mother. And we’re still fighting through that selfsame bullshit that comes from who I am. I don’t doubt that Terra wishes at times that she would’ve listened to Emily Clark, but I don’t give a damn because I have someone who’s better than anybody I could ever hope to have. Husbands throw around that “better half” label by rote, but it’s true in my family. Sometimes I feel like a worm in her palm at which she stares patiently while she waits for me to form a chrysalis and morph into a butterfly (a super manly, muscular butterfly), and I hope she waits still, because I fuck up at times, but my love is the very definition of truth. She is, and always will be, my one true love. I hope you read the stress I just put into the singular “one.” When she’s happy, I want to stoke the fire with gifts and praise just to see how happy she can get. When she’s mad and broken and sad, I want to build a stony fortress around my being to keep out the pain because it’s just so profoundly real and tangible that it leaves scars upon my organs.

 

I have but a few talents, and of them, writing is my strongest. At times, it’s the only gift I can give her which means anything. At times, like this one, it’s the only gift which she’ll accept. So I write for her, I write for my family, and I fight for it with these cold black letters. And it’s the only gift I’m giving her this day, on her birthday. I love you Terra, and I always will. I’ll be yours forever despite the presagious warnings which that damn tutor Emily Clark gave you. I’ll work on it all, and I’ll fight myself for the right because I’m my only enemy. I am yours, and you are my one true soul mate, my one true love, who I found in that long forgotten library. Happy Birthday Punk.

 

Terra Anderson

State Line Yin-Yang

I yell “base” as I cross the state line back into Colorado from New Mexico. It feels as if I’m playing a game of tag with all the idiocy down south, and once I make it into the mountains, I’m safe. I’ve made it to my base.

I’m not sure how it is that two cities that are such polar opposites cropped up so geographically close to each other. It makes sense if we stick with the magnetic metaphor because polar opposites always attract, but it usually doesn’t work that way with cities. San Francisco is a lot like San Diego, New York is a lot like New Jersey. But Durango Colorado is a blue mountain town full of culture and education; thirty miles south across the state line, Farmington New Mexico is a red town full of strip malls and natural gas. Durango is verdant and crisp, Farmington is a brown desert. The former is populated by outdoorsy liberals with affable smiles, the latter is plagued with quasi cowboys who spout platitudes like “love it or leave it.” And for the record, I left it.

The family and I moved down here to the Four Corners from Alaska six years ago to escape the dark winters that aren’t advertised in the tourism commercials. Farmington looked good enough, so we bought a house. We settled in, and that “new car smell” that comes with a new home masked the bullshit that’d eventually spur me north. To be fair, Farmington has a few redeeming qualities. There’s an authentic Thai restaurant downtown. The parks are nice, and the parking is free. But maybe the parking is free because time spent in Farmington is something which has to be given away. And Farmington is close to plenty of cool places to be; you can get to Phoenix or Denver or Santa Fe in a few hours. I clung to those pros and lived in Farmington for six years, but the truth eventually bitch slapped me: if the best thing about a place is the fact that it’s close to someplace else, maybe one should just go to that “someplace else.”

I was dumbfounded the first time we drove north out of New Mexico. There’s a brief no-man’s-land in between the “you’re leaving New Mexico” and “welcome to Colorado” signs, and as soon as you make it through, the land changes. The air cools. Nature intensifies and you can tell that you’ve made it to greener pastures. It’s as if some natural boundary holds in all of Colorado’s awesomeness. It feels like you’re popping out of a bubble, or maybe driving into one.

Back home in Farmington, I was used to the antiquated architecture that comes from the quick and cheap expansion associated with natural gas booms. I was used to the desolate and decrepit parts of town that came from periods of economic collapse when the tycoons would take their money elsewhere. I was used to shittiness. Adversely, Durango is a vacation town. Durango is a college town. Durango is a town fueled by thought and art and play. It was a night and day difference, and I fell in love. My trips north became ever more frequent. And at times, as I walked amongst the streets, where one must pay handsomely for parking, I’d forget that I was homesick, because I felt at home. I fit in. Hell, I already looked like one of the locals (affectionately referred to as “Durangatang”).

Eventually, the trips north didn’t cut it. We’d come up for Easter Egg hunts and good sushi, but the hour drive each way was taxing. And inevitably, the locals would ask where we were from as we rubbed elbows. I’d say “Alaska” at about the same time my wife would say “Farmington.” She and I would laugh and explain the lapse, but it’d always be too late. As soon as the local heard that we lived in Farmington, they’d get this “aw, that’s too bad” look on their face and desperately look for something nice to say like “well… you have a Sam’s Club, so I guess that’s something.” Then they’d politely excuse themselves and leave us to our exclusion.

We had to move. So we did; we decided to live in a vacation town, which felt like an euphony. To live where one is supposed to vacation? It was genius. We rented out our home in Farmington and found a bucolic little paradise up here. I got a Colorado driver’s license as soon as I could so I could prove that I was a local, and I’ve never been happier. Seriously; I am in fact happier now than I have ever been. I used to wake up in the middle of the night back in Farmington with no clue where I was. I’d have to search the walls for familiarities or reach over for my wife just to anchor my thoughts in reality. Here, that hasn’t happened once. The air up here is a nepenthe for my thoughts, and I’m at peace. I’ve decided to go back to school and take this writing thing seriously, because if I could live here in Durango, while feeding my children by doing what I love, I’d finally have that consonance between profession and life that leads to true happiness.

But to be fair, Durango has its downfalls too. It gets a bit crowded at times, probably because everybody is a fan of awesomeness, and it’s a bit cooler (which is something I love, but my wife, not so much). There are a few asses on the streets with their jacked up brodozers (large trucks with smoke stacks meant to compensate for something else) but that’s alright, no place is perfect. In a yin-yang, there’s always that little dot of black in the white, representing that little bit of bad in the good. The free parking in Farmington is their little dot of white in the black. That little bit of good in the bad wasn’t good enough for us, so here we are, and here I write. I’m proud to be a Durangatang, and now when people ask where we’re from, we answer in unison: here.

Hasta la Vista

 

I write and sell books and they never cost more than a dollar. If you’re a fan of fiction, you should check out Trailer Park Juggernauts here:http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00704HK6Q If you’re a fan of real life with just a sprinkling of fiction, you should check out Ephemeral Truths and Short Fiction here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AYRAXNI

Drums

I sat down and did a drum roll when I was nine; it took about ten minutes to make it sound tight. My house was cold and empty around me like a refrigerator on food stamps. I remember the feel of the bouncing sticks in my hands and the loose rattle of their percussion. I remember thinking “huh. That’s just as easy as it looks.” I had a practice pad and a pair of Vick Firth drumsticks; both came from my father. I guess I looked listless in his eyes because he forced me to “choose an instrument” in the fifth grade; I chose the drums because they looked the easiest. Our elementary band had an odd little assembly after school. All the available instruments were laid out on folding tables. Most of them were spoken for. The director had a couple seats left in his saxophone section. He needed three trumpet players. The open flutes and clarinets were out of the question even though they looked awesome in their velvet cushioned shininess. But the lone drum looked fun. My dad didn’t buy it right away because they didn’t “take credit cards,” but I went home with a practice pad.

I was a struggling fifth grader and didn’t have much going for me. I was “husky,” as my mom called it, and addled by fast food malnutrition. I hated the term “husky,” especially when she’d shout things like “where’s your husky section?” to JCP employees that were yards away. I had poor hygiene, unfortunately, but when you’re left to your own devices in the middle of an arctic isolation as a nine-year-old, showers take a back seat to late night movies.  My grades were abysmal, and socially, I was an Alaskan Pariah. Frankly, shit sucked. But that practice pad didn’t. It responded when I hit it. That pad did as I said and took my frustration. If my divorced parents argued, I did a drum roll. If the propane ran out, I learned a new pattern. When it got cold, when I got hungry, when the depression or anxiety tried to kick my ass, I played back.

The practice pad was eventually replaced by a Ludwig snare. I started to get good. Abnormally good. I learned a few basic beats on a drum set in middle school, then asked for a set and got one; my mom spent fifty bucks. The pattern continued. If life started being a bitch, I’d learn a new beat. It got to the point where I thought I was a badass. I tied my identity to my prowess upon a drum set’s throne. Through that identity, I found acceptance. It felt nice. This thing that I had fostered became the largest part of me. Now I was “Jesse the drummer” as opposed to whatever I was before.

But in the seventh grade, we went on a band trip to Chugiak, Alaska. There was this preppy little bastard in Chugiak’s band that came up to me after I had been playing on the school’s set. He was wearing a blue polo and had someone’s phone number written on the back of his hand in neon marker. He smugly said something like “hey, that was pretty good. Mind if I try?” I said “sure.” What could it hurt? I was a badass. That preppy little bastard sat down and played. He was better than I was. I remember just wanting it to end as he embarked upon solo after solo. His playing gathered a crowd. They cheered when he finished. A few kids that’d been there to hear me play literally pointed and laughed. I shit you not; it destroyed me. This preppy little bastard didn’t have strife like I did; he didn’t have anything he needed to “play through.” It wasn’t fair.

My parents shared joint custody, and the next time I went to my mom’s house, I demanded drum lessons (I knew I’d never get them in the vacuum of my father’s house). She found a student at the University of Alaska that was working on his master’s in music theory. His name was Doug. He was a professional drummer, and he agreed to teach me. Lesson after lesson, I did my best to enslave my talent and learn everything this professional drummer knew. It took me six years. It got to the point wherein it was no longer “playing” when I sat behind the drums. I still used them like before, to cope with things like fear and hate and my mom’s cancer, but now, I was mastering the drums. If I thought I was a badass before, now I was a battle bloodied ninja. I threw away that fifty dollar drum set, and my dad bought me a seven-thousand dollar drum set. He did it to appease the angst I had towards a new stepmom to be, but I didn’t care. I put that drum set in the loft of an outbuilding at our house and played it through the winter’s darkness year after year.

As a senior, our band took a trip to the Alaska State basketball championships. This time I was in the “pep band.” We usually sat behind the cheerleaders at games and played fight songs and shitty covers of Nirvana; anything to pump up the crowd. Our team was slated to play Chugiak first, and Chugiak had a pep band as well. As I looked over to the other side of the gym, I saw that preppy little bastard sitting behind the drums. He saw me and smirked. He hadn’t changed. The game got going and their band got to play at the first break. After their first song ended, their director gave the preppy little bastard a nod and he started into a solo. I was dumbfounded. The preppy little bastard sounded like shit; he hadn’t gotten any better than he had been in the seventh grade. His plush life in an unbroken home hadn’t given him any fuel. Complacency had kept him where he was, and he was content with the impotent cheers that his subpar playing earned.

It was our turn. We played our first song, and as it ended, my director, an incredible man named Mr. Chud, gave me a little nod. This time, I knew everything a master drummer knew. I had locked myself in the loft of an empty garage with nothing but a monstrous drum set for hours and hours and days and days. I had studied under a Jedi master and tried to learn everything there was to learn. I poured all of it out. I beat the unholy hell out of those drums. I splintered a stick and bloodied a knuckle; the scar is still there. I remember the hollow echo of that gym when I finally stopped playing; I could hear my breath and my beating pulse and not much else. Then the crowd erupted. The cheer leaders did their little dances and everyone stood, including Chugiak’s pep band. But that preppy little bastard didn’t move. He just stared at the sticks in his hand as if he held solace instead of hickory. I stood up and flipped him off. The cheers turned to laughter.

I know. It was a horribly trite thing to do, but I thought “fuck that guy and his preppy ass existence and his utter disregard for what drumming is…” But now I look at it differently. To him, drumming was one thing. It was playing to impress, to get cheers and girls, and that’s it. To me, it was a religion. We’d travel and play and compete and I’d never lose. There were a couple of drummers out there that were better at jazz, but when it came to everything else, I was on top. At the tail end of my senior year, we took a trip down to PLU in Tacoma, Washington for an “All Northwest Conference” band competition. And out of all the drummers there, everyone from Alaska and Washington and Oregon and Montana, I was the best. I got that coveted “first chair” title in the combined percussion performance, and somehow, that seat sated a latent desire for triumph.

I haven’t taken it too seriously since. I don’t “play” as much as I should, but I’m teaching my daughter and that feels even better (even though at one point, I didn’t think such a thing was possible). She has the skill and the talent, but she lacks that dark desire and drive I earned through pain and isolation. And that’s fine with me. The wife always gets on me to play with other people. She says I should get out, that I should just “let go” and find some people with guitars and basses and form some sort of middle aged man band. But it’s difficult. Ninety-nine out of one hundred times, those guys with guitars and basses are on a completely different echelon of music. I tried playing with an old neighbor once, but he stopped halfway through a song, told me that he was intimidated, and we drank beer instead.

I’ve tried to explain it to my wife but it hasn’t worked. I’m sure I came across as arrogant or even afraid, but it’s hard to put into words, even now when that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. It’s like this: I could get lucky, I suppose. I could find someone with a guitar who mastered it instead of played it, and we could mesh. Maybe I could find someone that’s right there with me, and I’d have an outlet for all this adult bullshit, but those guys are hard to find. They don’t like playing for others either. They don’t step out to play with random drummers because ninety-nine times out of one hundred, it sucked when they took the chance. To them, to us, this music is as private as it gets. It’s a shield, or maybe a weapon, that we forged in a private heat that’s painfully embarrassing. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s apt. When drumming is so important to me, so close to whom I am, it’s hard to share it with strangers. It’s a lose/lose situation. The rejection, which admittedly wouldn’t come, is petrifying, but so is the applause. Because even when people cheer, it feels like they’re clapping for my pain. It feels like they can see me, see me young and alone and dirty and “husky.” So I don’t play in public, and I probably won’t unless I come across another preppy little bastard who thinks he can play.

Drums

The Durango Diner

My daughter will marry any man who brings her bacon. It’s disappointing. I was hoping that she’d require something more, something deeper. Maybe she’d fall for a brilliant romantic or the quintessential baller who’d keep me comfortable in imported cars just to please my daughter. But it didn’t happen that way. And what makes it worse is the fact that my daughter is five, and her fiancé is well into his fifties. But to be fair, I guess I should mention that he didn’t mean to propose; he simply slid a piece of bacon across the counter after he heard my daughter complain about the wait. She took one bite of that cured pork and said “Daddy, is that man married? Because I want to marry him.” His name was Gary, and he owns The Durango Diner.

 

It was one of those odd weekend mornings where everything slows down and colors change under a lazy sun. The wife and I took our five year old monster out to breakfast. And I call it “breakfast” because that’s what we ate. A punctual man would’ve called it lunch. We parked on Main amongst the motorcycles and tourists and walked into the Durango Diner. It’s one of those no frills places with a few tables in the back and a counter that faces a dully reflective grill. Everything is covered with a deep patina of time and tradition. The people are rooted in reality and the food is simple and cheap; simple and cheap, but ridiculously good. There’s even a white storm trooper helmet hidden amongst the décor, and if you’re a fan of “I spy with my little eye,” it makes the perfect target.

 

They make a green chili sauce, and I can’t prove it, but I think the main ingredient is heroin. The stuff is addictive, plain and simple, and I buy it by the jar just so I can take it home and slather it on everything like a true junkie. And I mean everything. I once considered freezing it in popsicle molds. Who knows; maybe it’d work as a desert? Whatever. The wife ordered bacon and eggs with hash browns. I had huevos rancheros with an extra-large side of green chili sauce. Our monster wanted bacon covered with bacon and a side of bacon. We sat and waited for our breakfast as the restaurant breathed around us. Flatware and thick white porcelain plates made their noises in the background as the staff bussed here and there. The air smelled like food and steam and humanity.

 

Our monster became impatient because her bacon didn’t spontaneously generate in front of her as soon as she ordered. She demanded food, with a miniature fist upon the counter, and Gary heard her before we could pacify her with a game of “I-spy.” He took a single strip of bacon, steaming and crispy, from the cooling rack and handed it to her with a smile. Her frown turned upside-down and she gave him one of those little girl smiles that can melt hearts. He smiled back and I knew at that moment that he was a father too; you simply can’t fake a smile like that. My daughter shook his hand and they exchanged pleasantries. He turned back to the grill and that’s when she asked me if he was married. Gary heard her and laughed. He looked over his shoulder, told her he was taken, and that he already had full grown daughters of his own. My monster was genuinely disappointed but it didn’t last; Gary gave her another piece of bacon and distraction took over. His service was quick and the rest of our food came within a few minutes.

 

We gorged, paid, and left as Gary and his staff sang out a chorus of farewells. We ambled along the streets of Durango slowly as a carbohydrate high dulled our senses. We were stuffed and sweating. That Saturday morning was perfect. The Durango Diner is the type of place that pops the bubble of personal space to which you cling anywhere else. You sit at the counter and laugh with strangers you’d avoid on the sidewalk. Waitresses brush up against you with an “excuse me hun” but you don’t mind because this is where you want to be; comfortable with the rest of your species breaking your fast as the weekend winds down outside. I remember smiling as these thoughts came and went. We got into my truck and headed home.

 

Durango is an odd little island of culinary awesomeness nestled in the mountains. If you wanted, you could walk across the street from The Durango Diner and pay fifty bucks for oak roasted lamb with a white truffle sauce. There are plenty of restaurants on main that’d hold their own anywhere in New York and they’ve got all the reviews to prove it. And to be honest, when I took the Durango Diner at face value with its simple fare and limited space, I wasn’t quite sure how the place was able to stay afloat given the neighbors’ reputations. But after eating there, after truly experiencing the place and meeting Gary, I know for a fact that it’ll be there forever (or at least I hope it will because I’m not looking forward to the withdrawal symptoms that’re sure to pop up if I’m ever denied their green chili sauce).

 

The wife and I have vowed to become regulars at The Durango Diner and I can’t strongly enough recommend that you make the trip down to 957 Main Avenue in Durango Colorado to experience the place for yourself.  I’m sure my new son-in-law would appreciate the support.

 

The Durango Diner

 

I write and sell books and they never cost more than a dollar. If you’re a fan of fiction, you should check out Trailer Park Juggernauts here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00704HK6Q If you’re a fan of real life with just a sprinkling of fiction, you should check out Ephemeral Truths and Short Fiction here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AYRAXNI

Starbuck Died

Dead crawfish don’t float like you’d expect them to. They sink down to rest their claws on the glass pebbles upon which they once walked; uneaten spinach for a death bed. The red of their carapace mutes to something dull and lifeless as the black of their beady little eyes fades to a cloudy grey. At least that’s how it happened for Starbuck the Crawfish. I guess you’d need to read my previous entry to get most of this, but I’ll catch you up super quick: my daughter saved a crawfish from certain death at a BBQ, named him Starbuck, put him in a bubbling fish tank, and then started feeding him spinach.

 

My daughter was literally skipping into the house and wearing a comical smile the day she faced her horror. My mom was in town, we had just watched Iron Man 3 and gorged on pricey junk food; Catelynn was still riding a saccharine high when she ran into her room to check on Starbuck. She called me in with a whisper and I made it in just in time to see her smile morph into pure pain as she tap tap tapped on Starbuck’s tank. He’d usually raise his claws and charge the tank wall as if to say “What? WHAT? You want some of this?” But he’d lost his defiance, his life.

 

I looked at her and said the only thing I could think to say: “honey, you didn’t do anything wrong.” I could tell she was inconsolable so I gave her space. I walked into the living room and told everyone the news. As soon as I got it out, as soon as I told everyone that my daughter was inconsolable, my mom looked at me and said “honey, you didn’t do anything wrong.” I laughed a bit because it was one of those full circle moments; my mom said the same thing to me that I said to my daughter. Of course I hadn’t done anything wrong and I knew it, and through that realization, I understood that my daughter knew that she hadn’t done anything wrong either. I went back into her room a while later and told her the things that she needed to hear. That I loved her and her feelings were true and pure. Terra thought we should bury Starbuck to offer a bit of closure and Catelynn agreed.

 

I took Starbuck and wrapped him in a paper towel and placed him gently in a Tupperware box. I went out back and started digging a hole. I was about a foot into it when I started wondering: how deep does a crawfish grave need to be? Will the dogs smell him and dig it up if I make it too shallow? Holy shit; is that why human graves are six feet deep? Is that some sort of magical number that dissuades scavengers from digging? Fuck it; this Tupperware is airtight and eighteen inches will have to do.

 

I went back inside and got Catelynn; we did the deed. She tossed, dramatically of course, the first handful of dirt upon the Tupperware coffin as if we were in an old school gangster movie. I shoveled on the rest and we tamped down the loose soil. She started to cry again and I started to tear up watching her. We went back inside and ate dinner.

 

I watched my father kill one of my canaries with a vacuum cleaner when I was five years old. I’m laughing as I type this and it’s bothersome to think about what that might mean, but that’s irrelevant for now. It was an accident; Pops was cleaning their cage with the vacuum cleaner hose like he’d done many times before and the dumb one, they yellow canary I’d gotten for my birthday and named Tweety, jumped down to try and escape. He went head first into the hose and died somewhere along the line. My father dug him out of the bag to see if he was still alive and then just threw him in the trash. I used to wonder if Tweety had thought he’d made it, thought he was free, before it all went black… When it came to Starbuck, I was on edge because I knew this seemingly insignificant moment was a pivotal one for my daughter.

 

It’d be wrong to teach a child that when something dies, you can just replace it with something else, and I told this to Catelynn, but it’d also be wrong to waste a $60 fish tank that’d only been occupied for a week. My daughter’s face was still speckled with petechiae from crying but she nodded when I asked her if she’d like to go buy a betta. We drove to Petco to pick out a fighting fish to take Starbuck’s place in the tank. Thirty minutes later we were on our way back home with No Name the Betta and my monster was smiling again.

 

There was a picture of a betta on the little cup that No Name came in and Catelynn asked me why none of the bettas at Petco were as pretty as the one in the picture. I told her that “the fish in the picture was a model” because it was the first thing that came to mind but it got me thinking; are there really professional model fishes out there? Do they live in enormous cups? Are they given as many blood worms as they want, and if so, do they suffer from bulimia like human models? Whatever. We made it home and No Name is still swimming to this day. He seems to be immune to whatever killed Starbuck.

 

A few days later my daughter asked “dad, do you think that just maybe there’s a crawfish heaven?” This set me back a bit because we’re an agnostic family but simply saying “no” would’ve been hard even for me. I asked her why she wanted to know and she told me that it was just too hard to imagine him as completely gone. Of course I went the “nobody is ever gone as long as you keep them in your thoughts” route, but I also used the moment to teach her a bit about humanity. I used her question as an example as to how easy it is, how comforting it can be, to reach for a mythological crutch when times are hard. Sure, her pet could be dead and gone forever… or maybe he’s frolicking in an endless field of spinach with his perfect claws held high in defiance. “What? WHAT? You want some of this?” Thanks to Starbuck, she got her first taste of Marx’s opium. I never answered her question, because in doing so, I’d be robbing her of a conclusion that she needs to make on her own.

Crawfish Grave

 

***

I write and sell books and they never cost more than a dollar. If you’re a fan of fiction, you should check out Trailer Park Juggernauts here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00704HK6Q If you’re a fan of real life with just a sprinkling of fiction, you should check out Ephemeral Truths and Short Fiction here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AYRAXNI

The Odds

My daughter makes hypocrisy cute; hers is an innocent type of dichotomy that hasn’t yet been corrupted by ill intentions and the evil bullshit that comes with age. To her, death is an anathema. She’ll go out of her way to save the lowliest little bug that scurries dangerously close to my feet. She’ll cry at the thought of an injured animal. She’ll sit contently in the cabin of a fishing charter for which I paid handsomely and refuse to catch a fish; she’ll even refuse to eat the fish I caught because the horror is still fresh in her mind even though the rock-hard fish in the freezer isn’t. But when it comes to steak, you better watch the fuck out. She’ll dive across the dinner table to steal bloody scraps from your plate when you look away. Isn’t that cute?

We recently took her to a crawfish boil at a friend’s house, and at first, she refused to get out of the car. The thought of boiling alive thousands of little baby lobsters brought on some sort of tree-hugging paralysis. The wife and I tried to hold up her hypocrisy so she might see it:

“Catelynn, stop being ridiculous; you loooooooove eating steak and steak comes from cows.”

“Yes dad, I know. But cows are all clumpy and ugly and I don’t know who killed them and I don’t have to see it happen.”

“What about sushi Catelynn? The majestic blue fin is cute and you’ll eat the crap out of a rainbow roll. And a crawfish is just another type of fish, right?”

“I. Don’t. Care. I’m not going to a party where they kill crawfish and I’m not eating them.”

She eventually got out of the car. Her eyes were wide and her ears were perked. When she finally found the large stainless pot that was bubbling and reeking of Cajun seasoning, she frowned. I guess the carnage wasn’t quite what she expected. I introduced her to the host (who’s hand she shook with a scowl) and he asked if she’d like to see the live ones. She said yes.

We walked past all the drunken revelry and over to a huge cooler; he threw back the lid. My daughter sucked in a breath that spoke volumes. He picked one up, gingerly to avoid the pincers, and handed it to me before closing the lid and walking back to the bubbling pot. I looked down at my daughter, with budding tears in her emerald eyes, and sighed in the presence of such innocent beauty.

I asked her to follow me in that long suffering tone fathers develop after a few years, and we walked back to the car. I looked around inside until I found an empty Starbucks cup. It was huge and transparent so it’d make a perfect temporary home (as a side note, venti was big enough; trenta is just ludicrous). I filled it up to the green mermaid with tap water and dropped the lucky-as-shit crawfish into safety. My daughter spent the rest of the time at the barbeque, all three hours, staring into the cup and falling in love with “Starbuck the Crawfish”; we all smiled as we watched on and gorged on Starbuck’s cousins.

Starbuck

Sixty dollars later, Starbuck now has a luxurious life in a bubbling tank on my daughter’s bookcase that’s filled with glass rocks and spinach. He has two meals a day and a rock under which to hide. He has multi colored LED lights overhead and the love of my daughter. I’m sure to him, she looks like a monster. She’ll press her face up against the glass and smile; he’ll raise his claws and puff up in warning like a rooster or a peacock… or a frat-boy. It’s a wonderful relationship.

But what were the odds for Starbuck? Probably one in a bajillion. He came from a crawfish farm slash rice patty in Louisiana and he was born to be eaten. That farm ships out thousands of pounds per day, all over the US, but Starbuck came to Colorado in a sack with thousands of his brethren. He survived the flight when many didn’t. He clawed his way to the top of the cooler, but not too soon; our host had been cooking for five hours before we got there. He was picked up and handed to the only person there that would’ve saved him. He survived the ride home to New Mexico in a cup and he lived. A piece of food day before yesterday; a beloved pet today.

And what are the odds for my daughter? We recently went to a painfully long induction ceremony; our daughter made it into the junior national honor society. She sat amongst one hundred other kids that made the grade and we were all treated to a protracted speech from an old lady that touched on all the clichés. “I see a bunch of brilliant kids with dreams that’ll one day go on to be great blah blah blah.” Sure; some of those kids are going to make it, but the truth is that quite a few of them aren’t. For every future doctor on that stage, there’s also a future felon; for every success, a failure. It’s cynical but it’s also simple statistics.

Will my daughter make it? Will she claw her way to the top of the bucket at the right moment? Holy fuck I hope so; I’d die to ensure it. There are days when I have my doubts. Not because I lack faith in my daughter, but because I’m all too aware of how pernicious this life can be and I simply don’t want her to face it. But when I think about her staring into that cup and falling in love with a crustacean, when I think about her walking past all those drunken men at the boil to save a single life, I realize that she’s going to be just fine.

CJ and Starbuck

I write and sell books and they never cost more than a dollar. If you’re a fan of fiction, you should check out Trailer Park Juggernauts here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00704HK6Q If you’re a fan of real life with just a sprinkling of fiction, you should check out Ephemeral Truths and Short Fiction here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AYRAXNI