Ghost:

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So there’s this: was a kid, one of the crew, always a bit more daring, a bit more wild, a bit more in the face of the world. In high school days he was more likely to challenge an enemy to a proper fight than get in a sucker punch. He was more likely to gobble a tab of acid and stay all day at school, advertising his eyes to his homies. He was also more likely to run when a cop told him to freeze. This kid vanished, in a manner that seemed gradual to his crew but, they all admitted eventually, might well have been very sudden. When did you see him last? I don’t know…six months? You? What about you? Perhaps more than any other hijinks, this kid was known for the seeking out sucking down of adrenaline, which proved most effective via tagging the city’s face at ever-increasing heights, literal and figurative: a billboard off the freeway; an exit sign over downtown’s busiest ramp; the 34th floor ice-black windows of a sky scraper that erupted just as high school wound down. These feats seemed impossible to people who didn’t know him, but to those who’d carried spray cans alongside him or at least gunned a getaway car after application of his peer pressure, they knew—he could shimmy and leap like a monkey, use his feet like hands and also vanish into thin air upon the arrival of the cops. He wrote lots of things: blue! (the exclamation point calling into question the association of sadness); dikt (from “addict,” some said); live, sometimes and, others, evil, and others both placed together by the angle of a window’s reflection—liveevil. The kid did not discourage the rumors that flowed around him, especially the one about him having native blood and some of the sleight and smoke of the trickster. It was after a few rounds at the grimy tavern that the crew of boys habited on Thursday evenings that they decided he really was gone, be it gradually or suddenly. Seven smart phones sat flaccid on the scarred table—no trace of him caught in a single filter accessible via the World Wide Web. Later, the crew of boys—now men, with jobs, some, wives, others, kids, one—would agree that it was the next morning that they saw Ghost, looped across the cheap façade of the tavern they drank at. Certainly none of them had noticed the tag before, and certainly its appearance on boxcars and bathroom stalls and bus bumpers and freeway exit signs crowned with nests of razor wire, was new. The crew of men thrived on this mystery, sending text messages and photos to one another whenever a new iteration was glimpsed, no one ever coming straight out to say it, but everyone hinting at it: he’s back. A year and some weeks after the conversation at their tavern, the crew of men celebrated one of their weddings on the waterfront and as per custom, they orchestrated an escape to suck down a doobie and relive whatever felt urgent to relive. On a tiny rooftop deck of a deco hotel, the sun bleeding out in the jaws of the mountains, one of them spotted it—a ferry, fat and slow, chugging away from the city, pumped full of strangers and their various lives, their tangle of victories and shames and hopes. Ghost, the size of the flank of the boat, four times the height of any man, painted with a hurried precision, sliding toward illegible in the growing dusk. The men did not speak of him again. When one or another would consider it during one of the increasingly long lulls in barroom chatter, he would think: what is there to say?

How to Slip Your Cage

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For survivors of Narconon and the Church of Scientology

First, pretend to be delighted that you get to enter. If you buck and fight, it will only end in your blood spilt and a longer time until you are ultimately free. If you buck and fight, they will take the violence out of you and turn it against you so that your first couple of days in the cage will be spent on the ground (not that there is anywhere else to be) and in agony—trust me, I made the wrong choice. So you must enter willingly, will forth a tear if they don’t flow naturally, act relieved to finally be getting the help you need.

 

Second, do not look for a comfortable place to arrange your body. You will not find it. There are no chairs, no bunks, not even so much as a ledge to perch your ass upon. You have a floor and walls with the uneven roll of hand-hewn log cabin, so leaning your spine against them is no relief. You have to figure out how to sit on a dirty wooden floor in a way that doesn’t produce agony or, if like me, this is impossible—with all the bruises and scrapes—you have to learn how to sit through agony. This is probably the best thing, so in that case, if you need an extra dose of agony to create the necessity of sitting through it, disregard step #1.

 

Third, eat the vitamin blasts that they push on you through the cracked door as if there were the most delicious fucking snack you’ve ever tasted. Suck down the horse pill capsules like they are pieces of your lover whom you can only save by devouring. Feel the gritty work of those capsules in your abdomen, the slow slink of a hundred doses of vitamins into your veins. Trust not that they are good for you, not in their claims that they will silence the voices in your head or extinguish the gnawing need for dope, but trust that compliance is your only hope of escape and so swallow those fuckers.

 

Fourth, defecate and urinate in the bucket. Do not succumb to urges to paint arcs on the dark wall. It will not spite them because you will be forced to live with the stench and ultimately clean it up. Do not succumb to this also because it will make you appear yet more deranged and will extend the time you spend in your cage.

 

Fifth, when they bring stacks of paper to sign, sign. Do not ask questions and do not try to read the tiny font in the weak light that slices a rectangle around the door. Do not attend to useless thoughts about your rights, or lack thereof, or the meaning of your signature on those many pages. Refusing to sign, or asking questions or trying to read the tiny font, even, will probably earn you another blast of vitamins and another day at least to consider the foolishness of resistance.

 

Sixth, when the voices get louder, listen closer. Because here’s the thing: the voices are your own. And even if they’ve landed you in a lot of trouble in the past, when you’re locked in a cage breathing feces in the dark for long enough, jailed by people with blind faith, no mercy, ballpoint pens and vitamin blasts, the voices will begin to serve you instead of betray you. The voices will tell you the truth: that these people are not going to let you out until you deny your voices. That these people are not going to let you out until you profess that your cravings for dope have subsided.

 

Seventh, if the voices guide you, obey them. If they say to scream out in agony, do so. If they say to scream for mercy, do so. If they tell you to mutter gratitude to your captors, do so. If they tell you to remain silent for long stretches, do so.

 

Eighth, when you no longer expect the door to open, expect the door to open.

 

Ninth, when the door opens, remain still and make an attempt to smile.

 

Tenth, when they ask you if you think you are ready to come out, tell them you think you need just a little bit longer.

Disassociation

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For C.A.F.

The first time she remembered feeling it was when her older sister leapt to her death from the roof their two-story home. The girl had sort of known it was going to happen, in the way that five year olds know anything: a burst of violent language between bigger people like an explosion of blackbirds from a wire, her sister’s boots thumping the staircase. Eventually, the creak of the eave and the broken cry that ended with a thud. It was in the way that thud shot through the bones of the house, that’s the feeling that carried the girl away. That first time it was parrots and waterfalls, a kaleidoscope of them—purple rivers and a perfect sunset on the hazy horizon. She could float more than fly because she didn’t need to exert any effort and the air was kind around her small body. When she was pulled back into the world by a social worker’s cold, callused hands working her face, into the tumult of looping emergency lights, the screams of her mother, the girl was angry and swung at the social worker and ran to her room and packed pillows around her, praying to return to the world of color, of parrots and rivers.

 

The second time it happened she was a couple of years older, thigh pumping a silver streak scooter down her block on a blazing July day. The SUV with college football flags flying from the antenna rounded the corner with a yip of tires and maybe that’s what made her Labrador yip back and then leap street-ward, as if to defend her. The driver was provoked by this or perhaps merely drunk and put down her beloved dog with a millimeter adjustment of his wheel. The girl sat down on a sidewalk square and soon she was underwater, but could breathe fine, twirling and jetting in the Caribbean blue, being kissed by turtles on her dimpled cheeks and tickled by tiny yellow fish along her ribcage, her legs encased in shimmering scale. When her mother scooped her up from the concrete shouting consolations into her ear, the girl screamed in reproach, broke from her mother’s arms and ran back to the sidewalk square and sat hard, staring at the dog’s broken muzzle, as if she might go back.

 

She did not go back, not again until she was a teenager and a new transfer to a suburban high school, her family having slammed behind them the haunts of their old house in the city. The girl was smart and self-directed and quiet and drew fantastical, breathtaking portraits of beautiful demons in the margins of her notebooks and earned straight A’s. She walked home with her head held high and the stares of hungry boys glanced off her shimmering helmet of jet-black hair. It was strange that she attended the party, stranger still that she followed a boy she barely knew into a basement for a shot of liquor harder than the Riesling she clutched in a paper cup. After the slog of booze—after which she planned to march straight back up the stairs and out into the spring night of manicured lawns and lightning bugs’ performance—it was already done. Whatever the ball-capped boy had dropped into her shot passed through her brain and knocked her knees out. She went that time to a tropical mountainside where she swung in a hammock, gazing out across a hazy valley, smelling orchids and hearing the laughter of children. Because when she opened her eyes all she saw were the slack jaws and cruel, pin eyes of many boys, flashes of canine teeth and tongues, she closed her own eyes again and again and was able to return to the hammock.

 

Nowadays the girl has grown into a woman and lives in the foothills of the mountains, in a large, bright house on a hill where she often doesn’t lock the door. Her twin sons are wild things, already, at the age of five, marked with hard knocks of life: falls from trees, accidentally swung sticks, door-slammed pinkies, etc. She sleeps well and dreams vividly and sometimes is sorry that dawn has come—not because she doesn’t anticipate the day ahead, but because the dream is a shame to leave.

 

Carousel

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The light of the carousel is not kind. It’s the kind of light you’d expect in a dentist’s office, not searing down onto the fantastical hoop of painted ponies bobbing on brass poles and delighted, red-nosed toddlers. It seems that every carousel I’ve ever seen has one sleigh on it—a flat bench that might fit a small family, just in case someone not able or willing to scramble up the slick plastic side of a horse wanted aboard. I stand between two ponies, my palms on the lower backs of my son and his friend. We are directly behind the sleigh. After the first couple of revolutions, a few dozen squeals of joy from my kiddo and the dozens around us, I finally notice the woman on the sleigh. She’s wide, white-haired, somewhere amid a rocky seventy-something years. Her jacket is cheap flannel and a dusting of what might be flour rides her right shoulder. Her hair has segregated itself into greasy clumps. At her side are the rumpled, hard-held bags responsible for the ugly title that pops in my mind as flashbulbs pop around us: bag lady. She crosses one leg over the other and leans back, her slab of worn face aimed out into the night, over the heads of all the whooping, waving parents. No matter what scape the carousel presents her with—damp wall of a department store, squads of bike cops massing for an impending protest, the sixty-foot Evergreen the mall has garishly decorated, even Macy’s brilliant North Star—her expression never shifts, nor does her gaze. She takes what she’s presented with, every once in a while lifting a thick, ragged thumbnail to her teeth. She’s spent three dollars for this sleigh on this carousel. She’s spent three dollars to go around and around wrapped in cruel light with children’s laughter spilling around her. The thought that she represents the inverse of childhood, of joy feels ugly, but there it is. Maybe the carousel is a reminder to her of a long-lost child—her own, or herself. Maybe her cloudy eyes are seeing something after all. She’s a reminder, maybe, to us young parents to not just let ourselves and our children be carried round and round and round until all we are left with, like her, is memory.

The Therapist in his Garden

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To prepare, he drinks a solid bolt of midgrade whisky and pokes about until he finds his daughter’s ganja and clumsily presses in a bong toke, blowing it out the cracked window toward the garden like she must do but, unlike her, failing, half the plume turning back in on itself, stinking up the mussed bedroom, sneaking into the weave of the pink comforter. Nervous but giggling like a teen again, he all but runs to the garden now, work gloves slapping his ass from where they’re tucked in his back pocket and as he feels that, he knows he won’t be putting them on. He lands on his knees amid the wilting rhododendrons and histrionic rosebushes, always peeling brown leaves no matter the season nor the TLC lavished upon them. Rioting up the trunk of the Japanese Maple, he sees, is some kind of white rot that his wife would know how to identify but that he only knows as a mar, a threat that he wants gone. He seizes the wood and rubs up and down vigorously, laughing in an incommensurate way when he realizes he’s kneeling in his yard masturbating a sick tree. He finds the saw-leaved mops of dandelion plants and digs his fingers in beneath the roots ripping, tugging, twisting, pulling up as much soil and frizzy root and wounded potato bug as he can with each arc of his arm. When this is done there is a pile in the center of the flagstone, like a bunch of scalps. The therapist is winded, and thirsty more because of the ganja than the exertion, but he’s not ready for a break yet. This is a break, this Wednesday morning, from what he’d normally be doing and taking a break from a break makes him grimace in determination, hurl himself at the choker vines creeping over his fence from the alley like burglars. He slides out his blade and flicks it open in a motion like he’s confronting the threat, an action so simple and yet so grave, a gesture he’s only had the occasion to truly perform once in his life, decades ago in a Central American capital. It does the trick to his sympathetic nervous system and the fight, flight or freeze juice whirs in his chest; he knows he only recognizes it because of his professional training—otherwise he’d be confused by the constriction of his chest and the increased power in his muscles as they snap to, sawing and hacking through the thick brown vines, breaking them down with long tugs as well, freeing his fence entirely from their grasp by the time he has to stop to shirk his light jacket. Gazing down at the shattered wrists of the deadly, constricting plant he almost regrets his violence. Perhaps he should have been gentler in removing them from his fence, even if it had taken many times as long—after all, the choker vines aren’t any more malevolent than the Maple or the rose bushes. But then he realizes that the rose bushes will require gentleness, patience and finely attuned skill to prune, how with the rose bushes he has no choice but to touch their disease with love and so he’s glad—glad as hell—that he has summoned adrenaline and taken his blade to the stubborn knots of choker vines, that that is precisely what was indicated for their kind.

Jesus Loves You

 

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My uncle Pat was one of those guys who stood on freeway overpasses and held huge signs that read Jesus loves you. He wasn’t a batshit crazy dude, either, just seemed to really enjoy his service. My dad used to say to him—my dad being a cutthroat corporate cat, quite distinct from his brother—that from that distance Pat “couldn’t tell if they were honking to thank him or to tell him to jump.” Myself, I don’t think it ever even occurred to Pat that anyone would not like him sharing Jesus’ love with them. It might sound surprising but Pat wasn’t really out of touch or anything. He just lived real thrifty—ate at the dollar store and lived off a tiny pension from a Boeing offshoot where he manufactured something for twenty years. But Pat was one of the first to get the new iPhones when they came out and you’d see him up there, waving his Jesus sign a little wonky because he was checking something out online, in his palm. Well, Pat got so interested in the world of social media that one day he decided to paint a hashtag on his sign right in front of the message–#jesuslovesyou. There’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that Pat though it would be funny, dynamic and that just maybe he’d get something trending on Twitter that would actually broaden the circle of the Lord’s love. Of course, what Pat got was a pileup of cars just north of his overpass within two hours of painting his sign with that hashtag, a steel pretzel scream of an accident that sent no fewer than three commuters to the love of the Lord. You might think that Pat would be traumatized, or charged with a crime or else just too full of guilt and sorrow to go on. You’d think maybe that he’d take a dive off that overpass after all. But that didn’t happen. Pat whited out the hashtag, put his phone on airplane mode, and stood splay-legged on that overpass, waving that sign at the interstate five days a week for the rest of his life. That’s faith, I guess.

The Traveling Ashes

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When the fires began nobody was thinking about ashes. When the fires began everyone was thinking about flames. To be more direct, everyone was thinking about what those flames would do to them or their loved ones or their house or their stash of ganja or fine merlots if given the chance to get that close. And get that close the flames did. They licked towns like dogs lick paws, but with none of the Zen focus. On the contrary, the licking of the towns in the valley—which was formed by a radical V of highly incendiary scrub pine and brush lands—was chaotic and loud. People speak of natural disasters as separate entities: flood, earthquake, tsunami, etc. What only people who have been licked by wildfire know is that fires are more than fires, they are also storms. When the skies darkened more fully at 5 p.m. than they would normally at midnight that July afternoon, the preview couldn’t have been more clear. And that was the horrific thing: dark skies were the preview and before anyone had time to suck one last full breath of summer air, their lungs were constricted by acrid smoke, red hot embers whirled in tornado gusts around their heads and the heat index soared as fast as the hawks abandoning roosts—babies and all—for the east. The hawks were the first ones to carry the ash away.

The Return

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October 6th, 2014, 12:03, CSTC

 

On my way down Steilacoom Boulevard, approaching Western State Hospital and CSTC, I was listening to a podcast about a man who discovered as an adult that his mysterious father was most likely the Zodiac killer that rained horror on the country for decades, torturing and slaughtering dozens of people. His story was inconclusive; the man will never meet his father because he died twenty years ago. The soundtrack of the podcast kicked on as I turned onto the campus: the razor wire winking in the middle distance, the dilapidated cottages that front the place, seemingly abandoned, the drab landscape of insitutionalism. Fat Canadian Geese tried to block my way, like protesters but rather poorly organized. Inside of the school, I knew, were children—children with wild imaginations, bright if sometimes shattered eyes, children with stories to tell and poems to write, about fantasies, about traumas and about hopes. The clank and mutter of staff managing the morning’s crises greeted me at the abandoned front desk; a young man shouted obscenities from a quiet room. There is so much life and love to be celebrated here. I can’t imagine the weight of turning keys all day nor of hearing the deadbolt drop. They will kick walls and scream, many of these children, maybe a few less if we can reach back, down, inward, forward or up for the language that will make violence evaporate. For the words on the page that staunch bleeding in the mind. Another life is possible for these children, but unlike the son of the Zodiac killer, they don’t get to grow up in ignorance. Can we help carve the edges off the awful things they already know? Can we pull those things out of them like tumors?

FLASH DANCE OF CLASS WARFARE HEADLINES

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You know how it is (if you’re a distracted political junkie like me): you catch snippets.  A CNN headline while you’re whipping up rice for your toddler or an NPR utterance while you’re merging into the morass of shitty Seattle drivers on Mercer.  Or a more sustained report of outrageous stuff if you’re commuting and listening to Democracy Now!  These things have come to me this way, in snippets:

A billionaire, Tom Perkins, in an op-ed to the WSJ, clearly and shamelessly likens the treatment of the wealthy in America (by the masses and the media) to the treatment of Jews by the Nazis.

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A sixteen-year-old Texan teen, Ethan Couch, kills four people drinking and driving and avoids any jail time whatsoever.  The judge insists that the defense psychologist’s “affluenza” argument (meaning the kid always got what he wanted and never faced consequences, so, hey, how could he be held accountable?) had no bearing on her decision.

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Robert H. Richards IV, a DuPont heir, pleads guilty to raping his 3 year-old daughter, avoids any jail time whatsoever, and now is coming clean about the likelihood of having raped his 19 month old son.

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As a person who grew up with divorced parents—a clever, entrepreneurial father who was nonetheless always living off loans and beyond his means and struggling, and a very wealthy but militantly progressive mother who felt that my privilege meant I should attend inner city schools and get a job at 14—I have some feelings here.

In the past I have considered writing a response to Mr. Perkins, or perhaps an open letter to him.  Because here’s the wildest aspect of it: if you dig deep enough, look hard enough, presume enough good intention and sound intellect in Mr. Perkins, you can cobble together a point—or at least I can: OWS, the 99% and the “progressive moment” (whatever the F that means nowadays) would do well to not demonize the 1%.  They would do far better to identify those in the 1% that are allies and embrace them and to cultivate others who might become allies did they not feel, to some extent, demonized for their wealth.  Don’t like rich people?  Really?  Even if we assume that by some twisty-turny radical logic that’s somehow not bigotry, my mother has done as much for sincerely progressive causes (think the Sandinista Revolution) as any of her working class peers and more than many.  The world needs more rich people like my mother. I won’t bother to address the paranoid and self-righteous absurdity of Mr. Perkins’ intimations that the 1% might be slaughtered by the hordes.  I’m just trying to lend him a hand toward a valid point. Perhaps that is misguided.

More to the point, however, Mr. Perkins and others in the 1% should profoundly consider the effects of high-profile 24 hour news cycle cases like those of Ethan Couch and Robert H. Richards IV.  Because therein lies the most stark correction to their fears: the “progressive movement” or OWS or “the 99%,” inasmuch as they’re “demonizing” the wealthy, aren’t doing so necessarily out of intolerant hatred of “success.”  Or even, necessarily, a sizzling critique of the capitalist system that creates people like Mr. Perkins.  They may be doing so out of moral outrage that we live in a system that not only facilitates the vast accumulation of wealth for those that already have it, but then shamelessly allows them protection for crimes no less than murder and child rape while people who toil to put inadequate food on their families’ tables go to jail for possessing a joint.

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RETURN TO PITZER: LA NOSTALGIA ME PISA LOS TACONES

 

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What is nostalgia?  I’m not even sure I’m trying to define the right word.  It’s the closest that I can come to the sentiment blowing around inside of me.  It could be that I latched onto the concept of nostalgia because I once read in a Spanish novel, “la nostalgia me pisaba los tacones.”  Literally: nostalgia stepped on my heels.  I reproduce that in English verbally as often as is moderately appropriate.  Sometimes people chuckle, sometimes they nod approvingly (or knowingly), and sometimes they allow their bafflement to show.  It feels right to me anyway—this thing, properly identified as nostalgia or not, does indeed step on my heels in certain contexts.  Such as this: a return to my college campus to read alongside the famous poet Amy Gerstler (also an alum) to launch an open mic of faculty and students on a hot February evening.  Fourteen years have passed since I last darkened the doorway of McConnell Hall—or any other doorway of Pitzer College for that matter. 

            I arrived early to stalk the commons and stare in stupefaction at the dorm I lived in, which remains unchanged.  The odd desert tree that I once spent hours in the limbs of, wonked on a pill of unclear origin, shouting at classmates below to “cut off their thumbs and get back in the trees!”  The fountain, spouting faithfully over the naked torsos of young people as it ever did.  The color shock murals of ethnic and psychedelic celebration.  The clock tower, now adorned with a long banner of a photo of a beloved professor—for the occasion of the schools’ 50th anniversary (which accounts for my invitation here). 

            It’s easy to conjecture that the sweet, haunting pain I felt was due to the fact that I was to read from my memoir, which chronicles the decade of friendship I shared with a woman whom I first met not 100 yards from the lectern I stood at, that this place is so hopelessly imbued with her.  I read passages that took place in the acres surrounding us, to at least three professors who also loved her deeply but knew little of her end. 

            But it’s something more than that.  As I strolled with unspent tears in my chest and a strange half-smile on my face, watching impossibly young liberals flirt and Frisbee, taking photos and texting them to my equally ancient friends—some still close and some not so—the feeling spread and bloomed, invisible spores floating on the Santa Ana winds.  So, it’s also this: that I was back in a place where I was young and my friend who shared this place with me just left his wife.  I was young and now I have a four-year-old son, 3,000 miles away and as unreachable as the moon (only for a few weeks).  I was young and now I have two Master’s degrees, neither of which I am certain will guide me to a sense of home as strong as I felt sitting again on the quad.  I was young and now I hadn’t seen the girl I loved most (in a traditional, romantic sense) back then in nine years.

            I called her and she answered.  She was kind and quiet and somehow knew, as if my voice banging off multiple satellites and hitting her ear across the bulge of America communicated all that I’m failing to on this page.  I caught my tears in my throat and told her I loved her and spoke of a future reunion where she would meet my wife and child.  And then I erased my cheeks with a handkerchief, turned my back on the glorious, poisoned sunset, and went inside the hall to resurrect the past, to excavate it for the explanations of my tears and smile. 

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