Kaya, Part 1

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The interstate was jammed with broken heroes, or at least that was the track that my father hummed along with as he maneuvered the Subaru up the onramp. Maneuver might be too generous, or too precise, because of his imprecision, which arose with the euphoric haze that the little pills kindled in him. I’d learned to white knuckle the armrest and speak loudly and suddenly—about anything that came to mind—when I suspected he might be dozing or spacing. I knew I shouldn’t let him drive and I knew that his ego wasn’t ready for the damage that announcement would cause. So I buckled up and gripped leather.

 

Mount Vernon sits 90 miles or so north of Seattle and there was occasion for me to wince through the outer bands of Seattle and then through the basket of Skagit Farmland. Dad was elated at this excursion, a real-deal father and son kind of outing that he could manage—since his nine story plunge from a cliff in Costa Rica, and the seven surgeries, the hardware screwed into his spine and ankles, he wasn’t going to be leading me on any hikes or to throw the football. But he could, he was sure, navigate us an hour and a half north to get me a golden retriever puppy before I returned to my last year of college.

 

In the backyard of the down-low breeders’ property, a gorgeous and frantic red-coated golden sprinted on a cable run, back and forth, back and forth, barking a metronome that was equal parts joyous and desperate. At the base of a crooked staircase, the two runts (two of eleven) tumbled—the boy was lazy and tubby and mellow; the girl was fierce and enervated, nipping her brother from five angles as he pawed at the cobalt blue sky with a tiny tongue poking sideways. I gathered up the female in my arms and she chomped at my ear and scrambled to escape with nails as sharp as her teeth and I pressed my nose into her fur and nodded at my cane-propped father, who fumbled three Benjamins out of his front pocket. The dog behaved much better for him—even snuggling into a brief snoring spell in his lap—as I drove us decisively and fast, back to the city as the sun clawed at the sky in death.

Galaxy

The young woman had caught a jetliner east to Jersey to spend the Holidays with her “best friend,” the term that she used both genuinely and euphemistically with her Mormon mother; genuinely because it was true and euphemistically because she was also the young woman’s lover or at least had been in the now-long-gone-days of Rutgers. They had scuttled their erotic passion for a passionate social media, Skype and text message friendship as the young woman slid into a bland career of marketing nearby her divorced (the scandal!) Mormon (perhaps…unwell) mother and her Jersey lover skated easily into the Queer bohemia of the Tristate. So, the Holidays of 2006-2007 broke onto the horizon pregnant with possibility and already haunted by hope.

 

And Christmas Day broke upon the two young lovers with a splintered gold and blue sky magic that sent them into a mania that would, before the night fell, include hi-jinks and escapades: dining and dashing from a greasy spoon in SOHO with the excuse that they had forgotten their purses at the hotel; tongue kissing atop a sidewalk vent with impractical skirts billowing like Marilyn Monroe’s and cabbies cat-calling with their horns; rifling a strangely open retro clothing shop for Audrey Hepburn costumes in which to linger at 5 star hotel bars, sipping cosmopolitan after cosmopolitan; gobbling hot slices feverishly on a frozen bench at Washington Square Park, pillbox hats askew, cigarette holders tucked behind reddened ears as the greasy shadows began to grow long. They paused only for the young woman to dial her Mormon mother twice on her Samsung Galaxy and leave sweet, tipsy apologetic messages that did not acknowledge the mother’s jilted anger at being “abandoned for the holidays.”

 

So it was markedly horrific in that way that only the promise of mania jilted and sabotaged by the plunge into darkness can be when the women lost track of each other outside an Irish Bar in the West Village and the young woman from Mormon country was discovered by a dishwasher in the small hours of December 26th with clothes and throat ripped in unnecessarily thorough manner, her lifeblood pooling beneath a dumpster.

 

The Mormon mother blamed the Jersey lover, of course, and how could she not? The Jersey lover blamed herself for without the distraction of a small bladder and a shot of Jameson proffered by a kindly Indian businesswoman, she might have not dallied in the elbowed interior of that bar while her lover slipped out the door for a smoke and toward her awful end. And so she forewent attendance of the young woman’s funeral. The Jersey lover respected the mother’s sorrow and did not disturb it by any intention for a full year. She tucked herself away into a pocket of her old life and ate Xanax and made it till tomorrow until one night she knew she might not and in a stumble fury dialed her dead lover’s phone number in the vague hope that she could at least hear her voicemail greeting and scream pain or apology or perhaps rage into the virtual mailbox.

 

The mother, possessed by a similar longing to, a), somehow connect with her gone daughter via telephone and, b), somehow aid the apprehension of the person responsible for her brutal death (as if they would for some reason call the number), had kept the worse-for-wear Samsung Galaxy that NYPD detectives had delivered up to her in a jumbo size Ziploc along with lipstick, tiny sequined purse, Virginia Slim Light 100s, and six orange tic-tacs. So she snatched up every ring that came in, fielding calls from clueless classmates, from advertising execs, from telemarketers, always with urgency, always with a hello? that said, instead, who are you and what have you done? The Jersey lover, to her credit, paused and bit through the cognitive fog of Xanax and rapid-cycling grief and spoke the Mormon mother’s name aloud, for the first time in her life, as a question:

 

Genevive?

 

And though neither party got what they had wished for when their hands punched the numbers in hopeless ritual reaching, they did find one another and they did weep together on the line and they did share stories deep into the late winter night and they did seed a relationship that would come to resemble something like that between a mother and her daughter.

Food Bank

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I never shied away from the fact that I was a rotten shit in high school and I have tried my best not to hide behind the fact that all of my buddies were, too. That’s not any excuse—even our behavior had been due to peer pressure, that’s a bullshit copout, and I can’t even claim that. Just a kind of free floating permission to be as wild-ass as we could be, an unspoken game of one-upmanship to see who could push the envelope the furthest before the apathetic teachers or staff actually took action.

 

Solomon Brazier smoked a bowl in the back of Spanish class, blowing tokes into his sleeve. Polyester wrapped Mr. Abrams sniffed and looked confused but that was about it. Carlton Chivers tagged the door of every classroom with his Flash! nom du guerre, then moved on to every single teacher’s desk. He pulled this caper off within a week. Jenny Strongbow pasted the answers to a chemistry quiz on the back of geriatric Ms. Genevive’s suit jacket so that as she walked around, telling us all that she was “watching us like a hawk,” she delivered the answers to each student. Jenny stripped it off her back without any guile on the way out to lunch, just tossed it in the wastebasket, chuckling.   Avery Short chased a freshman down the block, blacked out drunk at midday, and slammed a metal garbage can down over him, told him not to come out till after school and the poor little dude didn’t.

 

Anyway, there is a lot to be said about the kind of public education that not only allows this type of behavior to be the rule, but that inspires it. I mean, looking back, I know we were rebelling against the busywork nonsense and radically outdated textbooks and crappy instructors and rain of asbestos. At least on some level. Not a conscious one at the time, to be sure. Shit, we were too immature to organize a house party (so we drank in the park nine times out of ten) to say nothing of some kind of political statement.

 

I had a lot of time to think critically about my high school self and the retroactive politics of delinquency. The line at the food bank twisted around the front of the joint and down the alley, but before I even had gotten in line, I saw him—Mr. Greeley, junior year algebra, quivering in a frayed track suit, gripping a cane like with impossibly huge, white knuckles.

 

Because, see, what I remember most about Mr. Greeley is how soft-spoken he was, how much of a pushover—no, it’s what we did to him that I remember most. It’s another round of self-delusion to say it’s because of who he was—the garbage we dished out is on us.

 

Like when he got his small yellow Datsun painted with a local plumbing company’s ads to earn a few extra bucks, presumably, and eight of us picked it up during lunch 3 days running and dropped it in the middle of the intersection. He had the ads stripped away and we left his car alone except for breaking into it to smoke doobies.

 

We did shit like sell weed out of the door of his classroom like it was a dope house, stared him down when he got a tiny touch of indignation about it.

 

Like drink fat mouthed bottles of Mickey’s malt liquor openly, burping like frat boys while he tried to teach a formula to the four earnest kids listening.

 

Like the day that I came in half-cocked on Mad Dog and Mexi herbs and wrestled three desks over to and out of the third story window while he was dealing with Sam, a sensitive, tiny nerd that we all tortured, in the hallway.

 

That last one was what finally did it, I guess. He came back in, shaking his head, left hand out, subconsciously guiding Sam toward his seat. That impulse, I see now, of guidance, of the desire to share, actually, to help lead us toward knowledge and growth that we spit on and threw back at him because he was a shy, decent cog. Ah. Anyway. When he took stock of the fact that three of us were standing desk-less, he didn’t understand, then he did—but only that our desks were gone—and then he rubbed his head like he was trying to get a fire started up there and wordlessly pointed to the hallway.

 

I’d spent a lot of time thinking about Mr. Greeley, actually, as I worked my way through gigs grant writing and needed algebra to help me with Microsoft Xcel and didn’t have a lick of it. I came to arrange it so that Mr. Greeley stood in for all my crimes of the era—every diss of my mom or dad, every freshman shouldered or punched, every gram snorted, smoked or sold, every rotgut 40 oz of malt liquor hard to the liver that was still in the process of growing back then.

 

And at the food bank, 15 odd years later, an out of work grant writer wannabe rock star, I watch as ancient Mr. Greeley reaches his knobby claw out at the first station to the cocky young buck probably doing his community service for a DUI. I can barely catch the harsh whisper that Mr. Greeley lays on the young kid when he reluctantly leans in a few inches, but I hear the kid’s honk of a dumb young voice—nope, that’s it man, one onion per—and look behind the kid’s tribal-tattooed elbow and see the crate bursting with Vidalia yellows and the kid returns his moon face to his big smart phone.

 

I suppose I told that kid to give Mr. Greeley a Vidalia yellow and that I probably didn’t do it nicely. I recall that I was invited to leave the establishment by rubber-aproned ex-con types not too nicely. I hope that Mr. Greeley cooked whatever it was he wanted the extra onion for. I hope he didn’t somehow recognize me.

 

I hope he doesn’t remember me at all.

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.

IF AND, NOT BUT

 

contradictions 

Dialectics: 1. The art or practice of arriving at the truth by the exchange of logical arguments;

 

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy: ….DBT combines standard cognitive-behavioral techniques for emotion regulation and reality-testing with concepts of distress tolerance, acceptance, and mindful awareness largely derived from Buddhist meditative practice.  

 

DBT is a burgeoning mental health treatment model that is fat with interventions and techniques for use with a host of disorders and issues.  I will be super lucky to spend four days immersed in intensive training come November.  But I’m already using pieces of it here and there with clients, in conversation with distressed friends and family and also with my own damn self.  The main thrust is this: that two opposing facts can exist at the same time and both remain true.  For example, if my client says to me, “my mother doesn’t give a shit about me,” because her mother has been ignoring the mounting scores of lacerations on her thin wrists, I might say, “could you consider the possibility that your mother is acting as if she doesn’t care about you and at the very same time loves you very much?”  Or, more to the point, “can you consider the possibility that your mother is a terrible mother and, also, she loves you very much?” 

 

Of course, most people blink at you and furrow their brows and/or laugh derisively.  But then sometimes they also grow pensive.  Ideally, of course, this opens up the space to talk about the reasons why his/her mother became a terrible mother, what influences and causes piled up to prevent her from doing well.  This increases empathy, in theory, and pushes on the door marked reconciliation or forgiveness or maybe just forward motion.  And another central, related tenet of DBT comes in: “I care about you and admire you and accept you exactly as you are and I also will support you in changing things about yourself.”

 

Lying in bed under the skein of a new moon’s light and a heavy dose of nighttime decongestant and red wine at some small hour this morning, however, I was not thinking about dialectics in terms of clinical work.  I was thinking about dialectics in terms of language and meaning and Buddhism and life and the possibility that embracing wholeness presents.  I remember reading Insight Meditation by Joseph Goldstein when I was 20 years old, on a hot night in urban Venezuela and coming across this line (paraphrase): “Can you feel the difference between ‘I am angry!’ and ‘I am experiencing anger.’  Through that small distinction flows a whole world of freedom.”

 

It strikes me that an entire world of possibility flows through the distinction between

 

“I love my wife but she’s so fucking stressed out by her job all the time”

 

and

 

“I love my wife and she’s so fucking stressed out by her job all the time.”

 

The implication of “but” is that while I might love my wife, I can’t enjoy her or appreciate her or really be in possession of that love until some later time when she’s not stressed out.  “And” represents the possibility that even in the midst of horrendous stress I might enjoy my wife and celebrate the love I have for her. 

 

Or a kid might mourn the mother she wish she’d had while also knowing she did the best that she possibly could.  

 

Or maybe I’m just under the influence of daytime cold medicine.  

CHOCOLATE GRASSHOPPERS & IMPLICIT MEMORY

 

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Saturday afternoon at Café Racer, my son tasted a chocolate covered grasshopper, proffered by David George Gordon.  I tried to take this as evidence that he was growing up, finding new stores of bravery for the art of experimentation and adventure in the world. 

 

___

 

Dr. Daniel Siegel is a giant of a thinker, theorist, researcher, psychiatrist and therapist and you can’t attend a single course in applied psychology or family therapy without hearing the instructor make reference to him and in many cases take you on a glowing oratory tangent.  He’s impossible to hate and so far as I can tell, he’s impossible to question.  He’s on the cutting edge of neurobiology, memory, child development and about six other related fields.  Also, for the record, he writes for the layperson so anyone can scoop up one of his fascinating books like The Whole Brain Child.

 

One of the things that Dr. Siegel writes and speaks about consistently is “implicit” memory.  To put it simply, these are memories that happened before we were conscious and able to develop “explicit” memories.  You can’t call up an implicit memory by sheer cognitive ability.  There are ways that implicit memory gets called up or “triggered.”  Many people don’t understand this but it can govern your emotional life, nothing less.  Have you ever found yourself inexplicably furious or inexplicably sorrowful at the drop of a hat?  Chances are that something triggered your implicit memory: a dead cat on the side of the road, for example, or a father reading the paper at a restaurant where his young daughter sits across from him clearly waiting for his attention.  And it doesn’t have to happen instantly—you could glimpse something like this and not be walloped by it emotionally for hours, or days. 

 

Since learning something about this, I have found myself gaining a great deal of ground.  I was extremely fortunate in that my education around this coincided, more or less, with the birth of my son.  Because everybody gets knuckle-balled with implicit memories when they have a kid and if they aren’t aware of the way the brain works (which most are not), they are going to be baffled and scrambled by their emotional life for a while. 

 

So when my infant son cried out at night and my own chest got tight and anxiety went up, I understood: I was left alone to cry myself to sleep when I was his age.  When my son gets pushed around the playground, my rage is so hair-trigger that I start looking for a dad to fight: I was a sensitive kid told to “use my words” and was not the Lord of any Fly.  So as the time approached for Pax to start preschool (today), I was not as confused as I would have been about my emotional state—but I’m still struck by the intensity of it. 

 

Pax told his mother the other day, “I’m going to cry so much they won’t let me stay at school,” which made me want to hyperventilate.  My own mother’s response was amusement that he had learned to be “manipulative” already.  My mother did step up and offer herself as the courier to preschool for the first week, which was tremendously kind.  What my mother did not do was actively recall under what circumstances she left me alone in a preschool classroom.  I can only assume from my own anxiety and blues during the days preceding Pax’s entrance that I was terrified and felt abandoned.

 

My son left the house with his grandmother this morning in a shark-print raincoat twirling and chattering.  He came back dirtier but in a similar state.  I don’t know if my mother is executing a “re-do” of her own style of parenting 33 years wiser, but she’s doing something right.  I doubt that Pax will lose his breath when his own child’s lower lip quivers at the notion of striking out into school—or anything else in life. 

 

But maybe each time he sees an insect eaten, an implicit memory of his father will warm him from within?