The Therapist in his Garden


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



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



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?


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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.


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.


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.


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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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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I walked out of Antioch University about 45 minutes ago, for all intents and purposes, a Master of Psychology, insofar as many thousands of dollars and books and lectures can make you one.  It was nice, though, to sit in a room one last time full of colleagues—some ten of us out of the fifteen in the consultation were finishing—and feel it.  What I mean is that it’s not the dollars spent and tomes read and penciled through and lectures duly short-handed.  Mastery is a fallacy, an antiquated choice of words that confers something both more than and totally different from what we have acquired.  What we’ve acquired is mostly understanding of ourselves and our relationships, especially of how pain works.


Our instructor asked us to share pieces of wisdom with the two people in the room who were just this quarter starting their clinical work.  What I found myself saying, after I ducked the pressure to say something clinically “useful,” was that you start to look at pain differently.  The same horror and trauma that devastated me the first quarter inspires me, if not in equal parts to the devastation, than at least to some measure, now.  Sitting with kids’ agony and legacies of abuse and maltreatment calls my attention now to their resilience.  To their pride.  To their strength and survival.  The debilitating sadness—or anger—that played behind the stories of abuse and shame has been cut down by another sound that comes at a different pitch but is unmistakably, irrevocably present. I realize how naïve it is to look at people as victims.  I realize how useless it is to look at people as victims.  I realize how unethical it is to look at people as victims.  I realize how inevitable it is to look at people as victims and to feel like victims ourselves. I realize how indispensable it is to change the way we look at people, at ourselves.  And for me that has only come from the mandate to sit face to face in small, airless rooms with troubled people for the last sixty-five weeks. 


I want to say some more about this.  I want to say some more about why as a society we need to see people as victims.  For a very long time I saw myself headed into human rights work but was somehow waylaid by the siren song of writing, which produced a spectacular stumble, from which I recovered to find myself standing semi-upright in the world of psychology/therapy.  And for a very a short time now I’ve been able to see that I am in human rights’ work—that abuse, addiction, mental illness and the traumas they produce are very commonly about oppression.  If we hurl this into the political realm, we hear right wing politicians talking about “entitlement programs” and people looking for “handouts.”  What they mean is that people have a “victim mentality,” which, by implication, is simply un-American.  If we jump over to the progressive side, we encounter people who would never use the callus language or strike the callus pose of their supposed ideological foes, but people whom see a world rife with victims, too.   Victims of genocide, slavery, institutional racism, police brutality, educational inequity, imperialism and colonialism—in short, of oppression.  And of course it is true that people are victimized by these savage legacies their vicious ghost dance in the midst of which we all live. 


But I’ve come now to ask myself whether one conception of victimhood is any better than the other.  Insofar as reality is interpersonal and transactional, very empathic, progressive people can easily reinforce internalized notions of victimhood by overemphasizing the trauma and injustice that others have been subjected to, whether in a macro way—slavery and its legacy—or in a micro way—an abusive, disturbed mother and absent father.  When I look at a kid like S (one of my most maltreated clients) now, I don’t see a victim and I don’t think it and I don’t, therefore, communicate that to him.  He has taught me that, like all of us, he contains multitudes, but more importantly that the identity at the forefront is survivor.  He has taught me how to look at him and as a result I can serve him and build with him on his resilience and strength to a far greater degree than if I were straight-jacketed by the horror and injustice he’s been subjected to.  (Of course, on a macro level, reactionary ideology will all too easily manipulate anecdotes like this to their benefit by insisting that cutthroat policies of “entitlement programs” (social service) slaughter is aimed thusly: at the notion that people can’t be coddled, lest they internalize victimhood.  We must remember that reactionaries are not interested in liberation and therefore have ulterior motives). 


But both ends of the spectrum need victims—that’s what I was starting to say!  The ideology of the right needs victims because they need someone to blame, the need for an “other” to galvanize the increasingly fractured ranks.  The Mexican that steals your job and the black man that ogles and perhaps rapes your wife and the Arab that attacked your way of life and the queer that wants to tutor your kid.  There has never been a society that existed without leaders’ effective use of this “other” strategy.  And the ideology of the left—especially the most privileged left—needs victims because it gives us a way to feel morally superior—as long as we can identify the impacts of oppression, we are more human than those who would deny it (which is true, but being more human than right wing reactionaries isn’t a very high bar).  And at least some portion of us will therefore take action—even if it’s only by voting—to kick some ballast into the picture, support programs and policies that benefit the oppressed.  Which also, then, allows us to shudder and close our eyes and wave our hands in front of our faces when we hear of the horrors of oppression—we don’t have to hear it, we know, we know, and that’s why we support Obama and a hike in the minimum wage.


So I guess maybe the “progressive” conception of victimhood via oppression is the best we’ve got.  It’s better than seeing the inheritors of oppression as inferior, weaker, less than or deserving of their lot.  But it’s not the best conception we could have.  A better conception, maybe, has to do with recognizing that moonlight falls, too.  As I walk away from this chapter in my life, which I thought was about learning how to identify mental illness and “treat it,” I realize I’ve learned, mostly, one simple cognitive lesson: When we hear horror stories of abuse, trauma, oppression in all its forms, we must recognize that the fact that someone is alive, right there in front of us—in our therapy session or on CNN—to tell us about it is in fact the luminescence of resilience, pride, survival, strength and, yes, beauty.





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The Denny Way/Broad Street exit off of 99 during morning rush hour feeds vehicles into a gridlocked bottleneck Seattle-style.  You are not merely surrounded by construction cones and signs—blazes of orange—and a few lackadaisical flaggers always smoking for some reason. It’s a virtual dystopian clusterfuck panorama: the broadside of a half-gutted, half-built condo tower that can’t help but remind one of the Death Star; lanes doglegged into zags as if by some divine civic hammer to make room for the elbows of as-yet unlaid lanes; banana yellow construction cranes framed by narrow alleys, poised to drop in or lift out a dose of steel.  Pushing back against all of this novelty are old Seattle icons: the pink neon elephant spins as ever; the space needle lays down its hypodermic shadow; the monorail chugs glumly now below much instead of above most, a depressed septuagenarian caterpillar. 

            The men who stalk the off-ramp with cardboard signs for spare change are arguably both new and old Seattle.  They have sometimes vanished due to inaudible clicks of the social service economy or city policy.  They have often reappeared in larger numbers, more haggard than before.  Today the Asker clasped the cardboard plea to his parka with one hand, a bag full of corn chips with the other, pausing to cast handfuls skyward.  Desperate gulls wheeled and screeched against the winter sun like a tribe’s ritual appeal for good favor.  The man grinned and tossed, watching the faces of commuters for reaction, reading our impressions of his wild dance of charity, hoping maybe for the same from us but delighting regardless in the rain of corn chips and gull shit on hybrid hoods, the vapor of his breath in the splintered gold of the sunrays.  One old bird perched tranquilly on his shoulder, too dignified to beg.  Just waiting for the light to change, for the man to reverse course, for our wheels to turn, for the offering, lifted to his beak.  


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I’ve never come across a document of any kind that reflects upon the incredible irony of the Washington Bullets NBA franchise.  Ok, so team owner Abe Pollin saw the light and changed the name to the “Wizards” in 1995, claiming the assassination of his friend Yitzhak Rabin as the final straw in scouring overtones of violence from his team’s name.  First element of irony: the final straw was not the ridiculous level of inner city violence in DC., but the death of an Israeli politician. Second element of irony: The Clash put the song “Washington Bullets” on their bestselling super anti-imperialist 1980 album Sandinista! possibly to shine the light on U.S. policy emanating from DC, though The Clash have claimed innocence about that.  Third element of irony: this is what passes for gun reform in America: changing a basketball team’s name, versus, say, passing legislation or addressing the root causes of conflict in the inner city. 


I got to thinking about this, of course, because of yesterday’s supernova ballyhoo about the depressed, unarmed mother who drove her car to the White House and got smoked by volunteer (thanks to the shutdown) DC Police and Secret Service Officers.  I half-watched the colorful wheels of CNN and MSNBC spin while I cooked dinner.  Every congress member interviewed regarding the shutdown of the government was first asked where they were and what they saw of the violence yesterday.  The shooting took most of the time of each segment.  And no doubt in the days to come we will hear the depths of Miriam Carey’s life and the composition of her demons spelled out with the flair of prime time inquiry.  This offers the possibility of a look at mental health treatment, so there is a silver lining to the prurient blender we’ll be watching. 


But I couldn’t help but think if I were a black or brown inner city resident of DC, I’d be a little cynical about the intensity of coverage.  I imagine I might say to myself, Can you believe this shit, self?  A shooting right HERE in Washington DC!  Then I’d cackle but it wouldn’t feel funny and I’d probably want a drink. 


In 2011 there were 78 homicides by gun in Washington DC.  Of the victims, 2 where white.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Miriam Carey has gotten more attention than any other black victim of gun violence in our capital.  I wish for her and her orphaned child that somehow her death might at least light that up on our collective radar.   






Being a media junkie often sucks.  Far from prurient, sensationalism-seeking, soulless, pale geeks shoveling celebrity joys and miseries into their slack jawed maw, many people I know who might be accused of this moniker are actually deeply empathic—to say nothing of deeply political.   They feel a responsibility to know what is going on in the wider world from day to day; for some, it’s simply a commitment to keep watch on what our tax dollars do to other peoples; for some, it’s a passionate desire to stay on top of the latest versions of oppression (think NSA wiretapping); for some, yes, it’s an unhealthy sort of addiction to tragedy and injustice that produces less catharsis and more stagnation.  I’d like to think of myself as the prior—a privileged white American male who feels some responsibility to know day in and day out what the vast majority of people in America and the wider world are experiencing.  Call it peeling an eye for where and how to be an ally.  And the argument can be made, too, that simply being aware of what’s going as a member of privileged class that doesn’t “need” to expose himself to such quotidian sorrows as the death count on Chicago’s south and west sides (500+ YTD), is being an ally.  If only because it gives you something to verbally punch the idiot at the hardware store with if he gets going on sanctity of the 2nd amendment.  Especially in this era of jacked-up, super-fueled right wing smack talk and draconian legislatures (hi, NC!), to many of us “junkies,” I think, it feels important to stay tuned in the same way it’s important to stay warm before boxing match.


But there is also far too often a gap between empathic pain/outrage and any reasonable possibility of action.  In other words, far too much of what I consume about the suffering world is not properly digested.  I try to find ways to speak out or take action or, at the bare minimum, incorporate what I’m learning into my worldview so I might sometime serve someone with a connection or understanding that they don’t expect.  And sometimes I write. 


So I’m taking the chance today to write in a celebratory vein.  In the last week, the United States crowned its first ethnic Miss America. Nina Davuluri wore the tiara at the end of the day.  And in the last week the United States saw its first transgender person chosen as homecoming queen.  Cassidy Lynn Campbell wore the tiara at the end of the day. 


The fact that both Davuluri and Campbell immediately were assaulted with hateful backlash is not surprising, nor does it mean very much.  I’m saddened by the focus of much of the media on tweets toward Davuluri that suggest she is a terrorist infiltrator, or commentary direct at Campbell that she is just a boy playing dress up.  But then again, maybe focusing on the tone and content of that backlash is wise.  Maybe by casting the depth of that ignorance into the limelight along with the beautiful young women wearing those tiaras, the juxtaposition will move someone, somewhere in middle America who’s just not sure how they feel yet about such radical change. 


But radical change it is.  Gay marriage is sweeping the nation, marijuana prohibition is finally eroding, gun control is flaring as a debate at least, some healthcare reform is coming despite the blood surging through Boehner, and  in terms of foreign policy, at least it is now, more than ever, also under the flashbulbs.  It must be a horrible time to be a xenophobic, homophobic, militant fundamentalist.  We ought not be surprised if we hear many explosions of ire from that quarter as a result.  But we ought to listen to just how dumb and tired they sound and know that they’re loud because they’re losing. 


Even at corporate beauty pageants and football games.