Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

May everyone's path ahead be bright with hope.


D Minus 1

Sometimes there is no option but to try and write your way out of it. So I'm now officially prevaricating about ending this blog. A big reason is you, dear reader. I've heard from people I didn't even know read my words who say they get something out of them. And that has an impact on me.

One way or another, I'll decide by tomorrow. For today, I'm still here and so is this year. It is a year that started out okay but went downhill fast. Like many journalists, I've struggled with the worst job market of my career. So many journalists have left the trade that it's a safe bet more are unemployed than employed.

But it isn't in the professional realm that my year was won or lost. Today, as the year ends, I need to close a chapter on how I feel about somebody special. Despite all that has happened, this is a love story, pure and simple. And also tragic, like many, though not all love stories.

She met me through my words, right here on this blog. Before we ever met in person, she knew me through my writing. In that way, our relationship was perfect. I tried my best to write in an emotionally honest way and someone else found that appealing enough to fall in love with me.

Over the next four years, she did more wonderful things for me than anyone deserves -- she refurnished my shabby apartment, helped me learn how to live more frugally, and nursed me to health when I was ill.

She joined my family, getting to know all of my children, who all came to love her.

There's more about love that we will never know than what I or anyone else can describe. How we fall, why we fall, both into and out of love.

Her dreams were special, but not all of them proved to be realistic. For a long time, I encouraged her to write a book she was working on. To this day I believe if she wrote it it would be a best-seller.

But she abandoned that project, and I'm not sure why. Every month, for one of her assignments, she had to collect American sayings, such as "that's the way the cookie crumbles," etc., cliches. I proved to be very good at providing her ten or fifteen of those every time she asked me.

She also loved to travel and we took many great trips together -- to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, New York, Vancouver, Tokyo, Hakune, and many, many other places. Sometimes we would just drive around the Bay Area, staying in towns on its outer edges, while she practiced learning how to drive.

The day she earned her driver's license was a happy one in our family. My youngest child made a congratulations sign and put it on our front door.


We loved to discover new diners and cafes that serve good, cheap meals, and we found a bunch that -- even after decades here -- I'd never before visited. When I go back to them now, it is always with a heavy heart.

She is a very quiet person, reserved, somewhat shy, and she says she needs a lot of time to be alone and quiet. At first, I was too noisy around her, but with time, I quieted down as well.

She taught me so many things about food and cooking that it is hard for me to go into my kitchen now without remembering one of her tips.

It would be hard to find a kinder, more compassionate heart. Her empathy for me -- and the struggles of being a single parent in a bad economy, aging and worried about the financial havoc created by a bad economy and unfortunate events like an IRS audit -- literally got me through. I never could have survived some of these challenges on my own.

I know that now.

Since she's been gone, my entire world has grown colder, darker, and much, much lonelier.

You never can tell the people you love what they mean to you too many times. I know I tried to tell her over and over but somehow I must not have done it enough.

And that is how this year ends.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Beats Go On; Why Not You?

The view from there, three days before one man's hopes were shattered. Funny how that goes. You can be sitting, staring into space, thinking of somebody special and what you want to tell her, and an image begins to form of a house partway up a hill where you both may live.

But this is dangerous thinking, a therapist friend told me. She also said "you can give too much of yourself away."

As this year, and this decade, crawl away into history's morbid shadows, I'm filled with gratitude, as always, for all I have, and deep sadness for what has been taken from me. A friend points to a picture -- that should be you, the friend says, but it quite clearly isn't you.

The reason your friend had to bring this to your attention is that you've been too depressed to look for yourself. You didn't want to know.

But we live in an era where there are no secrets -- everybody shares everything -- so of course this perfidious evidence exists, and has existed since the very moment, three days after the photo above was snapped, for you or anyone to see, had you wanted to.

You still don't want to, you turn your head away, but your friend is insistent. You turn instead to look at her face, reflecting her deep concern for your welfare.

"You haven't been out for weeks," she says. Her lovely eyes and long hair, black as Michigan dirt, complement her round face, her prominent lips, her red cheeks.  Not to mention her tiny, 5'2" frame, clothed this time in jeans and a tight-fitting, low-cut T-shirt and red tennis shoes.

She is a baby compared to you, with many decades ahead to learn the lessons you are reeling under, should she survive that long. She's a smoker, of both types of the smokes available around here, so you often remind her that her time might prove to be much more limited than it could have been otherwise.

She just smiles, shrugs, and pokes you in the ribs: "So I can grow old and be lonely like you, Mister Giveaway Man?"

She gave you this nickname because (like that therapist) she thinks you are always giving yourself away to people -- to the point that pretty soon there won't be anything left to give...but what does she know?

"C'mon," she says, grabbing you by the hand. "Let's go back to the studio."

Inside the cramped, cold space under a freeway, the band is cutting its latest CD. You've both been hanging out here off and on for days. Those that drink have been drinking; those that smoke have been doing that. The sweet smell of 420 hangs over the place, and you squint to see the lead singer as he twirls your lyrics into their latest sequence: "I'm okay, every day, I'm just fine, most all the time, but then comes night, and all of a sudden I'm just not right..."

So few people know of your second career or your third; you've kept too many secrets all of these years. It's ironic, isn't it, that this willowy little girl knows more about you as a songwriter than your closest friends or family members?

As the drummer steps up the beat, she begins to dance, twirling around and gyrating, her smile getting bigger and her body enticing you to join her.

Okay, here you go. You've always been a good dancer -- that's what the ladies say -- but if it's true it's only because you feel the music as it passes through you like electricity.  In an instant, you're back in Chicago, then Nashville, then Miami, then L.A.

So many songs, so many singers, and the royalties, all filed under a pseudonym, adding up bit by bit into a tiny fortune that you'll be able to leave to -- who, exactly?


You've always accepted change, including in your personal affairs. "People fall out of love," one of those you loved the most once told you.

Thinking back to the photo your little dancing friend has forced you to view, you suddenly realize that that is what must have happened here, right?

Otherwise, why so quickly after leaving your embrace was she so obviously and publicly in this new man's arms? Who is he anyway? Why does his face have such a nasty expression?

"Hey, Mister Giveaway Man, where you goin'? Your little friend is stoned and twirling farther and farther away from your perch on a barstool, here where there is no bar.

You think back to a place much like this long ago. The smoke choked the room then like it does now. The music? The blues, in the Village, a long time back.

Only one other person knows about this story. She went there with you, to listen to a legend. Afterwards, you handed him a slip of paper with some words scribbled on it.

The royalties from that one have never amounted to much but you still like their ring:

Now I see you,
Now I don't.
Now I love you,
Now I won't.
Take it with you,
When you go.
Day will come,
You'll miss me so...

On and on. Songs of love, love lost, betrayal, the pain of having your heart cut in two. There's a song, one you did not write, that claims that the "first cut is the deepest."

But that's only a song. The worst cut, much much worst, is the last one, the one that leaves you to bleed to death just outside of the light where the music is playing, your friend is dancing, the smoke is rising, the beat is building, life is being lived, all except for yours.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Look up, look up, the sky is open.

Look down, look down, your footsteps leave no trace here.

Under cover of darkness, all manner of secrets find refuge.

In distant places, new thoughts take root, and old stories find new chapters. Driving through the rain, threading your way between two huge tractor-trailers, the image forms of what would happen if you slipped a bit left or a bit right. Sudden demolition of all that has been. A release.

How did it happen? the voices would ask, but they would be too late.


Back in the City, walking alone until suddenly you have a companion. Where did you come from? Is this a dream?

Is anyone watching us? Does anyone know you're here? The rain closes around you protectively, keeping all the rest of the world at length. This is your place, just you two, making amends.


"This never happened," she breathes into your ear, stepping on her tip-toes to do so.


Once a writer poured his heart out, not onto paper but into cyberspace, a keystroke at a time. There is nothing remarkable about this; people post to blogs all the time, and much of the content is so intensely personal that it strains credulity.

But now I must return to being simply a journalist, just recounting the facts.  Even I have trouble accepting what I am about to divulge.

How can it be that a man can be alone in his house, writing, when he suddenly senses a new presence? Someone new is listening; she may be close or she may be far away, but she is there, he knows it.

Suddenly it is as if an invisible presence has taken over his hands, his fingers, willing him to say things he otherwise might not have said, not like this, not here, not now.

It's a spooky sensation, as if he, the writer, no longer controls his story. Then again, maybe that isn't so strange; writers often don't know where their writing is going until it gets there.

Still, this time is special. His unseen visitor is encouraging the words to tumble out of him. "Tell me, I'm listening," she whispers on the eastern wind. "Do not fear, I will appear in the flesh," she whispers from the west.

He looks up, he looks down. There is nothing, not even a shadow.

But the words begin.

"I'm sharing my secrets with only you. I know you are there, reading them, reading me. You see me as no one else has ever seen me."

He waits for her answer. It comes in the form of a whisper from the north: "I know, I know. Just keep telling me. I'm waiting."

"Okay, this is making me feel odd but I'll do it. What else do I have left to lose? I've already lost everything my heart held dear -- a sweet loving partner whose eyes looked upon me with kindness, whose lips met mine in long embraces as our arms held each other in an embrace that neither wanted to ever end...But it did. End, that is. She had to go, I don't know why. Maybe she told me, maybe not. I've searched back through everything, but the evidence, if it exists, has vanished, just like her."

"What was she like?" comes the breath from the south. "I'm here, all around you, just let it flow."

"Okay, okay. She was like a feather floating in on an unseen breeze. Her eyes big as moons but dark as the night, hiding as much as they show. Her tongue soft and wet; her hands soft and warm. She folded into me like my long-lost other half; we kept each other warm when the air grew cold."

"Yes, that's good. Tell me more."

"O-o-okay. I liked to run my hands over her; first her face. I would cup her cheeks in my hands as I kissed her lips. Then, very softly, I would stroke her arms, so soft, so warm, so small compared to mine. In fact, the all of her was so much smaller than me, I could pick her up off of her feet and swing her about like a child."

"That must have been fun."

"Once I did this in front of her friend, who was shocked. She wasn't accustomed to see her swept up by someone much bigger and stronger that way. We were on a sidewalk in a strange city, outside a car. We were saying goodbye or maybe hello, I don't remember now."

"Keep telling me."

"Then...It was a summer night, we were in a cafe. I was looking at her and she was looking at me. Somehow we both knew this would be the night. As I walked her back toward her place, my arm was around her waist and hers was around mine. I felt my excitement grow, there's no other way to put it. I said, 'let's take a drive," and she readily agreed. Up, up we drove -- to the highest place in the city. It was a beautiful night..."

"What did you do up there?" The whisper now has become ever so slightly constrained.

"Um, well, I don't want to say that now, not here, not out loud."

"Then come here and whisper in my ear -- I'll hear but no one else will discover your secret."

And so he did.  Now, just the two of them know.


The rains pounded down that night. Propelled outdoors by some unknown force, he forced himself to walk to the appointed place, appointed by whom? How did he knew to go here?

Our rendezvous. After all that's transpired between them, maybe it is not so surprising.

As she caught up to him, the rain stopped, or at least it seemed that way. Just the two of them standing alone in the dark, outside of a darkened building where no one suspected what was happening below.

"I've been listening all the while," she started. "I knew now was the moment to come to you. It's just that simple. I'm here, just for now, maybe for the last time, I don't know."

Now she had become the one racked with uncertainty.

"But, but, I thought you were with..."

"Shhhh," she pressed a hand to his lips. "Don't ask any questions. This will all become clear to you later on."

But, his mind raced: How to account for these things -- is this a new betrayal, now of someone else, or just the righting of a balance between the true two?

Next, a kiss that lingers. Does it matter whether anyone saw us?

Who knows what's right any more at the beginning of a night that never happened. The rains definitely returned, of that much he is sure, but where they lay,  it somehow remained dry and warm.

And nobody saw. So nobody knows.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sweet Love Stories.2 (Fluffy Cats)

Here is another in my series of posts from the past. This first appeared on August 10, 2006.

Last night was hot in the city. You could sit out on your back balcony in a t-shirt, talking and laughing into the night, as we did. It felt magical.

To me, finding love always feels like magic. I never expect it. When it happens, the world stops turning while I start spinning out of control. She and I stay up all night; we can't get enough of each other. Just looking at one another brings a smile to both of our faces.

At the same time, this is so difficult you both start to feel physically sick. It upsets your balance; you feel out of control.

But I like that feeling. Everything is intensified, agitated, hyper-sensitive.

There's a lovely soft water color painting posted at the top of this blog. It's called "Fluffy cats." These soft, simple brush strokes capture the feel of new love...


Those Shadows on Your Face

Winter storms batter much of this country, recalling my younger self just outside of Detroit decades ago, nose pressed against one side of the window while snowflakes pressed against the other.

Magic, for me, was learning that no two snowflakes are the same. This happened at a young age, maybe four or so. Of course, no two people are the same, either, not even "identical" twins, as science has instructed us, though they probably come as close as any to this odd ideal.

Why odd? Well, the better we get to know ourselves during life's strange odessey, it's rather frightening to imagine that there could be another soul, somewhere in a parallel universe, breathing in and out, laughing and crying the same way we do, no?

For my part, I wouldn't wish my consciousness on any other soul, and I do not mean that to reflect badly on me or on him. It's just that I don't like thinking that someone else could travel these pathways, unknown to me. For if he did, I wish he would give me some help here.


New lovers see us in a different way -- that is part of their appeal. Old lovers know us well and sometimes stop seeing us at all -- that is part of their problem. Humans are restless by nature, even when we deny it, we are looking with at least one eye over the horizon, wondering what might await us there.

I was thinking about all of this today as I drove alone along a long highway, something I intend to do a lot in the coming weeks and months. A casual reader of my posts might see me as a man who feels sad at losing his lover. That would be partly true, but it wouldn't capture more than a small percentage of my current state.

I'm also a free bird, unencumbered by any woman's claims, or for that matter, any employer's restrictions. In fact, no one can tell me what to do, whom to do it with, where to go, or how to get there.

Since that is my truth, I'm starting to think that I may not close out this blog after all.

Or I might.

But what's the difference? Either way, I'm no longer looking at another's face, however lovely. Therefore, I'm no longer responsible for helping to make the shadows go away for her.

That is someone else's problem.

Meanwhile, nobody is looking at my face, either. Therefore, I am nobody's problem but my own.


Monday, December 27, 2010

What Only Remains

Just the little things. They're all that's left now. And the memories that jump up and bite you anywhere, anytime.

You did so many things together; how cruel is fate that only you now remember in pain, whereas she bounces happily through her new life, trampling all that passed between you as if none of it ever happened -- or rather as if it were not sacred ground but merely dirt, at last.

That's how it is with new love. You have to self-censor a lot, lest the new partner discover how many memories of your ex- still haunt your current experiences together, for now. Not forever, you hope, though you can't be sure. Just once or twice going to the same places, doing the same things, but now with your new love, and the connections to the old will wither away like dried fruit, hanging onto winter's naked branches, off-gassing.

Yes, you have to tell lies, even if only of omission. Funny thing is there is someone who knows all of this and that is your ex-. The new love never will know what he doesn't know, which may be for the best for all concerned. But, oh, what an encyclopedia of detail could be disclosed by the one left behind!

Little things, almost invisible to the untrained eye, and so unexpected.

Even this forgettable street in a distant place, named with only the first letter of her name. You walked it again, realizing as you did so that the only other time on this earth you did so, she was at your side.

Your hand curled around her waist; you two took your time. It all comes back to you now. It was a warm season then; now it is bitter cold. You were together then, innocent of what was soon come to pass; now, you are more alone than if she had died.

The same route to the same store, crossing the street with the first letter of her name as its name at the same place you crossed it with her -- jaywalked it actually. She would remember none of this; it is so trivial that you probably wouldn't either, except memories are all you have left now, so your brain, from its emotional storehouse, conjures them one by one, forcing you to relive your times together, now with a searching mind.

When did you begin to lose her? How much was she really yours on that other time together on this street, not very long ago in the scheme of things? What force was already at work within her that she could leave you barely weeks later and immediately fall for someone new? What kind of signs did you miss? What was it that you could have stopped if only you'd known? What could you have said to reassure her, to prevent all of this horror?

Your memory traces the path to the store -- yes, you both stepped here, between that plant and that young tree, then followed that walkway. Then, as now, there was a girl outside smoking, perhaps the same clerk on her same break, who knows?

In the same door, down the same aisles, maybe you even bought the same item, but your body memory cares nothing about that detail.

As you retrace your steps out of the store and back to the street and on to your destination, she is silently by your side. Her hand is now around your waist, she is smiling and telling you a story.

It is a story about love -- you both talked a lot about love for four years together -- and about how a woman from far away came to these shores and met a man here and came to love him and they built a life together and now they would grow old together.

It was a very satisfying story, you smile at the memory.

But there's only one problem.

It wasn't a true story. All that remains is the dirt beneath your shoes.


Mountain Road Trip

On the road again...

Toward the snow, heading east.

You met the most interesting man in the world.

Roadside cafes have always been among your favorites -- you'd like this one, probably, but it was closed.

But this one wasn't (closed).

Out to the apple farm.

The only thing better would to be able to do it together. But those days are gone, never to return.

It's like the highway ahead when you are running away from life's unbearable truths. You can never turn back, eh?


Case File of Patient X

Sobering news from one of the most eminent thinkers in Neuroscience, Neurology, and Psychology, Antonio Damasio: "One can die of a broken heart."

I came across this in my research for a project based partially in the best neuroscience I could find, from one of the greatest writers in the field.

Damasio is credited with finally persuading scientists that the historical presumption of duality between thinking and emotions is not supported by the evidence; in fact, the two are inextricably intertwined in our brain matter.

Both are equally necessary for our survival.

There are many problems a person has to overcome when dealing with profound losses such as the death of a loved one or an emotional breakup for which (s)he was not prepared. These problems are magnified when the dying (or leaving) person does not or cannot help prepare the one left behind for the difficult transition ahead.

I leafed through a novel by a Chinese woman the other day who described the "final gift" from her mother as demonstrating the "way to die."

In today's world of social media, those breaking up need to be cognizant of how much damage they may do to the one left behind. One way is simply by openly expressing their new happiness, which only deepens the pain they inflict on someone still in love with them.

Of course, anyone with a big heart wants their ex- to be happy ultimately. But when you are still in so much pain that you catch your chest and have trouble breathing, to be assaulted by the new lightness and sweetness of freedom, new love, and happiness that you don't have -- but she does, purportedly -- when she is the proximate cause of your not having them, is actually more than any normally sane and emotionally balanced person can handle.

It actually is.

This is how one becomes ill, often gravely ill, and in the worst case, dies.

Damasio does a brilliant job of eliminating our misconceptions about the interplay between what we often separate out as the "heart" from the "brain." Being very, very smart is no insulation whatsoever from the "heart" pain you feel during grief. In fact, it makes things much worse, because your perception, newly poisoned with the sensitivity of bruised emotions, goes haywire.

You are prone to do things you never would have done -- mainly self-destructive things. You will push away friends and family, mess up any semblance of an organized life, and spin out of control.

All of this is written in our brain tissue, fired by our synapses, finally anchored, dangerously, in our hearts. This is how one dies, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, bit by bit.

Can fate be avoided? Of course, normally we forge our own path to recovery. All of us works hard at this, no rational being wants to wallow in pain. There is no time for it in this brief existence. So we try to "process," we try to promote the "grieving process."

But this does not lessen the harm in every case. That depends on the circumstances.

What makes this worse for artists is what happens to your creativity. There are survivable traumas, and unsurvivable ones, just as in automobile accidents -- or perhaps a better analogy in this case would be plane crashes.

In the best case scenario, the writer or artist survives the shock and acquires new power from the loss that they can use to strengthen their work, and make it more universally relevant. No artist wants to be seen as self-absorbed; that is almost the worst insult one can hurl in times of pain -- even when the person uttering it is, in actuality, revealing and voicing a projection from her own guilty conscience.

Because there is, in fact, a worst case scenario, and that is the one Damasio documented.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

A New Heart

One of my grandsons has a hole-punch that punches out hearts. He gave me this one, saying I can have it "forever."

I told him that was good, because as it turns out, the other heart I have is broken.

"Your heart is broken? Then you can use this one instead."

I wonder whether it works like that. Guess I'll keep it with me to find out...

Painting Bird Houses

Cousins working on a present from Grandpa. A rainstorm swept from the coast to the mountains, drenching this place along the way. Inside, there were plenty of diversions.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Joined Together

The moon rose to the east, massive and yellow just above the horizon."Follow the moon, Grandpa, to get there," advised my two-year-old buddy.

Hours earlier, a perfect rainbow had framed the East Bay from San Francisco.

Any way you cut it, all signs pointed east.

In my research, I stumbled upon intriguing evidence that emotions are not so much separate from reason but that cognitive function and human feelings are intertwined.

I didn't hear you leave
I wonder how am I still here
And I don't want to move a thing
It might change my memory

If so, each time we encounter a new situation, we draw on our previous rational and emotional experiences to adapt.

The problem is whether we ever get certain things right in this life.

I swore I'd never love again
I swore my heart would never mend
Said love wasn't worth the pain
But then I hear it call my name

The world of lovers is exclusive to them, they imagine, for a while, as if nobody else even exists. But, of course, all is illusion.

You're all I ever wanted
You're all I've ever needed, it's you
You're all I've ever wanted
And loving you's the right thing to do
And I'll see it through

Thus, it continues, the circle of love in life. "Tag, you're it." Now you have it, now you don't.

It's oh so special and then, just as suddenly, vanished in the night.

Who can say where the breakdown began, where the threads started to pull away from one another, strand by strand.

But, no, not you, not this time, you say. You fiercely insist this one is different; this one will last.

Rationality. Emotionality. Somewhere unknown deep in your body lies the truth. By the time you find it, however, the moment will have passed.

We're both guilty of mistakes
Though you rarely take the blame
Are you coming through
I hate you

Thus, the tragedy plays on. Still, we all seek the next illusion, the next hope, rarely, if ever, considering what it is we have cast aside.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Next Generation: Our Story Continues

My grandsons visited tonight.

As with anyone my age, I have become increasingly aware of how time advances over the course of a lifetime.

When you're a child, a "Grandpa" is an unimaginably old creature. For my three grandsons, I realize I am that creature now.

Of course, as these things go, I'm still a relatively young unimaginably old creature, at least in my own eyes.

They can't understand that many of the people I knew in my youth are gone. More pass away every year. In fact, several have died recently. But none of this is knowable to the babies, nor should it be.

The day will come, according to the natural order of things, when they'll lose me. But they don't need to know about that for years yet. And I'll do my best to help them create memories of time with me that allows the Grandpa image to settle into their memories, as my grandfather occupies mine.

He was a forbidding figure, but those were different times, he was an immigrant, and I was probably an overly sensitive kid to any sign of disapproval from others.

My grandsons need not worry about a repeat performance; I couldn't be my grandfather, as I viewed him -- so remote and alien -- as I look down into their upturned faces, meeting their questioning eyes.

"Who are you, Grandpa?"

"Let me tell you a story. It begins a long time ago in a place that's quite far away called Michigan. One time there was another little boy, not so different from the way you are, actually. Shall I continue?"

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Heart Persists

The past week, life may have knocked me around a bit, like it did to my tire (above), which is my only explanation for being unable to write as much or as often as I aspire to lately.

Although blogs are nothing new, and I've posted thousands of articles to various blog sites over the years, this is the only one that lasts, because this is mine.

Each big change that sweeps into your life, especially of the losing kind (losing a job, a special friend, a house) creates a grieving period but also opens up new possibilities for your future.

This is obvious, of course, and I am not a self-help guru, so I won't condescend to anyone by offering cliches about how to deal with such situations.

But I will note that, in my case, when someone takes something away from me (typically a job), afterward I'm sad and perhaps mad for a bit, then I inevitably feel that a great burden has lifted.

After all, it really wasn't so great, once you come to reflect upon it. Somebody paid you to do something, they told you what to do and how to do it, they indicated displeasure but rarely pleasure -- you know the routine.

In American business culture, kindness is a lost art. The idea is to be direct. That's fine, I'm not particularly indirect myself.

But opportunities to provide what in HR parlance are "strokes" have been largely eschewed in recent times. The assumption is you should feel lucky to even have a job -- and there is a great deal of truth to that.

We all should feel lucky to even have a job.

Plus the world is changing, especially for middle-class Americans, as I've previously noted. Our position of relative privilege in the world is flattening out as we increasingly integrate our economy with the emerging global system.

There are some who would use our power, including our military power, to resist this adjustment in relative privilege. They believe we have a God-given right to being "number one" and other people should not be allowed to catch up unless they do so at no cost to us.

It doesn't work that way, sadly. The world as we know it is a finite place. There are only so many resources. They have to go around, according to some sort of system of equity, or monstrous disparities will persist between the rich and the poor.

There are those among us who defend such disparities, of course, and would fight to the death presumably (or more likely send others to fight to their death) in order to defend them.

Not me. I recognize my relative wealth in a world of poverty, illness, and shortened expectations. It doesn't make me feel better, although I am grateful that my parents immigrated to America, and that I am an American.

But the political discourse is so poisoned in this country I cannot bring myself to participate in it at this point. I wrote a lot leading up to the last Presidential election, but I may have very little to say this year, unless a measure of civility and sanity returns to the debate.

In my view, those who hold political power at this point should exercise it fully with little regard to the political consequences. Though that's easy for me to say; I'm not in the business of politics.

Yet I have a feeling some very good people have been making some very tough political calls lately; taking positions that may indeed shorten their careers to do what they think is best for the nation.

I'm not in a position to evaluate complex policy matters and not inclined to do so. But I do hope things get better for the millions of us who have been and are still being abused by the health insurance companies. We deserve better.

Beyond that, in my own universe, I'm hard at work on some new projects, things I'll perhaps discuss here in the days and weeks ahead. My writing may rarely touch on national policy or the business world these days, but it will touch on the human heart.

That is the topic I care far more about in the end. Others can debate their own hearts out. My own aches at times and at others it soars. This journal charts those vibrations, even as the larger world does what it wishes to the likes of you and me.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Nerve

The kids were nervous yesterday. It's the start of spring soccer season, and the beginning of track season. Young athletes get jumpy ahead of the time to compete; as the games begin they instantly calm and become focused.

It's always inspiring for me to see.


Much of parenting is bearing witness. I was talking during the long, slow waiting period at the track meet to another parent about how confusing the teenage years are; how opaque high school culture remains to us, the parents; how much we still want and need to do the right things as parents but we are no longer sure what those are, exactly.

Maybe it's time to let go.?

Maybe it's time to hold on?

Maybe it's just to be there.

The phone call I'd been dreading for 24 hours came just as the night soccer match got underway. "We're sorry but..."

More financial bad news. More stress. More worries about a future already wracked by uncertainty.

For now, I was powerless to do anything about it. Maybe, as it happens, I will be powerless altogether. I took a short, lonely walk to the other side of the field, where the shadows were spreading from the sun setting to the west.

I returned to the sideline to watch my son play. At one point, with his goalie down, the other team's kick was heading directly into his team's net when he streaked out of nowhere to intercept the sphere and redirect it far out of bounds.

I heard myself break out into a loud, hoarse cheer; then I felt tears on my cheeks.

Afterward, I told him my news, which he somehow, on some level, already seemed to know. As I dropped him at his mother's, he took me aside, gave me a hug, and said, "Thanks for coming to my game, Dad. Thanks for coming to all my games."

Friday, March 19, 2010

Nothing But Beauty Tonight

There's a baby artichoke growing in our backyard.

Everything else here is growing as well. It's spring.

My life has been in a transitional stage so long I can't remember when things felt stable around me. Everything is in flux; as I find something to hold onto, it soon gets swept away.

Most of what has been most difficult has been professional. My career has been a means to support my family the past 38 years. It has been rough at times, but I always found ways to use whatever skill I had as a writer, editor or manager to pay the bills.

In recent years this has become tougher and tougher. The economy is bad, yes, but the basic platforms where people like me made money in the past have also been evolving in ways that render us increasingly marginal, from the perspective of those who decide these things.

I've always been on the edge of journalism, of course, but there was a time when my edge was a bigger slice than it is now.

But those are simply the reflections of someone engaged in an increasingly difficult struggle to continue supporting his children by doing what he does best. Maybe endings sometimes come in springtime; certainly in my past painful personal breakups occurred in this season. (Jobs usually ended in the fall and winter.)

My second marriage ended in the spring of 2003; my girlfriend left for the Gulf Coast, never to return in the spring of 2006.

But none of this matters to me tonight; all I have seen today is beauty -- the loveliness of new things growing in the yard; my children at week's end.

Others things may soon pass, the signs suggest; but I feel serene tonight that I have done my best and there will always be things I cannot change.

Meanwhile, I'll stay focused on new life, its patterns and colors. On hope.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Thin Line Between Security and Helplessness

The blowout happened as I was driving alone on the freeway headed north at rush hour. By the time I'd navigated my car over to the shoulder, the left rear tire was shredded.

After "roadside assistance" arrived, I traveled the rest of the way home feeling like a tin duck in a shooting alley. Going 45 mph, the maximum allowed, with one of those tiny wagon wheels that passes for a modern spare tire, and my emergency lights flashing, I limped 15 miles among SUVs and pickups weaving in and out at speeds up to twice mine.

It almost felt miraculous to survive.

All of my adult life, few things have made me feel more vulnerable than car trouble. First in Michigan, then here in California, I've lived in places where it's impossible to get to where I have to go and do the things I have to do without having a reliable vehicle to get me there.

A little over six years ago, around Christmas 2003, I bought a new car for the first (and probably only) time in my life. At the time, new at the business of living alone after the breakup of my marriage, I felt the need for whatever measure of security a new car might provide.

So I went to a dealer and bought the first car I saw.

It's been fine, really, until the past two days.

Yesterday mroning, as the kids and I piled into it, running almost late for school and work, the car failed to start. I'm not proud to say I lost it then and there. I freaked out, in front of my kids.

Not a great parenting moment.

Half a day and $500 later, I had the vehicle back.

Tonight the tire blew out. What was that about?

I'm back home, in one piece, but I'm not sure how safe and secure I am feeling just now.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

There May Be No Answer

Take the lid off an old box and your senses from decades ago may rush back into your present.

It was time to clean out an old organizational storage locker today, so my CIR co-founder Dan dropped by a few ancient boxes that were filled with files of mine from the 1970s.

It's hard to describe that era now in any way meaningful to anyone who didn't live here then. The physical City remains, a shell housing the remains of a culture that has almost vanished.

We were young, the 60s generation, called hippies and radicals, but really just American kids. We were idealistic, naive, hopeful.

But we also were bitterly disappointed, by the mid-70s, that our biggest social and political visions had proven unrealistic.

There was not going to be a revolution; furthermore, we'd begun to suspect that we hadn't known even remotely what we were talking about when we called for one.

The violence of the drug trade in the streets hinted at how ugly a revolution waged by "the people" would have quickly become.

Many of us started having kids, getting real jobs, growing up at last.

Through all of this I was pursuing my brand of journalism along with bands of others around my age.

Today's delivery brought that back.

I only took a few items, and quickly recycled most of those. It is tragic in a way -- more of our pre-digital history going into the impersonal recycling bin out front, but space is limited and I cannot think of anyone who would want this old stuff.

The paper is crumbling, it smells stale.

I saved a few letters, envelopes, files, some old copies of magazines and books, at least for a future day of reckoning.

Dan took an entire carload off with him to his house in Berkeley, where he will resort it and recycle much of the rest.

As he drove away, one box's label shot me the eternal question through his back window.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Steps From Disorientation

Photo by Dylan

There are several times in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (ねじまき鳥クロニクル), by Haruki Murakami when the middle-aged protagonist goes down a deep well, withdraws from the world he knows, and waits.

In one case, while he is sleeping down there, the ladder out disappears.

If I recall correctly, a teenage girl who is his somewhat mysterious neighbor rescues him.

Most of what makes this younger character mysterious is her youth. After all, who can comprehend the young?

Memory cannot help.

The other day, on the beach, we came upon this hole in a structure devoted to managing the City's sewer overruns in storms -- or at least that what a sign explained.


Today's situation for older generations is particularly stressful due to the pace of change.

Technology is the most obvious indicator of this change. Today, while taping a radio interview about social media and how they've affected the way we live, I started thinking about all of the people who find Twitter, Facebook, the iPad and the rest just too overwhelming to handle.

Many even find blogs daunting. When I started writing this one, about four years ago, blogs were still a novelty among the non-early-adapter set -- in other words, everyone normal.

Having been immersed in Geekdom for 15 years hasn't allowed me to escape some of the feelings of alienation and disorientation I see sweeping others around me. This is truly a confusing time; changes seem to have sped up and -- in certain instances -- left reason behind.

What's important to know and what can be safely ignored?

Even assuming you can navigate the technological and economic storms swirling around you, each person faces the universal human challenges of aging, social dislocation, health issues, broken hearts.

Then, one person's misfortune often creates the next person's opportunity.

You see that in properties that turn over. Why, exactly, is this house now unoccupied and what happened to those who lived here?

What do we know about what went before. And how can we hold on to any certain sense of what faces us tomorrow.

What is cool about perdurance?

Sometimes, on a lonely day in a lonely mood, steps down a well may beckon all of us. Taking the nearest hand from another is probably a better way out than waiting for a pretty young mystery girl to show up and save you.

Because I'm fairly sure that that only happens in novels.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Footsteps to Everywhere

After my commute home tonight I sat in the garden with my neighbors for a bit and we listened to the birds sing. A large bluebird flew into the apple tree, followed by a tiny, bright hummingbird.

The sun fell and I got a call from my eldest son. He's working on his PhD down in Pasadena; and called me while walking home from his lab.

There, like here, it was a mild spring evening.

As we talked I remembered him as a little boy, with a thatch of bright yellow hair and brilliant blue eyes. He was always smiling.

From an early age, he was quite clearly athletic, so we played baseball, as fathers and sons do in this country.

As he approached the age to qualify for Little League, I bought him a bat, glove and hardball and took him to a nearby park to practice.

The very first ground ball I hit took one skip and smashed him in the nose.

Nice work, Dad!

He laughed it off, despite the blood and the shock, and turned into quite the baseball player.

I lived in San Francisco and he lived in Mill Valley with his Mom, but I never missed a baseball game of his. Time after time, I would leave my jacket on the back of my chair at whatever office where I had a job, and race across the Golden Gate Bridge to attend his late-afternoon games.

He turned into a fine shortstop but also a terrific hitter, with speed and power. Most of his teams were good; one of them, during his best season, won 18 straight games, losing only in the city championship final.

That season, earlier in the playoffs, he hit a grand-slam home run over the fence and out of the park.

That was 18 years ago this spring.

They grow up fast, our kids. Pretty soon, they've moved on, sometimes quite far away, as he has.

The memories linger. Somewhere I have a framed copy of a newspaper article mentioning his exploits that wonderful season. I was always his loudest fan, of course, and was sorta disappointed when he decided to cut his sports "career" short.

But, as it turns out, he made all the right choices, and I couldn't be prouder of him than I am. A neuroscientist. Also, a softball coach of his lab's team. And a loyal son.

They don't make them any better than Peter.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Waking Up: The City

As the sun comes out along the northern coast, everybody turns his face toward the warmth. New hopes are born.

Even an endless-seeming recession can't dampen new dreams. "For Sale" signs still crop up around the city; small groups of potential buyers (or maybe just dreamers) turn up for Sunday afternoon "open houses."

The kids fill the parks; the old folks stroll along Stow Lake. The joggers hit the park or the beach. Far offshore, the Farallon Islands float above the mist.

This year, more than most, I feel like a bear, blinking awake after a long, cold winter. If hibernation isn't the right description exactly, I've at least spent a long time asleep.

Waking up to the light, now winter's dark has passed, opens many questions. Which further aspects of the way I have been living should be cast aside?

This is a year of rapid change for me. When I think back to that room near Alamo Square, recovering from illness, squinting at the distant downtown lights at the Christmas holidays, I'm not sure whether I was imagining the feelings that fill me now.

I'm not sure I could have.

Life is reborn every spring, whether we notice it or not...whether we appreciate the fact or not.

Far to the north of here, my youngest grandson has started crawling this weekend. Up in Oregon he has mastered moving across the room before even turning eight months old. He copies his heroes, his brother who's three, and his nearby cousin who's one-and-a-half.

Here my schoolkids work through their 9th, 8th and 5th grade schedules, growing smarter and more confident day by day. It's spring soccer season now; my daughter's first practice was rained out Friday but took place today.

As she and her teammates ran about the field at St. Mary's, I happened to be standing on a hill whose name I don't know, several miles to the southwest. Responding to the motion of small figures moving far away, my eyes turned in her direction.

My mind had been on another matter, a different conversation. But I was aware of the time, which meant that in the back of my mind, she was there. The clocks had turned today; did she remember? Do her cleats still fit?

A parent's thoughts drift -- sometimes just outside the range of consciousness -- but they are always there.

She and her cohorts were far too far away for me to differentiate who was whom, so I just imagined her running and jumping, much as the great Jacob Lawrence once imagined a childish Harriet Tubman.

All of those bright sprites, cartwheeling across the green. My imagination suddenly merged with his imagination, as we collaborated on remembering the past and anticipating the future.

It's spring-time. The impossibly green leaves with their pure white blossoms snake up and down the branches of the plum tree, doing their part to help feed us this coming summer.

The earth is fully awake now, so our time has also come.


One Boy's Next Step: A Tribute

Another spring; another child waiting to hear what high school he's gotten into. Just as every child is different, every outcome and reaction records its own emotional impact within a family.

This time, yesterday, came a moment of unqualified happiness. My youngest son got into Lowell High School, his first choice.

Students are admitted to Lowell according to a merit system, based on points awarded for grades and test scores. It's extremely difficult to get in.

But he did, by a mile.

I happened to take this photo just as he realized the contents of the letter. He and I been across town when it arrived at his Mom's; he insisted that she not tell him the news; instead, we drove back there and then he waited while I parked, walked up her stairs, and came into the house to be with him as he learned the news.

His reaction was typically simple and unvarnished: "I'm going to Lowell."

No whoops, no fist-pumps. Just a quite smile of satisfaction.

Because I write so often of his (slightly) older brother's accomplishments, I sometimes feel like I'm overlooking my quiet, deeply thoughtful 13-year-old, even though that is how he would have it be -- no questions asked nor answered.

As little public attention as possible.

The two of us took a short walk on the beach. There, in the open air above a wild Pacific, his red curls tousled and his lanky frame energized by the chance to run and jump, he let off some of the nervous energy that had had to be building up during weeks of waiting for this day.

For a bit, he chattered, too; in his unique way, when he gets talking, there is no stopping him. He had lots to say about lots of things, his words misting like a gentle fog over the two of us at a semi-empty portion of beach where we frolicked together.

I love the way he uses language; to reproduce it here would amount to plagiarism of an invasive sort. Rather, I will await his writings in years to come.

This was a day I feel sure he will remember always. At a quiet moment, he stood alone on the dunes looking east toward Japan (which he badly wants to visit) and China. I stayed back, took another photo.

In that moment, I felt myself in his memory, many years hence, as he remembers the day -- the first day, really -- where his extraordinary intellectual curiosity received a bit of official recognition.

I can only say I was proud to be there.

And that I'm also sure there will be many, many more.


Friday, March 12, 2010

No Path Ahead for Writers

With an extended rainy season, no one has to worry about watering the plants around here just yet.

It's been raining again today, off and on. Everything is growing just fine without any additional attention from us.

In conversations with a few other writers lately, they complained about editors who never have a nice word for their work, but often are bluntly critical. The writers described how, bit by bit, they feel themselves shutting down.

One friend likened it starving a plant. "You water it less and less until it dies. That's how writers die."

Another friend notes that writers survive more or less like camels in a desert sometimes until a "great editor finds them. Then everyone wants to suck them dry."

This kind of cynicism is common among writers, all the more so in a time when we are so badly underpaid that the minimum wage would be a giant step up.

A society that kills off its writers is much like a land that kills off its plants. Once the nutrition is gone, the inhabitants will starve.


When I worked as an editor, I loved working with writers and designers, and I know that most of them loved working with me back. It is a collaborative art -- content creation -- and there are many ways to tell a good story.

But writers, like all artists, need to be nourished, to be brought along.

Too bad that kind of editing appears to be largely forgotten, and most definitely under-valued.

Those employed as "editors" in today's publishing industry should answer this question. Do you find yourself complaining about writers more than praising them?

If so, perhaps you are in the wrong job. (Emphasis added but not meant.)


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tea Parties Calling Kettles Black

Listening to the traffic reports here in Northern California means hearing stuff like, "Meanwhile, on the Zinfandel on-ramp..."

One of those cute toys we give little kids, rubber duckies, really are pretty good role models, when you think about it. No matter how much they get bounced around in the bath water, they don't sink.

The just keep bobbing back up to the top of the water.


The health insurance company for myself and my kids is Anthem Blue Cross, that's right, the one raising premiums on us by 39 percent this spring.

Those of you who have stuck with me over the past year will perhaps remember that this same company refused me coverage when I got laid off a year-plus ago, claiming I had a pre-existing condition -- falsely.

I still would be uninsured except for President Obama, whose stimulus package brought this and other insurance companies back after folks like me in order to collect their two-thirds reimbursement checks.

It worked like this -- a half-year after cutting me and others off, the companies took us back on and then charged us back fees for all those months we thought we were uninsured.

This way they made a killing off the stimulus money and we got to be insured again. Of course, we hadn't gone to doctors all those "uninsured" months, so now we were literally paying for nothing but that's how capitalism works in America.

This week, Obama has finally gotten back out into the country to lobby for what's left of his dream for health policy reform. In the process, he's telling the truth about Anthem and the other monstrous gougers who continue their shameless plundering of poor and working Americans, and he is using their foolish actions to mobilize support for the bill awaiting passage by Congress.

Is this a perfect bill, or even a very good one?

Of course not.

Blame can be assigned, depending on your political persuasion, but that seems pointless now. If Obama has to use raw political power to get it passed, so be it. He's got the votes and who knows how much longer he will have, so I say, do it now.

We can all ignore the Republicans who denounce him for not being non-partisan.

Let the tea-party call the kettle black. Who gives a fuck about them?

Bad losers always scream.

Let's just use any means possible to slam these out-of-control health insurance companies against the wall, break up their monopolies (which are corporate socialism) and start allowing working people the chance to try and start taking care of our health care needs once again.


Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Sharing a Smile

Seen through a journalist's eyes, social media are extraordinary sharing channels -- people use email, Twitter and Facebook, etc., to share links to stories, photos, charts, podcasts, video clips, blog posts -- anything they find of interest.

It's one of the most natural things for humans to do (though this tendency varies somewhat by culture).

Americans in particular do like to share content with one another, especially with friends, family, colleagues.

I have often relied on friends who forward me links to articles about the media business for my BNET blog posts, for example.


Let me share a personal story with you. Today, for the first time in a while, I was able to take a long walk. It was a cold, clear morning, and I walked a mile to a meeting and back.

On the way back I spotted a Latina woman selling cut mango from a street cart.

My 15-year-old loves mango and I knew I'd be picking him up after track practive later today, so I purchased a bag.

It cost $2.

In the exchange with this vendor, we tried English, then used Spanish to complete the transaction. She apologized for not speaking English very well (in English), and I apologized for not speaking Spanish very well (in Spanish.)

I told her that her English was beautiful and she could feel proud of speaking so well. Then she smiled at me, a most beautiful smile.

At that moment, I knew this would be a good day.

On the way home I ran into my neighbor, a songwriter, returning home with his late-morning coffee from the Atlas Cafe.

He stopped by my place for a while and we compared notes about our different writing forms. He said he wrote his best music during a stay in a remote cabin in Arizona. "It's hard for me to write with people around, I get distracted."

We then talked about the content of his songs, which tend to be simple lyrical poems about loneliness, love, loss -- all the basics of life no matter where you live or what you do.

I told him I felt ready to start writing music again, and we talked about the song I wrote last summer, "Missed Connections."

We agreed that a simple encounter could be the basis for a very good song. Then I told him about the woman and the mango cart.

I told him about her smile.

He understood.


Monday, March 08, 2010

Stuck in a mudhole with a stale dog biscuit for company

Ranging far to the east one day and to the south the next, my car and I are getting to know another better once again. The commuter's life, at least in my case, involves much more radio than usual (NPR, alt. rock, sports) and immediately connects me with a certain segment of society -- mainly employed, living a 9-5 work schedule, and trying to balance a lot of things.

The radio I hear tends to be "drive time" programming, pitched exactly for this demographic, which also happens to be the peak radio audience on any given weekday -- and therefore the most lucrative (thus all the ads.)

Media consumption over the course of my lifetime and career has evolved so rapidly and proliferated so greatly that in today's America there appears to be much more media than there is a critical mass to consume it.

Or maybe that's just my impression.

But millions of people still tune into prime time television, and millions more still read newspapers and magazines.

Meanwhile, the media habits of the young are not conforming to set programming schedules. From social media to texting to Tivo to YouTube and streaming movies over game consoles, there is a generational divide greater than the Grand Canyon.

Overall, media messages have become so pervasive that most of us, even if acutely self-aware, probably re-channel ideas far more often than create our own. (Here, I have to quote cliches like "there are no new ideas" just to cover my bases, but you know what I mean.)

I'll cop to being a synthesizer of ideas myself; rarely do I come up with such an innovative concept as to qualify for an intellectual patent, even if there were such a thing available.

Rather, I absorb inputs and spew out my own conclusions, often joining disparate data into some weird new pattern that may appeal only to someone as odd as I am -- or so I think until I hear from people I meet here or elsewhere online. (What surprises, sometimes, is that there are so many of us.)

In that context, it increasingly seems like the trappings around content have become more important than the stories themselves. Maybe it's not fair to point to events like the Oscars or the Super Bowl, but the designer gowns of stars or the ads during commercial breaks command more enduring attention from a large segment of the media industry (and presumably the audience) than do the awards or the games.

I overheard one breathless analyst dismissing the film awards themselves as insignificant but the "look" of certain actresses something we'd be remembering for years.

Count me clueless on that one. I wouldn't be able to tell you what most actresses wore last night 14 days from now, let alone a year or more. I did get the impression that J-Lo's dress could have easily gotten up and walked away without her, but beyond that I noticed little and cared less.

Call me a typical male, if that helps. But the content of "The Hurt Locker," which I've not yet seen, as well as certain other films, is likely to have a better shot at sticking with me in the years to come than anyone's outfit, no matter how much yapping occurs online or on TV.

For a lifelong journalist to admit this may seem strange but I've come to despise mass media. Come to think of it, maybe it is not so strange in that I've devoted so much effort to trying to create substantive articles, books, documentaries, and blog posts that the mindlessness of what surrounds us in our McLuhanistic culture quite naturally is offensive to someone like me.

I cannot even pretend to enjoy it. It's boring, alienating and makes me feel worse than being stuck in a mudhole with a stale dog biscuit for company.

So I must have missed the memo somewhere along the line to become celebrity-focused, worship the latest guy gadgets, and celebrate the accomplishments of rich asses like Donald Trump.

Because absolutely none of this holds my attention for even a nano-second. Writing this post tonight is, in fact, a kind of therapy for me. The radio and TV is off; I am not checking email or browsing the web.

No other media is reaching me. It's just the wish of having a conversation with you, dear visitor, that heals me, so thank you for stopping by...


Sunday, March 07, 2010

Two Nights, Three Months Apart

The last time I visited this local nightclub to see a friend play it was winter, exactly three months ago tonight.

A lot's changed since then. Tonight, after the Oscars, on an extremely windy San Francisco night, I returned to see my friend perform again.

He's getting better as a singer; I'm getting better as a listener.

Driving home after the show, I again was struck by the nature of time -- slowed down, sped up, drip drip drip or racing like a rocket.

That December Sunday night, I walked back home. For whatever set of reasons, I can recall every block on that walk, the way the walls of buildings looked, the wood paneling here, the rows of bricks there, a mural that lay in shadows outside the streetlights swaying in the night.

This night, the only music back home is from a set of wind chimes a friend from Malaysia gave me years ago when visiting my home in Mill Valley, some 15 miles north of here, across the Golden Gate Bridge.

That was probably 23 years ago.

On that property, which was wooded and terraced uphill, a night's wind could rattle the chimes outside our basement door as the possums worked their way uphill, or the deer ate their way down.

Here, on my back porch, the same chimes swing in a Pacific gale, summoning me back then to that place and that time, that friend and those moments.

I ran into an old friend tonight at the club, a former softball teammate, now a performer himself. I love hanging around live music venues -- I love the energy, the anticipation of each act, and of course the performances themselves.

Into a warm place, surrounded by people and music; or out again, alone in the night. Either way the clock keeps ticking, oblivious to anything written or read here.

Three months vs. 23 years. Any of it could be today, yesterday or tomorrow.

Life is what you make of it. If I had mine to live over, I would have made much more music...


Saturday, March 06, 2010

Where Stories Come From

[This post has been renamed from "90 Days and 90 Nights"]

When you're sinking like the Titanic, you can:

(1) hold your breath and wait to drown,
(2) keep rearranging the deck chairs, or
(3) jump.

I'm sure there are more options, but you get the idea. The problem with depression is untangling what is external, and therefore largely out of your control, as opposed to internal, and therefore completely out of your control.

We live in an age and society where we medicate depression, although, as a recent New York Times Magazine article reported, some doctors and researchers now see an "upside" to leaving depression untreated.

Among the examples cited were writers (one small sample found that 80 percent are depressed), with the implication that many might not produce their best writing if they were medicated.

The idea is that there's a trade-off here -- treating the pain with drugs vs. sublimating the pain into stories.


Let me be especially candid tonight. From the beginning, this blog has been a chronicle of one man's pain. There have been, at various times, many other emotions captured and evoked, I hope, but there is no denying that my main personal motivation to write about my life is to work through pain.

In this, I'm acutely aware that I am not alone. Not only from what I hear from readers here (casual and regular), but from other friends, colleagues and strangers who know exactly what I am writing about.

When it comes to the question of whether to medicate or not medicate, I'd never presume to tell another which choice to make. But there does come a point when the preponderance of evidence suggests treatment.

On the other hand, even at that point, another option might be consider the thinking of the experts in that Times article.

Let me try to explain.

We all know some of the triggers of depression -- losing a job, breaking up, getting sick -- and unfortunately, over time, we all experience one or more of these triggers. Some of us experience all of them. Others among us experience all of them multiple times.

Maybe this creates an accumulated pain.

After all, these are all external events, although any reasonably sensitive person takes such things personally, blaming himself even for misfortunes for which (a more objective) observer might apportion responsibility elsewhere.

To the depressed man, it matters not. Over a lifetime, as the slow, awful realization sinks in that these cycles of loss are your fate, you have to develop, by brute force, a personal survival strategy.

You cannot allow these things to defeat you in the end.

Giving up always appears as an option, but it's actually only a cop-out.

Going on is the only choice; it's the morally and ethically correct choice. No one is perfect, no life is perfect, no path can be revisited once you've traveled too far away from the place and the time when things might have turned out differently.

I heard an artist from another culture describe what she called "pathways" recently, and -- if I understood her meaning -- she was using the term to describe those pivotal moments in life when we make fateful decisions, from which there is no return.

Looking back, these moments stand out with all of the crystalline clarity of one tiny tree branch coated in ice, lighted by the sun, outside my childhood window many decades ago in a white Michigan winter.

As I pressed my face to the window, I felt only awe. I was clueless as to what I was actually seeing -- how the branch was me, the ice confined me in that place, that time, and that position, but that even the ice itself would soon be melting, or indeed the role of the sunlight, and how that would come to define my own life as a writer.

None of this could I have known then; only the years have brought it back and brought it into a sharper focus.


Today, as on certain other days, I struggled for hours to find the strength -- physical, mental, emotional -- to get out of bed and enter the day. I had more reasons than most men to rise and become active.

Three of the most important were my young children, already long up in my apartment and going about their daily routines, which on Saturday includes watching TV, playing video games, and making themselves yummy cinnamon bread toast.

They left me to resume my life at my own pace; they are empathic children, so, without words ever being spoken, they knew some things were wrong for me in my world. I can try to hide sadness but I always fail, at least with them.

All in a moment I was able to get up and join the world again. Without recounting what in every way was an ordinary day, allow me the indulgence to specify a handful of moments that brought me out of my darkness and into the light once again.

My daughter asked me to build a Lego toy with her in the morning. This is a type of play that is mainly in our collective past now, she is very busy becoming a young woman and only occasionally reverts to being a little girl.

But I really needed a little girl again today, although I never would have put it that way, nor would I have known that a simple game from yesteryear would brighten my dismal spirit state.

My soccer-playing son and I drove to his practice. On the way across town to out near the ocean I was angry, upset, frustrated, not able to find the route and hating myself for that, and a million other personal failings.

Why can't I perform the simplest tasks? I knew my outburst, plus the underlying emotional stress of feeling his father's sadness was weighing heavily on him. He slumped back and tried to nap the rest of the way to the field.

As he practiced. I spoke with other dads about little things in ways that comforted me. Parenting is so complex sometimes, and then, also frighteningly simple. I also had a long conversation with a friend about the subject of this post -- depression -- which helped mine lift, centimeter by centimeter.

The sun emerged, warmed our day, heated my skin, raised everyone's spirits. From yesterday's gloom came today's spring-like air, the air of life and love and hope and a freshness of purpose.

In this air I can be anything, and anything can yet happen, including all kinds of good and marvelous things.

This air is the purest of music, and what I needed, desperately, was a new song to enter my brain.

On the way back my son told me how much he loves soccer, how it is his "passion," and then he told me something I never knew before today.

Last summer, as he was about to begin high school, he had visited the soccer coach to tell him he would like to try out for the team.

"I'm sure I looked like what I was, a scared, skinny little freshman," he told me. "But do you know what Coach did. He smiled that big smile of his and said, 'Welcome! And I'm sure you're going to be a great addition to our team!'"

He was. He made the team, became a starter, a star, and a key part of a winning team that made the playoffs.

It was a magical fall for him and -- as his father -- for me. I can't even think about it without tears filling my eyes. I'm so proud of him, and I know how much work he puts in to excel at competitive team athletics -- a world I never really knew as a boy.

As he told me this story, I loved his coach all over again -- a big, somewhat tough-looking but essentially gentle man, African American, a man who loves his wife so much he spends hours at school openly making her a poster for her birthday, or planning what to do on their anniversary.

This man does this proudly in front of his athletes -- young males whose minds might otherwise rarely focus on the kind of love a man can have for a woman, not in the movies or in a bar or in a song explicit with sexual lyrics, but the simple, lovely feeling of a man for his wife.

Whatever happens to my son's soccer "career," which he explained to me today he fully intends to pursue throughout high school, and barring injury, throughout college, I know he will always remember that first encounter with his high school coach. And now I will too.

Later still his little brother and I played "21" and "Horse" in our backyard court in the sun; then we sat and talked about a variety of topics. This is possibly the gentlest child in the universe, a boy with a brilliant mind that reaches into places far beyond the grasp of the typical 13-year-old.

His favorites these days include Orwell and Hemingway, and as he describes their fiction, he always illuminates new meanings of their work while he critiques them frankly and effortlessly -- dissecting their stories and characters and voice as if he somehow inhabits these writers' brains. There is no move they make that he cannot understand as to its purpose and effect.

But it wasn't his soliloquy on literature that touched me so much today as his pragmatic skill in solving another nettlesome problem. Just as I seem incapable of finding my way in my car I utterly lack the logical genes necessary to make any device work for long.

My camera's Memory Card claimed it was full, but I wanted to take a picture. My daughter loved the look of a certain soda bottle we had gotten from the corner store when she was thirsty.

Back home, I had clipped a bit of jasmine for her to place in that bottle.

My son calmly reprogrammed the Memory Card, handed me the camera, and I shot the photo at the top of this long-winded post.

So I offer that photo to you now and I also say, thank you for stopping by. Sometimes, I hope, working the muscle trumps taking the medicine.