Kevin in the Light

I’ve seen light. I’ve seen the early morning winter light filtering through a crystalline Jurassic palace of frozen rainforest in Washington State— and it took my breath away. Every step tinkled with the cracked and crazed enamel of ice that encased every twig giving the sun diamonds at every angle. I’ve seen the sun rise quiet, slow and bright over the ocean in a way that connected me to all color, all people, and all time. I’ve stood in the light of hospital rooms where people die, and are born, and thought the flat light mean on the one hand and miraculous on the other. And I’ve watched the black night sky punctured by crisp white stars while lying on my back in the cool grass with the one I love and thought that nothing could be brighter. All of these lights made me feel wondrous and warm in profound ways.

                But the light that made me feel the warmest happened in a dream. 

I dreamed I was walking on a long road and was being vaguely escorted by a friendly presence that was saying reassuring things to me. I noticed that I was drifting into my old neighborhood, as it was when I was young, and that it felt really, really satisfying and interesting. I could not have been more interested in anything than in observing Salah’s Corner where the older kids used to hang out, and Sergeant Street across the railroad tracks where we’d put coins on the tracks, and the raspberry bushes alongside the tracks that gave us such big red tart fruit. Here’s where we made little huts underneath the branches of this kind of giant bush, and here’s where Jimmy lives, and here’s where we played cards in the grass on summer days near that picnic table.

                And the magic was that things in the dream were exactly as they were back then.  People began to come into view, and I vaguely recognized them.  We turned a corner and began to walk up Willow Street.  My street.  The light shifted,  and I saw a group of kids at the green metal fence.  I recognized them.  Scott Kilman, Phil Hobbs, Frankie Enslow.  Then the presence beside me let me know somehow that I was also in that group of kids, and that we could walk past, exchange a few words, but that we must not linger, and that the boy wouldn’t recognize me as his adult and much older self.  I looked again, and saw myself standing there.  I was about 16 or 17, casually leaning up against the fence with my friends on a soft summer afternoon.  I definitely remember that shirt. 

                I began to breathe fast and inquired quickly and urgently:  was there really only to be a few moments?  Yes.  Let’s go.  So we began to walk past and stopped and talked to the kids.  I have never felt such elation and such urgency!  We kept the conversation normal, and they treated us as if we were familiar and normal adults in the neighborhood.  I felt my escort presence scrutinizing me, waiting for me to use the moment, to say something.  The light got stranger and stranger, a cross between all of the other kinds of wondrous light I’d ever experienced.  I told Kevin in some vague way that he is a really good person, but I couldn’t get much more out than that before I found myself walking away with my escort again in the dream.  I don’t remember anything else we talked about at that brief encounter.

I woke up. I was emotional–it had seemed so real. I had missed a chance to impart real wisdom, and I wanted to get that chance back, to give him advice on life, to reassure him, to be close to him and tell him so many things.

                I have never felt so lit up as when I talked to Kevin at the fence that day.     

Getting Thin

Although I never liked being fat, while I was fat, there was a big part of it I liked.  In the same way that the best part of doing Cocaine is going to get it, the best part of being thin happens while being fat.  I was fat, but I was always going to get thin, and the fantasy of being thin followed me around like a cotton-candy dog wagging its tail.  The circus is always in town when you’re about to start your ‘program’.   

Besides the positive merit of such hope, the thought did double duty by also slaying the hourly, even minute to minute, negative reminders of fatness.  For sheer frequency of thought, the only thing that competes with it is sex.  But sex is thrilling, and the weight thing strikes at the mind like a deep-twitch strobe light all day, flashing at every mirror, every thought of food, every store window you walk by, and every bit of snug of clothes.  But, hey, the little dog is barking back, and every little yip sounds like Soon! Soon! Soon…and you get through the day.

Then one day you start the program, and it works.  Vegetables, fruits, the occasional lean meat or fish.  Walking, then running, then running trails.  The months go by, the pounds fall off and a new creature is following me—a wolf.  Confident, I strut through life, coiled and strong at every new breakthrough.  People remark.  I develop a disdain for fat people but try to remain gracious.  Meanwhile, I feed the wolf—by keeping it hungry.   

And, eventually, I realize that, for new reasons, I am still always looking in mirrors and store windows, thinking about food, and thinking about how my clothes fit.  And I twitch.

You see, you’re always on one side of the trade or the other, and you must invest every day.  That’s where they get you.

The Pigpen

I’d like to live clean, I’d like to stride through life in a crisp, clean, white shirt, and I’d like to be precise and tart in all my endeavors.  But I have pigs to manage. They live in a rudimentary pen up against my house, where thin wood rails encompass a small tilted board hut, a trough, a few buckets, wide flat planes of baked sunburned clay and several precious shaded areas of mud where some of the pigs lay now in the cool muck mixture of mud, pig piss and pig shit. 

I’m there now. 

One of the newer pigs, so skinny, so pink! trots to me eagerly.  Ah, it’s one of my favorites; I call him Dick’s Sporting Goods Rewards Card.  He’s up against the rail, squinting up at me clear-eyed and trying to nudge my leg through the worn wooden rails.  I’ve already had some fun with this little fella’.  Remember the balance ball, and the neat backpack?  Remember looking at the bikes?  Sure you do.  I reach over to scratch the stiff bristle behind his pink sour ear.  Impulsively, he smears his muck-blasted snout against my white shirt cuff and gives a small contented grunt.  See what I mean?  That might be new sneakers right there–maybe even a new bike.     

I survey the yard.  There’s Chase Slate Visa, grazing half-heartedly at a trough, and there’s Home Depot, and there’s CitiBank, and on and on.  All in various postures of need or excess.      

Near the hut, half in the shade and half in the sun, Best Buy and Rotman’s Furniture Card are laying down, heaved up against each other back-to-back for support.  Big old veterans of the yard.  I haven’t tended to them in a while.  They are sleeping, their eyes not quite closed, and they are grunting sporadically and breathing rhythmically.  Each long breath out whistles softly and sounds like “feeeed meeee”.  They all do that when they sleep.  

Finally, reluctantly, I look up and across the whole yard to the hot wide sunny stretch, and I see Capital One Venture Card.  God, he looks worse than ever.  He is the biggest one, enormous, sickly, bloated brown and pink; he’s lying on his side, budged up against an overturned dented filthy bucket.  He appears to be strangling at the thick folds of skin at his neck.  Elsewhere, his dirty sunburned skin is stretched taut and his stick-feet point at various corners of the sky.  I suddenly realize that he cannot get up anymore, and I am repulsed by him.  Clouds of flies buzz at his anus and slobbered mouth and his rheumy squinted eyes, and he barely has the strength to blink. 

I walk a little closer.  He sounds different today–he’s in pain.  Now I see it, a recent long split in his skin:  another late fee.  The split is slowly spilling pus ooze and watery pink blood that climbs down his heaving belly in spidery lines. 

He is taking determined but very labored breaths; he is not asleep, and he senses my approach.  I think he’s saying something, but it’s not “feeed me”, it’s something else.  It’s barely audible.  I must hear it. 

Carefully, I squat in the muck beside him and lean in.  He rolls his whale eye all the way open and fixes it upon me, and I am startled to see within it my own reflection.  At the same moment, I make out what he’s saying, shallow and rapid–“pig. . pig. . PIG!”


As I’m approaching a rotary, there’s a guy ahead of me, on the right side, wanting to come out, and I slowed down and let him out. Sometimes letting someone in holds up traffic for a while, sometimes the effect is very little, but this time it was like not at all. Because what happened was that the guy shot out and instead of getting in the line of traffic with me thereby depriving everybody behind me of one space in line in terms of the time-hit they’re going to take trying to get to where they’re going, he shot across, got in another completely unoccupied lane, and I was caught up to the car ahead of me almost immediately. ‘Almost’ is the operative word here. So it cost the guy behind me a little bit, though he probably barely noticed; now think of the guy behind him, the guy behind him, and the guy behind him. And as you look back, to the 25th guy in line who’s not even turned the couple of corners necessary to be in the right street– as you look at the effect on him: it disappears.

It’s not really like the butterfly thing, the ‘Butterfly Effect’ (the phenomenon whereby a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere; e.g. if a butterfly flaps its wings in China, I could lose Fantasy Football again this year.) Here it’s linear, it’s seeing ahead of you, and behind you, and so is therefore easy to map out. A good math student would have fun with these equations. You can really map out how this happens; you can figure out the ‘time-hit’ that each of your decisions imparts and upon whom and how it is further impacted by the subsequent actions of others.

                What you can’t really map out are the levels of awareness behind you in line, car to car, because at some point people have accepted that when you’re driving somewhere, you will be impeded by traffic.  It’s not like every time you drive somewhere, you expect the streets to be completely wide open.  So, you take that mentally into account somehow.  

                But people cost you time by making those kinds of decisions- like the decision I made to let that guy out.  Small though it may be, and smaller-seeming still the further downstream the decision impacts, I’m culpable for it.  I’m responsible for the downstream, or down-traffic, -pardon the pun-, ramifications. 

The more complex the society, the more traffic there is to absorb an individual decision, however selfish or altruistic it may be, and so people are subtly emboldened to indulge behavior that might not otherwise fly on an open road; and bad stuff flourishes when accountability dissipates like this. When blame disappears behind you in traffic, and people expect traffic, you can do what you want up at the front of the line. Let that guy out, or don’t let that guy out. And if you’re the guy trying to get into the traffic, you can wait politely, or edge out slowly while insipidly pretending you’re not making everyone swing wider and wider to avoid you- or you can charge out in traffic and make people squeal to a stop to avoid a crash.

And that’s what happens to blame in politics. The ordinary citizen expects traffic, and can rarely see what’s happening up front anyway, and so probably doesn’t fully comprehend what’s happening up ahead. That’s what’s going on now. There are politicians everywhere who don’t drive well. Their Unholy Triumvirate of Bad Driving: First, announcing something unpleasant on a Friday, so that by the time folks pay attention to the news again, two news cycles later, the unpleasantry is in the rear-view mirror, superseded by other news the way the latest fashion or pop song becomes the new focus for a hot moment. Second, dismissing mention of prior problems (DUIs, embarrassing votes, criminal associations, hot-mic scandals) as “old news,” which few people can view without distaste. Third, the effrontery of believing that, as a paid public servant, they are not required to answer questions forthrightly, but instead view each question as a chance to parry, and then trot out their party’s talking points.

                And that gives me a new understanding of and a new appreciation for the term ‘gridlock’.”

Upon Taking Photographs

                People, especially young people, now take photographs constantly.  I heard a comedian say, “I have more pictures of my kid now than my own Dad ever even looked at me.” 

I take photographs only occasionally, and when I do, I hope it’s for a good reason. Photography was once inherently wondrous: from the shocking Civil War dead of Matthew Brady to the natural majesty of Ansel Adams, to the power of Life Magazine’s ‘photo of the year’. But smartphones have turned the peacock into a sparrow. Photographs have devolved into the banal: the selfie by that tourist place, the meal at the restaurant. Here it is my friends: “the ordinary—framed!”.

Worse, of the photographs that I do take, I almost never look at them. I barely know how to get them off my goddamned phone and onto my computer, so that I can free up space, throw up and gorge again, like Romans at a feast. Roman stories ended up speaking to us from frescos on ancient buildings buried in dirt; nobody will excavate our stories. If they do, they’ll see that we were so self-indulgent that we couldn’t get enough of our own ordinariness and choked to death on it while real life passed on by, not stopping to help.

Smartphones have become the robots that take over actual experience. They block the oxygen of the moment, stand you in the pose that you must show your friends, and leave you with only a second-hand, knockoff, version of moments of your life that you have actually lived through. You just didn’t live through them while you were living through them, and there is no coming back from that. To experience the memorable without a camera now leaves one feeling that they missed the opportunity of a photograph for social media– versus having gained the opportunity to experience something purely, simply, and without a busy head.

                I admit that I sometimes struggle to disregard the impulse to photograph things, but I usually succeed in that disregard and I am grateful for the reality of that success and the consequent success of my reality.  But I worry about the next generation–they are hard-wired.  And virtual experience, versus the true, could leave them in a fun-house hall of mirrors of life instead of being able to feel and smell the good, the bad, the ugly—the true.  

                Are there beautiful photographs?  Sure.  Thought-provoking?  Sure.  But one can walk unplugged for a few moments anywhere in the world and get it all real-time, and it can be touched, smelled, seen, heard and felt in the soul.  I watched my baby learn about the world with his hands, feet, tongue, eyes, ears and beautiful little innocent mind.  He seemed happy, overjoyed, and wondrously interested. 

                Baby steps.

Ode to a Metal Folding Chair

There is nothing so beautifully utilitarian as a metal folding chair. I’m sitting in a small orderly array of such chairs now, in a church basement, and noticing for the first time the triangles, lines, and curved surfaces that, when opened, lock into each other ironly with simple little rivets and design. It will accept the exact weight you bring to it and give that weight a certain rest. And with a flip up of the seat, this whole organization can snap into a neat iron silhouette for leaning and stacking.

I’m looking at an empty chair off to my right front and thinking about it. I’ve remembered from somewhere that triangles are the strongest shape; when a force is added to a triangle it is spread evenly through all sides. I think also that the clean lines and gentle curves complement each other, and the dull color keeps it knowing what it is. Nothing gaudy here.

                Because of the job I held for most of my adult life, I had to regularly plan and/or be a part of numerous functions and ceremonies wherein dozens, and occasionally hundreds, of folding chairs were used.  I became familiar with chair sets of varying designs and materials with different types of rolling racks for stacking, etc.   Chair setup for functions is an art, an art that has some OCD fun in it, and so we’d always set up the chairs with razor precision.  Setup and breakdown became science. 

And, to really make the case for folding chairs, we’d have to say that folding chairs attend most of life’s most memorable moments: births, deaths, & weddings of course—but also award ceremonies, sporting events, fairs and music festivals, and parties to celebrate one thing or another. You get the association.

But I’m not talking about that kind of chair.

I’m talking about a church basement metal folding chair. And this morning we are talking about Ernie, what a character he was, and how we’ll miss him. Up until yesterday, he would have been sitting in that folding chair over there, against that wall, with his Sharon. Many people here have known Ernie for a very long time and there is largely a sad and warm collective processing going on.

There are so many triangles in AA. When a force is added to it, it will be spread evenly through all sides. And it will accept the exact weight you bring to it and give that weight a certain rest.

Santa Clause, Katrina, & Lost Dogs

                After serving with a U.S. Army Task Force in Katrina in 2005, I’ve been the keeper of a strange, secret, and elevated fear.  I felt like I’d been tricked.  I had believed that our lives in the United States were above the brutal truth told by the devastated and filthy streets of New Orleans.    

                It was a hard coming down, and had many of the nuances of finding out for sure that there is no Santa Clause.  After I found out about Santa Clause, for a moment I felt like I knew something important and adult, and took pride in thinking that I could lord it over those young enough, or naïve enough, to still believe.  But after that moment, after the neighbor kid broke it to me, and I’m sitting on my front step for awhile in the winter sunshine, drawing designs in the snow with a stick, I realized that it all makes sense now.  Past puzzle clues slide together and make a picture.  I’d been led to believe something, something very important about my special little life, something that was not true.  It’s a lie.  The Flying Saucer sled next to me is just something that Mom bought.  There will be no Santa Clause anymore, and the weight of it crushes the original sin of pride.

                I’m writing about this now because I’ve just finished reading Anderson Cooper’s book called Dispatches From The Edge.  In it, he reports upon all of the fantastic journalistic adventures he’s had reporting for CNN while chasing war, disaster, chaos and conflict across the globe for decades.  And despite the tsunami, famines, and wars, he ends up being the most powerfully affected by Hurricane Katrina.  As I read it, I realized he is affected by that experience in the same way that I am.  Cooper has the appropriate abhorrence to the looting and violence, the untended bodies, the general horror.  And he ponders the valid questions about governmental unpreparedness, a lack of accountability for its failure, and racism coloring the response.  But I can read between the lines that he feels mostly a sense of betrayal—a deep one.

                The betrayal is that what he saw over ‘there’ can happen ‘here’.

                One of my earliest memories is seeing a Superman movie that had a United Nations scene in it (all nations facing some global enemy I’ve long since forgotten) and I remember feeling the assurance that smart concerned adults were in charge of the world.  I never questioned as a child that we were all in the hands of educated, morally centered adults who ran the world properly and competently.  The good guys would always win.  As I grew up, I began to learn about the instability of other countries, and some of the ugly events there were splashed across the television news occasionally in obscene gaud.  But it never seemed to happen here, and so I carefully closed the circle of my safety expectations around the perimeter of the United States instead of the entire whole world.   

                And when I joined the Army, I began to travel around the world and see for myself what the television showed. What we take for granted here is not always present there:

  • A young man approached me in Afghanistan accompanied by his wailing mother and presented me with his immensely swollen, purple, and obviously broken arm.  In this primitive village, he had received all the treatment he was going to get, there was no money to be had to get him to real medical facilities and I understood through my interpreters, and surmised, that he was therefore going to die.  I gave him the Afghani equivalent of $128 for a taxi ride to Kabul, payment for treatment at a hospital so that he would live, and the ride back.  Note:  it was illegal for me to give him that money. 
  • In Honduras, my whole platoon was filling in our foxholes and we had each incidentally thrown our trash into the holes before we began shoveling.  A squad of elite Honduran Soldiers was standing near and got excited about this, though they were always quiet and composed even while they worked with the Contras to lure Sandinista forces across the Honduran border for ambush.  After inquiry, we were told to stop with the burying.  The Hondurans would handle it; they wanted the food remnants in our trash.   When we realized what was going on, we quickly rifled through our backpacks to give them any additional food that we’d packed since we were just hours away from a plane ride to the United States.  Note:  They needed that food despite standing there with brand new U.S. made rifles, grenade launchers and machine guns—better weapons than we were holding, an active-duty U.S. Army Ranger Battalion! 
  • I once took a tour of the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, -Bishkek-, with a very nice and professional Kyrgyz interpreter, and she was explaining about life there and reading signs for me and taking me to interesting places. I saw the Kyrgyz police stopped in the street and talking to some people and asked my guide offhandedly if the police were pretty good in this country. Her demeanor changed immediately and she glanced across the street and said with a derisive and certain little laugh: “No. Of course not. They’re probably shaking them down for money.” (Note: this explained why we were all required to carry special instructions with us; besides contact phone numbers and addresses for the U.S. Embassy, the State Department, and our own contracted ‘Reaction Force’; the other side of that card said in the Kyrgyz language something that roughly translates as “Don’t do a goddamned thing to this United States Soldier or you will be in heap big trouble.” We were to present the card to any official encounter with their police.)

                And so forth.  All over the world we’d run into inadequate medical and police services, corruption, etc.  I’d come home and feel safe again. 

                I recognize that some delightful little European countries, perhaps a few others elsewhere in the world, might meet an original definition of “First World” countries:  any country with little political risk and a well functioning democracy, rule of law, capitalist economy, economic stability, and high standard of living.   This is a neat little 6-point test.  But I daresay that there are not many countries in the world that will pass this test.   

                In New Orleans (and elsewhere), police, medical and fire services stopped.  Food, water, and electricity stopped.  Ordinary life stopped.  Thousands of homes and lives were wrecked.  People gazed out into the lawlessness and silence of response and were flooded with despair.  The silence.  Everyone remembers the silence, and Cooper comments on it pointedly.  I’d always imagined that it would take months of chaos to induce such an holistic devolution, but I saw that it took mere days.  Base instincts wriggled free upon the land and collective safety rose into the sky like balloons released for someone killed suddenly in the street. 

                It doesn’t happen all the time here, of course.  But it’s not that it happens all the time here, it’s that it can happen.  It’s that it did happen—and could happen again.  That’s why Anderson Cooper felt a new kind of dread leak into his gut at Katrina, and that’s why I also cannot discount those images or ever truly release that strange, secret fear.

                Even scarier, take a second look at that 6-point test in the context of the United States today.    It’s like being lost in a place that ought to feel like home.

New Orleans September 2005

Dirty half-blown-over trees try to right themselves

in the heat, the heat busies itself with every thick stink.

Signs, buildings, wreckage, and cars tumble

into the blasted streets, and the streets fall dumb

under the flood.  Blood slicks the stormed

supermarket aisles and the people have stopped

clawing at their attics.  Only

the dogs remain—lost

as people ought never be lost; standing gaunt

in the haunted streets, they don’t understand why

the bad dream won’t end, where

their families are, and what,

what has happened to their land.

New Orleans September 2005.  I think

I’ll never find the word

for the loudest sound I never heard.