Before I lived with you I never made the bed.
I never really cared how the bed looked, whether I was in it or not, and in any case I didn't see the point in spending the time straightening up a bed I was just going to mess up again half a day hence, and which no one who didn't live with me would be seeing.
Honestly, I still don't really see the point.
But you like the bed to be made, and so I do. Every day.
It's not my favorite part of my day, and it's not the worst. I don't take any joy or pride in the work or the result. It still doesn't matter to me. But it's because it doesn't matter to me that I do it, because it's something I do only for you, only because you like it. It's something I can do, a small thing, to make you happy and let you know that you are loved.
If there's one thing I do like about making the bed, it's getting to see the evidence that you were beside me in the night. When you're not here, I wake up in the morning to find your side unmussed, unrumpled, un-slept in--of course. It makes the job easier, but it makes me sad.
Tomorrow when I get up, you'll most likely be gone already, taking Jason to school or running an errand. When I strip the comforter, I'll look and see the morning light caressing the wrinkled topsheet, and I'll think of us together. And then I'll run my hands across the fabric, smoothing it out, fluffing and stacking the pillows, pulling the blanket straight. Because that's the way you like it, and because I love you.
When I was six years old--some time in late 1985 or early 1986--my mother, brother, and I moved into a small cabin in Bixby Canyon in Big Sur, where her boyfriend, Pete, lived. We only stayed there for a year--half of first grade and half of second grade, as I always described it--but in that way that childhood stretches time in our memories, that period always looms large when I think over my life.
It's a strange to think that I was only a little bit older than Jason is now when we moved down there--I have such clear memories of the place and of the things I did there, and, of course, of Pete. I remember tearing up slices of American cheese, rolling it into little balls, and tossing them into the creek for the rainbow trout that lived under little foot bridge that went from the driveway to the front yard. Pete showed us how to do that. I also remember dropping a big rock off that bridge to try to squish a crawdad I saw, and how angry Pete got with me for scaring the fish away.
How I remember him now--and how I've remembered him at times past--is complicated, but it always seems to come back to those two things: teaching me things, and being angry with me.
The latter is what I mostly remembered about him when I was a teenager, after he and my mom finally split for good, after she married my stepdad, even into my college years. He's the only person who ever spanked me; he kept a piece of plywood hanging on a nail on the wall, and I remember the fear I'd feel when he'd reach for it. When he drank--which was often--he could become brooding and irritable. At the time I remember thinking he was unfair or mean, and even now it's astonishing to me how trivial some of the things that would set him off could be. He once spanked me for accidentally getting my socks wet in the creek. And I knew he was going to as soon as it happened--I remember putting my belt back on, thinking he wouldn't be able to get my pants down to spank me if I was wearing a belt, which, of course, didn't work.
And he was so unpredictable, too. Sometimes he was all equanimity, sometimes he had a short fuse. I remember on two occasions after watering the yard, I remarked that the plants were still green. The first time he looked at me thoughtfully and said, "Those, I think, are gazanias, and they're pretty hardy plants. They don't need much care, really." The second time he muttered bitterly, "At least for once you didn't kill those damn plants."
Often I reacted to his disapproval and anger with defiance, something that's always been a pattern for me. But, too, I remember wanting so much for him to love me, in ways that I didn't truly understand at the time. Once, his daughter came to visit him--the only time I can remember meeting her in all the years my mom was with him--and I remember being struck by how he treated her.
"Why is he so nice to her?" I asked my mom.
"Well, she's his daughter," she said. "He loves her."
"Why doesn't he love me?" I asked, and started crying. I remember the look on my mom's face as she tried to answer that question, and how frustrated and heartbroken I felt.
And yet, as much as I demonized Pete in my memory when I was younger, that wasn't the whole story. There are so many times that I think about now--times I didn't think about when I was a teenager--when he was genuinely interested in me and my brother, when he looked at us and smiled. The kind of smile that I can see now had real pride in it.
He built us a fort in an old, bent-over oak tree in his back yard, and he knew all the details of every story of aliens and monsters and adventures that I made up when we played in it. He introduced me both to Mel Brooks movies and to inserting movie quotations into daily life--the four of us used to spout off Hedley Lamarr lines and laugh and laugh. The first inklings I ever had of being a writer came when we lived in that cabin with him, and not only did he show real interest in my stories, but he also gave me both the first praise I can remember for my writing, and the first useful suggestions on how to make my stories better.
And he taught me things, things I still think about and use today. He taught me how to build a fire, how to comb my hair, how to tuck my shirt in straight. He taught me how to chop wood and hammer a nail. Everyone who knows my family knows that my mother is a talented cook, so you'd think I'd have gotten my culinary start from her, but in fact the first meal I ever cooked was a can of Stagg chili with a few dashes of worcestershire sauce, garlic powder, and fines herbes mixed in, along with a side of boiled new potatoes--a dish I learned from Pete. My love of John Wayne and Patsy Cline comes from the time I spent with him.
And even though he and my mom split when I was still young, so much of what I still think of as masculinity and strength comes from my image of him. Pete was such a man's man, in my memory, at least. He was a contractor by trade--I remember watching in awe as he and his coworkers poured a concrete foundation when he took me along on a job once--and an outdoorsman at heart. He loved fishing and hiking, pretty much everything about being outside, and he did his best to pass that on to me and my brother. I didn't often appreciate it at the time, being the kind of kid who would much rather sit in his room with a book than run around, but a lot of the respect I have for nature and simple living now comes from him.
I think I was ten when my mom and Pete finally called it quits. Since then I've seen him exactly twice. The first time was when I was in high school; I ran into him at a bank in Carmel when I was going to get some cash. We chatted briefly, and I remember being surprised when I told him that I was doing some acting as a hobby, and he responded that maybe I could make it more than a hobby. I don't know what I would have expected, but he was friendly and genial.
The last time I saw him was the summer I was a waiter at my father-in-law's restaurant. I was working the lawn on a weekend lunch shift, and he and his stepmother were taking a little walk down by the river. Again, he was friendly and interested in what was going on with me, and I think a little impressed that I was dating the daughter of the River Inn's owner. That was thirteen years ago now. I didn't think it would be the last time I'd ever see him. I didn't really think much about it at all.
A few weeks ago--God, I can't even remember exactly when--my mom called me at work and told me that Pete had died. An old friend of hers who was still in touch with Pete had let her know. I was stunned. I am stunned. And in time since then I've been busy. I've been working long shifts for weeks, trying to get a big project finished at my job, so much that I've barely had time to see my kids, let alone to process the fact that I'm never going to see this man again.
A couple of days ago Juliette showed me a note she'd gotten from my mom, describing the small ceremony Pete's daughter held to scatter his ashes. After I read it, I couldn't speak--I just sat there for a few minutes and tried to swallow down the lump in my throat. I don't know if it surprises me or not that I would be so affected by his death. It's been so long since he was a part of my life, but I think somehow I always thought that I'd reconnect with him some day. I wanted him to know what my life is like now, what I'm like now. How I turned out, and what kind of father I am. I guess maybe in some way I was still looking for his approval.
My mom had had contact with Pete and his family a few times over the years, and it's funny how differently he saw that time from how I did. She's told me that he always thought of himself having been a good influence on me and my brother, that he'd done right by us. The last I talked to her about him, a couple of weeks ago, she said she'd spoken to his sister, who'd said that he always talked about his time with my mom--with all of us--as the best years of his life.
How strange, the way that time erodes everything. Nowadays when I think of my year in Bixby Canyon, I can't help but think of it in terms of some garden of innocence, a natural playground of my youth. Is it that the years have worn away the bad memories and left only the good? Or was the pain of that time just too close for me to see the whole picture when I was younger? Every time I go home now, something is gone, something has changed. Every little piece feels like a bit of myself washed away down a river, never to be found again. Sometimes it seems like everything I do is an attempt to hold on to time, but it's not a thing you can keep in a jar on your shelf. Some day all of my fathers will be gone, some day all I'll have is memories and old photographs, maybe a laugh or a wistful conversation. How will I get by? How does anyone?
There's so much I don't know about Pete. I don't know when he was born or when, exactly, he died. I don't know, really, what his story was. In the past, I've judged him, maybe unfairly, and for that I'm sorry. I don't know what I can say that would be a fitting epitaph. But I think, maybe, what I can say is this: he did the best he could. In the end, maybe that's all anyone can ask for.
With My Eyes Closed
I think the worst part of my day is the time between when I get in bed and when I finally fall asleep. In part because the day never feels finished, and in part because I'm not ready for it to be tomorrow, when I'll have to go back to the office. And, in part, because where my mind will go when there's nothing to focus it can be unsettling--panicking about the fact that I'm going to die some day, maybe a long time from now, maybe soon, or maybe this will even be the last time I close my eyes, and what would that mean, and how many things have I left undone, and...
I do what I can to avoid giving myself the time to obsess, lying there with my eyes closed. I try to wait until I'm exhausted, knowing that I'm not doing myself any favors. Or I force my mind into stupid, repetitive patterns until I finally slip away. ("Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas... no, Arizona, Arkansas, California, start over, that's cheating.")
Sometimes, instead, it's flights of fancy. When Juliette isn't shifting positions and the kids are quiet and the dog isn't licking himself, I can convince myself that I'm back in my old college dorm room, or the room at my mom's old house, or the one at my dad's old house. I'll never be in those rooms again except in my head, at night with my eyes closed.
But lying there, when I'm in the right frame of mind, I can feel the presence of different walls just beyond where I can feel the sheets and blankets against my skin, and if I stretch out I'll feel the spot on the wall where my friend cracked the plaster with my head back when in middle school. Or if the window is open, the midnight breeze might have just stirred a basketball net and riffled the leaves of a tree full of beer cans.
Sometimes in my mind's ear I can hear the hollow "ca-chunk" of the door handle leading out of the dorm lounge. I can feel the prickle of dry oak leaves in the soles of my bare feet as I carry a load of laundry from from my mom's front door out and down to the laundry room. And it pains me that I will never, ever hear or feel those things again. Sometimes I wish I were still back there, and I wonder, lying there trying to fall asleep, if maybe I'll wake up to find myself with a pile of homework on the floor and class in ten minutes.
It's happened to me before that I've been in the middle of a dream and felt myself start to wake up, and desperately tried to hang on and keep the life I'm in from evaporating. I remember dreaming about a girl, once, a beautiful girl who I loved and who loved me, and as I started to rise back into the conscious world we both cried, knowing that it would be over soon--I felt numb for a while after I woke up.
Sometimes, when I'm lying with my eyes closed, I wonder--as I'm sure everyone does--whether dying would be like that, like just waking up into a different life. And it seems nice to think that way sometimes, to think that I wouldn't just stop and cease to be. Except that then all the joys of this life--tickling Jason and hearing him scream with laughter, the smile Juliette and I shared just after we'd been married, making faces with Eva, hell, even laughing at the sheer horrendousness of my dog's flatulence--would all have been mere imaginings, and how could I ever get over that? I can't imagine even wanting to.
Lying awake, with my eyes closed, I ponder and panic and come to no conclusion, no resolution. Eventually I do fall asleep, though I don't know how. It gets late, and somehow I trick my mind into ignoring itself.
Albuquerque, Boston, Charleston, Des Moines, Chicago (come back to that the next go-round, or is that cheating?), Edmonton (can I use a Canadian city?), France (not a city), Grand Rapids, Home (a place, maybe, a state of mind, a memory, a . . .
I took a walk with my dog this evening. Two miles around the neighborhood, I kept a leisurely pace and stopped every so often to take a picture. I noticed a lot of things, as I tend to do these days--the way the setting sun skimmed across the northern sides of the houses; the play of shadows on garage doors; the way a little breeze rippled the skirt of a mother at the elementary school playground, her hip thrust out to support one child as she watched another running through the grass. Mostly what I noticed was the quiet, though.
Of course, it's never completely quiet. A breeze would rustle the leaves of a jacaranda as I passed, or a car would drive by. As I crossed the mouth of one cul-de-sac, I heard the rumble of an air compressor and the shouts of childish delight at the simple joy of jumping in an inflatable castle. But these were only fleeting and sporadic. Mostly what I heard was my own footfalls, and the click-clack of my dog's claws on the concrete--the kinds of sounds you can only really notice against a backdrop of real quietness.
Arriving home, I set about filling the silence that now permeates my house, now that Juliette and the kids are 2500 miles away. The whir of the microwave, heating my meal of leftover rice and beans. Shelby Foote's mellifluous drawl as he chuckles over some anecdote revealing the character of some Confederate or Union general--still not enough to overcome the quiet, though, and I drifted off and dozed for a bit, awaking as "Ashokan Farewell" played over the credits. When was the last time I fell asleep on the couch? I don't know, but it's been a while.
This is what I've been doing every night for the past week, and what I imagine I'll do for the next week as well: filling the quiet. Being used to its absence--whether because of the laughter or tears of your children, or even just the television down the hall in our bedroom, lulling Juliette to sleep--quiet now just reminds me of how alone I am.
It's almost the same, though. I stay up late, just as I do when they're here, and my office is lit by the same dim lamp and bright computer screen as every night after Juliette turns in. And after, when I finally admit defeat to my own need for sleep, I walk into the same darkened hallway, and for a moment I can pretend that past each bedroom doorway will be one of them, quietly sleeping. And when I reach my own room, turn out the light, and slide under the blanket, in the dark I can pretend that Juliette is beside me, there just past the part of the bed that I can feel.
It's quiet, and I let the sound of my own breathing, my own heartbeat, carry me off to sleep. In the morning, things will look better again, and I'll be one day closer to seeing them again.
I met Dante in the summer of 2000 when I was working at my future father-in-law's restaurant. I was a few weeks away from turning 21 and Juliette's dad had given me a job waiting tables for the summer, a job I wasn't really qualified for and which I probably didn't deserve. Dante was one of the other waiters on the staff and, like me, he mostly worked lunch shifts so I got to spend a lot of time with him that summer. From the moment I met him, he was always friendly and warm toward me, even though I was a pretty terrible waiter. He was patient and kind, and he helped me a lot. Today I was saddened to learn that he died suddenly and unexpectedly this morning--of a heart attack, I'm told.
I can't help but regret the fact that I didn't know him better. We worked together for a summer, and in the years since we always took a couple of minutes to catch up whenever I came back to the restaurant for a visit with the family. There was a lot I didn't know about him. And yet, looking back, there was a lot I did know. I know he was hard-working, and that he cared about his work and took pride in doing it well. Since that summer we worked together he became a manager at the restaurant, and everyone I've ever talked to about him has loved him. I know that he was easy-going, quick with a smile, a genuinely nice person. I know that he loved his family. I know he had a bit of playfulness to him--I watched him spin a serving tray on one fingertip, laughing, one afternoon after the lunch rush was over. I know he will be missed, by me and many others.
I wish I could remember clearly the last time I saw him--but then, it wasn't remarkable at the time, just another visit home, another meal at the family restaurant. It's not as though this was something any of us saw coming; he wasn't even that much older than I am. So many of the moments in our lives that turn out to be important go unnoticed. I guess that's just the way of things.
My heart goes out to Dante's wife and children. I can't imagine what it would be like to lose a father and husband this way, so completely out of the blue. It's a tragedy, and we are all the worse for his loss.
Goodbye, Dante. I'm glad I had the chance to know you.
An Audience of None
At stoplights, I like to look around at the other cars around me and see what the other drivers are doing. Usually they're just sitting and staring at the light, and these days it's pretty common to see them texting. Once in a while I'll see some guy picking his nose or some woman fixing her makeup. But my absolute favorite is when I see someone singing.
I've always been a car singer. When I was little, in the back seat of my mom's car, the chest strap of my seat belt would become a guitar and I would rock out to her Billy Ocean tape. Nowadays, I might sing to Jason about taking him on a magic carpet ride during our drive to pre-school. Sometimes I sing to my steering wheel about being a pair of underwater pearls or imploring it to bring it's sweet loving on home to me. Sometimes I sing softly, sometimes I get carried away. I have, on occasion, drawn smirks from other drivers.
But, you know, even though I look every day, I rarely see anyone else singing, or even so much as bopping their heads or drumming a finger on the steering wheel. Every once in a while, though, I'll look over and see someone, head thrown back, shoulders bouncing, belting one out with abandon. And on the best days, they happen to notice me noticing them while we both sing, and we share a little smile. Neither of us knows what tune is on the other's stereo, but there's still a recognition, a tiny bond. It only lasts a second or two before it's time to move again, but while it lasts it's wonderful.
Backwards and Forwards
This is the time of year for retrospectives and resolutions, both of which always strike me as simultaneously necessary and kind of ridiculous. There's always so much navel-gazing and hand-wringing, and then there's all the subsequent navel-gazing and hand-wringing about the navel-gazing and hand-wringing. And yet, reflection is good for the soul, goals give you something to reach for, and, well, if I weren't the type to do my introspection in such a public manner, you wouldn't be reading this, would you?
2011 was a year of discovery and redefinition for me. I found out that I am a good enough photographer that people will pay me to take their pictures. I got the first inklings of what it's like to be the father of a daughter. I learned that I can write on a schedule, but not when I'm also trying to support a photo business, a day job, two kids, a wife, a dog, and a social life.
I started out the year thinking of myself as a father, a husband, a writer, an engineer, and lots of other things. Now? Still a father and husband, of course, but with my daughter's birth and my son continuing to grow and change, those mean something different now. (I suppose that will always be true.) Am I still a writer? I suppose, since I still write, but I'm not really trying to be a writer anymore, being so caught up with being a photographer.
And what's the plan for 2012? What will I do differently? What will I start and what will I stop?
One thing I will stop is promoting this blog the way I used to. I've spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking and planning and trying to figure out how to get more readers, more pageviews. At one time I wanted to be the next Heather Armstrong, but I think we can all agree that the blogger-turned-Internet-celebrity ship has sailed. And that's just fine. I'm gratified (and a little amazed) that there are a few people out there who enjoy reading this site, but it's time for me to stop trying so hard to be popular and just write because it's what I like to do.
The rest? Maybe I'll lose weight, write more, take more pictures, get to bed earlier. It's not looking so great for that last one, so far, but who knows?
I'm looking forward to finding out.
It Forgets You
This morning I stood in front of the house I grew up in, for the first time in seven years. It was different, and the same. Like me, I suppose.
I was surprised at how small it looked--how small the whole neighborhood looked, actually. And how graceless the lines were, how rough the walls. I didn't step onto the property, just stood on the gravel outside the driveway and looked in. The air smelled of oak and earth and river plants and cold, just the way I remembered. Familiar, but foreign now.
Everything about the old neighborhood was like that. The doghouse next door had the same names on it, though the people had moved away--and, come to think of it, those dogs are probably long since dead. The little stone mailbox down the street was gone and across from where it had stood someone had put up a mansion--with columns! But just past that was the thicket of cactus where my brother and I had hid and rained down with squirt guns on our friends. The big chalk shelf we used to swim next to was still there, but the river didn't cover it anymore. The same, but different.
Standing there looking at the house my parents sold seven years ago, I knew, finally, that I could never live in that town again. I've carried little bits and pieces of the place with me for all this time, leaves that I could press between the pages of my memory, or maybe old, worn photos that I could keep in my wallet and thumb the edges of every now and again. But I spent too long away; now these old photos are all I have, and coming back, they're all I can see. You can't build a new life around the ghosts of your old one.
I don't know exactly how long I stood there, my breath steaming in the cold of the morning, looking at that old house. Eventually, a man on a motorcycle rode up and parked in the driveway. "Hi there," he said, smiling.
"Morning," I replied. He tucked his helmet under his arm and pulled the keys out of the ignition. I blurted out, "I used to live here." I immediately felt pathetic, but continued on anyway. "Almost fifteen years ago now."
We chatted for a few minutes. I found out he'd been renting the place for four months. He was very polite; friendly, even. I felt awkward for interrupting his morning and quickly bid him good day.
I took a turn by my mom's old shop--empty now--and my old school. I took a moment to visit the tree we planted at my afterschool program to remember a friend who had died. I took a picture of it, then reached out and touched it's cool, rough bark. Some kids were playing at the playground next door while their moms complained about the school's plans to remove the sandboxes and replace them with wood chips. I'm not sure if they noticed me standing there, nor what they would have seen if they did. A strange man caressing a tree, I guess.
We like to think that when something or some place leaves its mark on us, it, too, retains some imprint from us. But it doesn't really work that way. You may not forget it, but eventually it forgets you.
On (the) Edge
Juliette asked me last night how I was feeling. "Are you excited, nervous, happy, sad, what?" she asked, adding "I'm all of those."
"I'm pretty level, actually," I replied. And, emotionally, I'd say that's pretty spot on. I'm not feeling anything particularly strongly right now--in a lot of ways it hardly seems real that I'm going to have another child in less than twelve hours.
Something's definitely going on with me, though. All day there's been a certain tension in my body. I'm having trouble sitting still, and as I type this, my fingers aren't finding the right keys with my normal accuracy. I even feel a little sick to my stomach. Clearly, the anticipation is affecting me, even if my conscious mind isn't aware of it.
It doesn't make much sense at first glance. I have a child already, I know what I'm getting myself into, more or less. There's no real reason for me to be anxious--I know I can handle this.
The difference, though, is that when Jason was born, it was sudden. We didn't know when, exactly, it would be happening--I was in the middle of a conversation at work when Juliette called me to tell me her water had broken. This time we have a schedule, and the concreteness of it is making the experience feel quite different.
I don't really know how I'm going to get to sleep tonight, but the alarm will be going off in seven and a half hours, so I had better figure it out. Good night, everybody. The next time you hear from me, I'm going to be a dad. Again.
(For my father-in-law [and Esther]: Kaynehora.)