Magic and Loss

I’ve never hidden from my story. Eleven years ago, the course of my life laid out before and after me with a series of mileposts and road signs:

Lawyer and Husband lay behind me. The signs  ahead of me read Father, Grandfather, maybe Judge, maybe Author.

And then the signs revealed themselves to be misleading.

Five percent. That was the exact numerical value of my virility as I then understood it. Ten percent normal production; of that fraction, only fifty percent had normal motility.

Suddenly the signs that said Father Ahead now read Five Percent of a Man.

After my dad died, new signs appeared, ones entirely of my own making. Murderer. Patricide.

The my marriage collapsed under the weight of my self-loathing and a not-too-small amount of differing expectations.

Divorcée. Failure. Drunk. Fuckup. Crazy.

When I began recovering, the sheer tonnage of these road signs trapped me. Pinned under all these labels I had assigned myself, immobilized by the wreckage that lay above me, I fell deeper and deeper into despair.

For years, the tension in my chest threatened to suck me into itself, what little sanity I could muster desperately struggling against the event horizon.

Until one day, the weight was a little less. I didn’t even notice it at first, but I was a little better.

That’s the miracle of recovery — as long as I do my part, eventually sanity returns.

Every day got a little better. I stopped blaming myself for my father’s passing. I came to see my divorce not as a failure but as a necessary part of both our stories. (Indeed, my ex-wife remains one of my dearest friends, and though we are not spouses, I maintain we have a far more successful relationship than many supposedly happy marriages.)

One of the hardest pieces to accept, however, was my inability to father a child. I adore kids, and learned the meaning of good fatherhood at the feet of my father. He took parenting to be his single most important job, and he sacrificed so that we could have a better life.

He was my role model. I wanted a family, not for me, but for them.

Then one day, not too very long ago, I made peace with that. I would never be a father, that was okay.

Man plans, God laughs.

Five percent seems like a small number, but it only takes one. I was finally going to be a dad, to have the kid that had for so long eluded me.

We talked about the possibility that a child might happen, but not for very long. Neither entirely planned, nor unforeseen.

Suddenly, the long discarded Father sign became relevant again. Joy washed over me. We were still very early on, we wouldn’t be making any big public pronouncements until after the third trimester, we wouldn’t make any big decisions on things for a while.

The elation quickly gave way to panic as several of the old road sign asserted themselves. I don’t exactly have a stellar track record of caring for myself — how could I possibly care for a child?

And we didn’t live in the same area — would I be moving? Would she? The uncertainty of where I would be in a year made living in the now difficult.

In my calmer moments, I came to see that I am ready for this. That I had a very good person to model myself after, and that I would be a good father.

No matter what happened, I would not be an every-other-weekend dad. I would be a coach the team dad, a tuck them in dad, a read them to sleep dad.

Wherever my child happened to live, I would be there.

“When is a good time to talk?”

When I received the text, I knew what happened.

Infection… emergency room… D&C….

I am sad, not devastated. I wish I could be there for her, but the defining characteristic of long distance relationships is distance.

I don’t fully understand how to feel what I am feeling. Is this… grief? Loss? The physical distance made the experience somewhat unusual.

I don’t know how many other chances I will have at parenthood, but I would have been a good dad.

There’s a bit of magic in everything
And then some loss to even things out

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Based on an actual conversation

“You know what your problem is?”

“Mostly, I’m just flattered you used the singular.”

“Your problem is that you don’t cast yourself as the hero in your life. You’re not even the villain. You play the jester.”

“And that’s a problem?”

“Of course, it’s a problem! You don’t go after things!”

“Well, people who go after things are douchebags.”

The pause that followed was a beat too long. She shouldn’t play poker.

“Pursuing things you want isn’t douchey.”

“Then why do so many douchebags do it?”

Pause. Poker.

“And what happens if you never pursue what you want?”

“You never get disappointed. You never hear the horror and outrage that people send your way when you dare to want something.”

Pause.

“I hate your mother.”

“I get that.”

Ten years on, I still miss him

Ten years ago today, my dad died.
For years I bore a heavy burden of guilt and self-loathing — at his last doctor’s appointment, I told him it was okay to be done with treatment. My asshole brain turned that around on me into me killing him, somehow responsible for cancer.
This is not a post about that. I’m healed from that now. I don’t blame myself anymore. I helped him transition. I gave him the gift of choice.
This is a post about a man who was always there for me, even when I didn’t deserve it. Who was always smarter than he let on, who was genuinely kind and loved by all. Who shared his love for 50s and 60s rock and roll with me, and taught me to love music from well before my time.
He was never an angry man (except when he was angry, then watch the fuck out).
I look in the mirror and I see his face, his eyes, his smile. Which is his mother’s face, and her mother’s face.

  
Somewhere, one of my friends has video of my dad at a wedding, holding forth in a stupor about being the Singapore Sling Champion of Newark, NJ for 1964. He loved to laugh, he loved to joke, he loved to carry on, not always appropriately — this apple didn’t fall far from the tree, you see.
So let me pay homage to the best man I ever knew, warts and all. Love you and miss you dad. I hope you are raising a ruckus somewhere.

The Lungfish and the Little Plastic Castle — a short-short play

SCENE: A SITTING ROOM, WITH COMFORTABLE CHAIRS AND A COFFEE TABLE, POSSIBLY EVEN A FIRE BURNING. IT IS BATHED IN THE PUREST WHITE IMAGINABLE. GOD — WHO IS IN THE FORM OF A HUMAN, GENDER AND RACE ARE IMMATERIAL — IS SITTING PATIENTLY, LEGS FOLDED AND HANDS ON HIS KNEES, CONGENIAL AND CALM.

michelangelo-buonarroti-creation-of-adam

AN ANGEL WALKS IN, LEADING HUMAN WITH HIM/HER. GOD RISES TO GREET THE HUMAN, SHAKE HANDS, ETC.

GOD: Thank you for coming, I really appreciate it. Please, have a seat. Can we get you something to drink? Pellegrino? (GOD ADDRESSES THE ANGEL.) Pellegrino.

(THE ANGEL ROLLS THEIR EYES AND EXITS.)

GOD: Anyway, thank you for coming.

HUMAN: (UNCOMFORTABLY) Uhh… It’s my pleasure.

GOD: I get it, you’re uncomfortable. Totally understandable. God the Almighty asks to meet with you, and immediately your reaction is the “What did I do to get called into the principal’s office?” Nothing. You did nothing wrong. I just wanted to talk to you about something. But you know what? I’m omniscient, I know all about you. Any questions for me before we get started?

HUMAN: (STILL UNCOMFORTABLE) Uhhhh, did you… really create the universe in six days?

GOD: (SMILING) No, I didn’t. Certainly not in six days. In a sense, I didn’t even create the universe. But I also didn’t NOT create the universe. Your species is probably a couple hundred years of physics and differential calculus away from figuring it out, and it will all make sense. Spoiler alert: It’s not super strings, but I LOVE that idea. Far more elegant than how I actually did it. You humans are so clever. Anything else?

(PAUSE. HUMAN LOOKS DUMBFOUNDED.)

GOD: Fair enough, it’s overwhelming. Here, I’ll just give you the highlights of the things that all people want to know: It was a lone gunman, but not Oswald. The ’69 Mets? It wasn’t a miracle, some drunk in Vegas sold his soul to Lucifer. Laid a grand on the Mets in February, made millions. Run down by an Elvis impersonator on the Strip a week later. Come on! I was pulling for the Cubbies!

(THE ANGEL WALKS IN WITH TWO GLASSES OF ICE AND A BOTTLE OF PELLEGRINO ON A SILVER TRAY.)

GOD: Thank you. I got it from here. (ANGEL GLARES.) I HAVE it, thank you.

(THE ANGEL MAKES A FACE, BUT TURNS TO LEAVE.)

GOD: I’m sorry about that. The angels, even the ones who were loyal, they remain… jealous, of humans. Lucifer couldn’t handle that, so he rebelled. The ones who didn’t rebel, well, they loved and trusted me, but they still don’t trust you. So it really plucks their feathers to be bringing you mineral water. I have always meant to make it up to them, but I don’t know how. Chew on that a second — I, God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, don’t know how to fix that. Kids? (GOD LEANS TOWARD HUMAN, SHRUGS, AND PLAYFULLY SLAPS HIM ON THE ARM IN A FRATERNAL MANNER.)

(HUMAN CONTINUES TO LOOK UNCOMFORTABLE AND CONFUSED.)

GOD: Well. I can see the small talk isn’t helping you to relax. No worries. Down to brass tacks.

(GOD POURS THE WATER INTO THE GLASSES WHILE HE SPEAKS, AND HE HANDS ONE TO HUMAN.)

GOD: I need your opinion on something, but before we talk about it, I need to explain something about me. I have many, many names. I am Yahweh, He am, Who am. I am Allah. I am El. God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. G-dash-D if you’re M.O.T.. I am Odin, and Thor, and Freya, and Sif, and Loki. I am Jupiter and Zeus, Mercury and Hermes, Isis and Osiris. I am the Sun, and the Wind, and the Rain. I am Anansi. I am Crow. I am Raven. I am Weasel. I am Brahma the Creator AND Vishnu the Maintainer AND Shiva the Detroyer. I am Zarathustra, thus I spake. If she had been real and not just made up for Ghostbusters, I’d be Gozer the Gozerian. Do you follow me?

(HUMAN NODS WEAKLY.)

GOD: I am all those things. I have thousands of names. Every single person on earth has a different idea about me, each one completely wrong and also exactly right. How can that be? How can one Being with infinite power and wisdom and Who is present in all things have so many different names? Well, as Tom Petty sang, “You believe what you wanna believe.” You still with me?

(HUMAN NODS AGAIN.)

GOD: Good. One other thing for you to understand. When you look at a goldfish in a bowl, it swims in circles around the little plastic castle. It has no memory. Every time it swims around, “Oh hey! A castle! Oh hey! A castle!” It doesn’t (AIR QUOTES) “know” anything. It lives in a permanent, unending present, unaware of either past or future. A few billion years of evolution — and yes, it was evolution. You don’t honestly think I’d spend my time personally creating one kind of beetle for rhino dung and another for elephant dung, do you? I have PROCESSES for that stuff. Delegation, that’s the key to successful management. Anyway, a few billion years of evolution later, one of these fish got it into their heads that there’s a MAYBE. And if you can imagine maybe, you can imagine a FUTURE. “Maybe there’s more food up on the shore?” And so one of these fish, pulled itself up out of the brackish ooze, and breathed. This is completely oversimplified, but you catch my drift.

(HUMAN NODS, THIS TIME WITH A LITTLE MORE CONFIDENCE.)

GOD: If you can imagine a future, you can start to remember a past. The little plastic castle ceases to be a surprise, it becomes part of the landscape. “Yesterday, we found berries by the acacia tree. Maybe we can go back there tomorrow?” A few billion years more evolution, we get to you, the hairless apes who split the atom, eradicated polio, wrote the Fifth Symphony and the theme from A Summer Place. You marvelous, clever creatures. You, who saw the stars and went there.

You, you, you, my most wondrous of wonders. You remember the past, and look to the future. You imagine new little plastic castles, and they become real.

(GOD SMILES, ALMOST BROUGHT TO TEARS; TAKES A DEEP BREATH, AND A SIP OF WATER.)

GOD: But even if you can imagine the past and the future, you remain only able to perceive the present. For all your brilliance, you are locked into a time and a place. Unlike me. I exist in all times and all places. I exist in the warp and weave of the space-time continuum. All pasts and all futures and all presents — yes, there are multiple nows — they are all before me, and I am always in them. There is no plastic castle for me, nor is there not one. Right now, I am here with you. And I am also watching the Milky Way and Andromeda collide in a few billion years. And I am also standing on the edge of a brackish ooze, watching a lungfish linger on shore a while longer. Are you with me?

HUMAN: I think so.

GOD: Good, because I want you to think carefully about what I am about to say. Recently, I was… surprised. (PAUSE) RECENTLY, I was SURPRISED. As a divine, omniscient entity co-existing in all space and time, nothing should ever be recent, or a surprise. Never mind the theological or philosophical implications, that just shouldn’t happen to me.

HUMAN: (A LITTLE SLACK JAWED) What happened?

GOD: It’s a little hard to explain.

HUMAN: With all due respect, this whole thing is hard to explain. But you wanted me here for a reason.

GOD: (DEEP BREATH.) The universe contains waves and particles, protons and electrons and neutrons, quarks and bosons and ones you haven’t even imagined yet, just wrinkles in the calculus waiting to be divined. Okay, particles. And me, existing in all spaces and times, and I should add at all scales — I am as large as galaxies and as small as a lepton, and everything of all sizes in between. I am the fusion, and the fission. I quite literally AM the cosmological constant. But a new particle just… popped itself into existence. I didn’t see it coming, I didn’t make it. It just… happened.

(PAUSE.)

GOD: I had a now. I had a singular moment that I perceived exactly once, and then it was gone. “Oh hey, a castle.” Suddenly I feel…

HUMAN: (INTERRUPTING) Human.

(PAUSE.)

HUMAN: I have a daughter. When she was three, she fell off the jungle gym and landed on her head. She lost consciousness, internal bleeding. It was scary. I prayed that day. For her, I prayed. I am not really a prayerful person. I didn’t even pray for myself when I when I had a really bad car accident. But I prayed for her.

GOD: I remember.

HUMAN: Huh. Yeah. I guess you would. Anyway, I went from being the person she depended on most, to protect her and save her from the bad guys and the monsters. To her, I was all powerful. And I was totally powerless. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even drive her to the hospital. So I prayed. Now, there’s something you can’t do. You, God, Zeus, Osiris, Shiva. Terrifying, isn’t it?

(GOD NODS.)

HUMAN: That’s the thing about those moments. If I were like you, existing in all space and time at once, always watching her crack her skull on the jungle gym, waiting by her bedside for a week as a she recovered from surgery, I’d lose it. I know, because I lost it then. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to have created a universe, or the theme from A Summer Place, but I have created a perfect, beautiful life. And when I was powerless to help her, I was a wreck. So I prayed.

GOD: Do you know why the angels are jealous?

HUMAN: No.

GOD: They will never, ever be able to create anything. I could bring that angel in here, and tell him to write a poem, and she [OR HE] would bring tears to your eyes with a tragic song of love and loss, and they would feel nothing. It would emerge from them already perfect and complete, no work, no struggle. And as soon as it is done, it is forgotten. Finished and on to the next. The angels are short order cooks, churning out perfectly delicious burgers, one after the other. Humans get to be chefs, and they resent it. They will never know the experience of creating something, whether a universe, or a daughter.

(PAUSE)

GOD: There is something new in my universe, something unforeseen — which for me is saying something — and it scares me. But I don’t have anyone to pray to.

HUMAN: What did you say? Millions of ideas about God, each one completely wrong and exactly right? Maybe that includes your own ideas.

THE END.

The Pancake Epiphany — #MemoirMonday

Pancakes ought to be thick and fluffy, deeply stacked pillows of glutenous promise. Pile on the butter and the syrup (either genuine maple or Mrs. Butterworth, whose matronly form has not yet spoken with me, the assurances of commercials notwithstanding) and commune with the divine.

pancakes

What she handed me was a plate of crepes. Thin and insubstantial, but still tough. Not silken. The syrup pooled over them, never fully integrating.

A year into what I thought would be my last major relationship (a thought I would have a few more times to come) it dawned on me — she’s a crepe person.

The thing about epiphany is that one can never plan for them — they happen when they happen, and never at times convenient for you.

Here was a woman whom I loved, adored even — and she made crepes.

I remembered when I made pancakes. She made no secret that she thought I made them too thick. I thought nothing of it — to each their own, and I added a little more milk the next time, thinned them out. She still made a face, they were still too thick.

But she gave me crepes. I understood now.

Suddenly, all I saw were differences. Minor tensions that could mostly be smoothed over or even ignored altogether emerged in full bloom as impenetrable; imaginary front lines in a cold war that would suddenly turn hot.

I was not done growing, however, and had much to learn. Raised to believe that I should not get my way, and that the men should set all their interests to the side in the name of stoic suffering, I shoved it down and soldiered on.

When I was 21 or 22, my mom was out of town, visiting her sister who lived in North Carolina. My dad, freed from her grasp for a week, got drunk and confessed to me that marrying her was the worst mistake of his life — but he couldn’t abandon us, the way his father abandoned him. So he stayed.

It would take me years more growing and work to realize that my father was wrong — it’s a false dichotomy to think that the only options are to remain miserable at the hands of a monster or abandon his children.

But I wasn’t there yet, and so I ate the crepes.

The other lesson I learned from my father, unfortunately, was that men do not get their way by asking. My mother disregarded his wishes over and over, so he learned to get what he wanted by deception or simple fiat. On two occasions, he bought cars without asking, deciding that a few nights sleeping on the sofa was a fair trade for that ’78 Jeep Wagoneer or that ’86 Camaro. He bought guitars and golf clubs and gadgets with money secretly squirreled away, the change from trips to the store for bread or milk, $10 here or there.

So I snuck around, spent frivolously, drank in secret, had an affair. I even once (years earlier, in a prior relationship) did the car-by-fiat trick. This was simply the way men in my family went about their business.

I can’t remember when I realized that my reaction was a dysfunctional response to my family’s dysfunction, that my father’s ruses were the dysfunctional reaction to my mother’s dysfunction, which was her reaction to her father’s dysfunction.

And so it goes, likely hundreds of years back.

I would eventually come to that realization, but long after I made a wreck of my life. Epiphany happens when it happens. But not that day.

I ate the crepes, and did much damage to us both.

Nothing Could Kill Me — #MemoirMonday

Trenton, New Jersey in the 90s had very little to say for itself, which was itself not unusual. Trenton had little to say for itself for most of the decades that came before.

Though the middle of the three bridges over the Delaware proclaimed Trenton Makes, the World Takes, nothing had been made in Trenton for ages. The Roebling Steel plant — the one that made the cable for the Brooklyn Bridge — closed in the 50s. There was a GM parts plant on the outskirts, but that closed up shop in the 80s. Even Champale, the largely undrinkable malt liquor that tried to pass itself off as champagne that Trenton claimed as its own, closed the factory and fled for the relatively greener grass of Milwaukee.

Actual Champale ad
Actual Champale ad

By the 90s, all that was left in Trenton were the drug dealers and street prostitutes that seemed to own the neighborhoods along Perry Street, and a lone punk club called City Gardens.

To call City Gardens a dive is to be charitable. Graffiti covered every wall. Dirt and sweat and blood and beer stains called the floor home. The men’s room consisted of one filthy urinal and one hole in the floor. Thankfully the sink worked, because handfuls of tap water out of the bathroom might be preferable to whatever they might have at the bar.

Bon Jovi gripped New Jersey in the early 90s, and while hair metal fans had five or six clubs to choose from, punks, skinheads, rudeboys, and hardcore fans only had City Gardens. With nowhere else to turn, all the groups descended on the Gardens every night. We would skank to Fugazi and mosh to Fishbone.

This every night.
This every night.

Packed into the space, always oversold, a writhing sweaty mass moving in unison with hardcore hivemind. I stood behind a young woman with a pixie cut and Doc Martens. Swaying to the music we never stopped touching, my front to her back, unintentional frottage neither of us could do anything about with so little room. She turned around to smile at me when she felt my erection through my jeans. I was embarrassed to have been found out, and aroused all the more.

I was 20 — fat, self-loathing, and virginal. It was my first taste of sex, fully dressed yet covered in sweat.

I cannot remember the band that played. I never saw her again.

I saw Sonic Youth on a Saturday. My ears rang until Thursday, easily the loudest show I had ever attended — until the Ramones exactly three days later. Sound waves bounced off the concrete walls of the club and focused the energy back into the center where I stood, moshing and pogoing and doing whatever. Vibrations shook my body, or perhaps my body just shook sympathetically.

The energy in that room. 1,000 people screaming and dancing and shouting, pledging allegiance to none but themselves.

I needed a rest but I also needed to feel that energy. Crude bleachers lined the wall — to get both my rest and the energy, I walked right past the speaker column, and stood with my head in the tweeter.

My ears ring to this day. I cannot rule out the possibility that I may go deaf in my old age.

I never thought I would make it to old age back then. I was in my early 20s. Nothing could kill me.

Music of the Masculine — #EssaySunday

It straddles the line between bass and treble. Baritone, the voice of the confident, sexual, but also mature man. Neither the petulant, immature romance of the tenor, burning hot and fast; nor the basso profundo so reminiscent of Darth Vader or Iago. Baritone, sturdy, confident, and lurid, a little like a more rakish George Clooney when he flashes his effortless smile, and then confidently says precisely how and where you will succumb to his charms.

I speak of the cello.

Violins, a tempestuous soprano, a diva, the star of the orchestra or the quartet takes the lead. Viola, a mezzo soprano in formal circles and a backup singer in the smoky recording studios of Detroit, rarely takes center stage, preferring instead to complement the star. The bass, large, clumsy, and the butt of countless jokes, sets the foundation on the which the orchestra sits.

The cello sits between viola and bass, yet it neither complements, nor is it large and clumsy. Its range begins at low A, a stern and unforgiving bass, and extends to high G above the top of the treble clef. This range almost perfectly overlaps most vocal ranges, replicating the human voice.

One does not listen to the cello, one has a conversation with it.

Cello argues, it seduces, it charms, it persuades. Cello never pleads or cajoles. Cello insists that you come to it, it will not meet you halfway. It is masculine and persuasive, but not condescending.

The cello does not mansplain or manspread. Cello will open the door for a lady, but only because he will also open the door for the men in his company.

It is the gentlemanly thing to do, after all.

It goes from stern to fanciful and back in a few measures time. It moves the piano from its glorified status back to the percussion section. It has none of the bombast of brass, but all of brass’ urgency.

Winds cower in cello’s enormous shadow.

Yet the cello never takes advantage, every bit as comfortable in a supporting role, playing root and fifth double-stops. Confidently aware that it can stand out, cello doesn’t need to do so all the time.

And yet…

It soars. Swirling vortices of tones and timbres circle space and time itself, filling the rafters and reverberating back down. Poems without words reach out across the dimensions, to touch the face of the persistent child within us all, the blind dog that yaps out at the darkness knowing something is there, but never quite sure what.

Persistent and steady, it has the soothing voice of a father who has never left your side, who will always come to check for the bogeyman under the bed one more time and remind us that everything will indeed be all right.

The closest I will ever come to direct communion with the divine will be listening to the cello.