Suicide

July 27th, 2014

I’ve been fantasizing about winning the lottery. The instant cache that derails misfortune, opens the sky into a liberal infinity. It’s common, perhaps elementally common, of the people, all of that. This is why people buy the damned tickets, to dream of a better life, solid gold house, champagne bubble bath.

But my fantasies haven’t been focused on what I would actually do with the cash. No, I’ve just had these notions of escape. It does seem that the easiest way to solve your problems is to strap yourself to a rocket and blast the fuck away from everything and everyone. Move to Tralfamadore. Slip into a tesseract and try it all again.

Avoid life by buying out of it.

Meanwhile, options appear self-constraining, each one a collapsing event horizon. Hopelessness starts with this dismissal of options. Yes, there are choices all around you. But your brain takes each choice and derives an assumed outcome. Those outcomes contract. They don’t branch out to fractal choices. They are processed and crunched, projected forward in the same way that a limit approaches zero, until they seem both inevitable and futile. Terminal. You assume that these options are just flat out improbable. You transform choice into autopilot fate.

So winning the lottery becomes just as likely as acting on slippery, unattainable options. You fantasize about all of it, push it all into fantasy.

That’s hopelessness.

And that’s when suicide seems concrete.

It comes to you dressed as a choice. And it is a choice, yes. But it is not a legitimate choice. Your brain doesn’t push suicide into the same “it could never work out” scope. You know it will work. There is no risk of failure. And in that, nothing to gain.

All of those choices that you have assumed lead to shit, they are all rooted in your current situation. Your job, your love and happiness, your loss and mistakes and hurt. Suicide addresses none of that. It just takes the “you” out of everything. The problems don’t disappear. The people don’t go away. Suicide seems like a solution, but it can’t be. There is no problem solved or addressed. It is out of scope.

It’s ugly, trying to look straight into your own illogic.

I do know this: If it all seems hopeless, if suicide seems to be one of your choices, then what is the harm in at least trying one of the things that is destined to fail? You can always kill yourself later. The suicide choice is not a moment of opportunity, it’s an absolute.

So that ran through my head the other day, when I had shifted from lottery-fantasy to despair, to really thinking that I had no choices. I had to stop myself, my brain, and ask myself why in the hell I was seriously thinking about something like suicide and NOT seriously thinking about doing something about my problems.

In my work, I often receive packages of cluttered, jumbled information, usually as PowerPoint slides. Then I’m supposed to dissect them and reconstruct them into something that makes sense. Blow it all up and create something clean.

Every one of those projects starts with a moment of dread. It’s just too much, too convoluted. There’s no way to wrap my head around all of it. It’s hopeless.

Then I come back to it. Read through a few slides. Start taking a few notes. Nibble away, bit by bit. Tiny clicks. Moments. Mini-solutions. There is no cloud-bursting beam of illumination. There is no instant satisfaction. But I work through it, and it is no longer impenetrable.

There are options. And those options are rooted in taking the time to think about your problems and chip away, in any way. No lottery windfall. No rocket to oblivion. No grand solution. Just work.

And the thing is, I don’t even play the damned lottery.

Schlitzed

July 19th, 2014

I bought a six-pack of tall Schlitz cans as a sort of research endeavor. The beer pops up throughout a novel I’ve been finishing, in the late-editing stages. The book takes place in the mid-80s, so I figured that Schlitz would be nice touch, and the name is just so unbeatable. Then I started seeing it show up here and there, general cultural references throughout the last couple years, and now it seems about as uniquely comedic as PBR. So I decided the better move would be to buy a little, activate the “spirits journalist” side of me. Yes, I have actually been paid to drink a bunch of alcohol and write, in great and accurate detail, about what the hell is happening inside my mouth.

Today’s Schlitz is a revival of a pre-80s recipe. After a bit of research (which I should have done before writing the damned novel), I found that they screwed up the flavor some time in the early 80s, and it basically killed the brand. So now I’m drinking my way back in time. Really.

This is the taste of childhood. It’s the taste of that first sip of my dad’s beer, out on a family camping trip, sitting around the fire and the marshmallows and the warm, exhausted feeling of having played in the woods and the sand all day. Honesty, singularity of purpose.

We all miss it, and I have met very few people who have been able to hold onto it. Some of us have been able to come around full circle and rediscover it, the child, the purity. I’m not going to say it goes into “innocence,” because kids don’t stay very innocent. They are devious and secretive, destructive. But they still tend to be honest to their own tendencies. They haven’t built the layers of behavior and reaction that can push us into becoming an extrapolation of who we really are.

I’m speaking of myself, here. Extrapolation, distance from origin, confusion of intent. This has been a major focus for me, to recognize my actions and understand the origin of intent. It’s dirty work, and it’s very much in progress. And, in that progress, I’ve hurt people. It’s not good.

Still, I’m recognizing reactivity and the way that it drives my actions. That is, a reaction doesn’t always have a clear connection to deliberate intent. I’ve been very reactive lately, depressed at times, even fatalistic as if watching a string of dominoes, having no idea where or how they started falling. And there’s a madness in that, in trying to dig up the origins of the reactions and understand them. An instrument can have a hell of a time trying to operate on itself.

Today, though, driving all over Chicago with the windows down, Rush and Bob Mould cranking, cruising through my first neighborhood, I started to think outside of the dominoes. Yes, there are reactions and cascades of emotion and despair. But within that turmoil, I’m never taking the time to ask myself what I actually want. And I’ve found that to be a profound and very difficult question: What do you want?

I don’t know the answer. Not at all. But that’s at least a better place to start, instead of getting carried away with my own drama, forgetting that I am still a person who has free will, that the moment I am living in is now, right now.

So: I decided that I wanted a Schlitz.

And I remember my dad, remember the simple sweetness of our camping trips. I do what we often do when we’ve had a few tall ones. We remember the people who mattered to us, the ones who are gone. The ones who are still here.

Interruption

March 30th, 2014

I started typing a new story, sort of a therapy-story. That is, the story is weird and pointless, and I’m just playing with ideas and trying to give myself a break, using the act of writing as an act of therapy. It isn’t easy. I don’t give breaks. A part of my brain likes to watch myself fail, and even though that part has begrudgingly agreed to step back, it’s still there. Anyway, the story was therapeutic for a couple thousand words, and now it’s tedious and boring.

The winter is shifting away, finally. But it did manage to kill off quite a few things this time around.

A big theme this winter has been Depression. I’ve experienced a number of cycles in which depression has shifted to Depression. Right now, this exact moment, I am focusing on how to recognize the tipping point of a cycle. It seems that it should be the apex of that first roller coaster hill, the slow crawl over the top before dipping into hellish centrifugal extremes. It plays out differently than that, though. It’s a sort of muck swamp, a bog of eternal stench, and I don’t recognize it until I’ve stepped into it.

This is a case of not living in the exact moment. I am estimating the moment, but always from a perspective that is just past that moment. So it is always backwards reflection. Ah, yes, stepped in a bog, there. There’s no moment of “hey, there’s a bog right where I’m about to put my foot.” No, it’s retrospective at best, and at its worst it is so far removed from the moment and cause that I have no idea why I’m so Depressed, or no perspective that there is anything other than the bog.

So life has become an endless, relentless exercise in mindfulness. Awareness of the moment. Approaching the moment like a limit approaching zero. We are temporal creatures, of course. I don’t think we are capable of any cognition that isn’t retrospective. But that might just be something I would say from this bog world.

Anyway, awareness and retrospect aside, the tandem approach features engagements of interrupts. Step into the bog, but stop yourself before carrying forward with another step.

I’m trying to do that right now. This moment. I have a foot in the muck, another foot hovering. I don’t know if this is a true interrupt. I mean, if I relax, I’ll just bring that other foot down and that does it. This is frustrating. Pointless, actually. Is this how people leverage music to coax away the sadness, legitimize it and contain it? Just an interrupt.

There are times when I’m able to write little stories in this blog, stories that spiral out a bit to include bigger things, larger messages. Today, though, the message isn’t there. Hovering. Paralysis. Fear of putting the foot down, fear of looking away from the bog. This is Depression, in slow motion, that moment of tipping, ticking forward, or caught in between half-ticks.

An interruption, endless. No breaks.

A story about a lie

January 27th, 2014

I want to tell you about the time that I lied to my father. Now, I know that isn’t specific enough. We have all lied to our parents. That’s probably how we learned to lie. And there’s a sliding scale to that. The story I’m about to tell isn’t about the first time I lied to my dad. I don’t think it’s even about the worst lie I ever told him. I don’t recall a lie quite as deliberate as this, though. At least, not until that point in my life.

I was 16 years old. I had just obtained my driver’s license. I went the traditional route in learning to drive. Driver’s Ed on Saturday mornings with a guy I was sort-of friends with. It’s odd, those years when you phase through friendships, Venn diagrams of shifting alliances and connections. Tony was a tangential friend, but, for a brief window, he was part of the computer club, somewhere within the nerd core back when the nerd timeline was in a gutter of disrespect and invisibility. During our driving classes, though, Tony and I didn’t talk. I think he had already shifted into another tangent (he later became a lead artist for the Mortal Kombat games, which is pretty cool).

Anyway, prior to Driver’s Ed, my dad had taken the time to teach me the ropes. My father had started servicing and driving semi-trucks when he was in his early teens. Later, when I was a few years old, our family car was a ’69 Plymouth Roadrunner that he took onto the drag strip on weekends. The man knew how the drive. So he took me out in his pickup, onto the highway, and attempted to show me (a) steering, (b) acceleration and braking, (c) traffic navigation and highway merger, and (d) manual-transmission shifting, all in a single glorious composite. It didn’t work out so well (the truck remained unscathed).

After my “panic on the entrance ramp” moment, we down-shifted to a friendlier method. I drove the family 1977 Pontiac Grand Prix (two-door) around the cemetery. Slow turns, no traffic and, as my parents joked, everyone was already dead. There was some sort of “break, break, break!” moment, but, again, no actual vehicular damage.

Not yet.

My dad was pretty amazing at keeping his vehicles in great condition. In fact, I think he might have spent as much time teaching me how to wash and wax a car as teaching me how to drive it. He had his method of keeping the car always-wet while he soaped up various zones, so that this massive 1977 beast would be spotless and gleaming by the end. He also had his methods for mowing the lawn and shoveling the driveway. Washing the house. Cleaning the gutters. Wiping down the shower. Folding clothes. Kicking ass at Monopoly.

His truck, a 1976 Chevy, was in even better condition than the Grand Prix. Meticulously maintained, back in the days when a person could keep it all together without having to rely on a mysterious chip. By the time he graduated to modern models, with anti-lock brakes and computer-monitored everything, he stopped tweaking every little aspect, and actually took his cars to the shops for repairs and such. He still changed his own oil, though. Kept doing that until he got sick.

So my “panic” moment when he took that first stab at teaching me how to drive wasn’t purely rooted in stimuli-saturation. Beyond all of that, I didn’t want to scratch his cherry ride, grind his freaking immaculate gears or, really, appear incompetent in front of someone who could probably drive backwards-donuts while reclined into a full sleep. “Driving the truck” was secondary to all that shit floating through my head.

I obtained my license during the same period that I obtained some pretty serious friendships. There was a core group. We called ourselves “The Psycho 6.” Sometimes there were additional members, or splinter factions. At this point, a week or so after being an official driver, our group was solid. And we were starting to gender-diversify, sprinkling sexual tension across the entire dynamic. Okay, it was really pre-sexual tension. There was mixing and matching of who was holding who’s hand, test-driving crushes and nebulous attractions. I was never an advanced or rambunctious teenager, and still remain a bit of an oblivious idiot.

We had just started to gravitate to K’s house. It was going to be a landing pad for the next few months, watching cartoons and John Hughes movies and eating her family’s food as we shifted structure. I was one of the few with access to wheels, and I had a large enough car to fit all six of the Psychos (or suitable proxies).

We stopped by to pick her up.

For some reason I had decided to “drive crazy” as we waited for her to emerge from her front door. I don’t know why I flipped into that. We all have our goofy moods, right? Moments that we don’t recognize as “moments” until we are knee-deep in them. I have flushed into plenty of “temporary insanity” escapades throughout my life. Back when I was a teenager, it was just a way to show off or entertain or feel out the boundaries. Later, deep into adulthood, they became less temporary, I guess. Less communal.

So I drove backwards. No swerving, just pure technique. I had some of that inherited talent in my blood, and I’ve always felt very comfortable driving, in complete control. So I drove past the house, backwards. Turned around and returned, backwards. Whipped this way and that, backwards, and then scooted into her driveway (frontwards). She hopped into the car, and away we went.

That Grand Prix had a bench seat in the front, which meant that three people could sit up there with relative comfort (it also made for some exciting dates). Paul was squeezed into the middle, next to me, the driver. As we pulled away, we continued our “drive crazy” mission. Paul had a two-hand hold on his half of the steering wheel. I had the other half. We wrestled with each other as we rounded the corner, away from K’s house. As we whipped around, I let my grip give. Paul asserted, and we drove the car around the corner, up over the curb, and into a Stop-sign, all while I V8-accelerated with wanton abandon. We flattened the sign and stripped it from the post. It bounced off the hood and flew away into the grass, and, as Paul released his grip, I corrected the car back onto the road and got the hell out of there.

Sort of.

I stopped about a block away, heart exploding. Then I shifted and eased backwards, slowly, an odd counter-effect to the previous “drive crazy” demonstrations. We hopped out to survey the damage. I didn’t notice much about the car. A tiny ding on the hood, near the windshield (the bounce point). Oh, and there was the sign, some feet away. And there was the signpost, flat on the grass, straddled by tire tracks. I felt a little proud of those tracks. The flat post, the tracks, it was a clear visual story. A little sliver of vandal legend, really. I still feel proud of that image. Weird.

I grabbed the sign and threw it into the trunk, and we rendezvoused with the rest of the gang. Yes, I was officially “crazy” and goofy and funny and all that shit. We gave someone the sign to hide away, a trophy or albatross. Then K mentioned that her mom had been standing in the door the entire time, watching us.

I was never worried that her mom was going to report me. I was embarrassed. Yeah, I’m goofy and weird, but I don’t play with my friends’ lives. It was the worst way to make an impression. Some weeks later, I finally met her and she served me pie, didn’t talk about the car thing at all. I don’t remember what kind of pie it was. Don’t remember how it tasted. But it was the best pie. It was the pie of acceptance. The pie of forgiveness. That is the best kind of pie you can give someone, and I’m still thankful to K’s mom.

Thank you for giving me a chance to be better than that idiot.

The next day my dad washed the car. I came outside, and he said he wanted to show me something.

“Look at that on the hood.”

Hmm.

“Have any idea how that got there?”

Um, no.

“There’s a mark on the front bumper too.”

I took a look. He waited. My heart accelerated through its own “drive crazy” zig-zags. I didn’t know what to say, so I clammed up.

“Looks like someone hit it or something, maybe a baseball bat?”

I nodded. Sure. That seemed somewhat plausible. Still, he waited. At the time, I thought I was playing it cool. As cool as a deer in the headlights, I guess. And after his waiting, he just nodded and carried on with the day, touched up the hood (the man was always equipped with exact-matching touch-up paint for his vehicles).

But I didn’t see it for what it was. He was giving me a chance to come clean. He was weighing the options, probably thinking about some of the stupid things he had done when he first learned to drive. I’m not certain why he didn’t press it. Maybe he didn’t feel like being the punisher. I had already been through many phases of punishment, and I’m not sure how many of them really worked. I mean, yes, they worked to the degree that I was scared shitless. One time, when I had gotten caught, um, setting a fire (let’s save that story for another time), my dad was out of town, and I ended up worrying myself into such a frenzy over the idea of him finding out, of implied punishment and disappointment, that, in the end, my parents didn’t really do much about it. I think I freaked them out a bit, folding into a miserable fester of anxiety and panic.

I have a son now. There are plenty of times when I need to be firm, even apply some sort of discipline. Times when I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I don’t want him to be afraid of me. I hate that idea. It sickens me. And I’ll bet that my dad was also sick of it, just tired of being that person in my life.

So time slipped forward. He never mentioned the mysterious blemishes, and I never drove crazy again. I ended up owning that car. His immaculate truck was totaled when the police chased a criminal into him in excess of 80 mph. He was okay. I think those cops watched the wrong movies.

As far as deliberate lies go, I know that this one is pretty low-end. It isn’t something that haunted me, really. I would think about it, every few years, if only for a moment. I would wonder if we were ever going to debrief each other, hopefully over a drink.

An interesting thing happens when you lose someone. Some little things turn into Unresolved Issues. These don’t all become REGRETS. Most of them, really, are just bittersweet nuggets that season your soul.

My dad was diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer at the very start of 2005. By early 2006 we all knew that he wouldn’t make it. Then it got into his brain, and those last few months became all-encompassing. His personality, his memory, his reasoning – it all slipped away quite quickly. I had already blocked off time to take care of him, and I had imagined some sort of bonding period, maybe getting in a few final games of Monopoly, watching Star Trek together and bringing up a few things that we had never discussed. Instead, I was in the trenches, keeping myself together by a hair. We had very short moments of lucidity together. I was unprepared and couldn’t guide those moments into anything other than color snapshots of a world that no longer existed.

The car incident resurfaced in my mind. I wanted to talk with him. I wanted to clear the air in some way. I needed that, needed to give him a chance to properly react. He could get mad about it, if he wanted. I was already grown and independent. He wasn’t going to screw me up. I wanted to tell him that: He could tell me the things that he might have been holding back.

But he couldn’t. His brain had spoiled. He was full of pain killers, floating between twilight and a semi-lucid frustration of his situation.

He died. I was at work when it happened. Everything after that was a tornado, from the wake to burying him at the very cemetery where I learned to drive (“don’t worry, everyone is already dead”) to selling the house, picking through history and trying to hang on to the things that might have been important to him. Things that are in a few places in my house, mostly packed up and waiting. Things who’s significance was destroyed when his brain collapsed.

So I’m taken back to that moment when he showed me the damage on the car, giving me a chance to confess. He’s standing there, waiting. I don’t know what he’s thinking. Disappointment? Resignation? When he died, my memories of him fragmented and took on independent existences, frozen moments like holographic photographs. He’s waiting, and I’m there, too. Frozen.

There are other fragments, too:

He is telling a story to the family, getting up and pacing about the room like a duck, cracking everyone up.

He is planting flowers in front of the house on a warm Spring day.

He is standing at his dresser, full of cancer, wondering why he didn’t get dressed and go to work.

He is watching the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with me, when it first aired, both of us really excited that the show is back on the air.

He is eating pizza, sweating.

He is helping me hand-feed raccoons near our campfire at the dunes.

He is lying on the hospice bed, eyes half-open. Dead.

For a good year after he died, that last one was the only thing I had in my head. I couldn’t see around it. Couldn’t remember his voice. Once I had a kid of my own, I found ways to mine the better memories. You can’t be so selective, though. The hard ones sometimes come up as you’re shaping and preserving the tender ones.

So: I’ll never be able to talk with him about the car. He will never have the chance to forgive me for that, as K’s mom had done with that pie. And I’m bringing this up to communicate something important.

It is never too late to have that conversation with someone, to take the time to clear the air. Well, it’s never too late to do that while you are all alive and thinking. I assumed that I would have the chance. Then I lost that chance, and a moment that needed closure has been left adrift. It is attempting to create its own closure, and sometimes, when I am really down on myself, I fill it in with negative extrapolations.

I’ve been very down lately. I am very conscious of using this experience of losing my parent to communicate some other thing, some other regret. Many of my closest friends have lost parents, and, to those people, I know that you’ve been through some of these thoughts, that some of you have dealt with extremes that are far beyond this, having to make decisions that no one else had the strength to make. We go through those times, and then settle into our new lives, for life is never anything close to the same after a parent is gone.

I suppose this story of a lie is a call to harness the moment. To assume that today is the last chance you’ll have to say something. It’s an existentialist cliché, I know. Live life as if you will die tomorrow. On a more granular level, I recognize that we would benefit by living life with the knowledge that nothing will stay the same, that these dependencies that you take for granted can and will shift or disappear. They have to.

A Game of Trombones

May 18th, 2013

I am prone to snap judgements and unwarranted assumptions, all of it rooted in the recognition in others of my many personal flaws. Like an ex-smoker who lacks even a shard of tolerance for the outcast family he once embraced, I seek out the stupid and petty, my own innate tendencies, and I scoff. And the reality of everything around us, from people to animals to this Macbook, is that we are all beautifully flawed. It is the flaw that makes each of us unique, that sets us aside from a predictable conglomerate of genetic markers and environmental constraints. I push hard against my flaws, my mistakes, my stupidity, but, in that, I’m just pushing against the person who I really am: my pure, inner idiot.

So there’s the root of the rumbling, churning fear that underlies a life of cynicism. And the greatest fear is this: Someone will call me out as the fraud that I am. I mean, we are all frauds of a sort, right? Try to read that with a positive spin. We aspire to greatness and success. When I play Ms.Pac-Man, I want to be the greatest Ms. Pac-Man player ever. I want to destroy that game, crush those patterns into dust. Just as I want this blog entry to be the greatest, so erudite and absorbing and full of that whatever-the-hell magic that it sucks people in and keeps them riveted. But that brain within my brain, the Module of Judgement that gazes upon my actions with Eye-of-Sauron unwavering, unblinking truth, it knows that I’m just bullshitting. Because to aspire to succeed, to level-up in life or art or anything, you have to pretend that you’re better than you actually are. You have to role play as a “genius,” and fool yourself with conviction or abandon until the odds of you being an actual genius are slightly tweaked and, through persistence, work and luck, you might actually do it. But when you break from that zone, pause and notice that you might be riding the rails, but you haven’t actually arrived, well, then the Module of Judgement reminds you that you are a fraud. And you either listen to that voice as if it knows what it’s talking about, giving it far too much power than it deserves, or you ignore it and carry on and just push through it all. Even while “fraud” persists in whispers and snorts.

On any given day, my fraudulence is manifest in just about any activity, from driving the car to writing a report to pretending that I’m a good father. You carry on, though, and even get a little spiteful about all of it, a little mix of creativity and anger that somehow produces actual positivity (or, in the least, results). But there’s one aspect of my lifelong fraud that is just woven right into my dendrites. This is something I sucked at from the start, never improved, never realized any potential beyond an endless joke.

This is the trombone.

I play several instruments. Sort of. Piano, guitar, ukulele and trombone. Wow, yes, I’m a fucking one-man band. Please don’t assume that “talent” is anywhere in that mix, though. For instance, I took piano lessons, but never practiced. Or, well, yes, I practiced, once a week, in front of my instructor. Guitar was more of a personal choice, and I love that instrument, even if I probably know all of three actual songs, and have to be a bit loaded to even consider strumming in front of anyone other than Rachel and Simon. Know this: If you ever see me playing the guitar, live and in front of you, I am, will absolute certainty, drunk off my ass and probably immersed in obliviousness. That goes for the uke, as well. And the harmonica. Big time. Consider the harmonica a warbling breathalyzer.

But it all started with the trombone. Back in fifth grade, the students were told to line up for instrument auditions. I don’t recall having any sort of choice. They tell you to get in line, you get in line. So: At the head of this line is a table. A big guy in a white shirt and black tie is sitting there. He takes a moment to size you up. I’m a boy, so I probably won’t play a flute or a clarinet. Or maybe he already filled all the woodwinds. Anyway, it’s going to be brass.

“Buzz your lips.”

Mzzzz.

“No, like this, buzz them together. Bpbpbpbpbp.”

Fmbpfmbpfmbpfmbp.

“Trombone. Next.”

And that’s it. A legend is born.

My parents rent a trombone, and I’m in Band. In retrospect, I don’t think every fifth grader was in Band. Maybe some of them didn’t pass the buzz test. Or maybe their parents decided that their kids weren’t going to be Band Nerds. I don’t know if we really had nerds back in fifth grade. I think the clustering was starting around then, popularity and coolness and all that. But it wasn’t like there were school jocks in fifth grade. There were just kids who were better at Gym, and maybe had some outside thing going on with little league and all that crap. I never stood in line and buzzed for baseball, never had a shot at it.

To play the trombone you do, indeed, buzz your lips into the sucker. And you blow. A lot. I think just about anyone can do that. My three-year-old son can do it. My seven-year-old neighbor can do it rather well. So yes, right from the start, I could toot out sounds on the trombone. You move the slide around to increase the amount of tubing, the distance through which the buzzing air travels to then vibrate the bell and amplify out to the world at large, thus altering the pitch. If you just leave it at that, you can play only five or six notes. The trick to playing music on the trombone is to tighten your mouth muscles, to tweak the airflow and the tension in your lips, thus moving notes up and down into different registers and octaves. And the better you get at controlling those muscles and that air, the more you can focus on a sweet, sweet tone.

I have never had a sweet, sweet tone. I can play plenty of notes, and shimmy that slide all over the place, but my tone, hmm, well, I’m not sure how to describe it.

Take a cow. A very lonely and depressed cow. Most cows just stand in pastures and chew stuff, contemplating their own cow-ness (and don’t assume that this cow-ness might not contain the secrets to all life, to the fabric of the entire damned universe – just because cows are laid back and hanging out in the grass and chewing and tail-slapping, don’t assume that those creatures aren’t righteous or even silent geniuses). This cow is different, this sad, disconnected beast. This cow wanders over a barren, salted plane. Mud dried to rough earth, grass and shrubbery exhumed, sun-heat boring through an opaque canopy of grey clouds. The cow walks on, searching and glancing and wanting until it forgets quite what it’s supposed to do. Is it supposed to eat? If there were flies, would it shoo them with a swishing tail? It’s tail hangs, twitching slightly with each lumbering stride. The cow is loneliness. The cow is absurdity. The cow is juxtaposed against oblivion, which casts no measure of worth or purpose. And the day never ends.

“M-m-m-mooooo…”

“M-m-m-mooooo…”

And that, my friends, is me. On the damned trombone. Just a sad and existentially disenfranchised cow.

Now you would think that a few years of structured practice would help that cow, give it a little verve. I learned the scales and tooted along to whatever our band master handed out. Drove my parents mad, as all youth persecute their environs with the wails, flubs and squeaks of a novice. My first concert became a family legend.

March Winds.

That was the song that I practiced every other day, learning the notes, mastering the syncopation. March Winds was not a particularly complex song. As I recall, it was all quarter-notes, a low, drunken adagio (sort of a plodding death-march of a tempo). It could have been worse, I think. It could have, um, hmm. Well, okay. It could not have been worse. The trombone part was one note. Over and over and over, stumbling forward. And we must not forget the cow. Moo. Moo. Moooooooooo.

I tortured the fuck out of my parents with that relentless March Winds, teaching myself how to play the same mid-range quarter note until my lips numbed over and my lungs imploded. The song was just a single page, maybe with a coda or something (still all the same quarter note, moo moo moo). I think my parents hoped for the best. This was just a fractal component of a greater musical whole; it would all make sense in concert with my bandmates. The trombone was probably laying down the solid foundation. Some musical cornerstone that could support a lyrical blossoming.

Nope.

Everyone in the band played their quarter notes. Over and over and over. This was before the advent of the ubiquitous camcorder, so we have no hard record of the event. The only information I have is anecdotal. However, this became one of those anecdotes that my parents recalled, with miserable glee, for most of my life. Their suffering. The erosion of tolerance as they writhed under the dull heel of March Winds. Even the kids with talent, the ones who could somehow blow out pure notes with harmonics and beauty and depth, even those kids were diminished by March Winds. It was like a Solera vat of human fluids, each quarter-note stirring the swirl, blending those unmentionables together into a horrific preternatural stew.

Here’s another thing: Now, in my middle age, I have lived through many a March. I have experienced the winds of March. I have to say, those March winds are not plodding quarter notes. They are vibrant and disrupting gusts, overlapping packets of tumult pushed about by competing thermals and battling seasons. The winds of March signify fearful transition and change, and the imminent glory of Spring that unfolds from their vacant wake.

March Winds, that first piece of music, was a fraud, a joke. It taught me that I sucked at the trombone. I wasn’t even embarrassed. I just didn’t care, and no one expected anything more from me. My cow was the cow of apathy. And every performance, every toot I’ve blown throughout the last thirty-plus years, has just been a variation on March Winds. Even now, right now, March fucking Winds permeates my creativity.

One can only skirt accountability for so long, though, and my reckoning came in the form of my high school band conductor, Mister Cross.

Mr. Cross was a man of passion. He aimed high and hoped for the best. I suspect that he, too, was dodging fraudulence for a good part of his life. For example, he wrote our high school marching band fight song. Wrote it out by hand and distributed the copies. The man saw himself as a composer, a musician to the core. A few years out of high school, I heard the Notre Dame fight song and noticed some similarities. That is, I estimate about a 90% overlap between the fight songs of Rich East High School and the University of Notre Dame. All recreated meticulously on mimeographed half-sheets.

I still sounded like a bubonic cow as I tooted through the fight song. At one point, there were three of us trombonists, so, normally, my cow-tone would be absorbed by the general cacophony. However, Mr. Cross was, himself, a trombonist, and all of his passion and angst was channeled through that wah-ing instrument. Sometimes he would stand on his podium, trombone in hand, and play along, conducting the band with his slide. His demonstrable tone and beauty just might motivate us to escape that March Winds foundation. And Martin did it. Martin was the first-chair trombonist. He sounded great, and played a gleaming, quality instrument. Martin was in Jazz Band. Martin had chops. In fact, many times I could just sit there and pretend to play while Martin did all the work. Those were good times.

When I bothered to make the effort, I rarely looked up Mr. Cross as he conducted. I just needed to know the tempo, as defined by Martin and the rest of the band, and I could stare into the sheet music and play through it. Then I would glance up, maybe while playing a whole-note, and Mr. Cross would be staring at me, mouth a gaping “O” punched through his red face, a trembling fist thrust out as he worked so hard to squeeze the cow. But there was no hope. I was, truly, the worst trombonist ever.

And Mister Cross would flush and huff and whine and cry and go absolutely crazy. It didn’t seem fair, his targeting of the trombone. But I think he was just reacting to his own inner whispers of “fraud.” He saw, in me, all of his worst qualities. Crappy playing as channeled through apathetic lips, devoid of ambition or talent. Mr. Cross never seemed satisfied with his position, a musician trapped in high school, and struggled for personal expression. He stood up there and looked down upon an aspect of his former self, a toxic node that derailed him from the true path. Like a cyst upon the soul, I was the embodiment of his fraudulence.

I stuck it out for a few more years, culminating in the infamous Wizard of Oz half-time marching band medley. In spats and hats, we inched through our formations, spinning, swinging the gate, forming letters or rotating shapes or some shit (out on the field, I never benefited from the crowd view of our performance). Woodwinds sang out Over the Rainbow, trumpets and clarinets chirped If I Only Had a Brain, and then, as our marching resolved into some fixed holding pattern, low, soft notes hummed in expectation of the next glorious unfolding. Ding Dong the Witch is Dead. Just me and Joe, the two trombonists (Martin had abandoned the amateur antics of marching band). Joe was slightly better than me, but, really, he was just another sick cow. Normally, I was so apathetic that I had little idea of how bad I sounded. This time, though, it was clear. This was Roseanne Baar curdling the National Anthem. Joe and I looked at each other as we blew out, each note slightly detuned, murky, and lacking in any timbral qualities that signified human development beyond Neanderthaloid incoherence. I heard Joe, and he heard me, and, perhaps for the first time, with the rest of the band playing their single, sustained background note, we heard ourselves as a unit, as the “trombone section.” And we were so terrible, so horrific and sad and pathetic, even ghoulish, that we couldn’t hold back. We both started laughing, laughing right through our mouthpieces, choking out notes and stuttered melody. We laughed with madness and absurdity, with the satisfaction of finally scraping across the bottom of the bucket, with waves of taunt and torment broadcast to Mr. Cross, out there somewhere, probably chewing bone from knuckles and thrusting erect thumbs into his weeping eyes. The trumpet section dissolved into crunchy cackles and snorts, missed their cues and drifted out of formation. The flutes and clarinets scoffed, then laughed, and soon enough the entire band was thrown into mayhem, swept away like a house in a tornado.

I quit band some time after that. Quit it forever. This might have been the first thing I ever quit in any official capacity, casting the mold for a lifetime of abandoned endeavors.

However, I still have that trombone. I have played it drunk in the Chicago streets after basketball championships, staggering drunk in the waning hours of parties, half-drunk during low-key dinners and, a few times, stone cold sober while seeking placation for a wailing infant.

And here’s the weird thing: When it comes to the trombone, there is no inner voice that whispers “fraud.” From March Winds to Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, I stank so unequivocally that now, in my mid-life, I have nothing to prove. By embracing my incompetence, I am anything but a fraud. I am true to my self.

The trick, then, is to spread that over my soul, to rig the game. The fear of fraudulence is internal. It has to be. No one can actually accuse you of being a fraud, because we are all frauds, even while we are all true to our selves. It’s built into the physics of aspiration, the risks inherent to growth. And that’s a rich humus for fear, and that it’s that fear, that dread of failures both past and imminent, that drives me to cast judgement whenever I see those same elements in other people. The voice inside, the “fraud” voice, is such a coward that it insists on projecting fraudulence onto other people in order to justify its own inner accusations and false authority. I don’t know if there’s a way to kill that voice, but we don’t need to give it so much power by taking it seriously. The “fraud” voice is only pretending to be a bullshit detector, and the easiest way to disarm it is to stop fighting it. Yes, we are frauds and pretenders. Triers and hopers. And here, let me give you a little taste, fraud-voice. Let me blast you with a cow-sick, pestilent trombone, blast you right back to hell.

*Bonus Video Supplement:

Poop

January 14th, 2013

My three-year-old son told me this today, completely of his own accord:

“Some days are poop, and other days are better.”

And that is now the mantra by which I will live my life.

2013 Resolution

January 2nd, 2013

Like most of you, people in my life are pie-charted into Friends, Family, Acquaintances and Dipshits. There are family members who drift into the Friends category, and friends who are actually just Acquaintances. I don’t think there is any Venn Diagram overlap between friends and Dipshits, though. Anathema is simply incompatible with any degree of friendliness (single exception = Facebook).

So my Friends, the people who’s opinions MATTER, tend to be divided on this New Year’s Resolution business. I think everyone naturally reflects during this time of the year. Many of us are entering the colder months, hunkering down, taking inventory of both the physical and the psychic. Setting annual goals helps us invigorate an otherwise bleak period of post-holiday come-down and seasonal affective disorder. But the resolutions are often just bullshit. We know this. If my resolution was already important, then I would have already done something about it. The new year affords me the opportunity to pretend that I have been granted a reprieve on my previous failings and misfires. And I can call bullshit on all of that, if I want, but, really, I would rather play this game and be kind to myself, give myself an honest chance, than dig down so deep into cynicism that I don’t even bother.

So I’m making a resolution, right here in public (as “public” as this relatively unknown blog). A public declaration carries the weight of accountability. This is no longer a personal promise and, being posted on an archived forum, anyone can return to this blog in a year and instantly judge my goals as achieved or quixotic. Like any writer, I am leveraging the reader. I am using you.

And that brings me to the meat of the matter.

In 2013, I resolve to drink more coffee, write more fiction and journalism, and find a publisher for the novel that I wrote in 2011-12.

That’s it. I know that the “more” qualifiers are vague. I don’t want to pledge to numbers. However, I spent much of 2012 honing journalistic skills, all while nearly abandoning fiction. I think I’ve had a small degree of success with the journalism, and I’ll keep that momentum. Regarding fiction, the thing I notice about the biographies of writers and other artists is this: Those who succeed do not give up, do not falter. They stay on mission. That does not guarantee success, but drifting off and losing focus on your work, abandoning the mission, will certainly destroy the chances of success.

So perhaps that boils the 2013 resolution to this:

Stay on mission.

Or, for Star Wars fans, stay on target. This implies a definition of the mission or target, which I generally have, but we can all benefit from such reflection and honing of ambition. I think that’s a good resolution for any of us.

Unwrinkled

August 10th, 2012

A funny thing happened last night. A can of worms was opened, somewhere deep inside my head. And the worms proceeded to slurp my brain matter through their linear digestive tracts until my entire head became filled with worm poop.

Explained:

In response to a Facebook post from Rachel, I mentioned my first favorite novel, A Wrinkle in Time. That took me back to sixth grade, with its simplicity and optimism, and my ongoing love for that story. It was a good memory, one of those warm places in your psyche, a little part of yourself that worked out all right.

Then, maybe a half hour later, someone else on Facebook posted that Ms. Priest, one of my seventh grade teachers, had passed away. Ms. Priest was the first and perhaps greatest embedded anti-establishmentarian I had known. She smoked and swore and forced students to use their brains, to look into their hearts. I added my very brief eulogy to a growing list of Facebook comments, noting that many of them had been permanently affected by this amazing person.

Then I thought about it a bit more. She had certainly made her mark. I used to have recurring dreams of visiting her class, being back in that class, back in seventh grade. Those dreams faded, and junior high became this nebulous transitional zone. I could cite many elements of grade school, and, of course, the high school triumphs and scars never dissolve. Junior high, though, was fuzzy. Chess club was in there, somewhere. And band. But not much else. My personal history tends to jump from a generally healthy sixth grade to some point in high school. A wrinkle in time.

The odes to Ms. Priest continued. Dead Poets Society type of stories. Each one served as a building block and brush stroke, recreating Ms. Priest, her classroom, the halls beyond that circulated through the school. I couldn’t retreat from the unfolding detail, and soon I felt that Jim I was back in seventh grade, sitting in that class with those people, with that teacher.

You see, I didn’t just remember faces or specific episodes. I remembered the exact feeling of what it was like to be me back in seventh grade.

And I realized that this was the first time I had felt truly inadequate, when I found that I couldn’t commit to any particular type. I couldn’t be a smart kid or a nerd, and lacked any equipment to be clever or beautiful or strong. Ms. Priest encouraged everyone to dig into themselves, but I resisted. I was shallow, dopey and shy, and I didn’t respond to her efforts. So she moved on to the others, the ones she could lift up. I puttered along, a failure and a disappointment. And that phase of inadequacy has stayed with me since then, even through today.

This isn’t some sort of indictment. I still have positive memories of this full-throttle teacher. But I also remember other students bonding into cliques that would evolve straight on into high school. And I remember loners, intellectuals and athletes— all of them not-me. I’m not sure how much identity one is supposed to grasp in seventh grade, but I didn’t have much.

This was also a period in which my mom was severing religious ties. I had grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness, and some time around seventh grade we had stopped going, and she was ultimately disfellowshipped (for some really petty reasons). I don’t recall it bothering me much at the time (other than being concerned about her emotional ordeal), but it was a period of personal upheaval, a sharp shift away from lifelong de facto relationships.

I suppose that people who have spent time in therapeutic counseling have already navigated these epiphanies. I’m not used to unearthing the secrets of my past. It isn’t that I “don’t go there,” it just never comes up, and, apparently, this was was buried deep. Most people can reflect on their own souls and come up with a pretty good collection of traits and trends, historical arcs. It’s rare that you are able to pinpoint a defining moment that carries through your personality with such persistence. I’ve fought with the same problems we all have: depression, self-doubt, social awkwardness. However, I think I just uncovered the exact time period when it became real and anodized. The birth of a part of myself that I hate.

And I have to say: this isn’t particularly liberating. It feels like a sac of poison has been accidentally lanced. This social clumsiness and cluelessness is now measurable. I have been knee-deep in it for 32 years. The pain of this realization is extremely personal and isolating. Yet I think everyone has experienced that lonely pain, something you just can’t communicate to other people because it’s embedded into your core. Something you force yourself to carry.

I apologize for such a self-indulgent post. I’m not sure if I have a point, here, other than the fact that I never stood on a desk and pulled that “Oh captain my captain” shit. But I suppose there could be an upside. Time has become unwrinkled, flattened and exposed. I can take that forgotten memory as a cornerstone. I can build out into those two years of junior high and piece that history back together. And, if anything, pain and history feed art, so I suppose Ms. Priest will be making an appearance in some future story, manifest as either glorious or terrible. She probably would have liked that.

Transits

July 28th, 2012

It’s been long enough, and I need to shit or get off the pot. The “pot” being some sort of public inertia. The “shit” being this blog post. So please remember to wash your hands after reading.

Fiction writing has slowed and crawled, mainly a victim of life. I don’t want to be one of those writers who sacrificed family for the intimations of career, so the free-time priorities have centered on hanging with my boy, doing home stuff. Meanwhile, I have backpedaled into some sort of journalistic sideshow, writing about Scotch and nerdy stuff. And I’m learning Ruby on Rails, just to keep the programmer partition of my brain active.

Also, I have poked out from the shell a few times, then reeled back in.

What? An explanation. Remember the transit of Venus? Some folks paid attention, and some people went all-out bananas. Astronomy used to be a juicy topic for me, way back when I had a cheap telescope and the vague notion that something might be out there. Later, I became less inclined to stare into the astral heavens. For one thing, my vision has been on the steady decline, so I have to wear glasses, which results in a sort of 3D theater experience where many things in the center of vision look great, while the periphery, the zone that really helps define giant depth and infinite possibility, is destroyed. So I don’t look up as much as I used to. Also, in recent years I have drawn my world inward, from city to neighborhood to house to bedroom. I have the soul of a hermit and the temperament of a curmudgeon, which means I will return to this earth as a hermit crab. Hermit crabs don’t care much for the great beyond (I know, I had a pet hermit crab when I was a kid – that was my pet), and don’t want to be reminded that the security of the nest is a simple fallacy, squelched by the vast sky.

So I was mildly interested in the Venus thing, but not too concerned. I mean, I don’t exactly have a religious faith, but I also don’t need to see a planet traversing the sun to understand the profound size of our solar system.

Our neighbor, though, was generally into it. He set up a telescope and rigged it with a digital camera, so we could use the camera display to live-view the silhouette of Venus against the sun. Checking out his rig was nearly as interesting as witnessing the transit. And it was cool, and I felt better for having seen it. Beyond that, I had a chance to chat with this interesting guy, to exchange more than our usual five or six words.

You see, the five- or six-word exchange has become my norm for chatting with neighbors, family, and generally anyone who I don’t see on a daily basis. And many of the daily people, such as co-workers, are subject to my multi-paragraph monologues. I enjoy writing about characters, constructing imaginary conversations, but, in the face-to-face, I suck at it. Sometimes I just don’t think fast enough, can’t process it all. Other times, I’m just not attuned to the general wavelength, be it from an individual or a group. It often results in a feeling of profound loneliness in a room full of people.

So we talked a bit, escaped my normal constraints, and that was about it. No breakthrough, but it was pleasant, and I felt, well, normal. The next day I had lunch at a cafe, alone, and sat at a bench in the front window, watching people stroll the sidewalks. And that was when I was blown away by the transit.

The transit of people, our passing and eclipsing of each other throughout the course of a day. Each person is just as complex and vast as the solar system, but the frequency of our interactions, from physical proximity to actual conversation and engagement, multiply that complexity into fractal beauty. I might not be able to keep up, to hold a conversation that, at some point, doesn’t collapse or stagnate or flip into monologue, but I can sit and watch and appreciate the privilege of being human, of being allowed to experience these rich worlds contained within each person, expressed through dress and composure and gait, through humor and anger and ignorance. These transits are happening all the time.

We are marvelously complex.

Hooky

January 21st, 2012

It took too long this year for winter to kick in. Even though it was good for the general positive vibes, 50+ degree days in January, in Chicago, are not natural. I was starting to suspect that we were all going to pay a terrible price for those few weeks of temperate balminess. So when it snowed and froze and dipped down into the teens I felt a surge of winter warmth that I haven’t experienced in years. And now everything is coated in a fresh, white blanket, beautiful and muffled, the gas-powered snow blowers long finished, our boiler pumping heat through our domestic circulatory system. I’m looking outside, thinking of making snow angels, building igloos and marching across barren powder landscapes.

And it reminds me of the first time I played hooky.

I started school as a smart kid. Smart and angry. My parents told me that I topped off my kindergarten IQ, highest in the class, which is sort of impressive, even though I generally think that the IQ is half-hogwash. I think I was one of those young kids who became bored with things and decided to act out, so I assaulted both classmates and my teacher during that first year of schooling. It was my kindergarden teacher’s first year, and I was her first problem student. At one point, I kicked her and she attempted to chase me down as I crawled under all the tables. Another day, someone, perhaps the principal, dragged me out as I kicked and screamed. I don’t remember much, if any, of this, but the stories persist. So my mom would run into my kindergarten teacher every few years and, many decades later, she still remembers me, perhaps touching one of her kicked shins. It is always important to make a lasting impression upon your teachers.

My parents decided to keep me in the current track, and declined an offer for me to skip ahead into the second grade. I was still a wild child, still acting out, but, throughout those first couple years of elementary school, I was more or less disciplined into shape. This isn’t meant as an indictment against corporal punishment. I was rambunctious and prone to demonstrative rabble rousing, and the discipline generally worked. It didn’t take long for me to become a bit less vocal, more shy and mild mannered. I also became less ambitious, and I think my brain leveled out until I was generally average. By third grade, I was just another idiot. The mental growth spurt was over.

I believe that I was in third grade when I played hooky. It involved a test. I had either neglected to study, or I simply didn’t understand the material. Perhaps it was a spelling test, or maybe a little math. Whatever a typical eight-year-old in the mid-70s was supposed to know. I could handle some of the more creative aspects of school, but tests always messed with me. I had terrible recall, and couldn’t focus on studying enough to figure out how to embed that information into my brain. Really, tests troubled me all the way up into college, and then, mid-way through my undergraduate education, I somehow cracked the code and figured out how to ace just about anything. It was a very dramatic and empowering intellectual blossoming. But back in third grade, I was far from such self-actualization. I was lost in the murky woods, alone and confused and overall ill-equipped for the limitless array of escalating challenges and expectations. I just wanted to play with my Legos and Hot Wheels.

So I wasn’t ready for the test. And it wasn’t the first test I was about to bomb. I was already on the list, on the bump, treading over thin, opaque ice. This was essentially the same as a classic school nightmare. We all have them, even now. You have a test in a class that you didn’t even know you were taking. And everything is riding on that test, and you now have maybe five minutes to cram in a textbook full of material that you have no hope of ever comprehending. That was the exact feeling that pressed into my eight-year-old brain. So I came up with a plan.

Instead of focusing on whatever test material, I envisioned the general layout of my neighborhood. The bus stop was a block or so away from my house. About two blocks further was our local park. Beyond the grassy sprawl, a few suburban blocks led to a cluster of shops, including the drug store. There lies the perimeter of my hooky map.

That morning I dressed, ate breakfast, and headed out to school, just another day. As I approached the bus stop, I hid behind a hedge and waited. Once the bus had scooped up the waiting kids, I strolled over to the stop and surveyed my freedom. Yes, all I had to do was wander about the town, explore anything that struck my fancy, and return to the bus stop in the afternoon. Then I would hide in the bushes, wait for the return bus, and head on home. I didn’t consider that someone might call the house looking for me. People disappeared from class all the time, and the teacher never went to any great effort to single them out. I would simply release myself from the obligations of society, just for one day.

One thing to add: This happened to be one of the coldest days of the year.

Yes, this was in the middle of the winter. I was bundled up in my brown puffy coat, hood tied tight over my head, encumbered only by my Ranger Rick backpack and gigantic moon boots. And it was cold. Really freaking cold. I stood there at the bus stop for ten or fifteen minutes, ducking into a hedge with each approaching car. The cars tread slow over icy streets, so I could see them with enough warning. Standing there wasn’t going to work, as my body was starting to cool down, my spit cold within my mouth. So I waddled to the park. Stage One.

The park was silent and abandoned, a featureless topography of white. I followed the hidden path as if I was a lunar explorer, each step massive and lugubrious. The park basin spanned several blocks, crossing a little frozen creek and lifeless tennis courts, from the kiddie playground up and around and over to the advanced playground, then, finally, off to the other end, to the street. It took forever, and even in the misery of the cold and desolation, I was satisfied that this crossing would consume a solid chunk of time. If I ran out of things to do, I could simply circumambulate the park until the afternoon. By the time I reached the exit, some of the streets had been plowed, so I was able to walk with relative ease and haste. I navigated the familiar path to the drug store, ready to move into Stage Two.

Much of my family lived close. My grandma and uncle were just a few blocks down, equidistant from the park and the drug store. Her home was open and active, with various aunts, uncles and friends dropping by throughout any given day. It was a safe haven for me and the rest of my cousins. Everyone loved her house, her dog Rocky and cat Bernie. It was the hub of our family. So I had to stay away from the conduits that fed into that node. Even though grandma was the type of person who might have played along and kept my secret, I couldn’t chance it, couldn’t drop by for a casual mid-winter hooky visit. Even if I knew she would certainly make me cocoa while I hunkered down with Rocky and read Dr. Seuss books.

I strolled into the drug store with a pocket full of lunch money. It would have made sense to spend that cash as it was intended, to find something half-way nutritious. It would also have made sense to just study for the damned test and get on the freaking bus. I ended up blowing most of it on candy. A Charleston Chew. Some Tootsie Rolls. Maybe some other chocolatey item like a Mars bar. I loitered as long as I could without attracting attention, then reduced my horde to loose change. I’m rather certain that this was the one drug store cashier who never charged tax. No one ever asked why she rang everything up at face value. We just assumed she wasn’t paying attention, as those older registers probably required an extra button to tally the tax. It was always a golden moment to stroll into the drug store and find her there, hunched behind the counter, knowing that we could get the most sugar-bang for our quarters and dimes.

It is only now, this very moment, that I realize, after accumulating a half-life of experience, that she was probably just pocketing that money, stealing from the till. Or maybe she wasn’t, maybe it was an honest mistake. Back in those days, my definitions of honesty were not yet distorted. These days, I’m not really certain what it means to be truly honest, or if it is even possible. Really, that day I played hooky marked my first overt divergence from honesty.

The no-tax lady never questioned my obvious hooky-playing. I was simply a paying customer, perhaps sent over by my grandma to pick up a few essential items. No-tax always minded her own business. She was the Ron Swanson of drug store cashiers.

I returned to the streets of Park Forest, Illinois with warm feet and candy in my pockets. The hooky was progressing exactly as planned, so it was time for Stage Three, the consuming of the loot. I returned to the park, but stopped myself before simply marching in. There were my footprints from the initial traversal, sharp and obvious against the otherwise unadulterated snowscape. It was cold enough that the snow had generally frozen over. On one hand, I was assured that no one else had entered the park. But I realized that I was essentially leaving a trail anywhere I went. This was a covert operation, and I needed to maintain some control over my discoverability. So I stepped into each of my footprints, backtracking across the park, one slow step at a time as my moon boots plunked into each waiting hole. The big-kid playground, with all the cool stuff, was right down there, visible from the road, but it took me another ten minutes just to move that hundred or so feet. Good. More time chewed up, inching toward the afternoon, when the bus would come and I could finally escape that cold.

I broke off from the path and into the playground. Then I situated myself in the metal box at the top of the corkscrew slide. It was the lookout tower, and a wind shield. I woofed down my stiffening Charleston Chew, masticating it into a warm putty. I chewed the Tootsie Rolls and stashed the Mars bar for later, rations that would surely be needed during the coming hours. Then I waited, imagining myself as a sentry, a spy, observing the random traffic, the wind through the barren trees, the snow-crusted playground and, off in the distance, that frozen creek. I slid down, over and over, pushing the snow away to expose the smooth, shiny metal surface of the slide. Sometimes you had to queue up to climb the steps and plunge down the corkscrew. It was immensely popular. It was rare that anyone had the chance to camp out in the lookout tower, and that usually involved some sort of battle or encroachment. That day, I could slide as much as I wanted to. The entire park was mine, from the tower to the yellow flying saucer to the swinging tire. The merry-go-round. The swings. I could do it all, and I did. And it was great.

Then it wasn’t. Most of the sugar had burned through, and I was growing colder. I counted my change, just a few cents, really, not enough to warrant a return trip to the warmth of the drug store. Then I realized that the change would give me away. I wasn’t supposed to come home with change. My lunch money was exact. I had to eliminate the evidence. So I sat at the bottom of the corkscrew slide and pitched pennies and dimes into the snow, each one to a different vector, noting the tiny pocks they created in the homogenous surface. When I finished, I was alone, no longer interested in my playground, generally finished with my stash and liberated of cash. There was nothing to do but freeze in silence. I waddled off into the park, stopping a few times to make perfect snow angels along my carefully retraced foot path.

By the time I made it back to the bus stop, I had warmed up a little from all of that exercise, but that was it. I had no place to go, and hours to wait. I folded into myself and sank into a hedge, sprouting up every now and then to rub my shivering mittens together. Cars cruised by, but none of them noticed me. I was the spy in the hedge, hiding in plain sight. Then a familiar vehicle came around the bend. It was my Aunt Kathy, certainly on her way to my grandma’s house. I loved my Aunt Kathy. She was boisterous and omnipresent, a fixture over at grandma’s. As she drove by, I succumbed to instinct. I waved. I didn’t jump up and down and flag down a rescue. This was just the standard one-handed wave, the flag of recognition. She drove on past, and I thought that maybe she saw me, maybe she waved back with the same uncontrollable reaction. I didn’t even feel stupid for waving. I felt happy. There was my Aunt Kathy, and I waved.

I felt stupid when she stopped down the street and backed up until her car was right near me, and she rolled down the passenger window with an astonished “Jimmy?” I didn’t run, didn’t even play it off. I just pushed my aching, frozen legs forward, toward her car, got in, and let her drive me back to my house while I wiped the accumulated snot from my face. The hooky was officially over, but I wasn’t scared. I didn’t care about the test or whatever trouble I was about to get into. I was about to be warm and safe. Maybe I could eat that Mars bar. And, ultimately, I think everyone was just so confused as to why I would subject myself to such a ridiculous excursion that I don’t recall any admonishment or even punishment. My own folly was punishment enough, I suppose.

So when I look out over the fresh snow and think of snow angels, I also think of that bleak isolation, of pitching pennies into the cold and poisoning the trust of my parents. I think of waving to Aunt Kathy and finally escaping my frigid hooky.