All of this was written this morning. It's an excerpt from an essay about moving, called "Mow the Tiles."
I have written quite a few essays of this nature, with a two-fold purpose; to exist as a stand-alone essay, but also written in such a way that, along with the others I have undertaken and completed as part of this process, as words that will be joining a larger whole; that is, a memoir on locating meaning in unlikely places, places where we do not necessarily expect to find it--which is where I would argue that the meaning we most need in life often comes from. Which we have become rubbish at noticing, let alone processing, integrating.
I had this plan, I had these subjects--and they range from climbing the Monument to a little known Christmas film I like to watch (that piece just ran in The Smart Set) to my super weird and seemingly nefarious (but kind of awesome) great Aunt Dot to Joy Division's "Ceremony" to the computer game King's Quest to this inane idiot of a teach I had in second grade who wouldn't shut up about people who gave her what she termed warm fuzzies and villainous kids such as myself who gave her cold pricklies to a Soviet goaltender to William Sloane's novel To Walk the Night (1937) to the first take of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life."
Pretty great, right? That book will be called Saving Angles: Finding Meaning and Direction in Life's Unlikely Corners.
This excerpt here is 2800 words long. How long did it take me to write this? Took me about eighty minutes. Which is kind of disturbing, isn't it? Is this an irregular way to write a book? It's not how other people write a book, but I would not say it's irregular. Not for me.
Everything I create is done differently, because the work is different than the last work. I don't know the method ahead of time, like I have a general rule. Most would-be writers--to me, a true writer is both artist, entertainer, communicator, mirror, hence the qualification--always are locked into a method. They're inflexible, they are rote, their work is rote, their process is fixed. The genius artist knows how to listen as much as anything. They have the confidence to listen, because they know what they do and the level they do it at, and they are going to get to that level each and every time, when they are at their best.
For example: I wrote a story called "Unity" in the fall. In that story, ever sentence is exactly one word long. Crazy, right? How can you write a story like that? I didn't go in thinking, "huh, wouldn't it be radical to write a story where every sentence is one word?" Doesn't go like that. The story, the work, is going to tell me what is best. Then I do it. That was the best way to tell that particular story. The way you tell a story is part of the story.
At the end of December I composed "Loading the Shaft," which is awesome. There are some excerpts up on here, in early journal posts. The story is about a mother--who is also a hockey mom and doctor--who is looking back on a time in her life when her own mother went away and she was also tasked with helping her closest friend go away, too.
During that earlier time, she played hockey. We start with her in the stands watching her kid play. Present tense, right? The other parents don't know she has any background in the sport. She never works it into conversation. They just think of her as the doctor who patches up their kids when they're at some rink in the middle of nowhere two hours from home or whatever. So we know, straight off, that she doesn't talk about this background of hers, and that she doesn't in this setting, with all of these hours each winter to do so, is pretty telling, yes? And she starts by saying that she likes hockey because it's phasic, it is literally periodic.
So: She doesn't talk about the background, but the background is still relevant in her life, in which she seems pretty successful, at least based on what we know so far. So what is the deal, then? Do you see how much drama, curiosity, tension, is induced right away? That's writing. That's what no one does with these idiotic MFA stories. She consequently equates hockey to the life sport, she sees hockey and life as phasic and periodic in the same ways. So she is going to tell her story in periods, in phases; the narrative is going to proceed intervallicly. In short and not-very-long sections. The story is also going to be told in the contrast of those periodic sections, like periods of a hockey game.
Do you see how the story dictated that, told me that? I am just listening to this woman. She's alive, because anything coming from my imagination I know will be alive, will be more human than human. And then I am just going to listen. Any form that is best, I am going to be able to do, to execute, to realize. And it's new every single time.
Now, think of these shitty stories in The New Yorker which no one honestly cares about at all, and they have the writer do a website sidebar kind of thing, where they are interviewed about how they came to write their story, and they bore you out of your mind with their pretentious gibberish about how they birthed it at Yaddo (or another absurd "artists' colony") or some other silver-spooned bullshit. Wouldn't you rather read "Loading the Shaft" in The New Yorker and then an interview--an explanation of process--like the above? Isn't that better for everyone? For magazines, for the readers? For actually caring about work one reads and not pretend-caring? Seems like a pretty clear-cut better way to go, no?
Anyway. I'm doing the Joy Division/"Ceremony" one now. But this is from the moving piece. The moving piece about moving. (The photo below, which is from before my time, is of a movie theatre that did exist during my time in Ridgefield; in fact, I kissed a girl there for the first time. I couldn't find a photo of the now-demolished rink.)
Two of my most potent memories of my late father involve the same positioning, albeit in different parts of the country, though not very far apart temporally.
He died when I was twenty-five, on one of those cold Chicago February mornings as gray as a knife blade. I used to smoke, having done so since my junior year of college, and that would be the last day I ever touched a cigarette. I had two younger sisters, Kerrin and Kara. Whenever anyone asked me the names of my siblings and I answered, an inevitable joke about alliteration would follow, though not many people used that actual word.
Kerrin struggled with the world in ways that were hard to fathom even for people well-acquainted with struggle. I was adopted, and so was she, from different biological families, but we both hailed from the same foster home and adoption agency in New Bedford, paces away from where Melville lit out to sea.
Whenever I was in New Bedford later on in life—to go to the Whaling Museum, for instance, to attend and cover, in the early days of my career, the annual multi-day out-loud reading of Moby-Dick by a seeming cast of hundreds—I’d take a walk down to Melville’s pier of departure, or what I believed to be Melville’s pier of departure.
When Kerrin was in Massachusetts, she’d want my mom to take her to New Bedford so she could try and spot people who looked like her. I don’t know if she intended to venture a theory that they might be related. My sister and I did not talk much. Kerrin had just turned twenty when my father died. Kara was seventeen and in high school, and though Kerrin was the one who needed more help, it was Kara I thought I could reach, as my dad had been able to reach me. Plus, she was that kid in high school with the dead dad. Not reach her in the same way, but, for a time—those last few teen years—be a kind of stand-in, the interim coach, a term I find myself deflecting to as I write, because one cannot properly say—nor be—an interim father.
I don’t think I was very good at it. When I was older, and had experienced things that I believe would fell anyone else inside of a week, when I lived my life entirely alone, literally walking thousands of miles a year thinking, reflecting, learning, growing, I was better at that sort of bond and bonding, a mentor and provider of wise counsel and gentle but firm wisdom, having learned that it’s not what you tell someone, but rather what you help them to see for themselves. It’s never about what you tell someone.
But at twenty-five, with my sister, in the role of my father, I suppose I was strident, too directive-heavy. My heart was in the right place, but my tone probably was not. Which also made me think about my dad, after that time had passed. Thought about him on twenty mile walks after I had spent the morning crying, thought about him and what he might say to me on the mornings when it took everything not to end my life, when I thought I was being unwise in fighting any longer, and would wonder if even my dad, knowing my situation, as I figured he did, might wave me in, wave me away from what I was battling after a divorce, in my aloneness, and a career that was more like a Holy Terror War of the soul, than a career anyone in any field, however toxic and twisted, could ever expect.
One of those two most potent memories I have of my father (and my storehouse must number millions of items of eidetic recall when it comes to him) involves us sitting out on the back deck in Chicago, a region I hated, that I never wanted to come to, to which we had moved, having moved another time just a few years before.
I had recently graduated college, a place that was like this blocked artery precluding any and all critical thinking, with a bunch of would-be, who-never-will-be writers telling me I was awful at writing, people I viewed as failures for whom I had no respect, people whose own writings seemed to exist only to bore the tits off a titmouse.
I could recognize how their world was all about ignorance, safety, presumed laurels, pretentiousness, the log roll and the favor trade, the web of cronyism. They were human sludge, so far as I was concerned, whereas a writer was light, in the photon sense, and the antithesis of sludge, in the bounce and buoyancy sense. A true writer moved with the weight and freedom of a feather, and the clarion light the sun itself would love to turn to for illumination greater than its own.
And I had nowhere to go, because I had no contacts, nor did my family. I took whatever jobs I could get. I worked at a hardware store, and I was awful at that—couldn’t even make you a key that would work, or a shade that fit your window, let alone mix paint or talk to you about joists or dentil moldings.
I had an inglorious stint as a bouncer at a popular bar in Boston on Boylston Street called the Rattlesnake, the big perk of the job being that you were free to beat the shit out of someone—or kick—just so long as you first rolled them off the premise and did your beating/kicking on the sidewalk, for which the bar was not legally responsible or some such.
We were told that at our first beating, me and the other new bouncers, and you ought to have seen the happy hues their faces took on, as if these young adults had been newly informed that Santa Claus wasn’t just for kids anymore, he was real and he had just come to you, bros, so get a nice pair of shit-kicking boots, but not steel-toed, because like, dude, those can be considered deadly weapons. I worked at a Barnes and Noble at Downtown Crossing, but I didn’t last long, because when I shelved all of the bad books, I hid them, put them behind titles by Messrs. Proust and Gogol and Herman M., which was a no-no, perhaps sussed out by my not-very-innocent query of, “What do you mean sales of Dead Souls are not surging? Chichikov forever!”
I’d work my fairly menial jobs, then write at night, often writing all night, trying to master the talent I knew I possessed. Talent, ability, genius, is a two-part deal. You come into this world with it, or you don’t. Pretty simple. Not having been born with it, there is nothing you can do to ever truly make someone think you have it. They can lie to you, and you can certainly lie to yourself, but there is some sort of sweepstakes before your birth, and you need to win it, if you wish to have talent, and you think that is a good thing, which I would say is debatable at this juncture of my life. Then, you need to work your ass off.
People use a cliché like “every second of the day,” but I have not had a waking moment—and not many sleeping moments—where I have not been consciously trying to learn and grow more as an artist. It’s what I’m thinking about when I have a conversation with my dentist, when I order a coffee at the Starbucks, when I open my eyes in the morning because I heard a certain word on the TV as I was part awake, part asleep.
And it’s what I did during those nights when I was getting nowhere. I took a trip to Chicago, as I was increasingly unable to function, eaten alive and pinioned by a sadness that I imagined as binding me in blue fetters (which also had teeth for the chomping), cobalt cords that tied by my limbs, wrapped around my neck and chocked my voice, tied this triple-knot over my will.
The brushing of teeth was a challenge. I drank a lot. I didn’t exercise. There was no gym, no running, no miles of walking. I went to Chicago. I never called it home, because it was not home to me, but rather this place where my parents and sisters lived. I didn’t say outright to my dad anything about the blue cords and the triple-knotted will and a choking soul, but he knew, on some level.
I hadn’t started drinking yet on one day, and was out on that deck. I had a book with me, but I wasn’t reading it, was more like this friend I toted around, whom I rested on my lap like it was my compact, mute kid (mute when the cover was closed). And my dad came out and sat on the side of me. Normally you’d face someone in a situation like that. Pull up a chair, get all heart-to-heart. There is that moment when a throat is cleared. But he just sat there, not saying anything. We just sat there. I didn’t know where my mom was, my sisters. Maybe he waited until they had gone out. Finally, he said something, just at that point where I felt as if you had given me a thousand years, I could never make my tongue move again. My tongue had a lead pipe sewn into it. “We can get you the help you need, for what you’re dealing with,” he said. Then we sat some more.
The second of the most potent memories, also in the side-by-side position, occurred years before, in a February, when I was in fifth grade. We were in the parking lot of a hockey rink in Ridgefield, Connecticut. I have to be quite clear about what this parking lot looked like. The rink no longer stands. In the zoning laws of the town, it was technically a temporary structure, but I think it was there for decades.
In order for it to qualify as a temporary structure—which presumably meant something was cheaper or taxes were lower—the rink could only have three walls. On the side where the bleachers were, the woods were at your back. Pine tree branches actually penetrated the stands. We are talking cheapjack. Rather than Plexiglass above the boards—the wall around the playing surface of the ice, for those who are not hockey buffs—there was chain-link fence. As for the parking lot, that was some real dark night of the soul stuff. There was not a single lamp. Any light there you got, was what leaked out of the narrow front door of the rink with the three walls.
I grew up in Mansfield, Massachusetts, and I loved it. Everything I do in my life presently, the battles I fight in a twisted, toxic industry; the art I create, my refusal to give in, the thousands of stairs I climb each day, sweating my ass off so that my heart can remain strong, is so that I can be happy at some point, and, having become happy—for there are things I am after, and much I need to do in this world, and can give to it, which is integral to my own happiness—I want to enjoy that happiness for a long time. For various reasons, one of them being that I have not known happiness since my early days in Mansfield. I grew up in a neighborhood loaded with kids, and we were all the same age. Cars didn’t pass through, you played epic games of baseball and football in backyards, street hockey in undisturbed roads. There was a forest extending back many acres that enclosed the rear portion of the neighborhood, what one might think of as its spine, and if you loved nature, as I did, you could hike for hours, espy foxes, pull snapping turtles and crayfish from brooks, learn to spot and identify birds by their songs.
When you are a certain age, and you grow up around kids your own age, you end up with friends, normally. Not everyone. Doesn’t mean the young people who don’t are at fault or are lacking. But I knew for me, and I was beginning to learn it then, at the age of eleven, connection was rare.
And it wasn’t because I was awkward or anything like that—it was because I was starting to require a level of intelligence in the people I was with, as my boon companions, that I was learning was hard to find. But I had these relationship extending back to nursery school, and with them came loyalty, even at that age, and with loyalty, there can be an absence of loneliness, even if what we are experiencing doesn’t truly sustain us in the ways we find we increasingly need.
I don’t know what would have happened if we stayed. I do know I would not be quite the person I became, nor the artist. I do know that when we left Mansfield, and moved to Connecticut, that this was a part of my journey, as much—more—in the internal sense, as the geographical.
I was a hockey star. Hockey players are pretty tight with each other, at every age. They are usually funny, they are usually debauched—but in a mostly harmless way—and they tend to be grounded. They are loyal. I like all of these things. In life, people who played hockey, and people who like the sea, are, as a rule of thumb, good people to be around, I have found. If they played hockey and they like the sea and they’re into art, reading, what have you, you may have a friend for life. A go-to person, too.
But hockey players, on a team, can also be a little clannish. It’s tough for the outsider to come in. Was also tough moving halfway through fifth grade, leaving a place I loved and people I probably loved as well, though remembered-love is a form of glasses made of prisms, is it not? What we see in the moment of what we take for love, through the prisms, might not be what we see in them later, when we look back, when they have been calibrated for greater clarity, as the best of prisms are.
But I think I probably loved some of these people, and to snag and deploy a phrase from Shakespeare—whose volumes I also featured prominently years later at the Barnes and Noble, obscuring many a Danielle Steele novel—being untimely ripped from that enclave was a form of trauma.
I have always been kind of surprised that people don’t mention moving more, how it impacted first as kids, then later in life as the adult the kid grew into. I know there are kids whose parents, say, are in the military, and they don’t just move, they might hop from country to country, continent to continent. I am not competing. I just know what my own experience was. So, there were were, my dad and I, and we are at this rink, and it’s black as tar sludge outside, dark enough that you thought you’d arrived at the wrong time on the wrong day, that surely the rink was closed, no games were being played inside of it, unless some imps of the evening had rented out the ice for some beer league hockey, and they preferred the proceedings to be lightless.
This was going to be my first practice with my new teammates. Were they any good at hockey? Were they nice? Were they dicks? What would I say? Should I be funny? Would there be one person who reached out to me more than the others and sort of shepherded me in? Should I look at the ground or try and look people in the faces if and when the coach introduced me in the locker room?
Such a small thing, in some ways—it’s all going to be over in an hour and a half, so how bad can it be?—and so large in others. Large enough that even now, I feel the memory impacting me.
All of these questions were probably running through my head, as we sat in the car. In the darkness, once your eyes adjusted, you could make out the falling snow. I was about to take a deep breath, throw open the door, grab my bad and stick and go in, when my dad, as if he anticipated the very moment when I would pull more air than usual into my lungs, said, “I am very proud of you.” And with that I went.
So those are the two moments/memories, more than any others, that stand out, at least right now, until the prisms—for there are also prisms of memory—recalibrate.