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You gotta move

Monday 1/13/20

I have made so much (disparate) art in the past three days--I am exhausted now. Later I will give a full accounting, while in the midst of having to try to find a way to work harder. These are a few more paragraphs from the excerpt on moving called "Mow the Tiles." It's so long at this point that I can share a little bit more on here before I sell it in full.


There was some perfunctory thought to me living with Schiller and his dad—his parents were divorced—for my last two years of high school, because we were moving again, to the suburbs of Chicago this time. My dad’s company had lied. They made him the hatchet man, the guy who had to tell employees that their services were no longer needed, which ripped apart a man like my dad, who was then told to up and move again.

My father said he didn’t want to relocate his family a second time. What I am sure happened is he gave his reasons, which were specific to each of us, more so me, Kerrin, and Kara than he and my mom. He was in some kind of meeting with bosses and he said something about his son and school and hockey, and one of these other guys says, “Just put him in a fucking prep school,” and my dad reached across the table for him. I am sure nothing about that story is remotely apocryphal. He didn’t tell me. My mom did, years later. My dad didn’t do hyperbole. If you were going to shoot straighter, you damn well better have been Orion.

He hated having to tell me that we were off again. I knew it was coming. He’d left his job and tried to find a comparable job in the area, an extended area, but he was overqualified, the boss who still had a few bosses above him, but not many. I remember telling him to try hard, to find something, please, which was a dick move on my part, because he didn’t need more pressure. I knew about myriad forms of pressure—not like I would later, but enough, even at the physical level, just as these trying circumstances took a toll on my dad physically.

They had largely dissipated by this time, but in my earlier years I suffered from migraines that would leave me in bed for days—blocks of time when I would lose half a week, as if I had entered into a mini-coma. I’d be conscious, but not in the regular way where you note passage of hour, day, a meal missed. I lay in my parents bed, because in my memory, at least, these migraines transpired against a backdrop of warm weather, and they had an air conditioner unit, in those days before central air.

I tried to focus my mind, imagining that my forehead was comprised of a bony road that happened to be sheathed under skin; a good road that would take you where you wished to be, but now the road was clotted with these torturous tiles of ill-fitting sizes, and I required a cutting device, like a lawnmower, to pass over them, through them, sheer them away, restore that road of bone.

I called this mowing the tiles, and when I got older and learned more words, I realized how close my would-be migraine-thwarting technique sounded like the term “motility,” which I understood to be the quality of moving. The link made sense. The migraines may have been no more, but there was still the pain of mowing the tiles, which came with each move.

There had been dread in making the first move to Connecticut, but an adventuring theme—if slight—nonetheless. My dad and I had driven down to Ridgefield together, after my parents bought our house, so I could see it, see the town. Maybe the dry-run of a visit would make matters easier, less of a stunning plunge.

We had no furniture beyond a couple of stepstools, only the empty house we’d all be in soon enough. We camped out in the living room, on green carpet, in sleeping bags. I felt like a settler, and the woods were contained within the safety of walls, such that you experienced whatever lurked in shadows, but you had protection, certainty, the relief of a light switch, the sanctuary of being next to someone who loved you and whom you thought looked funny in a sleeping bag. The woods outside—the environs of the town, as glimpsed through the windows of that empty house—felt vaguely master-able; whereas, Chicago felt like a raping.

We moved the summer after my sophomore year of high school. The plan to live with Schiller wasn’t a very whole-hearted one. More like talk as we drove around during our final days together, buds about about to say goodbye. The plan in Chicago was for me to go to an all-boys school, on account that the quality of hockey would be better. I was not an all-boys school kind of guy. Not that I was Mr. Popularity in public school. But there is an even higher clique quotient, it seems, and you’re hardly shocked when you attend such a school that at one time there was a literary sub-genre oriented around the various peer groups and their asinine pecking orders one finds within. Had you told me during my final high school hockey season in Connecticut—say, around Christmas—when I was tearing up the league, that by the next Yule my career as a hockey player would be over, I would have envisioned some horrific injury or grim medical diagnosis. Wasn’t what got me, in the end.

I didn’t have any friends at the school. In fact, in two years, I didn’t once eat lunch in the cafeteria. I never consumed a mouthful of food at the school. I was ostracized from the start. Initially I dominated at hockey. The team had this big-deal first line center—who would go on to play at UNH—and I took his spot. Competition, right? Good stuff. Not really. Popular kid, and he had these friendships that had been intact for years. I was an interloper. Teammates stopped passing me the puck. Parents wouldn’t go near my dad in the stands.

Something began to happen to my game. These kids weren’t as strong as players as the kids back East, but it was like I slowed down. Sometimes, years after, not that it really mattered, because this was not my calling, I’d look back, ask how I had come back to the pack, had I put on weight, was it something along those lines? My drive was waning. Meanwhile, I was writing more than ever, reading more than ever, loading my head with knowledge. Studying books, music, films. My dad showed me how to drive to this one strip on Clark Street in downtown Chicago (for I was no master navigator), where all of these record stores were. I strip-mined them for bootlegs LPs of the Beatles at the BBC, the Who tearing it up in America in 1970, the pre-fame Doors at some tiny ballroom in San Francisco.

Instead of eating at school, I’d sit in the library, working on my prose. I took two English classes at once, which no one did, because both had a heavy Shakespeare load, and I wanted to train my mind to leap from a work like Hamlet in fourth period to Cymbeline in fifth. I wanted to keep the lines straight, the works distinct, understand differences. The discipline of autonomy.

I envisioned making thousands of works of art when I was ready, when I was able, but I didn’t aim to be one of those artists who do the same thing, more or less, each time out. No one talked to me save this one kid who got a scholarship to Harvard to play football, a mediocre student. He thought he was doing me a favor by asserting to anyone in the vicinity that if you wanted to talk to someone smart, you should talk to the new kid, he was smarter than the teachers, too, which I’m sure the teachers loved to hear. He died in Mexico on spring break, touched a fence after getting out of a pool and was electrocuted. I’d come home and do six or seven hours of homework, but it went so far beyond what was assigned. A guidance counselor must have gotten word of something, because she told me to chill, essentially, to stop trying to learn so much. I could have spat. I didn’t. I has hanging on to all I had. I was so lonely. I also knew I had abilities unique to me, though I didn’t yet grasp their scope; but for the first time I was realizing that my greatest talents had nothing to do with playing a sport. I quit hockey.

My parents were supportive, but my decision gutted my dad. It wasn’t that he wanted to live out athletic glory through his kid. My dad was never that way. But he blamed himself, did the “what if” game—what if we hadn’t moved, what if we had found a way to stay, what if I had lived with Schiller. Either time we moved, probably.

My mom wouldn’t make this up and I knew she was telling the truth—hard as it was to conceive of my father this way—but later she told me that she’d find him in my room, when I was out, and he’d be crying. I didn’t know how to process that information, well into adulthood. After two years, I couldn’t wait to leave Middle America. I felt less myself when I was not near the sea. They say that Lake Michigan is sea-like, but one look at it told me, nah, this wasn’t the stuff for Melville nor for me. It looked glassy and flat and boring, like an aqueous hubcap that just kept going, un-roiled, passive. A sea comes at you, it brings energy and intensity and unflinching purpose. In the schema of bodies of water, be a sea, don’t be a lake. When pressed, you can make do as a river—at least they are going somewhere.


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