I’ve Lost It

Some weeks ago, I was home. Or what used to be. My dad texted me to politely ask if—while I was in town—I would be willing to excise all traces of my childhood from his basement. His request was both reasonable and healthy given that I have not spent a night under that roof for two decades.

So over the course of a few days, whenever my wife and son retreated to simultaneous and well-deserved naps, I examined and weighed the emotional value of hundreds of artifacts that were stowed in a remote closet at my dad’s.

About ten years ago, I had carried out a similar purge, mostly to remove any incriminating relics of my adolescence. That time around, I had disposed of an extensive collection of empty chewing tobacco cans, pages torn from magazines I had acquired before reaching the legal age to purchase them myself, and the bones of a dead animal I’m pretty sure was a cat.

(I had no hand in the cat’s demise, but its skeleton fascinated me and freaked me out when I was twelve or so and discovered it during an independent excursion in the woods. It stayed in a shoebox for years because at least then you don’t have to explain to a disbelieving audience why there is a dead cat in the garbage can, or your backpack, or your car, or wherever you happen to be when someone confronts you about your attempt to dispose of a dead cat.)

But this time around, sifting the remaining items in the basement was a more complex reckoning with emotion.

I took the time to handle valentines signed by my third-grade classmates and wondered what theme I had selected to summarize my affinity for those friends. Transformers? He-Man? Maybe Garfield.

I found an un-cashed birthday check from my grandfather and experienced fleeting guilt, then enduring amusement, that I’d sent him into the afterlife with his finances slightly awry.

I revisited a painting of myself and considered how long the painter must have regarded a photo of me with tender honesty in order to produce such a work.

I smashed down everything I just mentioned into the garbage moments after caressing each item for the last time. It was not pleasant. I simply had to make some difficult decisions, and I did, and some of them felt cathartic, and some of them didn’t.

What I deemed worthy of preservation fit into two yellowing cardboard apple boxes. I transported the boxes to a nearby UPS store and paid to have them shipped to an address in another state where I currently live with my pregnant wife and two-year-old son.

One of the boxes contained cassette recordings of bands I played in. Baseball cards and comic books I will divide among any of my progeny who wants a stake. A lot of letters I perused one by one as unconscious and abstract impressions solidified into concrete assertions such as:

  • my brother is a strong contender for best man alive on this planet
  • if the Comfort boys approach you, pick scabs off their elbows, and offer to become your blood brother, that isn’t just some bullshit
  • no matter what my mom writes on a piece of paper, she is telling you she loves you
  • you want PFC Daniel P. Quinn with you in a foxhole
  • every ex-girlfriend was necessary practice for finally meeting the woman who has the patience and understanding and courage it takes to become the wife of someone who secreted the remains of a dead cat in his closet for a good twenty years

(I googled “dead cat meaning” after writing that last part, and now I wish I’d been brave enough to just leave it in without googling it. It also occurs to me that I have another, even more bizarre and detailed story about a deceased cat whose gruesome and improbable end I did not witness but whose disposal became my personal cross to bear. Until now I had never connected those dots in my life.)

Anyway, the first box actually made it here. It’s sitting in the foyer. I haven’t yet decided where I’ll store it.

But the second box.

Gone.

In addition to a childhood teddy bear with which I associate resentment, a framed print depicting a rag-doll clown holding a newspaper with my birth date on it, and some other flotsam I should have thrown out to begin with, that second box contained the bulk of what I imagined would someday be the touring and posthumous J.P. Kelleher exhibit at prestigious museums. After I had enjoyed several decades of financial success and personal contentment as an author.

Maybe the loss I lament most is my 2nd grade “Story-writing” notebook, where I produced short responses and illustrations based on prompts our teacher wrote on the chalkboard. A typical page contained something like, “If I were a pencil, I would be a missel and I would kill people.” The accompanying drawing portrayed the human form impaled by a pencil enlarged to dimensions that certainly qualified as military-grade. The gore and sense of motion specific to such an event were effectively conveyed by the image. My teacher had written “How sad” in the margin and circled my misspelling of missile.

Also lost were at least a dozen other notebooks and folders full of song lyrics, poems, short stories, the overview of a derivative fantasy series I plotted out when I was probably in 5th grade, a bunch of high school and college essays, brief and futile adolescent manifestos, confessions, jokes. Pretty much everything I ever did to warm up for my dreams to come true.

So here I am. Finally a man, I guess, now that I got everything out of my dad’s house. A man who suspected he was a writer for some while. Yet who possesses minimal tangible evidence that such a proposition is true, now that an apple box has disappeared in transit from the past to the present.

Why does this new reality feel surprisingly refreshing? Why does it feel so liberating?

Where to go from here? What to do now?

This, among other endeavors, I suppose.

Donny Parker Is On the Map

I employ Google Maps to navigate new streets. It’s also good for time travel, kind of.

I open my Mac and in seconds I’m at the curb of my dad’s house. Thirteen again.

I attend to subatomic emotions.

Then off to a blurry field of grass.

The photo stream on the left lets me browse medium-quality postcard shots.

There are the falls. There is the clock tower.

But what?

I’m really mad all of a sudden. Mad at photos taken inside a hardware store.

Hand tools. Light bulbs. Heavy coats associated with seasonal unemployment.

Not what I came here to see. The time I carved out for nostalgia is ruined.

A swift and superficial investigation reveals that the responsible entity bears a name:

Donny Parker.

I ignore my wife and son for forty minutes to repeatedly paste a complaint into the report a problem feature.

I inform on Parker many times.

Because evil will reign in the world if good people do nothing.

A week goes by.

I feel like revisiting my childhood again.

Parker will be banished by now for sure.

I open my Mac and prepare to settle in.

Jesus. Motherfucking.

Now I have to really reconnoiter Parker’s profile.

Full immersion in his extensive cache evokes mingled dismay and awe.

It appears Parker uploads redundant documentation of every place he visits.

The abundance of photos complicates efforts to verify his personhood.

The most detailed evidence to date:

Human or not, the consequent assumptions following exposure to Parker’s catalogue are many.

Some are true. Most are uninformed.

My own perspective yields to the figures:

Parker’s 12,000 photos of roadside motels and Sizzlers have garnered over 15 million views.

And counting.

I decide to interpret Parker’s work as the product of a compassionate optimist.

A gallery follows.

Of places one might have enjoyed congress with Donny Parker.

Ricardo’s Restaurant, Bellevue, WA
La Fruteria Tropical, Brewster, WA
Hi-Lo Cafe, Weed, CA
Lowe’s Home Improvement, Pasco, WA
Ramada Limited, Redding, CA
Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, WA
The General Store, Spokane, WA
O’Reilly Auto Parts, Pasco, WA
Big Lots, Wenatchee, WA
The General Store, Spokane, WA
Wendy’s, Moses Lake, WA
Griggs Department Store, Pasco, WA
Salvadorean Pupusas, East Wenatchee, WA
Rogue River/Siskiyou National Forest, OR

Puzzled Bachelorettes

My wife and I used to have big nights.

A while back we had a preemie and a big hospital stay.

We discussed ways to renew. Something intimate and connective. A guilty indulgence to relish in our low lit home after our boy is asleep.

I did not expect the proposed solution of jigsaw puzzles to spill from my mouth.

My wife and I rock paper scissored. I won the privilege of driving alone to Barnes and Noble.

I drove slow. I tried to hit red lights. I coasted into the mall parking lot, ceding the right of way to everyone.

The chain restaurants were filling up. I caught a glimpse of a group of women wearing summer dresses and crossing their legs against the breeze at an outdoor table.

Jealous contempt flared in me. I envied these bachelorettes and their freedom. I wanted to hop the low fence and lean on their table.

“Enjoy this,” I would say. “Someday soon, you’ll be doing jigsaw puzzles for fun.”

And then I’d buy them all drinks. I would be a heroic sage.

This was the mental vignette that entertained me as I edged into a parking space.

I decided on the long way to the bookstore entrance despite a recent knee injury. I wanted another look at the bachelorettes. Maybe suck in my gut and catch one or two of them checking out the silvering fox.

But by the time I got back to the bachelorette patio, my knee was killing me. Every time my left foot touched the ground, I stifled grunts that almost qualified as whimpers.

I composed myself for the last few yards.

Then, from nowhere, a pair of elderly couples sauntered into my path. Like all octogenarians, they did not give a fuck.

They surrounded me with effortless, eerie precision. It felt like some kind of police maneuver, as if they had rehearsed the exercise for months.

My aching knee prevented me from dodging out of their midst.

So I drifted invisible past the bachelorettes, camouflaged by an escort of elderly couples who were also limping, just not as badly as me.

But I did get close enough to observe that the bachelorettes were not the naïve twenty-somethings I had presumed. They had already done their fair share of jigsaw puzzles.

This new knowledge of them granted me both disappointment and a relief I still do not fully understand.

The footpath opened up, allowing me to break free of my wizened escort.

I took a moment at the edge of the grass and watched the old couples weave away drunk on experience.

And then I resumed my errand, leaving the bachelorettes to their cocktails and the elderly to their own mischief.

My wife and I still needed a puzzle.

I let the path guide me down a gentle slope to the bookstore and melted into it.

The puzzles were displayed in the heart of the store. It occurred to me I had probably never purchased a jigsaw puzzle. The selection overwhelmed me.

I started taking photos of contenders, then loaded up a message with the following images:

  • A thatched cottage at sunset. Minnie Mouse kisses Mickey Mouse in the yard.
  • A collage of iconic Disney characters. An American flag peeks out between Pluto and Captain Hook.
  • An early 20th century American village. The fire station dominates the foreground. A stooped, bearded fireman appears to fist bump a small boy wearing knickers.
  • A rainbow. Belle and the Beast dance beneath it.
  • Another rainbow. Cinderella and Prince Charming dance beneath it.
  • The Amalfi coast at twilight.
  • An Austrian mountain village.
  • Dumbo grinning in a bubble bath.

I sent the images and invited my wife’s input with the typed question “Which one?”

Right away I realized I had not only sent this gallery to my wife, but to the ladies who operate my son’s daycare.

I hastened to un-creep out the daycare ladies. “Oops, wrong chat,” I typed.

One of them quickly sent me her pardon. “Hahaha no worries,” she said. A few seconds later, her co-worker granted me a pair of emoji monkeys covering their eyes.

I imagined the texts they were now assuredly exchanging.

Then I seized on a puzzle, one that was not in the tainted menu I had just sent to the entire cohort that tries to teach my fourteen-month-old son not to punch people in the face unless duly provoked.

I declined a bag at the register. I saw no point in hiding my jigsaw puzzle from the judgment of bachelorettes.

I hobbled back to my car and drove home.

Over the course of the next two nights, my wife and I settled into a system for building our slow image.

Sometimes our hands touched. Once or twice her hair grazed my face.

By Sunday night it was complete. Our dining room table was a world of horse carts. Pumpkins. Vegetable stands. Crows in a tree. Chimney smoke. A mill stream. A slumbering pig.

Recently Checkmated

Last week I learned how to play chess. Actually, it’s more accurate to say last week my friend Rob attempted to teach me to play chess.

He did a great job of explaining the layout of the board and the various mobilities of the pieces. He showed me the little ritual for deciding who goes first. And even though he won that phase, he offered the first move to me.

“No, that’s cool, you lead off, man,” I said.

“That means you’ll be on the defensive.”

“That’s alright. These black ones look pretty sleek.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t go easy on me,” I said. “I need to get destroyed a few times in order to learn.”

Rob accommodated my request. The game was over in like five moves.

“Let’s try that again,” he said.

By the end of the next game, I had a rudimentary understanding of chess and a new appreciation for Rob’s patience. I enjoyed the experience so much I downloaded a chess app for my iPad when I got home. It’s less pleasant than contending with Rob, though. The computer doesn’t pause to pretend it’s studying your array before annihilating your queen. It flashes the word “blunder” across the screen every two moves or so. It’s a real jackass.

Despite their differences in teaching styles, I owe both the computer and Rob gratitude. The good cop/bad cop combination of their methods familiarized me with the game enough to more fully appreciate sitting in the open air mall in front of the specialty barbershop where we were on the waiting list to get my son’s first hair cut the other day.

Normally, I would have killed time wandering with my wife through the farmer’s market that was getting underway. But I was burdened by crutches and a knee-brace, trophies of an unglamorous injury that reinforced the importance of stretching before any strenuous activity. Like pruning waist-high plants and putting the trimmings in a garbage bag.

Immobilized, I had no choice but to wait by myself and observe the activity around the over-sized chess board in front of the children’s barbershop.

It was a weird place for an over-sized chess board.

It was a weird place for me to be sitting alone.

A mother of three exuded suspicion and contempt at me as her two oldest children—a boy of about six, a daughter of about four—arranged the pieces in an alternating black and white sequence around the board’s perimeter. Their unity of effort did not last long.

“The white horse is the mommy and the black horse is the daddy,” the little girl said. She picked the white horse up by the neck to move it closer to the black horse. Black knight. Her exertions knocked over two pawns and a bishop.

“That’s not how you play chess,” her brother said.

He was right. I knew this with certainty. I knew it thanks to my chess app and my evening with Rob.

Around this time, their mother liberated the youngest daughter—probably about three— from the baby backpack thing that had restrained her. The little girl toddled toward me wielding a coquettish smile I interpreted as transparent manipulation to get a sip of the watermelon juice my wife had left on the table. I granted the little girl a nuanced expression that communicated two principal themes:

  1. You are very sweet.
  2. Get away from my juice.

I learned this expression from women I approached in bars throughout my twenties.

The kids continued knocking over the chess pieces and circling my juice for a few more minutes until their mom herded them elsewhere. Her contempt dissipated in the soft breeze. I finished my juice at my leisure.

I rose and limped to dispose of my cup in a receptacle of other recyclable materials that are probably now in a landfill. Another group of kids assumed control of the chess board.

These kids knew how to play chess. More or less. There was some dispute over which piece was king and which was queen. I interpreted this as evidence of our society becoming more gender-fluid each day.

The oldest of these kids was probably thirteen and the youngest maybe six. But they knew how to play. And by play, I don’t just mean play chess. They got a highly complex game going under their own initiative, gracefully compensating for the lop-sided number of five participants. They conducted themselves with decorum. They tolerated Oliver.

“Oliver, stop it.”

“Oliver, you can’t do that.”

“Oliver, put that back.”

Oliver looked like a pretty fun kid. He reminded me of my friend Rob. The guy who introduced me to the ancient, sophisticated choreography of chess.

Game of kings. Symmetry of strategy and tactics. There it was, in a thoroughly bizarre place, cultivating the minds of children while they waited for haircuts.

After forty five minutes, the barbershop texted us. We took my son inside and selected the chair that looked like a fire truck.

He held onto the steering wheel and didn’t cry.

When they were finished, he didn’t look like a baby anymore. Soon he’ll be beating me in chess.

An Antidote to Darkness

I am a cautious consumer. I rarely buy new products or gadgets I have spent the entirety of my life living without. However, I have recently surprised myself by considering the pragmatic advantages of owning a pair of night vision goggles.

The first obvious application for night vision goggles is to strengthen my marriage. My wife and I both read in bed, but she falls asleep first, and she has trained me to understand that my own happiness is proportional to how well-rested she is. I use a Kindle to minimize light pollution in our bedroom, but Kindle editions are often poorly edited and cumbersome to navigate. Whenever I read physical copies, I use an LED clip lamp, but its intense, focused beam straddles the edge of overkill. If I drift off, and the book slips from my grasp, my wife awakens to the visual equivalent of a welder’s torch hovering in her face. We have ruled out a sleeping mask for her, so night vision goggles have become the most viable solution. The only drawback I anticipate is in having to fumble with straps to dab at my tears each time I finish The Return of the King.

I first began considering the night vision option a few days after hanging the camera for my son’s baby monitor. Although I contend the baby monitor is overused in our household, I admit I am impressed by its quality. If we hear my son stirring, we can observe a high-resolution image of him blinking into the dark with huge, luminous eyes, like an experimental hybrid of a raccoon and a squid. We cringe at his contorted efforts to fall asleep. We intervene when he has gotten both legs stuck between the crib slats. But rescuing him is a blind process of trial and error. In his vulnerable, semi-conscious state, it must be both uncomfortable and humiliating for him to be dragged around in the dark and have every orifice of his head prodded with a pacifier. I do not know the sum impact on his psyche, but it cannot be good. Again, night vision goggles are an enticing solution. They will secure a happier future for my son.

The issue reaches its moral apex when I take my yard into consideration. A burrowing animal is destroying it, and much of the damage is done at night. I am not sure if it is a mole or a gopher or ants, but the patch of grass off our patio is looking more lunar each day. An exterminator could solve the problem in one afternoon, but I am uneasy about this course of action. I believe I should have to look my enemy in the eye before I call in a drone strike. If I set up a hunter’s blind next to the barbecue and don my night vision goggles, who knows what I will discover. Maybe I will be touched and inspired by the gopher’s industriousness. Maybe there are baby gophers involved. Or maybe it will just look like a rat is digging holes in my yard. If this is the case, his hours might be numbered. Regardless, an informed and ethical course of action is only possible if I have some way of seeing in the dark.

A stable marriage. Well-adjusted children. A modest piece of land. These emblems of adulthood resonate across cultures and time, but few technologies are versatile enough to promote all three. Night vision goggles are less than two-hundred dollars on Amazon. I am inclined to believe they will soon be an indispensable tool of 21st century living.

 

 

 

 

A Presumptuous Mayan

I suffer from a compulsion, though I suspect not a rare one. It has annoyed and alarmed my wife on many occasions. It has almost gotten me thrown out of concerts and sporting events I paid good money to see. It has raised the eyebrows of airport security in multiple countries.

The irrepressible urge is this:

Anytime I enter a large structure built by modern humans, I am compelled to reconnoiter areas designated off limits to the general public.

Malls. Hotels. Museums. Hospitals. Courthouses. Aquariums. Decommissioned aircraft carriers.

On days off I dress in neutral colors and take public transportation downtown. I select a skyscraper and enter the lobby with an air of manufactured casualness, as if I routinely have business in skyscrapers. I nod to the security guard. I pretend to cross-reference information on my phone and the directory map. Then I board the elevator.

Somewhere near the top floor, I step off into an empty hallway. I wind my way through the hive geometry of the corridors, and after negotiating a few blind turns, slow down to regard a sudden font of natural light in the hall a few yards ahead.

The illumination issues from a door propped open to ventilate an office lobby under remodel. I creep closer and determine that the painters are on their break.

Suppressing the sound of my footfalls, I cross the threshold. A few more feet to skirt the vacant reception desk, and then I’m indulging in a view only a few of us in this metropolis will ever see. This vantage will cost someone a lot of money. It costs me very little.

If anyone confronts me, I have to improvise.

Receptionist at Architectural Firm: May I help you?

Me: I think I made a wrong turn. I was looking for my insurance agents.

RAF: Mills and Fellini?

Me: Yes.

RAF: They are on the 40th floor.

Me: What floor is this?

RAF: 41st.

Me: (feigning embarrassed perplexity) Wow. How stupid do you have to be to push the wrong button in an elevator?

RAF: (with visible restraint, refrains from comment)

Me: I’m not going to tell my agent I can’t operate an elevator. My premiums will go up.

RAF: (almost smiles)

Me: Have a nice day.

RAF: You too.

And we never see one another again.

I suppose an interaction like this could be construed as manipulative, but in my view, the means justify the ends. I didn’t break anything. I didn’t steal anything. And I just got a view of the world that, in the eons of human history, was unthinkable until just a few generations ago.

The Egyptians, the Greeks, The Incas. Few of the structures they erected rival the scale and complexity of our office parks. And an airport? How is it possible that such a thing even exists?

There is no telling which feats of our engineering will endure for future archaeologists and tourists to puzzle over. They will wish they could ask us what it was like to live in our times.

I elect not to be like the Mayan whose labor helped raise a pyramid complex, but who was not considered wealthy or holy enough to enjoy a moment to himself inside what we would call a wonder of the world.

And now I have an affable accomplice for my explorations.

Hospital Security Guard: Sir, what are you doing in here?

Me: I think I got turned around. I’m looking for the family bathroom.

HSG: This area is off limits.

Me: I’m sorry.

HSG: Please exit this way. There’s hazardous material in this area.

Me: (holding nose and pointing at child suspended in Baby Björn) There sure is.

Tuning Back Up

I live on a dead end street in a southern suburb of San Diego. Every house in the neighborhood is painted the same color. There is a man-made duck pond a five-minute walk from our driveway. Sometimes teenagers park their cars and smoke weed at the mouth of the service road for the brush canyon that runs behind us. Those kids are the best and the worst feature of my neighborhood.

The other night when I opened the garage for an outing to Costco, there was a steady trickle of young women filing down the hill toward the cul-de-sac. It was not easy to estimate their ages.

I wrestled with two contradictory impulses: The first was to avert my eyes. The second was to ascertain the terminus of this unexpected parade. As my wife buckled our seven-month-old son into his car seat, I projected an aura of nonchalance primarily achieved by not grunting as I loaded the stroller in the cargo hold of our economical SUV.

When we got home from Costco, a train of parked cars occupied every inch of curb space on our street. A clump of human activity boiled in the driveway a few houses down from us. The most identifiable member of the cohort was wearing a bass guitar that dwarfed his physique. The accessory was justified by the half-circle of smiling young women in his proximity.

I have enough life experience to know that if someone is hanging out on your street wearing a bass guitar, the odds are high you will soon be hearing an approximation of music. In this case, the noise commenced just as the street lights were coming on. For the most part it was a low end throb that made our windows buzz a little. But any time the side door to our neighbor’s garage opened, the higher frequencies washed out over the roofs and poured down the canyon. Cheers of authentic appreciation punctuated the end of each song.

It had been a while since I’d heard live music. It’s more accurate to say it had been a while since I’d heard any compelling live music. But the music coming from my neighbor’s garage did compel me. It was sloppy. It was simple. It was people playing through mistakes in front of an enthusiastic and forgiving audience. I hoped no one was Snapchatting it.

My kitchen garbage was not full, but I took it out anyway to get closer to the energy of the show and the optimistic voices in the street. The wood and wheels of a skateboard ground out another breed of music as someone else attempted bold feats and failed at them. People were laughing, flirting, making plans for later. The conversations were identical to those I’d participated in 25 years ago.

I was not satisfied just hearing the gathering from behind the fence where we keep the garbage cans. I wanted to see what was going on out there, but feared disturbing its pristineness. I crept out my front door and edged along the hedge at my property line. However, the motion light over my garage has a long reach and betrayed me with literalness, revealing me as a man in his forties peering at teenagers from behind bushes. How to explain the context and nuance of my predicament if I were spotted? I melted back into the house.

Still, much more inspired than ashamed, I climbed the foyer stairs and disinterred my guitar from where it resides in the spare bedroom. To my surprise, it was almost in tune. I carried it into my son’s bedroom, where my wife was drying him after his bath.

“I’m going across the street to show them what rock looks like,” I said.

“No, you’re not.”

My son rolled his head back to eye me from his supine position on the changing table. He had a hand in his mouth. I strummed a power chord, which made him grin and kick his legs with impressive violence.

Encouraged by his response, I improvised an aggressive riff. I don’t remember how it went, but you have to take my word for it that it absolutely shredded.

My son redoubled his kicking and gurgled.

“Don’t get him excited. He needs to sleep,” my wife said.

I assumed a limber, athletic stance, pointed the headstock of my guitar at her back, and sped up the riff. My wife did not bother to turn around, so I retreated down the hall to make good use of the closet doors that double as full-length mirrors in our bedroom.

On a typical night, I feed my son his last bottle before he goes to sleep. While he eats, we listen to French surrealist composers or Gaelic folk music. I’m not trying to turn him into any kind of elitist, but that music is relaxing. It’s the sound of a baby falling asleep in your arms when you have a little whiskey on your breath. But the night the band played down the street, we just listened to those kids and all their mistakes. I told my son his daddy used to play in bands like that.

When I was nineteen, and my friends and I rattled our neighbors’ windows with our amplified errors, was there some guy listening to us as he fed his baby?

Maybe.

Maybe our shaky attempts made him feel a little more alone, but also a little more like himself. Maybe he kissed his son and promised him a guitar. Maybe he had been afraid a smothering, conventional life had finally ensnared him.

“Nope. Not yet.”

Maybe he said that.