I think more people should write privately. Keep journals. Scribble away on scrap paper getting their thoughts straight, pouring out their guts, discussing what eats them up, inspires them, makes them happy or sad. People should do this every day. Once in the morning before they enter their daily life. And once at night before they sleep. The world would be a much better place, especially if these thoughtful people then spent time in the following days reading through what they’ve written. It’s then that they would discover what’s really important. And that isn’t much. This reality would be sobering and it should help them see that they aren’t the center of the world. That instead, they are a simple particle with much promise, useless without the other particles swimming all around. That unlearning what we’ve learned is the key to happiness and freedom and the first step to fulfilling our potential. That our emotions, although necessary and beautiful at times, more often than not lead us into places we should never be. Mired in jealously. Tangled up with resentment. Feeling sorry for ourselves, all helpless and hopeless, because nobody will believe our self-serving opinions that we have mistaken for truth and honesty.
We were five weeks into it. My trips on weekends to visit.
S.B. was living on Stieber Street. Doing her best. Trying to teach art to kids that didn’t get regular meals, words of encouragement, or hugs.
She was raising a two-year-old. By herself. In a neighborhood that was just a step above questionable. The lady across the street thought S.B. was rich.
Because she was a teacher.
Because she was able to put her son into daycare from 7:30 to 3:00, while she worked.
The lady came over on a regular basis to ask for money.
It was hard for S.B. to say NO because she has seen many things. Because she is sweet-hearted.
But her experience has given her a good, solid, fool-proof, bullshit detector.
I know, because she uses it on me.
But that is neither here nor there.
This is about the time we were sitting at the kitchen table that eventually became our dining room table, our living room table, the family table. The one with the small, round, wooden top, and black wrought iron legs.
We were drinking wine, listening to Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Pearl Jam, and Dave Matthews Band.
And we were playing Rummikub.
She was vibrant as ever.
Black tank top.
Grey yoga pants.
Smelling like vanilla and rain.
She amazed me.
Raising a kid, working her ass off, doing all of it on her own, and then welcoming me, a stranger for the most part, to live with her and her baby two days at a time.
A chubby guy with good intentions. On her doorstep every Friday night, after a 239-mile drive.
Time and distance have moved us here.
Life on the 45th parallel, just a few blocks from Lake Huron, in the place we will always call home.
It’ll be a dozen years come August, and to me, there’s no end in sight.
I believe that all we’ll ever do is start all over again.
Because of that one night.
Drinking Yellow Tail.
Listening to Crash by Dave Matthews Band.
I’d just ended my turn. Looked up.
And for whatever reason, she leaned over the table and kissed me.
I don’t think she knows it, but that’s what pulled me in.
He’s a good spirit. Has good intentions. Is not meant to be bound by the rules.
I know this. And yet, I expect him to meet expectations that I know are bullshit.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
What’s a forty-six year-old, chubby hubby and daddy to do when he is living a privileged life—all white and middle-of-the-road and male and sheltered by the 45th parallel—and he doesn’t want his kids to grow up potty-mouthed, stupid, disrespectful, and unforgiving?
As I remember it, we met when he was one-and-a-half, maybe two.
She brought him to meet me out on Smith Road.
The run-down church. My haunted country home.
And we sat on the couch of dirty secrets, trying to watch a movie.
Other girls bared their souls, opened their mouths, spread their legs, and did all of the things their fathers told them not to.
But not this one.
She came to me thinking it would be goodbye.
We dated a few weeks based on past desire, but things were different now.
I was writing, but not much because weekly paychecks made it easy to drink copious amounts of alcohol and eat Banquet Chicken meals.
She was an artist. Living off a healthy diet, and a new job teaching kids in Westland, Michigan.
He was just a baby. A boy. But Christ, he was a handful. Smacking me. Pouting. Putting himself between us.
If I wanted her, I would have to work.
And she knew it.
I got some bubble wrap from my writing room. Popped a few between my thumb and forefinger and he laughed.
It was the best sound I’d ever heard.
A kid in a new place. Fighting. But laughing. Coming to terms.
I put my arm around her and pulled her close without expectations. I just wanted us to be there, together. Watching a boy break plastic to release air.
It made sense then. And it makes sense now.
I loved her and I loved him even before I loved them.
He was my boy before he was my boy.
And she was mine.
But my devotion.
Three hours later, she buckled him into the car seat of her old blue Ford ZX2.
We stood there between the house and church as he fidgeted and fussed in the car.
She kissed me and hugged me as if we would never see each other again.
In the kitchen. Taxes on my mind. Knowing I need to get them done because if done right, we’ll get money back. We need this money to live this life we’re living. I understand that the sum of your belongings means nothing. But once you accumulate and have, you expect. It’s ridiculousness at its best.
So, I’m making French Press coffee from beans I’ve just ground. Starbucks French Roast. And I’m falling into the pit of guilt. It’s not the guilt’s fault. See, I do this often. Every day. Many times each day. Instead of enjoying an experience, like a silky, smooth cup of coffee, I start thinking of the people waking up on the street. In the cold. People with real problems, like aching, starving bellies. Pain that they can’t get prescribed away. Humans, that for one reason or another, have chosen the street. Their decision-making may have not been well-informed and certainly could have been affected by mental illness, substance abuse, lack of education, disease, and general hopelessness. Or sometimes, people just get a bad shake. They are, of course, without choice. Surviving by sheer will.
And that’s only the beginning. I’ll find one of these folks in my head. See them, hear them, feel them, and wonder, how can I help? What am I able to do from my place here on the 45th parallel to get the war vet to the soup kitchen and a counselor? How do I help the opiate addicted illegal immigrant and her three young boys out of the car their living in and into a home? And what about the old man living in his shack out in the sticks with no running water, no phone, no electricity? He can’t walk anymore. He finds it impossible to do much of anything. He sits in his chair, looking out over his frozen front yard toward the road where his mailbox used to be. It’s gone, he thinks. The snowplow that came through last week blasted through it, sending his disability check flying off into February, only to be buried out there somewhere with another layer of snow. Not that it matters. He can’t get to town to cash it, anyhow.
I sip the coffee. Damn, it is good.
I check my watch. An Apple watch, of course. Those are the gifts we give each other. Obnoxious. Does anybody really need to have the world strapped to their wrist? But it is telling me to get moving. Yesterday, I smashed my move goal. Burned just over 1,600 calories. Jogging, walking, elliptical, and free weights. And I’m shameful. How stupid is that? I’m ashamed that I’m able to do these things, look out for my health.
And I love the watch.
I head down to the basement. Get here to these keys. This computer works well. It’s taken the thoughts from inside of me and saved them for the past five years. That’s the typical age when one should consider replacing a laptop. I admit it. I’ve been looking at the 16” MacBook Pro.
Wasn’t it an apple that supposedly got all of us into this?
I’ve been abusing these keys for about twenty minutes. I’m at that point where I know I could go for hours—probably write The Great American Novel—but it’s here again. The pit. My daughter has friends over. Two of them. They slept over last night. It was my wife’s idea. She’s up there now, sipping tea. Touching her iPad Pro. Playing Candy Crush or shopping for clothes for our Spring Break trip. We’re going to Jamaica. But, I’m not up there, you see. Those little girls are chatting, munching cereal, slurping milk. There’s nothing I can do up there. I have nothing to offer, but I’m supposed to be up there. My wife may not actually think this, but that’s what the pit is telling me. I shouldn’t be down here writing, cleaning out the noggin’, getting myself centered, doing what I love—stringing words together. I should be up there.
And once I’m up there, doing whatever it is I can to help—putting away dishes, vacuuming, sitting on the couch and watching TV, just BEING there—the pit will remind me of what I committed to years ago, when I was just a kid.
I’m going to be a writer, I said.
But it will have to wait. At least until the taxes are done.
Writing another book. Most of it’s been written. Only need
to do the hard part, which is go through it story by story, line by line, word
by word to make sure it sings, it speaks, it streaks. That it does what it’s
supposed to do. Even then there are no guarantees. It could fall flat. Be
another stack of papers I stuff away in a desk drawer. But that’s okay. Getting
the shit out gets me closer to the good. Ten pages of nothing usually yields
one page of something. This book will be about 80 pages, so be prepared for
eight pretty decent pages. I hope you’re as excited as I am. Once this thing is
done, I want to have a signing in Alpena. Maybe at Thunder Bay Winery. The one
I had there a few years back for CUTTING TEETH went well. I like wine. I like
books. I like people that like wine and books.
The wind is crazy. Full of energy tonight. Big bulky clouds floated
across the sky as I watched my daughter practice jumps and flips and spins on
the trampoline. The enormous, billowy monsters had orange and pink bellies as
they crept over the horizon. Thunder grumbled. But my daughter—growing up and
away from me each day—kept at it. Springing around even as sprinkles turned
into big cold drops.
“We can try again tomorrow,” she said.
I got to watch my boy play soccer tonight. It was only
practice. I was a hundred yards away, parked in the back parking lot of the
high school. The sun was blinding as it fell down into my line of sight. But I
squinted. Pulled the sun visor down in the car and watched.
My pulse quickens when his foot touches the ball. My
adrenaline rushes when he kicks his body into high gear and blasts down the
The kid is kinetic. Fluid and quick. I know, I know, he IS
my son and I am biased, but seeing him out there on the field makes me happy because
I can feel how much he loves it.
I can’t wait for this weekend when his season begins.
Nights like this. When I haven’t got much to say, but I know
that I need to do this. Just pound away at the keys for a little bit.
Get clear. Refocus. Release.
That’s why I do it, I guess. Why I’ve been doing it since I
was a kid.
These letters. This punctuation. They are my soccer field.
They are my trampoline.
Handprints on windows. Fingerprints on the fridge. A pair of wet socks in the sink. Cereal bowl and spoon sitting on the couch. The smart TV shows THE AMAZING WORLD OF GUMBALL to the dog. She’s curled up in a big pink blanket, surrounded by a dozen stuffed animals, and has a purple bow on her head. She wags her nub.
Lights are on in the bedrooms, the hallways, the writing room, the
There are dollops of bright blue toothpaste on the bathroom
countertop. Water drops splashed across the mirror. A toilet that hasn’t been
flushed all day. I hit the handle, down it goes.
Strands of toilet paper are wrapped around the railing of the back
staircase like garland.
There’s a bird’s nest in a bucket in the mudroom. The garage door
is wide open. My hammer, two screwdrivers, a saw, eight rusty railroad spikes and
a pile of driftwood are on the floor.
Outside, the garden hose snakes across the driveway and floods the
flowerbed. I shut it off and walk to the backyard where a yellow sweatshirt and
more socks—one red and one green—hang on the fence. The gate is open.
There’s a tent set up. Soccer balls, books, Tupperware, and pots
and pans are spread throughout the grass.
And there she is. Ten years old. Flat on her back on the
She’s smiling, moving her arms and legs—making a snow angel, I
guess—under shapeshifting clouds and a sun that promises no end.
We walk past the boat harbor. Sailboats bob in the bay.
Purple and yellow flowers line the sidewalk as we pass the water treatment
plant. They are not enough to take the mind and nose away from the stench, but
the smell doesn’t bother us. It’s something we have come to know as home. I
think of the waste—from people and pets, from all that we consume—running through
pipes and filters. Water getting clean again, running back through more filters
and pipes. Running out of hoses. Filling glasses, bathtubs, and ice cube trays.
Drip, drip, dripping from leaky faucets and seeping into our dreams at night.
“Look! Look!” Oogie shouts, pointing toward a flock of
herring gulls soaring overhead. They move over the harbor and the playground,
past the bandshell toward Lake Huron.
“Pretty,” my wife says.
And it is.
All of it is.
The shimmering waves. The squeaky swings as kids sway back
and forth, laughing and shrieking. The big ugly mountain of salt kept near the
river for the winter that’s months out but getting closer every day. The
crumbling armory that’s been turned into a place for laser tag. And my wife and
daughter searching every milkweed along the river for caterpillars on the edge
of the city mowing line.
They find four tonight.
“We need fresh stuff to eat,” my wife says. Not to me, but to
the two fat colorful creatures she has on a leaf in her hand.
“Yes!” Oogie cheers. “These guys are hungry!” She is beaming,
carrying two caterpillars in her small hands.
A monarch butterfly rises from a lilac bush when we are
about three blocks from home. We are silent but happy as it follows us as if
watching to make sure that we’ll do good. When it is satisfied that we mean
well, it flies off toward our neighbor’s garden.
When we get home, I mix a drink. It’s time to unwind. I will
sit on the front porch and listen to this small town settle its way to sleep.
But first, I look into the world my wife and daughter have worked so hard to
create. Their butterfly house. The place where caterpillars eat and poop and
eat and poop and grow and grow until they know it’s time to climb to the top,
form a J, then tremble and shake themselves into a smooth, shiny chrysalis.
Last year, it gave birth to nineteen monarchs. My wife and
daughter named them all. We only lost one. I’m not sure of the name. Something like
Stan or Earl. Definitely a male. He rose up to fly away, made a wide loop out over
the yard then came right back and landed on the porch in front of our dog. Our
cute, harmless Buggle that apparently thought it was some sort of treat. She
chomped little Stan or Earl up into bits, spit him out, then cowered between my
legs. I moved quickly to pick up the pieces, sure that my daughter would be
“Aw,” she said. “It’s okay, Dad. He probably wouldn’t have
made it far anyway.”
“Survival of the fittest,” my wife added.
So far this year, there are fifteen waiting to make the
change. Nine chrysalises and six caterpillars. They haven’t given them official
names yet, but they have a list. Like parents choosing possible names for their
unborn baby. Waiting as patiently as possible for that new and incredible life to
have its one chance to wake this world to color again.
I wouldn’t have this perspective if I’d had more to eat or
less to drink. Nothing would make sense, and these words would not fall into
place like this had I not gone through all that I have in my life.
And I haven’t gone through much.
At least that’s what they tell me.
I am after all, white.
And semi-privileged. Which means my parents worked their
asses off to make sure I had what I needed to succeed—food, shelter, and an
insurmountable amount of love.
But I don’t want to get into the haves and have nots. I did
that once before—writing about riots and the poor decisions people make when
they are oppressed and frustrated—and a woman said that she felt sorry for me.
I didn’t understand, she said. I couldn’t understand, she said. I was ignorant,
she said. All because I mentioned that the issues we have can be boiled down to
something simple—you’re either nice or you’re not.
My kids get it. Other kids get it too. They don’t see color or history or gender or whatever other labels we do. They just see good. Unless their parents have poisoned them. Making them see what they want them to.
You know who you are. Devils.
We do everything we can to complicate this life. Create
issues that don’t exist. Blame people for their ignorance and try to push them
into some category that says—indirectly, of course—that they are less than
But that’s not true.
The overweight fella collecting carts at Walmart is not all
the different from the man loading his cart with organic veggies, cage free
eggs, protein shakes, and booze.
The elderly man offering savings in the form of a coupon-filled
flier at the entrance of Meijer is not so different than the lawyer and his family
buying candles, chocolate, and video games.
We are all in this together.
Human beings on a big ball of dirt and water whirling
But we don’t want to break down to the basics.
We want to be special. To be heard.
We are so selfish that we believe it’s early, but late.
We believe that our perspective has the power to shape. That
if we have less to eat or more to drink everything will make sense. Words will
fall into place and finally we will express all we’ve gone through in this life.
We are ignorant, they say. All because we believe the issues we face can be boiled down simplicity—either you’re nice or you’re not.