“Selling Time”

It’s a white hot summer day, and we are making our way around a miniature golf course, four of us guys in our late teens. We are still sandy from having come from the beach, wearing colored t-shirts, shorts and sandals. Two of my friends have been eyeing the two girls playing in front of us, trying to come up with a pretext for going and talking to them, which they finally solve through the simple expedient of hitting a ball over our hole and into the part of the course the girls are playing on.

There is no one immediately behind us, so I take this time to run over to the vending machines and get a drink, a Fanta Root Beer, which is approximately 33 degrees Fahrenheit when I get it, and tastes delicious. Walking back, I see there are now two of us on our hole, and my two buddies have joined the girls in their game.

Fortune favors the brave.

My friend Raj and I are left to finish the game, which we do; he then has to head off to earn some extra money doing some lifeguarding for a private pool party.

“See you ‘round.”

“You, too. Don’t let anyone drown.”

I’m on my own now, but we were all in separate cars when we met up at the beach, so, no worries. It is 5:00 in the afternoon, and the thermometer on the bank signs says it is 91 degrees, which, for a Florida summer isn’t that bad. I figure on heading home and taking a shower; I don’t really have any other plans for the weekend, other than heading back to school Sunday night.

My parents aren’t home, as they are away on vacation; I am staying at their house for the weekend just to take a break from the dorms and see my buddies. None of my other friends attend summer semester (or quarter) at their colleges; all of them are working jobs back home for the summer. Since I make money playing the piano a few hours a week, I have the time, so I am trying to get through school faster taking summer classes.

After a shower, I grill a couple of pork chops on my parents’ gas grill. I sit down at the table to eat them and to read more of “Adam Bede,” which I am reading for school. The story is dark and depressing in all the right ways, and I find myself still sitting at the dining room table six hours later, reading the last chapters accompanied only by the sound of my parents’ old wall clock.

I walk around this house, a house my parents have been in for the last eight years, peering through the shadows. There are walls and walls of books. There’s the old piano I learned on. There’s the stereo I listened to the radio on at night all those years I had insomnia. There’s a picture of my sister and her husband.

It is 1:35 A.M. I head back to my old bedroom, which my brother and I shared for years, with its stacked bunk beds. I climb into the bottom bunk, place my glasses on the windowsill behind the bed, and peer at the outline of the moonlight coming from the doorway, now blurry through my unassisted eyes.

I can feel a little sunburn on my neck as I sink into the pillow. The day passes before my eyes like a slide show:

… the beach … miniature golf… my buddies and those girls… a Fanta Root Beer… my friend going off to lifeguard… a shower… grilled pork chops… an old library book with an even older story… walking around the house in the dark…

When I wake up, it is Sunday morning and bright as a sheet outside.

All the years, just selling time,
All the days of here and gone:
Growing, going, nowhere fast;
One more night, and one more dawn –

Selling time that no one bought;
Mundane and quotidian –
Doing little as a lot:
With no prime meridian

All the minutes, meaningless,
And yet with intention rife:
All the years, just selling time,
What’s it all but luck,

And life

The Truth About Lying

The world’s predictable, in ways,
And so it came as no surprise —
She meant to tell a form of truth
But ended with a hail

Of lies

The fact that people lie all the time doesn’t really bother me. In fact, it’s one of the more endearing qualities human beings have.

Small children lie almost reflexively; years ago, I described this phenomenon with the words, “It isn’t really lying. I think of it more as ‘creating new truth where there was no truth before.’”

And, of course, small kids aren’t really lying: they don’t even get the concept of what a lie is. That’s why you can ask them questions like, “What did you do at pre-school today?” And get answers like “We flew an airplane into some dinosaurs,” which, once you think about it for minute, seems unlikely.

I think lying coming so easily to us as children is a key to what communication is, at heart: it’s not about conveying information, it’s about us trying to get what we want. To children, and, frankly, many adults, lying can’t be a bad thing if it results in them getting what they want.

Have you ever been lied to, Owen? In a relationship? A marriage? Huh? Well if you had, you wouldn’t be so cavalier about it!

Well, first of all, Mister Smarty-Voice, I have been lied to, in a relationship and in a marriage, and it was decidedly uncool. But she wasn’t lying to me to try to fool me, she was ashamed of a part of her life and tried to hide it from me. Her eventual truth-telling was just part of her journey, part of her becoming… her.

I was just sort of collateral damage.

I do understand that relationships of all kinds need honesty: business relationships, friendships, and romantic relationships. But even there, there are types of honesty that are really cruelty wearing a mask. We all know the type of thing I’m talking about: that friend who says cruel and hurtful things to people, usually followed up with, “well, I’m just being honest.”

Honestly a jerk, you mean.

Telling the truth is like taking medicine; just because you can doesn’t mean you should, and too much of it at the wrong time can be fatal.

I was thinking about truth and lies because I’ve had to do quite a bit of research for some of these essays, trying to get dates and ages right. I’m sure some of them are messed up, anyway. I don’t remember clearly, and can’t find any documentary evidence to confirm or deny the memories I do have. So I go with them.

In the event, in such cases, that my memory turns out to be faulty, most people don’t think of it as “lying”, they think of it as “remembering wrong”, with the implication that lying is deliberate and “remembering wrong” isn’t.

Unless you are a public figure, of course, in which case you are just a liar, in the eyes of the many vigilant souls we have out here in who zealously keep watch over such things.

I inherited from my mother a love of all things nonsensical. I had the following exchange with my boss (via office Messenger) at work a couple of days ago:

Him: … he also wants us to go back through and make sure there’s nothing we’re forgetting.

Me: Sounds good.

Him: Can you think of anything we haven’t thought about?

Me: No. I feel very comfortable saying, I cannot think of anything I haven’t thought about. Kind of by definition.

Very often, when I say ridiculous things, I meant to say something sensible, but it just kind of morphs mid conversation:

Wife: Did you finish that Audio Course on the Middle Ages?

Me: Yep. All 78 parts.

Wife: I’m surprised you aren’t exhausted.

Me: I must be. I ended up in the feudal position.

Wife: The feudal position?

Me: It’s like the fetal position, but with more clearly defined hierarchy.

No Other Medicine

“The miserable have no other medicine
  But only hope:

  I’ve hope to live, and am prepared to die.”

— William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

I hate this place.

I don’t say that about many places; but, I hate this place. I hate its unpolished floor and old fluorescent lighting. I hate the moldy smelling walls, and the amount of despair that lives within them. I’ve been in this old nursing home maybe ten times, and each one worse than the last.

Unlike the clean, gentle place my mother spent her last days, this place is one of underservice and need. No one in here meant to come here. Ever.

But here they are.

I round the corner to where my wife’s aunt is now staying. A merciless, tyrannical woman in most areas of her life, her blindness and softness towards men led to the draining off of the money that might have kept her out of this place. But men were her weakness, and now, unable to stay at home anymore, and chronically unhappy, she rages and storms at almost anyone who comes near her.

Except me, of course, because I’m a man. She looks at me out of her fierce eyes, and they begin to soften. I’m her niece’s husband, of course, but that seems to have eluded her memory.

For the others in the room, however, she has tart comments. She says to her daughter, just come from Colorado, “You’re fat.” She tells my wife’s sister not come near her. She yells at a nurse who comes into the room about nothing in particular, letting go with a stream of profanity.

But of course, it’s not “nothing in particular”. It’s everything in general.

Later, as we are walking out, I hug my wife by the car. “She was always like this, really,” she says.

“I know,” I say, kissing the top of her head.

“Alright. I’ve got one more stop to make, so I’ll see you at home.”

“Yeah, I think I’m going to go down to the water and write for a while.”

So here I am, down by the water, writing for a while.

Death is the great surprise, even though we all know it is coming. We go through life with all the evidence in the world around us, but still treat decay and disappearance as though they are oddities that need explaining.

Almost every wisdom system in the world tells us to know death is coming, to live while we can, and to live as best we can, although they vary as to what that entails.

Older ones of us live as though we will always be able to function independently, even though we know this is the exception rather than the rule. Wisdom tells us to prepare for what’s coming, but we frequently don’t.

If practical wisdom has any one feature we could almost all stand to have more of, it is acceptance of inevitable change.

Modern life can’t make up its mind on the subject of change. On the one hand, we proudly trumpet how the speed of change is at an all-time high and how technology is transforming the world. On the other hand, we see the sheer amount of change as contributing greatly to the generalized anxiety that our age is perhaps best characterized by.

I saw the play “Measure for Measure” while I was in college. I was dating the actress playing Isabella.

That play almost killed me.

The part of the plot I remember most vividly is that Isabella is asked to sleep with the villain (Angelo) in exchange for getting her brother (Claudio, who speaks the quote at the top of this essay) out of prison. She doesn’t.

However, being the insanely jealous type at age 20, I was prepared to jump on stage and start throwing down. Even for a girl I had been dating two weeks.

Thinking back on it, I realize, as I often do, that how we feel is what we really remember. I had to look up the character names from that play. But I sure can remember how angry I was.

With my wife’s aunt, stuck in a nursing home she probably has only one way out of – she knows how she feels. She’s angry. At the end of our journey as at the beginning, almost all we have are our feelings: that overwhelming, messy welter of things that moves us for as long as we’re still moving at all.

But death and its approach, like grief, are both universal and intensely personal and different for everyone. Just like love, and everything else in this life that is sacred.

But I still hate that nursing home.

Some Pair

Across the grass they wandered
In search of something more;
The emptiness inside her
Behind a hidden door

The vacancy of his regard
Was evident to all
Except that one companion
In range of his


[Note: the story below turned out a lot different than I was expecting it to. – Owen]

In high school, I suffered from a condition that might best be called “Attendance Deficit Disorder”.

In the words of the vernacular: I skipped school a lot.

I was an oddly harmless kind of truant: I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, and I certainly wasn’t headed off for secret rendezvous with girls. I was mostly alone, just kind of wandering around, or occasionally with one friend, talking.

However, most of the other school-skippers I knew did indulge in these more interesting activities. Smoking (weed) was the most common reason; however, drinking and hooking up were also reasonably frequent among the many, many, many people I knew who were cooler than I was.

One set of friends of mine – a boy and girl – were particularly memorable. They were dating at the time (I believe “going together” was the expression back then) and both of them were intelligent, high-achieving types who simultaneously seemed to have decided that the whole high-achievement scene was ridiculous, and to spend as little time around it as possible.

They were, perhaps, best known at our school for constantly breaking up, yet always being together. I knew them best, however, as being explorers: when they skipped school, they liked to try to get into abandoned places – and they were often successful.

The first such place they tried was an old abandoned hotel near the water where we lived. That wasn’t much of an achievement – almost every teen in that town had done it – but it gave them a taste to try other places.

He told me a story (which she verified, years later) about the two of them breaking into an abandoned farm up highway 85. He said it had been empty less than three months when they got in, and they explored it, basement to cellar. When they left and were crossing the grass to get to her car, they were chased by the neighbor’s dogs; while that would have deterred me from ever trying anything like it again, it apparently only served as a spur for them.

And something of an aphrodisiac, from what she told me later.

They seemed like an odd couple to most of us, and I was never clear that either of them really liked the other one all that much. But at that stage of their lives, anxious to create identities for themselves that broke away from the confinements they each felt, the relationship seemed to do them good – after a fashion.

They continued to date into college age, and even got married. The marriage didn’t last through college, though. After the period I knew them best, she started a period characterized by a growing sense of her own worth; he headed in the opposite direction.

The short version would be: by their mid twenties, she had become a reasonably successful business woman, and he had become an unemployed drunk.

The closer up version would be: she continued to be what a version of who she always was, and so did he. But then…

As a part of finishing this essay, I looked him up on Facebook. He had long since I lost track of him gotten his life in order; married a beautiful woman, had a career… as a locksmith. I had to smile. I guess those breaking-and-entering skills had taught him something.

As for her, it took me quite a while to track her down online. Turns out, she’s been married eight times.

Eight times.

That’s like, Liz Taylor territory, only, without the fame or money.

Seems like continuing to break into houses and be chased by dogs would have been less dangerous.


The sadness comes, I disengage:
Or days may fly where I don’t sleep —
There is no reason, rhyme, or rage
That can my wholeness sane me keep —

I do not understand, or see
The unknown etiology
Of why my moods just must be so
And go where’re the winds

May blow

Approximately thirty-five years ago, I was told by a series of doctors that I was manic-depressive, a condition now known under the term “bipolar disorder”.

This renaming followed the usual rule that any new term for a medical condition must have at least one more syllable than the old one.

As one may ascertain from the two terms for this condition, those who have it tend to vacillate between “two poles”: mania and depression. The latter condition is familiar to almost everybody, at least by name: the former, less so, as being wildly out of control and energetic is not always viewed as a problem.

When it reaches the level of mania, it is. Believe me, it is.

I’ve been dealing with this condition for the better part of four decades now. Like dealing with my epilepsy, it is part of my daily routine. It’s not a big deal in my thoughts anymore, unless I have had a “bad day”.

Like yesterday.

In a typical day, I need to (a) stay away from any kind of mood-altering substances (notably alcohol or sugar); (b) make sure I get some elevated-heart-rate exercise; (c) take my medicine in the prescribed amounts at the appropriate times; and (d) get adequate sleep.

Yesterday was my third consecutive day where I didn’t do (b), but did do (a), and decidedly non-wacky hijinks ensued.

I turned into a horrible person, basically.

On my best days, my life is severely limited in terms of my flexibility and ability to socialize because I am trying to make sure I do the things I need to do to be a reasonably pleasant and functioning human. When that fails, I am reminded again what happens. Because I don’t feel sick when it’s happening, I just feel like I’m a monster.

Because mental illnesses are diseases, just like other illnesses, we are told we should feel no shame over them. However, my experience is that people who have physical illnesses also struggle with feeling “less-than”: I know, I have one.

When I asked my doctors, back in the day, what caused this condition, I got various answers: however, their answers can be grouped into three general categories, as follows:

1) My genes suck.
2) My brain structure sucks.
3) I have some other equally sucky condition that causes this as a side-effect.

No matter which of these causes is THE cause in my case, I feel just as bad after knowing it, or possibly worse. Because none of them is of the “oh, this was caused by a bacteria or virus” so I can blame black rats migrating across European trade routes or something.

Nope, no one to blame, just defective old me and my broken brain and/or genes.

One thing that has helped, however, is realizing that problems of the sort I have are in the nature of a continuum; everybody has challenges along the way when it comes to issues of physical, mental, and emotional health.

Many — perhaps even most — people hide these challenges, however. Or never come to grips what the nature of what their particular challenges are.

Every one of us is born with different tools, in a different place, at a different time. Each one of us is faced with different limitations; we all each have different abilities, and differing experiences to draw upon. And we’re all just doing the best we can, given where are and what we have to work with.

And I’m just trying not to be a monster.

Days In

Nights out
Days in
Feel lost
What’s been

Long gone
Still here
Drank love
Ate fear

Drove far
Stopped short
Dropped off
Held court

Need break
Can’t bend
Sad shape
Days inn

I grew up dreaming of a wanderer’s life: roaming from place to place, seeing things, experiencing things. Just me, and the road, and wherever I happened to go next.

To some, that might seem like a life of unbearable loneliness. And indeed, it probably would be. However, I found the solitude inherent in the idea to be part of its attraction.

In addition, my ideas about economics were rather poor: things like eating and sleeping having a cost associated with them hadn’t occurred to me. But, substitute the always useful “if I won the lottery” trope and I was free to resume these fantasies.

The world is in a constant state of change, of course. However, we tend to think of the world we enter into and come to know as children as being “the” world. The one we think of as permanent. The stores, products, and businesses we know at that age are felt to be stable and abiding features of the world — but they rarely (if ever) are.

The motel chains of my youth lay largely abandoned. Restaurants are standing ruins. I often stop off at Interstate exits where few people stop anymore.

I am at one now.

My family never stayed here (it’s about four hours from where I grew up) but we ate at the restaurant here when I was a kid. I can still hear my family laughing over dinner and some story my brother told.

How many people’s lives intersected with this place?

Families staying here, children conceived here…

So many lives, so long ago…

“They brought them dead sons from the war,
  And daughters whom life had crushed,
  And their children fatherless, crying—
  All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

  All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.”

The Oft-Cut Gem

The shine of tears
On the oft-cut gem:
For choices make us
More than we make


The phone buzzes in my pocket while I am sitting in a meeting at work. The meeting is almost over, so I decide to wait until after to see who it is.

As I’m walking back to the floor I work on, I see that it was the youngest of my stepdaughters, the one who lives out of town. She and her husband are having… challenges.

Sitting on my desk is a photo of her, taken two autumns ago. She’s very tall, and very beautiful, but even then, the sadness she carried with her always was evident. For no young girl ever loved a man more than she has loved her husband, but his is a tortured existence.

She was in town a few weeks ago for the first time in almost a year, and it was wonderful to see her. Very different than her sisters, with a wildly extroverted oldest sister, and an ambitious and motivated middle sister, she prefers a quiet and simple life. Of an extremely quick mind, she has subordinated every aspect of her life to that of her husband.

All of this is heartbreaking to her mother, who sees her youngest as having given away large parts of who she really is, and with rather poor return. Maybe it is my naturally melancholy temperament, but I view love and grief as being the same currency; you trade in one, you deal with the other.

That, and I truly believe her husband loves her as well, he just has mental health and behavioral limitations.

When I wrote a few essays ago about being a stepparent, I mentioned that it can be a very asymmetrical type of thing: however, with my youngest stepdaughter and my stepson, it feels the least so. In her case, she seems to see and value aspects of the relationship her mother and I have in a way neither of her sisters do – particularly, that we keep each other sane.

If you are with someone who tears you down, or who you feel a need to tear down, you are in the wrong relationship, or perhaps you have no business being in any relationship.

Love doesn’t tear down, love builds up.

So I look, from the picture on my desk back to the text message on my phone and answer:

Sure. Whatever I can do to help…

Warming Hands

Where is the dark, the endless dark,
That used to blind and block my way?
Where is the sullen afterthought?
It seems we left it by the way

Upon the road that took us here
To sit beside the meadow,
And hold each other’s warming hand
Beyond the reach of shadow

Very often, people recount events to convey feelings.

I remember, many years ago, a date telling me about a place she went with her sister, and how the lines were long and stretched outside the buildings, and how they had gotten sunburned that day but how it was worth it for those two hours they rode around on jet skis, and how the two of them used to just laugh until their faces and sides hurt, but now they mostly talk about her sister’s no-good boyfriend, and all I could do is think I don’t understand this story. I mean, what do you want me to do about it? I don’t even know your sister!

Clueless, thy name is Owen.

The younger version of me hadn’t really picked up much in the way of social or conversational nuance. Here was this young lady friend of mine, opening up a part of her life that meant a lot to her, and it was wasted on me. Because I just didn’t get it.

This woman and I have stayed friends over the years, and I mentioned that date and her comments about her sister to her not too long ago. She said, after thinking for a few seconds, “I knew you were in there. You were listening; you remember all these years later. You just hadn’t… put it all together yet. A bunch of us girls tried to get through to you. That’s why we each kept trying.”

So it was a conspiracy. I should have known. These female friends of mine trying to draw me into the world of human beings, one failed dating relationship at a time.

Which kind of makes me smile.

the out of place

Years ago, I was renting a house. One of the gates on our fence was messed up, so I asked my dad if he could show me how to fix it. He did. About six months later, a hurricane blew through, and destroyed the fence. The only part of it still standing was the gate, because when my Dad fixed something, it STAYED fixed.

Sometimes people would ask why we had a gate, but no fence. “The fence wasn’t up to the challenge,” I’d answer.

We never know what will last in this life — friendships, jobs, relationships of all kinds. Storms eventually come through, however, and we see what’s still standing.

If we are.

you wonder if it has a point:
the out of place, the left behind —
but every body has a tale,
and it is best to keep in mind

that we appear incongruous
to those who do not know
the road it took to get us here
and why things turned out