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

Them


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

so

 

Through Another Set of Eyes

A year of alcohol and sweat,
Of wandering and wondering;
A time of folly and regret:
Exploring, musing, thundering –

A voyage of discovery,
A country without maps:
A time of runaway intent
And imminent

Collapse


All of us have lives that are of abiding importance to us. Convincing other people how important we are, however, can be an uphill climb.

It’s almost like other people have lives and concerns of their own. Go figure.

Much of the joy of reading blogs (at least for me) is when you see people trying to work out the significance of what they have seen, felt, and experienced.

The world seems an entirely different place when viewed through another set of eyes.


“So, why did you two get divorced, anyway?” I asked him. We were shooting baskets on an outdoor hardtop basketball court around sunset. We were the only two there.

“She had just quit working, and she was spending all the money and lying about it. We had gotten an apartment in Gulf Shores that took both of our incomes to make it, but she had just… stopped.”

“I thought attorneys made good money.”

“They don’t when they aren’t working. She had done house closings in Birmingham, but she never got her practice off the ground in the new place. Nor even tried to.”

“Where was she spending the money?”

“I never figured that out.”

“Gambling?”

“Maybe. She never seemed to leave home, and we had nothing to show for wherever the money went… Anyways, one day after I came home from work we had it out, and the next day, when I came home, everything was cleaned out of the apartment except my clothes, and the computer desk.”

“Did she go back home?”

“Yes. The divorce was final 18 months ago.”

“Well that sucks. Have you been dating anybody?”

“Yeah, you know me. My usual assortment of questionable choices… that’s five three’s in a row. You are buying later.”

More often than not, I ended up buying.


“So, tell me about these ‘questionable choices’ of yours.”

We were working on a plate of assorted appetizers later that evening. He was drinking Heineken; I was working on a Coke.

“First one I dated, before the divorce was final, was an engineer who had come in to do some work on the restaurant. I got her number, we went out to dinner and a movie, it seemed great. I wasn’t going to push for anything else at the end of the night, you know, first date and all.”

“… but?”

“I didn’t need to push. Whatever there was to do, she was down for it, it turned out. It was a little… disconcerting.”

“For you? I thought you loved that kind of stuff.”

“Yeah, well maybe I’m rusty or I’ve gotten older or more grown up or set in my ways or… I don’t know what. It was kind of a turnoff.”

“So you didn’t…”

“Oh, no, I did, we did, that part happened anyway. It was just, I knew when I left I wasn’t going to see her again, and I think her mind was… somewhere in the opposite direction.”

“Did you talk to her again?”

“Oh, yes, when I didn’t call her, she showed up at work. She used the excuse of wanting to inspect the work her guys had done, but she cornered me in my office and wanted to know where I got off thinking I could treat her like that.”

“What did you say?”

“That I was very sorry, but that I just didn’t think we should see each other anymore.”

“Wow. That’s wild.”

“When you got divorced, was dating hard? Did it seem bewildering?”

“Oh, yeah, and I did some really dumb stuff before Janey and I started dating.”

“Like…?”

“Oh, went out with a nineteen year-old and dated my therapist’s office assistant, just to name two.”

“Damn. You are an idiot.”

“Can’t deny that.”


All of that was close to fifteen years ago. Two years ago, my wife and I went down to Florida for a trip, and had lunch with my friend and his girlfriend of some years, but who we had never met.

We both liked her, immediately. She is a schoolteacher, and the two of them seem to play very well off of each other. She has grown kids: he never had any.

We ate at a restaurant sitting on some docks over the bayou; after lunch, we went out for a walk, and he I were talking as we trailed behind, watching the others chatting animatedly.

“She seems great,” I said.

“Yeah, I’ve been very lucky,” he said.

“You ever hear from your ex?”

“Nope, he said. “I guess that’s one good thing about not having kids together,” he added. “I did, however, recently hear from another sort-of-ex. Do you remember me telling you years ago about an engineer-woman I had kind of a one-night thing with?”

“I do.”

“She contacted me on Facebook.”

“Stalking?”

“No, she’s calmed down a lot since I knew her. Is married, has some kids. She actually wanted a recipe from the old restaurant. It turned out, she had eaten there for years before she came in that day to do some work, and I had never noticed or connected that was her. So she just wanted a recipe.”

“Did you give it to her?”

“Of course! It’s very flattering when people remember food you made so fondly.”

We looked up, and his girlfriend was pointing out some things across the bayou she particularly wanted Janey to see.

“It’s weird how you can know someone for such a short time, and have a picture in your head of what they are like, and then, years later, find out they are a totally different person than you remember them being,” he said, musing.

“People keep moving,” I said. “Our mind tends to freeze them at the ages we knew them. I saw John yesterday, and I couldn’t get over how old he looked. But then I remembered, I hadn’t seen him since High School.”

“And that was a long frickin’ time ago,” he said, laughing.

“Indeed.”

A Place, A Music

I spent most of my years growing up in Florida, near the Gulf of Mexico. We lived three different places around Choctawhatchee Bay: in a small city by the Gulf; in Air Force Base Housing; and, finally, in a fishing village off the north part of the bay. Or, at least, it had been a fishing village. By the time we moved in, it was mostly people working on the Air Force Base, or retired from there.

It is an interesting thing, growing up in a tourist destination area. People come from all over to see the water, see the beaches, and we drive by every day, going, “oh, hey look, a pretty sunset” or whatever. Because what is wondrous to new eyes is unremarkable to jaded ones.

There are some people, and they are few, who do not take for granted the wonders around them. Most of us, however, do. Whether it is scenery, or friends, or loving relationships, or children, often life becomes routine, and we are more likely to see the negative than the positive.

When I spent a summer in my mid-teens up in Michigan, other kids were fascinated with me being from Florida. Common assumptions they had about living there were:

  • We were all near Disney World. It was a seven hour drive from where we lived.
  • We all picked oranges in our backyards. Where we lived, there were only pine trees and white sand.
  • We all rode pet dolphins. I told them this one was true. We frequently saw dolphins in the Gulf or the Bay, so that seemed close enough.

I, at that age, was fascinated with anybody I met who was from anywhere else. We worked as volunteers in a Vietnamese refugee camp, and helped sponsor a number of families. I grew up with a number of Vietnamese friends.

Other than fishing and living near water, you could not have found two more different childhoods. But you get kids together, and they start doing kid things together. Because that’s how we’re wired.

From families around us on the Air Force Base, when we lived there, was every type of accent imaginable. I grew up with (I later discovered) a talent for hearing right through accents: I almost never have any problem understanding what anyone is saying, no matter where they are from or how thick their accent. (It even works on small children, although my granddaughter has been testing this skill lately by randomly interjecting gibberish sentences into our talks just to see my reaction.)

The best thing about living “on base” (as we called it) was that the families were assigned to particular housing areas in such a way that every family around us had children about our age. So it was not unusual to go out to play of an afternoon and be with twenty to thirty other kids.

We would be out, running around yards, laughing, until the light was so dim, we could only hear each other.

Which is kind of like how I remember it now.


Tell me, friend, where are you from?
What makes you tick? What makes you, you?
How far away are you, right now,
From where you ran, and played, and grew,

And gradually turned into who
You are becoming, or became?
Are you still running, in your mind?
Or are you just a shade,

A name?


As a child, my social skills were atrocious. I did not realize this, of course, until I was many years into childhood: by that time, it was a rather difficult set of habits to correct.

I posted a story about it on Facebook a few years ago. Here it is in its original form:

It didn’t get any better as I moved into my teens. Fortunately, there was music.

I was thinking about music because of the following sentences, written above:

“There are some people, and they are few, who do not take for granted the wonders around them. Most of us, however, do.”

I started asking myself, is there something kids do not typically take for granted? And, looking around and at my own memories, I came up with: “Yes. Music.”

The emotional intensity that people bring to their love of music is hard to find matched by … well, anything else. Music moves us. Unites us. Speaks to us. Is there for us.

Kids do not take their music for granted. I know I didn’t. It often felt like all I really had.

At its best, music is alive, and being connected to it helps us feel alive.


So, one year, I won our District Piano Concerto competition, playing the Mozart C minor Piano Concerto. Don’t ask me how.

At any rate, it meant going to the State competition down near Miami.

I won’t keep the suspense going, I came in fifth. Out of nine.

However, I played as well as I could play. So I at least “wasn’t mad at it,” as they say. I recognized how much better the other players were.

The girl who won played the Grieg Piano Concerto. I remember during rests (when the “orchestra” [accompanying piano] was playing) she would wipe the keys off with a handkerchief. But she sure could play.

It was a very long drive back: my teacher, my mom, and two other students. At one point, we were driving near the coast, and only my teacher and I were awake. We could see the moonlight reflected off of Gulf of Mexico beside us as we drove.

“There’s a sight you can’t see too many places,” he commented.

“No. I guess not,” I said, going back to humming the main theme from the Grieg Concerto.

A World To See

You don’t remember, could you,
When this was luxury –
How can you come to feel a time
You never lived to see –

You do not know the several ways
That common made one king,
Nor how we terraforming bugs
Keep changing

Everything


We took family vacations when I was a child; different places every year. We saw cities, and national parks, and stayed in a lot of inexpensive hotels and motels. This was not all that uncommon in the decades immediately before the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, as automobile travel was cheap.

My family was a little unusual for the length of our trips, which were typically two weeks, and occasionally as long as three. Both of my parents were from large families, so we had relatives seemingly everywhere; in addition, they had made friends in the locations where my father had been stationed, and we sometimes visited them.

Cities I remember us visiting include Kansas City, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Nashville, Atlanta, St. Louis, San Antonio, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Washington (D.C.), and St. Augustine. We attended the Hemisfair in 1968 (in San Antonio). We stayed on a farm owned by some friends of my parents in New Jersey. We visited my grandmother in Rochester, NY, several times. We saw the Smokey Mountains and Mammoth Cave. I remember seeing Niagara Falls several times.

We never did, however, see Rock City. We saw the signs a lot, though.

For many of the trips we took, there were three of us kids in the car, along with my mom and dad. They typically split us up by having my brother sit in the front passenger seat with the map to ‘navigate’.

Apparently, we fought and argued a lot, and this made the time go easier.

In addition, my sister had motion sickness, so she would take Dramamine and sleep most of the way.

My parents were from a generation that believed that travel broadened the mind. It was good to see as much of the country (and the world) as we could afford, because it got us out of the narrow view of our little town and concerns as being all there was.

What you never know as a parent is how children will react to the things you introduce them to. We stopped to stay overnight in a motel once near Huntsville, Alabama, that had a pool with a waterslide, and that was, for years, our (we kids’) favorite place we ever visited.


A lot of things that bored me as a child have fascinated me since. I remember being bored looking at scenery out car windows during these long trips as a child; now, I love to do it. I could say the same thing about Handel’s Messiah (hated it as a kid), the opera (I thought I was going to die when I was thirteen), and even art museums. So, just because your kids dislike something you want them to appreciate doesn’t mean they always will.

We sometimes sang or played games in the car to pass time (so far as I can remember, we never turned on the radio, even once). Singing was tough, because my father wanted us to be like a professional singing group. This is not a figure of speech: we went around to different places as a family and sang, publically. I never liked performing – not even a little — although I liked singing.

The games were of the “find license plates from as many states as possible”, “find all the letters of the alphabet, in order, off of signs”, or “auto bingo” variety, with the last one being an actual game with little cards we each would get and close little red windows over the pictures of things we spotted as we went.

Auto Bingo, in all its glory.

After I turned thirteen, it was just my parents and me on these trips, as both my brother and sister had grown up and moved out. I tried reading in the car on a few of those trips, but that didn’t work very well for me.

By that time, the cost of gasoline was quite a bit higher, so our trips had gotten scaled back. In fact, the year I turned thirteen, I spent the entire summer at Interlochen International Arts & Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan; what my parents did that summer I couldn’t say.

Probably enjoyed the peace and quiet, I would imagine.


My parents traveled even more once I left home; traveling internationally for as long as their health and finances allowed it.

They went to Spain, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Israel, Turkey, Mexico, and Southern Argentina, I believe. They took the Trans-Canadian railroad, and did a couples cruise in and by Alaska.


About ten years after my father died, my mother, then around eighty-four, got a boyfriend (a “gentleman friend”, she called him). He and his late wife had also traveled all over the world – they were both ex-Navy – and he had a world map in his apartment of every place they’d ever visited or lived. It was quite impressive.

He even talked my mom into going with him on a cruise to Hawaii, which apparently was a disaster. “When you can’t even stand right on solid ground, a ship is no place to be,” my mom said, laughing.

When you see a person who is older than you are – maybe seventy, or eighty, or (like my mother-in-law) ninety – realize how much change they have seen their world go through. Even for those who constantly seek new worlds to explore, new things to learn, the pace and magnitude of change has to be something like overwhelming, at times.

And also remember, while they are seeing the world you know, you never saw the world they knew. We can read about it, but we can’t ever feel it, not like those who lived through it can.

So enjoy the chance to hear about it while it is still available to you.