An Ecology of Philosophies

Personal Experiences, Uncategorized

Years ago I went to a meeting to practice public speaking. A new guy stepped softly to the podium and looked out at us. His eyes twinkled with a fierce white light from behind folded curtains of age.

He began a story of Musical Spiders:

“Spiders weave their webs, producing droplets of sticky goo and dripping it along the silk lines as they go. Once the individual threads are woven together, their overall pattern is finished with music…

The web is tuned.

Reaching out with the tip of one leg, the spider plucks a string – Ting! The masterpiece is complete once the frequencies are properly arranged. The web’s resonance helps the sticky goo to distribute evenly, and the spider’s ability to survive is enhanced by playing the right notes.”

I talked to Bob after everyone left. He’d spent decades in the woods as an ecologist and edited the writings of 500 scientists. When I asked questions, his eyes lit up in a way I’d only seen in one person before, on TV.

A sparkling fascination lay behind those eyes, too bright to originate or end in one man.

I felt like Bill Moyers.

Over the course of the next few months, we met in coffee shops or near his retirement home. We spoke of animals and people and the numinous wonder of interrelating biology. He edited papers I’d written, bringing focus and precision to my stories about truth.

Every pattern of biology and environment was a parable to him, one we can use to learn about ourselves.

Bob was 82. At times, a haze of confusion would drift over him, and a quick flash of embarrassment would accompany its clearing. But a single question could bring him back to shining focus. He’d return with bubbly eloquence and eyes bright like sunlight on a river.

His observations were brimming with mythic significance. They perfectly echoed the wholesome kinship and woven connection of “man with world” found in native cultures.

Bob had never heard of Joseph Campbell. I was shocked.

He seemed to have discovered the same lessons by studying animals and writing research papers that Campbell found by reading lines between the cultures of man.

Salmon and owls had told Bob their stories without symbols, and he had avoided views outside those of science. In fact, the philosophical implications of his research had troubled him as they seemed to drag him reluctantly toward spiritual perspectives.

Only recently in life had he dared to consciously examine relationships between the meaning he experienced in his work, and the Catholicism he had been raised to believe.

One day I went to visit him, and was told he was “unavailable” by the staff. I left one voicemail and another. After weeks with no response, I feared he was gone.

A family member of Bob’s contacted me. They thanked me for reaching out, and let me know that he was physically okay, but no longer mentally “present” enough to communicate.

Did that mean he was “gone”? I’ve wondered what it would mean in Bob’s life-philosophy.

His stories helped me see interrelationships of biology and beliefs and people, where all parts of a system affect one another. Life requires no conscious human decision to blossom and swell in this world, yet its flow may be directed by our choices. What we are as human beings may just as easily thrive though collaboration as survive through competition.

Maybe I didn’t have to fear he was “gone.”

Whatever may have happened to Bob’s physical or mental existence, his experience of being alive has affected my own, by directing the way my ideas interrelate within an ecology of philosophies.

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Dawn of Black Friday – A True Short Story (4 min.)

Personal Experiences, Uncategorized

dark wave approaching city

Long ago, in a land full of televisions and shopping carts, the natives of the retail village huddled close and stared at each other. The fluorescent lights turned the whites of their eyes blue. Outside, it was dark.

It was 4:55am.

They were gathered in a cathedral of consumerism, a football-field’s distance from the great sliding doors at the front. Its walls were filled with computers and washers and dryers and most things that could plug into a wall.

A group of natives, inhabitants of the stereo and camera realm, had gathered near the back of the store in front of the televisions. A silence spread among them and washed across acres of real marble floor. They straightened their ties.

“First time?” asked a man with a stooped white dress shirt and a collar the color of eggs. He leered at the circle of faces around him, each one round and flat and bloodlessly half-awake. The granite crags of his cheeks formed a wicked smile. His eyes were a cave of ancient sorrow.

The floor began to rumble.

“It’s an earthquake!” a young man broke from the group and dove into the flickering darkness of television displays.

As the marble beneath their feet began to throb, panic spread. Some hid behind towering stacks of subwoofer boxes.

Many of the young men unconsciously formed ranks, joining their shoulders and forcing their feet flat into the smooth glossy stone.

The hand of the camera-girl shot to the arm of the camera-boy beside her.

The camera manager stepped in front of a large metal cage. This cage was where DSLRs and slimline waterproofs were imprisoned side-by-side. His young manager’s face showed the determination of a hard grape, sour and smooth and small and unready. He stood in front of the display’s central cell door, arms skewed straight and anxious. One miniscule fist attempted to spare a finger from its grip, to caress a large bundle of keys.

The floor continued to pulse, the thrum of its oscillations growing. A sound, deep and vast as the ocean, emanated from the distance. All faces turned toward the source of the burgeoning thunder. All eyes looked down the football-field of marble toward the front of the store.

“It’s five…” came a whisper from somewhere.

The thunder became a roar. The floor moved left and right, exactly the way a floor should never move. A young man broke rank and ran broadside for the breakroom.

The roaring sound grew. It filled the skull and took everything. It was thunder and shriek, from a baritone growl of thousands of feet pounding stone, to an undifferentiated cacophony of screams and the exploding rattle of shopping carts shredding marble. The sound shook the soul and pierced the mind. Another pair of slacks went sprinting in retreat.

As the source of the sound became visible, eyes widened in awe and terror. Two more ran for the rear exit near the loading dock. The whiteout sleeves of their flailing fresh shirts faded grey and charcoal into the dark.

The remaining natives who held their ground, stood shocked and staring and helpless in the path of the roiling chaos. The tidal wave was coming.

Crimson sleeves and navy winter coats formed kaleidoscopic frenzy at the top of the wave as the colors whirled and shot. Grabbing hands poked out of its crest and tumbled forward. Feet poured in all directions and stomped at the base of the hungry rolling wall. The wave devoured displays. Engulfed endcaps. Steel carts skittered out from it and filled and flipped as the wave crashed into them.

Thousands of mouths shrieked in desperate hunger. The eyes flashed! So many eyes howling for shrinkwrapped sustenance!

When the wave hit them, many of the natives were swept away like styrofoam peanuts. Some were caught beneath it. The camera manager was crushed against the steel cage, and had to go to the doctor.

The location did over a million dollars in revenue that day.

To our fallen brothers, I dedicate this memory. To the men and women who continue to sacrifice their life’s breath for a livelihood, as a nation worships at the altar of a Gross and disfigured Domestic Product, I dedicate these words.

May this hunger we know feeds our economy, somehow evolve into a hunger that feeds our humanity.

She just dropped trou and whipped it out

Personal Experiences, Uncategorized

I lived in Seattle for a couple of years, across the street from where 3-million dollar condos hovered over the water.

mad park

Because I have never felt myself to be a part of any specific group of people, cultures have always fascinated me. Japanese people and American people and sports-fans strike me as curious and exotic.

In Seattle I wondered:

What is normal in this upper-class Northwest American culture? Are my neighbors happy?

To a middle-class way of thinking, the assumption is “yes, of course THOSE RICH PEOPLE must be happy.” Just look at those tennis shoes. They’re as white as Greek houses.

Think about what it would be like to walk a mile in those brand-new shoes, knowing you didn’t have to walk at all. Hell, take an UberLUX, and toss the dusty-soled shoes in the trash when you get home. When you never have to work another day in your life, isn’t it an awesome feeling to wake up in the morning and know you can do whatever you want?

I am the type of person who will actually sit on a park bench and ask someone that sort of question.

If you try communicating with the “leisure class,” you might get a hazy smile as their head pivots slowly in your direction. I began to notice a pattern, and time after time I’d wait about five seconds after saying “hi,” and watch to see if their eyelids could do the heavy-lifting.

Lots of rich people are on drugs.

By the sparkling waters of Lake Washington, I did absorb some profound lessons on life through conversation with the wealthy. Many were erudite, full of the intricate and plodding whimsy of the heavily medicated. Often these observations were offered just after benzo-naptime and before oxycontin-naptime.

It might be awesome to dream of waking up rich one day. But a lot of actual rich people don’t spend their day being very awake.

Like any make-believe group of human beings we can label, it turns out that THOSE RICH PEOPLE are still human, and they have their own problems going on.

I once met a woman who woke up in a hospital unable to remember the previous seven years. She hadn’t even exceeded her prescription dosage of tranquility.

Recently, I’ve been waking up in a Midwest manufacturing town. This is a blue-collar place that has been turning into a low-income place. The modern problem faced by American manufacturing towns isn’t about demand-for-US-made goods or even Mexicans. The problem is that less and less manufacturing is done by human beings. Not only did the jobs move away – they don’t exist anymore.

When people stopped making six-cylinder engines for Chryslers down the street, it was robots that started making them somewhere else.

What was once a bustling factory with thousands of callous-hardened hands cranking out engines, is now a sort of post-apocalyptic concrete wasteland surrounded by taverns.

former Chrysler plant

Us low-income folks have our own problems to deal with. There are cultural issues that are often seen along with fundamental shifts in an economy. Low-income does not mean “criminal,” yet the two are often seen holding hands.

While running a rooming house in a ghetto, I thought about this a lot.

winter manager uniform

The leather jacket and beard were uncomfortable to wear, but it was more comfortable to intimidate crackheads than physically remove them from the premises. I always thought beards were stupid, but it was a vital part of a “Ghetto Rooming House Manger” uniform.

One day, some local gunshots still echoing in my mind, I walked over to a neighbor’s house. I was thinking along the lines of creating an informal sort of “Neighborhood Watch” thing.

I believe that people are what make up a neighborhood, and having little-income does not necessitate theft and violence. Correlation is not causation.

As I got to my neighbor’s steps, a lady walking up the sidewalk made a beeline for the yard.

When she got onto the grass, she said “Hi” to me and pulled down her pants.

In the time that it took me to process what she might be doing, I caught a glimpse of something not quite like the end of an elephant’s trunk. She urinated on the lawn.

My neighbor came out on the porch and yelled a friendly “Hello” to both of us. Her friend pulled up her pants and climbed the porch.

 

Hmm.

I wondered:

What is “normal” for my new socioeconomic class, the poverty-class?

Just a couple of days before, a lady strolled past my porch in a heroin haze, having forgotten to fasten the front of her slacks. It occurred to me that this was the second set of floppy labia I’d seen that week.

That would never have happened by the lake in Seattle. Those ladies might nod off, but they kept their pants zipped up.

Some fundamental agreements, such as “we won’t pee on the lawn,” had not been reached by this culture. I didn’t like that.

I must have picked up some “American cultural norms” despite myself.

What about stealing? What about violence?

Were my neighbors happy?

 

House of Insignificant People – Part 1

Personal Experiences
Parole Officers called it “The Nicest Rooming House in Town”

A sex offender stole my chicken. That chicken was the only protein I owned. My tenants told me they saw the small man cramming bags of meat in his mouth.

I had kicked him out of the building before.

He looked like a tiny wolfman. I imagined my tenants watching shreds of chicken tumbling off his wrap-around beard and the connected bushy eyebrows. Why was he in the rooming house I managed, crouched on the floor of the empty room upstairs?

A rooming house is like an apartment with shared bathrooms and kitchen. If a “New York penthouse” sits at the top of the American social ladder while fulfilling the need for “shelter,” the rooming house is the very bottom rung. It’s the one homeless people are grasping at and slipping off of. It’s for people who can’t afford first and last and deposit.

A big part of my job was using my “sense of people” to figure out who to let in. I got to choose what kind of criminals would share our home. Screening applicants through personal conversations was important, because folks who ask to live in a ghetto don’t look good on paper. I never once ran a background check that came back without criminal convictions.

The man who had been seen eating my chicken had passed neither my conversational screening nor the background check. I had many reasons for not allowing him in the house, but poverty was not one of them.

Being at the socioeconomic “top” of America does not guarantee that person is a good person. Modern America illustrates this quite clearly.

If people don’t have money, it doesn’t necessarily mean there‘s something wrong with them. A large part of America really needs to learn this correlation does not mean causation.

Being poor doesn’t mean there’s something wrong you. But usually there is.

There was certainly something wrong with me. Before becoming manager, I’d used a room for mourning loss and drinking seven hundred beers.

I had some money from working construction, and I isolated myself in behind a locked door. The gig had given me time to think about what happened in the previous months. Images of her would flash through my mind. When it was occupied with nothing more than cutting steel or swinging a sledgehammer, her pain and my loss filled my mind.

I had watched her beat cancer. She did not beat her childhood trauma.

I’d wake up in the rooming house room, and notice I was still conscious late in the day. That required another beer run. When returning from a second trip to the store one evening, the owner of the rooming house asked me to have a seat in the kitchen.

My first sixteen drinks could have gone either way. But on that day, they had brought convivial good cheer.

So I sat down at a wide countertop that filled the room as it erupted from the center of the floor.

She asked me how I had ended up in her rooming house. She was open and honest. I was drunk. The conversation quickly deepened because of these things.

For a few years, I had been sober. I started there. A business I had created, and the mind of a person I loved, had thrived for awhile and I had cherished them. Consciously, I made the choice to be alive years previously, and it was easy to continue making that choice when it brought gifts.

When I lost what I loved, I headed back to the Midwest with nothing but a backpack and my sobriety. The hard feeling of pavement distracted me from feeling much else, for awhile.

Cooking donated food in a commercial kitchen for rows of men and women, and sleeping on the floors of churches alongside them, made me feel a part of something. I had not felt that before. That was an unexpected gift.

While cutting steel for twelve hours before collapsing in a trailer parked somewhere in Minnesota, I lost the feeling of gifts. I lost the sense of meaning and purpose. Days were spent swinging a sledgehammer and knocking down a piece of a strip mall, then sawing and drilling a new store in its place. In my belief system, the world would derive little benefit from long stripmalls.

Nights were spent in a box at the end of a trailer. One of the other guys on the crew was also an alcoholic, except he wasn’t “struggling” like he explained I was. The smell of booze from the coffin below me woke up a part of my brain that had tried killing me many times before.

When I rode back to the Chicago suburb locals called “Kenowhere” with a pocket full of hundred dollar bills, I got my own room and alcohol.

I looked at the owner of the rooming house, over my folded hands. She sat across the kitchen table, eyes large and calm. I admitted to her that my rent money was running out.

Where Are We in America, Now? (part 4 of 4)

Personal Experiences

I get to the rumbling steps and climb them. My bus seat is where I left it. Right there it is, six hours from one place and six hours from another.

My hands smell like canned food. I think about the toilet at the back of the bus. It is one-half of a port-a-potty.

I think of the luxury of water and soap.

“You heard it! You heard what she called me!” I hear from the front of the bus.

A black man walks past me. He’s frowning and shaking his head.

I look up. A new bus driver climbs the steps. He snatches the intercom. He faces us, and his head nears the roof of the bus. Sun glints off his grey crewcut and his black sunglasses. He stands with his feet far apart.

He twists the intercom up to his mouth at a hard angle.

“There are rules on this bus,” the speakers above all our heads tell us.

The bus driver turns away and jams the intercom back in place. He faces us again and plants his feet. “There will be no alcohol.” His voice shoots over all 50 seats and bounces back to him.

“There will be absolutely no drugs of any kind.” Pause. The black lenses stare at the back of the bus and don’t move.

“Some drivers will ask you to leave.” The black lenses don’t even jiggle as he plants his feet an inch further apart. His hands remain fists at his sides. “I am not like some drivers. I will pull this bus over. We will all sit and wait for the police to arrive.”

An Asian man stands up. He is toward the front of the bus, and I can see him over the seats. His flannel shirt is new, and the blue squares peeking through the design are nearly flourescent. He steps into the aisle and points back at a seat.

“She said I am not an American!” he yells. His black beard touches his chest. It has no straggling hairs.

“Sit down, sir,” says the bus driver.

The engine fires to life, and we all rock back as the bus pulls forward. The bus turns, and the freeway entrance opens up toward us. We begin to climb the up.

“I’m getting my gun!” She is loud. We all hear it. We have all heard this colorful woman’s voice before.

“She said I am not an American!” a man’s voice bounces off all the seats.

The intercom crackles as we get to the top of the onramp: “We are getting off at the next exit.” Click.

At another parking lot at another gas station, we all sit and idle.

The driver yells.

The  woman yells.

The bearded man sprints down the aisle.

He leaps left and right. “Do I smell like alcohol to you?” the bearded man yells. He leans down and exhales in a passenger’s face. A head presses back against the top of the seat. The head’s response is silence. “Do I smell like alcohol to you?” he yells again. He darts across the aisle and repeats the process.

The driver yells at the bearded man. The bearded man yells back. The driver yells at the colorful woman. Soon, the three of them are nowhere in sight. The bus door hangs open.

We all sit and wait.

The driver returns. He cuts off the engine and the intercom crackles to life: “If you hear strange sounds underneath the bus, it is the police searching the cargo area with drug-sniffing dogs. I trust that everyone has packed their bags wisely.” Click.

A large policeman climbs the steps. He announces a name. He then attempts to march toward the back of the bus. The walkie-talkie mounted on one hip catches a seat. He stops, and leans to the other side. He attempts to march again. His sidearm catches a seat on the other side and bounces in the holster.

An unshaven man in his 20’s steps off the bus with the officer.

We all wait. The officer and the young man return. It takes a long time for a backpack to be emptied. Then the walkie-talkie and gun bounce off the seats again heading toward the front of the bus. The young man stays on with us.

“I will tolerate no alcohol on this bus,” says the intercom. The engine starts. Much louder, we hear: “I have no tolerance for racism.”

The driver’s voice comes down from the speakers mounted above all 50 seats. “I have absolutely zero tolerance for racism.”

He continues: “I  tell people something when I hear those things.” Some people are looking up at the voice above our heads. “You are laying in the hospital bleeding. You are laying there and the doctors say you are going to die. They say the one thing that can save your life is the heart of a dead black man. Would you take it?”

Some people are climbing their seats and looking around at each other. “Everyone I ask says yes. Every single person says yes. If you pull all the skin off of us, we are all the same color.”

The bus rumbles on.

 


I was born in the midwest and it felt like I grew up there. We moved near Seattle and I grew up more. I thought I found “The Woman I’d Spend My Life With” a couple of years ago. Then my life exploded one day. After that, I got on a bus. These things happened, and made me think about America.

CS Signature with FB copy

Where Are We in America, Now? (Part 3 of 4)

Personal Experiences

If you were a mouse on a toy boat in the ocean, the waves would look like giant hills.

You’d glimpse the slope of a hill in your peripheral vision. You could just barely see it over the shoulder of the massive slope in front of you. Wyoming looks like that, only the waves are dust.

A junkyard is welcome in the endless window of a bus. Amidst the waves, the crest of sparks and metal catches the eye. Chrome glints by the side of the road. The bus keeps moving through the swells.

Another junkyard in the window. This one is a wrecking yard for mobile homes. Some trailers are ripped in half. Strips of aluminum painted white poke from the ground at odd angles. The bus driver looks out at them. One mobile home is intact in the middle. “That guy isn’t married,” he says.

The bus pulls into a parking lot and I’m ready to get out after six more hours. Outside the window, a Burger King and a gas station were born conjoined. I’m sure their mother loves them both very much.

I cross the parking lot. The yellow sun told me it should be warmer than it is. I walk in the gas station and see a pot of drip coffee like at a rest station or a breakroom. I ask how much the small cup costs. The answer is more than a dollar, so I walk outside.

I stand in the cold yellow sun and suck from the filtered tube of my water bottle. It is filled with  bathroom water from 3 different states. Various notes of subtle metals dance across each other in my mouth.

The colorful lady walks up to me. The stripes of her shirt are lit by the cold sun. “How far you headed?” her brown sunglasses ask.

I listened to her in another state. She was talking to somebody else. That man had an infant son whose ears he wanted to protect. That was hundreds of miles behind us. Here, it is just her and me and dirt.

“Quite a ways,” is my offer.

She pauses and her sunglasses angle down at my feet and up again. “You think you’re so tall.” She says. “You and the black man, you think you’re so tall.”

I sip my metals and look out at the waves of dust.

“I know you.” She says. “I know what you are. You come over here from France.”

I look at her sunglasses. They don’t cover her mouth. The skin is the color of dust.

“You come over here from France. You come to my country,” she says. “You come over here to my country. You take everything. You take everything back to Europe with you.”

I wonder if Burger King still sells anything for a dollar. I try to picture what that might be. I can’t imagine it being worth a dollar to me.

As I walk away, I hear her call after me. “When I get home, I’m getting my gun and my brothers. We’re going to ride. We’re going hunting.”

I’m standing outside the corner of the Burger King and fumbling with opening a can. A bus driver yells “4 minutes!” from across the parking lot. I cram two bites in my mouth with a plastic fork. I hear the bus engine rumble to life.

I spill food on myself, and the door to the convenience store opens. The world’s coolest convenience-store employee saw me spill food on myself. She sticks her arm out of the door with a big cup.

I cough on the last bite and start jogging toward the bus with 24-ounces of caffeine. Now I look like an American. I’m shuffling fast and trying not to spill my coffee.

 


I was a kid in the midwest and it felt like I grew up there. We moved near Seattle and I grew up more. I thought I found “The Woman I’d Spend My Life With” a couple of years ago. Then my life exploded one day. After that, I got on a bus. These things happened, and made me think about America.

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Where are We in America, Now? (Part 2)

Personal Experiences

Wherever we were, we were still six hours from Wyoming. Wherever was six hours before this, we stopped at a bus station. It was still daylight then.

We were loading more people into the bus. One of the bus station employees could be heard outside. His voice sounded like John C. Reilly. I imagined him up there, all enthusiastic and flummoxed. His cheeks would be bobbing up and squeezing his eyes shut. He’d be ushering people up the steps and asking them where they got their shoes.

A tall man climbed up the steps and paused at the front of the long aisle. He was not the bus station employee we had all been listening to. This man’s cheeks had never bobbed once. Nothing about him would make you smile.

He held a walkie-talkie in a fist. His shirt was official. His moustache was white. Just outside the bus stood a man who was identical. Except for the brown moustache.

The tall man strode down the aisle to the back of the bus. When he crossed again to the front, he came with a man who was dragging a suitcase. The tall man looked back at the other man as he walked. The suitcase-man was talking a lot and was tough to understand. They stepped off together.

The man in the official shirt climbed the steps once again, alone. He leaned down towards the passenger just behind the driver’s seat and said something.

Seat by seat, he braced his arms on the padded tops and narrowed his eyes at the faces below. His white moustache moved up and down. As he got closer, I could hear the question. His voice was soft and it was clear and he clutched the walkie-talkie at his side. It was the same question every time.

“Where were you born?”

He asked each of us, passenger by passenger. There were many different answers. Some answers came with an offer of papers lifted up. The tall man was slow as he unfolded them. He looked at some papers for a long time.

“Where were you born?” He was leaning down and looking at me.

“Indiana,” I said. He leaned closer.

“Where were you born?”

I looked up at him. “In Indiana.” My birth certificate was in my backpack. I thought of the zipper it was behind.

He leaned closer. “I asked you, where were you born?”

I thought about my picture ID, which was hundreds of miles away. “I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana,” I repeated again.

He stood up. “Have a good trip.” He stepped to the next aisle.

The man worked toward the back of the bus, and said something to his walkie-talkie.

He joined the identical man outside, and the engine rumbled to life again and we moved.

In each row of seats, people craned their heads and looked around at each other. Some people stared. Their eyes were sharp and tight while they watched other people put papers away.

Wherever we were and wherever we were going next, the man who had dragged his suitcase was not going with us.

 


I was born in the midwest and it felt like I grew up there. We moved near Seattle and I grew up more. I thought I found “The Woman I’d Spend My Life With” a couple of years ago. Then my life exploded one day. After that, I got on a bus. These things happened, and made me think about America.

CS Signature with FB copy

 

Why I Don’t Hate Cancer

Personal Experiences

My father died screaming. It took him 6 years to die.

For the last 3 years of his death, I watched him melt. His body seemed to sag and drip. Pieces of him came off, one by one.

The first to go was his hair. My father’s hair had always looked healthy. It had been shiny and brown. Unlike my brown hair, his was straight. A part on one side allowed a broad splay of it to recline across his forehead. It was the most calm thing there was about him.

During chemotherapy, it all fell off. The doctors said he was a good fighter, and his physical size was an asset. I watched him fight.

His muscles left him. He dropped from 285 pounds to 150 pounds. That took 6 months.

After that happened, some of him remained. He would still have stood 6-foot 4-inches. But he could not hold his head up straight.

Everything slumped and caved in. His body  seemed to hang off of him like a cheap coat on a metal hanger.

He had been a firefighter. He would no longer be the one chosen to break down doors.

He had a bone-marrow transplant from his sister. Tests showed she was a perfect match. The idea was to take non-cancerous tissue out of a donor, and put it in him.

The first step of the process was for doctors to completely destroy my father’s immune system. They attacked it with radiation and poisonous chemicals.

They cut open his bones, and transplanted marrow into him. After this process was completed, he woke up. He tried to smile at me.

I will never forget that smile. He looked up at me from the hospital bed, and his lips pulled back.

His teeth were black.

His mouth glistened with obsidian jewels. I tried not to make a sound.

I found out later: layers and layers of blood, pouring from his gums, had dried over his teeth.

His body was supposed to work with the new tissue and fight the cancer. His body and the new tissue did not get along.

They began to fight each other.

His skin became thin. The color of his face shifted from the warm hues of frequent rage, to a spectrum that was drained and cool. Standing in the sun, he was pasty and blue.

Soon, he could no longer stand in the sun. His skin made irregular, rough patches wherever the sun touched it. When the sun hit him, his skin fought.

After his hair and his muscles and his skin, came his eyes.

He could not focus to read. White blood cells attacked his retinas. He squinted at the TV that was just beyond his feet.

He had goggles that looked like the protective eyewear he wore when using a table saw. The ones my father wore outside were black. They covered most of his face.

He could no longer hear much of what happened around him. He asked people to repeat what they said. He was 42 years old. He sometimes gave a small smile as if he had understood.

My father could not lay down. His bones hurt.

He did not sleep. He sat up in a recliner and sometimes closed his eyes. He drifted off in an opiate haze. Sometimes, he was quiet for an hour before you could hear him groan. He heard the groans too, and his eyelids would flutter and part and he would look toward the television.

When he attempted to eat, he suffered. The foods he had always loved, his body pushed up and out and into the toilet. He could not keep calories down. His stomach pushed acid into his throat and burned it.

His body fought everything calorically-dense except peanut butter. My father hated peanut butter. He would not eat it.

His massive recliner had once cushioned his bulk. It engulfed his bones. When it was dark outside he was in his recliner. The TV blared in the night.

My father was diagnosed with cancer before his 40th birthday.

Out of everyone who is diagnosed with cancer, 1% of people have the form of cancer that killed him.

My father had first seen a man with that form of cancer in the 1970s. He was 25 years old when he met that man. He told me about that melting man when I was young. The two of them had talked about cancer. They talked about why the man had started melting.

In the 1980s, my father saw another man with the same form of cancer. My father watched his father-in-law die. I remember looking at my grandfather’s casket.

For the last 6 years of his death, as my father melted away, he fought.

I watched him fight from the time I was 12 years old, until I turned 18.

He was diagnosed at the age I am now.

I watched as his body fought against cancer. I watched as his body fought with healthy cells. I watched him fight against food. Against the sun.

The doctors said he was a good fighter.

I do not believe fighting is always effective, even if you are a good fighter.

I do not believe hate is effective.

When is a groan a scream? When the door of the hospital room is closed, and you can stand at the other end of the building and hear it.

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Where Are We in America, Now? (Part 1)

Personal Experiences

 

Custers Last Stand Dark

“I’m getting my gun,” she said. The bus idled in the dark. “Excuse me?” said the man sitting next to her. The voices were clear over the muffled hum of the engine.

“When I get home I’m getting my gun.” Her shirt was a rainbow of horizontal stripes. It hung from her body. A colorless beanie was pulled low on her head. Her eyes were sunglasses lenses. The big brown circles went up her forehead over the beanie’s edge and down over her cheeks. “I’m getting my gun and my brothers. We are going to ride,” she said.

The man next to her put an arm around his infant son. The man’s eyes were round and his black goatee glinted in the bluish lights of the bus. His facial hair scraggled like two inches of mangled velcro. “I don’t think this has anything to do with me,” he said. “You are disrespecting me and my one-year-old son.”

“I’m an American,” said the woman. “I remember nine-eleven.”

The man’s voice got louder. “You need to stop disrespecting me and my son. I’m a black American.”

“I know what you are,” she said. “And I know what Americans are. When I get home I’m getting my gun.”

“Bus driver!” yelled the man.

“I can’t hear you!” we all heard back from the bus driver. Heads bounced back as the bus pulled forward.

The woman stood up and moved to another seat. She flopped in the one already pressing on my knees.

We all moved through the night. The bus headlights caught a sign in the dark. “Big Horn County” shone in white letters across reflective green.

Many of us had started off in Washington. We had rolled together through Idaho, and waited together in a bus station somewhere in Montana at midnight. That town had consisted of a McDonalds and an empty motel that said “No Vacancy.”

We had waited for the bus we were on, and we were all moving again. In another six hours, we would be in Wyoming. One bus after another had rumbled along for a long time before we got to this place.

Somewhere outside the window, general Custer and 267 of his men had died. They became war heroes in old history books. We rolled past that spot in the dark.

 


I was born in the midwest and it felt like I grew up there. We moved near Seattle and I grew up more. I thought I found “The Woman I’d Spend My Life With” a couple of years ago. Then my life exploded one day. After that, I got on a bus. These things happened, and made me think about America.

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Through the Windshield

Personal Experiences

skid marks cropped 4

I cried when I wrote this. Part of my father’s job was to pick up pieces of people. I knew that when I was very young.

He saw twisted metal and shards of bloody glass. Many people do not know it takes 160 feet to skid to a stop from 60mph. He saw skid marks on the highway that drew straight lines 100 feet directly into other cars.

My father tried teaching people to use their steering wheels and avoid accidents. Drivers of other cars could not hear him screaming at them through their windows.

One day, my family drove the streets of Indianapolis together. My father sat in the driver’s seat. My mother sat in the passenger seat. I climbed up front between them and sat on the lump of leather in the middle. They let me sit between them and look out the clear, thick windshield at the world rushing toward us.

As we traveled down a long line of road, a car pulled out just feet ahead of us. Then it stopped. My father did not swerve left into oncoming cars. He did not swerve right into parked cars. We screeched to a stop inches from the taillights ahead. My forehead hit the hard solid glass of our windshield. I bounced off and fell back between my mother and father. I put my hand on my head.

My father’s face turned red and his eyes were big. He examined my head. He put his hand on my neck, and asked me to look down at the floor as slow as I could and then up at the roof of the car. He began to swear. His dark eyebrows moved towards each other. He opened his door and jumped out. I pushed myself up on the leather lump as far as I could and looked over the dashboard. I watched my father march past the nose of our car and past the taillights in front of it.

He stood for a moment. His head looked like it was feet above the driver’s side of the car in front of us. He put his hands on the open sill of the driver’s side window and crouched down. I saw the muscles of his face bulge and twitch. He lifted one arm and pointed back towards our car. It looked like he was pointing straight at me. I saw him move his head forward toward the open window and look inside. His eyebrows moved down. “I’m okay!” I yelled at the windshield. “Mom, I’m okay!” I looked at my mom. She was looking straight ahead.

My father reached into the other car. His feet were planted wide apart. His left hand gripped the door, and his right hand reached in through the window. His arm looked like it could stretch all the way through and unlock the passenger side. His eyes burned into the car. There was a burst of motion. His arms and shoulders and chest thrashed. His feet stayed planted. His left hand gripped the car door. The rest of him thrashed back and forth. I screamed “I’m okay!”

My father thrashed back and forth and back and forth for a long time.

He stopped moving. He withdrew the length of his arm inch-by-inch. My father turned and took slow steps toward us.

We drove home in silence.

Hoosier Dome in 1982

In an Indianapolis newspaper, there was an article about an unexplained accident. An adult male had been found parked in his own car across town from his home. Police found blood spattered across the dashboard and windshield and steering wheel. The man was taken to the hospital. He was treated for a broken jaw, nose, cheekbone and orbital bone. No investigation into the accident was planned. The man’s blood alcohol level was tested at the hospital and was found to be twice the legal limit.

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