Edmond

Warrior

The End of Days

December 31st, 2010

New Year’s Eve fills me with melancholy.

I don’t like throwing away things I’m not finished with, including notebooks with blank pages at the end, old clothes worn beyond acceptable decency, and of course, years. I’m not done with 2010 even if the year is done with me. I had more to accomplish: more writing, more publishing options explored, more friends visited, more time in the gym. Cheesy as it sounds, I wanted more laughter this past year.

Yikes, that really does sound cheesy. Next, I’ll reminisce on how I wish I had more time for quilting, scrapbooking, and gaining the trust of woodland creatures. Get over here, you deer.

Each year, I’m never ready. Nevertheless, the passing year strolls down the long hallway, frayed briefcase in hand, nods curtly to signify, “I’m done here,” and on his way out, passes the new guy.

Hey, it’s not just the passing year that inspires my gloomy new years’ metaphors.

On Christmas Eve morning last week, while I burrowed through snowy Wisconsin on the way to my family, tragedy struck my beloved Subie, my Babe the Blue Ox. I cruised at 73 mph (acceptable law breakage without getting pulled over) and during the eighth repetition accompanying P!nk in her party tune, Raise Your Glass, my 11-year-old mechanical companion belched out horrible engine sounds and began decelerating. Within a half-hour, I involuntarily coasted to the side of I-94 where my Subie shuddered and stopped.

Today, I listened to a voice mail message from the Lacrosse mechanic who explained in mortician tones the situation and his estimate. As I had expected, my Subaru cardiac’d through timing belt hell, which chewed up the entire engine, and in short, it’s not worth fixing.

I’m sure some people would be thrilled for the forced opportunity to buy a new car. New car! It’s new car time! But I’m in mourning.

That car was my buddy on hundreds of local adventures to grocery stores, friends’ homes, and every conceivable errand beyond a bike’s reach. That car drove with me to California and back, Oregon and back, three dozen trips to Chicago and back. Car enthusiasts (always young men under 24) would stop me to ask, “What have you done to her?” For one glorious second, I was cool, some older, mentory car genius, gifted in the underground world of road rallies and Frankenstein transformations.

As soon as I mumbled, “Nothing, just change the oil,” my cool evaporated. The young man would inevitably recoil, his face unconsciously betraying, ‘How did this dweeb get one of our cool cars?’

But for that split second before I opened my mouth, I was cool. Really cool.

Between the roadside break down and today’s doom, I called Ann a few times to mourn my Subaru’s upcoming prognosis, which I suspected would not be pleasant. She consoled me long distance as I whimpered, and we talked about how much I projected onto this inanimate object.

After all, it is just a car.

I bought it when I was 31. After a decade of sensible, used, Ford Escorts, I researched and fell in love with this luxurious, cobalt batmobile, all wheel drive, tuxedo black interior, and a sunroof. I’d never had a sunroof. I vividly remember the night I drove my Blue Ox home, sliding down the buttery highway, sunroof fully extended, windows down, cold November blackness slapping me hard. I blared my favorite CD as I flew through Minnetonka on cobalt wings. I had just purchased my first home. New job. Awesome boyfriend.

I was young.

I was wealthy (wealthy enough to buy a new freakin’ car).

I was free.

I think that’s what the Blue Ox means to me: my youth. A time when I had more days ahead of me than behind. Granted, I’m not yet ready for a walker, but I never envisioned becoming a man in my 40s. I never envisioned ongoing medical conditions, fiber supplements, a trick knee, and a mortgage obligation so irritatingly familiar that I sometimes forget to pay it at the beginning of the month, and I don’t really care if it’s late. Fuck ‘em. It’s just a mortgage payment.

To me, this attitude sounds like that asshole who lived next to Dennis the Menace. If that old prick couldn’t figure out how to smile at the world once in a while, well karmically, he deserved to have a kid nicknamed ‘The Menace’ living next door. I think we can all agree that Dennis is currently serving hard time for the adult versions of his wacky, mischievous pranks, but for those innocent years, Dennis, for all his irritations, lived. He was alive.

I’m still alive.

On these days when I’m grumbling about time’s unfair passage, I forget that I’m still here. I have today to choose: either bitch and complain, or sing with P!nk at the top of my lungs. Either way, it’s still gonna be today. I guess that’s what helps me crawl out of any New Year funk, the fact that I’m wasting today with unnecessary mourning. I believe in mourning. Though I never want to do it again, I will, because this horrible gift to mourn is part of our humanity. But to mourn over December 31st? A day arbitrarily chosen to mark time’s passage? Fuck that.

My tradition on New Year’s Eve is to walk Lake Harriett just before midnight. I reflect on what the year held for me, for my friends, my birth family, and family of choice. The year’s days of sorrow and those where I shined right back at the sun.

But this year, something different on New year’s Eve: Zombie Ron and I are attending Billy Elliott at the Orpheum Theater. We’re dining in a favorite, elegant Thai restaurant. Ron’s wearing a tux and I’m wearing a new suit purchased in 2010 for two significant days:   one cousin’s devastating funeral, and two weeks later, another cousin’s joyful wedding. A crazy girl in our extended clan grew up into this elegant, lovely woman, and we love who she married.

My mom and dad danced at that wedding, dad’s cancer far enough at bay for one glorious night on the town. On joyful days like those, it’s easier to embrace change.

Tonight is the end of days for 2010.

Goodbye, Blue Ox.

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Is There A Problem, Officer?

October 23rd, 2010

What’s the stupidest thing you could possibly say to a cop? I recently found out.

Those of us who have a little problem driving the posted speed limit dread the sight of those cherry and blueberry flashing lights in the rear view mirror. My first reaction is to be a model citizen and move to the right lane so they can pass and pursue the criminals, but when the cops speed up and add the siren, I am always genuinely surprised to discover that I am the crime.

Despite my attempts (documented in this blog) to live with greater integrity and acceptance of the consequences of my actions, I must admit I have a blind spot when it comes to speeding: it’s never my fault.

It was a speed trap.

They targeted me because of my out of state license plates.

They profiled me because I drive a sporty Subaru with a big spoiler.

There’s a rainbow sticker on my bumper and they hate gays.

My psychic defenses in this situation are amazing (and a little paranoid).

Last Tuesday while driving along the gorgeous Oregon coast, I left a small town behind and resumed dreaming of a greasy patty melt smothered in onions when suddenly: flashing blueberry and cherry.

Dammit.

By the time the officer approached me, I had removed my license from my wallet, but didn’t grab my proof of insurance from the glove box. I’ve created training for police officers, and know enough to keep my hands visible at all times. I kept mine in the 10 and 2 position on the steering wheel.

(Why is it that after I’m busted, I find myself eager to prove I am a safe, law-abiding citizen? Why the hell can’t I be concerned about following the law ten minutes before the cops clock me going 47 in a 30? This time, it totally was not my fault. It was a speed trap.)

He asked me why I was in the area (vacation), if I noticed the posted speed limit (no), if I knew I had been speeding (no). He was polite. I was contrite. And yet I could sense the web closing around me…this wasn’t going to end with a mere warning. I can’t burst into tears on command and I don’t have good excuses, so my strategy is to look gloomy, as if I’m in big trouble at home if I get a ticket. This never works.

When the officer asked me to show proof of insurance, I said, “I’m going to get it from my glove box.”

He nodded.

My hand moved toward the glove box in slow motion, which looking back, was probably pretty spooky for him.Why was I acting so weird?

“Wait,” he said, “do you have any weapons in your car.”

I turned to him and said firmly, “No.”

Then, I paused, remembered something, and hoped he didn’t notice.

He did.

“Wait, what was that?” he said. “Why did you make that face.”

Before I could stop myself, I said, “I don’t have any weapons in the car, but I have a big axe in the trunk.”

What?

Why the hell would I tell that to a police officer?

Good lord, I am an idiot. I had just finished explaining that I was on vacation from Minnesota. What kind of tourist drives his axe across five states? Clearly, only the murdery kind.

Two weeks ago, I drove to Oregon to work on an organic farm. The week prior, I confirmed that the farmer needed wood chopped for winter. I eagerly suggested I bring my axe and in his reply, he wrote, “Sure, if you want.”

I know it’s odd, but I like chopping wood. I like my axe. Earlier this summer, I had my axe sharpened at my local hardware store and filled a gas can in the same batch of errands. My neighbor witnessed me crossing the lawn wearing my red flannel overshirt, carrying the axe and the gas can and she said, “Boy, that combination looks dangerous.”

She was joking of course, but I can’t help notice that she and her housemates stopped saying, “We should totally get together for drinks sometime.”

Thank god, I didn’t say to the police officer, “No, no, I didn’t kill anyone. I just really like my axe.”

Huh. I guess there is something worse I could have said.

After volunteering news that I vacation with an axe in my trunk, the officer merely laughed.

He laughed!

And then, he wrote me a speeding ticket.

While driving through Montana today, I relayed the incident by phone to my friend John. We howled at why a person would volunteer details on trunk cutlery. We snickered at my getting yet another speeding ticket, and my ongoing refusal to take ownership for my shadowy behavior.

John asked, “Were you wearing your red flannel and camouflage pants?”

“Yes.”

(I find it mildly alarming friends who know me well can predict my wardrobe from three states away.)

“Ah,” John said. “It now makes sense. The flannel, the axe, and Minnesota plates. I assume you were unshaved and unshowered. Plus, you’re driving around in Babe, the Blue Ox. He thought you were Paul Bunyan.”

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Quitter

October 14th, 2010

I quit the farm.

I had made a commitment to stay for two full weeks, and at 7:15 a.m., the fourth day, I left.

I loved the farming part:   feeding the animals, collecting eggs, working outside, strolling with purpose around the farm in old jeans and work gloves. In three short days I got pretty good at milking goats. And while this may not be a particularly strong brag, I chased down and outwitted an escaped chicken. Caught it. Re-caged it. On Monday, I scrubbed 74 eggs free of chicken and duck poop and surprised myself by enjoying the task. Jumping from a desk jockey to outdoor laborer for eight hours a day was a shock; my bones and muscles protested a bit, but I could handle it.

I liked it.

Inside the farm house was another matter.

Swarms of flies filled the house. Walking from room to room meant keeping my mouth closed and waving my hand before me to clear a path. The windows and walls were spotted with years of specs of shit and dead flies. And not just flies…the kitchen was filled with rotting food and sticky, uncleaned spills. Fresh veggie nubs lay scattered across the floor. The whole house lay in shambles:   laundry on the dining room table, dusty piles of crumpled clothes, old papers, and empty plastic containers, stacks of glass jars and various half-started projects. A spilled cat litter box sat in front of the fireplace. A dozen wasps roamed the downstairs rooms, lazily looking for outside access.

My first night there, I thought, “I can’t live with this,” and spent two hours scrubbing the kitchen. I scrubbed down the oven, the counters, dared to put away a few things that seemed unnecessary in the kitchen, and threw out some moldy food. Within 24 hours, the kitchen was a disaster again, egg shells, cooked food in pots, and unclean dishes everywhere again. A farm accumulates many dirty items over the course of the day; I get that. But this was excessive.

I spent two more hours on Monday scrubbing the kitchen. My third day, I decided to put a dent in the fly population and killed 50+ in the main downstairs rooms. For a while I just stood in one place and randomly swung the flyswatter through the air, killing several every time. But 50 dead flies later, there was no impact.

I tried to roll with it, tried to tell myself that “it’s just messier in a farm kitchen.” But that’s not true: my Aunt Barbara’s farm house was spotless.

My hostess cooked some good meals, but I could barely eat knowing that most dishes and silverware sat exposed in the kitchen, and who knew how many flies had landed on this particular plate or meal? I couldn’t eat. One evening when we found ourselves alone in the farm house, my fellow WWOOFer, a 27-year-old former engineer now living out of his VW van, looked at me with mournful eyes and said, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

I quit.

Was I justified? Maybe. Maybe not. I made a commitment and did not keep it. Mentally I justified leaving with a dozen loopholes, such as “they didn’t keep their commitment to me to provide a clean place to live.” Still, l made a commitment I did not keep.

Last night, I sat in an Italian restaurant finishing a book called Mindsets. The premise is simple but profound:   whether we identify more with a fixed mindset (I am a collection of certain qualities) or growth mindset (I am someone who grows and evolves my skills, attitudes, self-perceptions) influences how we thrive in tough environments, how we learn, whether we are devastated by setbacks, how we love. The entire book devotes itself to exploring how self-perpetuating stories limit who we can become.

I wrote this first half of this blog early in the day after I left the farm.

When I came back to this piece of writing after finishing Mindsets, I looked at the title, in a new light. Why did I title this piece, ‘Quitter?’ Apparently, my first instinct was to label myself as someone who quits – I am someone who looks at a challenge and says, “I can’t do this.” I give myself no credit for recognizing a physically, disgusting environment and getting the fuck out. I gave myself no credit for taking a risk, driving across the country, and spending three and a half days doing hard work. I even tried to clean the environment several times before giving up.

Now, I choose to view this situation through a new filter, a growth mindset. I learned how to milk a goat. I can clean shit off five dozen eggs and enjoy it. Hell, I can outsmart a chicken. (Again, should I brag about this?)

And I learned a new dimension about myself when it comes to keeping commitments.

I’m in Rooster Hell

October 11th, 2010

I admit it.

When I imagined working on an organic farm, I pictured myself in my wide-brow sun hat, carefully considering our friend, the radish, as I weeded mindfully, feeling the groovy connection of all living things, our oneness with food, circle of life, etc., and possibly a Lion King-inspired sound track accompanying this golden moment.

I did not picture myself being dragged behind a horny 250 lb. sheep named Ramses down a mud-slick hill, hoping that I did not slide under him and become either A) crushed or B) the new object of his affection. If B) were to come true, see A).

Expectations are funny. I always want life to work out a certain way, and when it doesn’t, life is always wrong, not me. Life is wrong to send me here, to give me this challenge, to expect too much from me while giving me so little. I could do better with this life, I really could, without all these damn hindrances: illness, aging, deaths of people I love, the housing market, things that keep me awake at night. Should I tear down my garage and build a new one, or hire a contractor to straighten it out? Who even cares? I never wanted to be the guy struggling over goddamn garage decisions.

I am also discovering that it’s dangerous to abstract how roosters work in the real world based on the cartoon equivalent. But in my childhood history (and other more current references validated on Save By the Bell:   the Farm Show), farm roosters do their ‘cock-a-doodle-do’ as the sun pokes up, and everyone wakes up cheerfully, happy to be honest laborers toiling under the sun.

That ain’t how it works.

Roosters start earlier than sunrise – while it’s still damn dark, quite frankly. They don’t do a cute cock-a-doodle, no thank you. They make this extended, “Rrrrk, rrrrrrrrrrhhhhhhhhh,” that could be mistaken for the sound a hen makes while the rooster is murdering her. On the other side of the farm, some other damn rooster gets the message and says to his buddy across the farm, “Rrrrrk rrrrrrrhhhhhhrrrrrrrrrhhhhhrrrrhhh!”

His buddy answers, as does another buddy, all of them bragging to each other how they totally scored with an egg last night. Really, it’s poultry equivalent of “Wasssszzzzzzzuuuuuuuup?”

“Wassszzzzzzuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuup?”

Waszzzzz-wassssszzzzzuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuup?”

This continues until about 4:00 p.m.

I’m enjoying/not enjoying having my expectations smashed to bits. Sure, part of me finds it gratifying to know I can be so wrong, so lost on important life details. Another part of me hates being constantly wrong, feeling the fear/anger emotional twang of stupidity and getting so lost on important life details. Do I tear down the garage or straighten it? Am I doing the right thing with my life? Was working on a farm a mistake? (A question contemplated last night as Moon, the farm dog, barked at coyotes outside my bedroom window until roughly an hour before the roosters began their important dialog.)

I listened to Eckhart Tolle on the drive across the United States. He talks about the beauty of this exact moment, the right now. If we truly believe that we are eternal beings comprised of divine love, then we are living brilliance right now, no matter the circumstances. Whether doing laundry, preparing a PowerPoint presentation or getting lectured by a high school girl on how I shouldn’t be afraid to go right ahead and give that teat A GOOD SQUEEZE, the bliss can be right now. I sometimes feel these moments of bliss, and sometimes they are connected to moments in time when I am not paying attention.

Earlier today I lay spread eagle in the back of a flatbed truck, spent from tossing packing pallets from one area of the farm to another (for reasons too complicated to explain. Short version:   involves goats). As the old truck bounced heavily in the mud ruts across the field, my limp body got tossed around in back, and I stared up at the sky, the trees, grinning stupidly at the distant mountains in this pine-soaked landscape. I was physically exhausted from a full morning’s worth of dragging heavy chicken pens, letting out goats, milking goats, feeding animals, spreading coffee grinds over blueberry plants, hauling, tossing, crouching, crawling, and a few other -ing words that really kicked my ass.

Feeling the sweat drying cold against my skin, I wondered if tonight I could sleep through Moon’s howling at coyote, and suddenly felt that connection, the greater love. There was no Lion King soundtrack. I wasn’t dressed the right way, and my arms were way too sore to feel universal love. But maybe I can let my expectations get smashed yet another day and find more connection.

Of course, the moment shriveled away seconds later, when across the farm, I heard nature’s response to my intention to love.

“Whaaassszzzzzzzzzzzzzzup?”

Fucking roosters.

Monsters

September 29th, 2010

When ordering zombies from a Sky Mall catalog, you have no idea whether the reality will match your expectations. One might politely inquire why an individual might want a life-size representation of a rotting corpse head and arms extracting itself from the earth.

I wouldn’t know.

I don’t want that creepy fucking thing in my yard; I purchased the garden zombie as a gift for my friend Ron.

Over the years, Ron taught me to cook vegetables and appreciate homemade pesto. He’s quiet and thoughtful. Around him, I feel calmer. I take deeper breaths. Despite his mild-mannered banker exterior, he’s goofy and angular, regularly in touch with his inner, mischievous child. For two Halloweens, he transformed his own flesh into the living dead, believable enough that I stand as far away from him as possible. Last year, Ron improved on the original, creating gaping flesh divots on his face and neck that bled whenever he squeezed the flaps, like a zit.

Truly, he turned zombification into an art form.

To this day, when certain friends ask me about other friends, they say, “So, how’s Zombie Ron doing these days?”

I waited until Ron was away for an out-of-state business trip and snuck into his back yard to position his new Garden Zombie tastefully amid the shrubs, trying several positions before finding the exact right spot. I left the undead in view of the kitchen windows.

One gorgeous Saturday night in September, I joined Ron in his luxurious, newly renovated backyard for a fire in the fire pit. He made us fresh pesto, tomatoes and a garlic chev spread, and as twilight fell, we drank a bottle of red wine, poked the fire with our boots, and chatted about old memories, people we love, and all those odd topics that seem completely natural around a blazing fire.

Ron was quite horrified by the Garden Zombie, and within 24 hours had moved the creepy thing into his garage, until he discovered he then feared going to his car. But the night I came over, he pulled the tarp off the zombie’s head and created an artistic placement in a flower bed near the fire pit so that the zombie was front-lit, half in shadows. Ron sprinkled dirt over the sculpture for that ‘fresh from the grave’ authenticity. Ron is a good friend.

We toasted the Garden Zombie, our friendship, and this cool, perfect Minnesota evening. We argued whether the big fat star was the north star or Mars, both of us too busy enjoying the night and our argument to go inside and google the answer. We sipped wine, told stories, complained about various airports, and in the golden light of fire, loved each other as two friends can do.

I told him that when I die, as my consciousness twinkles out of existence, I would not mind if this night is what I experienced in those last moments:   sitting under the stars, chuckling with a friend, the cozy glow of a zombie a safe distance away. That would not be a bad last scene.

Later in the evening, I shared an disquieting experience that had occurred a little over 24 hours earlier. While teaching a class to law enforcement officers in a southern state, one of the students, a man whose presence I had enjoyed in class for several days, made a comment that upset me. On a break, a few officers recounted stories of recruits who did not do well. After discussing three men who got drunk and skinny-dipped, the conversation turned towards ‘gays among us.’ The tenor of the conversation was not particularly welcoming.

Discussing one such suspected gay, this individual said, “We should have shown him a real southern welcome: swinging from a tree at the end of a rope.”

Probably eight officers were directly engaged in the conversation. Another three or four were present in the room, and just before he made that comment, the room got completely silent. After he said it, nobody said a word in response.   A full moment later, a new topic was introduced.

On the plus side, nobody said: “YEAH, we should kill them all!” On the downside, nobody said: “It’s inappropriate to suggest murdering gays.”

These were law enforcement officers, the folks who protect our lives.

I had a hard time reconciling that comment with my Saturday night in Ron’s backyard. We’re monsters? Two middle-aged men talking about camping, childhood pranks, family members we love and miss…arguing over stars in the sky…we’re so dangerous we need to swing from a tree at the end of a rope?

It would be easy to paint that one officer, and those who said nothing, as the enemy. They’re not. I spent a week with these folks. They were goofy and hilarious. We laughed together quite a bit. Even when they were bored with the content they did their best to participate in class. The last day I spent with them, a mere four hours after that comment was made, they presented me with a cake they had purchased and decorated, incorporating several week-long jokes. (One of their peers confessed a fear of clowns, so of course, the cake was decorated with plastic clown heads.) They thanked me for coming and cheerfully clapped for me.

I met some great people that week.

And yet.

As I sliced through the frosting, I couldn’t help but reflect on the swinging from a tree comment. Really? Would you murder me? Or if someone else got a little zealous, would you stand by and let it happen?

Ron and I reflected on the story I shared as we drained the pinot noir and over the fire turned fresh bread into toast for our bruschetta. We discussed the nature of hate and love, how fear grows, and what it takes to change ourselves and the world. We discussed how it feels when strangers, and even family members, consider us to be a monster for being gay.

If you don’t think like me, you’re deluded. If you do think like me and you disagree on a major point, well, you’ve taken a wrong turn. If you’re too conservative politically: evil. If you are too liberal, you’re trying to bring about Armageddon. Those with religion consider those without to be monsters. And it’s not hard for me to look at religious zealots with the same fear I usually reserve for zombies.

I guess we’re all monsters to someone.

The Farmer

August 11th, 2010

Over a week ago, I attended the funeral of an Illinois cousin of mine. He possessed a rare clarity of purpose in the world: he lived to farm. Obviously, farming is not like banking or retail, a job you leave at 5:30 and for which you occasionally work overtime. And yet, despite having grown up in a small farm town, having cousins whose entire existence depended on the right combination of good rain and good luck, I guess I had forgotten.

Attending Kevin’s funeral made me remember.

For years during my childhood, my farming cousins left every holiday party early to go milk cows. Or, they wouldn’t even show up at all, if the weather was fair and they had sun-dependent chores. I sometimes resented this, missing their presence, and wondering why they couldn’t get jobs that demanded less time, less effort on Christmas Day. Carol and Suzanne were close in age to the four of us Manning siblings, and we missed valuable play hours due to their farming responsibilities.

In recent years at family parties, Kevin and I spoke only of topics of interest to him: the weather in Illinois and its impact on crops, the weather in Minnesota, and its potential impact on crops, tractors, snow, cows, and well, that’s about it. Kevin occasionally prodded me once or twice for Minnesota farming news, but sensing I was worthless on that topic, he eventually lost interest.

A photo essay at the wake indicated Kevin’s life revolved around John Deere tractors. Pictures of high school friends hoisting beer near a tractor, Kevin grinning big while sitting on a giant wheel, Kevin kissing his girlfriend and the camera flash bouncing off some piece of farm equipment’s windshield. He spent his whole life on a farm, farming, growing life.

Kevin was 21 when he was killed.

I remember a Thanksgiving at his grandmother’s farm when Kevin was five or six (had to be Thanksgiving because we always gather at Aunt Barbara and Uncle Chuck’s farm for that particular holiday). Very enthusiastically, Kevin explained the world of tractors to me, and despite my being older and more worldly, his grasp of mechanics already left me in the dust. The kid had this fire in him, as if he had just discovered the great secrets of life and clearly, the only reason I did not share his passion for tractors was because nobody had explained it to me.

I remember nothing about the tractors themselves, but the memory stuck because I loved seeing Kevin so exuberant.

As the Thanksgiving accumulated in our lives, Kevin’s excitement morphed into something more sedate, as he grew more stoic and silent in bigger crowds, just like his understated Dad. But you only need ask one of two questions about farming to reignite that wild enthusiasm, just as goofy and strong as when he was five. While I loved listening to his stories the biggest fucking snowdrifts man had ever seen (Kevin ran his own snow plow business in the winter and was perhaps *slightly* prone to exaggeration), he knew I was a spectator to his world, not a confidant.

We were not particularly close.

Extended family is odd that way: you hang out with people who you don’t know well, and probably don’t spend a lot of time getting to know beyond the big gatherings. But for a few holidays each year, you celebrate together, trying to get to reacquaint yourselves. I used to resent the polite, awkward questions and small talk chatter, but I now find it reassuring: I want to see how the kids turn out.

I cannot say I was or am particularly close to Kevin and his siblings, but I like them. I want to see them. I want to see the adults they have become, and I want to study their faces and remember their childhood shyness. I don’t really care if they like me or know me. I love them. I want to see.

But I won’t be seeing Kevin anymore.

One of his high school essays had been copied and put on display at the wake.

“Ever since I can remember I never liked school the only reason I ever want was for my buddies and for the girls, and because I had to. I never really needed it since I have been doing my greatest passion, and doing what I want to do for the rest of my life, which is farming. Many people think I may not be intelligent because of the way I speak, or the way I dress, but that’s because my education is about soil, crops, cows, tractors and trucks. There may be more to life and someday I will find that out but it is my life and always has been.”

I’m proud to be related to a man who possessed such clarity and confidence. Of course, I have no right to any pride about any of his achievements. But Kevin knew who he was, and he lived from that clarity, which made him a warrior. While we may not have connected much at Thanksgiving, I want to believe we are spiritual brothers on our own unique paths.

Kevin’s unique path took a very sharp turn. He was thrown from his truck in a late-night accident which can never be explained. He was not drunk, there were no other vehicles, just swerving tire skids and his upside down truck, discovered the next morning. There will never be a satisfying explanation. There will never be another Kevin.

Sometimes, this world just sucks.

At the wake, I struggled (as everyone does) with finding words say to his survivors, because of course, there were no right words. There never are. His mom, my cousin Carol, stood next to her son’s coffin and held my hands briefly in the horrible reception line. As I choked out my obligatory, “I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry,” she waved away a buzzing fly that landed in the coffin on Kevin’s head.

In a tired voice, she said, “Thank you, Teddy.”

I have no insight about the nature of life or death. A man died, a man with clarity and purpose, a man who believed in something and every day of his short life, loved who he was, what he did.

When I grow up, I want to be like Kevin.

I am powerless: II

June 2nd, 2010

Just a quick update:   Old Blue is fully repaired and cost surprisingly less money than expected. I’m home in Minnesota; the accident seems like long ago.

Why did I feel so powerless? What was my problem? Can’t remember. I would love to reflect on it more, but I’ve got many things to do:   work in the yard, update Microsoft Money, and then there’s that cauliflower in the fridge, I should do something with.

It’s easy to forget that feeling, that raw, desperate anger from a single moment in time. The day of the accident, I felt like I looked a painful truth, and yet now with so many house chores around me, and a To Do list growing daily, it’s hard to connect with that moment.

I am sure it won’t be long before I am brought to my knees once again and I will once again realize just how far my power extends.

I am powerless

May 8th, 2010

Yesterday in my parents’ hometown, I was in a car accident.

Short version: nobody was hurt; my car was smashed up. Longer, self-justifying version:   at a stop sign, an older woman in a SUV pulled out to make a left turn and then changed her mind. She stopped suddenly and I hit her. According to the police, it was my fault: I was following too close. Personally, I don’t think she should have halted midway through a turn onto a busy highway. But there you go; can’t argue physics with a cop.

The damage to her SUV was negligible. I took photos with my iPhone and showed them to my Dad. He said, “Where’s the damage?” Exactly.

The damage to my car was shocking:   the hood is crumpled, the headlights busted out…it looks like my car was crunched hard. Neither of us were hurt, thankfully, but I’m pretty sure my car is beyond repair. Even if it’s only 2K, the insurance company will deign it unworthy of saving.

I spent most of Saturday reliving the accident, alternating between wishing it didn’t happen and being furious. Furious with me, furious with her, furious with the universe, followed by more pointless wishing it had never happened. Thursday, I finished a work contract (i.e. mostly unemployed again) and Saturday, I have to think about buying a new car. Insert many, colorful expletives here, strung together like old-fashioned Christmas tree garland.

But beyond the obvious financial pains in the ass, I was surprised at how furious I was at…well, I couldn’t figure it out. Sure, I hate anything bad happening to this car I love. That’s one layer. Of course, I hate the financial dents and possible ramifications for insurance. But beyond that I felt a surge of rage that gnawed on every breath until I finally recognized it:   I am powerless.

I am visiting my folks this week, and while I love them dearly, I need to escape. I had been headed to Chicago to visit Alesia when the accident occurred; I missed seeing her. I missed the chance to visit Chicago. I was now powerless to leave.

And beyond Saturday and weekend plans, I was powerless to leave the state and return home. I was powerless to drive my beloved car with the top open, singing at the top of my lungs. That may never happen again.

As I reflected (i.e. seethed) all afternoon, I kept thinking of all the ways that I am powerless and how I HATE being reminded of that essential fact. I cannot control my health. (I may influence it, but controlling it is beyond me.) I can barely control my career, and really, how much control do I think I have? I couldn’t control that the housing market plummeted the same week I put my house up for sale in 2007, and I could not do anything, not a damn thing, about my father having cancer and not wanting him to go through that.

Nothing.

I am powerless.

I decided to meditate, not out of some Buddha-like inspiration, but because I wanted to punch my head through a window, or go yell at my Mom (on Mother’s Day eve), and decided those were not wise courses of action. I could not think of anything else to do.

So I sat and said the words aloud, during each exhale of breath, “I am powerless.” Breathed in, and then exhaled, “I am powerless.”Breathed in…

I will not pretend that great insight arrived, or that I suddenly found Nirvana in accepting my fate in the universe, a human being with little or no power. At the end of the meditation, I was still powerless.

But I will admit that saying this aloud did something for me, created a little more space inside me for something besides seething resentment. This space was filled with sadness. I am not sure I was hoping for that exactly, rage replaced by grief, but I have to admit that grief is easier to bear than anger.

Doesn’t everyone hate being powerless?

Yet don’t we all cling to the illusion that I have power, that I create power in my life? I felt sad to be so wrong, sad that such a trivial incident like a fender bender was necessary to lift up a big rock and see the truth squirming like earthworms, and me so disgusted to see something true.

I am powerless.

I don’t love it.

I’m not thrilled about this.

I’ll keep doing my best to not get into car accidents and figure out what shit is mine to own. But in the end, the power I do have is pretty bug-like. I’m pretty awful at small talk; I keep trying to invent better ways to get to know someone than to begin with “How are you?” Ugh. I hate that opening. I think it could be more interesting to say, “Hi, I’m Edmond. Where are you powerless in your life?”

If we both answered honestly, at least we know we’d have some common ground for discussion.

It’s Not So EZ

April 14th, 2010

Tomorrow, I am leaving town to staff a warrior weekend.

Tonight, I am pondering how I will show up. Will I be intuitive and open-hearted enough? Maybe. I hope so. But it sure doesn’t feel like it in this moment. I’m still stuck in my day-to-day details, the backyard raspberry patch which needs the winter leaves raked away, so the roots can soak in April showers. Dirty dishes in the sink, unanswered voicemails, and I am sitting next two three piles of paperwork on the floor of my den. I reduced it from five piles, but I hate leaving piles of unfinished business as I leave town for three days.

(By the way, internet people, please don’t break into my house while I’m gone this weekend. I just bought some seedlings I’d like to plant on Sunday evening in tiny little starter pots and I can’t do that if I’m sweeping up broken glass and filing police reports, trying to take inventory of all the creepy monkeys stolen from my home. Plus, all the valuable stuff is locked up in the garage with the broken door hinge, so seriously, start there.)

But it’s not just yard work and paper work that has got me bent out of shape and focused on the nitty-gritty details of life: tomorrow a large sum of money is going to be sucked from my checking account through a government tube: it’s tax day.

I like having roads and a system of justice. Imperfect as our government may be, if you watch enough Law & Orders marathons, you can convince yourself that the courts works most of the time and that the New York DAs are gruff but hug-able.

I’m pro-taxes. I like having 17 kinds of peanut butter to choose from in the grocery store. I like that there are government programs and that we’re not beheaded for being gay. I love America.

But, dammit.

I worked for myself this year and it stings, quite frankly, to watch that balance disappear. And I was prepared:   I calculated business expenses and mileage, tracked charitable donations, measured the square footage of the area I use as my office. I kept receipts. I was responsible.

I investigated a new tax person this year, because I thought, hey, maybe a certified accountant would be a better way to go for someone who lacks the basic business sense to buy himself business cards. (Note to self:   get some business cards.) Maybe I needed more guidance than my Regular Tax Guy? We scheduled a trial run: in March, I gave New Tax Guy my paperwork and he gave me a fairly detailed estimate regarding my tax situation.

New Tax Guy did little to hide his disgust that I didn’t fold myself into an S-corporation, like I am business origami who should have instinctively become a swan. Out of sheer spite, he calculated how many thousands of dollars I would have saved in 2009 if I had.

“There,” he said pointing at the total. “Wow. That’s a lot. I bet you’re kicking yourself.”

Didn’t love the New Tax Guy.

When I entered his office, he sneezed into his hand and he said, “I’ve got a cold.” After the meeting, he reached out that same hand to shake mine. Sure he had used it for a whole lot of other stuff in the intervening hour, including eating a Snickers bar, but eewwwwww. Pay attention to small details much? But it was our first meeting, so I caved on my resolve and gave him a grim handshake.

During our time together, he made it clear I should lie on my taxes.

The third time he said, YOU SHOULD REALLY FIND $10,000 MORE DOLLARS IN BUSINESS EXPENSES, I started getting a queasy feeling in my belly. I had twice explained that I would look harder, but I didn’t spend much on office stuff or growing my business this year. I was too busy working three jobs and trying to become a novelist.

I am not shy about reimbursing whatever is legal, but messing with the IRS freaks me out. Maybe our taxes shouldn’t be so high, and maybe I am paying $24,000 for government toilet seats. That truly sucks. But the last thing I need is 15 red-necktie, blue suiters storming my house, demanding to see my fabulous, expensive, office skylight, which is not there.

And yet…I owed a lot of money this year. So, maybe?

I looked a little harder for business expenses.

I hated that New Tax Guy thought I was a chump because I did not really research the financial and legal implications of working for myself. He was right, I was a chump, and I should have thought more about that aspect of business. Now, I will literally pay for not having foresight.

If not outright lying, fudging seemed like an option.But I kept seeing business people swinging through the front windows on government-issue rope, smashing out the glass all commando style, and that dark fantasy tempered my temptation.

In the end, I had to stop an think about integrity.

The word means something to me now, a result of being in New Warriors for many years. I think of integrity as keeping my word, being honest about my feelings, telling a friend when I am pissed off at him. But integrity exists in the smaller details, too, small white lies like cutting off other drivers, and whether or not I cheat on my taxes to save a few bucks.

I don’t like integrity much on the days that it costs me money.

Living with integrity has cost me more than money, sometimes a friendship or two. Some days I don’t care for honesty, usually when someone is being super honest with me. Some days, I want to watch TV and forget about my obligations, being part of a community. But I have discovered I need to be around men who are also working on their own integrity, and women who nurture theirs. I need to be around people who fall on their knees and then ask for help, because I am often weak and fall on my knees, too. Focusing on integrity is not always easy.

I made a decision not to finish my taxes with New Tax Guy.

Nevertheless, I delayed and delayed, waiting until last Sunday to call my Regular Tax Guy, and surprisingly, he could see me this week, so we got together two days before the April 15th deadline. Regular Tax Guy is jovial and smart about taxes. I’m not sure why I thought I should try someone new; I really do want someone I trust. He gave me the bad news last night with the solemn dignity of a funeral director’s explaining that a closed casket service will be necessary after all. Year after year, he handles the good news and bad news professionally and does not think to cheat or lie, because, why would you do that?

That’s why I staff a few times a year, to remember integrity and what changes it brought into my life. I need a refresher course, like tax accountants do every year as they discover tax laws that have changed. FYI, in 2010, the IRS allows you to put up to $3050 into your HSA account, up $50 from 2009.

Regular Tax Guy always regales me with stories of tax returns performed long ago, always omitting names or identifying details, which makes them like urban legends or beloved holiday stories. Last night he trotted out the sad story of the newlyweds who did not calculate their new home tax credit correctly, and received an unpleasant surprise, a tale he tells me every other year. Why did I turn to someone else? What was I thinking?

Last night, I decided to commit to working with him for a long time to come.

I asked him about the S-corporation thing.

“It’s a good idea for you,” he told me. “But once you do it, you’ll have to find someone else to do your taxes.”

Dammit.

Earthquake

March 4th, 2010

A few weeks ago, my sister sent me a txt at 6:30 announcing, “An earthquake woke me up this morning.”

On February 10th, a 3.8 magnitude earthquake rattled the Illinois house where she lives with my folks. Eileen said at first she had no clue as to the source:   a truck crash down the street? Did a tree fall on the house? Being asleep seconds earlier, she could not reason what could make the entire house shift from side to side.

Later in the day, Mom reported that the quake woke her up as well and she sat up thinking, ‘earthquake.’

Dad slept through it.

But he sleeps through many things, and we tease him about his nap-taking. He likes to hook his wrist watch over an arm of his glasses while he naps, sitting upright in his recliner. The relentless beeping next to his ear is is pretty much the only way to wake him. Once we photographed him with his watch dangling across his face and showed it to him.

Upon seeing the picture, his eyes opened wide and he said, “Am I really that handsome?”

A little later on Earthquake Morning, I was not surprised to see my Mom calling my cell. I thought perhaps there was more news on the disaster front. I was right.

“Dad’s doctor wants him admitted to the hospital right now, today. They’re going to run some tests.”

“What kind of tests?”

“Tests. Something’s wrong.”

On Friday of that week, the doctors started throwing around the words ‘widespread cancer.’ For various reasons, it took almost a full week before we got the official diagnosis:   stage 4 colon cancer, metastasized to his lungs, liver, and other tissue.

I probably won’t write much about his cancer on my blog.

I feel comfortable writing about the world from my perspective and details from my life. But this cancer is his story, our family story, and not exclusively my tale to tell. I can share the big picture stuff:   we all cried. We held hands. We sat vigil with him in the hospital room for a week and a half and we cried some more. During non-upset intervals we did crossword puzzles, and also yelled out answers during Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, trying to beat each other and cheat each other, because that is also part of our family story.

(Dad most often gets the Jeopardy answers right, but we don’t give him credit because he doesn’t phrase his responses in a question format. We are sticklers for rules; our Wheel of Fortune battles are awesome to behold.)

Regardless of how his chemo turns out, I can’t help but wander around dizzy, aftershocks of the world going upside down. I mean, sure I thought this day would come, but I had planned on my being 98 and him being 132. That was the plan, and a damn good one in my opinion.

How could he consider leaving us?

One of my favorite Wordsworth poems is We Are Seven, in which a creepy old man relentlessly grills a small girl. Despite the fact that two of her siblings are dead, and he practically verbally assaults her with his maniacal insistence that those two are DEAD AND GONE, she keeps repeating, “We are seven.” Ah, with great poetry like this, who needs Harry Potter? Wordsworth’s subtle-like-a-hammer point is that children grasp a reality adults cannot fathom.

My parents, siblings and myself:   we are six.

Sure, it doesn’t have the same ring to it as “We Are Seven,” but still. I can’t imagine the world without all of us yelling at Wheel of Fortune or secretly photographing each other sleeping in hilarious couch-draped poses so we can show each other drool photos.

Whenever I call home for cooking advice (twice a week, three times max) I have to go through Dad.

“Hi Dad. I need help. Put Mom on.”

“I can help.”

“It’s about cooking. Put on Mom.”

“Try me.”

“Can I substitute milk and a little butter instead of 1/2 & 1/2? I don’t want to buy 1/2 & 1/2 it because I won’t ever use it again.”

There is silence on the other end.

Finally, he says, “Hang on. I’ll get Mom.”

Every damn time, he insists I ask him my questions for him and every damn time, I do, because he’s one of the funniest guys I know. I love listening to his answers: “If you don’t have any eggs, just skip ‘em.” Or perhaps, “I’m sure baking powder is the same thing as baking soda.” Sometimes I hear Mom yell in the background “DON’T TELL HIM THAT.”

Once in a while he will remain quiet for an extended pause after my question, prompting me to clear my throat.

He will say, “Hang on, I’m thinking. I’ve almost got it.”

On my birthday, if they can’t reach me on one of my phones, Mom and Dad sing Happy Birthday into my voice mail. Mom always counts softly on their end, “1, 2, 3…” so that they can begin singing at the exact same moment. I always re-save the message every 180 days, listening to it when I need a boost. I love that both of my parents still want to celebrate the day I showed up, even after knowing me all these years, and how I turned out.

It’s not over; I’m still anticipating my next birthday’s voicemail message. My Dad is strong and he never took a sick day from work in his life, so who knows? Chemo may work. I have faith in Bolinas.

I called home the other night to see how he’s doing and get the daily report. We covered how he ate, how far he walked, and that day’s oncologist visit. There was a pause in the conversation, perhaps as we both contemplate this new dimension to our phone calls, our discussion of his daily vitals and subtle changes to his sleep and diet. Our landscape has been shaken.

He said, “Do you have any cooking questions?”

I was actually making a slow cooker pot roast that day. Do the vegetables go under the meat or sit on top?

“Dad, just put Mom on.”

“You can ask me. Go ahead.”

I asked.

What can I say? I like his answers.