The Apex; Or Just Before the Fall

“Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain;
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today;
And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you;
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.”

– “Time,” Pink Floyd (1973)

“You know what you need to do,” he commanded.

“Write something happy tonight.”

That’s what Beckett told me.

And why shouldn’t I?

After three hours with the kids and two of their best friends crashing in the waves at Tempe’s historic water park – Big Surf – what horrible, negative thing could you possibly write?

It only takes a day off in the company of your kids and their friends to realize: this is the golden outcome.

Forget that when we came home, another friend came over, and the back room was all full of laughs, and smiles and people who don’t delve too deep into what they’ve done, where they’ve been.

That’s a bonus.

Those are healthy children, filling my home.

Yay for me.

* * *

I wrote that intro a few days ago.

But nothing has fundamentally changed.

We spent a rare night tonight in the company of close friends, gathered around a movie theater bar to celebrate a birthday.

This friend has had her own share of adversity lately; none of which is my business to share.

But needless to say, there is something fundamental about breaking routine, of gathering with those whom you care for and love, that can lift whatever dark cloud you’re taking shelter under and offer an alternate perspective.

I see this everywhere. In the gathering Heidi took part in this weekend, to celebrate another of our dearly-loved friends’ 40th. In the aforementioned journey to Big Surf.

Cast aside the chores, the responsibilities, the demands, sometimes; and just live.

The rewards can be worthy. And unexpected.

* * *

I want to switch timescales again.

Let’s talk about last night, when just before bed, I had a micro-epiphany.

In the summer in Phoenix, the term “micro” is reserved for one very special, very unique phenomenon.

Get your minds out of the gutter. In this case micro means quite the opposite.

The microburst.

Microbursts are isolated cells within a larger desert thunderstorm pattern – monsoons, as we call them here – that generate hurricane- or tornado-like effects.

We’re talking 70+ mile per hour winds, torrential downpours, repeated cloud-to-ground lightning that can level buildings, topple massive trees and create softball-sized hail – oftentimes without any warning greater than 30 minutes.

One recently tore down a towering tree on my sister’s property – crushing a block fence – and ripped a metal framed gate straight out of a concrete wall.

Phoenicians both desire and fear these storms. The reprieve they offer from the unending onslaught of dry air and 100+ degree temperatures makes this place livable. The damage they incur when they become intense over our homes is both costly and potentially deadly.

My micro-epiphany, though, was neither costly, nor deadly.

But I think it hits on a strategy for life – a decision point – for those of us nestled firmly in the transition of midlife.

So, hear me out.

* * *

I posit that life is an arc.

On the upward slope of the arc, we define who we are.

We do this through the raw, innocent exposure of childhood – in which, at first, we absorb all we see, unquestioned as fact. Later, in our teenage years, we still absorb, but question.

Then we set out to make ourselves. Through college and/or career, we identify the things we care about, that we advocate for, that we become quote-unquote experts in.

We build careers, we find partners, we attempt to climb ladders based on those skill sets. We raise families and create social circles based upon the values by which we define ourselves.

And then, sometimes, for many of us – we hit a brick wall.

We raise our kids, we attain some level of career stability and the funnel narrows.

We can raise our kids no more successfully, the rate of return on becoming experts in our field shrinks and the opportunity to reach higher levels of “success” (yes, that’s in quotes intentionally) – in raising our kids, in getting promoted to a higher-level positions, even, perhaps, of having more or better friends – gets smaller.

Considerably.

And so we get stuck in mid-life limbo.

Where do I go? What do I do to fuel this “Type-A personality need” to always push to another level of self-improvement?

Some of us will ultimately find levels of satiety in tangential pursuits – learning about new things just to learn about them, readjusting expectations based on readily available data sets about where we can expect to be at 40, 50, 60 and beyond.

But not most of us.

We’re deeply emotional beings.

And damn it, we want shit.

It’s in our nature.

But here’s where the arc comes in.

* * *

The arc reaches its culmination, like a roller coaster, right at the midway point – at that place where the chains stop pulling you against gravity and you give into the forces of nature that will ultimately dictate the rest of your journey.

You have two choices: you accept the experience that follows and enjoy it – an experience that’s not really uncontrolled (after all, a team of engineers built this ride with a high-level of predictability based on their knowledge of the laws of physics) or you succumb to the fear of the unknown that lies ahead and a) either never ride the roller coaster to begin with or b) suffer through it because your kid(s)/friend(s) demanded it.

I know of few people that after careful analysis wouldn’t agree that accepting the twists and turns of the ride isn’t a better experience than never riding at all.

That said, there will always be outliers.

If a roller-coaster isn’t your thing, imagine anything with an apex: a night out with friends where – after dinner and the apres-cocktail – it’s time to go home; or a project at work where, once you reach the pinnacle of the lift, the rest is just the allowing the predefined processes and the resultant execution to get you to the end.

The point is: you work hard to get to a certain point and then you let go.

You trust that the work you put in – the really, heavy initial lift – will get you to the finish line.

And when you accept that, you stop devoting excessive energy and care to a process that has so much momentum it’s almost impossible to stop or alter.

When you accept this, you rightfully ask yourself: Why am I devoting some much energy to trying to change something for which the momentum has already been built?

Give in. Enjoy the ride. Force equals mass times acceleration.

That’s a universal law of nature.

Few fight those and win.

* * *

But I want to get a bit more practical.

Theory is theory. But the shit we say; and the way we live by the things we say is far more important.

So let me told you what I tell Heidi:

“I think we approach this arc, this pinnacle – we can spend years there – where we’ve made tremendous forward progress, and then we stall.

But we know we’re at mid-life; the windows of opportunity dwindle and we face a real choice that defines whether we find happiness or whether we find ourselves in constant conflict in our fading years.

Either we embrace that we are but inconsequential blips in the universe’s grand scale and we accept that long after we die, our lives will likely be unremembered and unremarkable in the scheme of things.

Or we fight it, and keep trying to attain things for which the odds become exponentially stacked against us. Or we fight for control over things of which we have none. Same difference.

In short, we choose to keep striving to define ourselves by self-defined accomplishments or we live in the momentum we’ve created – which at its core means living in the moment.

If we choose to accept this idea of our inconsequential-ness, we place less gravity on what comes next.

We’re freer to live in what is and make choices with less fear of consequence.

We accept the benefits of our steady job without pining for title or power.

We accept our children, the choices they make and their imperfections.

We acknowledge our own imperfections and grow more comfortable with them.

We take the pressure off of ourselves to be perfect and simple reprioritize to just be.”

That’s what I said. Though maybe thought out and typed, it’s a little more concise.

Practically, this can be the freedom to just do the job to the best of your ability, with a commitment level that provides work-life balance (not consecutive 60-hour weeks). Or, it can mean finding the fearlessness to finally say what you want to say … or do what you really want to do.

It can mean trusting in the wisdom or your children to blaze their own path without the heavy-handed guidance the toddler, adolescent and (sometimes, depending on your level of tolerance) teenage years require.

It can mean being more accepting of ideas – even those threatening to your values – from those around you.

It can be all of those things, some of them, or some variation of them at different levels. I can’t prescribe the right formula.

What I can tell you is that fighting Isaac Newton’s Second Law of Motion (mass times acceleration equals force), is an equation for failure.

Those who age gracefully and in harmony with themselves do so because they accept certain rules; and reconfigure their mindset to live healthily within them.

* * *

Back to the movie night, for a second.

All those couples. Some married for decades; some not so long; some with children on their way to college; some with children on the way to birth.

The ages? Varied. But not all that far apart.

The point is: the apex doesn’t come at a defined year. For every person, the “time to reach pinnacle” is different.

One of those friends came up to me after the movie (“Tommy Boy,” by the way. Harkins’ Tuesday Night Classics series), and said, “I’ve been reading your blog.”

“I think it’s incredible what you do,” she said, adding a comment about how she saw it as brave (although, maybe that wasn’t the right word, she said) to be so vulnerable. “I think it helps people.”

It was a long journey for me to accept that. You should know that. But I believe it now.

And I say that not as some “oh, hey gurrrrl, look at me bein’ all brave and what not” statement, but to express that sometimes, embracing what we know we should be is a long – and often shame-filled journey.

My writings have a miniscule audience in the grand scheme of things. It’s friends, people around Tempe, some folks back home in the Northeast and a bunch of coworkers.

Part of fulfilling one of my core life goals – promoting the mission of Tempe Community Action Agency and easing the plight of the working poor we serve – means letting anyone in who takes any interest in me.

And that means letting just about anyone be a friend on social media.

In the corporate sphere that can be a … um, recipe for disaster.

So, for years, I darted around the edges of safer topics. And sometimes, in a late night slip, let something from the core just sit out there and then, in meetings if someone asked, mitigated my coworkers’/supervisors’ alarmed/shocked/surprise response to a blog to make everyone feel safe.

But I’m at the top now; sitting in the front seat, waiting as the last of the cars get yanked to the highest point of the coaster. The brake is about to release.

Gravity is about to take hold.

And I’m okay with that.

Everybody throw your hands up and get ready to scream – in joy, in fear.

It’s all downhill from here.

Advertisements

Kite Like

“It’s gonna take a lot to take me away from you;

There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do;

I bless the rains down in Africa

Gonna’ take some time to do the things we never had.”

– “Africa,” Toto (1981)

It sort of pains me to quote that song.

But, man, its been in my head.

That internet fueled, painfully faithful Weezer replication – minus the improvised keyboard interlude – has been playing over and over.

When I go to sleep, when I wake. And many of the places in between.

Hell, it even hit number 1 this week.

It certainly gives credence to the idea that new things are just old things – reimagined – once again.

The song, in case you don’t know, was largely considered shit by the critics of its time. Its references to Africa nothing more than convenient; it’s lyrics petty and nonsense. The video downright offensive.

I’m not so sure, anymore.

Rereading those lyrics, “Africa” seems an allegory for a lost love; it’s distant location a steady anchor for a place we may want to be, but can’t reach.

But what the hell do I know?

The things we can’t reach are everywhere. Maybe I’m looking for an allegory in a song that was a cash cow.

Maybe I simply wanted to include a kick-ass Weezer cover song in a blog post.

Who’s to say?

* * *

But I digress; even if I chose that as my lead.

Maybe, I chose it only because it mentions rains.

Rains.

The kind that fall in spectacular fashion, like they did tonight. Full of wind, and flying branches and flying neighborhood accoutrements.

Is that my son’s basketball net down for the count?

Yes, it is.

Is that a large branch from my neighbor’s tree?

Uh-huh.

Is that my anger letting go, with something as simple as a summer storm?

Sure.

Why not?

* * *

Why can’t it be?

Our feelings are fickle things; drifting from one emotional response to the next.

All wrapped up in a hundred personal connections.

All of those connections moving in as many ways as the storms that blew through my neighborhood.

We are but tangents.

Connected to so many moving parts.

And our own moving parts infinitely manipulated by them.

To and fro.

It’s an uncoordinated dance.

* * *

Tonight, we turned off the lights.

All of them.

Kicked open the blinds and sat, inside, in the darkness, watching the trees bend.

Bend, but not break.

The storm did something.

Infected the kids.

They couldn’t stop screaming, dancing, darting about the room.

There’s something about that energy.

Something.

It’s explanation defies my understanding.

But it got them.

Have no doubt.

* * *

So, surely, there’s something here, right?

Some reason to write?

Sure.

I’ve been obsessed with the negative.

All my flaws.

But like a perfect remake, we can’t do something in replication.

Make positive out of negative.

Convey the idea that the artist lost in longing is just a regular human sharing the dark.

I swear I want to be more transparent.

Just scream: All is okay!

But it’s more complicated than that.

It’s always more complicated.

Sure, it’s okay.

Sure, it’s fine.

But that’s a truth; and a lie – every time you ask: How’s it going?

So even when I aim to set the record straight.

I guess I can’t.

The question is too open ended.

* * *

Too many words into this shit show, I realize this is a poetic clusterfuck at its finest.

Too late to turn back now; might as well let it go.

When I set out, typing again – forgoing sleep to write – I wanted my regular readers not to worry. (And, to some extent, the hefty slate of coworkers who read this blog.)

This is – and always has been – snapshots from a mental second. The truth is always far more complicated.

Long after I go to bed, I think and rethink everything I wrote.

And never do these writings capture everything.

But they capture something – fleeting as it is – an idea.

An idea I can’t define.

An idea I want to hold on to.

Because I know something bigger lies within, even if I can’t see it today.

 

 

The Lonely March

“Hello, my friend, I see you’re back again.

Hello, mystery. Don’t bother to explain.

How ‘bout, maybe, it’s all been in my head?

Hey, well, I’m tired, of this black and blue.

Black and blue.”

                – Miike Snow, “Black and Blue” (2009)

When the mornings are bad, they usually start the night before.

I know it before I go to sleep.

I may be exhausted, putting the finishing touches on dinner, getting the kids to eat, putting the dishes in the dishwasher, lying on the couch – television show so-and-so playing in the background.

My eyes are heavy. My mind says sleep.

But the second I get to bed, it’s a scary place.

Heart races, mind runs.

And all I can do is pray for sleep.

Sometimes sleep comes without warning; sometimes it comes it comes all choppy – minutes of dozing, followed by minutes of heart racing. Sometimes it doesn’t, and I’m left to use what my logical mind tells me to do: breathe deep, lay calm and let this be my rest for the evening.

For the last few years (up until a few months ago) it was the latter that dominated. Sleep was a luxury afforded by alcohol, pure exhaustion or dumb luck.

But lately, I can find sleep.

That doesn’t mean I always want to get up.

And that’s a new phenomenon. Maybe it’s depression. Maybe its midlife crisis. Maybe its lack of motivation. Maybe, as my sister suggests, I should see a shrink.

But regardless of what it is, it’s a new reality.

Getting up can be Really. Fricken. Hard.

Welcome to the aftermath of extreme exhaustion.

And, I think, the early phases of recovery.

(There’s a sliver lining in this playbook.)

* * *

You’ve read this far, so my guess is: You have some sense of what I’m talking about.

Once I pull myself up from bed, I know this is a day worth living.

But until that moment, it’s not always a day I want to pursue.

Maybe it’s the questions about what I’m doing.

Maybe it’s the questions about what I’ve done.

But it’s always some sort of question – some sort of combination of them – that drags me down into the safety of my pillows and says: “I’m not ready.”

Granted, I always pull up.

Granted, I always move on.

But it wasn’t always this hard.

* * *

A couple weeks ago, I told my wife, Heidi: “I haven’t had time to grieve.”

I went to New Jersey on a couple days’ notice for my friend Liam’s funeral – saw his sister, saw his mother, saw his brother and wife, saw his other best friends, and just sort of floated through the experience.

There’s no blueprint for the way to “do death.”

You improvise. You make do. You say things in the moment.

And then you go home.

It’s in the moments leading up to sleep when you confront what you really feel; when you process (?) and try to make sense of what has just happened.

I’m not done processing. I haven’t begun processing what losing a best friend is like.

I’ve only begun processing what having a kid who just started high school; and another that just started middle school is like.

And that’s just surface shit.

That doesn’t begin to tap into the sense I’m trying to make of my 9-to-5; a place where the only certainty is uncertainty.

A place where parents are aging, a wife is searching, a soul (souls?) is/are aching, and everyone is trying to do what’s best for all those involved.

This place in the middle?

It’s a hellhole of uncertainty.

Certainly you know it; or have known it.

The answers are nowhere. At least nowhere to be easily found.

* * *

My wife actually acknowledged my weight gain tonight.

She hasn’t typically done this.

But with her lying in bed; and me sitting across the room, she laughed: “Oh my god, your belly is big.”

(It is.)

“Sit up,” she said.

I did.

“That’s better.”

It wasn’t meant to be mean. And I didn’t take it that way.

It didn’t bother me.

She’s right. I’m up 20 pounds – minimum – from the day I started that damn masters degree.

This has been the effect of piling on a shit-ton of responsibility, of trying to apply the same discipline to the mental sphere that I traditionally did to the physical.

On September 16, I will do my first major triathlon event in two years (1 mile swim, 26 mile bike, 6.5 mile run), but training for it doesn’t mean my stubborn 42-year-old body will suddenly drop the weight of three years in front of a computer.

* * *

So why even write this? What am I getting at?

Hell if I know.

This is stream of consciousness at it’s finest.

I’m restless.

And scared.

And for someone who always knew what they wanted to do at every step of the way?

I suddenly have no clue.

I’m alone – figuratively, anyway.

With no clear answer as to the path forward.

Am I a writer? A computer guy? A dad? A husband (and a sometimes shitty one at that)? A introvert wallowing in self pity?

I’m pretty sure this is what a midlife crisis is, right?

Spare me the fucking Ferrari.

I don’t need that.

I just want to know I’m on the right path.

Or any path, for that matter.

One that isn’t so clearly forced, or made up.

Or created just to make me feel better.

* * *

But I promised the silver linings playbook, so here it goes:

I’m making the choice to do healthy things every day.

Like running, and biking and swimming – or some combination of each – six times a week.

I’m choosing to fight through the uncertainty.

And when nothing else works, I’m choosing to read.

I figure: making a better choice, is better than making no choice at all.

And on the days I make all the right choices?

Life is pretty fucking happy.

I think the trick is piling them one on top of the other.

On top of the other.

On top of the other.

And leaving enough space to reflect on why – exactly – I’m doing that.

Completion

“Let the midnight special shine a light on me. Let the midnight special, shine her-ever lovin’ light on me.

– Midnight Special,” Credence Clearwater Revival (1969) [Original words, Howard Odum, 1905]

 

It’s crazy now, but for so long I wanted the words to be false.

I looked for the errors, spent more time obsessed with the inconsistency in the story than realizing that the story was the fucking gift.

Details are unimportant; accuracy is a sliding scale.

Why would you doubt the man you love? The man who made you who you are? Why would you hold that person to the highest critique?

But I did.

Forever.

And, dad, I’m sorry.

I’m an ass.

Or flawed.

Or arrogant.

Or all of the above.

You’re amazing.

I’m the jerk.

And I want to tell you now.

I love you.

And, I’m sorry for being such a pain in the ass.

(But while we’re at it, lay off the New York Times.)

* * *

I can’t quite say when this feeling overwhelmed me.

Maybe it was when dad got the details right on MS-13 in the kitchen last Sunday and a I realized I knew shit.

Maybe that was the impetus.

Maybe it was there all along.

Why do sons compete with their fathers? To be right? To one up? To win the microbattle?

Nonetheless, it hit me like bricks.

I was sitting there with my brother in law, Andy.

He was telling me, many beers deep, he loved my mother, he loved my father.

“They bring everyone together,” he said, in front of a riverfront fire in Lake Placid, New York. “They make this whole family thing happen. They do so much for us. They love us.”

I sat, listening, the ungrateful bitch. Realizing, in no short order: I was the ungrateful bitch.

“I fucking love your parents,” he said.

I did, too. But I hadn’t expressed it in a long time.

* * *

The first – and only – time I went to Alcoholics Anonymous, I was full of anger.

That was 2005. I lasted eight months.

But it was the eight months I needed.

No childhood is perfect.

Pick apart any upbringing, and there are sure to be things you rage against.

Mine were not the kinds of things my children will ever see – I made sure of that – but they were not unforgivable. And they were not consequential.

What I actually left AA with was a sense that I didn’t belong; that the stories my alcohol-challenged compatriots shared were so far removed from the petty shit I blamed my dad on that I didn’t belong there.

Not being able to sleep over a friends’ house, even if he’s moving away for good, does not compare to beating the shit out of your mom and sister and giving you $5 to get a god-damn pack of smokes, “or else.”

My anger was mostly about someone trying to teach me what is right.

About how to live so people don’t think you’re an arrogant prick.

About how to be decent.

Maybe some children, some adults, would see that clearly.

But what if you’re 42 and you think you’re the shit?

How clear can you see that lesson?

Not so well.

* * *

Here’s the rub …

I’m finally accepting: I’m crap.

Not garbage.

But not anything all that special, either.

Special like you, for sure. But not above you. Not below you.

Just right there with you.

A paycheck. A dad. A husband.

And a really, really, really flawed one at that.

With people that guard me, and protect me and know all of my horrible flaws.

And for some reason, don’t sell me down the river. I love those people for that – and so much more.

* * *

There’s no easy way to say this paragraph declares I’m stable.

Bullshit.

I simply wanted to state that I was wrong for holding my father (and mother) to a higher standard than I hold myself.

It turns out: Mom and Dad are great, educated conversationalists.

And if I could get out of my own fucking way, I would talk with them with the same accepting mentality I approach a victim in “journalism mode.”

I’ve been horrible.

So fucking horrible.

So, mom, dad, take it in: I love you unconditionally.

I wish I was better at saying it all the time.

But please, please, please embrace it.

You guys is the shit.

Know this.

Love, Ed

Foundations

    Liam and I circa 1990.

“I wake up hearing unfamiliar voices convinced they’re trying to explain
that if my words were clearer
then maybe I would know what I’m trying to say”

– Idelwild, “Not Just Sometimes, But Always” (2005)

I always start with the story of the tee shirt.

Perhaps because it captures the innocence of youth, of idolization, of just how much I looked up to Liam.

There’s not much to the story, really.

My parents threw a pool party for my 10th birthday and in the chaos of childhood, Liam left the tee shirt he wore to the party behind.

I can still see it. A youth extra large, I’m guessing. Baby blue. Converse branded. Caricature with oversized feet, rocking a pair of Chuck Taylors.

I never gave it back. Didn’t want to.

Instead, I wore it everywhere. Everywhere I knew Liam wouldn’t be.

It didn’t matter that it was two or three sizes too large for me. That it looked like a night gown when I wore it.

It was his. And that made it cool.

Way cooler than me.

At 10 years old, I thought: If I wear this, it makes me a little bit more like him.

And that’s exactly what I wanted. To be like Liam.

* * *

Boonton High freshman soccer team. Andrew and myself are on the left of Liam, Art and Sean on the right. The four of us reunited Thursday during and after the family service.

How do you summarize a man that is everywhere in your mind?

The kind of person you dig back into your brain and find not just one story, but so many stories they’re hard to pick apart. Interwoven like fabric – or a network of masonry – forming the foundation of your life.

That’s Liam. Really, truly.

It’s bicycle rides and Mark, Sean, Devin, Jason, Todd, Bill, Freddy, Balchan, Steve. Names that were there every day for pickup hockey, dares and stories.

For trips to the Corner Store, where maybe we’d pay and maybe we’d steal (or perhaps some combination of both) bubble gum and baseball cards and soda and candy.

If it sounds all sorts of ‘aw, shucks’ hokey, that’s because it actually was.

Maybe we went home to parents that fought, or didn’t get along, or abused alcohol, or drugs, or each other, but 10-year-old boys (and oftentimes, 40-year-old men) don’t talk about stuff like that.

They razz, they shoot hoops, they play video games and run around along a riverbank or the woods until it’s time to come home.

That was our life.

* * *

We were famous investors in 1986, apparently.

Liam’s home was where all the kids went.

There were snacks, and cats and dogs and life … so much life.

There was Doug and Jen and Megan. And Bernie. God we loved Bernie. All of us.

I know that living room, with its big basket chair to the right of the television; that bathroom, crammed with so many combs, brushes, lotion and humidity (try to dry out when four kids need a shower daily), the kitchen, with the door out to the yard, where the dogs waited; the bedrooms upstairs … I can see them all. Literally navigate them in my mind like it’s yesterday.

And let’s not forget the basement, where in youth we played ping pong and as we got older, probably snuck a beer or two.

It was like that well into early years of high school. Even though at the time the activities seemed simple, the memories are burned deep in mind. Like the time we rented a Sega Genesis and played NHL hockey into the wee hours of the morning.

We added an “s” to the name of every player because Bill Rausch used to do it when we played real hockey, and baseball. He’d rip a slapshot, pretending to be his favorite player of the week – perhaps Mike Gartner – and scream “Gartners!”

So Liam and I would do it, too. Mario Lemieux was Lemieuxs and Jeremy Roenick was Roenicks. Why you do things like this as kids is not entirely clear, but the fact that you speak each other’s language and inherently get these little inside jokes are what signify the depth of your bond.

It’s for this exact reason that at any moment Liam or Sean or I could yell, “Well, you can tell Chris Colas he can suck my left nut!” or tap three times on a wall and scream “Now you got a roommate” and all of us would instantly be transported back to the same place and time.

Somewhere, in almost every reunion and conversation those jokes were told, those lines expressed with glee and followed by laughs.

These are the tools men have to express a bond, a friendship, love.

I know that now.

I didn’t then.

* * *

But for all the good memories, some of the deepest are the ones that hurt, the ones that crystalized that Liam’s addiction was not some passing teenage fad, that it was real and powerful and dangerous.

Just before I moved to Arizona after high school, I got a call from Liam and another of our friends – after 10 pm.

“Ed, can we borrow $10?”

“What for,” I asked.

They joked and razzed in their normal way, trying to cajole me into giving them the money.

Finally, they admitted it was for heroin.

“Just one last time,” they said. “Then we’re going into treatment. Please, just leave it in the mailbox for us.”

I left a note in the mailbox instead that said, “I can’t do this.” I think it also offered to help.

Ten minutes later they came by the house. I watched them from the window as they looked in the mailbox.

When they found the note, but no money in it, one of them returned to the car and positioned its headlights to face the mailbox.

For what felt like an eternity, they got down on their hands and knees and searched the ground for the money that wasn’t there in the first place.

* * *

Sean, Liam and I north of Vegas on Mt. Charleston circa 2008.

During those last years of high school, as Liam battled the first round of addiction, my connection to the Robinson’s didn’t fade.

It got stronger. Megan and I – along with Heather and our friend, Kenny – became an almost inseparable unit, complete with our own language. We had twisty locks and ba-dak-dak-dak-gak-a-gak and a shared interest in trying, by sheer will, to wish Liam out of the chains he was bound by.

We took the Lakeland bus to midtown and the PATH to the Village; hit concert after concert and snuck drinks at the legendary Smitty’s.

The move to Phoenix put some distance between us, but the bond never really faded. Time has no power over that love. It’s always there, somewhere, waiting to be reignited, rekindled, to be expressed.

The funny part was, the part I didn’t expect, was that it didn’t break the bond with Liam, either. He was a part of almost every trip home in the 90s and 2000s and for years, almost annually, Sean, Doug and I held a de facto reunion in Las Vegas.

The timelines are fuzzy now, but I know Liam got clean – many times.

And during those trips to Vegas, I was sure addiction was behind him.

We resumed our old roles. Liam and Sean were always more quick-witted than me. I was always the punchline to their joke.

By my late 20s and early 30s, I didn’t mind. Hell, with the complexities of life, I was happy to oblige.

One of the first trips with them, I lost at everything. I was straight up out of cash.

Sitting at the bar on the third night of a four night trip, bartenders were handing out raffle tickets for hourly drawings.

Two things happened that night. One, Liam developed a surefire way to win in Vegas: “Whatever Ed bets on, bet the opposite!” (It worked.)

And two, he predicted of the raffle: “This’ll be the only thing you’ll win.”

Sure enough, they pulled my name. Two tickets to the PBR Rodeo Finals.

The next morning I woke up and walked three miles to the Thomas & Mack Center, where the event was held. I didn’t want to waste a dime on cab fare.

I was scalping these babies to cull my losses.

Problem was, so was half of Las Vegas.

I got $29 for the pair and walked the three miles back to the hotel.

That night Sean and Liam told me fabulous stories about people from our high school – they came out of the closet, had sex changes, you name it – and because this was before Facebook, there was no easy way to verify this.

I went home that next day and because I was a magazine editor, I wrote about it. About the way time changes the things we know, and the people we know, too.

Here’s the kicker: none of it was true.

And neither Sean nor Liam ever let me know the joke was on me. For years. And years. And years.

I think Megan told me it was garbage a decade later – by accident – and Liam, never one to let the joke die, took it a step further. Since, by this time Facebook did exist, he posted a picture of the article to Facebook just to say, one more time, “gotcha.”

And probably cracking himself up the entire way; letting that smile – that big, toothy smile – fly the way it always did.

* * *

Liam and Cristiane on their surprise visit to Phoenix a few years back.

A lot of the last few years are lost in the ether, though.

He surprised me a couple years ago; showed up in Phoenix with his wife, Cristiane, at my work and we talked right there in the lobby.

They were headed to Los Angeles and the exchange was way too short. I wanted them to stay – or to go to LA with them.

He looked good – great – and with his bride by his side and his 40s in his sight, I thought: we’re through this. We’re finally through this.

But that’s not the way it works with addiction. We’re never through it. We’re always its slave and the ones we love are always caught in its aftermath.

The things we do, the choices we make, it’s not just us they impact, it’s all the ones who carry us and cry for us and worry for us and love us … and sometimes – sometimes – give up on us.

I don’t know if anyone gave up Liam. I can’t know that for sure.

But I really believe he never gave up on himself.

He tried hard to make amends. He tried hard to get out of his pattern. He knew he was loved; and he loved deeply.

He was a deeply intelligent, complicated, flawed and loving man.

We – not you and I, perhaps, but society as a whole – make the mistake of turning addiction into a black and white issue; of simplifying the men and women who struggle with it.

But in some ways addiction is no different than Alzheimers.

It changes what we do, not who we want to be.

* * *

Making sense of this death has not come easy.

For the last few days my mind keeps drifting back to a conversation we had in my bedroom. Originally, on Facebook, I had indicated this conversation took place when I was 11, but now I think we were 13 or 14.

It’d been a while since I’d seen Liam – that would happen from time to time – and he unexpectedly asked to come over.

I thought we were going to listen to music and play Nintendo.

Instead, he sat in my room and told me about his father; about the things none of us ever saw. No one had ever had a conversation with me like that before.

I don’t remember the words. What I remember is the sentiment – that the man who so carefully hid his feelings through that goofy sense of humor was laying bare his soul.

I know only a few of us have seen that side.

It was eloquent and sad; raw and full of love.

I feel like that conversation taught me how to speak in a way I’d never considered before. That I eventually developed the idea that, most times, it was the only way to speak.

Time blurs the details.

But nearly thirty years later, I’m certain of this:

It was important for both of us.

We’re all in the same boat; don’t lie

A prelude: I wrote this a couple days ago for me, fell asleep and left this on my computer. Brody, my daughter, woke up and read this when she went to do her school work on my personal computer. We hide nothing in our house. So, I wasn’t mad or even concerned when she digested this; it just gave us something to talk about. I wasn’t sure I’d share this one; but once she absorbed it, it didn’t really matter anymore. It is truth.

And truth is the only reason to write.

 

“I get lost in the light, so high don’t wanna’ come down
To face the loss of the good thing that I have found.”

“Revelry,” Kings of Leon (2009)

 

The thing you need to know about recovery is that it is not linear.

In no way, shape or form.

It is messy – oftentimes ugly – racked with self-doubt, depression and sleepless nights of self-loathing.

These nights and the days are filled with constantly lingering questions: “How did I get myself here? How did I let myself get this like this?”

“How did I get so weak?”

And these thoughts build upon each other.

They’re a seed.

You plant them.

And they grow.

Self-doubt. Lack of worth.

With each waking day, the sunlight lets them take root.

There’s no moment, specifically, where you’re a shit show.

But one day, your blood pressure is 180 over 120. You don’t want to get out of bed and you’re overweight, depressed and unwilling to face the next day.

It happens just like that.

If you choose to medicate with alcohol and drugs, you cement your status.

Spouses and family and friends can say nice things; but mostly – you’re on your own.

Good luck.

* * *

I’ve been up and down this road too many times.

I’ve ridden the giddy rails of optimism and sobriety.

And I’ve labored through the drudgery of alcoholism and borderline depression.

Some of these things, I didn’t put upon myself.

I didn’t ask for a child who would test me; didn’t ask for a rare neurological disorder that would defy modern science – paralyze him, leave me fighting the medical establishment – but I got it.

There’s no handbook for the recovery from that – not once, but twice.

So, we blaze our own path.

Bills must get paid. Jobs must get done well – for Heidi and I both.

Life must move on.

That’s no fucking joke.

The medical insurance: that’s the lifeline between a potentially dead kid; and one that can get better again.

These treatments are expensive.

Hold the line my brutha’ (me); keep yourself irreplaceable; get that boy through another bout.

This is what you say, until you can finally breathe.

Until you can finally turn your attention to you.

And then you drink.

And go numb.

Because, fuck, you got the one you’re responsible for through another episode.

And you’re so, so tired.

It’s okay.

There’s brighter days.

* * *

And there are.

But they’re so, so far away.

And then one day, you realize you’re in the brighter days.

Suddenly, waking up is gift.

You look forward to coffee.

Yes, coffee.

And you think about the sun. And the cold winter air.

You think about walks. And sunrises.

You do these things if you’re me.

One day they matter again.

And you feel healthy.

Alive.

You stop drinking at a stupid rate.

And you say, “I’m back again.”

Productivity flows.

And you realize you’re saying this to the world: here I am.

But you’re only a step away from the shit show; from nature’s plan. From the universe throwing you back to a year ago.

Next time, I’ll respond differently, you say.

But will you?

Will you?

The evidence points to ‘no.’

* * *

But here we are, nonetheless.

It’s been almost a year since Guillain-Barre 2.0 and I’m doing better. We’re doing better.

Most nights, we go to bed at the same time: 9:30 p.m.

Most nights, my sister doesn’t have to chastise me for 1:30 a.m. blog posts.

I’ve only touched alcohol four times in the last month. I’ve exercised a lot more. My blood pressure is a wonderful 118 over 71.

I know these things because I know – I know I was killing me. And I know that the people that cared and paid attention were asking important questions about what was going on.

* * *

But here’s what I know, too.

And here’s what you know.

I’m not alone.

You’re in the same boat. You, kids, spouses, mom, dads, grandmas and grandpas.

You’re all in the shit show.

And if you’re not yet … you will be. Or you might be.

Your vice may not be my vice.

But you have a coping mechanism.

And you will give into it.

Or … maybe you won’t.

Maybe you’ve been down this road; lived it enough times to finally end the cycle.

I hope you have.

* * *

So now we’re back to the present.

All optimism and the such.

How can I be in such a good place, you might ask, and write with such ominous tones?

It requires discipline.

Respect for brain chemistry.

There’s too much failure on all sides of my genetics.

So, I drift.

Slide, slide, slide.

Get to bed early. Lay off the juice. And have faith that sobriety can lead me towards happiness.

I’m not afraid to talk about this; about my weaknesses.

Yes, I can be an alcoholic. Yes, I can be sober.

Yes, I can straddle a fine line between both.

Yes, I can be the regular guy you see in all the places you see me.

But this is who I really am.

Trying to make sense of it all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the Dead Visit

Alone, in my house, I know they speak to me.

It’s the kind of confidence you can’t fake.

When my daughter, Brody, says she scared, I tell her this, “They want you here. They want you to feel safe. They don’t want us to go.”

Heidi will sometimes tell her, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. They wouldn’t make you feel scared.”

I don’t think that Heidi knows them. She only knows that I know them. Or feel them.

Or something.

Let me explain.

* * *

Our house is surrounded by spirits.

And I would be as naturally prone to reject this idea as you.

Except that they are here constantly.

I have known this for a long time.

But it’s been easy to write off; as foolish; as subjective; as somebody searching for proof. A fool seeking a supernatural answer to feelings.

But then this happened.

* * *

To talk about this, we must take a step back first.

When I was 5, my grandmother died.

Grandma Frances was my world. Parents worked; and so she was my caregiver.

My mom always gone; we lived from place to place – in her basement; in the home of a friend.

Grandma, years passed, succumbed to a complication from polio, from a damaged heart, maybe from a botched surgery.

The details have never been clear.

I remember visits to a New York hospital; I remember her fading fast; I remember tears; talk of a litigation.

I remember when they told me she died.

I remember the funeral.

I remember what happened thereafter.

We moved into a home she owned with grandpa.

It was a home with its own problems.

A drug addict – an alcoholic(?) – had died on the couch in the living room.

We cleaned it out. And then we moved in.

My bedroom looked out towards the couch where the previous tenant died.

Night after night, I woke up, looking at that couch. Always bad.

* * *

I made a pillow in first grade.

All felt and fluffy – I think we made it in class.

Red for the frame; triangle green eyes, a circle nose; and orange felt mouth.

One night, I woke up and it came flying at me. Twisting on a 135-degree pendulum. Rotate, rotate, rotate.

Tempting me with fear.

The pillow went back to where it belonged. Regular size.

And by my bedside: an aura.

It floated there.

All serene. Gown white and moving.

I rubbed my eyes.

Surely, I was sleeping.

But it was there again.

Rub my eyes one more time.

It was grandma.

Rubbed my eyes again. Closed them. Rubbed them.

Surely this can’t be real.

But there it was again.

And then it got angry.

Came at me.

Teeth baring.

Poof.

Something happened.

And it faded.

* * *

This would play out; again and again through my early childhood.

The nasty from the couch; and the floating figure that made it okay.

But there was always a way to differentiate to the good from the bad.

A floater.

Red, orange, green. Shifting, simple, complex.

The orb gave me goose bumps; filled my body with calm.

In its light, a view to something. Unobtainable, but peaceful.

Goosebumps. Not fear.

That stopped when I was 10. Maybe 11.

* * *

Fast forward thirty years later. Blood pressure 177 over 110.

School, work, Beckett’s health issues stripping my soul.

The alcohol, the bad choices, stripping whatever progress I’d made a few years earlier running endurance races.

Every morning, a challenge to wake to – and that’s a grand, grand overview of what I’d been fighting.

I’d lost faith.

Period.

I was functioning.

On mandatory responsibility.

Nothing else.

Every day had been a challenge to face.

I lay in bed that night.

And I had a dream.

* * *

In it, I was maybe 5, maybe younger.

My grandmother, it was definitely my grandmother, was there.

She was sad.

There was a boy; but she called to me: “Eddie!”

She held out her arms to me.

Pulled me into her embrace.

“Eddie,” she said.

And then started bawling … for Charlie.

“Your Uncle Charlie,” she cried.

“Charlie … Charlie … Charlie.”

I woke up.

* * *

The orb was there again. The one I’d seen when I was 7.

Some 30 or more years removed, it hung over my bed – undeniably the same light source I’d seen as a child.

I hadn’t experienced anything like it since pre-puberty.

I was sure it was fake.

I rubbed my eyes. Closed them. Reopened them.

Still there.

Did it again.

Same result.

So I stared at it. Really looked at it.

Oh, the wave.

Calm and sudden.

Cool and soothing.

No threat; then goosebumps.

What is this thing? No 41-year-old man has this moment; surely I’m asleep or high, no?

But no drinks last night.

Just this.

Washing over me.

The light dancing and then expanding; faint and hard to see – but now clearly across the entire foot of the bed.

I say to it, “Okay, grandma. Gotcha’. It’s you.”

And it fades.

And I go to sleep.

Calm.

* * *

The next day, I woke up and called my mom.

“Who the hell is Charlie?” I ask.

She says she has no clue; but promises to ask around.

I tell Heidi.

About the aura. The red floating globe. How I know it was grandma. I tell the kids, too.

She searches the internet.

Looks up what it means.

We get the normal crackpot results.

But I know, even if no one else does.

I’ve been visited.

* * *

A couple weeks later, mom calls.

“I’ve been talking to Claire (Grandma’s 90 year-old-sister),” she says across the phone. “They had a neighbor they called Uncle Charlie.”

“He was a close friend who lived next door.”

I’ve never heard of this Charlie, I swear. It’s the first sign.

I take it as confirmation.

And life moves on.

And I forget.

Because the supernatural only has so much place in a busy every day existence.

And then … tonight.

* * *

I was walking to the neighborhood mailbox.

Mom had called several times today, during meetings.

Couldn’t take the call.

But I could now.

It had been many months since that dream / experience / whatever the hell it was.

Largely forgotten.

That’s the way it goes.

I returned the call. Mom answers.

I don’t get “Hello?” – I get this:

“What was the name of that guy in your dream?”

Don’t know how, but without missing a beat, I said, “Charlie.”

“Get the heck out of here,” she said.

“I found a picture of your grandma today that said, ‘Me and Charlie.'”

“Two of them, in fact.’”