Monday, March 28, 2016

I Think I Just Scared Myself

There I was, minding my own business, going through old Dropbox files, when I stumbled on something I wrote last year that I barely remember writing.  Clearly, it’s the beginning of a short story, and clearly the genre is Horror/Suspense (though I rarely delve into this genre).  But the font is italicized and from the POV of a very minor character, which means it’s part of what I had intended to be a much larger piece.  What that piece was, I couldn’t tell you.

But reading it kind of scared me. It’s darker than I usually write, and more implicitly violent than I’m usually comfortable. The dates on the file indicate that I wrote it during the day whilst working at Al Jazeera America. (That may explain more about it than I am prepared to acknowledge.)

I thought I’d share it, since I have little inclination at the moment to continue the piece. But maybe we should con-fab on this. Is it suspense thriller? Is it supernatural? Is it apocalyptic?

(Editor’s note: I promise you, at no time, in the history of anything, no matter how dark life was, was there ever going to be a zombie in this story. ~AS~)

Here’s the first few paragraphs of a lost little story, found today in Dropbox:
Mrs. Kennedy moves gingerly around the detritus scattered from one end of the hall to the other. 
She’s older now, and her once-keen night vision isn’t what it used to be. But there is some light, a little, from the half-moon just outside the living room window, beaming down the hall. Mrs. Kennedy can make out the sheen on the polished marble of the hall, and the glints of broken light flitting off the shards of shattered glass, and a perfect little reflection of the arched living room window, reflected in the red-black, spreading pool of fresh blood pouring from Lorna’s mortal wound.

The curls of fragrant smoke issue forth from the incense pot on the mantel, the twirling white vines of vaporous lavender and chamomile creating an aura of false serenity. Incense, so pleasing to Lorna, has always confused Mrs. Kennedy. Smoke is a sign of something bad in a cat’s world – even when it is sweet-smelling and sanguine. To create it intentionally seems dangerous.
Mrs. Kennedy navigates the impromptu obstacle course, and comes to a stop at Lorna’s body, sniffing the bloody hand that rests just above Lorna’s head. Mrs. Kennedy switches her tail, and flares her nostrils as the smell of fresh blood inflames her senses, calling on something wild and feral that no amount of domestication has ever been able to remove from cats. Her burlap tongue darts from her mouth and collects a single drop of Lorna’s blood – just enough for Mrs. Kennedy to assess that Lorna is very freshly dead. 
As she reaches this conclusion, Mrs. Kennedy spots the shadow in the corner, and in an instant, she fluffs her fur on end, arches her back, and releases a long, dark, guttural growl.

And there it is. Or isn’t. As the case may be. What was I thinking? Where was my head at? Was I really this dark at AJAM? Who knows? What’s this story about? Help me out here. Maybe we can resurrect it, with some good ideas (Let me reiterate - NO FUCKING ZOMBIES!) and some mutual brainstorming.

My Own Personal “Yes”

Okay, sooo.....

As those of you who are my Fitbit buddies know - especially if you’ve challenged me to a “step-off” lately - my old Fitbit Flex, that I’ve been wearing pretty steadily for the past 2 years, is kind of on its way out... it won't hold a charge for long, it keeps disconnecting from Bluetooth... it's tired.

I was on Amazon, shopping for a new one, and debating between the old Fitbit (which is now $80), and a newer model, that measures heart rate (which my nutritionist is telling me, while not necessary, is probably a good thing for me).

I was flipping back and forth between the two models, reading the descriptions, mulling the options ($80 vs. $145), and then I realized it was lunch time, so I saved both to my "Saved for Later" list.

Or so I thought.

After lunch, I got an email alert that my fancy-schmancy, plum-colored Fitbit Charge HR was wending its way to me even as I munched my salad.  Apparently, I'd inadvertently clicked "Buy with 1 click" during my comparison.  Which is really no big deal, because we all know that Amazon Prime has an awesome return policy.

Except I was listening at lunch to Shonda Rhimes' memoir, "The Year of Yes", and she just happened to have spent the entire lunch hour whispering in my ear about how fortuitous happenstance blended with opportunity to offer her many chances to expand her world (and shrink her waistline), and how she had vowed to spend a year saying "yes" to everything that scared her.

And it occurs to me that, while I'd love to spend the money on something else more fun... the old Fitbit was my constant cheerleader and nagging trainer, refusing to let me lie to myself, refusing to back up any of the lies I told other people ("At LEAST, 10,000 steps today... maybe even 12,000". Liar, says Fitbit... you barely broke 9K today.)

So, on Friday, my new plum-colored Fitbit Charge HR will show up, and I will buckle it on (this one buckles) and sync it up, and I will put my little Flex unit in the drawer for a long nap, which it's earned.

I'm saying "yes" to the Fitbit, to the walking, to the salads, and all that it entails.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015


(With Dad's birthday just passed, and Father's Day not far away, heading into this three-day weekend, I wanted to share this, which I wrote for the memoir class I took recently with Sara Benincasa.)

Catharine & Jack, Christmas, 1995
My father was born in Texas in 1929, and died in California in 2007.  I believe he was rather startled by both events.

Dad was one of those people who always seemed a little puzzled by life in general.  He did achieve a considerable success as a writer for television series and movies-of-the-week, and a single feature film that managed to do exceedingly well at the box office, and in fact lives on, on cable television, premium movie channels, and video-on-demand. 

Still, my father never quite mastered success. He never fully embraced it.  He was never really gracious or elegant at it.  He treated success and professional praise as if he was being stalked by a woman he picked up in a bar one night, that wouldn't take "no" for an answer in the bright light of day. 

He somehow managed to snag my mother at a party one night, though what, exactly she saw in him, I still cannot image. I cannot help but believed liquor was involved.  My father was, it is true, charming, witty, and intelligent.  But he wasn’t really “a catch”.  He was a less-than-tall, less-than-employed actor, attractive in a rather ordinary way. My mother was a beautiful and successful theater actress. She had ridden into to town on the wings of a Broadway touring company. She was beautiful and brilliant, if a bit spoiled and petulant. She had run away from an impetuous marriage to a New York business man who wanted nothing more than to make her happy. 

My father, on the other hand, did not want to make my mother happy. His attitude toward being loved was similar to his attitude toward being successful. He was unable to accept either. So he ended their affair, with me already on the way.  The idea of “doing the right thing” by his pregnant ex-girlfriend was not something my father was even prepared to entertain.  He’d already moved on, was sleeping with my mother’s former best friend (though she would go to her grave not knowing this, as he chose only to confide to me in adulthood), and had no intention of going back, baby or no baby. 

Rules didn’t apply to him. Social boundaries didn’t apply to him. Things like mores and standards didn’t apply to him. Being proper and manners didn’t apply. I’ve no doubt his mother taught him all of these things, the way she did with her other children.  I’m just pretty sure he didn’t think she was talking to him. 

Growing up, we would sit around the table and listen to the adults tell the most horrible jokes – offensive, racist, awful, vicious – some of them about real people. My mother, for all her sarcasm and sly wit, would have cringed at that kind of inappropriateness.  But when you’re immersed in it, you become desensitized, inured, immune.  Years late, my half-sisters and I would construct the Sowards family motto, which my father quickly embraced, once he’d heard it – “If it gets a laugh, it’s not in bad taste.” 

My father used to tell us all the time that he was going to be the only person to “get out of this alive”.  Meaning life.  He also told us that, if he did go, he was “taking it all” with him.  But I think he truly believed that somehow, when the time came, he would find a loophole or a backdoor or a cheat code that would get him an extra life, like in Donkey Kong.

After all, this was the man who invented the Kobayashi Maru test – an unwinnable test that, regardless of what decision you make, what path you take, you and your entire crew are destined to die.  Except one guy actually beat the test.  He did it by cheating. And he was the hero of the movie.  People sat in the movie theatre, watching “Wrath of Khan”, thinking it was a clever little plot twist, designed to show us Kirk’s bad-boy nature and to reveal a part of his character we have heretofore only suspected.  My sisters and I sat in the theatre and saw it for what it was – an escape plan.  Somewhere in his mind, my father was pretty sure that, if he could just get in there and invert that fly wheel, he’d figure out a way to cheat the test.

So when he got the diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), he was a little shocked. When the doctor gave him the period at the end of the sentence – “terminal” – he was dumbfounded.  Not one to entirely give up on a legacy, he said that, henceforth, ALS would no longer be called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but rather, Jack Sowards’ Disease.  When I asked him how he figured he’d warranted that, his reasoning was pretty simple:

      “Finders, keepers.”

Hard to argue with that kind of perfect logic. 

My father had always said he wanted to die suddenly, of a heart attack, in bed with a beautiful woman.  He died in bed, but it wasn’t quick, and it wasn’t during coitus.  He was in a coma – had been for days – during the first week in July, 2007.  My sister, who was now his full-time caregiver, had had his bed moved into the living room, because it was cooler than the bedroom, where the windows faced full west.  In the end, the closest he got to a party was when, on the Fourth of July, a small group of family and very close friends arrived with steaks and beer and some sparklers and ice cream. We sat on the screen porch, ten feet away from my dying father, broiled steaks, drinking beer, talking about the best memories, the funniest, most inappropriate jokes, and doing “Dad” impressions all day.  There were so many Dad impressions, in fact, that we began referring to the event as “Jack-a-palooza”.  Every few minutes, someone would spontaneously yell out, “Gahhhd-DAMM-it!”, in the same sing-song-y intonation Dad had used to say it.

Maybe we were hoping we could mock him out of the coma.  My father was never one to let a straight line go, or even a punch line, without trying to top it.  But he didn’t try to top it this time.  He let our jokes lie on their own. My sister spent time between Dad jokes, alternately slipping spoonsful of liquid morphine and chocolate sorbet – first, a teaspoon of one, then a teaspoon of the other -- carefully into his slack mouth, trying to stay ahead of the painful cramps that go along with ALS, 1while ensuring that the last thing he tasted would be the thing he loved most – chocolate.
Is it you?

He died four days later, on the 8th, after my sister had sent all the vigil-keepers home.  Once we’d all cleared from the house, he let go and slipped away. Maybe the audience had to leave before he could wrap up the performance.  Still, I think somewhere inside, he was still a little perplexed – by his life, by his death, by his children, by the women in his life who chose to love him.  It was all a mystery to him, one he never figured out. 

I’m a firm believer in reincarnation, and I do wonder if my father is slated for a comeback. Surely, he didn’t master what he came here to learn, unless telling off color jokes and mastering a pithy one-liner can be considered a spiritual dharma. I look at my grandson, born three years and one day after his great-grandfather’s death, and wonder to myself, “Is it you?” Sylas is also puzzled by life, but then again, he’s four.  The kid can’t tie his shoes yet. 

Still, he is inordinately fond of chocolate.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Leaping Without Looking

I'm trying to teach Sylas how to pump his legs on the swing.  He has the general idea, but he hasn't fully mastered the technique for increasing velocity, height, trajectory, etc.  So, for much of his excitement, he must rely on someone - in this case, me - to push him from behind.

It's a tricky business, this swinging thing.  It seems simple enough. You go forward, your feet go out, swing back, and your feet go back. But there's timing and reach and a certain amplitude that determines just how high you swing, how far you can push chain and hook and steel frame, and it must be mastered before one leaves childhood.


Because learning to swing by yourself, as high and fast as you can, under your own power and control, may be one of life's most valuable lessons.  There's a moment when you've mastered pumping your legs on the swing, when you've got it just right, and you know how it works - how hard to pump, how high to go, how far you must lean back, then bow forward to go just how fast, and at what angle - that you realize that if you wait until just the right moment, let go of the thick chain, pull your arms into your body, time it just right, and then leap, for a moment, you can fly.  For just a moment you hang in the air at the top-most arc of the swing's pendulum, before falling to the soft sand below.  And in that moment of airborne bliss, whole lives are lived.

Jumping out of the swing is not for everyone. I know people who learned to swing when I did who still haven't done it.  Not even once.  They never dared let go of the big steel chain links long enough to feel the nothing underneath them for a few brief fractions of a second. The weightlessness of it, the anti-gravity at that point in the arc, it's a glimpse into what life would feel like if it were lived with no limits.

Limits come in all forms - natural and man-made. But they can always be overcome. Look at that plane NASA uses to train astronauts to accustom themselves to weightlessness - The Vomit Comet.  It's just a particularly nimble, agile fixed-wing aircraft that can fly on a specific parabola, the peak of which produces a 20 - 25 second immunity from gravity's pull. But for nearly half a minute, an ordinary person can feel what it's like to escape one of the most persistent, powerful forces of nature.

The boundaries of science can be overcome, even if only for a few seconds, through cunning, determination, and fearlessness. And most of our limits aren't scientific.  Most of them are simply self-imposed ceilings we've incorporated into our lives to stay "safe". Like the decision one makes never to let go of the steel links at the top of the arc of the swing and set sail for the unknown. The 2000s have been a ceaseless attempt by me to break those bonds I've set on myself. Work, education, the body... Since the millennium, I've been working to try and make the last fifty years of my life as full of growth and danger as the first fifty were.

I think 2015 is, for me, the Year of Love. Not just romantic love, but all kinds of love. This is the year where I figure out how to start looking at everything through a lens of love. As opposed to the lens of cynicism or anger or extreme annoyance.

This is the year when I look back at the chances I've taken and I embrace all of them - both the ones that worked out in  my favor and the ones that didn't.  Embracing success and failure, with neither hubris nor regret, is the overwhelming goal of 2015.

Also, I think, falling in love... with my whole heart... with someone who deserves it.  Even if it doesn't work out.  I want to love as if I were 17 again - that love that you feel when it would never occur to you that the other person might not reciprocate.  It's harder now, because now I know that the other person might not reciprocate. I know that when you're in a love relationship, the door locks from the inside, and everyone is free to leave at will.

That's the miracle. The miracle is that you can leave, or they can leave, but neither of you does. Every day that you both stay, especially when the days get hard and un-fun, that is where the miracle of love abides.

I used to think that being alone was a safeguard against a broken heart. But it's not. It's the quieter way to go, for sure, but no less horrible.  We are put here to love each other - platonically, romantically, sexually - and sometimes all at once.

Louise Erdich wrote in The Painted Drum:
"Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”
This is the year I will taste as many apples as I can, even if some of them are rotten. This is the year I swing as high as I can, pull my hands around the chains, point my toes, and - without looking - I leap.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy Will Never Truly Die for Me.

Some time in late 1980, my father, Jack B. Sowards, was approached to write the screenplay for the next attempt to bring Star Trek to the big screen. The first attempt, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, had been a box office disappointment and had cost Paramount Pictures a small fortune to make.  Though it would, through cult standing alone, eventually make back its money (and then some), the motion picture arm of Paramount had little taste for trying to bring the franchise to the big screen.

Enter Paramount Television.

Television executives at PPC, who had an ongoing relationship with ST creator, Gene Roddenberry, refused to give up on the idea that Star Trek could play to a film audience successfully, and would regenerate interest in the characters and the premise of the story.  They suggested making a second feature, but this time, producing through the television arm. Paramount had proven in the 60s that with some ingenuity and clever budgeting, they could make a science fiction space travel series on a relatively small bankroll.  The powers that be at Paramount agreed to give them another chance, and hired television showrunner Bennett (known for his penchant for coming in on budget) to oversee the production.

Bennett quickly set about collecting Star Trek's actors to participate. Almost all immediately, readily agreed.  Except one - Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy had never made any bones about being glad to move away from Spock, and had only participated in the first feature reluctantly. He had moved on, was a writer, a photographer, an artist and a poet.  The constant airplay that the three seasons of the television series provided him were enough to provide him with the ability to pick and choose how and when he worked, and he had moved on to other series work, as a regular (Mission: Impossible, In Search of....) and as a guest star (Columbo, Night Gallery). He didn't need Spock anymore, and wasn't anxious to don the ears for what might be another box office letdown.

Thus, when Harve Bennett approached my father to write the screenplay, he told him there would have to be a new Vulcan character, because the old one wasn't available.  My father (being my father) wasn't about to quit so easily.  "Get me a meeting with him," he told Bennett. "Just a lunch. I will get him to sign."

A week later, he was sitting across a table from Leonard Nimoy himself, the latter having agreed to a brief, half-hour, hard-out meeting with Bennett and my dad.  My father listened carefully to Nimoy's rational explanation for why he did not want to rejoin the cast.  Then he said to Nimoy, "What if I could give you a glorious death scene in the first 10 minutes of the film?"


Then Nimoy said, "The first ten minutes?"


"A glorious death scene?"

"Explosions. Fire. Sizzling control panels. The works."

He pushed the first draft of the first 20 pages of what would become Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan across the table. Nimoy agreed to read them.

He'd captured Nimoy's attention.  Nimoy was no fool. He knew that, should he sign on, no producer or writer in their right mind would actually agree to kill Spock off in the first 10 minutes. There had to be a catch. And, of course, there was one. But Nimoy was intrigued by a writer who seemed to be more in tune with the original concept of the show than the high-fallutin' movie producers and screenwriters who had botched the first film.  My father knew what made the series great, and Nimoy was able to see that and understand that it could be great again.

The first twenty pages of the film, for anyone who knows the movie, contain the Kobayashi Maru scene, where Spock does indeed "die" in the first ten minutes of the film. For those not familiar with the movie, it's a simulated death during a training exercise. But once Nimoy had read the pages, he was onboard. He signed the next week, and the rest is, indeed, history.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan opened in theatres in the U.S. on June 4, 1982, and went on to gross over $14 million dollars that weekend, the largest opening weekend in history at that time.  In its first release, it made $97,000,000 worldwide. And it spawned the resurgence of the franchise, which later went on to make four more films featuring the original cast members, plus three additional television series, and features made from those series.  And J.J. Abrams' remakes still continue to rake in the cash. STII:TWoK "saved the franchise", as my friend, Tony Serri, once said.

Those first 20 pages were the hook for Nimoy, who would, through the films and his appearances on the spin-offs, make peace with Spock, come to love him in fact. Without Spock, STII:TWoK would not have been the film it was. It would not have provided my father with a lasting legacy as a screenwriter.

I'm sorry Leonard Nimoy is gone. He was an artist on a lot of levels.  He took great pictures, and wrote lovely poetry, and saw the beauty in everything.  He was funny and smart and eloquent.

Safe travels, Mr. Nimoy, and may you find a new adventure waiting for you on the other side. You live on in the series, in the films, in your pictures, your paintings and your poetry.  To me, you are tucked into a casket pod, lying on a steamy, just-baked, fern-filled planet, waiting for right moment to regenerate.

(Note: For the sake of expedience and focus, I have truncated the story somewhat. A more detailed account can be found here, in this HuffPost blog by Robert J. Elisberg, for those who are interested. And it is an interesting story, because Nimoy was so key to the success of this film. No one knew that better than Nimoy himself, except for maybe my dad.  I encourage you to read Elisberg's account.)

Friday, January 02, 2015

Retro-Chron: Land of the Beautiful (Squished Flat) People

First published here in November, 2010:

A couple of days ago, I walked from the office where I'm temping to the Century City Mall.  It's warmed up in Los Angeles again, and it was about 90 degrees out. I had the iPod on, and that always has a strange effect on me when I walk. Usually, I walk in the city the way a city-smart person walks -- alert, aware of my surroundings, conscious of what the strangers around me are doing. When I'm wearing the iPod, I generally only pay attention to the city, not the people. The buildings, the street, any physical obstacles, walk/don't walk signals, automobiles (but not the people in them) -- these are the things that catch my eye in between the measures and the rests.

Two days ago, I noticed an inordinate number of dead things on the way to the Mall. There was something in the road that resembled a little hedgehog (probably a baby porcupine), prickly and crushed in the street. A few yards away, an earthworm that had gotten caught on a busy sidewalk in the searing Indian summer sun. And then a bit further down, a bird, fallen, crushed and decomposing in the carefully sculpted landscaping outside of the Sun America building.  All of these casualties can lead one to only one conclusion.

This city will run right over you, if you're not careful.

Today, I had occasion to drive through Beverly Hills on my way somewhere else. You can't mistake driving through Beverly Hills.  The people have a look about them.  Even the ones in their cars look different if they're coming from Beverly Hills.  Walking down Rodeo Drive, you see the most beautiful women. They're all wearing the same uniform -- tight ponytails, calculated to show off the work of their brilliant plastic surgeon (and the work is beautiful -- not that hideous, rubbery-lipped, pug-nosed atrocity one usually sees as L.A. plastic surgery), tight t-shirts to show off their hours in the Pilates studios, expensive, well-cut designer jeans to show off the hours of yoga and spinning. Big sunglasses, wildly expensive jewelry, wildly expensive shoes, all of them seemingly desperate to be looked at, yet all of them looking exactly the same.

And all of them looking just ever-so-slightly unhappy.

I'm wondering where I'm going to be living in a month or two. I'm fat, I'm getting old, a plastic surgeon hasn't been within miles of my face, my shoes are from DSW, my shirt and jeans are from Target, I'm driving a banged up Hyundai... and... I think I can safely say that I am miles happier than the vast majority of these women.


Because they failed to be careful, and this city ran right over them.

L.A. will poison you if you let it.  It's a beautiful place, full of beautiful people, and it runs on one of the most glamorous industries around. The most beautiful people come here and they work to make themselves even more beautiful, by Hollywood standards. This city tells you there is one standard only for Beauty -- the Hollywood kind.  And maybe, if you're a studio executive or an agent or an actress, you buy into that lie.  But there are a lot of us for whom Los Angeles isn't an entertainment mecca.  It's home. It's not home because we came here with a suitcase full of dreams and a heart full of hope.  It's home because we were born here, raised here, just like so many of the emigres here call Duluth, Minnesota or Syracuse, New York home.

We're not here for the glamour.  We're here because here is where we have always been. We know this city -- know it like the back of our hands.  This city can't lie to us.  It can try, but we'll see right through it. This isn't a mecca for anything. It's just a place where people come, hoping their lives will be better and happier and more affluent than the place from whence they came. Or it's a place where people stay because it's everything they've known or want to know. Or it's just a place they move to so they don't spend the better part of every winter digging their way out of 22 inches of snow.

It won't make you happy, and it won't make you forever young. If you are beautiful, it might make you more so (with the right trainer, the right aesthetician and the right plastic surgeon), but it won't care one way or the other. It will tell you what you have to do to make it love you, you'll do it, but it still won't love you.

Let's face it -- L.A. is a bad boyfriend. If you let it, if you show it you care what it thinks about you, it will use you and abuse you, then step on you and leave your decaying, surgically enhanced carcass on the sidewalk, just like that baby porcupine.

Those sad ladies in Beverly Hills, wearing their little Rodeo Drive uniforms, with their Botoxed foreheads and their tight ponytails, will never understand that. Those of us who are from here, who belong here, who can survive here... we already know.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Autumn in the House of Reflection

Photo by Nick Kenrick
Published under Creative Commons license
I am staying in my friend, Jim's, house for a few days, while he's out of the country on business. I'm minding the house and his 13-year-old daughter, Maddie. so she doesn't have to stay at other people's houses while he's gone. I do it because I care about Jim, who frets about the time his professional obligations keep him away from his girl.  I also do it for Maddie, who is just starting to traverse teenager-hood, and (like all of us at that age) just wants to have her space and her things and her life, as uninterrupted and stable as possible.  Having been a 13-year-old girl, I feel her need for this as sharply as I felt it back when I was that age.

However, I confess that I do this also for myself, for a number of reasons. On a purely superficial level, the house is a beautiful house, large and airy, full of light. It has the requisite real estate selling points - hard wood floors, granite countertops, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves (complete with a rolling librarian's ladder, for easy access to the highest shelves).  It is clean and open, but also has little spaces that permit seclusion.

At times when I can't work anywhere else, because of distraction or temperature, I hide out in Jim's house, so I can write. I find the environment there perfect for writing. It's not my house, so for me, it's like going to work in a really nice office.  I don't feel the need to be doing a chore or seeking alternative activity, so I can write with more focus.  I get what I call "binge-writing" done at Jim's house.

The time I've spent here recently has made me come to appreciate it more than I used to. I have never been a fan of rambling, two-story houses, mostly because the idea of caring for them seems daunting to me. All the nooks and crannies, all the places to misplace things (I'm famous for this, as many of you are well aware). I have maintained for a long time that homes - particularly ones where families live, and where there have been both happy and tumultuous time - have personalities. I won't go so far as to call it a "soul", since I reserve "souls" for living things. But there are persistent and abiding energies in a place where people live their lives every day. For better or worse, we leave an energy trail behind us that invisibly marks where we've been and how we felt when we were there. Who knows how long it lasts, this vaporous trail?

I know when I first came here, the house seemed a little foreboding, almost intimidating. I felt uneasy here, a little edgy. When I first came here, it hadn't been that long since the main planner and dreamer of this house, Jim's late wife, had died. She had been gone less than three years when I first walked through the door, and I expect that the grief and sadness of her loss was still sitting in the corners and hugging the baseboards of the house.  The house's planning, construction, decor, and furnishing were undertaken with the enthusiasm and exhilaration. The journey to its conclusion took an abrupt left turn at some point, and the completion of this house, as a building project, came at a time when energy and focus were drawn away to other, more pressing events.  This is a family home, built with family life in mind. Not just any family, though - this very family that lives here now. But it's a smaller family than initially intended - smaller by one, in fact. And the loss of that one is still felt here.

Which is not to say the house isn't loved and appreciated by its occupants. The teenager probably doesn't appreciated it the way one would like, but only because to her, this is home, and has been for as long she can remember. I think this is only right. There are certain times in a life when you should be allowed to take things for granted, to expect that they will be there, to depend on them. Like, say, three square meals on the table. Or the comfort and solace of your childhood home, whatever its size or grandeur. Or the idea that both of your parents will be there to watch you grow up.

Sadly, you can't have everything. One of Maddie's parents must do her watching from elsewhere. As the years go by, and Maddie's memories of her mother have faded, the photos on the walls of this house, and the memories that others have of her mother, must suffice.

Over the years, the sadness has dimmed. The darkness has receded like a low tide. Lives move on. A toddler becomes a little girl, turns into a young woman. Time moves forward. The house's skylights and windows seem to let in more light, more warmth. The house has, as I said, shrunk, becoming less intimidating, less weighty. Time may not heal all wounds, but it does act as a kind of physical therapy, building the muscles and coordination necessary to live with the wound and its aftermath.

Photo by Seyed Mostafa Zamani.
Published under
Creative Commons license.
I woke up in the little guest bedroom of this house this morning, a little before the alarm was to go off.  I had set the coffeemaker to auto, and the smell of fresh brewed coffee right outside my bedroom door probably did the trick. (Note to self: get help for severe coffee addiction.) It was foggy and chilly outside this morning. The California weather seems to be getting the idea that it might actually be time for autumn to start kicking in. I lay in bed and thought of this house, the grey light outside, getting brighter by the minute, and the sleeping girl upstairs, ignoring her alarms for that extra five minutes sleep.  She was four and a half when I met her. Her father, now one of my best friends, was still feeling the loss of his love keenly. Now, they are both going forward. He delves cautiously into the frightening world of dating. She plans her adult life and career and dreams of her future in the spotlight. The passage of time has changed them both.

I have changed, too. I am, deep into middle age and nearing another birthday, finally retooling a life away from pure subsistence and toward creativity. It is a struggle, financially and practically. But I am, for the first time in my life, truly happy and hopeful. I should be terrified at the prospect of poverty and financial hardship at this age, but truly, I've never been less afraid then at any time in my life. Fear, it seems to me, is a useless emotion, particularly when one is pursuing a life in the arts. This is what I decide as I'm lying in a guest bed, in a house that is not mine, smelling freshly brewed coffee.

Autumn seems to have arrived at last. It's my favorite season - the season for shedding the old and readying for the new. Halloween and harvest, the Day of the Dead and my birthday, then on to winter and giving thanks and offering gifts and another turn of the calendar. Some like the spring, for the new growth. I like the autumn and winter for shedding of old things that get in the way of that growth.  Loss of leaves on a tree is an ending, yes, but also a beginning, too.  If you want your spring, you're going to have to walk through your autumn and your winter to get there.

This house knows that. This house has lived it. This house has figured out that if you just sort of stick around, doing what you were meant to do, fulfilling your natural function, day in and day out, without waivering or falling back, things get better.  Things get lighter and easier to manage. Sadness comes. Tragedy happens. So does triumph. Events take a turn for the better, and then the worse, and then the better again.  But sorrow that hovers near the baseboards cannot stick. It will fade eventually, from enough sunrises, and season changes, and holidays, and milestones.

It's autumn. And I'm writing. In this house, where people live and get through the day. Nothing bad can come of that.

(NOTE: All Photographs in this piece were acquired through Flickr, under the Creative Commons license.)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

When It's Time To Let Go (Or, That Rose DeWitt Bukater Was One Smart Cookie)

Several years ago, I made the decision to end a friendship. It had been a close friendship that meant a lot to me at one time.  In fact, when I ended it, it still meant a lot to me.  Letting go of that friendship was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made.  And it wasn't a throwing away. It was truly a letting go, the same way that, in the movie Titanic, Rose lets go of Jack when she realizes that he is beyond saving.

The friendship was beyond saving.

Whatever it was that had brought us together as friends, the thing that continued to bind us had become unhealthy and unwieldy.  There were unkind words spoken and boundaries broken, on both sides, that had slowly eroded the foundation of the friendship.  The final blow was, I'll confess, my doing.  I had suffered a loss - a death in the close family - and this loss had caused my ordinarily temperamental and difficult family to be even more so.  After months of caring for a very ill old man, all of us were frayed and damaged and just plain exhausted.  We had no patience for each other.

There were a handful of friends who picked me up during that time and carried me through that very difficult time by being loving and supportive, by handing me some really useful advice, based on their own recent losses, and by just plain telling me they loved me and, no matter when I called, they would pick up the phone.

And they did.

But she - this friend I released - wasn't one of them.  Instead, she said some harsh things to me that hurt badly, and then when asked to apologize, simply couldn't bring herself to do it. Our final, sad email exchanges sit in a folder in my Outlook - me asking for an unqualified "I'm sorry", and her saying, "Well, I am sorry you misunderstood," or "Well, I'm sorry, but here are all the things you've done to me."  I didn't want to hear that right then. My old man was dead, my heart was broken, my spirit was depleted, and what I wanted to hear was, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. What can I do to help you now?" If I had heard that, all would have been forgiven and the slate would have been cleaned.

When I compared her treatment of me over the past couple of years with that of my other friends, I realized I had a choice to make. A hard choice. I could go on in a friendship that took more energy than I had at that time, that occasionally resulted in emotional and psychological bumps and bruises, and that somehow didn't seem to serve either of us anymore, since she seemed unhappy and dissatisfied as well. Or I could just find a way to walk away.  When I put the choices about this friendship into my mental centrifuge, trying to separate the useless product from what really mattered, I kept coming up with the same results.

Love shouldn't hurt.

This love did. So I did what I needed to do, and said "good-bye".  It was hard. As she got smaller and smaller in my life, more and more distant, I wanted to reach out and scream, "No, come back!" I knew I would miss her.  I would miss the inside jokes. I would miss the movie dates and brunches and birthdays.  I would miss hearing her voice and her laugh.  She was a good friend, whom I'd loved dearly, whom I still love in some small way.

Yet when I said goodbye, when I let the frozen hands of that friendship slip slowly into the metaphorical Atlantic and then turned my attention to saving my own life, as Rose did, I realized that there was a lot more out there for me. My life became a little less chaotic, a little less painful. I missed our good times, but those had become fewer and fewer.  I had thought at one time I'd never be able to survive without her in my life.  In fact, I believe she said nearly these exact words to me.  I did survive, though. I thrived, in fact.

This experience was an invaluable lesson to me. Sometimes, friendships are like Volvos. Sometimes, they're like Yugos.  Ours was somewhere in between - maybe a Ford Fiesta.  But what I learned was that when it's time to get out of that vehicle and into something that better suits my life, I don't have to hesitate.

I don't do that anymore. When the car breaks down, and can't be reliably repaired, I have the right to go. I was reminded this past week that it's all about boundaries.  And sometimes it's about self-salvation.  I can pull those frozen fingers away from my hands and free myself.

Life is short, and I have a lifeboat to catch.