The Process

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Look at how contemplative and artsy that shit is! LOOK!

Ya know… I didn’t go into this writing thing with the thought that my perspective on the world and its goings on needed to or would change in any way, but I’ve noticed a shift that’s worth mentioning. The process of sifting through my past for things worth discussing is a strange combination of cathartic and anxiety-provoking.

I find myself flying over forests of memories, then every so often a single tree catches my eye. Most of the trees are too obfuscated by time, a life of rotational inebriation, or a lack of enough interest to recall their details. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I see one clearly – I circle over it, looking at it from different angles, trying to decide if it’s worth landing on. Sometimes it isn’t, and I resume my aloof perusing from the comfort of the clouds, but other times I like the shape of the branches, or the feel of the bark, or the color of the leaves, so I land.

Some trees have a beautiful aesthetic, and I can play around in them for my enjoyment, and ideally the enjoyment of the reader. Some trees are riddled with thorns that I must endure, ideally also for the enjoyment of the reader. Some feel like coming home, some feel like I’m standing on fucking thorns the whole time (I don’t need another metaphor there – thorns suck and so do some of my memories).

Sometimes the damn things are just too uncomfortable to get close to. It’s both exciting and frustrating to find these particular memories, because I know I’ve struck writer’s gold when I can’t bring myself to confront them, and eventually, I’ll have to endure the shitty feelings for long enough to get it in writing. I’m sorry to say, you’ll have to buy the book to get those stories (I’m not that sorry – it’ll be a good book).

I suppose that even in those instances, I get some sense of enjoyment, or at least some long-term benefit. Even when it’s at its worst, this process can offer some degree of healing. I had a spent bullet casing lodge itself in my collar once, and by the time I got it out, the water forced from my skin had already cooled it to a manageable temperature. I ignored the burn for what was probably too long, and it got infected. After my first shower in a while, I scrubbed away at the wound with a rough washcloth until it was raw again. Now it’s healed and you can barely see the scar.

Point is, the process can be like scrubbing an infected burn wound with a rough washcloth, but eventually it’ll heal over more completely than it would have if you hadn’t done that. Or at least that’s the hope. If it doesn’t, I’ll at least try to make the scrubbing look choreographed. Either way, I hope you enjoy the spectacle.

The Shadow Dragon

I had never seen – no less purchased – LSD before, so when the young man handed me the small strip of paper I asked, “About how many doses would you say this is?”

“About eleven,” he estimated. Normally they’re cut into small, individual tabs of paper, but this was one long piece that I would have to cut myself. I was preparing for a visit from a high school friend, and a colorful trip to Golden Gate Park with him the next day. I couldn’t very well embark on the trip without trying the stuff first, though – I had to make sure it was good and suss out what the effects were before a more public excursion.

I sat in my dorm room, cut off a small piece of paper, and stuck it in my mouth per my instructions. I waited about 45 minutes and thought, “Well I’m not feeling anything. Must not be that good. I’ll cut off another piece.” I did this another four or five times before I started to feel something. Turns out, the onset time is longer than I originally anticipated, and I probably could’ve stopped at one.

I stayed in the safety of my room for a while, then reasoned that I better eat something – I hadn’t eaten all day. I got up the courage to walk down the long flight of stairs to the cafeteria. Halfway down the stairs I stopped and stared at the trees, that were now clearly waving hello to me. I thought it’d be rude to ignore them, so I waved back saying, “Hello, trees,” then I continued down the stairs.

I stood in line, scanned my card, and collected my tray of roast beef and mashed potatoes with gravy. I sat in a table by myself, and was certain that every conversation happening around me was now about me. Not only that, but the small cafeteria I entered was now a giant and expanding food hall. As for my classmates, they were all now dinosaurs a la the 90’s television show Dinosaurs.

I hunched over in my seat trying to focus on my food and ignore the gossipy reptiles around me, but when my roast beef moved as I cut into it, I decided to give up on eating. I pushed my plate of living tissue away from me, and made my exit avoiding eye contact so as not to upset any T-rexes on my way out.

Back in the safety of my room, I turned to Guitar Hero for solace. I played better than I had ever played in my life up to that point or since. It was like I was one with my fake guitar. After a while I couldn’t handle the pace, and I was satisfied with my performance, so I turned out all the lights and got into my loft bed. I tried pulling the covers over my head, but my eyes were glued open.

I pulled the covers off, and was confronted by the Shadow Dragon. His beaming eyes looked right at me, and his long whiskers and body shifted around ceaselessly as if blown by a light breeze. He spoke to me in a deep, rolling voice that sounded like thunder. We talked for a while about life, then he was slain in the instant my roommate threw open the door and drenched the walls he called home with the light from the hallway.

“What have you done?!” I yelled at him.

“Uh… What are you talking about?” he asked, looking around the room. I explained everything to him about the dragon, and he said, “Hold on a second.” He ran out of the room, and returned a few moments later with four other people from our floor. They sat me in the middle of the room and quizzed me about the goings on in my day. I told them about the trees, the dinosaurs, how I killed it at Guitar Hero, and finally about the Shadow Dragon.

Eventually, I stopped mid-sentence, and sat there silently for a second. “I’m sorry, but I feel like I’m on stage and it’s freaking me out.” They all courteously excused themselves and I returned to the waking darkness of the room by myself, hoping for an opportunity to say my goodbyes to the Shadow Dragon who had guided me through a tumultuous time in my night.

Alas, I fell asleep after an hour or so, and I never saw or spoke to him again. If you’re out there reading this, Shadow Dragon, thank you, and farewell.

The Wasp and the Hound

We were about 45 minutes into our long walk for the day. My mind was stuck on my persistent lack of money (mostly my fault for spending it all as soon as I get it). I was sick and resentful for being outside. My knee has developed a constant, dull aching that I feel comfortable chalking up to a combination of old age and constant straining against an easily excited 75 pound dog. His legs are notably more muscular than when I first took him home – who needs weights or resistance bands when you can drag your owner around for hours on end each day?

We came to a corner, and he’s learning (slowly) to stop before crossing the street, but this time his attention was on something – anything at all – down the road. I got frustrated and jerked him around to my side, but his gaze never left whatever he was staring at. I got down to his level and I held his face to mine, trying desperately to be entertaining enough to pull his attention from whatever he was transfixed on, but no luck.

When I finally stopped drilling my eyes into his skull and looked around, I saw a tall, well-dressed, waspy white woman with short, blonde hair look at me with clear disdain behind her designer sunglasses. She averted her gaze and sipped her latte, and I didn’t hear it, but I felt the, “Hmph!” as though she had slapped me in the face with it.

We started across the street, “What even is it that you’re looking at?” I asked my dog with as much sincerity as I could pack into a single question. “There’s nothing even there! Silly creature.”

Clearly nobody with a smooth tone and sincere interest in their dog’s likes and dislikes was capable of the consistent beatings my momentary lapse in poise suggested I was doling out at home. Or at least that’s what I hoped went through the lady’s head after I said it. Given my mood, I was already prone to guilt and sure enough Guilt took full advantage of the opportunity, and I felt my shoulders hunch forward on their own.

“You know what, fuck that lady!” I thought as I pushed my shoulders back again with some effort. “Let’s see you try to handle this dog for longer than five minutes without getting frustrated!”

Furthermore, let’s see you re-navigate the struggles of your youth with that haughty aplomb. Based on your clothes, and her “better than you” attitude, I’d say she was sitting pretty comfortably in her middle age. Get off your high sybian for a second, and try dealing with the litany of concerns milling about in my head without getting a little physical, why don’t you?

I laughed to myself at the thought of her trying to wrangle my beast – at the picture of her being dragged down the street after a rogue squirrel – knees scraped, clothes tattered, sunglasses humorously askew, yelling, “Peace, puppy!” or some other ineffectual hippie nonsense.

If she turned around then, I’m not sure cackling to myself would have added to her opinion of me, but we were beyond that now, weren’t we? Slowly, reason and guilt crept back in, and my shoulders found neutral ground, between shame and defensive hubris.

Of course, my anger wasn’t really at her, or my dog, but at myself. It’s always at myself, in all likelihood. All we can control are our actions and our reactions, after all, and I had failed myself, my dog, and the wasp in a moment of weakness when I whipped my dog around the sidewalk. Still though… Fuck that lady.

Whiteout Wandering

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We started onto the trail enthusiastically, some of us just having met, and all of us entering into the cold wilderness right out of the warmth of our vehicles. It was sunny, and so were our dispositions. We were all brought together by a love of the outdoors and shared connections in Berkeley, so we all shared similar world views, making for easy conversation.

“I actually used to be a search and rescue skier in this area,” one of our group said. And my friend had a Garmin tracking our route for portions of the trek, so we were pretty sure of ourselves as we powered forward, away from the Boreal ski resort where we left our cars. It still wasn’t particularly easy-going – all of us were degrees of youthful and fairly athletic, so we kept a decent pace and occasionally had to push through new packs of snow.

If you’ve never had to push through new snow on foot before, I can tell you that even with snow shoes, your feet sink down about two feet with each step. The snow shoes then collect snow on the way back up, making for a weighted-stairmaster experience even on flat ground, which is compounded by going up or downhill.

We reached our predetermined campsite as the sun started to set.  We all tamped down a portion of snow that would act as a wind and snowfall barrier for our tents over the course of the evening. Also, it created a hard enough surface to actually put the tents onto. Overly confident in our work, my partner at the time removed her snow shoes, and promptly sank waste-deep into the snow, filling her boots with ice shavings. She put back on her shoe shoes, and fought the feeling of frostbite by the fire for the remainder of the evening.

We also created a dining area by sinking a circle into the snow, with the center acting as a table, and the sides as a bench. We put the fire in the middle, and ate dinner and drank a little, and patted ourselves on the back for making good time on the way there, then retired to our respective tents for a well-deserved night’s sleep.

We woke up with the sun the next morning, and found a fresh powder over our tents. We started heating breakfasts and coffees and teas, consistent with our left-leaning palates. Just then, a man emerged from the trail leading farther into the forest. He was rugged-looking, by himself, and seemed to be in a bit of a hurry, but was happy to stop for some hot coffee. In exchange, he offered up his eggnog, which was still surprisingly a liquid, on account of its incredibly high alcohol content.

“You guys should really start packing up,” he said.

“Why’s that? We’re not that far off from where we started. Should be a quick hike out of here,” our “guide” said.

He responded by pulling out his radio, and clicking it on.

STORM WARNING… WHITEOUT CONDITIONS… IMMINENT DEATH… GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE…

The woman’s monotone voice came in loud and clear, so we thanked the wild man for the info, bid him adieu, and began our tipsy packing as quickly as we could. We started the hike, and quickly realized that the altitude, morning alcohol, fresh powder, and steep uphill portions of this hike were not going to make things easy on us. Shortly after, the whiteout conditions the woman mentioned kicked into gear.

We were in a single file line, trading off the lead position (it’s harder at the front, as you’re the first to pack down the snow), and very slowly making our way back to our cars. My glasses fogged over every few seconds, and icicles formed on my beard and in my ringlets of hair. We were never more than a few feet from each other, but it was still difficult to make out the people in front of you.

We continued like this for a few hours, then the gentleman immediately in front of me turned to me, “I feel like we’re not going the right way.”

“Yeah, I’ve been checking my compass every now and again, and I’m going to go ahead and agree,” I responded. He and I were the only ones who brought compasses. I don’t recall why the Garmin wasn’t doing this job for us, but it wasn’t. We were following the rescue guy. Well, it turns out he hadn’t been up in that area for over a decade.

“Let’s go to the top of this mountain, then we’ll be able to see if we’re on the right track!” he yelled back at us through the flurries of snow. We were tired, and not particularly interested in a steep climb, but it was our best idea for the time being – we were quickly losing daylight.

We neared the top, and lo and behold, the lights of the ski lift could be seen through a five second hole in the cloud cover. And wouldn’t ya know it, it was in the exact direction that the two people with compasses had been quietly pointing toward for some time.

Reinvigorated by knowing where the hell we were going, we started in the direction of the lights. We realized we weren’t going to make it by nightfall, so we made camp for the second (and unplanned) night in a clearing between some trees, balancing the benefits of having wind cover against the concerns of snow-laden branches falling on us as we slept. There was still laughter and joviality in the face of generally shitty conditions.

The next day, we started off early. We were no more than half a mile from the cars, but there was no way of knowing that the day before. We got hot cocoa from the resort, and my partner sat in the car enjoying it while I lie on the frozen pavement fumbling with the chains for the tires – my cold fingers only responding to fractions of the instructions they were given.

Finally off the mountain, we stopped at a cafe for one of the most satisfying burgers I’ve ever eaten, and warm apple pie (not a euphemism). As the color returned to our cheeks, we laughed at our stupidity, and talked optimistically about when we might do it again. So far we haven’t, but we’re still degrees of youthful.

First Time (that I know of) Dad

I’d like to introduce the newest member of my family – Maximus (I did not choose the name, but he responds to it already, so he’s keeping it).

He was found wandering the streets of Chicago by a friend of my coworker. He had tags on, so my coworker called the owners to see how he ended up here. They moved to Indiana a short time ago, and left the dog in the care of their friend. They had been trying to sell him on Craigslist for some time, but nobody took them up on the offer. Their friend, apparently, was not able to keep him contained.

After some convincing, the original owners let my coworker hang on to him so he didn’t end up in the shelter. He arrived at the animal hospital where I work around the same time I did. He was dog reactive and endlessly barked and howled every time he was put into a kennel. He got used to the hospital after a while, but never quite adjusted to being put into a small run. He’d bark at me when I came through doors, presumably because he just didn’t know what was up with me. I looked right at him, I wasn’t scared of him, and I was male (with the exception of one doctor, the entirety of the staff is female).

After weeks of him being at the hospital, he was put onto an adoption site. Around the same time, he became interested in me. He’d check in on whatever I was doing any time he was wondering the hospital. At some point, he started to run up to me and nuzzle his face into my side until I pet him. I bent down, and he pushed his head into my shoulder. I heard about potential homes for him, and I felt saddened by the thought of him leaving.

“Alright,” I thought, “Let’s take you home and see how you do.”

I took him home three nights ago, and he seemed immediately relieved to be home. I don’t have any other animals living with me besides my cousin, so he has run of the place when we’re not home. He’s neutered, vaccinated, and house trained. He’s a little over one, 72.6 pounds of muscle, has tons of energy, and is easily frightened as a result of his shitty upbringing. He loves to snuggle, but he assumes you (and that safety cone and that water spigot and that dog over there) are out to get him. He goes fucking nuts for squirrels.

He is a lot. He is too much. He just enough. He is mine, and I love him.

I Think We’re Both to Blame

In my senior year of high school I was an after-school counselor at a private school in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. I was paid to play games, draw, tutor, and hang out with a group of kids that I saw grow up over two summers as their camp counselor. As with any group that you know for a year or two, eventually you find out which of them you love to be around, which you can’t stand, and which you have a soft spot for even in spite of themselves. This kid was deep in group three.

He had thick, Coke bottle glasses that made his already-gigantic eyes look cartoonish. His head was probably no bigger proportionally than anyone else at the age of five or six, but the glasses made it seem a skosh larger than his body might allow. His running style was very serious – arms locked and swinging vigorously, and head down, using his bobble-headedness and gravity to power him forward.

“What happened to your head little buddy?” I asked one day when I saw a bandaid in the center of his forehead.

“I ran into a pole,” he said sheepishly.

One afternoon I was playing tag with a group of the older kids. As they’re more agile, I had to put in some effort to keep myself and them entertained. Also, I’m a winner, and the fact that other people are better at things is a good life lesson. I tagged one kid, then jumped backwards off the jungle gym.

*CRACK**CRACK*

Two sharp cracks in immediate succession followed swiftly by wails from below me. I had come down squarely in the center of this kid’s leg, snapping his tibia and fibula right in half. I scooped the crying kid up in my arms and ran with him to the office. The supervisor, who had some medical training, looked the kid over and pretty quickly figured out that his leg was broken in two, which I guess you didn’t need a lot of medical training for – those cracking noises were pretty clear.

Weeks later he returned to school in a tiny wheelchair with his whole leg in a cast to restrict movement. His parents wheeled him into the office and said, “What do you have to say to Dingo?” (we all had animal names as counselors – mine was Dingo)

He looked up at me through his comically large glasses and with every ounce of sincerity the human heart has to muster, he said, “It’s okay, Dingo, I know you didn’t mean to.”

I sobbed then, and hugged him as hard as his fragile body would allow. What an amazing kid, and what a testament to the parenting to endure that level of physical trauma, and come out as a stronger human being. The malleability of the young mind, and its capacity to forgive are truly astonishing.

I on the other hand, stand firm in my belief that that kid should really look up when he’s running, and that we are equally to blame for the incident. Hopefully some of the children under my tutelage learned to watch where they were going – Dingoes might not eat babies in America, but they do occasionally fall from the sky and break your leg if you’re not careful.

In the Name of Art – Part III

I called my friend (the one I briefly fell in love with) to lament the nonsensical position I was in. After venting, I approached a number of vehicles coated in dust, and while everyone was very kind and said they’d drive me if they could, most had no room for a full-grown man without any luggage. I was on the phone with a friend from LA who was begrudgingly willing to drive the 6 hours to pick me up, when the artist called.

“I hope you’re happy!” she screamed at me.

“It’s pretty safe to say that I’m not.”

“I just got off the phone with [camp leader], who you know I view as a father figure! He yelled at me and told me I had to go back and get you!”

Unbeknownst to me, my fleeting love interest got off the phone and immediately contacted [camp leader], and explained the situation.

“You and your friend think you can come into MY camp – MY burner family,” she continued, “and get everybody to like you just because you build everything or whatever! And now I’m getting yelled at!”

“Well, at some point you’re going to have to acknowledge that their opinion of you is influenced by your actions.” Reasoning was maybe not the right choice in this situation, but how long could I keep that sentence in?

I got back on the phone with the friend who made the call and she told me, “Just keep your fucking mouth shut! I know how you feel right now, but you still need to get home!”

It was by-and-large, a quiet six hour ride back to her place, sprinkled with outbursts here and there, but not too many that I couldn’t weather them until we landed. Also, with frequent stops it was more like eight hours. We got there around 1am, and she implored me to stay the night. That didn’t sound ideal to me, so I got one of my bags out of the truck, and assured her I’d be back the next day to help her unload the rest into a storage space.

As it happened, my first day back at work was “Front Desk Appreciation Day” at the animal hospital. This meant we were all getting off early, and getting spa treatments at the Four Seasons. If I ever return to Burning Man (a likelihood), spa treatment will forever be a part of my decompression process immediately after.

I got a wonderful one hour massage, spent 30 minutes in the hot tub, another 30 in a hot shower, then went to the common area in only my robe to enjoy a glass of champagne with strawberries in it. I sat looking at the pool, and contemplating just how much I gave a shit about the $400 worth of camping gear that sat in the back of that truck.

I left my phone in my pants in the locker, as was the rule there (no electronic distractions allowed), and it was dead when I got back to it. I got to my car charger and once it was on, I was greeted by seven missed calls from the artist, and a text that read, “You’re a waste of a human being. All of your shit is in the trash!” There was more to the text, but I couldn’t tell you what it said. I was flooded with a feeling of relief when I saw it. “Oh good,” I thought, “now I definitely don’t have to help her unpack that truck.”

Was I in the wrong for not going back to help? Yes, absolutely. Do I wish I had left the most relaxing experience I had had in years earlier to be berated while getting dusty doing manual labor? No. No, I do not. We haven’t spoken since – and all I can think is, “Sometimes being wrong can feel so right.”