Final entry from a Big Sur writing retreat – part X

I long…

I long to breathe in my son’s boundless energy – his youth and exuberance about damn near everything, while I still have the chance.

I long to walk in England and get all giddy on Baker’s Street, to explore the pubs and streets of Ireland, while I still have the chance.

Let me harass the Internal Revenue Service and student loan folks as they have harassed me (crank calls perhaps), while I still have the chance.

The cold shark cage beckons, stories cry out to be written like mewling kittens, the return to alcohol awaits, while I still have the chance.

Most of all, let me learn how to be comfortable in my own skin while that flesh is still mine to control.

I want my children to understand me.

While I still have the chance.

From a Big Sur writing retreat part IX

The smell of stale cigarettes and cold coffee filled the hot Buick Park Avenue. Its air conditioner died a year ago. I was grateful for the bit of breeze I felt on my face when I climbed from the driver’s seat. Covering a jumper on Midgley Bridge wasn’t how I wanted to start the morning of my vacation to San Diego. The jumper wasn’t happy about it either.

I wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there, but instead I approached Commander Ron and the fat motorcycle cop that hated me. I could smell junipers in the air and knew there’d be sneezing later. It was already 95 and not even 9:30 in the morning. The stink of hot asphalt crawled up my nostrils the second I stepped onto the bridge. The road over the bridge was closed due to the suicide, but was expected reopen once they removed the body. That was part of the reason I was there, to let the local know when they wouldn’t have to sit in hot traffic any more. I walked along the road snapping photos with the work camera I carried slung over my shoulder most of the time. I took pictures of the cops reporting to Commander Ron.

“Is the body still here?” I asked him.

He gestured over the edge of the bridge. “No. See?”

I peered over, expecting to see a bit of distant blood on the rocks and was surprised by the body itself – not so far away as I would have liked either. An old man. He’d landed like a rag doll after stepping up and over the railing. I could hear the two cops laughing as I jerked back my head in disgust.

Giggling, the fat cop asked, “Is that your first body, man?” He so hoped it was.

Birds chirped overhead while Commander Ron talked about the old man’s wife. She reported his intentions to the police minutes before he jumped. He’d been diagnosed with something expensive and didn’t want to burden her with the bills. Sucks to be poor.

San Diego wouldn’t be as fun as I’d hoped. I saw the old man every time I closed my eyes.

From a Big Sur writing retreat part VIII

24 moments that shaped my life 

MeandKrack
Kerouac and I in 2011.

Some day I hope to write about these things, if I haven’t already.

1. The moment she whispered in my ear

2. The moment I heard the gunshot

3. The moment the phone rang at 3 a.m.

4. The moment the nurse tried to leave with my newborn son

5. The moment the doctor said it was life threatening

6. The moment I heard I was a father

7. The moment all the anglefish turned sideways

8. The moment I first saw the foreclosure sign

9. The moment I could breathe again

10. The moment I saw a kitten born

11. The moment when the pizza is put on the table

12. The moment I was tripped in the hallway

13. The moment I tried to breakdance

14. The moment she made me cry

15. The moment when I realized sex was fun

16. The moment I saw the body

17. The moment the Obamas came out of Air Force One

18. The moment when my son tells me he loves me

19. The moment we saw the burglars in the house

20. The moment I froze in front of the headlights

21. The moment my daughter sends me a story

22. The moment I had to put Kerouac down

23. The moment I first had bread pudding

24. The moment when algebra made me sweat

From a Big Sur writing retreat Part VII

The road map of my life

I’m told it began in California and from my earliest memory that’s been the case. Happiness blossomed for me in California. I liked everything as a child and I quickly became a pop culture fanatic, devouring everything from the Six-Million-Dollar Man to standing in line for the 1989 premier of Batman. But it was short lived. The opinions of others easily swayed my own beliefs back then, particularly those that said life is cheaper, therefore better, in hot Arizona.

In my early 20s I decided to find out if that was true. It wasn’t. Not better by a long shot.

There were a ton of “ers” to be found, but none of them were particularly appealing. It’s hotter. It’s dustier. It’s colder in the winter. It’s buggier. And (from what I saw, and with the exception of Bookman’s, the Pererine Book Company, and Changing Hands) it’s dumber. California came with memories of my mom and how she stoked the fires of my inner nerd with Spider Man dolls and introduced me to the beauty of the rolling sea. I clung to those memories after she died, while I worked on a road crew in Phoenix, when I learned DOS programming, and when I thought I would succumb to heat exhaustion while surrounded by saguaro cactus. Twenty years later I left the only two good parts of the Grand Canyon State, my children, and returned to the place where I was born.

Today I walk over the memories I cherish, see the same sights every day that I saw through younger eyes, and wish my children were here with me. I came home again.

But I want to take them from theirs so my world will be complete.

From a Big Sur writing retreat part VI

Damn you, Aquaman

There is a kind of hunger for free time. Real free time. Without the damn dishes, the weekend laundry, or any chores whatsoever, without feeling pressured to write by my own OCD mind and just read any of the books I feel like reading, or paint. Or write. Or all of the above.

There is a kind of hunger that makes me jealous of Aquaman. It’s a desire to swim without breathing air, to swim all day long, to explore the sea alone. Damn that guy.

There is a kind of hunger to eat pizza and cheeseburgers all day every day. Only I can’t. If I want to know my children as middle-aged adults I will have to know cheeseburgers and pizza a little less intimately.

There is a kind of hunger that grows as you get older. It rises from your stomach, telling you to finish those lifelong bucket list items and do it soon. Checking off the list becomes all you think about. Write those five novels you’ve fleshed out or die.

There is a kind of hunger for acceptance, but only kind of. We all accept in one way or another, just rarely in the way you hope. You can try to tame them, steer people into accepting you in the way you want them to, but you end up being the weirdo, the misunderstood understand. It’s okay. Just accept it.

There is a kind of hunger for death. When the kids are old enough. Or when the grand kids are old enough. That hunger is for life’s goals to lose their luster, for acceptance to go to hell, for there to be as much free time as you would know what to do with (maybe sell it?), and best of all, maybe I could BE Aquaman.

From a Big Sur writing retreat part V

Shove it in with a shovel-spoon

  • One bag of macaroni shells
  • A stick of butter
  • A block of orange (radioactive orange) cheese

THESE are the things that subdued my anger, my sense of indignation at the world, and put an end to my whining to this very day. These three things my mom combined when it came time to make a home-cooked meal. On these nights, when there wasn’t a Hungry Man in the oven, I felt better. She knew it would fix things.

Boil the shells. Grate the neon orange cheese. Why does my brother get to go to Ireland? He got arrested and I got better grades in school? But then I’d pop a tuft of that grated cheese into my mouth and forget about her answer. Something about BECAUSE I was good she didn’t have to worry about rewarding me. My brother needed bribes.

Once the shells boiled tender and soft, mom drained them. She’d dump them into a glass baking dish and drop the stick of butter on that steaming pile of macaroni shells. Lastly she’d stir until it all melted. Why are you buying my brother a second vehicle? You haven’t even bought me one, I’d cry. The smell of grated cheese, sprinkled over the butter-drenched shells, muted the whining until my tone turned conversational in nature. YOU can take care of yourself, she’d say.

After ten or fifteen minutes the cheese would turn crusty around the outer edges of the baking dish. I think you like him better than me, I would say.  No, I love you both DIFFERENTLY, she’d reply. Then she’d serve up the baked macaroni and cheese and I’d forget about my jealousy for a bit. We’d douse it in Heinz Ketchup.

I never knew my mom wasn’t a very good cook, not until I moved into my own apartment. But on those macaroni and cheese nights, she was the BEST cook.

From a Big Sur writing retreat part IV

Nog and sap

Anticipation in the house was almost palpable at Christmas time. Decorations, the large real tree, the Burl Ives and Bing Crosby holiday records; these were all lugged out of the big blue storage trunk the first week of December. Back then Thanksgiving actually included decorations that kept the event separate from Christmas. Once Santa rode through the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, however, it meant all bets were off. The yuletide season could begin. About a week later, we’d drive the Volkswagen bug to the local tree lot and spend our sweet time walking through a grand display of spruce, Douglas firs, blues and more. The smell of fresh cut wood and sap filled our nostrils. For me, that pungent odor meant Christmas. There’s nothing like it. And then Mom would come home from work with egg nog. Usually we drank it for two reasons – either we were decorating the tree or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would be on that night. Just the smell of egg nog brings a sense of warmth to my heart. I feel that tingling sense of excitement I felt when I was seven. Toys, candy, special food, Christmas specials on television, advent calendars with tiny pictures inside; the smell of egg nog makes me think of all these things.

Today I buy it for my children in the hopes they also feel that tingling reaction. It means good things are coming your way. It means love is in the air. I think they feel it too. Maybe they’ll tell me about it someday. I’m looking forward to it, just as I am that first egg nog with a grandchild.

From a Big Sur writing retreat part III

Sand
and
Budweiser

I wasn’t sure it was a good idea at the time, and I couldn’t have been more than six. Uncle Vince, a family friend who wasn’t my real uncle at all, once held my brother and I by our ankles over the roof of a K-Mart while it was still under construction (the place, like most other crumbling box stores, happens to be a Home Depot now). Now here I sat in his lap while he drove us around Sand City. Luckily, traffic in the late 1970s wasn’t so bad, not like it is now.  There was no Costco then, no Target and no grocery store with its annual name changes – just a ton of sand.

“You wanna drive?” Uncle Vince asked.

He held a can of Budweiser in his right hand and had a rolled cigarette stuffed in his dark Italian beard. I was perfectly content to sit there and pretend to drive. Really doing it kind of terrified me. His breath smelled of hops and yeast and tobacco. Uncle Vince favored my brother. Josh wanted to work on cars when he grew up, Volkswagen bugs in particular, just like Vince did. Who knew I’d be listening to Agent Orange a decade later, dreaming of cheap thrills, fast cars, losing control and losing my mind? I was smarter at six.

“Can I do it again if Pat doesn’t want to?” my brother asked from the back seat.

Before Uncle Vince could answer, or get mad like he often did, I reached out and grabbed the ribbed steering wheel with my small, pale, and nervous fingers. I knew it wasn’t a good idea, but I seemed to be the only one in the car with an ounce of common sense. The sun shined overhead, and Mom’s bug zoomed lonely and loudly over the sand drifts blowing across the road. The interior of the car reeked of Budweiser.

I held the steering wheel harder than I needed to, but I wasn’t about to let go.

My brother cried out in joy. “Good job, Pat!”

“That-a-boy,” Uncle Vince said.

I couldn’t care less what they thought. I’d been forced me into it.

Central Coast Writers – they seem cool

Get a group of writers together and you never know what might happen. The term “herding cats” springs to mind. But the term “universe of awesome” also comes up in my head. There are so many different types of people who write, from those who think they’re the next Douglas Adams to those who think the majority of their submitted work is laughed at by some editor with arched eyebrows and a penchant for whips – before ultimately ending up in the shredder.

Having been involved in writers groups in the past, I had no intention of submitting myself to that particular kind of torture again. The groups scared the hell out of me. Upset writerly types can be painful. They can be persistent as shit and they remind me why I love writing to begin with, because writing is solitary. But I’m asking myself a lot of questions now that I’m sinking in the quicksand of middle age. Did I make the right life decisions? I already know the terrible answer to that question. But bulleted under that question is another question (it’s somewhere near the “Should I have chosen Prozac instead of Effexor?” question. Did I give up on writing groups too soon?

I think the answer to that is yes. Following a recent writing retreat at Esalen in Big Sur, I felt the need to reach out a bit more, especially to others with interests similar to my own. They don’t have to write the same stories, read the same books, but they all love writing and stories. The retreat, it turns out, gave me a little more than I bargained for: comradery, totally unexpected comradery. Rather than travel the world to as many holistic retreats as I can find (ones with “healing baths” rise to the top of the list), and realizing that any over zero is more than I can afford, I thought I would try out a local writers clique.

Writing groups, organizations, circles, whatever, cover the globe. It’s like that paint logo that drips over the planet. They are everywhere. Groups of writers meet to read and share their stories, travel writers meet to see who’s going where, journalists meet to make sure they’re still unbiased and still drunk; we all like to meet. This realization, stemming out of Big Sur, got me all souped-up to try out the Central Coast Writers (CCW) group, which meets monthly at Point Pinos Grill in Pacific Grove near Asilomar. I tried to go in with no preconceived notions about the predominant age I would find (I had a suspicion people who maybe hung out with my mom would be there), the predominant level of accomplishment (that I should care nothing about anyway), or the predominant income (I was thinking riches, being that they meet next to a golf course) and am happy to report I found nothing I expected. I did, however, find a pretty cool group of people.

Articles on, and websites for, writers groups have quietly broken the Internet. A Kardashian loudly breaks it, but writers are only loud in their stories – unless you’re a drunk Ginsberg or an armed Hunter S.  Here’s an article, here’s another, and another, and so on. There’s a reason people write about them, just as there’s a reason people join them. Writers groups are worth the time. Maybe they’re not all that great, but the CCW, as far as my initial taste went, seemed like a solid chunk of literary folk. The articles include a number of great reasons to join a writers group. You make friends (which may be called networking), you hear about opportunities that could change the course of your career, and the list goes on. While many writers may try groups out here and there, often leaving after a bad experience, remember to try again after a few years, with a different team of writers. You may be surprised. If you happen to live in the Monterey Peninsula I would say take a try with the CCW, who meet at the Point Pinos Grill restaurant on the third Tuesday of every month.

The garlic fries are pretty damn good there.

CCW website: click here.

From a Big Sur writing retreat part II

Seaside-2sunshine and gulls

It’s skies are crawling with gulls. They sit on every streetlight – along Fremont and up the city’s spine, Broadway (now also called Obama Way). For Seaside, tucked nicely between Fort Ord and Monterey, it’s a fitting new name.

I kissed a girl for the first time at Martin Luther King Middle School, saw my first dead body, and played with my babysitter’s perky boobs under Seaside’s watchful gaze. Wallets were stretched thin in that community when I was a kid. For many families, that’s still the case. The city is infected with gentrification, but it’s growth is slow, which is good for the families struggling for enough food to make lunches and dinners each week. Forget about lunch.

The odors of Vietnamese food spreads to the corner of Fremont and Obama Way. The sugary smells of donuts from Red’s has the next few blocks covered. And the sun shines over Seaside more than it does over any other city in the Monterey Peninsula.

I’d like to think there’s a reason for that.