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Let’s Talk About My Weight Fluctuation

Posted in real life with tags , , , , on July 8, 2017 by sethdellinger

I know the world isn’t a clamoring for a blog post about my struggle with weight fluctuation, but I’m clamoring to write one, so.  Let me give you a little of my weight/fitness history first.

When I was a very young man, in my teens and early twenties, I certainly did not struggle with my weight. I am a short man, but I don’t think it would be fair to say I was ever scrawny. Lithe, is how I liked to think of it. At any rate, I was a pretty small man. In high school I was on the wrestling team and I wrestled (poorly) in the 103 pound weight class, if you can believe that. Anyway, it wasn’t until the back side of my twenties that I started to plump up a little bit, nothing too serious, I just became a somewhat chunky guy. And when you are 5 foot 2, it doesn’t take many extra pounds to make you look chunky. I at that point started to go through phases where I would try to lose weight.  I would become obsessed with the idea of taking the weight off and doing it quickly. During this period I was still a smoker, so any hardcore exercising was fully out of the question, so I would try and do it through “calorie deprivation”, AKA starvation. Now, at this point I wasn’t getting very scientific about it, I wasn’t necessarily counting calories, I just did things like bought Slim-Fast, skipped meals, then would do a bunch of jumping jacks in my bedroom at night, assuming that any kind of exercise, when you are consuming extremely low calories, you are going to lose weight. It would work somewhat, I would watch the scale every day, I’d lose a couple pounds, but at that point in time I wasn’t interested or motivated enough to really keep going with it, and also my inability to really exercise in any extended capacity really limited me. So I would do it on again and off again, but never really commit.
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Then around the age of 30 I quit smoking, and I immediately bought a pair of running shoes and started running around my neighborhood, thinking I was going to make a huge change, and of course again I started severely limiting my calorie intake, and watching the scale. But, being the novice I was, I immediately overdid the running, inflicting stress fractures in my shins (although not diagnosed by a medical professional). My over zealousness and a lack of knowledge sidelined me shortly after I quit smoking, and then shortly after that is when I began my long solo journey.
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I moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, where I was 5 hours from all my friends and family, completely alone. It was a very exciting time for me actually, but one thing I decided to do, I made a conscious choice to go ahead and get overweight. I wasn’t going to run into anybody I knew anywhere. I wasn’t at that period interested in attracting a romantic partner, so I decided to just say to hell with it and eat whatever I wanted, however often I wanted. I also had a good amount of disposable income so it really was a tremendous smorgasbord for me.   After a year-and-a-half of living in Erie, I weighed 190 pounds, at 5 foot 2. This was pretty extreme. In many respects, it was fascinating and I kind of enjoyed it. I’d never been anywhere near that big before, and at first it became truly fascinating to see parts of myself changing, expanding, learning what it was like to be that big. But of course, that novelty wore off eventually. Things were very inconvenient, I couldn’t tie my shoes properly, going to the bathroom was a chore, and although I still tried to live a pretty active lifestyle, it started to be difficult for me to ride a bike, or take a leisurely stroll through the woods. So, it having been a few years since I quit smoking at that point, I decided to really go all in, and for the first time in my life, get a gym membership. And thus began the real weight ballooning. Now I was able to watch the scale, count my calories, and work out obsessively. It turns out that calorie deprivation coupled with frequent working out is actually an incredibly effective way to lose weight! Of course I’m not the first person to figure this out. But as any health professional will tell you, starvation diets are no way to lose weight and keep it off. Almost everyone who loses weight in this fashion puts it back on eventually. Because it is not a lifestyle, it’s a quick fix and psychologically, it wires us to bounce back. But at the time, that didn’t matter, I was losing weight super fast, sometimes as much as a pound a day. I became familiar with how many calories equal one pound of fat.  I did the math everyday, all the calories I ate, all the calories I burned.  And you might be surprised how, when one is living by themselves and can completely control what food is in their house, and how obsessive they are able to be, just how easy it is to approach that number in one day. In total, I lost 50 pounds in just a few months, going from 190 to 140. I also did a lot of weight training in that time, and was looking pretty astonishing. And even though I had gotten there through a starvation diet, I truly did enjoy working out and being fit, and had every intention–or so I thought–of continuing to live a fit and healthy lifestyle going forward. I had bought a lot of stuff, fitness swag. I loved going to the gym, looked forward to it and spent hours there as often as I could. Being fit had become a part of me, a part of my new identity and I loved it. However, just a few short months after arriving at this place in my life, I ended up making an enormous life change. After about 10 years of living completely by myself, and 15 years of working for the same company, I made a decision to move 7 hours away, to live with my mother and get a job with a new company. Now, granted, the living with my mother part was to be very temporary, until I could find my own place. However, mom lived in New Jersey, right outside of Philadelphia, and it was my goal to find my own place in Philadelphia, which was not the simplest thing to do, especially when I was also getting used to my new job. So I ended up living with Mom for about 10 months, and all these changes at once served to derail my newfound love for fitness. Now granted, I can’t really blame gaining my weight back on those changes. I could have continued to focus on the fitness, I do realize that. I tried very much at first. I transferred my gym membership to one in South Jersey, and tried to get there as often as I could, but I  ended up getting there just a handful of times. I was learning the geography of my South Jersey home, as well as trying to learn the layout of Philadelphia, and learning my new job. And although my mother is tremendously hospitable and living with her again at that stage of my life was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything, it was also incredibly shocking to my system, as a man in his mid-thirties, who had lived in a couple rather large apartments by himself for a long time, to now share his house with his mother. It was a lot to take in.  At any rate, after holding my fitness together for a month or two, I started to slide, eventually caving and gaining almost all my weight back. By the time I came to and realized that I was a pretty big man again, I had been living by myself in Philadelphia for over a year. I suddenly realized that I had gone all the way back to my biggest. I remembered fondly how much I loved fitness in Erie, how much I love how I looked, how much I loved clothes shopping and how much I enjoyed the feeling of being physically fit. Being that size felt like the authentic me, like I had finally tunneled to part of the real me, in the physical sense. Here I am not suggesting that our “authentic selves” are purely physical–surely I was an authentic version of me when I was my biggest.  But in that body I didn’t feel like me.  In my 140 pound body, I did.
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 And so I started the process again. It was easier in Philadelphia, because I did not have a car and rode my bike everywhere. Even with that being the case I had managed to get to 180 or 185 pounds. I once again got a gym membership in Philadelphia.  The gym was two miles from my house so I had to ride my bike 4 miles round-trip just to go to the gym. I started starving myself again, or what I thought of as calorie deprivation. The weight came off like gangbusters once again, I stepped down through the pounds in just a matter of months, arriving at that beautiful sweet spot of 140, although my ideal goal has always been 130, my reasonable goal is always 140. I got there and loved it again, but just like the first time, no sooner had I gotten there then I made some enormous life changes. As most of you probably know, it was shortly after this that I met my love Karla, and once again stopped living by myself, moving back to my homeland in central Pennsylvania, and this time not just moving in with one person, but with Boy and Dog as well. And then shortly after that move, I changed jobs yet again, and then even more notably, quickly transitioned to vegetarian, and then to vegan. And while the general perception of being vegetarian or vegan is that it is automatically healthier–and that is almost always true–if one tries really hard, one can gain quite a bit of weight eating these ways. And so it came to pass that even though I was the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, the sheer magnitude of changes ushered in yet another slow crawl to a heavy spot.
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Now, I’m not a trying to blame my weight bouncing on these changes entirely. It truly is a mystery to me whether or not and to what degree these life changes cause my weight gain, or whether I would bounce back even without such changes to start it. All I know is that it has happened that way. Karla has been incredibly kind and understanding, always making me feel handsome and beautiful no matter what, but supporting me and what I want to do.  And so it came to pass that a few months ago, I decided it was time to get back onto the fitness train, this time, fingers crossed, to stay on the train forever. You see, the thing is, both times I have lost all that weight before, I certainly recognized that I was not doing it in a healthy way. I knew that the calorie deprivation and that incredibly rapid weight loss was not healthy for me, and would not be easy for me to maintain. However, I simply found myself incapable of not obsessing over it once I began. Now, I don’t know if this is what would classify as an eating disorder or not. Perhaps it’s just a manifestation of something else within me, and I don’t know if something that only happens every couple years is an eating disorder. But I do know that it does feel mildly beyond my control. When I first began getting healthy and losing weight this time around, a few months ago, I was determined not to let it grip me this time. I began at first simply by deciding to eat better. I never stepped on the scale. I went to the gym occasionally, but on no set schedule. My idea at first was just to make the next right decision with food.  Every time I ate, I would eat a reasonable portion, or forgo condiments that might add calories or fat.  I would skip the snack at night.  I wouldn’t drink calories unless it was part of some healthy beverage.  And so on.  And so this is what I did for about a month.  I stepped on the scale finally: 178.  A better starting point than my previous times; I’ll never know what I really started at, the month before I started eating better.
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After I stepped on that scale the first time, I was able to keep things pretty healthy for a month or two. I would only check my weight every couple days. I started working out more, because I wanted to be healthier, I wanted my circulatory system and my respiratory system to really be awesome. I continued  just making the next right decision with food, and while the scale didn’t always show a loss when I stepped on it, the trend was generally downward and I was pleased. But somewhere along the line, about a month ago, it gripped me again. I started cutting back on calories in an extreme sense, I wasn’t able to go the the gym as I have been before, but I started to deprive the calories, I started to step on the scale multiple times a day, keeping track of when the last time I had a drink was, in case that was showing on the scale. Had I peed recently? What all was traveling through me? Almost at any point in the day, I could tell you how much I weighed. Of course the thing is, it’s working like gangbusters again. I expect to wake up tomorrow morning at 161 pounds, about to enter the 150s! The changes are finally starting to be noticeable, although I still hate my belly. Even at 140, I typically hate my belly.
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I’m writing this now, I think, because I’ve realized it’s gripped me again and I’m not going to let it happen this time.  I’m going to keep dieting, in a prudent way, and I’m going to keep working out and getting healthy.  And with my lovely partner’s help (there really is nobody better than Karla for, basically, anything) I will work through my scale-watching, calorie-obsessed issue. I will lose weight and keep it off and get fit and stay that way–because I have to and because I want to.  But once I start seeing the scale move and the numbers go down I want to be at the end NOW.  And I know how to do it.  But how many times do I have in me?  Frequent weight swings of this magnitude will wreck a human body.
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I suppose I am putting this out in the world as an additional counter-measure; if everyone knows about it, it adds an extra layer of accountability for me.  And also to add a voice to dispelling the myth that men don’t have body issues.  While our culture certainly creates a toxic environment for women and what they have to put up with as far as beauty standards is horrific and as a man I do not have nearly so much against me, I do struggle greatly with anxiety of how I look to others.  I hate my flabby paunch, my jiggly underchin, my wrinkly eyes.  I obsess over how I look–especially when I’m at my worst.  I’m not suggesting that male body issues need to be a major area of social discourse, but unfortunately there remain many women and men out in social media land–most of whom I consider quite enlightened otherwise–who frequently post memes and such of shirtless firefighters (or etc etc) with captions like “I’m gonna set my house on fire”.  Of course these shirtless men always have physiques that would be literally impossible for me to attain at this stage in my life, no matter what I did.  But there they are–intelligent, socially aware adults perpetuating an unattainable vision of masculine beauty.  Please don’t get me wrong–I’m certainly not blaming my weight fluctuations on memes.  I’m just putting it out there for thought: we’ve fought hard against idealizing ludicrous feminine beauty standards for years.  Please consider the men in your life before you do the same to them.  We are not immune to feelings of body shame.
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Please don’t think you need to worry about me, either.  I know I used the term “eating disorder” in here but I am in no danger.  I ate pretty well today and plan on it tomorrow, too. And I have a pretty good team in my corner.  I hope to update you soon on how I attained my goal weight, the healthy way.

Days: Fifteen Years Sober

Posted in Memoir with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2017 by sethdellinger

Prologue

There were chandeliers.  I had rarely been around chandeliers, and even then, never so many, never so shiny.  In fact, nearly everything was shiny—the centerpieces, the candle holders, the forks and knives had glints and sparkles.  Light seemed to reflect and refract from everywhere all at once, off of balloons and from under tables, men’s wingtip shoes had tiny stars in them, large wire-rimmed glasses on women’s faces beamed chandelier light into my eyes.  The whole ballroom was like a universe.

I should have expected to be dazzled at the first wedding I ever attended.  I’d seen depictions of weddings in some movies, sure, but being only eight or nine years old, I didn’t have a lot to go on.  I knew there would be a ceremony, and they’d kiss, and then I heard we threw rice at them, oddly enough.  I must have expected there to be a party afterward, but if I did, I certainly had no idea what to expect from it.  And all this shininess—I hadn’t been prepared for that.

My cousins were there—some that I liked and some that I didn’t, but we all kept playing together, regardless.  That’s what you do with cousins when you’re a kid, after all—you play with them no matter how much you like them.  Once the pomp and trope of the adult rituals during the reception began to wear thin for us (how many times does an eight-year-old think it’s interesting to watch two grown-ups kiss? Just because someone tapped their glass?) we found our way to each other and began exploring.  We found an elevator in the lobby that we rode up and down and up and down, getting off on random floors, running to the ends of the halls.  We made a game where you tried to touch the wall at the end of the hall and get back to the elevator before the doors closed.  It wasn’t easy.  We also devised a contest to see who could, when controlling the floor buttons, go longest without the doors opening to let a stranger onto the elevator.  Again and again we were tempted to press the Emergency Stop button, but we never did.  Eventually, an employee caught onto the fact that some kids were playing fast and loose with their elevator and we got yelled at and told to stop, and, feeling like we’d just been dressed down by a Supreme Court justice, we ran out of the elevator, through the lobby, and back into the ballroom.

We played under vacant tables.  We made forts under there by using spare tablecloths and draping them over the chairs.  We moved the large potted plants out a few feet from the walls and hid behind them until grown-ups gave us weird looks.  We took M&Ms out of our gift baskets and threw them long distances into each other’s mouths.  By and large, nobody was watching us.  The adults were having a grand old time and we were left to play, to run around.  It was a unique environment for us.  Dressed in our little spiffy clothes—suspenders, skirts, ties—we felt like miniature grown-ups, doing our kid things under the shiny lights.

Occasionally, the action in the grown-up world would halt briefly while they did another of their inexplicable rituals—shoving cake at each other, somebody’s dad dancing with somebody else, and on and on.  At one point, everyone stopped what they were doing for the throwing of the bouquet, which did not sound remotely interesting to me, but my cousins ran to the crowd to watch.  I was thirsty and a little tired, so I made my way back to my family’s table to regroup and hydrate.

Nobody was there, as they were off watching something happen to a bouquet.  I pulled myself up to the table, the empty food plates still scattered around, and my mother’s purse hanging on the side of her chair, and more M&Ms in clear mason jars.  I found my Sprite and gulped it down.  It was nice to have a moment alone.  Then my eye fell upon it: the champagne flute.  Full, bubbles creeping up the sides, mysterious presences.  I glanced around and verified I was unwatched.  I took the glass, using both hands to steady it, and brought it to my lips, surprised by the blast of carbon dioxide as the carbonation hit my nose.  I barely tasted anything as I downed the beverage in one quick movement.  I sat back in my chair, looked around myself again to see if I had been observed.  In a moment, the warmth hit my stomach.  A smile crept at my lips.

 

Days of Nothing

 

It had been a hot summer. Summers are always hot, and Pennsylvania summers get that special kind of humidity working for them, but this summer had just been a rainforest ordeal. We spent every day with a thin sheen of sweat on us almost all the time, even indoors, even in the dark in the basement. It was a summer of Sloe Gin Fizzes, chain-smoking Newports, sitting on the front porch.  It was a stoop, really, but we called it a porch, although you entered through the side door, not the front.

I was staying quite suddenly and unexpectedly with two of my friends who were renting a house in the middle of the Pennsylvania countryside. And I mean Countryside. At least a 20-minute drive from where anyone might consider civilization. The view from that front porch was actual and real rolling Pennsylvania Hills, green as Ireland, constantly sun-dappled, you could see the shadows of clouds as they passed overhead, rolling down the hills like boulders. Cows and sheep on the periphery, small tree outcroppings dotting the very tops of the horizons. I make it sound kind of lovely, but in fact, it was a pretty awful time for everybody.

See, if you are from Pennsylvania, it would mean something if I told you this was in Perry County, and really far out in the middle of Perry County. How these friends rented the house, how they found it, I’ll never know. But there I found myself, immediately after giving up on a semester of college, literally walking away from classes that were over three-quarters of the way done, because I couldn’t stop drinking long enough to wake up in the morning, or do homework or even read Mark Twain books. I simply threw in the towel, and after spending a couple weeks tooling around campus aimlessly, I decided to just jump ship entirely, threw what little belongings I had into the back of my 1983 Ford Escort, and drove an hour from my college out into the middle of the rolling god-damned Hills. I did this in order to spend the summer with two people who were likewise as troubled as I was, but in different ways, and we were miserable as hell together. We’d spend entire mornings out in front of the house with a two-by-four, swatting at the huge bumble bees as they flew past us, drinking 20 ounce cans of Busch beer, trying to kill as many of those bees as we could, for no reason other than there was nothing else to do. We’d sit on our plastic lawn chairs on that porch, with our view of the field, secretly hoping that it was manure spreading day, just so that there was something to look at, something to talk about, something to complain about other than the heat and the damn bees.

We spent our nights inside, in the dark basement, lit only by multiple strings of Christmas lights, the smell of must and tobacco smoke, no television, no stereo. Just imbibing and talking, and sometimes in full silence. I spent the whole summer reading one issue of Guitar World magazine, articles I didn’t even understand, once everybody else was asleep, reading these damn guitar articles in the almost total darkness, falling asleep on a dust-covered couch. It was terrible and wonderful.

One morning, as we were sitting on our stoop smoking our cigarettes watching the distant rolling hills as though something might erupt from them, an Amish boy strolled past on the street in front of our yard, walking his ancient bike beside him. He stood and looked at us, as though he were seeing something for the very first time, some true curiosity. Thinking we were some sort of cultural emissaries, we approached him and struck up a conversation. I can’t remember now what was said between us, what inane questions we must have asked in the name of science, but after a 20-minute conversation, he went his way and we went back to the stoop, thinking we had just crossed some cultural divide. I can’t be sure what we said, but I know who I was back then, so I know I was an asshole.

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In my early twenties there was a short time period when I stayed with my mother in a small apartment she was renting in the small Pennsylvania town of Dillsburg. This was during a time when she went on frequent extended trips for her job, so even though it was a place where I wasn’t paying any rent, I would find myself with my own apartment for a couple days at a time, here and there. Living the kind of life I was living then, which is to say, mildly indigent, alone time was a fairly sacrosanct rarity. On these times when she was gone, I would wake up on the couch, still mildly dizzy from my stupor the night before, find some water to drink, and commence sitting there, absorbing cable television, mixing large amounts of Diet Coke with larger amounts of cheap gin, chainsmoking generic menthol light cigarettes until the whole room was suffused with a haze as if it were packing material. Somehow having that apartment to myself, and enough booze and cigarettes and food I hadn’t paid for to last me through a couple days, felt like I had a luxury a room on a cruise liner. I would crank up the air-conditioning, raid her collection of compact discs, listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole” over and over again at an incredibly high volume. One such night, after a lengthy day of solo debauchery, I found myself inexplicably out in the parking lot of the apartment complex, wandering aimlessly, smoking my cigarette with a gin and Coke in a supersize McDonald’s cup. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly I heard from behind me someone yell my name. It took me awhile to realize what I was witnessing, but it was one of my more lengthy roommates from college, suddenly here in this parking lot, 45 minutes from the town we went to school in. At this point, I must have been out of college for about two years and hadn’t heard from him since (this is pre-Facebook and even pre-MySpace). I couldn’t believe my eyes! After getting over both of our initial confusions, I learned that not only did he live in the same apartment complex, but he lived with a man that we were also roommates with. The three of us had shared an apartment for about a year in college, and now they were living together and working in the town of Dillsburg, while I was mooching off my mother in the same apartment complex! It was almost too much to handle. Excited for the reunion, we both walked into their apartment, and sure enough, there was the third roommate, and he was just as shocked as us! We spent about half an hour catching up on what we had done since school, and then sat there in a kind of dazed boredom. We had nothing to talk about. It hadn’t been that long ago we were in college, pulling pranks, making silly movies, running all over the town like young people who would never die, would never have a problem in the world. But now just a few years later here we were, clearly at different crossroads. We sat in silence and watched a movie, and then I left and never went back there again.

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I don’t really remember how it happened, but I know for a fact that once, stone drunk, I found myself walking down the Carlisle Pike in the middle of night, just past the 81 North entrance ramp, headed away from Carlisle. I had just past the entrance ramp when I saw a tractor-trailer pulled over on the side of the road, presumably for the driver to sleep there for the night. None of the lights were on and the engine was off. I thought to myself, ‘I could just roll underneath a truck right there and sleep for the night. I could just lay under there, be sheltered from view and the wind, look up at the underside of that trailer, let this drunkenness and tiredness wash over me, and sleep there for the night.’ And I did roll under that truck, and I looked at the underside of it. I put my hands behind my head and stretched out in the gravel parking lot. I laid there for a little while, I have no idea how long, but even in my drunken stupor, and as low as I was in every aspect of life at that moment, even I knew this was a bad idea. I rolled back out and kept on walking, and I have no idea where I went.

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Time is a sad, dense fog over a sea, and places are lighted buoys.  The people?  I don’t know, maybe they’re boats, or fishes.  The days stretch out like dreams in a desert.

 

Days of Something

 

Just a few months after getting sober, I found myself living back in Pennsylvania, after a short stint in New Jersey.  I had moved in with a friend of mine who had a spare bedroom. I got my old job back, the same job cooking greasy diner food for a company that kept giving me chances.  I would come home everyday and see some of my friends there, hanging around this house I had moved into. Sometimes playing music, or fiddling with the communal telescope, or playing board games.   A few weeks into this living arrangement, I decided that I was going to go out that night by myself.  I ended up going to a movie, “Million Dollar Baby”, and it was a good movie, I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I’ll start watching good movies.’  I walked out of the theater, and it was a late showing, and it was winter, so it was dark and frigid everywhere, and I was the only one in the parking lot, and it suddenly dawned on me that I could do anything I wanted. I wasn’t a slave to anything like I had been before. Nothing drove me to a bar or a convenience store to get a fix. Nothing told me I had to be somewhere that I could fall asleep anytime soon. I didn’t have to work in the morning. I didn’t have anybody who knew where I was or was expecting me somewhere. I walked across the frigid parking lot to the adjacent Walmart, bought a Butterfinger candy bar and a Red Bull, walked back to my car, and drove into the countryside, smoking cigarettes, laughing my ass off at freedom.

 

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Philadelphia is a great city, but there’s nothing special about it in the winter. It becomes winter just like every place else becomes the winter: slowly, and then all at once. My first winter in the city was also the first winter I’d spent anywhere without a car. During the summer I had learned to get around by riding my bike and walking, and was just getting pretty good at it when the gradual winter hit all of a sudden. It was cold and it was windy, but didn’t snow for the first few months, and then one day, a day that I also happened to have off work, the sky opened up and dumped down about eight inches. It was a very different experience than my previous winters elsewhere, where you might go outside and walk around, do some shoveling, maybe go see a few of the local landmarks covered in the fluffy cliches. In a densely packed urban area that stretches out for miles and miles in any direction, and where local landmarks are a dime a dozen but breathtaking beauty might be a little scarce, I wasn’t sure exactly what to do with myself, other than sit on my couch and watch Netflix. Eventually I decided to just bundle up, put on some heavy shoes (since I never really am in the habit of keeping boots around) and venture out into the snow and see what happened. I started walking through the streets of my South Philly neighborhood, unplowed, unshoveled, the houses squished up against each other like sandwich bread, snow building up in the trashy pedestrian alleys between them, choking the tops of open the trash cans, pawprints sometimes the only sign anyone had been down a sidewalk.  And I kept walking and walking, taking note how it was different than my previous experience, and also ways in which it was similar, compare and contrast, compare and contrast, that is essentially how I Live every moment of my life. One experience must always be similar or different from previous ones; otherwise, how do you measure anything?  Eventually the neighborhood started to change as I kept walking, buildings got farther apart, the roads got wider, the streets were starting to be plowed, cars started moving around, the city seemed to wake up. I started passing people on the street and there was an air of conviviality, of shared experience. Everyone was saying hello, commenting on the snow, and it wasn’t just what people were saying, but the attitude, the feeling, like we were all finally together, not that we were undergoing any major hardship, but just that the presence of something so different, something so sudden, almost held us together like a web. Connection.  Eventually I realized I was closer to Independence Mall, which is the cluster of extremely significant historical sites in the city, than I was to home, so I just kept on walking. I arrived behind Independence Hall probably an hour and a half after leaving my house, still trudging through almost a foot of snow, surprised to see that there were a few people milling around, but only a few, much less than the hundreds and hundreds that crammed into this park in the summer months. I circled the building, taking note of what the roof looked like covered in snow, imagining it would have looked the same to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson when it snowed in the late 1700s. I crossed Chestnut Street, which is directly in front of Independence Hall, my feet not quite hitting the cobblestones, but still feeling the unevenness of the walk, as the snow impacted into the cracks around the cobblestones, as it surely has done to other foot travelers for centuries. I trudged across the open space in front of Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell to my left, taking note that it was still open, the Park Service still there and operating, but I didn’t see a soul in line to see the famed bell. I kept on going, heading towards the visitor center, with its bright glass interiors, newly built restrooms, shiny gift shop and concession stand. I often used to stop at the visitor center in the summer, as I was riding my bike around the city, for its quick and easy access to a restroom and bottled water.  As I swung open the heavy glass and stainless steel doors, it was clear to me that everyone inside the visitor center was surprised to see me, not because of anything about me, but simply because I was a human being. I was literally the only non-employee in this entire visitor center. It’s amazing what snow does to history tourism. Despite the fact that it was winter and snowing, I was sweating greatly, and was glad of the opportunity to take my coat off, breathe a little bit, stomp the snow out of every crease and crevice. I was thirsty and hungry, as I didn’t leave the house with the intention to walk halfway across the city, so I went straight to the concession stand, got me a bottle of water, a hot coffee, and some sort of breakfast sandwich.  I sat alone in the bright, metal cafeteria, my belly growing content as I fed it.  I took note that outside, it had begun snowing again, and heavier this time.  It was quiet in the visitor center.  I was far from home.

 

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This day started very early. I woke up around 4am not knowing what I was going to do with the day, but knowing that I wanted to wake up early enough to have a really thorough day, if you know what I mean. I was living by myself in Erie Pennsylvania, in an apartment, one bedroom, on the second level of an old house that was nearing dilapidation, but still teetering on the edge of respectability. It was smack-dab in the middle of summer, and waking up at 4am, the whole apartment was already laden with a heat, an oppressive second floor apartment kind of heat; a thin layer of sweat somehow on everything you looked at. I rolled out of bed, made myself a latte on my proudly-acquired home espresso machine, and set about pondering what to do with such a lengthy, summery kind of day all to myself.  I took a long, overly hot shower while the local morning news played on the television which I had crammed into my tiny bathroom. I stayed in the shower for the whole newscast, mind mostly blank. After the shower, while air drying mostly to cool off, I randomly selected a DVD from my bloated collection, and came up with “The 40 Year Old Virgin”, a movie that I don’t know how it ended up in my collection and no longer resides there, but at the time, a mindless comedy seemed just the ticket. I laid on my couch and let the Steve Carell comedy wash over me. Having gotten up so early that an immense amount of day still laid stretched out before me, even after my lengthy ablutions. What to do? Living by one’s self for so long, and so far from everyone you know, turns days and 31316_1458245861882_8379455_nmornings into quiet studies of one’s inner mechanics, and if you linger too long without plans, your cogs and belts begin to make a lot of noise. Suddenly it hit me: Niagara Falls. I’d been living relatively close to Niagara Falls for almost a year at this point, and it was always something bouncing around the periphery of what I wanted to do, but I never quite made it there, never quite made that my actual plan. Almost the moment that it struck me, I bounded off the couch, went to my computer to MapQuest the directions, threw on some clothes and some essentials into a backpack, and I was out the door.  I don’t remember much about the drive, although certainly there had to be a drive. It was close but not incredibly close, probably something like an hour and 15 minutes. A decent trip, but then again, much closer than almost anyone else in the world lives to such landmark. I remember having trouble figuring out where to park when I got close to it, the town itself surrounding it not exactly being incredibly helpful with instructions.  Finally I did get my car parked, and walked across a large grassy mall, the sound of the falls quite distinct, just like you expect the sound of Niagara Falls to be: thunderous, droning, like a white noise that comes from within.  I remember hearing the falls, I remember a large grassy area you had to walk across to get to it, but I don’t remember actually arriving at the falls.  In fact, the order of what I did that day and the specifics of how I did it, are lost in the labyrinth of my brain. I did the touristy things, I rode the boat, I walked up and down the path alongside the falls, I wore the poncho they provide you. I took selfies on the boat, all by myself, surrounded by revelers and families and church groups. After doing the requisite attractions, I found myself walking around the grounds, reading the historical markers, interpreting the interpretive maps. I noticed that there was a small landmass called Goat Island, out of the middle of the river, one of the features that gives the Falls that look, where it is divided occasionally, not one big solid Falls. It was accessible quite easily via a pedestrian bridge across the river, so I went out there, reading the Wikipedia entry on my phone as I went, the long and somewhat interesting history of the island, its ownership and various names. I arrived on the island to find a sweltering patch of grass, the heat dense with liquid, the roar of the falls now like a white noise outside myself, like a curtain descending. The island itself was no larger than a small park, and trees lined the northern edge, so that one couldn’t actually see the land fall away at the end.  I had the island entirely to myself. Of course the only thing to do on an island like that is to walk toward the edge. Walking through the grass I was assaulted by bugs everywhere, insects nipping at my legs, bouncing off my knees like miniature Kamikazes. The closer and closer I got to the river, the more amazed I was that there were no protections of any kind in place. One expects to find some sort of railing here, some warning signs, maybe even Park Rangers or something. But no, the island just walks right up to the river, and right up to the falls, anyone with dark designs would be in no way dissuaded.  The design of the island makes it challenging to walk right up to the falls, but instead it is very easy to sit at a clearing about twenty yards away from the actual precipice. I took my backpack off and sat in the grass, and looked out across the Niagara River, just beginning to get a real good head of steam up, just beginning to get its little whitecaps and wavelets, the water not knowing it was about to fly.  The heat washed over me, the insect buzzing began to mesh with the white noise of the falls, it all became a hot buzzing constant, I laid my head on the grass and sunk in, sunk down into the dirt, I was so far from home, and for a moment, I had no idea where I was, or maybe even who I was.

 

********************************************************************

“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown
Waiting for something or someone to show you the way.

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’, by Pink Floyd

 

Days of Everything

 

It was a cold night, but not too cold, which was fortunate, because we had to park very far away from the arena. I unbuckled Boy from his car seat and heaved him into the air, bringing him next to my cheek to give him a kiss in the crisp evening air. “This soccer game?” He asked. “Yes,” I told him. “This is the big building I told you about.” I sat him down and stuck out my hand for him to grab, as we strolled quickly through the immense parking lot together. He had lots of questions. He kept calling it football, which was interesting, I thought, since most of the world referred to soccer as football, but he couldn’t possibly know that, could he? Most of his questions weren’t really about the sport we were about to go watch, but the building it was in. How could a building be so big that you could play soccer inside of it? How tall was it, was it taller than the telephone poles? Taller than our house? Will there be snacks? Soft pretzels? I’ve become accustomed to the constant barrage of questions at this point, pulling from deep within me a patience I honestly did not think I possessed.  Not that this patience is without limits—but at any rate, I seem to have more than I thought.  I suspect a toddler will prove this to be true of most anyone.

I was surprised by the patience he displayed as we waited in a long line to buy tickets. It seems every day, he is making leaps and bounds, growing in things like patience, understanding, and empathy. Which is not to say he’s still not a little ball of emotions that doesn’t know how to act, just maybe a little less so than a few months ago or a year ago. He’s becoming much more of a companion as opposed to a force of nature to wrangle and watch. While for the most part, time with Boy is still all about teaching, there are moments now of truly just being.  And “just being” with a little guy like boy is more magic than I’m accustomed to.

Finally, tickets procured, we entered the concourse, looking for our section. I hadn’t studied the arena map extensively, and had chosen seats in the section on the complete opposite side of the concourse, so we had to walk past countless souvenir stands and snack bars, him wanting desperately to stop at each, and also wanting to enter into each section as we passed, with me constantly trying to tell him that it wasn’t much farther, not much farther. But through it all, he didn’t freak out or melt down or cry, just implored me strongly. Finally we came upon our entrance to the arena, and I picked him up because I knew the stairs were going to be steep and he was probably going to be shocked by the sight of walking into the big room. Carrying him on my side, we entered the arena proper, and although an indoor soccer field lacks the nebulous breathtaking quality of a baseball field, the sudden shock of green and the expanse of a sudden cavernous room had its desired effect on the countencance of Boy, which is to say, it produced a certain amount of awe. After pausing to allow him to soak it in, we climbed up the steep steps, to find our seats. We were all alone in our section, something I had to ask the ticket man to do, in case it did not go very well. Boy was beyond excited to sit here. He was very into his seat, enamored with the idea that the number on it matched  the number on his ticket, and in this enormous room, this seat was his and his alone. He was not restless as I had feared, his eyes trained on the action on the field. I would steal sidelong glances at him, see his eyes glued to the action, his head swiveling as the ball bounced back and forth, his complete concentration and immersion something only possible in the earliest years of life, and during a first exposure to things; the sights and sounds meshing with dawning understanding, realization writ large across his face. He would sometimes stop his concentration to ask questions about the goalies, which he called The Goal Guys, their different colored jerseys causing him no end of confusion. Later, as he was able to again float back into our world, he would watch me for cues whenever the arena sound system would play the tropes of modern sporting events: the “Charge!” song, the “De-Fense!” chant, and on and on. He saw and understood there was an audience participation element and he wanted to learn.  I would raise my fist and yell “Charge!”, glancing over to see him mimic it, his tiny voice bursting forth its own “Charge!”  This moment, especially, nearly crippled me with emotion.

He paid close attention to the game and stayed quite interested for well over an hour and a half when he started to fall asleep on my shoulder. I told him I thought it was time to go, and he protested quite strongly, saying he didn’t want to miss anything. And I kept giving in, saying we could stay, and then he kept falling asleep again, until eventually I picked him up, went up the stairs to the upper concourse, and told him he should get down and walk around and look at all the empty chairs, all the sections without anybody in them. The arena was quite empty, in fact, especially once one got up to the upper reaches. We got to a very high section, a corner section so high up you could almost touch the roof in a few of the spots, and as we emerged into it, it became clear that it had not even been cleaned out or looked at after the preceding weekend’s Motocross event in the arena. Everywhere there was trash, even half-eaten food and some beer cans on their sides. It was an astonishing array of trash and smells to walk into amid what appeared to be an otherwise normal arena. It was immediately too late for me to backtrack and take him out of this section, he was much too interested in the hows or whys this could have happened. I explained as best I could that they assumed they would not sell any tickets in this section for the soccer game, so they must be waiting to clean up from the Motocross. He did not want to walk around the section, but he also didn’t want to leave. I picked him up and we watched the soccer from way high up near the ceiling, looking down on all that old trash and beer cans, until he looked at me and told me he was ready to go home. I felt that I had a companion here, a little guy who I could teach and learn from, who was now going to be interested in things, who was present with me.

*********************************************************************

 

It wasn’t too long ago that we had a little get-together for Boy’s birthday. My Love’s father was there—and let me tell you, I like Love’s father so much it’s nearly criminal–as well as both of my parents and my paternal grandmother. My parents have been divorced for quite a few years, and yet they get along like the best of friends, and there was my dad’s mother, chatting it up with his ex-wife, all while boy ran around and told everyone he loves them all the time, and climbed on everybody, and climbed on me, while I held Loves hand, while the room was full of talk and laughter, while there was warmth everywhere, and everywhere I looked there was future, future, future.

 

**********************************************************************

 

My love and I put on our light spring jackets and walked into the crisp evening. Just the two of us, we interlocked our hands, and headed down the street toward Midtown. It is one of the benefits of living where we do, that usually, given the right weather and the right child care situation, we can walk to some of the places that we like to spend time together. This night it was simple: we were going out to eat. It was one of the last walkable nights of the year, and we knew it. The cold was setting in, soon we would be driving everywhere and stuck inside like prisoners.  So tonight, we knew, was a walking night.

There was a very popular and artsy restaurant in the middle of Midtown, which somehow we still had not made it to. Recently they had started serving a very popular veggie burger, that all of our friends were talking about, and we still hadn’t tried. It had been on our list for weeks.

The thing about taking a somewhat lengthy walk with the person that you love is that it forces conversation you don’t normally have inside the house or perhaps in a moving car. You see things that you don’t normally see, are reminded of things you might only see or think of by yourself, you’re moving at an interesting pace, a different speed. I love holding hands and walking with my love. I love the way her hand feels, I love being connected to her physically in that way, I love being able to look at her face from the side so often. I love being able to point out things, and have her point out things to me, elements of our neighborhood that we only see when we are walking the dog by ourselves.  I love kissing her outside. Many people spend most of their lives in relationships and begin to take things like this for granted, maybe even very early on in life, they assume they will have a companion in this form. Having spent so long single, small things like holding hands, walking down the street, these things never seem anything other than magical to me. My love thrills me.  Literally every single thing about her. It’s electric.

Twenty minutes later we found ourselves the only customers in the artsy eating establishment, it being only five o’clock. We were talking about the art on the wall, the interesting sculptures, the funny man who kept looking at us askance from inside the kitchen. We talked about the interesting ordering system the restaurant used, the haphazard way salt was placed on some of the tables but not others, we talked about our days, we held hands and looked at each other. Sometimes we didn’t say anything and that was lovely in its own way. When you know someone is your true partner, being in their presence is a constant salve.

The food came and it was delicious, just as delicious as everyone says it is was, and it was fantastic to share a meal with someone who shares so many of my worldviews, who has the compassion in the same places I do, love and freedom in the same proportions, to share a meal with a woman who has taught me so much. As I was finishing off my Diet Pepsi, stealing glances at this woman, I kept thinking some of the same thoughts I come back to all the time.  How I waited so long to find her.  How, when I did find her, I couldn’t and still can’t believe how perfect she is.  How my journey to find her wasn’t about me, or even the journey, but it was about her, about us.  How I still learn about her every day and she’s such a delicious mystery.  How she fits so well.  I looked at her as I sat there, finishing my Diet Pepsi, and I said to her the only thing one can say, given the unbearable weight of the world:  I can’t believe you’re finally here.

 

***************************************************************

The days, good or bad, really do just stretch out like deserts, uncountable deserts, again and again and again.  Some, you find, contain nothing: plodding marches under a bored sun.  But sometimes, they are filled up, filled with everything you ever dreamed, brazen neon signs of days, confetti and love love love.  I don’t know about you, but I’m trying to figure out how to keep them filled up.  I want the days of everything, forever.

Days of Nothing

Posted in Memoir with tags , , , , , , , on February 20, 2017 by sethdellinger

It had been a hot summer. Summers are always hot, and Pennsylvania summers get that special kind of humidity working for them, but this summer had just been a rainforest ordeal. We spent every day with a thin sheen of sweat on us almost all the time, even indoors, even in the dark in the basement. It was a summer of Sloe Gin Fizzes, chain-smoking Newports, sitting on the front porch.  It was a stoop, really, but we called it a porch, although you entered through the side door, not the front.

I was staying quite suddenly and unexpectedly with two of my friends who were renting a house in the middle of the Pennsylvania countryside. And I mean Countryside. At least a 20-minute drive from where anyone might consider civilization. The view from that front porch was actual and real rolling Pennsylvania Hills, green as Ireland, constantly sun-dappled, you could see the shadows of clouds as they passed overhead, rolling down the hills like boulders. Cows and sheep on the periphery, small tree outcroppings dotting the very tops of the horizons. I make it sound kind of lovely, but in fact, it was a pretty awful time for everybody.

See, if you are from Pennsylvania, it would mean something if I told you this was in Perry County, and really far out in the middle of Perry County. How these friends rented the house, how they found it, I’ll never know. But there I found myself, immediately after giving up on a semester of college, literally walking away from classes that were over three-quarters of the way done, because I couldn’t stop drinking long enough to wake up in the morning, or do homework or even read Mark Twain books. I simply threw in the towel, and after spending a couple weeks tooling around campus aimlessly, I decided to just jump ship entirely, threw what little belongings I had into the back of my 1983 Ford Escort, and drove an hour from my college out into the middle of the rolling god-damned Hills. I did this in order to spend the summer with two people who were likewise as troubled as I was, but in different ways, and we were miserable as hell together. We’d spend entire mornings out in front of the house with a two-by-four, swatting at the huge bumble bees as they flew past us, drinking 20 ounce cans of Busch beer, trying to kill as many of those bees as we could, for no reason other than there was nothing else to do. We’d sit on our plastic lawn chairs on that porch, with our view of the field, secretly hoping that it was manure spreading day, just so that there was something to look at, something to talk about, something to complain about other than the heat and the damn bees.

We spent our nights inside, in the dark basement, lit only by multiple strings of Christmas lights, the smell of must and tobacco smoke, no television, no stereo. Just imbibing and talking, and sometimes in full silence. I spent the whole summer reading one issue of Guitar World magazine, articles I didn’t even understand, once everybody else was asleep, reading these damn guitar articles in the almost total darkness, falling asleep on a dust-covered couch. It was terrible and wonderful.

One morning, as we were sitting on our stoop smoking our cigarettes watching the distant rolling hills as though something might erupt from them, an Amish boy strolled past on the street in front of our yard, walking his ancient bike beside him. He stood and looked at us, as though he were seeing something for the very first time, some true curiosity. Thinking we were some sort of cultural emissaries, we approached him and struck up a conversation. I can’t remember now what was said between us, what inane questions we must have asked in the name of science, but after a 20-minute conversation, he went his way and we went back to the stoop, thinking we had just crossed some cultural divide. I can’t be sure what we said, but I know who I was back then, so I know I was an asshole.

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In my early twenties there was a short time period when I stayed with my mother in a small apartment she was renting in the small Pennsylvania town of Dillsburg. This was during a time when she went on frequent extended trips for her job, so even though it was a place where I wasn’t paying any rent, I would find myself with my own apartment for a couple days at a time, here and there. Living the kind of life I was living then, which is to say, mildly indigent, alone time was a fairly sacrosanct rarity. On these times when she was gone, I would wake up on the couch, still mildly dizzy from my stupor the night before, find some water to drink, and commence sitting there, absorbing cable television, mixing large amounts of Diet Coke with larger amounts of cheap gin, chainsmoking generic menthol light cigarettes until the whole room was suffused with a haze as if it were packing material. Somehow having that apartment to myself, and enough booze and cigarettes and food I hadn’t paid for to last me through a couple days, felt like I had a luxury a room on a cruise liner. I would crank up the air-conditioning, raid her collection of compact discs, listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole” over and over again at an incredibly high volume. One such night, after a lengthy day of solo debauchery, I found myself inexplicably out in the parking lot of the apartment complex, wandering aimlessly, smoking my cigarette with a gin and Coke in a supersize McDonald’s cup. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly I heard from behind me someone yell my name. It took me awhile to realize what I was witnessing, but it was one of my more lengthy roommates from college, suddenly here in this parking lot, 45 minutes from the town we went to school in. At this point, I must have been out of college for about two years and hadn’t heard from him since (this is pre-Facebook and even pre-MySpace). I couldn’t believe my eyes! After getting over both of our initial confusions, I learned that not only did he live in the same apartment complex, but he lived with a man that we were also roommates with. The three of us had shared an apartment for about a year in college, and now they were living together and working in the town of Dillsburg, while I was mooching off my mother in the same apartment complex! It was almost too much to handle. Excited for the reunion, we both walked into their apartment, and sure enough, there was the third roommate, and he was just as shocked as us! We spent about half an hour catching up on what we had done since school, and then sat there in a kind of dazed boredom. We had nothing to talk about. It hadn’t been that long ago we were in college, pulling pranks, making silly movies, running all over the town like young people who would never die,  would never have a problem in the world. But now just a few years later here we were, clearly at different crossroads. We sat in silence and watched a movie, and then I left and never went back there again.

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Time is a sad, dense fog over a sea, and places are lighted buoys.  The people?  I don’t know, maybe they’re boats, or fishes.  The days stretch out like dreams in a desert.

Origin Story, or: Where I Started

Posted in Memoir, Prose, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2016 by sethdellinger

1.

I hunched inside my filthy, smoke-laden 1983 Ford Escort in the parking lot of the corporate office. It had been a three hour drive in the early morning, from my home in Central Pennsylvania to where I was now in Pittsburgh. I had worked for the company for eight years, but this was the first time I was seeing the home office. Although my excitement and nervousness was palpable, I couldn’t deny some disappointment with the plainness of the building. It wasn’t in bustling downtown Pittsburgh like I expected, but in some suburban shopping village, and although it was not a small building, its common brick exterior and clean design was reminiscent more of an upscale middle school than what I had been expecting. But nonetheless, here I was nervous. I was preparing finally for an interview to get into management. I had been a dishwasher and then a cook while I struggled and slouched through my early twenties, and now that I had begun to straighten myself out, my boss was taking notice, and suggested I become an actual manager. It seemed ludicrous to me at first, the idea that people would let me be in charge of something. But more and more, the idea took hold within me. I had, after all, basically been running the kitchen in that restaurant for years. The more that my bosses told me I had a bright future with the company, the more comfortable I became with the idea that I was a leader, that I was already a leader. I didn’t know anything about doing it officially, but it did start to seem like a natural idea. I was nervous as heck though. I had no idea how to answer questions for a job that entailed real-world grownup things. And now that I had been thinking about it so long, it became something I wanted very much, so I did not know what I would do if I just bombed the whole thing. My manager had done the best he could to prepare me, but this was all uncharted territory for me. I was wearing a clip-on tie that I had stolen from my father’s closet. And pants that I had gotten from JCPenney just for the occasion. I swung open the Escort’s door, and, putting on a fake face of bravery and confidence as much as I possibly could muster, I walked toward the bland brick building. Once I swung open the big glass doors and walked inside, I ceased being unimpressed.

2.

I’m in high school.  I think I’m probably 17.  Maybe I’m 16.  Who can remember details like that all these years later?  Details like how old you were.  Those kinds of details or statistics rarely matter.  Anyway I was a kid still, a teenager, you know?  I don’t remember anything about the evening that lead up to this night I’m telling you about.  I know I was with three of my friends–or more accurately, two of my friends and one of their girlfriends.  I began the evening in the backseat of one of the friends’ cars.  We were going somewhere to drink, to get drunk.  But this was a special night, because I had never drank before, or at least, I had never been drunk.  Sure, I’d had a few glasses of watered-down wine at some family wedding when I was a tyke, but I’d never felt any effects.  My friends and I had never snuck or stolen any kind of alcohol yet. Tonight was our first.  One of my friends–the one with the car and the girlfriend–knew a grown man named something like Darius who lived in Carlisle, which was the bigger town closest to our smaller town. I have no idea how he knew this man.  We arrived at his house sometime after sundown.  I didn’t know Carlisle very well then but later I would end up having my first apartment by myself very close to this Darius’ place.  Life is cuckoo like that, no?  So I settle into a deep, plush chair in this guy’s apartment–he has a girlfriend there, too, and they’re so much older than us I assume they’re married.  Darius has procured us all “forties”, or malt liquor that comes in 40 oz bottles.  I crack open the cap with a high level of anticipation.  It tastes horrible.  Wretched.  Very, very hard to drink the whole thing.  But I want it.  I want the buzz, the feeling, whatever it is–I’ve seen other people have it and I want it.  We all sit there nursing our 40s for awhile–I can’t tell you how long, who can remember those details?–and it gets a little easier to get it down as the night goes on.  I feel slightly light-headed but nothing to write home about.  I was disappointed to slowly learn throughout the evening that there was no more alcohol, just one 40 for each of us.  At some point I said to Darius (or whatever his name was), “Hey, I’ll give you a few buck to go get me just one beer.”  Everyone laughed, because you can’t go buy just one beer to-go, but I didn’t know, I didn’t know.  We left then shortly thereafter and by the time I got home, even my light-headedness was gone.  I knew, as I lay there in my bed, that I was gonna chase that feeling, that I was gonna find it.

3.

It’s 5 AM. It is still very dark outside, and it’s cold. I’m taking my very inexpensive bicycle out of the back of my car. I’m in Presque Isle State Park, in Erie, Pennsylvania, way up in the upper left-hand corner of the state. Presque Isle is a forested peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie–Pennsylvania’s northernmost point and only seven miles from (still not-visible) Canada.  It’s about seven years since I started my management career, about 16 years since I took my first drink in that cushy chair with Darius, and about eight years since I had my last drink. I am putting a bicycle on a road that goes the length of Presque Isle, tracing the peninsula’s outer edge. I had set my alarm for 4:30. I wanted to be the very first person out on the peninsula this morning. It was awfully fun loading my car up in what seemed like the middle of the night, driving the 15 minutes through the city out to the lake, but when I got to the entrance to the park, there was a car already there waiting. But shortly after the gates opened, the car went a different direction, so I still felt like I had the entire peninsula all to myself. The crooning of the insects, the chirping of the birds, seems all for me. This solitary performance of nature is just another extension of my current life, the manner in which I am completely alone. Five hours from all my family and friends, when even a trip to the local Walmart poses zero possibility of running into anyone I know, it’s easy to begin to think that the birds and insects sing only for you. As I hoist myself onto my bike, I smile more broadly that I have in years. I recently discovered the joy of bicycling, and having this peninsula cutting into Lake Erie all to myself on this chilly but slowly brightening, slowly warming morning, somehow becomes the most delicious moment I could have possibly imagined for myself. As I pedal faster and faster, following the road that faces the outer limits of the peninsula, that happiness simply grows and grows. How did I come to live this life? How did I come to be so lucky? The birds and insects above increase in volume, as the lake reveals itself on my right, at this time of morning still a black mirror stretching out farther than I ever would’ve imagined, more vast than I want to ponder.

4.

I haven’t experienced as much death in my life as many folks have, but I have seen more than a few people I knew and loved shuffle off.  What a strange thing, too, when people die, right?  Suddenly they’re just not there anymore, like a phantom limb, or a dream you can’t shake.  What always rattles me most is how often the person truly fades from our lives.  Sure, we mourn them, we miss them, we still love them.  But usually we get rid of their stuff right away, clear out everything they spent their whole lives acquiring.  We loved them but not their stuff.  Then shortly after they die we consider it poor form to talk about them too much; why dwell on the past?  It might be considered obsessive to ask too many questions about what their life meant, what it meant to you or the universe, and what they might be experiencing now.  When I used to think about my death a lot–when I was sad, which isn’t now–I would imagine my loved ones saving the books and movies from my shelves, saying Oh Seth loved these, I will read them all as a tribute!  But I know now they won’t, and even that they shouldn’t.  I’ll just be gone, and this mountain I spent my whole journey climbing, crafting myself carefully out of nothing, will just fade, fade, fade.

5.

The boy had me in a headlock.  I’d never been in a headlock before—at least, not one that was meant to hurt—and so I was confused.  There’s not much worse than being confused, hurt, and restrained all at the same time.  Especially when you’re seven years old.

Really, I should have seen it coming.  Even though I was only seven and had never been in a fight in my life, I knew that the boy was bad news, and I had seen him in the church yard before I went in there myself.  And he’d been giving me awful, evil kid-signals for months.  I should have seen it coming.  But what do you want from me?  I was seven.

I walked into the church yard with a tennis ball and a baseball mitt, planning to throw my ball against the big wall on the south end of the church and catch the bounces; to this day, one of my favorite things to do.  But I saw him. The neighborhood’s resident bad kid.  The badass. His family lived in that gross house with all the trash in the back yard, and he never seemed clean; always had a brownish undercurrent to his skin, as if he’d just survived a house fire.  And the neighborhood was filled with the stories of the kids he’d beat up, spit on, ran his bike into.  I’d never been in his class at school but I’d seen him on the playground, and it seemed he lived up to his reputation.  But I must have assumed, for whatever reason, that I would somehow be safe from him.

And there he was, in the church yard on an otherwise abandoned afternoon.  Who knows what he was doing?  Probably breaking branches off of trees, throwing rocks into bushes.  Something pointless that seemed mildly primitive.  I chose to ignore him and walked around the church’s large beige utility shed toward the wall where I’d throw my ball.

(most of my life, this day at the church yard stood as my definition of terror.  Powerlessness.  Rigid cold fear.  What death might be like)

So I threw my ball.  Plunk, plop.  Plunk, plop.  Plunk, plop.  A joy in the mindlessness, in the solid feeling of the ball entering the glove’s sweet spot, in the lively reaction of tennis ball meeting brick wall.  And the emptiness of the church yard, the silence, the perfect echoes.  No cars, no distant sounds of grown-ups on telephone calls, just me, the ball, the mitt, and the echoes.

And then the boy was beside me.  I managed a weak “Hi” but I could see this wasn’t friendly.  The hairs on my neck stood up, my heart dropped to my knees.  He ran at me, but neither a fight nor a flight instinct kicked in.  I did not fully understand this development.  The moment before he struck me (with what the kids back then called a ‘clothesline’) I tried to speak, to say something, to reason him out of this, but it was too late, and I flew to the ground as though I’d been pulled by stage wires.

I stood up, not yet crying.  Bewildered and disoriented, trying to focus my vision,  trying to ask him why he did that.  I mean, I was just playing with my ball.  Had he mistaken me for someone else who had wronged him in the past?  Was he rabid, like the dogs my parents told me about?  Was he—

—and then I was hit again, with another clothesline, and was knocked down even harder than the first time.  I hadn’t even seen him coming, I simply felt the hit and went down without any warning.  But now I had wizened up just a little bit.  Still having no idea why the attack was occurring, I had at least figured out that it was occurring, and I got up immediately and began running.  I did not run toward home, as it was too far away and he would catch me for sure.  Instead I ran toward the swings and the slide.  Kids seem to figure out pretty early that playground slides are an excellent tactical position; once you’ve climbed the stairs of the slide and are safely perched atop it, others trying to get at you will have a tough time; if they try to come up the stairs, you can just slide down, then as they are coming down, you can go back up.  This is not a foolproof system, but it does buy time, and so it was to the slide that I presently ran.  And I made it to the landing at the top, swiveled around, scanning for the boy.  Sure enough, there he was, ten yards away, in front of the slide itself, as though I might be foolish enough of a child to just see a slide and go down it; as though I would have some Pavlovian play response.  He stood there grinning like the Devil himself, like he wanted to kill me.  And at that moment I believed he would.

As far as I knew, I was not just in some childhood tale of woe.  I was in a fight for my life, and I knew nothing about fighting.  I was a tiny kid by any standard.  Short, skinny.  I was also quiet, shy, a little withdrawn.  Nothing had prepared me for a moment like this.  I knew to go to the slide by watching other boys fight during recess.  It’s been largely my experience that contrary to what is portrayed in films and television, boys typically avoid beating up small boys.  It does little to advance their hierarchical positions and may even make them seem weak.  Up until this day in the church yard, I’d been left alone.

I held my ground on the slide fairly well.  He came up a few times, I escaped down the slide, and then I made it back up again after he came down after me.  A few times, as he lurked below, simply watching me atop the slide, I called down to him, asking him why he was doing this.  I imagine it must have sounded pathetic, pleading, like a man begging his executioner for his life when he knows he’s doomed.  I pleaded my innocence and the senselessness of what he was doing.  I did cry.  He was sinister.  Truly sinister.

After an interminable amount of time, he did a perplexing thing.  He sat on one of the swings that was directly beside the slide, and he started swinging.  I was, however, only perplexed for a short time.  I saw the ruse.  I would either think he was done with the attack and try to leave, whenupon he would murder me, or I’d actually go sit on the other swing to swing with him, whenupon he’d murder me.  I decided I could do neither, and so I simply continued to stand atop the slide, watching him swing.  It felt like days passed.  I wasn’t sure if maybe I could actually die atop the slide merely from the passage of time.  It seemed I probably could.  But leaving the safety of the slide also equaled death.  My young mind swam.

I finally made a run for it.  I wooshed down the slide steps, through the lawn of the playground area, onto the newly built, woodsmelling porch of the Newville Area Senior Center (an old house that stood and still stands on the church property), around the side of the Senior Center and into the bush-lined, circular sidewalk toward Big Spring Avenue.  Only about thirty more feet of church yard to go!  I could see Big Spring Avenue, and the houses that lined the street!  Civilization, and grown-ups, and policemen inhabited that street.  Certainly I couldn’t be killed within sight of the street!

But then he hit me from behind.  I catapulted through the bushes, off the Senior Center’s sidewalk, and out of sight of the street.  And then he was upon me.

He had me in a headlock.  I’d never been in a headlock before—at least, not one that was meant to hurt—and so I was confused.  There’s not much worse than being confused, hurt, and restrained all at the same time.  Especially when you’re seven years old.  But he was also seven—a thought that hasn’t occurred to me until just now.  How two boys can have such different breadths of experience with headlocks mystifies me.

I couldn’t breathe.  He had all his weight on me.  I was crying without breathing, the most alarming bout of terror I have ever experienced sweeping over me.  Here was death, here was the end.  I did not think of any of the cliché things dying folks supposedly think about.  I simply thought how horrible dying was going to be.  I was pretty sure nothing happened after you died—nothing at all.  Just an infinite blackness.  Why would he do this to me?  I had just been playing with my ball.

And then it was over.  He was off me.  I still don’t know how or why.  I never saw him get off me, or waited to speak to him.  When I felt him release me, I got up and ran as fast as I possibly could toward home, which was only one block away but to a seven year old it’s a decent little distance.  I was crying so hard I thought I’d throw up.  I was so mad, and sad, and confused.  Then, as now, being made helpless is about as bad as it gets.

I hated him for showing me that for the first time.  As I ran, I thought of the most horrible things a seven year old can conjure and wished they were at my command:  the light that shines on nothing, the mirror that reflects only another mirror, the fruit that ate itself.  These things were worse than helpless, they were hopeless, and I would engulf the world with them.

When I got home, Mom was working in the garden out back.  I hugged her so hard and cried so hard.  So much of my life has been about fear: about how much I had or how much I didn’t have.

6.

I was born on a frigid Friday in January of 1978.  There was a snowstorm, this much I know because the story is often told by my family.  It was snowing and maybe somewhat icy that day and it was a treacherous trip to the hospital.  Many of the finer details have been lost to time.  It seems as though maybe my father stayed home with my older sister–she also famously fell on some ice on the day of my birth, when she was home with Dad–but I have always got conflicting stories about when and how everyone arrived at the hospital.  It was cold.  It was snowy.  All these people that would become my family were probably very nervous and confused.  How challenging to think there was a day when you weren’t here, and the next day, you were.  Or: one hour you aren’t here, and the next hour, you are.  All crying and red and scrunched-up, a big ball of mushed-up senses.  You just…popped into existence.

7.

On this gloriously sunny and hot day just a little under a year ago, I found myself at a park about an hour from where I live, with the woman of my dreams and a delightful young boy. The boy is her son, who I am helping to raise, both of whom I found myself suddenly and joyfully living with. On this day, it’s a weekend that we all have off together, and my love has found this fantastic event for us to attend, a kind of history-themed craft and art fair. I have not been playing the role of family man for very long at this point, but already I know that this is what I want, what I need in order to become me, the real version of me. We walk together as a unit, commenting on the smell of the french fries, or the historical paintings made by local artisans. When our little man wanders away, I chase after him as he giggles, imploring him in a high-pitched comedic tone not to run too fast. My lady love buys me iced coffee, holds my hand tightly. We stop at the little kids’ events, little painting and craft tables, things where you spin wheels and automatically win tchotchkes. I love seeing his face light up, and I revel in taking pictures of her with him, as they are experiencing things together. In previous versions of my life, I would’ve come to this fair by myself, taking it in almost as a cultural anthropologist, loving the fact that I was able to be so alone amongst so many people. But here and now, I don’t miss that. I wonder who I was then, how was I like that? These two people are everything I could ever want. Eventually we make our way to one of the smaller event stages, where representatives from our local zoo will be bringing out animals to show kids. First there is a falcon, and the three of us, in the front row, are rightly impressed.  One after another more animals come out, and he shrieks, sits on her lap and then mine, and she leans into the crook of my neck, I can feel her smile against my skin, and when the zookeeper brings out the snake and walks just a few feet from us with it and the boy surprises us by saying snake, she squeezes my hand even tighter, we are so surprised together, and he squirms on my lap and coos at the animals, and I can feel myself, with such absolute astonishment, being born.

Just ‘Cause You Feel It

Posted in Memoir with tags , , , on November 9, 2015 by sethdellinger

I was driving my 1983 Ford Escort through the New Jersey countryside.  I remember the sun–the sun flying into the front seat so hard and fast I could almost see the light particles moving, could feel them beating my chest, my shaved bare scalp.  I had the front windows rolled down all the way and the air whipped around the little room–because really that’s what a car is, a tiny moveable room–like a wild wind whirlpool.

I had just moved to New Jersey a few weeks earlier, to live with my mother and her husband after my life had fallen apart back in Pennsylvania.  It was a time of rebirth for me unlike anything I had experienced before or would ever experience again.  I was melancholy, and joyful, and full of deep heaving sorrows and belly-laughs.  I was on “the pink cloud”, as some folks refer to this sort of time period.

My old ’83 Escort, who I called Earl Grey, did not come equipped with a CD player or even a tape deck, so I had a boombox sitting of the passenger seat floor on which I would play CDs.  It wasn’t as convenient as cars nowadays but sometimes working harder for your simple pleasures makes them more enjoyable.  The CDs would skip a lot and I have memories of being very annoyed by this but of course the passage of time now makes the skipping CDs seem endearing.

I remember specifically on this day (as on many days during this time period) I was listening to Radiohead’s album Hail to the Theif.  Over the next fifteen years I would come to see this album as a winter album but it was the soundtrack to my summer that year, its drowsy, hypnotic plea serving as a counterpoint to the frenetic buzzing of insects, far-off lightning storms, and revving motorcycles at the biker bar next door to my mom’s house.

On this particular day, I was exploring the back country roads in the area around my mom’s house, an area loosely known as Neshanic Station, New Jersey.  The country roads are pleasingly bendy and hilly out there, with lots of big ol’ green and yellow fields on all sides of you.  As I may have mentioned, the sun was beating into my chest like cannonball particles sent across the cosmos, the wind was a whirling dervish, and Radiohead, although skipping, assured me in bizarre time signatures that just ’cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.

I rounded a bend in a road I’d never been down before, and when a stand of trees suddenly dropped from view, I saw quite astonishingly there were two hot air balloons, fully inflated, just a few hundred feet off the ground over a field in front of me.  It was, you might imagine, an incredibly surprising sight.  I immediately looked for a place to pull over.  There was a pulloff just a few yards further, which also happened to nestle a tiny winding creek.  I hopped out of my car, turning my boombox up even more so I could hear my Radiohead as I got out of the car.

This was not only before smart phones, it was even before everyone had a cell phone, or even a digital camera.  It was before MySpace existed.  So my experience was still limited to just myself.  I had never sent a text message or posted a status, and having not done so yet, I did not feel the absence of such.

I walked out into the field, mesmerized by these red mammoths above me.  I could hear the pilots talking, could hear the occasional hiss of the burners igniting.  They cast twin bulbouse shadows across the expanse of the untilled field.  I took my shoes off and waded into the small creek.  The balloons were coming even lower, I could feel the air density change around me as they passed directly overhead and the cold, cold water swirled around my feel like a whirling dervish, and Radiohead continued to insist Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.

I was still new to real life, but I knew it wouldn’t be like this forever, but I couldn’t imagine what else it could possibly be like.

where the light gets in

Posted in Memoir with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2015 by sethdellinger

  1.

 

I awoke slowly, groggily, dry-mouthed.  Beneath my body I could feel a bed, a nice bed, cushioney and soft, but also the obtuse crinkle of a plastic sheet.  Then came the sensation of the plastic pillowcase; and then, finally, I remembered.

I was in rehab, and this was my first moment waking up there.  I didn’t dare yet open my eyes.  Who knew what kind of world this was?  

My body felt sick, tired, disgusting.  I was shaking, but not externally.  My insides shook, as if my muscle and blood were a loosely-congealed jelly.  I was hot–I could feel my body heat transferring from my head to the plastic pillow case.  I had to cough, and vomit.  Every bad thing a body can tell you, I was being told, but only slightly, moderately, on the periphery of emergency.  I was in this facility for the treatment of alcohol dependency.  I had arrived in an incredibly drunk state, and so only remembered small pieces of the event.  I did not remember entering the room I was in, or laying on the bed.  I had memory flashes of receptionists, bathrooms, swallowing pills.  Bright fluorescent lights in drop ceilings.  A hallway.  Very little to go on.  I had, in fact, no idea how long I’d been asleep.

I became aware of what had woken me: the sounds of people talking outside my room.  Still without opening my eyes, I could tell these were people standing outdoors, by a window.  As the crow flies, they must have only been seven or eight feet away from me, but of course, they were standing outside talking, while I was laying on a bed in a room with, presumably, the shades drawn.  I felt badly the need to vomit.

With great trepidation I decided to open my eyes.  I did so very slowly, not knowing if there might be someone else in this room with me, and if there was, I might want to continue feigning sleep.  Gradually I let the light in–it hurt tremendously, giving me reason to think I’d slept for over a day.  The room came into focus. Brown wood-grain particle board closets were directly in front of me, at the foot of my single bed.  To my right, another single bed–blissfully unoccupied, the sheets and blanket meticulously made.  A brown balsa wood desk in the corner to my left, and to the far right, a small door that looked like it lead to a bathroom, and beside that door, a larger door–this one presumably the door out. Probably to the hallway that existed in a flash somewhere in my memory.

The room looked frighteningly like any of the countless dorm rooms I’d lived and partied in only a year or two before, and only half a mile away.  I’d lived in rooms just like this where the closet was full of empty beer cans and liquor bottles waiting for an opportunity to go out to the trash without getting caught.  It did not seem that long ago that I’d looked at closet doors just like this one and contemplated hiding inside it, or peeing on it, or whatever.  Now here I was in a similar but very different room.  I was the same person I’d always been, nothing had changed inside me, but suddenly here I was waking up in rehab.

The sudden knowledge of the bathroom woke up a long-dormant pain in my bladder.  With great achiness and slow care, I swung my feet out of the bed and limped my way to the small door I assumed to be the bathroom.  I became aware that the entire place smelled of medicine, like an overly-air conditioned pharmacy.  It was a sterile smell but reassuring; whatever was wrong with me, I was in a place to be fixed.  Someday the shaking might stop.

The first thing I noticed was the sink.  Not because there was anything very special about the sink itself, but because of the large red sticker attached to it, imploring residents to “wash thoroughly” in order to minimize the risk of transmitting Hepatitis.   I peed into the pearly white, larger-than-expected toilet for what seemed like ten minutes.  Relieved, I limped back out of the bathroom thinking I might sleep for another entire day.

But I became sidetracked on the way to the bed by the voices outside my window.  Who were they?  What was going on?  I waddled to the window and ever-so-slightly pried open two slats of the industrial white venetian blinds.

Outside was a large courtyard, completely enclosed on all sides by the one-story brick building which I was inhabiting.  The courtyard was large enough to house two or three full-sized trees, a gazebo, benches, and some concrete walkways.  A dozen or so people were scattered throughout the courtyard, speaking in groups, smoking cigarettes, nursing tiny Styrofoam cups with steam rolling off the tops.  They looked happy—almost like this was grade school recess or a break in a business meeting.  They were of many different ages and seemed to run the gamut on the socio-economic spectrum.  It looked like an inviting place to be, but also terrifying.  I wanted to stay alone in this room forever.  I wanted to get under the blanket where it was dark and plasticy and shake until the world ended, or my parents came and got me.  Somewhere outside these walls my friends were going to work, stopping at gas stations, watching movies in living rooms.  I could hear the chatter outside my window die down as the group was being called back inside.  This was who I had become.

 

2.

 

Today I live about forty miles from the rehab I woke up in that day, which was over ten years ago.  I live in an area roughly referred to as Central Pennsylvania, although some purists insist on calling it South Central Pennsylvania.  Neither moniker is quite accurate, but anyway. 

Most places in this world are the same, more or less, although cases for distinctions can certainly be made.  Here in Central Pennsylvania, the case for distinction starts with the city of Harrisburg.  Or, perhaps more aptly put, what the city used to be.  A city on the rise throughout the 1800s, a series of events (both controllable and uncontrollable) caused the city to begin a constant descent into mediocrity and blight much like other, larger Northern “rust belt” cities from the 1920s until present day.  Intense racial division, poor local leadership and the alluring habitability of rural areas outside the city caused an outward migration that has never fully stopped.

 

Harrisburg (and by extension, Central Pennsylvania) sits on the banks of the Susquehanna River.  Although the Susquehanna appears at first glance to be a mighty, majestic river, it is in fact the longest river in the United States that is not deep enough to allow commercial boating traffic—another contributing factor to Harrisburg’s stagnation.  The river at points nears a mile wide but is often shallow enough to walk the entire way across.  Although it factors greatly in much of America’s history—the Revolution and the founding of Mormonism, for starters—its shallow depth prevents it from achieving any great level of fame, or any truly major cities from growing near it.

 

As citizens migrated outward from Harrisburg in the early 1920s they formed a network of small towns and communities so close together and homogenous that the ones on the opposite bank of the Susquehanna are often referred to simply as the “West Shore”, as though they were one community.  These tiny towns, often quaint and artisan more than they were hardy and working-class, took their names equally from American history, Native Americans, and the local landscape.  Towns like Camp Hill, Penbrook, Paxtang, Enola, Wormleysburg—each with its own identity, history, and geography, but each in turn also related to the exodus of Harrisburg.  Camp Hill is named after a church whose congregation split into two groups—one of the “camps” held their worships on a nearby hill.  Lemoyne—which used to be named Bridgeport—is a town of four thousand people that for some reason has an intense concentration of guitar and instrument stores.  Paxtang is taken from “Peshtenk”, an English word which means “still waters”, although which still waters it was named for, we don’t know.  New Cumberland hosts a notable apple fest each year despite being relatively far from where the apples grow.  If one were to travel from each of these communities into the neighboring ones, you would notice small but not insignificant changes in elevation, a tangled network of water tributaries, bulbous outcroppings of sedimentary rock, and a collection of wildlife that includes the brown bear, the white tailed deer, the timber rattlesnake, and the turkey vulture.

All of these towns, and Harrisburg and the almost-mighty Susquehanna, are inside a valley.  The Cumberland Valley is bounded by mountains from both the Appalachian and Blue Ridge ranges.  All of the mountains are on the small side, as far as mountains go, although there are certain vistas that can be quite striking, especially in instances where the mountain ranges intersect with the river. 

Although the Valley as we know it extends for only about seventy miles (and, at its narrowest, is only twelve miles wide) the Valley is part of a much larger geographic formation in the state of Pennsylvania known as a Ridge and Valley section, a land formation over a hundred miles wide that consists of repeating north-to-south peaks and valleys, formed, again, by the Appalachians and Blue Ridges.  One can imagine (can one?) the difficulty these north-to-south peaks presented (and to a degree still present) to transportation efforts which in this state show a strong east-to-west desire.

In Pennsylvania, to the north of the Ridge and Valleys lies a vast expanse known as the Appalachian Plateau—basically a continually elevated area that looks like a mountain range but is really just high eroded sediment.  This feature extends all the way to the top of the state until it drops off into Lake Erie. 

To the south of our Cumberland Valley are the Triassic Lowlands—a small misnomer as there continue to be drastic changes in elevation throughout, but there is a distinct absence of mountains in this area, and most of the soil and structure is left over from the Triassic Period—some even from Pangea.  The lowlands continue until Pennsylvania’s small Coastal Plain on the bank of the Delaware River—which supports commercial boating into Philadelphia.

However, this is how the modern human being would experience this world: be in your house.  Travel a few feet out of your house into your car.  Turn on your car, your air conditioning (or your heat) and drive to your destination away from your house.  You will do this by navigating streets, interstates and intersections that you know by heart even though they have nothing to do with you or the land in which you live.  Arrive at your destination.  Walk a few feet from your car into your new destination.  And this is how it is everywhere now—not just in Central Pennsylvania, but everywhere.  You can move all over this country and most of the world and have a relatively changeless existence, never knowing where you are, what the place is like, what made it that way.

Sometimes our destination is in a whole separate town from where we started just a few minutes before, but the speed and ease with which we travel makes noticing these changes unnecessary.  Sometimes we drive our cars over rivers and don’t notice.  Sometimes we drive them through tunnels at the bottoms of mountains and bemoan the loss of cell phone service.  Usually we don’t know the name of the mountain we drove under.  We have no idea the struggle society went through to make such seamless east-to-west travel so unbearably easy.  We see large birds gliding in circles, distant in the sky but don’t know what they are—we don’t even know that we could know what they are, that there was a time we would have known, would have been expected to know, would have been shamed by not knowing what the enormous graceful flying meat eaters were called.  We’re unmoored, unhooked, disconnected, floating in a gel of inconsequence, we don’t know and we don’t know and we don’t know.

3.

 

My first year out of high school I went away to college–twenty minutes away. I went to a State School in the town next to us, and even though it was so close to home, my parents wanted me to live on campus so I would have the experience. I didn’t take well to the college experience at first (although later I would take to it much too well); I simply wasn’t making friends or doing the whole “college thing”. I was holing myself up in my room all week, ignoring everybody except the roommate I got stuck with, spending my nights on the phone with my girlfriend back home. On weekends, I went home and worked at McDonalds. And hung out with my real friends. And partied.

One weekend I was at a party at some kid’s parent’s house. I have no idea who the kid was, or any good recollection of who was there. I’m not even sure where it was, except that it was in a guest room above their garage. I spent much of the night at the far end of the rectangular room, beside the ping-pong table (it wasn’t in use; we were too lazy for Beer Pong) on old bench seats from the local Little League field after a dugout renovation some fifteen years prior. I was with three good friends who were still in high school, and we were ignoring most of the party.

Late into the evening, as most of the revelers had left and a dozen or so inebriated folks remained, an overweight, bearded man approached us from across the room. I had noticed him all night because he was so out of place. He was at least 28 years old, and a real Red State sort of guy. He wore a camouflage baseball cap and a red flannel shirt, and not the kind of flannel that was so popular in those days: this was the kind of flannel you wore so you could do physical labor in the cold, and it was really ugly. His voice was a thick drawl, thicker than a Pennsylvania redneck; this guy was from the South. This wasn’t a Redneck party, and it wasn’t a 28-year-old party either. In fact, it was a high school party. Even I was a little old for this party. This guy was a sore thumb.

He squeezed his way past the ping pong table and stood before us. I got ready to stand and shake his hand, introduce myself, ask him what the hell he was doing there. But before I could stand all the way he says this: “I know what you guys are.”

We all sort of chuckled, waiting for the punchline or explanation. One of us said, “What are we?”

“Fags. You’re fags, and I hate fags.”

This was shocking. It was shocking because, firstly, we were all raised rather liberal kids, by parents who thought just about everybody was OK and that everybody should be treated OK. Which is not to say that I never uttered the word fag, but we were all misguided youth who thought it was OK to slur if you didn’t mean it in your heart. And this guy obviously meant it in his heart, which was disturbing. Secondly, it shocked us because we were all rather straight, and anyone who had actually observed us throughout the party would have known that. Red Flannel’s statement clearly confused us.

We tried at first to convince him. The hostess of the party had slept with one of my friends, and an ex-girlfriend of mine was also present. We called them over to testify. But the more we tried to convince him, the angrier he got. He started to raise his voice, he started calling us more and varied names (it doesn’t take a genius, after the fact, to realize that this man was quite clearly struggling with his own hidden homosexuality, and his probable attraction to at least one of us. I wish I’d have realized it at the time; things may have ended differently). It didn’t take long for the remaining partiers to flock around us. The hostess and her friends stepped between the man and us. Of course, as soon as they took up that “we’re-stopping-a-fight” position, he took their cue and began to threaten all four of us with physical harm.

While it is true that this man could not have beaten up all four of us, he would have created one hell of a mess and more than a little pain by trying.

The ruckus lasted the better part of an hour, with Red Flannel screaming at us, everyone standing between us, the four of us on one side of the room bewildered. This variety of event didn’t happen to us. We didn’t get in fights, nor had we ever had to get out of a fight, and this made it difficult for us to remain the coolest cats in the room. It was too bizarre of a situation to know what to do. Everyone was now imploring the Red Flannel to leave. At one point, someone suggested that we leave, but Red Flannel made it clear that he would not let that happen.

Finally and somehow, the man left. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Some people laughed, some stalked around, pacing out their anger, muttering about how he had ruined an otherwise chill party. The hostess was afraid the neighbors had heard the noise and would tell the parents.

This idyll lasted only briefly, as perhaps ten minutes after he left, someone reported that he had pulled his truck up to the stairs leading down from the garage apartment–the only way out. His truck was idling. He had his parking lights on, and the glow of a cigarette could be seen behind the wheel. We let out a collective groan. We waited. Fifteen minutes later, he was still there. Our hostess was elected to go down and talk to him.

She returned moments later with the grim news: he wasn’t leaving until the fags left, and when the fags left, he was gonna kick the fag’s asses.

Suddenly and strangely the tone started to shift; although no one would say it, people were clearly beginning to resent us, and somehow blame us. With the Red Flannel no longer present to directly blame, the party was still ruined and there we were. We were quite clearly now blamed, having done absolutely nothing. Us “fags” sat ostracized in a corner while Hostess and Friends tried to figure out what to do. Do they call the cops? Do we wait it out? And somewhere in their subconscious–in that Lord of the Flies part of the brain–I know they had a third option: do we sacrifice them?

The uncertainty seemed to last forever, but in reality it was only about half an hour. The tension in the room was broken by a frightening smash, followed by even louder splintering and cracking noises. Everyone ran to the door, the gray dawn sky and birdsong of the morning shocking us all. And then even more shock, as we saw the Red Flannel’s taillights driving away, faster than a gunshot down the curvy country road, and directly below us the shattered remnants of the wooden steps leading down from the room we were in. He had smashed into them with his truck, rendering most of the lower half useless lumber, and severing the top half from its landing. The top half of the stairs now hung from the building by a few weakened planks, swinging slowly in decreasing circles.

Three days later, the property damage was listed officially as the work of a hit-and-run driver, who was never caught.

 

4.

 

 

A man turns a forty-year-old black plastic knob on his forty-year-old faded white kitchen stove in Pennsport, Philadelphia.  Some mechanism inside the machine clicks repeatedly, while nothing appears to happen.  Then suddenly a small, blue flame appears below the ancient burner plate.  A man has turned a knob and a flame has quietly and simply come out of the machine.  The man will put a metal pot overtop of the flame, add water to the pot as well as other human food products and create a meal suitable to his human palette, all made possible by that quiet little simple flame.  For this service the man will pay about $30 a month, made out on paper checks and dropped in blue mailboxes.  The man does all this, and eats his food, and pays the people for their services, but he has no idea what is happening, how any of it happens.  In fact, he has such an absence of knowledge about it all, he doesn’t realize he knows next to nothing.

Outside the man’s house, if one were to travel mostly south, but a little east, for just a few miles—really just about a mile and a half, you would encounter Passyunk Avenue, a street that cuts unexpectedly diagonally across the city’s otherwise quite simple and helpful grid pattern.  Turning left onto Passyunk Avenue, you would immediately be confronted by a large but not imposing bridge, what is known in bridge parlance as a double-leaf bascule bridge, which is fancy terminology for a drawbridge, but one that has two moveable sections instead of one.  The Passyunk Avenue Bridge, as it is called, was completed in 1983 and is made almost entirely of steel and concrete, although the pedestrian walkways on either side have sections made of cast iron.  The bridge crosses the Schuylkill River, the smaller of the two rivers that border Philadelphia, but alas, like even the smallest river, we still need a bridge to cross it.  The Passyunk Avenue Bridge had to be built as a double-leaf bascule bridge to accommodate the heavy amount of shipping traffic that passes through the area due to the proximity of the Philadelphia Gas Works.

The Gas Works covers a sprawling hundred acres just outside of the city.  This treeless, brown stretch of flatland right beside the Passyunk Avenue Bridge and sidling the muddy shores of the Schuylkill is a mostly ignored eyesore, one motorists tend to not notice that they don’t even notice it.  The long wide expanse is brown dotted with yellows and reds, criss-crossed by pipes of all sizes, with seemingly-random outcroppings of unidentifiable structures, metal winged Eiffels growing out of the mud.  The flat mechanical carnage stretches as far as the eye can see, until it hits the Philadelphia city skyline; a striking vista indeed.

Most of these multi-colored pipes contain natural gas, which in turn is a “fossil fuel”, which is exactly what it sounds like.  Energy we obtain from extraordinarily old things, which in turn got their energy, during their day, from our sun, which is still around.  We dig them up and squeeze our sun’s energy back out of them, thousands and thousands of years later.  The Philadelphia Gas Works doesn’t talk much about where it gets its gas, but for the most part, it isn’t drilled here, although it certainly has been.  Now it is mostly shipped here in those huge boats that go under the Passyunk Avenue Bridge.  But see, here’s where it gets interesting: this energy from the sun was being stored in all these old plants and animals for eons under the ground.  Then we found it (probably in what is known as the Marcellus Shale) and we went to great lengths to get it out of there.  We’ve got to bust open the rocks that it is in, then we’ve got to shore up the cavity we created in the ground so that the gas stays there until we can get it.  Then we have to remove all the impurities from it, so it can be used for things like cooking macaroni and cheese.  These impurities include water; gotta get all the water and other gunk outta there.  But see, if you’re trying to transport natural gas very far, it’s pretty inconvenient to do it in a gas form.  If you can’t get it there in a pipeline (those pipelines only go so far) and you have to send it in, say, a boat, you have to now liquefy the gas.  So we bust up the ground to get it out, then we turn it into liquid and put it in a boat.  We do that by making the gas very cold.  Now this boat chug-a-lugs down the Schuylkill to the Philadelphia Gas Works and huge pipes are hooked up to the belly of the boat and all the really cold liquid gas is pumped into huge tanks.  Then there are other pipes that go from those huge tanks to what the Philadelphia Gas Works really are: the regasification plant.  We warm it back up and make it a gas again.  Then we shoot that gas out into a series of progressively smaller pipes that stretch out in grids that sometimes cover hundreds of miles, until they are in really little pipes that, believe it or not, are actually connected to your house! Then somebody who drops $30 checks into the mail every month decides they want to cook a stew, or maybe do some laundry.  And miraculously, the little blue flame shoots out.

Now this man standing here in Pennsport, he doesn’t know any of this.  And if you were to start telling him about it, he may interrupt you and ask you why it should matter to him.  After all, he’s got his gas, he pays his bill, and everyone doesn’t have to know everything, right?  That’s why there are specialists.  But if you started asking him other questions, about other parts of the city and world around him, you and he might find he continues to know next to nothing about his environment.

Why are the sidewalks in his neighborhood a certain width?  And different widths in other neighborhoods?  Why are the blocks in his neighborhood so long?  Why are they shorter elsewhere? How might these seemingly small details affect his quality of living?  Ask this man what he knows about train traffic through the city, or the history of invasive plant species in Philadelphia.  He doesn’t know, he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t care.  He doesn’t see why he should.  He is content to go to work and come back home and play with his things but the larger scope of the world and environment he lives in are completely lost to him; furthermore there is no compelling reason for him to change this.

This is the exact same thing that’s been said about kids in the country for a generation now, that they’ve lost touch with their environment.  There isn’t that big of a difference between living in the country and living in the city.  In rural areas people have become disconnected from the literal environment, in the cities it is our environment we’ve lost, but it’s all part of the same big moving parts.

In the country, there’s a difference between wildness and wilderness.  Wilderness is what people settle for now when they think they are seeing nature.  They walk on well-worn paths, drive their cars through parks, take tours.  That’s wilderness, but there’s nothing wild about it.  Wildness is self-willed, autonomous, self-organized.  It is the opposite of controlled.  It exists on all sorts of scales.  You can see wildness in the movement of glaciers, or in the star-forming regions of the Orion Nebula.  Wildness is everywhere.  It starts with microscopic particles and it goes more than 13 billion light-years into the cosmos.  It’s in the soil and in the air, it’s on our hands, in our immune systems, in our lungs.  We breathe and wildness comes in—we can’t control it.  And yet, nowadays, almost nobody wants anything to do with that aspect of the world, the real, the wild aspect.  You can live in San Francisco, ride a Google bus to work, stare at a screen, come home, stare at a screen, repeat repeat repeat and never see an ounce of wildness at any scale, but do you know how close whales live to San Francisco?  And giant Redwoods?  There is wildness there to be seen, not just the microbes in your lungs, but at a scale that can impress a human, but still it is screen screen screen, nobody glancing around them.  We are hive creatures now, far more so than in generations past, fiercely attached to our social network, which has become part of our identity.  Nature is a movie that goes by outside the car window.  And along with nature, the real world, the knowledge of the functions of the real world.

In the city, bureaucracy and layers of time and history stand in for the wildness that (only seemingly) gets lost in a metropolis.  Instead of wondering about falcons and sediment layers we can instead pick apart the mystifying nature of zoning ordinances, inter-departmental transportation squabbles, and the righteousness of green space allocation.  But we don’t, almost nobody does.  So it is that no matter where we live, we’re just lost in a machine, or parts in a machine, not knowing what function we serve, not knowing where the machine is going, what we’re really doing.  Turning on switches and turning knobs, putting on clothes we know nothing about to walk to stores we don’t remotely understand, living lives blindly, blindly, trusting in some overarching system to make sure we all get to some kind of finish line on time.

The man in Pennsport stands in front of his stove and makes a delicious meal overtop of his blue flame, eats it and loves it and gets a full belly while watching television, the screen’s glow not all that different from that blue flame, wherever it comes from.

 

 5.

 

In the winter, Erie, Pennsylvania is a cold, desolate, sometimes dangerous place. It’s not the ideal place to live alone with no friends or relatives within a five-hour drive of you. It snows almost all the damn time, and it’s so cold, and the wind just races across the lake, whether it’s the summer or the winter. Whether the lake is frozen or open, it is seven miles wide, and there is nothing to stop the wind. On one particular winter morning, I rose to an early alarm clock, to work the morning shift at the restaurant where I was a manager. Our day started pretty early, and it’s always hard to get up, but especially when it’s dark outside, and the wind howls like a coyote, and you know there’s snow out there, and maybe more on the way, and maybe more falling even right then. I crawled out of bed, put on my work outfit, poked my head through the blinds, and started my car with my remote start, one of my most beloved modern amenities. Five minutes later I was down there to hop in, excited about the warm inside of my car. It had snowed the night before, but not a whole lot, maybe four or five inches, which isn’t very much when you’re living in Erie. But it was just one of those things, one of those moments where your car and the tires are sitting just right, or just wrong, and despite the fact that you see no perfect reason why, your car is stuck. I had not left myself a whole lot of extra time to get to work, and I was in quite a bind. Being late is sometimes easier than others in that line of work, and I can’t remember the circumstances now, but I do know that I absolutely had to be there on time that day, and my car being stuck put me in a moment of desperation. With nobody to call – not even any small friends or acquaintances, really nobody that I knew – I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I was out of my car, looking all around it, shoveling the snow out from the tires as best I could, trying to rock it a little bit. All the small things one can do by yourself to get your car unstuck, but there’s only so much of that. Then, in the predawn darkness I saw approaching a young man walking down the center of the street that I lived on. I recognized the speed with which he walked and the direction he was going as a man heading to catch a bus. Yes, there were buses, but I had never even looked into that. As he came to pass me I walked onto the street, and sent to him, “Hey man! Hi!  Hey man, excuse me!  I’m in a real bind here, my car is stuck and I really need to get to work.  I’m really screwed here.  Can you help me push it out?”

He stood still and wooden, looking at me through my pleading screed.  After a pause, he said, “But, see, I’m on the way to catch my bus to go to work myself.  What if this makes me late?”

This was one of those very touchy moments in life for me.  I absolutely needed this guy to help me.  But he had a point and I knew it.  Why should he be late to work simply so I could be on time?  I was sure if he helped me, the car could come out quickly and we’d both be on time, but time was crunched so badly, there wasn’t even the moment needed to explain this.  I analyzed my chances, as well as the look of the kid, and rolled the dice.  I said this:

“That’s a chance you’ll just have to take.”

 

6.

Sometimes when driving, or riding the train, or walking around in some park, I will try to get an image in my head of what the land around me would have looked like four hundred years ago.  The same hills, the same landscape, but in my mind I’ll cover it in nothing and wonder what it was like to be the first person to chance upon it.  This is always useless to me.  There is so much wonder in this world, but I always have trouble getting past our influence, our disasters and clumsy systems.  And even in those places where there is some real beauty, like over at Bartram’s Gardens, or up on Presque Isle, or down the road on the Appalachian Trail, all I have to do is take one look at the skyline in the distance, or the cement path I’m walking on, or hear the sound of the Honda hatchback blaring through the trees, and I am out of the tenuous illusion and coldly back in reality.

We are constantly tethered to some safety line.  There is always a lantern, or a map, or a screen, or a cell phone.  These things guarantee that whatever experience we’re having is just an attempt at connecting with something foreign and old, that it’s not real, no matter how real it looks.  We’ve sketched out a new world over the old, and they are in two separate universes; the old is lost despite the remnants we see of it every day.  If properly prepared, one could live entire decades indoors, in a world of their own creation.

Before I had a family I used to stay indoors for a day or two at a time, talking to no one and doing nothing of value.  Once I did go outside after a long stretch like that, it still felt fake, like some slide in front of my eyes.  At a certain point, I’d have to tell myself, This is actually real and I am actually here, that dog or building or mountain range in the distance is a real thing inhabiting the same space that I am.  I think that must be a very modern sensation, that of having to convince oneself of reality.

7.

 

 

My father was born into orchard country. Nestled deep in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, near the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and the South Mountain.  His youngest years were spent in rolling hills crowded by apple trees, which Mexican immigrants picked nearly year-round.  There were Mexican restaurants around unassuming bends in the country roads; I never saw them but I can imagine they might have looked out of place, if one stopped to think about them.  Dad told me a story once about a fancy-looking house that sat at the bottom of a gulley and was surrounded by Red Delicious trees.  I saw the house myself—it’s still there.  It looks like a small but stately plantation.  When Dad was a boy, the house had an in-ground swimming pool, which was quite a luxury in those days, and they’d let him and his friends swim there occasionally.  One Halloween, he was trick-or-treating and the family gave all the boys little pop guns—plastic guns that shot a cork out of a barrel.  He thought they must be rich.  He never forgot it.  He remembers it like it was yesterday.  My mother was born a mere 25 miles away, in a vanishingly small town surrounded by cow pastures, clumps of trees, and lean-to outbuildings.  Farm country.  In fact, she was born on a farm—a working farm, and she grew up doing the kinds of things you might imagine: collecting eggs from innocent chickens, watching her father and brothers shear sheep, waking up at the crack of dawn. Her dream as a little girl was to somehow, someway, move to the nearby small town and help her uncle run a pharmacy he owned there.  She pictured herself sweeping the floor, stocking the shelves, maybe keeping the books.  To her, this was a version of glamour.  Her family would take in kids from “the city” who needed places to stay; Fresh Air Kids, they called them.  Sometimes my mom’s country family swelled to great numbers; a surprising-looking bunch, I’m sure.  My genes—whatever they are—are a swirl of them.  I’ve got orchards in my blood, and my skeleton is a farm.

As a young child, I didn’t know much about my parents or where I’d come from. It wasn’t an issue I pondered.  I knew that I certainly felt like me.  I knew I liked to mostly not talk about what I felt inside.  I knew I liked drawing things, and that I sure did love the outdoors.  I liked playing with small boats in the bathtub, and Matchbox cars in the sandbox, and I hated going to sleep, and the dark scared me.  There were two neighbors who lived two doors down from us—at the time it felt far away, but it is literally just thirty yards, I just looked at it not six months ago—who must have been 50 years old at the time.  I considered them my best friends, although to them I must have seemed like a just occasional little person who happened by.  I liked talking to them and imagining what their grown-up lives were like inside that big red brick house—what the kitchen looked like, what they ate for dinner.  I miss them.  They’re dead now.

I was a fairly typical teenager. I was mostly about having fun; everything was a joke.  I could be cruel.  I smoked a lot of cigarettes and experimented with just about anything that could be experimented with.  I talked a lot.  I thought I was important and smart.  I hid secret desires and interests: poetry, philosophy, sexual confusion, the occult.  I got angry, I got sad, I read classic science fiction novels late at night in my bedroom with the door locked.  Women started to like me and it took me a long time to figure out what to do about it; when I did figure it out I tried very hard to be a “good guy” but still…I often failed.  I liked comic books, American Gladiators, and MTV.  Late in my teens I discovered Tumbling Run, a long hiking trail in the nearby Appalachians that follows a truly adorable stream, which is a trickle at the trail head and as you climb higher becomes a rushing set of falls and deep, clear pools.  I would hike it by myself, find perches away from the trail, pull out a notebook and write poems tailored after E.E. Cummings.  They were full of angst and love and fear.  I thought Tumbling Run would be like my Walden Pond, but mostly, I just forgot about it.

As a young man I encountered my problems: alcoholism and depression. But those weren’t the only defining elements of my life.  As I moved into adulthood I moved away from American Gladiators and even further from the tiny boats in the bathtub.  There were surface changes, like a deeper attraction to poetry and literature and “serious films”, but I changed for real, too.  I got angry.  Angry at everything.  I became of a mind that to judge everyone as harshly and vocally as possible was actually a good trait to have.  I smoked a lot of cigarettes, often two packs a day.  I was still funny, but now with more sarcasm and less joy.  I liked staying awake until the sunrise, never cleaning my car, and throbbing rock and roll.  I hated being alive.

After young adulthood up until this moment (what we shall refer to as life) I’ve just kept on changing.  There are always the obvious, cosmetic alterations: a sudden liking for big band music and Cary Grant films, corduroy jackets and Florsheim loafers, art museum memberships and mini-figurines of Felix Mendelssohn.  But also sea changes, but so fast; one moment I don’t want to talk to people at all, the next I enjoy the communion of strangers.  Seemingly one moment, an actual pastime of mine is driving my car through the country at night, the windows down, blasting music from my CD player, smoking cigarettes. A few nights ago I walked home through the city, listening to my music in my headphones, stopping to read the menu in a restaurant hoping there were vegetarian options. One moment I’m vehemently opposed to sports, the next I’m at an NFL game.

A month or so ago, I had breakfast with two of my oldest, dearest friends.  They looked the same as they always had, as I’m sure I did, and the little dirt-hole diner we ate in was the same as always, and the streets and parking lots were the same as they always were, when I was spending all my days there.  But having been largely gone from the area for five years, it all felt so different, so foreign.  Was that actually me that had lived here, had called these places home, these friends familiar?  Or was it a dream had by a being who calls himself me?  After breakfast one of the friends was driving me to my dad’s house, and as I climbed in his car I was overcome with a strange sensation. When I settled into the passenger seat I realized this was the car of a very serious cigarette smoker; ashes, crumpled empty packs everywhere, the stale pall of smoke infusing the upholstery.  And it looked like many cars I had in my day: old drink cups on the floor, change everywhere, ATM receipts and food wrappers.  I wasn’t grossed out; I felt oddly at home.  It had just been so long since that had been me.  It was like time travel.

If I’m able to look directly at the thought long enough, it becomes very clear that the notion of me doesn’t exist.  I’m a collection of moments, an intricate study in cause-and-effect.  I am the orchard, and the farm, and the boats in the bathtub, and the throbbing rock and roll, and walking home through the city last night.  I am time itself.  I’m not me.

 

8.

 

Somewhere everywhere bakers are opening up their shops. The tall commercial ovens click on with whirrs of electricity and gas. The little rooms get stifling and smell of yeast and flour. Today will be a ten or twelve hour shift. They will sweat through their white aprons and go home to unread newspapers. In other cities police officers are rolling out of bed, pulling their crisp uniforms on, fastening the large utility belt in the darkness of their century-old foyer while their family sleeps. The sun peeks over the rooftops and flowers open their petals in their pots along the sides of buildings. Third graders are walking to school wearing raincoats and backpacks and talking about pop singers. They have cell phones and they look up videos as they walk. The sunlight touches their necks and their tiny hairs stand up but nobody notices. A woman who works in a city newsstand arrives to open for the day. She enters through a side door and is alone in the tiny building, darkened still except for a small crack in the still-unopened front window where the light gets in. After taking her coat off, she walks outside, fumbles with the frigid padlock until finally the metal window slides open. It’s the loudest noise on the street yet this morning. Dozens of people are stepping onto an escalator. They avoid eye contact, they look at their phones, they pretend to be in a hurry. They wait on platforms, in hangars, on benches, in bus shelters, lines for elevators, by curbs for cabs, people are waiting. A man alone in a movie theater remembers an ex-lover while watching the Coming Attractions. For a moment he can’t remember what movie he came to see. At a grocery store a woman tries to decide which peach is best for her to buy and in the process she ruins five peaches. Now she can’t even remember if she planned on buying peaches today, and for a moment she wonders how there are this many peaches in the grocery store in the middle of winter, and she tries to recall if she’s ever seen a peach tree, or picked a peach, but she can’t remember, can’t remember, and now she’s thinking of her son away in college but he doesn’t like peaches either. All everywhere people are stuck at traffic signals on streets they don’t know the names of. They pass the minutes listening to talk radio coming from signals they don’t understand, from places they’ve never been, spoken by people they’ll never know. Their internal combustion engines idle beneath them-the sparks and fuel commingling to create a low-key contained continuous explosion. The light turns green and they’re off again to someplace else. An elderly man on a scaffolding nestled against a house hammers nails into shingling, and he will do it all day, all day, and more tomorrow. Grown people are everywhere furiously scribbling notes and typing e-mails and hanging Post-Its and setting reminders—there are so many things to do and to say and remember. A family of four is selling fresh fish in tables filled with ice by the side of the street. The kids should be in school but nobody seems to notice or think to say anything. The fish’s eyes are glassy and fogged up but people still buy them anyway, will still cook and eat them anyway, these hundreds of miles from the ocean. Mail is dropped through slots in doors. Squirrels pause on telephone wires, turning nuts around rapidly in their tiny hands. Landline phones ring in empty rooms and the neighbors can hear it, they can hear it, but they just have to put up with it. Waterfalls just keep insistently sliding over the cliffs, pounding the complacent ground beneath them and digging deeper and deeper holes. Somewhere deep, magma moves, hisses, is still. The tectonic plates are pushing the ground under our feet up into new mountains right now, right now, as we get onto this escalator, it is happening, the earth is forming new things beneath us right now as we ride the escalator, looking at our phones, it always has been doing this and it won’t stop until the sun, dying, swallows the whole planet. But smile anyway, you damned fools, and feel the hairs on your neck stand up in the morning sun, because there is nothing else, nothing else at all.

 

 

 

 

Scenes From My Sojourn

Posted in Memoir, My Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2015 by sethdellinger

After a straight shot drive down a highway whose number I now forget, I crested a hill around six in the morning, it still being completely dark outside, and saw for the first time the city skyline of Cleveland. I had the day off of work, and I was still exploring my immediate surroundings, since moving to what I call the chimney of Pennsylvania, so close to Buffalo and Cleveland and Pittsburgh. More than anything the prospect of Cleveland intrigued me, because I had never really considered that I might go there, or that it might be close enough, or what might even be there. So I set the early alarm, and drove straight in there with no plan. All I really wanted to do was park somewhere right in the city, find a newspaper from a newspaper

A self-timer self-portrait I did on a bench in Cleveland.

A self-timer self-portrait I did on a bench in Cleveland.

machine, and a local coffee shop, and read the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a newspaper whose name I already knew from years of attempting to be media savvy. Somehow I managed to find just the right exit off the highway, and, with my breath still showing in my car from the early-morning chill, found a parking lot that cost just a few dollars, right in the heart of the city. I hopped out of my car feeling extremely accomplished, walking across the early-morning parking lot, and I noticed many other people on foot, traveling the same way I was, heading into the city for that morning’s whatever. This was the first time I truly felt the call of the city, the desire to move in that hive, to be one of those lemmings. Wherever they were all going, it seemed like it must be interesting, different from what I knew and was accustomed to, and terribly important. Everyone made their way into their assigned nooks and crannies, disappearing down side streets and alleys and into revolving doors. In an almost astonishing short amount of time I found the newspaper machine I was looking for, and I even had the quarters ready, as I had anticipated this even before I left my apartment back Erie. I got myself a fresh-off-the presses copy of that mornings Cleveland Plain Dealer, and in an even shorter amount of time, I found myself in a local chain coffee shop called Phoenix Coffee, drinking a large caramel latte, reading about the Cleveland Browns that year, and the big high hopes everyone had for Colt McCoy.

 

***************************************************************

 

 

Shortly after moving in with my mother in South Jersey, a hurricane was on the way. I can’t remember what its name was anymore, because you know, they name these things, all of them. So it was on its way, and after the big news stories that the last few had been, this was supposed to be a big news story too. All the roads were going to be shut down, everything was going to flood, and we were all going to freak out. We all watched on the radar as the thing approached, and everyone from my work kept calling and texting around, wondering if we were going to have to go in the next day, and just how bad

Putzing around in the rain during our hurricane in South Jersey

Putzing around in the rain during our hurricane in South Jersey

everything was going to be. My mother and I were concerned about sleeping in our upstairs bedrooms, there being trees near the house, and that they might crash through the windows, like some goddamn nightmare. Eventually, it was decided no one had to go into work, and I was home with my mother as the danger approached. It started raining, and more than anything I was just intrigued. I’ve been through plenty of different storms in my life, and of course I’ve got the obligatory Pennsylvania drenchings from hurricanes that are almost out of steam by the time they get to us. But this looked like it might be an actual hurricane. Every hour or so I would put on all my rain gear and walk out to the development’s drainage ditch, to check the flooding progress. It’s one of those perfectly manicured little drainage ditches, it doesn’t look natural at all, obviously something that a few men with small bulldozer patted down on a Sunday afternoon twenty years ago. As the afternoon progressed the drainage ditch kept not filling up and not filling up, and the rain, although incessant and quite wet, kept being just that: rain. As Mom got bored from being cooped up inside and watching TV, and I got disappointed by the weather nonevent, the afternoon meandered into just another afternoon, one of those days wiled away looking at images on screens, or reading words in a book, the type of afternoon that you think of as a fine relaxing afternoon, but ultimately one with nothing very memorable. After it had been raining for about four hours I took my final walk out to the drainage ditch, saw that it was in fact actually less full than the previous time, and I took a short walk out to the small woods behind the development, and stood listening to the rain hit the leaves, and the small creek at the bottom of a low-grade hill behind my mother’s house. It was nice to be there, I thought. It was a nice place, and a nice time to be alive, and a very unique, circuitous path to be on. But it was also one of those moments when you think yourself, how in the world did I get here?

 

****************************************************************

 

 

I had been working out and dieting for about two months at this point, and had lost about three-quarters of the weight I wanted to lose. I had been living on my own in the city of Philadelphia for about six or seven months, and summer was in full swing. My new healthy lifestyle coupled with the season had invigorated me like I had never felt before. My typically high energy level was now bordering on manic, with me needing only a few hours of sleep a night, and typically reading thousands and thousands of words a day, in magazines, newspapers, books, and that was just the start of what I was able to accomplish. I would often be caught telling people that the world was actually bending to my very will. On this particular night, I had been out riding my bike all over the city, all day long. Starting out in the sweltering heat of noon, riding all the way from my Pennsport

Taken around the time I thought I could control the universe.

Taken around the time I thought I could control the universe.

apartment to the Art Museum, then back again, then out again and down to the Schuylkill River Trail, making the entire loop, miles and miles and miles of riding. Every time I would come home I would just play Pandora radio, no television on this day, the universe and all its sounds and music coursing through me. At night I threw open the windows in my apartment and let the natural air flow through, stripping down naked and playing air guitar to serious and depressing Post-Rock music and laughing and crying, the music louder than my neighbors probably liked. I put my clothes back on and hopped on my bike, and went to a late night showing of a movie at the nearby multiplex. Afterwards I still couldn’t stop, hopped on my bike and rode down the side streets as fast as I could, the good paved streets, the ones you can really get going on. At that time of night, in that part of the city, you can really blow through the stop signs, when you’re really tuned into the world and the universe like that, you can pick out the headlights if a car is coming the opposite direction, at the intersection, and you can really get up a good head of steam blowing through all the streets, not stopping anywhere, feeling the ions and electrons buzzing, I felt like I couldn’t be stopped, like I could fly if I wanted to, like my tires could just lift off the ground and I could soar, maybe just a few inches off the ground but I could soar, like I could just tell the universe anything what I wanted to do. I still remember the exact smell of that night, of that bike ride down the side streets, the exact feel of that exact quality of air, the way that I knew I could not be that happy forever, the way that I knew in my heart that life is that good, but you just don’t always feel it. I rode faster and faster,  my bike going thirty miles an hour through the streets of South Philadelphia, the warmth, the music back at my apartment, the echo of the movie from the movie theater, the lights all everywhere around, everything still swirling around in me, like some great puppetmaster. Just like every stop on the sojourn, the question must’ve popped into my mind, how did I get here? But it wasn’t very important at that moment, I was almost flying.

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Here’s a poem I wrote while living in Erie:

 

A Slowing of Pace

 

 

For at least ten years you have been preparing

to feel comfortable here in your life,

not a shutdown but a slowing of pace,

a grace of peace, of stopping on your way

through rooms of your dailiness to touch

the woven basket, the plastic vase, walking

through the evening park without voices

intoning from the trees, you must, you must—

these same dreams of solitude since you were very young,

 

and you feel, have felt for years,

that this is how you most would live,

deliberate, considered, easeful, slow,

if your life will only let you,

which it won’t, and this last decade

you have been yearning toward it, plotting,

longing for the book resting on your lap,

pages spread wide, this cup, the open door,

letting in late September air.

 

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It was a rainy, cold day in early March in Erie, and I found my wandering car pointed in the direction of the Erie Zoo.  Although I hadn’t set out to go to the zoo, this new turn of events didn’t surprise me.  I found himself there five or six times a year.  Most people contented themselves with a few zoo visits in a lifetime, but the Erie Zoo was extremely affordable, and the even cheaper off-season price (seven dollars for a grown-up) seemed more than reasonable to spend some time communing with creatures that had no business being on this part of the globe.  It was cheaper than a bad movie, and these animals were real.

 

As I pulled within sight of the zoo, I became a little worried that, for whatever reason, it might not be open.  There wasn’t a single car in the lot.  It was around 11am on a dreary, cold Thursday;  I hadn’t expected it to be hopping, but I wasn’t expecting emptiness.

 

Optimistically cautious, I parked and got out into the barking wind, driving pellets of frigid rain onto my shaved scalp, and nearly trotted the 20 yards to the zoo entrance.  Sure enough, there was a woman at the ticket window, grinning from ear to ear, presumably thrilled to see a customer.  As I neared, I summoned my best “public smile”—my I’ll-

Having a moment with a giraffe at the Erie Zoo

Having a moment with a giraffe at the Erie Zoo

pretend-I’m-one-of-you smile—and returned the woman’s “Hi!” with unrivaled enthusiasm.  Then I said simply, “One, please.”  She paused, then asked “Are you a member?”  I kept his public smile on.  “Nope,” I said.  And then she got the look on her face.  It was a look I had grown accustomed to in this version of my life.  It was a look a clerk or ticket-taker or usher got on their face when they were fighting the desire to say “What, exactly, are you doing here?”

 

I was sure I wasn’t imagining this look.  Aside from being by myself at functions and attractions that normally attracted folks in twos or more, the willy-nilly nature of my work and sleep schedule allowed me to quite often be at attractions and functions on days that were marooned in the desolate middle of the week, when the sad rest of the world were eating sandwiches from vending machines on their half-hour breaks in cubicles and smoking cigarettes under concrete gazebos on the edges of company property.  I had found myself alone or nearly alone in places ranging from early-season minor league baseball games to the Flight 93 National Memorial to the Cleveland Museum of Art.  And almost always, the middle aged woman working the door was quite visibly wondering what me, in my yellow flannel shirt and black

The house I lived in in Erie--the very first day I saw it.  The For Rent sign is still in the door.  I had the top floor.

The house I lived in in Erie–the very first day I saw it. The For Rent sign is still in the door. I had the top floor.

knit cap and imitation Converse , was doing there at 8am or 10pm or whatever the case may be.  But they never quite did ask.  They liked to leave a big pregnant pause where they thought I might offer some form of explanation for my daring to visit their job.  “Just one?” they’d say, wanting me to reply Well, my father used to work here before he got struck by lightning or some other perfectly ridiculous but totally feasible explanation.  But I stubbornly never gave any of them any kind of explanation.  “Are you a member?” the woman at the zoo window asked.  “Nope,” I replied, and still smiling I stared at her.  She waiting a second or two, then said, somewhat stubbornly herself now, “Seven dollars.”  I handed the woman a ten dollar bill, and while she made change, she said “Looks like you’ll have the place pretty much to yourself today”, confirming my suspicion that, in fact, I was the only customer here.  Smiling as large as I could muster, I said “Yeah, I kinda figured that.”  I took my three dollars in change and walked into the zoo.

 

No matter how many times I found himself alone in public spaces, it never ceased exhilarating me.  It seemed to me like I’d won some kind of covert contest that nobody else knew they were playing, as though all of life were a silent jockeying for position in which, on this day, I’d triumphed.  Everyone else was being funneled through the cattle chutes of their typical lives to the choke points of the weekend afternoons and I was outside the chutes, watching from the meadow.  I knew this wasn’t true, I was being funneled by other forces, but my superiority seemed unquestionable in moments such as walking into a zoo I had to myself.

 

Of course, during the off-season, admittance was cheaper for a reason.  Almost half of the animals weren’t on display.  Too cold for them.  Lord knows where the zoo keeps animals hiding during this time.  Some sort of safe house or bunker, on imagines.  A smelly bunker.

 

But I knew where I was going.  I had been here enough times that I had “regular” stops.  Ten minutes communing with the Red Panda (so cute!), five minutes making cooing sounds at the baby (teenager, really) giraffe, and on and on, until eventually I ended up in the orangutan building.  The orangutans at the Erie Zoo were unique in that they were a bona fide family.  A mother, a father, a daughter, and a son.  In fact, the daughter was the older child, making the orangutans a mirror image of my own nuclear family.  The son, Ollie, was still a baby.  A toddler, let’s say.  He had been an infant when I first arrived in Erie, and I’d been able to watch Ollie grow up in little spurts, every few months when I’d visit.  It was when I visited the orangutans that I always got the weird and ecstatic feeling of really, this is right here in Erie.

 

Today was a little different, however.  As soon as I walked into the orangutan building (which was completely empty of humans), Ollie and his mother were right against the glass, in the corner nearest the entryway, Ollie sitting atop his mother’s shoulders.  They looked at me from inside deeply human eyes, and both smiled, as if to welcome me.  “Oh my,” I heard myself say.  I walked slowly to the glass, so as not to scare them away.  But they showed no signed of going.  As I reached the glass, Ollie (who, on his mother’s shoulders, was eye level with me) placed his hand flat on the glass.  I, sensing a moment was occurring, put my hand where Ollie’s was—like we were visiting in a state prison in some sappy movie.  But it wasn’t sappy.  Ollie and I made eye contact and kept our hands overtop one another’s for what must have been a full minute, an odd communion between a man and a baby orangutan in northwestern Pennsylvania on a rainy March morning.  When Ollie finally pulled his hand away, I turned to look behind me to see if any people had come in and maybe witnessed the sweet, unexpected moment.  But there was only an empty walkway and the silly tape recorded sounds of an African forest.  I thought the lack of a witness was both incredibly sad and completely amazing, to equal degrees.

And it was not sappy.

 

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A poem I wrote shortly after moving out of  South Jersey and into Philadelphia:

 

Cage

headphones in, I walk Old City

as if in the presence of an intelligence,

concentrating.  I imagine myself

scrutinized and measured closely

by the passers-by, the foreign tourists,

the horses with their carriages,

the sky and the earth.

my multiple reflections from shop fronts,

high windows, and bus glass stare back at me,

show my belly, my too-long hair, my crooked nose.

wind sweeps off the Delaware, bringing with it

Camden, Governor Christie, and further south,

my mother’s cooking.  home swirls around

this new city, this birthplace city,

where I am so far from everything.

but I keep walking and walking

and it gets darker and darker

and there is a flicker of light or two

far above and beyond my cage.

 

**************************************************************

 

My mother and I did so many things together when I was staying with her in New Jersey, it would be difficult to boil those myriad lovely experiences down to a moment indicative of them all.  We would typically do one thing together a week—from something as small as going to a movie together to an all-out road trip.  We unabashedly (ok, maybe a little abashedly) called these Momma Days.  I think we both knew these were numbered days of a grown form of childhood for both

Mom and I at a Camden (NJ) Riversharks game (minor league baseball)

Mom and I at a Camden (NJ) Riversharks game (minor league baseball)

of us, but they were golden days unlike the first childhood (when nobody knows how great things really are).  I remember every moment of the Momma Days, but the best memory is my ritual: every time we were going to spend a day together, I’d wake up, roll out of bed, and promptly run down the stairs, clapping my hands like a happy toddler, chanting rhythmically Momma-Day-Momma-Day-Momma-Day in a little kid voice.  It seemed, at the time, like something just between the two of us, that we could never tell anybody, because I was 36 and she was older than that even, but here it is, in my blog, because you just don’t get a whole lot of golden days.

 

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Just a few short months after moving into Philadelphia, I was riding my bike home from work on the night of New Year’s Day. About halfway between where I work and my home, one encounters Washington Avenue, one of the last large arterial streets that cuts through Philadelphia, before you get into what I called the Deep South. When I got there, about 10 o’clock at night, there was a police barricade, preventing me from going further down 2nd St., past Washington, which would’ve taken me directly home in about a mile. But it wasn’t an accident or a crime scene, and I quickly remembered what was going on. There wasn’t a whole lot that was notable about the neighborhood I lived in in Philadelphia, except the fact that it is the Mummer capital of the world. And the Mummers are basically men who dress up in very opulent costumes and dance around and ride interesting floats on a New Year’s Parade, as well as play in old world-style string and brass bands.  It is a tradition that only occurs in Philadelphia, and at that, only South Philadelphia, and at that, almost only my neighborhood. But it also turns out, that the whole city loves this tradition one day a year, that being New Year’s Day. And then on the night of New Year’s Day – not New Year’s Eve, mind you but New Year’s Day night – my neighborhood and just my neighborhood

Mummers in the 2014 Philadelphia 4th of July parade

Mummers in the 2014 Philadelphia 4th of July parade

becomes the largest party in the city all year. I hopped off my  bicycle, very interested in what this would look like. I was a bit unprepared. I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, but I am told it is much like this, and people who have been to both say that the Mummers party in Pennsport almost outdoes Mardi Gras in some ways. The crowd down Second Street was so thick, I had to quickly chain my bike to a mailbox, as there was no getting through the crowd. Huge, almost one-story high speakers dotted every-other block, where sometimes electronic, dance or house music played, and other times old world Mummer bands played corny but danceable string music. Enormous floats, gaudy and opulent, set in the middle some blocks, some of them decorated in modern ways, with heads of what looked like aliens or monsters, while other floats simply looked like a gilded golden things, big Faberge eggs on wheels, and all about everywhere strode Mummers, men and the occasional women wearing  long flowing robes of  shiny satin fabrics, embroidered gold and silver tassels, enormous red buttons, masks that looked sometimes scary, like out of a dream masquerade, or sometimes comical, or sometimes indecipherable. It was loud everywhere, chants got taken up out of nowhere that I couldn’t understand, songs were being sung like pirates about to board a weaker vessel. Everyone was drinking, the whole world was there, not just Mummers but teenagers and people in their twenties, kids with funnels of beer going to their stomachs, people on drugs screaming about things, people wearing beads as though it were Mardi Gras but it wasn’t, and nobody was taking their shirts off, weed smoke was an ever-present cloud.  There were food stands on corners, big sliced-open mangoes on sticks that you could buy, heads of pigs roasting over spits. I kept taking pictures and videos with my smartphone and sending them to people who weren’t there, people I wished were with me, people I hadn’t seen in years.  Somewhere around Dickinson Street I hung a left, popped out onto the relative calm of Front Street, walked six more blocks down to my street, stuffed the key in the lock, went inside in time for Anderson Cooper.

 

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In the winter, Erie is a cold, desolate, sometimes dangerous place. It’s not the ideal place to live alone with no friends or relatives within a five-mile drive of you. It snows almost all the damn time, and it’s so cold, and the wind just races across the lake, whether it’s the summer or the winter. Wether the lake is frozen or open, it is 7 miles wide, and there is nothing to stop the wind. On one particular winter morning, I rose to an early alarm clock, to work the morning shift at the restaurant I was a manager at. Our day start pretty early, and it’s always hard to get up, but especially when it’s dark outside, and the wind howls like a coyote, and you know there’s snow out there, and maybe more on the way, and maybe more falling even right then. I crawled out of bed, put on my work outfit, poked my head through the

Snow tubing at a work function in Erie--essentially the ONLY perk of the brutal winters.

Snow tubing at a work function in Erie–essentially the ONLY perk of the brutal winters.

blinds, and started my car with my remote start, one of the best features that car had. Five minutes later I was down there to hop in, excited about the warm inside of my car. It had snowed the night before, but not a whole lot, maybe four or five inches, which isn’t very much when you’re living in Erie. But it was just one of those things, one of those moments where your car and the tires are sitting just right, or just wrong, and despite the fact that you see no perfect reason why, your car is stuck. I had not left myself a whole lot of time with extra to get to work, and I was in quite a bind here. Being late is sometimes easier than others in that line of work, and I can’t remember the circumstances now, but I do know that I absolutely had to be there on time that day, and my car being stuck put me in a moment of desperation. With nobody to call – not even any small friends or acquaintances, really nobody that I knew – I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I was out of my car, looking all around it, shoveling the snow out from the tires as best I could, trying to rock it a little bit. All the small things one can do by yourself to get your car unstuck, but there’s only so much of that. Then, in the predawn darkness I saw approaching a young man walking down the center of the street that I lived on. I recognized the speed with which he walked and the

Lake Erie and the Presque Isle beaches are actually an incredible hidden gem (during the summers!) in Pennsylvania.

Lake Erie and the Presque Isle beaches are actually an incredible hidden gem (during the summers!) in Pennsylvania.

direction he was going as a man heading to catch a bus. Yes, there were buses, but I had never even looked into that. As he came to pass me I walked onto the street, and sent to him, “Hey man! Hi!  Hey man, excuse me!  I’m in a real bind here, my car is stuck and I really need to get to work.  I’m really screwed here.  Can you help me push it out?”

He stood still and wooden, looking at me through my pleading screed.  After a pause, he said, “But, see, I’m on the way to catch my bus to go to work myself.  What if this makes me late?”

This was one of those very touchy moments in life for me.  I absolutely, 100% needed this guy to help me.  But he had a point and I knew it.  Why should he be late to work simply so I could be on time?  I was sure if he helped me, the car could come out quickly and we’d both be on time, but time was crunched so badly, there wasn’t even the moment needed to explain this.  I analyzed my chances, as well as the look of the kid, and rolled the dice.  I said this:

“That’s a chance you’ll just have to take.”

 

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A poem I wrote in Philly:

 

Just Past St. Augustine’s

 

where the elevated train slows

just past St. Augustine’s church

off the Delaware river

a row of busted windows

only a single one still whole

open and darkly curtained

 

that’s where I once saw this arm

slip out between the frames,

the hand open to feel for drops of rain,

another time there were two arms

raising a small naked baby

for a breath of evening air

 

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I took a trip to Niagara Falls by myself once, while I was living in Erie. It was only a little over an hour away from there, and I figured I might as well take a look at it. It was a beautiful day, and I was much more moved by the wonder there than I expected to be. I did the whole shebang, the whole big tourist thing, the boats, the ponchos, everything. But the thing that I remember most, the thing that resonated most with me, was Goat Island. It’s a small island in the middle of the Niagara River. You can take a little pedestrian bridge over to it, and walk around. When I was there, I was mostly alone, and the bulk of the island is very unassuming. It’s got a big green lawn, some pasture. You can walk around and not really know that you are

Selfie from my solo trip to Niagara Falls

Selfie from my solo trip to Niagara Falls

so close to those enormous rushing waters, and the touristy sites, and the boats and helicopters. I walked over to the shore of the river, all alone in the little clearing, looking out at the rushing Niagara just a hundred yards or so from where drops into oblivion. I couldn’t believe it. There I was, so close to the river, so close to those falls, and nobody around me. I was happy as a clam but I thought to myself, I can jump right in there. I could just end it. Death has always felt like a very close spectre to me, I’ve always sensed the razors edge that I am on, that we are all on. In that moment, I don’t think I’ve ever sensed that more, I saw it like an actual looming knife: just a few feet away, just one slip or one jump, and there it is.  I went to Goat Island by myself and for a split second I saw through the door.

 

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A few months ago I met the most wonderful woman I’ve ever known.  Her name is Karla and I’ve been gifted with the good fortune of her loving me as much as I love her.  She’s from “back home”, so now, that is where I will go. Not only to spend time with my love and her marvelous son, but to now spend more time with my father and other relatives and long lost friends.  My sojourn ends—and an incredible new one will begin.  I don’t believe “everything happens for a reason”—in fact, I believe quite the opposite.  But I do believe that my lengthy field trip away from home has fulfilled its purpose in the finding of the love of my life.  I think my mom will be happy that, in fact, I am going to get even more golden days now.

 

The love of my life, Karla, our golden days stretching out ahead of us.

The love of my life, Karla, our golden days stretching out ahead of us.

 

 

 

 

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