I spent most of last week down in Virginia putting the final touches on my “new” solo record “Alcoholica” with the incredibly talented composer Erik Nickerson. I’m really proud of the work we’ve done on it (okay, mostly proud of the work Erik has done on it) but I have grave misgivings about unleashing it on the world.
One morning when I was 16, my friend Nick walked into my room without knocking. I was sorely hungover, laying in pile of blankets on the floor. He threw a book at me.
“You need to read this,” he said and then walked out.
I picked it up. The book was “Women” by Charles Bukowski.
I have replayed that moment over and over again in my mind, forwards and backwards: I am holding a book in my hands, unreading its title, unlearning its author’s name. I place it on my bed. Nick walks into my room backwards, articulates sounds I cannot understand and the book flutters off my bed into his hands. Nick walks out of my room backwards, carrying that evil tome out of my life. I lower myself onto my greasy pillow and retreat instantly back into sleep. The alcohol dyhydrogenase in my blood combines with the acetyl radicals and hydrogen in my body to form acetaldehyde, which is turned back into ethyl alcohol. My sleeping body returns from painfully hungover to blissfully drunk. Charles Bukowski never enters my life.
I took that book as my Bible. I was in pain and Bukowski’s wounded, macho bluster made instant sense to me. Long before my father had disappeared on us, I’d made up my mind to live in opposition to his circumscribed life, fleeing persecution at home to persecution at work, running frantically back and forth like a dog clipped to a clothesline wearing a rut in the lawn. Bukowski provided the map, the blueprint, the easy-to-follow-assembly instructions, the User’s Manual. An Idiot’s Guide, if you will. Where my father had been responsible, I would be free. Where he had capitulated, I would be uncompromising. My father was neurotic and fussy, hardly a man at all. Johnny Cash on one shoulder and Charles Bukowski on the other, I would be chaos.
For the amount of damage Bukowski wreaked on my life, I would have been better off if, instead of that narrow trade paperback from Black Sparrow Press, Nick had just given me the Anarchist’s Handbook or the Necronomicon or a vial of crystal meth or a test tube of weapons-grade anthrax or a loaded Kalishnikov. For a young man searching for how to live and who to be, it’s hard to imagine a worse influence than Bukowski.
When I quit drinking nearly five years ago, it put me at odds with my own music. My public appearances have been incredibly sparse since I sobered up. I finally had an epiphany last year while playing a show I had been coaxed into. I was playing a mean-spirited song I’d written when I was 25. As I was listening to the words come out of my mouth and listening to people laughing in spots that made me uncomfortable I realized that it’s not just that I no longer identify with this guy, I don’t like him. He’s fatalistic and nihilistic and he takes way too many cheap shots at women. I’m done with him.
But he’s not done with me. While I was off getting my life together and running too much, my shadow-self has been kicking much ass on the Internet. My old pal Doug Stanhope uses one of my old songs “The Only One Drinking Tonight” as the theme music for his podcast. (Let’s be clear—I feel only gratitude to Doug for that. I worked my ass off on that record and my work is my work is my work and I’m proud of all of it.) Our pal Jack Andino made a great and depressing video for the song featuring my buddies Andy Andrist, James Inman and Norm Wilkerson misbehaving on a hopeless comedy tour. That video now has 15,000 views.
This must be why I keep getting added on social media by troubled young men: maybe 25 years old, raccoon-eyed, questionable employment. I’m always puzzled when I click on their profiles—if these guys are going out for a run, it’s a beer run—until I recognize a quote in their profiles from one of my songs.
So… listen up. You should read all my stories. You should listen to all my records. By all means, buy the fucking T-shirt. But I am not a role model. The path I chose brought immeasurable grief to a lot of good people who didn’t deserve it, and also to me. This nihilistic record that’s coming out this year is not How You Should Live, it’s just how I lived until I finally came to my senses.
As unlikely and miraculous as my transformation has been, there are still a lot of people who haven’t forgiven me, and with good reason. I was a destructive alcoholic shithead. Don’t do it, man. There’s no use going this way.
My big sister Tatyana turns 39 today. I know what you’re thinking: “that’s wicked old!” And you’re right. She’s pretty ancient and feeble. Please– do not let her forget that.
In my mind, it’s hard to imagine her being nearly 40. I think part of that has to do with the fact that she and I have been alienated from each other for most of our lives. I don’t know when the divide between us sprung up, but I know it was very early, probably before I was ten, and I know that I was the one who wrote her off. Why? I can’t recall, but I know I was the one to alienate her and not the other way around. We were already strangers when I left home at fifteen. We went years without speaking to each other. When I was 27, she threw me out of her house. Yeah, sure she’d had a baby the day before but I was really hungover! Shortly thereafter, she and her family moved to Okinawa and I didn’t see any of them for nearly six years.
So it was pretty weird to realize this year that I had a new best friend– a wife, a mother of four, a woman I’d known my entire life, my big sister Tatyana. I’ve moved all over the country, looking for my home, and I realized this year that the only time I really feel like I’m where I belong is when I’m out running with my sister.
In honor of her birthday, here is a truly dark and horrible piece about her and I. Happy Birthday, T. I love you to death and I will always be grateful that, no matter how old I get, you will always be older than me.
Nothing Bad Will Ever Happen To You
My sister Tatyana had her first child in 2002 when I was 25. He was born on February 23rd, six days after my birthday and four days into my year of self-imposed sobriety (I had lost three entire days celebrating my birthday).
When she told me over the phone that she was having a boy, I jumped and threw a fist in the air, denting the low tin ceiling in our kitchen in Brooklyn. Tatyana is two years older than me and when we she was three, she used to lug her fireplug of a baby brother around, calling me “my Mika,” unable to pronounce the unwieldy clot of three consonants in my name. When she later decided to name her child “Mika,” after me, I was uncomfortably touched by her gesture. I would now have the child I had wondered about, the child I had yearned for and feared, the child I had taken grim, desperate measures not to have. Later, I wondered cynically if she intended him as a do-over for the first Mika who she had been unable to retain control over, a kid who had only fulfilled his potential for boundless disappointment.
The first time I held Mika, my miracle son, my ghost made flesh, I was high on cough syrup and Adderall and had been up for more than forty hours. I was running a club in Brooklyn and had made no travel plans for the winter holidays. Christmas had been irredeemably ruined for me by that rotten 24 hours of the shooting and the divorce and I intended to spend it alone, as I had many before. But, under increasing pressure from my family, I bought a last-second ticket to California, departing on Christmas Day.
My friend Ethan invited me over for Christmas Eve dinner with his family and I forced myself to be gracious and accept, leery as I was of holidays, strangers, grownups and socializing without alcohol. Dinner was fine, good even—Ethan and his family were welcoming, friendly and intelligent and the food was delicious. Dessert was a thick sugary trifle, and I felt a tiny squirm of pleasure in the back of my head. I didn’t notice what I was enjoying so much until my second piece. The layers of cake were soaked in brandy. Carefully not thinking, I ate a third piece.
While driving my roommate’s truck home, I could almost hear the buzzing at the base of my skull, something alive in there, alive and hungry.
It had been a mistake to eat the trifle. It had been a mistake to accept the invitation to dinner. It had been a mistake to even leave the house this time of year. My phone rang: my connection. I picked up. Whoops.
“Yo, Merry Christmas, man.”
“Watup, son, Happy Hanukah and all that jizz. What you doing?”
“Just ate food with E and rolling home.”
“I got some yayo in.”
“Dude, it’s Christmas Eve.”
I had money.
“Ahmn. Fuck, I’ll be over in a minute.”
Back at my Bushwick apartment, I cut up line after line and snorted them off a CD case while pacing around my apartment, then brutally chafing my cock to hardcore porn. Not great, I knew, but at least I wasn’t drinking.
Tremors of pleasure ran through my body like a woman was lightly raking her nails over my skin. More exciting, though, was the feeling of pleasure to come. An amazing experience was about to take place. It got closer and closer and closer… until finally the feeling began to dwindle without The Amazing Thing ever happening.
After a while, the room began to gray and I wondered if something was happening to my vision. I glanced over at my windows, covered with thick black curtains. I stood up from my chair and almost fell over. I had been sitting so long my legs had fallen asleep. I stumbled over to the window in my boxers and pulled a corner of a curtain back: morning. Fuck. I went back to my desk and snorted another line. I’d sleep on the plane.
After I packed, I crept out to the Duane Reade and bought a 4 ounce bottle of generic Maximum Strength cough syrup. I felt good, rebellious, subhuman. I was angry that I’d blown so much money on blow. Everyone was desperate for the shitty drugs that dealers condescended to sell you for too much money if you were lucky enough to have a connection. Nothing like the pushers forcing it on you I’d seen in the movies– you had to scramble, you had to plead, you had to crawl. Fuck them all– the sketchy, thuggy, condescending dealers, the skittish rock kids lecturing me to “be chill,” my idiotic friends who thought coke was cool, my idiotic friends who thought it wasn’t. Fuck them all. I was scoring from the drugstore. I hadn’t done cough syrup in a while but, hey, it was Christmas, this would be my present to myself. I would be down by the time I got to California. Or down-ish. Or I’d just figure it out when I got there.
I pounded the bottle of cough syrup in the back of the car service on the way to JFK, watching clouds cinematically darken the sky. By the time I’d made it through security, I was walking sideways like a crab. I made it to my gate and ducked into a bathroom. The cough syrup was coming on strong but I knew that if I could just make it on to my plane, I would be okay. I shuffled into a stall, locked the door and sat down on the toilet. Could I really be this fucked up?
Between my feet, a huge drillbit at least four inches in diameter chewed its way up through the floor, giving off sparks and tattered wafts of green vapor. That can’t be right, I thought. The bit reversed itself and ground its way back into the floor, leaving no trace. Get on the plane, just get on the plane.
When I emerged from the sanctuary of the bathroom, I had to close one eye in order to read the display over the gate: my flight had been delayed indefinitely. I tried to discreetly look around for a place to sit down but I felt like I was tossing my head wildly back and forth like a drowning horse, my eyes bulging.
There. Seated on a bench ten feet away was Francesca, a bartender from Mars Bar, the open sore of a bar where Zack worked as a barback. Francesca had taken care of my friends and I more than once after a night had devolved into chaos.
“Francesca,” I whispered urgently and fell into the seat next to her.
“Oh my God, Mishka,” she said and hugged me.
“I am so fucking glad to see you. I’ve been up all night and I’m so fucked up.”
“Me too,” she hissed in my ear.
We hugged each other tightly but after the hug, couldn’t bring ourselves to let go, as if the other person were the only thing anchoring us to the earth. We sat there together for a long time.
Hours later, I made it onto my plane, peaking on cough syrup, barely able to parse language or stand upright. I tried to sleep but every time I closed my eyes, my vision exploded into painfully vivid colors. I put my headphones on with no music just so no one would talk to me and I stared at the gray nubbin on the back of the plane seat holding the dinner tray in place. Tatyana was going to freak out if I was this fucked up when we landed.
Jesus, could two children be more different than Tatyana and I? I couldn’t remember us ever having gotten along. I mean, there were a couple of token idyllic memories of climbing over our parents in their bed on Christmas or Easter morning, watching cartoons together on Saturday mornings. And there was that time that Mom had made us costumes out of brown paper grocery bags—a bunny rabbit for Tatyana and a knight with a cardboard sword for me. But those were rapidly eclipsed by uglier memories. Crying because she and her friends were making fun of me or just wouldn’t let me play with them, biting her in a battle over a Smurfs cartoon and losing my TV privileges for a week, screaming at her to suck my cock in some ruthless teenage argument.
I must have been a nightmare for her, the menace yapping at her heels, The Second Who Would Be First, quickly bigger and louder than her. I skipped a grade so she was pushed to do two years in one. Then when she was leaving for college, I stole her thunder by skipping out on two years of high school and leaving for Simon’s Rock at the same time she was leaving for Boulder. Though neither of my parents managed to say anything helpful about the shooting, I’m sure it was discussed with her and around her and she must have felt neglected. But we had already been strangers to each other for years by then. What had happened and when had it happened?
I remember looking at her once while we were waiting for the school bus in New Mexico, her GUESS T-shirt tucked into her jeans that matched her best friend’s jeans perfectly, her Swatch, her hair just so. How old was she then, thirteen? I remember feeling angry for her and angry at her. She was subjecting herself to a code, a code she was better than, a code she shouldn’t be reinforcing but working to destroy. I was angry for her because it was unfair that the pressure to belong, to fit in, to be normal weighed so heavily on her. And I was angry at her because she could do it and I couldn’t.
Staring at the back of the seat in front of me, trapped on my airplane, I could see her without even closing my eyes, frozen in time, maybe five years old, a pretty little girl in the garden in a long dress of white fabric with hibiscus blossoms printed on it, smiling shyly, a real hibiscus flower from my mom’s garden tucked into her hair. Was there already nervousness behind her smile then or have the years just inserted it into my memory?
Tatyana had been able to do something I could not do. She had the ability to behave, to play quietly. Tatyana could be good. That was beyond me. I could not control myself. I wanted to, I would have done anything to be good, but it was impossible. To see her doing it so effortlessly, well, I think that just drove me insane.
It wasn’t effortless for her, that became clear later on. She put herself under incredible pressure to be good, to not disappoint anyone, and because of that she was ready to snap at you for the slightest thing. That summer in the Virgin Islands when I was 20, I remember bitching about her to Mom. What we were fighting about, I can’t even remember.
“Mom, she’s impossible! You know that! Don’t ask me to be a well of patience.”
“Mishka, don’t you understand? That is exactly what I’m asking of you. She’s your sister, for God’s sake.
Well, shit, Mom, don’t you ever get sick of being right all the time?
The divide between Tatyana and I had only deepened over the years. Tatyana got excellent grades and excellent comments, with only one or two teachers suggesting that perhaps she should show more personal agency. I got good grades, too, but increasingly just as a middle finger to my classmates, who seemed to be either thick or spineless, and my teachers: they could give me study hall, detention, inside suspension, outside suspension, say whatever they wanted to about me—“juvenile,” “immature,” “disruptive,” “lacks focus”—but I would force them to give me that “A.”
And now here I was, about to complete a Master’s degree at a fancy-schmancy school, running a rock club in the center of the universe (Williamsburg) and, okay, maybe not necessarily kicking ass but at least trying. And Tatyana was out in California, not working, living on a fucking military base, married (the most horrific and banal fate ever) and popping out kids with a Marine she’d met in a Denny’s. She was a normal. Jesus, Tatyana, the world has more to offer you than the Indigo Girls and you have more to offer it than scrapbooking!
The worst thing was that I knew she was better than me. Whenever we had gone head to head, she won—I finished the test first, but she got every single question right. I got to the bottom of the ski hill first but the instructor complimented her “perfect form” in front of our ski class. Dad wanted us in the sciences and she had become an electrical engineer like him, pulling down a fat salary while I had changed my major to Theatre, then Film then entirely useless Creative Writing and wound up flipping burgers and then answering phones for beer money. And now grubbing in bars, ugh. As much as I condescended to the life she had chosen, once again, Tatyana had won. She had made Mom and Dad proud. She had found a partner and she had had a child and she had found her place while I still had no idea who I was.
Though I had asked my mom to come and pick me up by herself to ensure that there was no big scene at the airport, I was met at the gate by my mother, Tashina, my brother-in-law Bill– a fucking Marine, for God’s sake, the squarest of the square in his ‘high and tight’– and Tatyana, who immediately hugged me and deposited my ten-month-old namesake in my arms.
I had nearly become a father twice, at 18 and at 22. When I was 18, a Simon’s Rocker a couple years older than me who was not my girlfriend told me she was infertile. Then, when she was pregnant, she clarified that she had never actually been diagnosed as infertile by a doctor, she had just never gotten pregnant before. I added a twelve-hour shift at my job at the International House of Pancakes, from five PM Friday night to five AM Saturday morning to pay for her abortion.
When I was 22, my ex-girlfriend stopped taking the pill after she moved out and neglected to mention it to me, though we kept sleeping together. She left New York before she started showing and she was five months along before she miscarried. Only then did she tell me. She had intended to have the child, move overseas and never let me know. My children would have been three and seven. Four years apart, just like me and Tashina. Or like me and Chuong.
I held Tatyana’s baby away from me for a minute, just taking him in. He was the size and weight of a thawed turkey, his useless little flippers hanging limply by his sides, staring at me with the same blank wonder with which I stared at him. Then I drew him into me. He pressed his head against my chest and I put my head down next to his face and took a breath, smelling his fine hair, his soft skull, the nascent promise of his new flesh.
I closed my eyes and had a vision of a nursery full of sleeping babies, each more unique and more perfect than the last, the air over them swirling thickly with boundless potential, the infinite possibilities of their lives. A woman walked among the rows of cribs, bending over each infant to caress the fine eddies of silk on their heads, brush their cheeks with her eyelashes and whisper a blessing into their tiny, sleeping ears: nothing bad will ever happen to you.
Nothing bad will ever happen to you: it’s just the most heinous lie, the worst bullshit imaginable. Millions of bad things will happen to you, a thesaurus, a full set of encyclopedias of bad things, a vast, shimmering spectrum of bad things from stubbing your toe to passing a jagged kidney stone to the day you finally die, The Biggest Bad Thing, which, by then, may not seem so awful after all because death, in its completeness, at least ensures that no more bad things will happen to you.
But before you achieve that, man… You will piss your pants and you will shit your pants, as a child and as an adult. And not a little bit where you can almost get away with it, you will shit your pants with such vehemence that you will have to change your socks. In fact, your final act on this earth will probably be to piss and shit your pants at the same time. Death and taxes are not the only inevitables; there will always be feces.
You will fall in love and your lover will cheat on you with your best friend or your worst enemy or both in one action-packed weekend and you will only find out when you wake up with crabs or herpes or Hep C or HIV.
You will get beat up. A lot. You will get beat up by your brother/ sister/ mother/ father/ friends/ lovers/ strangers. You will get raped. You will get raped twice, once by a stranger and once by someone you know, someone you trusted, someone in your fucking family, God damn the world to Hell. Your hamster will die. Your cat will die. Your grandfather will die. Your mother will die. Your child will die in your arms. You will pay for an abortion, you will have an abortion, several abortions, and those dreamed lives, those pre-children will follow you around like starving stray dogs for the rest of your life.
You will get an infection. You will get a host of infections. Horrible, vile-smelling things will come out of your body. You will be abandoned. He will leave you. She will leave you. They will leave you. Everyone you love who doesn’t leave you or turn against you or die will leave you and then turn against you and then die.
Something will happen to you that is so bad that you will not be able to parse it, you will have no language with which to comprehend what has happened to you so you will just carry it around in your abdomen like a dead fetus which will calcify in your gut, a stone baby that grows so large and so heavy that you will lay awake at night and feel it, cold and unyielding inside of you, and understand that you have been transformed into just a vessel to transport this profane weight.
You will do bad things, to people you hate and people you love because you are angry, because you are confused, because you are hurt, because you have become cruel and because you can’t help yourself. You will do truly rotten shit, small, mean-spirited shit, petty shit, shit so base, so abominable it will keep you awake years later, wondering if it could really have been you who had done it at all because it seems so foreign in essence from the polite, responsible, even caring person you understand to be your true self. It will disturb you, it will hurt you, you will bleed, externally and internally, figuratively and literally, it will destroy you, it will murder you, it will kill you to fucking death, over and over, again and again. And you will go on living.
Still, glassy-eyed and sleep-deprived and half-crazed in the San Diego airport, I held my sister’s baby boy to my chest. It’ll be different for you, Mika, my little man. Nothing bad will ever happen to you.
I had just finished fighting a new friend last night when I got a call from my Dad, a call I had been waiting for, a call to explain the nature of his sudden illness and subsequent hospitalization. Matt Nelson, the new friend, opened Mellow Pages this February, a library and reading room in Bushwick. It’s a brilliant way to lose money: a tiny corner cube of a room stuffed with excellent independent books, chapbooks, zines and literary magazines. In an effort to raise money for the project, Matt volunteered to fight anyone for $20. It was a stupid idea with an overwhelming probability that someone would get seriously hurt. So, yeah, I signed up.
I’ve boxed a little but mostly, I’m just large with a long, simian reach. Matt’s not a small guy, though, he spoke knowingly about boxing gear, and he’s from Washington and they make men out of a more durable substance in the Pacific Northwest. I was worried he was downplaying his skill level and might catch me with my chin out and put me to sleep.
I got conflicting input from my friends. Most of my guy friends said “Kill him. Bloody him. Knock him down, eviscerate him, and wear his large intestine like a mink stole.” My female friends said “Jesus, just don’t hurt him.” My girlfriend said “Just don’t get hurt, okay honey?”
The day of the fundraiser, I also got the news that my Dad was in the hospital. He hadn’t been feeling well and his wife had insisted they go to the hospital. Once he was admitted, they found out that his electrolyte levels were perilously low. They replenished his potassium and calcium (and, Jesus, what other thing is in electrolytes? Help me out here, Dad) and kept him overnight. When they checked again, his electrolytes were again dangerously low. So something was up but they didn’t know what.
My sister did the panicked Google diagnosis (which we all know is a bad idea and we do it anyway) and figured it was something with his kidneys. It took me about two and a half seconds to figure out that both Tatyana and I would volunteer a kidney for the old man, but that it would be my job to bully her into letting me do it because, after all, there is some risk in donating an organ and she’s got the four kids and I just have guitars.
But at the time of the fundraiser, we still hadn’t heard back from the doctors what was up with my Dad. So Matt and I wrapped up our hands and went at it, yes, in the Mellow Pages Library. Fighting in the library is lame when you’re fifteen. I’m thirty-six. Anyway, it sucked. It sucks hurting a good person and it sucks getting hit in the face and I endured both. I knew that it would be lame to try to kill Matt because it’s pretty heroic of him to open Mellow Pages and even more heroic to offer to fight people to raise money for it. Plus he’s a good writer and I genuinely like him, and not just because he has bad ideas. I knew it would be equally lame to just defend and keep him at arm’s length all night. I mean, why offer to fight someone if you’re not going to fight? So my goal was not to hurt him and not to get hurt… but to give him enough that he remembered my name. I think he will. I will remember his name, too.
After two rounds, we’d had enough. His nose was bleeding and my mouthpiece tasted like raw steak. But, fool that Matt is, he manned up to go another two rounds with another guy who’d showed up to fight him. At the end of the first round, my phone rang: my Dad.
He sounded good, upbeat, totally normal. I could tell that he was stressed but he didn’t sound scared or weak or sick at all. They’d thought it might be his heart, he said, but he’d passed all their tests with flying colors. Then they’d found something small near his right temple. They’d excise it with surgery or radiation and he’d be fine. They were sending him home with medication and he was going to check in with a specialist soon.
I said that I wouldn’t worry because I knew his wife Theresa would be vigilant about ensuring that he got the best treatment possible.
“Did you say ‘vigilant’ or ‘belligerent?’ Because yes, she is belligerently making sure I get the best treatment available.”
I could hear him smiling. I guess the part of his body that manufactures horrible Dad jokes was still working perfectly. We talked for a minute before it really sunk in.
“Dad, I mean… you said the right temple. I mean… we are talking about a tumor inside your fucking skull, right?”
“Well, yes,” he said, “but it’s small. Maybe the size of a quarter.”
My dad has a brain tumor.
Now, listen, I know what you’re thinking, but I know that there are brain tumors, and then there are brain tumors. Theresa had a brain tumor the size of an orange removed several years ago, a tumor that had been growing very slowly in her head for a long time, a tumor that had blood vessels going through it, a tumor that only finally made its presence known when it got so large that it began crowding her brain. She’s fine. She has a job, she works her ass off in their garden, she skis, she drives her motorcycle on long tours with my Dad. She’s absolutely the person I knew before the operation.
A friend of my father’s, John Plato, a guy I knew my entire life and maybe the only guy I’ve ever met who was tougher than my Dad also had a brain tumor. It killed him. There are brain tumors, and then there are brain tumors.
I called my sister Tatyana. She was understandably worried so I tried to calm her down.
“T,” I said, “don’t let yourself freak out about this. He’s strong, he’s relatively young, Theresa came through her scare totally fine… This is not the end for him. No way.
“But, at the same time, he is going to die one day. We have to make our peace with that, as much as you can make peace with losing a parent before it happens.”
We got off the phone, both agreeing that we were fine, neither of us fine at all. You ever try to comfort someone who is freaking out about something, only to freak yourself out way worse? I came home and booked a plane ticket out to California to see my Dad in a couple of days.
I’m sure in my heart that this tumor will not kill him or even transform him, that he and I will be back working in the hot sun together next summer. Have I not told you yet that my Dad is a fucking awesome dude? I bought a house this spring and this summer, my Dad drove the eight hours down from Sutter Creek and then worked fourteen hour days with me for ten days to get it whipped in to shape. We worked side-by-side for a while, and then branched off to do separate jobs after a couple of days. He took the opportunity to listen to his iPod and he was rocking out to Guns ‘n’ Roses while he hung sheetrock with his shirt off, occasionally stopping to wipe the sweat from his face and fist pump or howl tunelessly along with the lyrics. My dad is never going to die. Are you fucking kidding me? He’s not like leather or steel because leather dries out and cracks and steel rusts. My Dad… my Dad is like an old, liquor-soaked Christmas fruitcake: he never goes bad, he just gets older and drier and harder and heavier and more potent. My dad will outlive me, he will outlive you, he will outlive all of us. This little tumor will not kill my Dad.
But my dad is going to die one day. We are all going to die. I can’t fucking handle it.
I don’t fear my own death. I fear dying because I know that dying sucks, it’s often painful and scary and protracted and I know I will be an absolute baby, blubbering and crying and begging and pleading. But I don’t fear death itself. Jumping into a frigid lake in the fall is worse. It’s scary and you dread it and then you hit the water and it’s fucking awful. With death, it’s like you jump and then the movie ends before you hit the water. No pain, no terror, no eternal hellfire, no white fluffy clouds, no 72 virgins. Death is nothing at all.
What I live in terror of is the death of other people. I don’t want to lose anyone else. Can you all stay just as you are right now, right this second? I don’t want to be brave or inspirational or even mature, I want to screw around and do juvenile, dangerous things with my idiot friends, okay? Please? Thank you.
My parents are both terrific smartasses and total ballbusters with unflagging enthusiasm for cheap jokes. I don’t want to see their mental faculties slowly hollow out, watch their bodies crumple in slow motion, watch their sharp eyes retreat into their faces. I remember being a little kid, laying next to my dad in bed, marveling at the broad expanse of his back, covered in freckles and coarse black hair. He seemed impossibly massive, like a cross between a rhinoceros and a mountain. I’m still astonished to see myself taller than my Dad in pictures. It’s an optical illusion, it’s a weird camera angle, it’s a trick of the light. My Dad will always be bigger than I am.
Here’s where I’m supposed to turn it around, right? I’m supposed to talk about how grateful I am for the time we’ve had, that we’ve been able to patch things up (and fight again, and patch things up again, and fight again…) how Death is a bookend that is necessary in order for us to enjoy the time in between the darkness at either end, and carpe diem and all that happy horseshit, right? Nope, not tonight. Not this time.
That’s all dependent on some bullshit Hollywood arc of experience between young men and their fathers: Act I: We Fight. Act II: We Make Up. Act III: The Old Man Dies. It seems to be based on the premise that once we are no longer fighting with Dad, he has served his dramatic purpose and the butchers immediately start sharpening their knives. No. My Dad and I still have a lot of projects to do together. My Dad is a good friend of mine. We enjoy each other’s company. We are just getting started.
The most momentous news seems to find you in the most banal ways: glancing at a TV in a sports bar, the ticker in Times Square, a late night text message. I woke up this morning from a dream that I was fighting in a war, turned on my phone, and read on Facebook that my friend Adam Fisher was dead.
I met Adam when I took a job as Night Manager at Knitting Factory in 2004, when it was still on Leonard Street in Manhattan. It was not a great time for me. I’d just moved back to NYC from a year of living out of my van on the road and a long relationship was falling apart. I was angry and confused and solidly depressed.
When Shay, the General Manager, was training me, he introduced me to Adam. I took one look at him– long shaggy hair, cut-offs, band T-shirt, challenging stare– and made a note to myself: this one is going to be trouble. And I was right. Adam was even more hardheaded than I was and we clashed early and often.
One night, we were all drinking in the Tap Bar after a hard night and Adam looked at me and said “You think you’re such a badass.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re bigger than me but I’m pretty sure I can take you.”
“No,” I said.
So we wrestled. I was six inches taller, maybe fifty pounds heavier. I won. And then I won again. And then I won again. And then I won again.
We returned to our drinks and just looked at each other. I realized that, if I ever had to really fight Adam, that I would win. And I realized that fighting Adam would totally suck because he would come at me fearlessly, with everything that he had and that he would never, ever give up. It would be a long, shitty fight and it would hurt because it would take me for-fucking-ever to get Adam to stay down. Finally, I realized that we were now friends.
Adam was a fantastic sound engineer to have working for you. Steve, the production manager, would occasionally give me a heads up on a show. One night, we had six hardcore bands booked in the Tap Bar. When I raised an eyebrow, he said “I booked Fisher for it, so you should be alright.” And Steve was right. That night, I asked Adam if he wanted me to stick a security guard down there with him.
“Nope. No way, dude. I got it.”
And he did. I hung out down there and watched him watch the crowd. There was a mosh pit in front of his sound desk (which was just on wheels in the Tap Bar, not attached to anything) and when some guy lost his footing and tumbled toward the mixer, Adam swung around and kicked the guy neatly in the back, saving both his mixer and the guy (who would have been hurt much more had he hit the desk). Later, when I was talking to some clown and telling him to settle down, I saw Adam watching us the same way he had been watching the crowd. Had the guy thrown a punch, Adam would have been on his back like a spider monkey.
Adam was a committed student of the science of sound… but there are lots of guys like that in New York, continually tweaking the compression, scooping some frequency, eternally hovering over the mixing board like the band is suffering some musical illness only they can cure. Adam made bands sound juicy, punchy, and aggressive– I mean this is rock and roll we’re talking about, is it not?– and then he made it LOUD, buffeting your body with sound, the vibrations caressing you with a sometimes uncomfortable level of intimacy. It wasn’t an accident that his email was “healing by amplitude.”
But that’s not where the job stopped for him. Time after time, I’d ask him if he wanted help running his nights. He had five Latin percussion ensembles and there was an early curfew of midnight– didn’t he want me to come down and be ‘bad cop’ so his job would be easier?
“Dude, I got it,” was always his answer.
And he did. He had the bands wrap up at 11:59 and then they came down to get paid, talking about how much they loved him and how great he was. Adam walked in behind them, rolled his eyes, threw his hands in the air and then went and flopped down on the couch in the other room. All class, that guy.
We had a lot in common: both acerbic, bitter guys; smartasses; thwarted musicians; drinkers. Everyone at the Knit treated him differently than they treated me, though, and it took me a while to figure out why. A crucial difference between us was that I was so transfixed by my own failures that I had a difficult time connecting with people beyond a cursory manner. I couldn’t see past my own bullshit. Adam actually cared, Adam cared very deeply about his friends, was sensitive enough that he could tell when they were upset, and he would corner them and make them tell him what was bothering them. And if he ever had a problem, well, he wouldn’t burden you with it. I treated him like a little brother sometimes, and he was like a little brother, but the little brother who might end up carrying you home at the end of the night.
After I left Knitting Factory, we ran into each other at different clubs around town, then different clubs around the country. He was always the same: cut-offs, band shirt, in dire need of a hair cut, and man, that beard… it was like a herd of porcupines crawling through a briar patch wrapped in razor wire in the middle of the Black Forest. I marveled at how he ever got food into his mouth through that dense whisker shield. He’d call you out on the street: “YOOOOOOOOOO!” And then a huge, full-body, unrestrained hug. He used to lift me off the ground just to fuck with me.
We’d sit down at the bar together or the table or hell, once even just a curb in Austin. How do you catch up with someone you haven’t seen in six months when you’ve both been all over the country or the world and through all kinds of hell? He’d ask me what I’d been up to and I’d offer some bland platitude:
“Well, you know… I put pants on this morning and–”
Adam would look at me sideways. “Dude, that is such bullshit, and you know it!”
Adam Fisher was unable to be anything other than 100% himself, 100% of the time.
One time I was selling a 70′s Gibson Grabber on Craig’s List. The band Fucked Up was in town and the bass player, Sandy, wanted to buy the bass. At the last second, she said she was going to have to bail– it was going to be too tough to make it over before the show. Half an hour later, Adam texted me. He was doing sound for Fucked Up at Warsaw, Sandy had told him about the bass, he told her she had to buy it and they were in a car on the way over.
She played it for a minute and then looked at him.
“Sandy,” Adam said, and he said her name like they’d been friends for twenty years, “It’s a rad bass. Just buy it.”
‘Friend’ is a trite word to use to describe the way I felt about Adam. When you’re a penniless young drunk in New York City and all your family lives far away, and you’re not talking to them anyway, or they’re not talking to you, or nobody is talking to anybody, well, you make your friends your family. Adam was part of that family. I liked Adam, I loved Adam, I thought he was funny, I thought he was a dick, he annoyed the fucking shit out of me but most importantly, I trusted Adam. I would have trusted him with my life. We understood each other. Or he understood me, and I thought I understood him.
Losing him so suddenly, so abruptly, so unexpectedly is heartbreaking. I really thought that he’d be telling me I was full of shit for the next 30 years. Our friend Bill Stites put it best: “Adam, you would totally make fun of me if you saw how hard I’m crying right now.” But losing him means that, for the first time in the entire life of our friendship, I can say something to Adam without him interjecting or cutting me off or immediately rejecting everything I’ve just said as total horseshit. So here goes.
Adam. It’s not just that I liked you or we all liked you. I loved you and we all loved you, not because you drank with us and worked too hard for too little appreciation or knew too much about Nick Cave but because you were loyal and true and just a 100% solid gold motherfucker.
I didn’t follow the George Zimmerman trial closely. I’ve been traveling and I hardly ever watch TV even when I’m home. But I didn’t have to– it was all over my Facebook and Twitter feed and featured on every news site I read. So my apologies in advance if I’m not up on every little nuance of the case. Here’s the thing, though: going in to the trial, we already had two of our three verdicts.
1) Trayvon Martin is dead. Back in the day, we used to have a word for people like Trayvon Martin, skulking around in the rain in a hooded sweatshirt, up to who-knows-what. We called them “kids.” A paranoid, angry wanna-be with a pistol made a snap judgement against another human being because he was a young black man and erased him from this plane forever. This is a tragedy, a tragedy at once both horrifyingly epic and chillingly banal.
2) George Zimmerman is guilty of iniating a prejudicial, premeditated confrontation with a vengeful agenda and escalating it to murder. These are the facts.
I had to interrogate myself yesterday about why I had zero sympathy for George Zimmerman. That I’ve always had tons of sympathy for Trayvon Martin needs little explanation– I’ve spent probably hundreds of nights wandering around after dark in the rain in a hoodie from age fifteen on, usually pursuing something less vanilla than junk food, but meaning little or no harm. I’ve gotten yelled at a bunch of times by protective or overprotective neighbors, but that’s kind of the point: they yelled at me and I left.
At first glance, though, I now appear to have more in common with George Zimmerman. We’re both old (I’m older). We’re both light-skinned (I am much whiter). We both have a chip on our shoulders (do I really need to clarify this?) And we’ve both engaged in vigilantism (in the last couple of years, I broke up a fight on a subway platform and I’ve run down two muggers). Then why do I feel justified in hating Zimmerman to death?
Here’s one difference between us: each time that I’ve interfered, a law has already been broken. On the subway platform, one guy was kicking the shit out of the other guy. In each of the two muggings, a woman was yelling because she’d had a black iPhone stolen. There were victims. Here’s another difference: I don’t carry a gun.
3) The third verdict is, of course, the big one. No, I’m not talking about Zimmerman being found innocent. Didn’t we all see that coming? Disgusting as it is, its a tenuous argument that the verdict is incorrect. In fact, if I was a juror and I was doing my job, I think I’d have a very hard time coming up with a guilty verdict. After all, Zimmerman executed the only other witness to the shooting and somehow wasn’t compelled by the court to testify.
Here’s the final verdict: In the United States, it’s not just legal to pursue with a concealed handgun a child innocent of any crime, provoke him, and then murder him, there is a law protecting your right to do so. The overriding tragedy of the Trayvon Martin murder is not that a guilty man was found innocent, it’s that, under current Florida law, murder of children is legal.
Do you care? I mean, really, do you care? No amount of ‘liking’ shit on Facebook is going to change things. If the United States had meaningful, uniform gun control laws, George Zimmerman would have gotten the broken nose he was looking for and so richly deserved; Trayvon Martin would have a crazy story about a racist shithead who got served to tell his friends. If Florida didn’t have a ridiculous, dick-swinging “Stand Your Ground” law, George Zimmerman would at least be in jail for his murder. If we– as a nation and as individual people– didn’t build our communities around fear like it was a fucking war monument, well, George would have watched some TV, Travyon would have gone home, played some Playstation with his stepbrother-to-be. At some point, both of them would have gotten tired, brushed their teeth, gotten undressed and crawled in to bed to go to sleep. George and Trayvon, each in their own bed in The Retreat at Twin Lakes, falling asleep. Think about that for a second. A man and a boy, the ages of a father and his son, sleeping innocently in their beds, their eyelids fluttering, dreaming.
I’m not going to give you a link to a petition or a specific cause. I’m not a spokesman and I’m not a politician. I don’t have answers, but to say that there is no way forward is pathetically weak. And to just sit back and do nothing is insane.
I had a pretty shitty day at Finger Lakes Fifties on Saturday, which was only heightened by the fact that it’s one of my favorite races and I had a bunch of friends/ fans/ supporters there. I feel I need to write about if just to unpack it for myself.
I didn’t have a promising week leading up to the race. On Monday, driving back from working on a record in Virginia with a friend, I had a blowout going about 85 on the New Jersey Turnpike. I had to wrestle my van across three lanes of heavy traffic in order to get over to the side of the highway to safety. I came as close as I ever have to rolling it and I’m not going to lie to you, it was pretty scary. Nothing like a brush with a banal death to make you appreciate the life you have.
Long story short, I got home at 8pm, a full 8 hours later than I’d hoped, out several hundred bucks for the tows and getting overcharged for a couple of used, dryrotted tires to replace the new-ish one that had blown out and the spare that had gotten stolen. Ugh. I was running late on the next Kindle Single so I stayed up till 8am to get an extremely rough first draft off to my editor.
I ended up staying two extra days in NYC before leaving town and I have a (very understanding) subletter, so then I spent two nights on air mattresses, one at home and one in Aaron’s guest room (thanks, pal!) I booked a hotel room in Ithaca the night before the race in hopes of getting one good night’s sleep but, of course, I can never sleep the night before a race.
It hasn’t been a great year for running for me. I haven’t been excited about running for a while. I signed up for 2 other ultras before Finger Lakes and didn’t even make it to the starting line. I managed to get a little re-energized by befriending ultra-triathlete Rich Roll and doing a marathon for Boston and actually ended up doing more training for Finger Lakes this year than I did last year.
Still, once the pack thinned out Saturday morning and I got out there on the trail alone, I found myself getting bored and dreading my second and third lap. I’d trained in minimalist shoes to strengthen my lower legs but chose to race in my Montrails, which soaked up all the water and held on to all the mud we ran through, so my feet were wet and heavy. Nothing I haven’t dealt with before, though. As I approached the end of the first lap, I started to consider dropping. My left hip and my right knee were bothering me and, after 15 miles, I was running as ragged as I usually do after 40 miles. Again: nothing I haven’t dealt with before. Running 50 miles is difficult by design.
When I came to the turnaround, I sat down for a minute, talked to some friends… and then tore off my tag and sadly slipped it to Chris Reynolds, the hard-working race director.
I told myself one of the reasons I quit was because I wanted to hang out with my ultrabuddies, many of whom I haven’t seen for a year, but after dropping after just one lap, I felt so shitty about myself that I split as soon as I could. I felt bad about it the whole day and then, when I woke up the day after the race and wasn’t sore at all, I just felt worse. I totally could have done it, and I totally pussed out.
What went wrong? Lots, but little of it had to do with my body. Sure, I was tired and hadn’t slept well in a week and I wore the wrong shoes and should have stretched/ warmed up more. But those are pretty common mistakes for me– I’ve made those mistakes and still gone out and had great races, even run PRs. What’s wrong is in my head: I’m just not emotionally invested in running anymore.
When I started running, my life was pretty empty. Band practice, work a couple nights a week, not much else. I had a lot to figure out and nothing to do and a ton of new, restless energy. Running was a means of escape: it filled up my hollow, newly sober days, it gave me a sense of forward momentum so I panicked less about the uncertain future ahead of me, it gave me a physical outlet for my anxiety. Yes, running is a means of escape. This aspect of running has been given plenty of attention– too much, in fact. Because running is also a means of CONFRONTING your issues.
When I quit drinking, I was in horrible shape– both fat and skinny. Running meant dealing with that head-on. I had shitty relationships with my family, many of my friends, a couple of women… okay, let’s just say I had a shitty relationship with the world in general. When I ran, my body was occupied but my mind was idle, so I was forced to reflect on the decisions I’d made, the grudges I held and the grudges held against me. So running meant dealing with those issues head-on. But at the very core of my beef with the world was fear. I was so afraid of failing that I was afraid of trying. Running when I was sorely out of shape meant both trying and failing, again and again, and out in public, in the world I resented and hated and feared. Maybe running is an escape for some people but for me, running was all about confronting the shit that I hated and feared the most.
Ironically, now that I’ve written an ebook about running that’s garnered me all this attention, I run less than I did before I wrote it. I run less because my life is full now. I have great friends and every single one of my relationships with my family members is dramatically better than it was before I stopped drinking and before I started running. Also, I have a career now, which is awesome, but it seems like there’s always an email I am late in responding to or a phone call I haven’t returned. I bought a house, which is also awesome, but man, that is a buttload of work and it seems like I’m just getting into the thick of it now. I’m doing lots of other awesome crap like going to Ireland and England and Canada and building guitars and teaching a bootcamp and that’s great… but it means I have less time for running.
Which may be okay. Because I need running less than I used to. For one thing, I’ve taken a lot of steps to resolve conflict in my life… which means I don’t have entertaining worries to obsess over when I’m on my feet. Yeah, there are definitely some days when I wake up feeling angry or depressed and I have to go out and run till I’m exhausted. But that happens less frequently now than it used to. Often, when I do feel like that, I can’t go because I have too much other shit to do– usually good shit, like writing or making a record, but still shit that prevents me from running. I’m not okay with that. But I have to get okay with that, as it’s not going to go away.
I’m going running today. I hope that I will always run. But if I don’t, that’s alright. Running doesn’t define who I am. I define who I am. At the end of the day, running is a completely selfish action that I undertook to save my life. It has to stay something I do for selfish reasons.
When I bailed after just one lap at Finger Lakes, part of the reason I felt like shit is because I felt like I was letting my readers down. I hate letting anyone down but I especially hate the thought of letting my readers down, many of whom are fighting battles similar to mine. But here’s the thing: I didn’t write The Long Run for you. If it’s inspired you or helped you, that’s great… but I didn’t write it to help anyone and I certainly didn’t think it was going to inspire anyone. I thought it was an ugly story of an ugly man trying to become less ugly and I only hoped that it did as well as Shipwrecked. In fact, I wanted to put a warning label on it: ANY INSPIRATION YOU MAY RECEIVE FROM THIS STORY IS PURELY ACCIDENTAL. READER RELEASES THE AUTHOR FROM ALL LIABILITY.
I didn’t even write The Long Run for me, I didn’t want to write it at all! My editor Dave said “Your next Kindle Single will be about your transition from druggie/ drunk to ultrarunner and it will be called The Long Run. I have spoken.” I protested a bit but I relented because we’d already been through a bunch of shit together and I trusted him and, well, I didn’t know what else to do.
Am I glad I wrote it? You betcha. There is no other way of saying it: it changed my life. Oh, okay, at the end of the day, yes, I’m glad that it may have helped or inspired people because I do care about people and I want everyone to be okay. But here’s what made me stop at Finger Lakes: I realized that I was running for other people and that I wasn’t running for me. Call me naïve, but I still feel strongly about authorial honesty. I don’t make shit up– everything I write about, whether it’s horrifying or accidentally inspiring, is absolutely true, it actually happened in the real world. If I’m doing anything just to fulfill someone’s expectation of me, well, I’m not being true to myself. And I gotta be me.
My running buddies have said “You’ll get it the next time!” I love Finger Lakes 50s and I’m indebted to Chris and Joe Reynolds for putting it on… but there may not be a next time, there or anywhere else. That’s okay. Running was there for me when I needed it and I’m incredibly grateful for that. It makes me really sad to think about giving up distance running, even for a little while. But the reason why I’m able to give it up is the same thing that is so fantastic about running, why I will always sing its praises as the cheapest and most effective therapy around: running loves troubled souls unconditionally, and running will always be there for you when you need it.
No, they’re not all just home to spectacularly pale people, they’re also where I’m going to be for the next month. I haven’t been able to scramble too many dates together as I’ve been busy writing and I make a lousy publicist, but if you want me to read something somewhere (or drag me out for a run) this is where I’ll be:
July 7-9th: Toronto, Ontario.
July 10th: Tales of Whatever: The Castle, Oldham St., Northern Quarter, Manchester, England. (Isn’t this address ridiculous? The best thing about England– “yeah, just meet me at the Castle. If you’re in Manchester, you’ll find it). 8pm.
July 11th: Spoken Weird: The Sportsman Hotel, Crown Street, Halifax, West Yorkshire, England.
July 13th to 16th: kicking around London, trying not to write, trying to bump into Michael Caine. You know that if you say “Michael Caine” with a really horrible fake English accent, it sounds like you’re saying “my cocaine?” Try it. I swear it’s true.
July 16th to 24th: Ireland (County Kerry)
July 25th to 30th: Saskatchewan, Canada. Yes, it’s a real place.
July 31st: Ottawa, Ontario
Aug 1st & 2nd: a couple of live appearances in Montreal, Quebec. Details to come…
[A couple of words about my old man]
One good morning, I drag myself out of bed at 7:30 AM. It’s late in my father’s house, and I have been waking slowly to the sounds of my father and his wife talking and laughing together for a while, the cat yowling, their coffee cups scraping on their saucers. I stumble to the bathroom, then out into the living room in my pjs.
“He lives!” my dad says, big grin on his face, same tired joke he’s been making since I was a little kid.
His wife, Theresa, smiles at me from her overstuffed chair, cappuccino in hand, sheep skin slippers on her feet, her ancient Siamese cat Rosie Belle scowling up at me from her lap. Even I can’t begrudge Theresa her sweet spot right next to the wood stove—even on her days off, Theresa works longer and harder than my Dad and I put together. She is both Catholic and Republican, yet somehow we’ve never argued. She’s only ever treated me with kindness, kindness I can’t fathom.
“You must be sore today,” she says “how are your legs?”
Each month, my father’s gym has a stationary bike race– people post their times for completing a computerized ‘course’ to compete for a prize. Each year, when I visit, I go to the gym with my father and destroy the competition, winning not just my age group but the entire thing, not by seconds, but by minutes. And my Dad fucking loves it. I don’t think he called me when I graduated from Simon’s Rock and I know he didn’t call me when I graduated from CU and we weren’t even speaking when I got my Master’s. Despite multiple protestations over the last ten years that in order to maintain a relationship with me, all he has to do is call me on Christmas and my birthday, he never calls me on Christmas and only sometimes grudgingly calls me on my birthday. But I win a dumb exercise bike race at an old people’s gym in a tiny town, and he gets pumped: “Hello, can we get someone over here to verify his time? My son has just done it again!”
Yesterday, I gutted the 35 to 55 category (to which I have just graduated) by a four minute margin and beat the best time overall by 54 seconds. It’s a small victory– last year’s prize was a pair of wool socks– but I’m not above small victories these days.
As an answer to Theresa’s question, I bust out five fast, deep squats, to hoots and guffaws from both Theresa and my Dad. I knew I was feeling well enough to fake a couple of squats for their benefit but I’m surprised by how I feel. My legs don’t feel okay or even good, they feel great, fresh, hungry for more.
It’s an odd business, going to the gym with my father. His bag is packed the night before– cotton T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off, headband, short shorts, water bottle from his last surgery. After we check in and change, he retrieves a workout sheet, clipboard and pencil from the desk, warms up on the bike for ten minutes and then diligently goes through his workout, completing each exercise in order, tracking his progress on his little checklist. He is the most methodical person I’ve ever known.
I warm up on the bike for a couple of minutes or race a circuit or forgo the bike to warm up with abs or don’t warm up at all, just hit the weights cold or do pull-ups or 21s or whatever I think will hurt the most. When I don’t wake up sore, I feel like I wasted my time the day before. I bounce around from exercise to exercise, doing rows, triceps, lat pulldowns, squats, push/pull routines, circuits, staggered weights and reps, blasting my core till I cramp and feel torn, anything to catch my body off guard and do some damage I will have to heal from and then come back stronger, faster, harder to kill.
Visit by visit, year by year, my father is not just bigger but also stronger than me. His biceps are thick, round and dense, like young hardwood trees; mine, on a good day, could be described as ‘cute’ and are oddly bald, the hair only starting above the elbow, then uneven patches of thicker hair on the backs of my arms as if I were still going through puberty. His hands are massive, knuckles as round and gnarled as the walnuts he used to crack with his bare hands, enormous pulsing veins rolling up his arms, that vein in the crook of his arm as thick as my little finger. My hands are the hands of a high school junior, strong but soft and clean. No, that’s not entirely right–when I look closely, I can see the scars. And I can still see them covered in blood, my own and others’.
My father’s legs are his triumph– no wonder he wears those silly short shorts, he should, and I would, too. Decades after he’s run his last marathon, his calves and thighs still ripple with muscle; severe, deep striations in his pale, hairy legs like rough carvings in wood. Though I’m the tallest man here, though I can run 62 miles at a stretch, though I’ve run marathon after marathon, my legs are still laughable, the legs of a freshman baseball player, the legs of a Kinko’s manager.
My father’s legs throw up massive amounts of steel, those hands and forearms and arms are still dangerously strong, that pillar of a trunk… I don’t sneak a peek at his crotch when we’re changing afterwards in the mens’ room because I don’t even need to look at his cock to know that it’s bigger than mine. My Dad trumps me, as he has always trumped me, as he will always trump me. Rather than depressing me or making me angry, it comforts me. Each time in the last three plus years that I’ve come here — home?– I’m a little bigger, a little faster, a little stronger, a little harder to exhaust… but also somehow more relaxed, more confident, more patient. Yes, my father can best me. But it doesn’t bother me because my Dad is a hell of a guy. And he’s mine.
I have failed to be like my father again and again. Having read every single other book in the house, my father read the dictionary at fourteen; I didn’t make it through the A’s. He tore a Model T Ford completely apart when he was eighteen, cleaned every single part, every nut, every bolt and then put it back together. I tried to fix a rusted patch on the door of the lemon Ford Bronco II I’d bought and never finished it. His university added a wing so that he could continue his physics experiments; Simon’s Rock nearly kicked me out for serial violations of the school’s alcohol policy. My later failures are more understandable, if still bitter for me, as by fourteen or fifteen I had already decided that my life would be the complete opposite of his, that the only thing we would share was my hated last name. Later, I considered changing even that just so I would be entirely free of him.
At 25, we had spent less than a month together in the previous ten years; we hadn’t spoken a word to each other in five years. Then my family awkwardly and reluctantly gathered in California for Tatyana’s wedding. While we awkwardly watched Tatyana’s new baby Mika crawling in the dirt after the wedding, I was dismayed to notice that I planted my hands on my hips in the exact same way my father did.
Later, after we had started putting things back together, I accidentally painted my room the exact same shade of lemon yellow he painted his house. And we had independently settled on the exact same model of electric toothbrush.
In one bizarre conversation, I surprised us both by admitting that I envied his life: tidy little house, cedar hot tub in the deck, shop in the garage, wood stove, fussy old cat, a wife who loved him. I shouldn’t have been surprised when he trumped me, surprising me more by revealing that he envied me my life: no money, true, but no responsibility; no plan for the future but no obligations; zero security and absolute freedom.
We don’t go to the gym this morning, but linger over oatmeal with raisins and sunflower seeds and a second cup of coffee. It’s not enough food and I’m not satisfied but then, I’m never satisfied. I am the Unsatisfiable Hunger, the Unquenchable Thirst, and I’m pretty well used to it by now.
On the way out to the car, I snag a couple of fresh persimmons from Theresa’s tree in the front yard. They’re curious fruit. They look like orange tomatoes, and this early in the season, they’re harder than unripe pears. Still, they taste so amazing– like honey and melon and citrus– that it’s as if they are made-up, some ancient fruit from before sin.
It was a mistake for my father to marry my mother. The first time he told me that, I hated him for saying it, instantly and for years afterwards. I mean, I hated him already but I hated him with new, specific fire for saying that: “I never should have married your mother.” It took me until now—almost exactly 20 years since they separated—to figure out what he meant. He wasn’t saying that no one should have married my mother, that she was a vile witch no man could tolerate, that she was an unmarriageable monstrosity who should have been bricked into a high tower with no staircase or buried alive in a tomb so that no man should ever gaze upon her. He was saying that he shouldn’t have married her. Which is probably right. And also: she shouldn’t have married him.
It was a mistake. A big mistake. Out of which came me. And Tatyana. And Tashina—not literally, they didn’t create her meat, but that epic mistake of my mother and father marrying the exact wrong person created that person I love more than almost anyone on earth, my sister Tashina, as much as it created Tatyana and me. And then Mika. And Brianna. And Koko. And Kai. That’s seven people, created by mistake. Seven people so far. There will be more.
If you think about it, my parents really blew it. My father made the mistake of marrying my mother and my mother made the mistake of marrying him and those perfectly matched mistakes had pretty wide-ranging consequences, only some of which are me and my sisters and my sister’s four children. And you know, thank God they did. Thank fucking God in Heaven, driving a long, shimmering silver-white stretch limo with a moon roof and plasma TVs and a hot tub in back full of fat, frolicking, naked little cherubs that my foolish parents fucked up so badly, wed the exact wrong person in error, and then compounded that mistake by making me. I am finally grateful to be here.
We drive out of Sutter Creek, past a strip mall and several big box stores, past homes that get smaller and further apart, to a tiny airfield with a miniature runway. There is a long open shed there with open stalls, like a flea market or a firing range and a turquoise porta-potty. We park and my Dad gets out and greets the other old guys there: Leon, in a round, wide-brimmed straw hat, Ron, in a baseball hat and a silver ponytail, a couple of others.
“Murray,” Ron calls out my Dad’s name as he walks over, “you know lots of stuff…”
My Dad and I both laugh, recognizing a set-up if there ever was one. Ron immediately starts quizzing my Dad on the minutia of some remote-controlled model airplane quandary.
My Dad knows lots of stuff, lots and lots of stuff. He’s one of the old breed. He doesn’t just know stuff, he can fix stuff and he can build stuff. He can pound a nail all the way in with one stroke of the hammer, he can hang a door in your house just so—it’ll swing shut on it’s own if that’s what you want, or it’ll swing open on it’s own if that’s what you want or it’ll just stay put if that’s what you want. My Dad is an electrical engineer, he’s a nuclear physicist, he’s a fucking for-real rocket scientist, for God’s sake, the program was actually called Star Wars, yes, like the movie, and they sent shit up into outer space and then blew it up with motherfucking laser beams. My Dad builds super-conductors and semi-conductors and particle accelerators and duo pigatron ion sources. What a pigatron is, I don’t know, but my Dad does.
My Dad is deeply cool. He knows lots of stuff. Just like the computer he introduced me to as a small kid, he can answer almost any question. And just like that computer, my Dad does not know how he works. So be it. He’s more good than bad. He knows lots of stuff. Not everything, but then nobody gets to know all the stuff.
Leon launches and then pilots a remote controlled glider, making big lazy loops in the sky with it before landing it roughly on the tarmac to skid on its belly and then bump in the grass. I sit in the sun and drink my coffee as Ron takes his turn, piloting a miniature electric styrofoam biplane buzzing like a hornet in the sky.
Behind me, my father has assembled an egregiously large model airplane– at least five feet long, gleaming teal and red and silver. No way can that thing actually fly. And if it can, well, no way it can do much. It’s just so big and unwieldy, like a tuna with wings. I look at my Dad: what is he thinking? He’s wearing the gray hoody that he wears all the time now, a habit I think he picked up after borrowing one of my hoodies. Still, for some reason I think of it as his old man sweatshirt. Sometimes now, he wears clothes that I’ve outgrown. Jesus, we have come a long way. Does that mean we’re nearing the end?
Now he’s wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. And he’s strapped on one kneepad– really Dad? Only one? I try to stanch the feeling but it’s too quick for me: I feel pity for him. It’s a loathsome thing, to feel pity for your parents. This will end in his defeat, in our defeat.
He gently lifts his monstrosity to the ground, secures its tail, then starts the prop. It’s loud as hell, like a two stroke street-bike, a little frightening. The silver fiberglass propeller whirls and I wonder what it would do to my legs if I walked into it. Then he frees its tail and negotiates it carefully with the remote control along a little concrete strip to the runway.
“Murray, taking off here, left to right” he calls out, but he doesn’t need to. It’s impossible not to watch the winged chainsaw in front of us. Then he guns the throttle.
The plane hurtles along the runway for a second, gaining speed, then unexpectedly flings itself in the air and rockets straight up. Up, up, up and it rolls over, once, twice, three times, then climbs further into the sky, four hundred feet, five hundred feet, then slowing and slowing till it stops dead in a stall. Fuck. Dad.
The plane falls neatly to its left, hurtles groundward, then noses up and buzzes towards the far end of the runway. A gorgeous, sexy swooping turn then back over the tarmac, rolling, climbing, falling, Jesus, flying upside down. I smile, gasp, laugh and keep laughing, amazement bubbling out of me uncontrollably.
Only once do I glance over at my father. He is gone. Utterly still, his face turned to the sky, motionless save for the small twitching movements of his hands on the controls as if he were immersed in a particularly involving dream. I turn away. My Dad’s not there. The shell next to me with its chromium knee, the missing prostate, the divots out of the red, veiny nose where the skin cancer has been removed, the improperly mended clavicle, the gray hair, the age spots: it’s already empty.
This isn’t some kitschy old man’s hobby. This is astral projection. This is fucking magic, dude. My father is up there in the untroubled blue, gleaming in the sunlight, banking, accelerating, pitching, stalling, arcing, then roaring back to life, blazing across the sky.
My father never terrified me, never oppressed me, never brutalized me, never tortured me, never degraded me. All the shit he endured—ostracism, teasing, alienation, his mother picking BBs out of his ass with a butcher knife, for God’s sake—it stopped with him. He took it and he absorbed it and he never made us feel it. He is a relic from the age of corporal punishment and, as a kid, he saw a lot of shit. A friend’s father broke a 2×4 over his back. At school, you were disciplined by having your knuckles rapped. Not with a ruler, with a yardstick, and the teacher buried that thing deep in the sensitive flesh of the fingers, breaking the skin on each one. “Getting your ass kicked” didn’t mean losing your soccer game. If you showed up late for dinner, your father told you to turn around and touch your toes and then he kicked you in the ass as hard as he could, lifting you off your feet, sending you sprawling. None of that came down to us kids. My father never hit me. He never lifted a hand as if he were going to hit me. He never even verbally threatened to hit me. Not once.
The way I understand it, parents have two responsibilities. They have to care for you until you reach reproductive age—you know, propagation of the species and all that. My father did that. And parents have to ensure that their kids come out a little less fucked up than they did. Not a lot, just a little. My father did that. At least, I think he did that. He tried, anyway. He made mistakes but he loved us, in his way and I’ve spent most of my life vilifying him.
Dad executes a perfect landing, his plane hitting the tarmac squarely, braking neatly, looping slightly right for a sharp left turn to pilot it back to us for refueling. I’m careful to stand behind a metal gate but that’s for my Dad’s benefit, not mine. If I stood directly in the plane’s path, my father is skilled enough to pilot it neatly around me. And if he wanted me to stand in the middle of the tarmac so he could fly it right into me at full speed, well, I would let him.
He shuts down the motor and looks at me, waiting for my reaction.
“Dad! That was fucking awesome! I had no idea. Those aerials, man…”
“Funny enough, the hardest thing is flying straight and level and just, you know, not making any mistakes.”
“No shit, Dad,” I say and he smiles, “no shit.”
20 years ago, when I was 16, my family lost our house during my parents’ divorce. It was devastating. Thinking about it now, my blood still runs hot with anger and cold with shame. One rainy day as I watched our neighbors pick through all our belongings we were selling in our driveway and front yard, I swore to myself that somehow, though I had no idea how, I would right this wrong, I would avenge the harm done to my family and my mother.
I moved 22 times between 15 and 28. The residence that I held longest during that period was the year in which I lived out of my Toyota minivan. My mom and my sisters endured similar humiliations—shithole apartments, sketchy roommates, degrading minimum-wage jobs in fast food and customer service.
I remember staying with my mom and my sister Tashina one fall when I was 26. I wasn’t even crashing on the couch: it was a one bedroom and the couch was Tashina’s bed. I slept on the floor. There was a horrible rainstorm one night and the roof started leaking badly, in every room. We scrambled to get pots or bowls under the most significant leaks until we ran out of containers. I remember shuffling our bedding around so we weren’t sleeping underneath the drips and cursing and laughing and cursing some more. Again, I vowed that I would see my mother restored. Not to the top, as we had never been on top, but just to the middle, the bottom of the middle even. Anything but the bottom.
On one visit to my mother when she was working as a caretaker in the Virgin Islands, I literally evicted my old dog off her bed at night and slept on that, dog hair and dog stink be damned. My last trip down there when I was 32, just months before I quit drinking, there was one bed up for grabs so my mom and I took turns sleeping on the floor. I remember talking to her until we fell asleep, then resuming our conversation when we woke up in the morning, our backs aching from the cheap, shitty bed and the shittier floor. It was hell, but at least we were in it together. Again, I swore that I would see our fortunes reversed, as I had sworn in the past, again and again, though by now it felt more like a fantasy than some realistic goal: I would get us a home, I would build a death ray machine, we would all live forever.
Of course, by then the pain of losing our home had ceased to be something that drove me to succeed. I drank passionately. I made mistake after mistake after mistake. Bitterness consumed me, and it became a reason to give up, an excuse for my failures.
Then, in 2009, I stopped drinking and started getting my shit together. I wrote about my mistakes for Amazon in The Long Run. Last week, using only the money I made from writing about those mistakes, I put a deposit down on a house in California, a house we will call “Sweet Revenge.” It’s on the outskirts of a little town called Rainbow. Yes, Virginia, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
If you zoom out and look at my situation as a whole, it makes sense in a way: losing our house made me burn out, then bottom out, then write so much that a house came back to me. And also: man, that makes no fucking sense at all. It gets weirder.
On May 30th, I recorded the audio book for The Long Run. When I walked out of the studio to my Toyota minivan (just like the one I lived in) I realized that I had parked on a street that figures in The Long Run. When I checked my messages, I found out that the seller had accepted my offer on the house. It was four years to the day since I had quit drinking. It’s fairly well-documented that I don’t believe in God or Jesus or Allah or Muhammad or Budda or the capital-U Universe or positive vibes or karma or kismet or chi or soulmates or The Force or any of that shit. But right now, if you worship the Easter Bunny, well, I will happily kneel at his fluffy feet with you and bow my head in front of him in a prayer of gratitude.
This whole experience of finding a home is too intense for me to look at directly, like the tiny star at the end of an arc-welder’s torch, so I’m not going to dwell on it. Instead, let me just say: THANK YOU. Thank you to all of my friends and my family who believed in me when I didn’t, thanks to the teachers and editors and writers who saw something other folks didn’t, thanks to everyone who’s ever read, shared, reviewed or gifted a story of mine, and thank you and thank you and thank you.
This monday, my drug and alcohol counselor ‘graduated’ me from treatment. We’d each separately brought the idea up several times in the past but it never seemed like quite the right time. But I brought it up to him about a month ago and we both agreed to think on it before meeting up again.
When I walked into his office on Monday, he greeted me with a copy of the NYTimes I was recently in, the first time I’d seen it in the flesh (they recently printed the covers of two of my Kindle Singles on the front page of the Arts section). It was a cool surprise for both of us as I hadn’t given him a heads up about it– he had been surprised to find it, much as I was surprised to find out he knew about it. I like my counselor a lot and I like to think that it was a rewarding moment for him as a therapist to be kicking back after work with his paper and stumble upon the work of a client who had come to him an anonymous drunk getting the nod from the Old Gray Lady. It was also the sign we had both been waiting for.
We had a great last talk. I gave him a big awkward hug–the first in our career– and gave him my solemn promise that before I took another drink, I’d call him. I’m going to miss him: as a tireless listener, as a fount of solid advice, and as a really excellent human being.
I met vegan Ironman legend (and fellow alcoholic) Rich Roll a couple of weeks ago when we did a really intense podcast together. He asked me a lot of tough questions, some of which are still rolling around in my head, unanswered. He made a couple of assertions that I wasn’t ready for and that I’m primed to react negatively to… but when you’re hanging out with a guy who has trod the same darkness you have, done even harder work than you have to pull out of it, and then has gone on to do some really un-fucking-believable things, well, it’s in bad faith to do anything other than hem and haw and think hard about it and then respond with total honesty.
When I mentioned to Rich that I had graduated from treatment, he responded simply with “Are you cured?” Apparently, ballbusting is the fourth sport triathletes engage in… (keep it up, Rich, and I am going to give you that Charlie Horse I promised you when we last met). As usual, he’s got a incontrovertible point. The sidelines are littered with alcoholics who mastered sobriety so completely that they felt comfortable going right back to drinking. It’s good to have a friend to nudge me on that point. In the words of Ida B. Wells, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Drinking or not, I know I’ll always be an alcoholic. Just as I tired of the cult of alcohol, I have no interest in joining a cult of no alcohol so I’m going to continue to work hard in my life to just make alcohol irrelevant in my life, a minor footnote in my past, and make sobriety my natural state. Pretty revolutionary thinking there, huh? Making your natural state your natural state? Thanks, it feels good to be a hero.
I will never make alcohol irrelevant in my life. Sobriety will never be effortless for me. I will asymptotically approach these two ideals, but I will never reach them. That’s okay. I will get closer to them than I am now. That’s good enough.
On the subject of addiction, here are a few words from my failed book proposal. May they help you on your way:
The scorpion is asleep. Life is pretty sweet right now. When I run under the blazing hot sun until I’m exhausted or find a smelly dog on the street in Mexico and scratch that tickle spot that makes its leg skitter and it sheds all over the clean shirt I just put on or when I make my sister’s kids laugh in the back seat of the car by singing bathroom songs, good, healthy blood runs over this sleeping scorpion, softening its armor, turning its thick black shell walnut brown, then rich, racehorse brown, then liver and finally pink, slowly eroding it and dissolving it, absorbing its minerals and proteins back into my body.
But when I get a whiff of Jameson or take certain types of cold medicine or get too angry or tired or depressed, it twitches uneasily in its slumber, its tail writhing minutely, its pincers digging ever-so-slightly into my spinal cord. I live in fear of what will happen if that evil little fucker ever wakes up.
The Jameson thing, I get. I’m an alcoholic. I have been for a long time and the common wisdom is that I will be one for the rest of my life. The scorpion stirring in its arachnid dreams when alcohol vapor hits my sinuses is a purely chemical reaction. But this vile crustacean/ arthropod/ dinosaur/ demon wakes for other things, too: pornography, video games, Ebay, Facebook… even a fucking Snickers bar. Crack, methamphetamine, heroin—they’re huge. Ounce for ounce, each of them is more destructive than enriched uranium. You can’t ridicule someone crushed under that avalanche of pleasure. But a fucking candy bar? The smaller the thing that diminishes one, the smaller one is by comparison. A woolly mule of a man, 6’5”, 215 pounds, a man who has broken bones by accident and on purpose… laid low by a piece of candy? You gotta be kidding me. It’s too pathetic to even be a punchline.
This spiny black abomination, it’s not some rare tropical parasite that wormed its way inside me. It’s not a hive of nanobots implanted by an elite squadron of secret UN commandos, it’s not a malign interplanetary virus injected into me by some universe-hopping alien scientist. Cell by cell, molecule by molecule, atom by atom, I built this monstrosity, one miniscule bad decision after another. It’s a devil of my own creation, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, my mistakes incarnate. Now I have to live with it as it lives within me and try to slowly wear it down before it wears me down. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen, place your bets. [end]
Added on 15 July 2012
© 2014 Mishka Shubaly