One glass

December 1, 2013 § 33 Comments

We don’t have a lot of stuff. One friend charitably describes our lifestyle as “minimalist,” but “two steps away from broke” doesn’t miss the mark by much.

The other day a good friend came by to talk about the upcoming event. His car is double my net worth, although that doesn’t really tell you much about his car. When he sat down to the table, I offered him some wine. This is always the awkward part because we only have one wine glass, and it was already in use.

Our other glasses are heavy duty Duralex tumblers, and people always do a brief double-take when I pour their wine into one. They never say anything, but the thought plays quickly across their foreheads: “Why don’t you have any wine glasses?” The answer is complicated, at least once you dispense with the obvious reason that I don’t want to spend the money.

My friend sloshed the wine around, then took a swig. He’s an unusual man. Although he has discriminating taste, and when left to his own devices seldom does anything other than top shelf, he’s equally at home with the bottled equivalent of wine from a cardboard box. He also has the unusual quality of giving thanks for things that other people may not even perceive.

Like so many people who started with nothing and turned it into everything, he’s never lost the ability to appreciate that cheap things don’t always reflect cheapness of sentiment. Sometimes the cheap offering is the only offering there is. “So, here’s the plan,” he said, carefully going through the order of activities for the big event that he’d put together. It was an extraordinary list of things that included fine wine, locally brewed craft beer, exotic catering, and an impressive event followed by a party at a fancy bar.

“Have I left anything out?” he asked.

Stunned at the level of planning, I said “No. Nothing I can think of.”

“Well, what could I add to make it better?”

I shook my head, then scratched it. “Damn, Dave. It sounds like the perfect event. I still can’t believe you’re doing all this. It’s wonderful.”

He grinned. “It’s for our cycling community. I’m pleased to be able to do it.”

Sharing the love

Dave is one of those people who believes that to have much doesn’t mean much unless you share it with many. He’s the  one who offers to fly his pals to various fun rides in his private jet. He’s the one who opens his palatial home to his cycling pals who, shall we say, don’t exactly live in the lap of luxury. He’s also the one who gives anonymously to charities and organizations that feed people, that clothe people, that give those being ground under the wheel a second breath.

He’s one of the few who closely holds views about god and religion, and preaches them through deeds rather than words.

But back to the glass …

When we eat dinner, my wife and I share our wine out of that one wine glass. Sometimes we drink what she likes. Sometimes we drink what I like. Sometimes we drink what we both like. With the glass in between us like that, we lean a little more closely together. We agree more. We take turns. We look at each other more, and, maybe, more deeply. Sometimes, when she’s pushing the glass over to me, our fingers touch.

How often do your fingers and the fingers of your loved one touch during dinner? Not often enough, right?

My friend Dave saw all that, and took it in, wordlessly. What some might have seen as absence or want, Dave saw as fulfilled. He drained his tumbler and smiled, as if he always drank cheap wine from a 2-lb. glass.

“Thanks,” he said.

“I’m the one who owes the thanks,” I said. “Can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done.”

He looked at the lone wine glass, then at me. “Thanks for the hospitality, and for sharing.” He meant it.

Your stupid life

September 27, 2012 § 36 Comments

Me: “I’m just not very introspective.”

Friend: “But you seem to write a lot about your life.”

Me: “That’s not introspection. It’s narcissism.”

One afternoon at the Coffee Bean and Gossip Leaf

I had stumbled in, mid-morning, to get a big black triple shot of get-me-through-this-fucking-day. The nice girl poured my coffee and I sat down at the giant wooden table they’ve recently put in to make the nationwide franchise look more like an indie coffee shop. I stared at the coffee in the big ceramic mug and remarked at how sad and lonely it looked, topped off as it was with non-fat milk (an oxymoron) rather than with the gooey, fat-studded chunks of heavy cream that, like pink unicorns, populate my dreams nowadays.

Two very pretty women sat down at the far end of the table. One of them was troubled. They glanced at me to make sure I was minding my own business, which made me stare even more listlessly at my coffee and listen with all my might.

The pretty blonde asked her friend, “So what’s on your agenda today, Janey?”

The pretty brunette answered, her face contorted in pain. “The usual stuff. Laundry. Gonna meet this afternoon with the girls from book club. Then fix dinner. Check the kids’ homework. Listen to Brian complain about his job. It’s all so stupid. God, my life is so stupid, Anne. It’s so stupid.”

Anne reached across the table and grabbed her friend’s hand. “It’s not stupid. Why’s it stupid?”

Janey didn’t say it, but a huge wave of my-life-is-passing-me-by swept over the table. “All these things, what’s the point? I’m just taking up hours in the day. It’s all so pointless. And stupid.” She was crying now.

“It’s not stupid!” the other woman answered, and she spoke with the warmth and passion of a friend. “Janey, think of all the people who love you. Think of all the people for whom you’re a ray of happiness and light! Think of your kids who love you and to whom you’re the world, Janey. That’s not stupid! That’s as far away from stupid as life gets.”

Janey was crying so hard that her shoulders shook.

I gripped my coffee cup tightly, feeling it burn my palms as I tried to keep looking listless. But what I really wanted to do was jump up and give that crying lady a hug and say, “It’s not stupid! Listen to your friend. If your life is stupid then all of our lives are stupid. There aren’t any stupid lives, Janey, only people who don’t have someone sitting next to them when they need it most to remind them that it’s not stupid, that their lives have meaning and are important even if they don’t feel it at that very second!”

My hands were trembling from the pain of the hot coffee, and from Janey’s pain, too, I guess. I’m kind of a pain conductor that way. I was frozen with fear for this nice young lady and her sadness. I wanted to say to her, “Janey, my brother thought his life was stupid, too, but after he took it, it just proved how stupid his life really wasn’t. We’re destined never to see who and how and why we are what we are, but don’t mistake that for a stupid life. Please, please, don’t.”

I was sweating now, and took a bored sip of coffee.

The two friends had stopped talking. Janey had stopped crying, and the other woman was saying something that made her smile. It was a beautiful smile, and as the corners of her mouth turned up, her eyes crinkled. She had the prettiest eyes I’d ever seen. I couldn’t hear what they were saying any more; the sounds inside my own head had drowned out everything else.

Suddenly, I had to go, and couldn’t even finish the coffee. I would have hugged her if I’d dared, and thanked her, and told her that she’d helped a stranger, a stranger who loved her anyway.

Suicide isn’t painless

June 22, 2012 § 37 Comments

Nor, apparently, is it easy. After swimming out into the Gulf of Mexico late at night and trying to drown himself (swam back in because he was so afraid), then trying to asphyxiate himself with a rubber hose hooked up to the tailpipe (went to sleep and woke up with a blinding headache), my elder brother Ian went down to the neighborhood Academy, bought a .38 nickel-plated Rossi, and put a bullet in his chest.

At the funeral home they had neatly folded his hands, but if you looked closely, and you know, I always look closely, you could see the powder burns on the crease between his right thumb and forefinger.

He didn’t have any veins in his hands, and his eyelids sank unnaturally into his head. He’d donated his eyes and everything else of salvage value to people who needed it more than he did. The sleeves in his suit were completely flat and looked empty, but I didn’t have the nerve to ask the funeral director what had happened to his arms.

They’d tried to cut and stretch and twist his face back into something that might have looked like Ian, but it reminded me of the time I’d tried to throw clay on a wheel. Once it gets out of shape, you can’t ever put it back into shape. It’s just all pretty much fucked up forever.

Let me count the ways

Suicide is apparently painful in the planning. It’s painful in the execution. And it’s painful in the aftermath. The pain ripples out, not like a poetic pebble tossed into a still reflecting pool, but like a massive, horrible, endless discharge of vomit with your head hung over the toilet, splattering and splashing and staining and stinking and ruining everything it touches. And it touches pretty much everything.

Suicide’s real painful in the telling. For some it’s an embarrassment. For me it’s painful because Ian’s not the first person in the world to kill himself, and as I say it my friends and acquaintances share the spatter in their own lives with me. The sister hanged herself. The father shot himself on the son’s eighteenth birthday. The goddaugher did herself in after a happy, normal phone call. The brother threw himself off the balcony. Ian’s choice, for someone as imaginative and creative and original was so…pedestrian. It was just another suicide, one more bloody mess that family got to find and strangers got to clean up.

Suicide is unquestionably painful in the discovering. Dad checked his email at 8:00 AM on Saturday, June 16, Central Standard Time, conveniently before Father’s Day. Three emails sat percolating in his inbox, all from Ian, all time-stamped at 7:03 that morning. Tired of living. By the time you read this I’ll be dead. Etc.

Suicide is unbearably painful in the confirming. Screeching through traffic, blowing through red lights, frantically dashing up the rickety staircase and bursting into the filthy and debris-strewn apartment to find your eldest slumped over on the couch, the ragged drainage hole from the .38 having emptied the contents of Ian’s heart onto the sofa, and the dead fact of death leaving Dad there with his firstborn, deadened.

For whom the bell tolls

Suicide is painful in the alerting. I’d just finished up a Donut beatdown, and it’s odd how good I felt after such an abject thrashing. Shredded on the Switchbacks, unceremoniously dumped in Homes and Gardens, shelled up to the Domes, caught and dropped after the Glass Church sprint, and DFL all the way up Zumaya, what right did I have to feel good? I dunno. I just felt good.

“Seth?” Dad said over the phone and he didn’t have to say anything else because I knew it was bad, awful bad, and a few hours later I was on the plane to Houson.

Suicide is unbearably painful in the sharing. I didn’t want to go over to the apartment and find out how we were going to clean up the mess, but someone had to. That couch looked at me with an evil sneer, its cushions spotted with unthinkably huge circles of gore where Ian had slumped, gushing blood out of the hole, the back of the couch decorated with an enormous, thick clot that looked like a giant painter with a giant paint knife had cut out the biggest chunk of red oil off the palette and smeared it on the canvas, a clump bigger and thicker than five fists stuck to the fabric of the couch and thinning towards the bottom into a spill.

To think: All that raggedy, jagged exit wound, mess and destruction caused by the same thing that made the small, neat, perfectly round hole in the wall where the bullet passed into the next apartment.

I stared at the awfulness wishing I had a delete button, but it’s been recorded now permanently. The biohazard disposal contractor dude smoking a cigarette and driving a big white van that said “Plumbers” on the side next to a hand-lettered “Bio-Expert Cleners” was humane and human.

“Sorry for your loss, man,” he said in the 90-degree heat and stifling humidity as we stood outside the apartment. “Yeah,” I said. Me, too.”

Nothing ends like it’s supposed to

Suicide’s painful because it blames you. Unlike the cancer or the runaway truck or the accidental drowning, suicide’s uniquely the fault of the survivors. What could I have done differently? Was it something I said or did? Why didn’t I see the signs? Where was I when he needed me most? Oh yeah, I remember. I was on the Donut, riding my bike while he was bleeding out on the couch.

Suicide’s painful because Ian’s the person responsible for my decision in 1982 to buy a road bike. The person who inspired the gift that has made me happiest, was so terribly unhappy that he killed himself. The word for that is irony.

Of course nothing is all bad. Despite this ghastly ordeal, there’s something good and positive that has come out of it. But I’ll be goddamned if I know what it is.

What I saw on your face when you thought no one was looking

May 14, 2012 § 8 Comments

There’s a gentle beauty that pours forth from your face when you’re turning the pedals,

A happiness that is so warm and engulfing that it beckons us all, smilingly,

To throw off the leaden suits and ties and business blouses of our daily grind,

A happiness accompanied by a vaguely risqué nod that telegraphs an invitation to skinny-dip

In the alluring, sometimes cool, sometimes fiery hot, always rewarding pool of lycra and rubber

And carbon and shiny mirrored lenses hiding laughter and truth not even for a second,

Of flexing thighs and straining calves and beautiful sweating muscles that are driving us onward to the summit,

Or plunging us with our hearts in our throats at a million miles an hour through woods and rocks and ravines and ocean overlooks,

Or just easily rolling through the wind, the sun, and the hurting blue sky or the gently bucking pavement of the Parkway,

Knotted to one another and to the surging throng of bodies

As each of us shares and explores and pushes that invisible envelope binding us together,

Even as we strain with bursting chests to bend beyond the speeding world’s edge

And fly, faster, alone.

Of sandpipers and the ocean’s waves

November 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

In another space and time I was a birdwatcher, and co-authored a book with two of the finest living field ornithologists called “Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.” The book was called that, not my co-authors. Their names are Robert Behrstock and Ted Eubanks. Despite my involvement in the project, it was published by the highly respected Texas A&M University Press.

I wouldn’t call it an NYT bestseller…

My youngest son has to do a project for his eighth grade science class, and Ted suggested a bird survey from RAT Beach to the Pier that counted the ratio of adult to juvenile Heerman’s Gulls throughout the four-month study period. Once a week my son makes the two-mile trek along the beach, carefully counting and recording the gulls.

Yesterday, on Thanksgiving, I accompanied him. It’s been several years since I went birdwatching, and I had forgotten what a peaceful and awe-inspiring pastime it is. At one point we stopped to watch a small flock of Sanderlings dash out with the receding waves, nab the hapless, tiny crustaceans and mollusks exposed in the mud, and run back to safety just a half-step ahead of the onrushing, incoming waves.

The extraordinary work and effort it took for each bird to get a bite made me pause. For these tiny birds there is no unemployment insurance, no Social Security for old age, not even a fridge to store the food in case they’re sick or laid up for a few weeks. Each day is the same day. Eat what you kill or starve. Lameness or sickness is certain death.

A little farther we spied a pair of Whimbrels, and then over the jetty there was a foursome of Black Oystercatchers. The final flock, just before the pier, contained the highlight of the day: a delicate Bonaparte’s Gull, with its dainty pink legs, standing amidst the much bigger Heerman’s and the oversized Western gulls. So much beauty and toughness and ruggedness passed down through millions of years in microscopically jellied dabs of DNA, waiting on the edge of a cold ocean for whatever food, if any, the waves might offer up. These creatures would survive another day with no accoutrements to assist their survival other than their wits, their instinct, and strength of their limbs.

I thought about rolling down the coast highway wrapped in every conceivable fabric, oiled with specialty creams, pedaling a machine that required the cooperation of an entire global economy to fabricate, assemble, and deliver between my legs. I froze in that quicksand moment of time, overwhelmed with thanks at being there with my son, at having the health and pleasure of an avocation like cycling, at having children and a wife who are the people they are. Through the sanderlings, dashing undaunted as they foraged in the waves, I was able to give thanks, thanks for all, thanks to all.

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