Don’t Check Your Set–Radio Silence from Here for a Couple Days

Bob Hunt and I have been friends for about four years.  In that time, we’ve each given the other reason for anger and near-hatred.  I’m not going to go into details, and I trust Bob won’t either.  Still, despite each of us having thought the other a rat-bastard, our friendship has endured.  Each of us is a veteran.  Each of us has battled addiction and found the only path to victory is to surrender and recognize we can never go onto that battlefield again.  Each of us has been successful, but ended up living on the streets.  Each of us has had to force ourselves to gaze into the eyes of daughters and see the “Why must you be this way?” look, and each of us has had those same daughters look at us with pride.  I love Bob and Bob loves me, and right now Bob is walking through dangerous territory I can’t imagine.  Bob’s youngest daughter, Katie, is dead.

I don’t know the details—when I’ve talked with Bob, that hasn’t made a whole hell of a lot of difference—but now Bob has a hole in his heart throbbing with pain.  I’ve left Pittsburg for Manchester so I can be at Katie’s celebration of life tomorrow.  If you’re a praying person, please pray for the family.  If you’re spiritual but not a praying person, please send positive energy their way.  Regardless, please hug the people in your circle—no matter how crazy they may make you—and let them know you love them.  Please.

A Fable

A certain man was a gardener, specializing in beautiful perennial gardens.  Discarding modern, efficient techniques like fertilizer, irrigation and rotation, the man instead relied on intuition, caring and a search for perfection.  For miles around, people came to see each year’s garden, observing the beauty of both change and continuity.  The man was pleased to be where he belonged, and proud to do what he was called to do.

The man’s fame spread, and he was invited to become chief landscaper in a neighboring kingdom.

I would like to be your landscaper,the man said, but I don’t have experience in planning crops, buying supplies or maintaining lawns.  I am, however, a very good perennial gardener.

The leaders of the kingdom assured the man that his skills as a perennial gardener were highly valued, and that others would surely be able to do the planning of crops, the buying of supplies and the maintaining of lawns.  He took the position.

Soon, the man felt overwhelmed and alienated by the daily work of planning crops, buying supplies and maintaining lawns.  Still, he cherished his ability as a perennial gardener

Spending his days planning crops, buying supplies and maintaining lawns, the man still cherished the moments when he could work with perennials, helping them to grow, flourish and become what they were meant to be.  Over time, though, the man felt so burdened by planning crops, buying supplies and maintaining lawns that he began to feel guilty for any time he spent with the perennials.

One day, two surly villagers brought him their only plant, a perennial which had failed to thrive or grow or flower.  Although the couple was hardened, coarse and vile, they did love their plant, in their way, and wanted to see it do well.  They spoke viciously of the others who had promised to help their plant, appearing to believe that they were victims of a conspiracy to hurt them.  The man listened patiently, then talked of the light that he would give the plant, the care he would take with it and the growth it would enjoy.  The villagers left their plant and went away.

The man spent time with the plant, starting to transplant it but being called away by the needs of planning crops, buying supplies and maintaining lawns. He knew that crops, supplies and lawns can wait; plants can’t.  Still, he left the plant to do his duty.

The village couple sent word inquiring about their plant.  The man told himself that tomorrow he would find time to work with the plant.  But tomorrow was filled with planning crops, buying supplies and maintaining lawns.  Every tomorrow was the same.  The couple again sent word, asking about the man’s promises to work with their plant.  Each time, the man told himself that tomorrow would be different.  After all, the man was a very good perennial gardener.  Instead, tomorrow was just the overflow from today.

Finally, the couple came in person to confront the man.  Filled with shame, his mouth tasting of aspirin, the man realized he had forgotten the plant, allowing it to die without light or care or growth.  Instead of a gardener, he was guilty of herbicide.  The man begged the forgiveness of the couple, who treated him as he deserved, comparing him to all the others who had let them down over the years.  They shook the dust off their feet at him and left him alone.

 

 

Attention Poetry Lovers–Please Avoid This!

Thirty-five years ago, I was in love.  Oddly, the person I loved loved me as well.  Her name was Sarah and she was from Texas by way of Brazil by way of Belgium by way of I’m not sure where else.  We had our time together.  It was a good time.  Then she returned to Texas, and we wrote regularly.  Then I behaved badly (contracted a particularly strong case of Fundamentalism and fell for a southern beauty queen—but that’s another story) and we fell apart.  Until a year ago, when either I saw her name on Linked-In or she saw mine, and one of us made connection.  Sarah has been married for years, has two kids in their twenties, and works as an educational consultant.  In an act of grace, the universe has allowed us to transform whatever we had long, long ago into a friendship.  In the last year, we’ve gotten together for lunch five or six times, gone to a couple art shows and, last Christmas, had a chance to play together with a bunch of kids at a community-center party.  Sarah and I are buddies.

When we first got together a year ago, Sarah gave me a medium-sized, overstuffed brown envelope, containing 12 or 15 letters I’d written her.  Apparently, I’d developed a habit of writing doggerel poems to end each letter.  Although I’m writing a memoir now, I don’t think these artifacts will make it in.  Still, they are primary evidence of who I was (and how untalented I am as a poet), and I don’t want them to be lost forever, although I can’t say why.  Below are five examples of love poetry from a time long ago.

 

Invitation

Inertia is the king of this household;
That coffee mug’s been on the floor three days;
Those stains by the back door are getting old;
How have I spilled thee, let me count the ways.

Three socks draped on my bedstand for two weeks,
The Father, Son and Holey Ghost (I’m sorry);
The desktop dust’s arranged itself in peaks;
The window grime makes every night look starry.

Yet even in the midst of this decay,
I find my mouth’s wide open in a holler:
“I love you more with every passing day;
Come live with me and share my squalor.”

Apology

I wish I could be serious.
I know my verses gall;
They belong in cafeterias
Not stately banquet halls.

You deserve some verse that’s solemn,
Laced with learned thoughts profound;
Those thoughts run when I call ’em,
I gather droppings from the ground.

You need poetry intelligent
That is spiritually uplifting,
What genius I’ve had has long been spent
And it’s common sand I’m sifting.

I wish I could be Yeats for you
Or even A.E. Housman
But all I’ve got is love that’s true
And simple rhymes that won’t scan.

Cult Status

Thoughts of you keep turning up
At the most unlikely times;
As I smell my dinner burning up
Or emote through Oscar’s rhymes.

My heart and mind receivers
That your love is always jamming
I’ve become a true believer
–I don’t need no deprogramming.

Love Song #93 (food is the music of love)

I love you more than Twinkies, more than squid and more than beer
I love you more than Yoo-Hoo or a roasted side of steer.
I love you more than broccoli with a side of Hollandaise
I love you more than chicken, though it’s served so many ways.

Ever since you walked right in, my diet’s gone to hell.
I forsake food to think of you, and have these blackout spells.
My clothes they hang so loosely, and my skin it feels so tight.
I love you more than food itself and I’ve lost my appetite.

I’ve taken on the countenance of an Asian refugee,
Unfaithfulness for would be a caloric eating spree.
If I’m to live, not fade away and die here in this chair,
I’ll go and grab some dinner, then I’ll love you more than hair.

I love you more than brown ones that make my mother’s mink,
I love you more than scummy ones that clog my bathroom sink,
I love you more than hair that grows upon the Pontiff’s head,
I love you more than dental hair when you don’t brush before bed.

Dreamland

Friday I dreamed I was missing my pants;
People were laughing after one single glance.

Saturday it was my comb that wasn’t there;
Psychotics marveled at my tangled hair.

Sunday I couldn’t find my socks or shoes
And was scheduled to dance for a luxury cruise.

Monday I spent the night searching for glasses
Until I got arrested in a rest room for lasses.

Tuesday my car and Wednesday my pen
Thursday my home, Friday trousers again.

Searching and searching, my sleep is the cost
Endlessly looking for something that’s lost.

Psychics won’t help me, nor witches with hexes;
I won’t get a night’s sleep ‘til you’re out of Texas.

 

 

A Vietnam Veterans Death–“And of the dead, speak only truth”

How do you say goodbye to a drunk who didn’t get it?  How do you pay proper respect to a man whose life seems to have been devoted to telling lies and manufacturing more lies to provide evidence for the first round?  How do you miss a man whose corpse you discovered 10 months ago, a half-full vodka bottle near one outstretched hand and an empty just out of reach of the other?

When I first met Chuck, I was director of Liberty House, a transitional-living facility for formerly homeless veterans.  Chuck had been in the Army twice, first in the early 1960s, when he was stationed in Germany and again at the end of the decade when he served in Vietnam.  I say these things, because I’ve seen the proper paperwork, DD-214s that verify this.  At that first meeting, Chuck had been living for two or three weeks at a homeless shelter.  When he found out I was in recovery, he told me he’d been sober for 16 years, and had sponsored a number of men in AA.  The first part was a lie; the second may have been true.  But I doubt it.  Chuck also told me he’d been an infantry scout in Vietnam, spending most of his time behind enemy lines, gathering information to make life safer for the rest of his unit.  His service record indicates he was a jeep mechanic, but that doesn’t necessarily make his stories of combat bravery bunk.  Not necessarily.  Chuck also told me he’d been a high-end antiques dealer, having made hundreds of thousands of dollars buying and selling furniture from the late 18th century.  That may have been true, but when Chuck and I later visited various antique galleries, he seemed to know little more than I about the differences between Chippendale and Queen Anne.  Still, you don’t have to know a market to make a killing in it.  I guess.

During Chuck’s two or three months at Liberty House, we got to know each other fairly well.  Or, honestly, Chuck got to know me—I didn’t really know much that was true about Chuck, other than that he was a good story-teller, that he could be cranky about how coffee was made and that, if we sat outside smoking after the sun went down, he was given to weeping about how alone he was in the world.  Also, how he had betrayed anyone who’d ever loved him, but that was really a setup for more weeping about how badly life had treated him.

When he left Liberty House, he sat me down and made an unusual request.

“Keith, you’re my only true friend, the only man I trust in the whole world.  I’d like for you to be my next-of-kin, the person who makes decisions about me if I can’t.  Would you do that for me?”

Just as when someone says, “I love you” to me, I don’t know what to say except, “I love you, too,” when Chuck asked this, I felt a gun held to my head.  I said, “Sure.”

And thus I was for the next three years, getting phone calls every few months from landlords, cops, nursing homes and others.  Chuck had done this or not done that—what was I going to do about it?  Usually, this involved taking Chuck out for coffee, helping him come up with a plan and sending him on his way.  Even when Chuck started pretending he was completely blind, often so he could grab a woman’s breast or butt, then point to his very, very dark glasses.  I have no doubt Chuck’s vision was getting worse, but he’d always walk around dog crap on the street, and never stumbled at a curb when we’d go for a walk.

This “blindness” wasn’t Chuck’s first horse at the fraudulent rodeo.  Chuck loved to tell stories, typically starring him as the guy who got the girl, made the money, saved the day.  One story Chuck didn’t tell was the reason he’d spent years in a federal penitentiary.  Oh, he’d brag about how wonderful life was in the country-club prison he’d done his time in—and about all the important and famous people he’d met there.  His crime, according to Chuck, was internet-related and involved making lots and lots of money.  This is not true.  Chuck’s crime was convincing everyone in his small town that he was dying of cancer, and sitting back to let them hold fundraisers for him, his wife and their children.  Convincing everyone means everyone.  Even as his charade was falling apart, he never fessed up to his wife or kids.  It was a long con, and he wouldn’t climb off as long as there was any movement left.  Federal prison?  He’d been found guilty of wire fraud—using the telephone and internet, I believe, to defraud his employer of workers’ compensation payments—which carried a maximum 30-year sentence.  He served, I think, five years, but that information came from Chuck, and he wasn’t very reliable regarding things like times and dates and facts and truth in general.

Last January, I got a call from the Veterans Administration Homeless Team, asking if I could check up on Chuck, and try to talk him into going to the medical center for a checkup.  He’d been sick and drinking lately–especially drinking.  Every time I saw Chuck, though, he’d let me know he’d stayed sober the previous couple weeks—even with a tumbler of vodka in front of him on his coffee table.  When I got to Chuck’s place that last time, the door was locked, so I got the landlord to let me in.  That’s when I found the tableau described above.  I sat with Chuck’s corpse for 10 or 15 minutes, waiting for an EMT to declare Chuck dead.

Chuck’s ashes sat in my office at Liberty House until mid-August, when some of them were scattered around the property—the last place I know he was safe, sober and surrounded by people who cared about him.  As I write this, a hundred miles away a group from the Patriot Guard, spearheaded by a genuine saint, Dee Moore, is paying proper respect to Chuck’s military service and interring his remains into a veterans’ cemetery.

“And of the dead, speak only good,” is a Latin motto, but I’m afraid I haven’t captured that here at all.  Instead, “De mortuis nil nisi verum” is what I’m aiming for.  A few truths about Chuck:

He was an alcoholic.

He was a veteran.

I will miss him.

Oh, yes, why didn’t I give Chuck’s last name?  When Chuck first died, I tracked down his former wife, the woman whose reputation Chuck had helped destroy—for who in their small town really believed she hadn’t been in on his scam?  We had a pleasant 10-minute conversation, and I left it with good feeling for her, their children and all the other people whose trust Chuck had chewed up.  She has long since moved on, is active in Al-Anon and deserves to let the dead bury the dead.

“My name is Keith and I live in . . . a tiny house.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about “a phrase that will not pass my lips.”  You might guess that phrase was, “Boy, Joe Stalin over in Russia sure was a good guy.”  You might think that phrase might be “Sure, I’d love a hot lead enema.”  You might even imagine that phrase could be, “I’ve been sober for 10 years now, I think I’ll grab a six-pack.”

Nope.  I mean, none of those phrases will pass my lips, but those were not proclaimed from atop my high horse.  Instead, I was talking about the phrase, “tiny house,” proclaiming it too trendy and twee.  I’ve changed my mind.  Or, rather, overwhelming data, statistical evidence, has changed my mind.  I’ve lifted my personal moratorium on tiny houses (the use of the phrase, I mean—I’d never moratoriumized tiny houses themselves, or else I’d have been homeless).  Let me explain.

I write this blog daily from the Tiny White Box, 70-square-feet of utility and comfort, in New Hampshire’s Great North Woods—less than 10 miles from the Canadian border.  From this box, where I live with Sam (is a dog), my boxer-lab not-quite-a-puppy-but-sure-as-hell-not-an-adult eight-month-old, I hike five to ten miles a day, plug away on a memoir and work on a couple novels.  (By the way, no matter what phase of my life I’m writing about in the memoir, it feels like a confession—not like Saint Augustine, written from the safety of faith, but like some schlub in 1956 Hungary, knowing that whatever he writes is going to convict him.  But I digress).  The blog posts are fun to write, 500 to 1500 words on whatever I please.  They are a good warm-up for the rest of the day’s writing.  Or so I thought.  Until I looked at the numbers.

If “One Mind Snapping” (the name of this blog, although you might not know that unless you’ve poked around on the web site, which I’d advise) were simply a warm-up exercise, I could write them, then hit “select all,” “delete” and they would have gotten the old authorial juices flowing.  I don’t do that.  I post them.  Which means I want people to read them.  People like you.  And you.  And most especially you!  And that’s where data came in.

Yesterday morning, I did a cursory review of numbers of visitors to the website.  I write about a lot of different subjects–alcoholism, veterans issues, what I’ve been reading, old friends, patriotism, ad infinitum.  It turns out that when I write about Tiny-House related stuff (e.g., construction of my tiny house, life in 70 square feet, pictures of my home) the number if visitors to tinywhitebox.com quintuples, sextuples, septuples, octuples, I’ve forgotten my Latin so I’ll just say more than tenfolduples.  In short, instead of a few hundred visitors on a typical day, when I write about tiny house life, I get upwards of a thousand readers.  While I don’t have plans to make money off this website, I do hope to sell a memoir and another novel or two.  If tiny house fans fall in love witIh my writing here (or at least get a kick out of my voice), I’d be a fool to avoid the phrase that draws them here.

As you may know, I’m in recovery, using the wisdom and support of a secret organization that meets in church basements and other rooms worldwide.  I’ve sat in folding chairs and badly-upholstered church-study wingbacks and on benches all over this country and on a couple continents, so I know a thing or two about the importance of identification and honesty.

“My name is Keith and . . . I live in a tiny house.”

 

A Scientific Theology of Lucky Pennies

This morning, Sam (is a dog) and I went out for our usual walk—three or four miles through the forest, sheets of orange arranged on us to ward off stray shot from bird hunters and arrows from would be deer slayers.  During the plague years, folk wisdom suggested certain amulets would keep away the Black Death.  One of the more popular was a dead toad around the neck.  Although no quantitative research was done, my bet is the bacterium Yersinia pestis was no respecter of reptiles.  The color orange in the autumn woods, on the other hand, was chosen because of science.  After all, neither Sam nor I has been shot.  We don’t have the plague either, so that’s something to keep in mind during the next outbreak of either bubonic or pneumonic.  Until my bubo-ridden corpse is filled with bird shot or arrows, I will believe in the color orange.  Because of science.

During our walk, about two miles in on a narrow just-barely-there path, a tiny, shiny object caught my eye.  Here, on the outskirts of nowhere, was a penny in the dirt!  Unlike a dead toad, a found penny even has a rhyme to activate its power.  As I picked it up, I solemnly intoned, “Find a penny.  Pick it up.  All the day you’ll have good luck.”  The penny went in my pocket, and a certain bounce came into my step.  After all, today was a day filled with luck!

We walked through woods that had only a third as many leaves as when we’d moved up here six weeks ago.  I could see way deeper on either side, as could Sam, which led him to believe fun and play lay 120 feet in.  Watching him bounce his boxer bounce through short undergrowth made me laugh out loud.  Alone.  In the woods.  I touched the penny in my pocket, and felt grateful and lucky to be right here right now.

The missing foliage meant, 10 minutes later, we could look down from the path and see Lake Francis.  We’d walked here a dozen times before, but the water, shiny in the just-risen sun, had always been hidden.  Now, we walk-hopped down the 200-foot embankment and stood on the rocks beside the lake, Sam finding a way down to get a drink.  The lake shimmered like foil in the sun, and I fingered my penny again, grateful for my luck in being with Sam at this moment in this place.

After meandering along the shoreline for 10 minutes, we cut back up to the path to walk back to the Tiny White Box.  When we got back, Sam had his dish filled with dog food, while I the best apple-cinnamon oatmeal I’ve had all day.  I felt lucky to be eating such delicious food.

I’m not a praying man—except for one prayer I say mantra-like maybe a hundred times a day:  Thank you, God.  Today, I am grateful for finding that penny, for after all, look at all the luck it brought me.  I know I could believe the penny was merely an external sign of inward grace, an object that helped me focus my intention on looking for the good and expecting the best.  I could believe that penny was nothing more than training wheels for a spiritual life focused on gratitude.  I could believe the universe offers unlimited opportunities to discover beauty, joy and contentment.  And I do.

As long as I’ve got a lucky penny and don’t have a toad around my neck.

 

 

Thoughts on Depression

Like many Americans, I live with depression.  Abraham Lincoln referred to the “Black Dog” that visited him.  For me, when depression moves in, it’s more like a miasma, a thick fog smelling of mildew and tasting of aspirin.  This internal meteorology is almost never related to any external factor.  I mean, if I’m feeling blue after breaking off a relationship, being criticized or mocked, I can see the cause, and know it will recede into the past, getting smaller and smaller.  When depression comes in like a poisonous (but not fatal) front, I can try to convince myself it will leave as suddenly.  In a self-stoking cycle, though, depression pokes a leak in my gumption tank, and once I’m depressed, I’m too exhausted to make that argument.  These two forms of the same feeling are known, I believe, as exogenous (coming from the outside) and endogenous (coming from my soul) depression.  The difference between them makes all the difference in the world.

I’ve talked with migraine sufferers who have warning signs, the aura that lets them know to get their immediate effects in order and prepare to take to a darkened bed for hours—or days.  Without wanting to dismiss their pain, I wish sometimes my depression would give me a head’s up that it’s time to make any necessary decisions, then prepare to feel powerless, hopeless and unable to choose anything but thoughts of suicide.

As I write this, I am not depressed.  Two days ago, I was.  Objectively, my human situation has not changed one iota.  I am still the same older but not old man living in the same Tiny White Box with the same Sam (is a dog) by my side.  I haven’t been treated particularly well or badly by the universe as a whole or any part of it in particular.  Today, the present seems pleasant and the future holds allure.  I can look back on my life with pride and look forward with hope. Two days ago, the past seemed a joke and the future a pit of pain.

Having a logical bent, I want to use the scientific method but can find no foothold.  If there is no discernible difference between two days ago and today, there’s no variable to test, no way to ensure tomorrow will be like today.

Ten years ago, when the poisonous fog came in, I had a fog cutter.  No matter what I was feeling, I had a surefire way to change my perspective.  Three or four drinks always made me feel significantly better, was always able to drive away either exogenous or endogenous depression.  If events caused my depression, alcohol changed my view of those events, making them grow small indeed in the rearview mirror alcohol gave me.  If, instead, the depression had arisen within me, like a boil on my soul, alcohol provided the warm compress to ease the swelling and the pain.  I wouldn’t go back to drinking for anything.  It was like syphilis—pleasant to contract but carrying way, way more pain than that initial release was worth.  Here, I’m not talking about hangovers, but the constant feeling of worthlessness, the vague self-loathing and the cloak of guilt always over my shoulders.

In a moment—and they are rare—of self-awareness, I’ve just described the constant state my active alcoholism gave me using the same terms I would in communicating my depression.  For at least the last two years of my drinking, I lived in a gas chamber of depression, breathing nothing but despair.  Since getting sober and living sober, I now have periods where that fog rolls in—it always leaves again, whether I believe it will or not.  I’ve traded a life where all I could breathe was emptiness for one where I sometimes have that Black Dog pinning me down, never going for my throat or mauling me.  All in all, that’s a pretty great trade.

Today, I’m not depressed, and depression seems like such a silly thing to feel.  Feelings, though, arise and depart, and next Wednesday I may feel hopeless again.  If I do, I want to remember this, that my life today is infinitely better than it was 10 years ago.  I hope yours is, too.