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Nine Years

Dear Jason,

As I write this, you are asleep. I think you probably would be surprised at how quickly you fell asleep, given how excited you were when you got into bed, but it's true: you were out in just a few minutes. But, truth be told, I'm excited, too.

You've said many times over the past few months that this year has been hard for you. It's been hard for me as well, as it has for many people, but even though I wish we were all in a better situation, it makes me so proud to know that you care so deeply about doing the right thing, helping other people, fairness, kindness. I tell you this all the time, but it's true: I'm proud that I get to be your dad, and I'm happy to know you.

Every year, every week, it gets more and more fun to be your dad. Last weekend we started playing co-op video games for the first time, and that was great. And our reading time is always one of my favorite parts of the day. So far this year we've read The Lord of the Rings and two more Harry Potter books, and I love how enthusiastic you are about these stories.

Today is your day, buddy. I hope it's a great one. Happy birthday!


Soundtrack: "Hooked (Instrumental)" by Hotbloods. Used with permission.

Goodbye

Photo of a bird's footprint in frost

About six weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, I found out that an old teacher of mine was dying. It was cancer, multiple myeloma, and in the final stages.

I saw his obituary today as I was getting ready to leave the house for work. He died last week.

It feels, on some level, wrong to talk about my own feelings in this moment, a moment in which the loss must surely belong more to my late teacher’s family and close friends. And yet, though I haven’t had the chance to see or speak to this man in almost twenty years, I can’t help but think of myself, my life, my past, and how my world feels smaller today.

He was my English teacher for three years in high school. More than any other single person, he is the one who taught me how to write. By the end of my senior year, he had us writing two essays a day, all in a fifty-minute class period. He gave us a strict set of structures and rules for composition, but also told us how and when and why to break those rules. In his class, I learned not just how to string words and sentences together, but I learned to have confidence in approaching the task of writing, to believe that this was something I could do, and do well.

More than that, he was the first person outside of my immediate family who I can recall showing interest in my writing, who encouraged me to find my voice, to write things that mattered to me. When I was fifteen, he submitted one of my essays to the local newspaper—a small paper serving a town of just a few thousand, but still my first publication. I never managed to get my hands on a copy of that issue, but I still have the original, typewritten essay tucked away in a drawer.

Now that I think of it, though, I wonder about those mementos I keep, the old writing, photographs, ticket stubs, posters. I’ve kept them in folders, stashed in closets, some over twenty years now. I seldom even think about them, let alone look at them, and though I usually enjoy the feeling I experience when I do take them out and let the memories wash over me, for the most part they’re kept safely hidden away. But safe from what? Two decades on, and the pages are still holding up fairly well, but eventually the paper will begin to turn yellow and brittle, and fade like all things must.

Reading my teacher’s obituary, I noted that he was 75 years old when he died. I would have sworn when I was in his class that he must have been close to that age at the time, but in truth he was only 52 when I first met him—not much older than some of my friends and coworkers now. And, of course, by now many classes will have passed through my old school never having known him. When I look at the faculty list today, I only recognize a few names, teachers who were young when I graduated and are now looking gray, like the old-timers they are. Of course. The essays sitting in my file drawer only remain the same because they’re not alive and never were. We all get older, myself no less, and as time takes us in and out of spaces, others come to fill the vacuum left behind us. I imagine the conversations taking place in the halls between classes now, and the faces, the words, even the buildings are different, but something essential remains the same.

As I think of my teacher, I’m grateful for many things. What I learned, of course, and the times he made me laugh. Most recently, though, I’m grateful for this: finding out in the way I did, on the day I did, I had the opportunity, the time, to say goodbye. It’s not something I take lightly—I have lost a lot of people in a lot of ways, and most often it has happened suddenly. And though the grief has been no less when I’ve been prepared than when I’ve been surprised, there is a measure of peace granted by the knowledge that I didn’t miss my chance to let my teacher know how much he has meant to me, how much knowing him has mattered in my life. It would be, I think, an amazing thing to truly know the lives we’ve influenced, the ways in which the world is better for our having been in it, and though we may or may not get to see this for ourselves, it’s something we can do for others. It’s not so hard to say, simply, “Thank you, you mattered to me.” And what a world it would be if we all did it a bit more often.

Thank you, as always, for your time. For whatever it’s worth, I appreciate it. And I appreciate you.

Time Travel

Sometimes at night, as I am waiting to fall asleep, my brain engages in a form of time travel. I suppose a more prosaic way of saying it would be to call it “memory,” but this doesn’t capture the experience. Nor does the word “hallucination,” though that gets closer. In the dark, with my eyes closed, no sound in my ears but my own breathing, I am in a different bed. One that doesn’t exist anymore.

Last night after I came to bed, I lay there for a while and looked at my wife, at the way she looked blue in the dim glow from her phone, at the softness of the light and how it matched the softness of her skin, and I smiled a little, though she didn’t see it. When I closed my eyes, the image of her face stayed in my mind for a moment, but then, as it does, my mind wandered. And after no more than a few seconds, I found that my sense of the room around me and the bed beneath me had changed.

Often when I go somewhere else, it’s back to my high-school bedroom, a room I called mine from the ninth grade through college. I haven’t seen the inside of that house in 13 years, since my mom and stepdad moved east to care for his elderly parents. But I still go there at night. The room is nine feet by ten feet and built like a ship’s cabin, with all of the furniture built onto the walls. If I were to open my eyes, I’d see that every horizontal surface apart from the bed on which I lie is covered with books, magazines, papers, and the other detritus of a teenaged introvert. My toes just hang over the edge of the mattress, and if I roll just a bit to the right, the plaster on the wall will be cold against my back. Of course, if I were actually to move or open my eyes, the spell would be broken and I’d be back to the present day.

Last night, though, I went back much further. Instead of the short twin mattress of my 14-year-old self, I found myself lying on a cot against the east wall of a small, one-room cabin. Just a few inches from my feet are several large windows that look out onto an unfinished redwood deck, past the railing of which the Bixby Creek trickled by. There are crayfish in the creek, and trout, hiding in the shadows under the little footbridge. We lived here when I was six, with my mom’s boyfriend—a man I haven’t seen in decades, who died four years ago, and whose memory will probably always haunt me.

My waking intellect, the part of me which is writing these words right now, knows that this experience is just a combination of memory and imagination. But when I am drowsy, I begin to wonder: is this mere fantasy, or does my consciousness perhaps drift back to my younger body in these moments? If I remain still enough, silent enough to hold onto this magic through the night, or if I fall asleep while I’m there, where might I be when I awake?

Most of the time when I am transported through time in this place between sleep and wakefulness, I feel a sense of longing, a melancholy born of the recognition of lost time. Yet I also feel a certain wonder, and perhaps a certain safety—which makes little sense to me now that I consider how often I felt frightened as a child and lost and lonely as an adolescent.

Finding myself back in that cabin, though, was more than I could bear. The weight of my memories, the thickness, the viscosity of my emotions—I felt like I couldn’t draw a breath. I jerked my eyes open and, needing an anchor to something present and real, I reached out and put a hand on my wife’s shoulder. She turned and looked at me, lowering her phone for a moment and asked “What’s up?”

I explained. I’m not sure what I said, or whether it made any sense, but she simply asked “What do you need right now?”

“I’m doing it,” I said, and squeezed her shoulder gently. She smiled and went back to her phone. A few minutes later I was asleep. Here. And now.

This Is Not the Life I Wanted

This is not the life I wanted.

I suppose if I'm being honest, I should say: this is not the life I was promised.

The other evening I was in my living room doing something I can no longer remember—perhaps playing a game on my phone or wading through news updates—when I heard my wife say "You look terrible."

"What?" I said.

She pointed to the video she was watching, one I'd recorded earlier in the day, asking people to call their representatives about one crisis or another. "You look tired," she said. "Haggard. You need to take better care of yourself."

I hadn't really watched the video before, just recorded it and posted it, and then moved on. But she was right. The face in the video looked back at me with bloodshot eyes, heavy-lidded with exhaustion. Somehow, I was surprised. I knew how I felt, but I didn't know it showed so much.

Lately thoughts of exhaustion tumble in my head, crashing and rasping against each other as they turn, but never becoming round or smooth or comfortable. John Lennon's voice drones on, lamenting not having slept a wink—and my mind, too, feels on the blink. And I think again and again, like an old hobbit, "Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread."

I'm being dramatic. I know. But I can feel myself burning out, and I don't know how to stop, or even how to slow down.

It strikes me as unseemly to spend my time (and now yours) on thoughts like these, on simple exhaustion, when I know that other people are suffering more, even dying. That, yes, I am tired, but protesters are being beaten and graves are being desecrated and families are being separated by deportation and somewhere right now, right this instant, someone is trying to make the impossible choice between buying food and paying for cancer treatments. I know this. I know what feels like an ordeal to me does not compare to what other people are going through.

Though, perhaps this, too, is something this Congress, this President, this year is taking from us: the right to even admit that our struggles are struggles. Is that too much? Maybe. I don't know.

When I was young, I had no greater concerns placed on me than to get good grades and be polite, to eventually be "successful" and reflect well on my family. I expected nothing more than to raise my children, save for retirement, and read some good books along the way.

What has it cost me, then, this year? I think about the words not written, the art not created, the hours spent researching and organizing and not playing with my children. I think about the pile of unread books on my nightstand, the months of unedited photographs sitting on memory cards, waiting for a spare moment. I think about the late nights and early mornings. I think about the look on my son's face as I head out the door to another protest instead of sitting down for a family dinner. In one sense, these sacrifices are small. In another, they are pieces of my life being stolen.

I read something once, long enough ago that I cannot remember when or where or by whom, something to the effect that both the magic and tragedy of life is that each of us are going through it for the first time. It means that we each get the opportunity for discovery, and thus the ability to experience wonder. But it means also that time and life are resources which are finite, and unrecoverable.

This isn't the life that I wanted. I never wanted to have to know about legislative calendars and executive appointments. I never wanted to know how lobbying differs from political activity, and what the financial rules are for each. I never thought about which kinds of protests need a permit and which don't, and I didn't want to. But now I do. And having put the time in, I am more aware than ever how much more work is still left to be done, and how few people—still—are available to help. Or even willing to do so. Or, rather, how many would help, how many want to help, but need someone else to show them what to do.

I tell the people who attend our meetings, "Self-care is important. No one person can do everything, and you don't have to. Take care of yourself when you need to. Rest, so that you can come back refreshed." Like a lot of people, of course, I find it easier to say that to others than to live that way. There's simply too much to do, and not enough time to do it, and more piling on every day.

In the end, though, when I am done crying for myself and the life I expected, I come back—as I always have—to the stories of my youth. Perhaps I say to myself, "I wish it need not have happened in my time." But I remember, too, that "so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." I read those words to my son for the first time last summer, not knowing then what they would mean now. I want to have the opportunity to read them to my daughters, too. Am I willing to do what's necessary to give them a chance at a simpler life? I think so. I hope so.

This is not the life that I wanted, but this is the life that I have.

Here we are.

Here we go.

Little Bear

I can hear the little bear in the kitchen, the feet of the step-stool scraping on the tile floor as she climbs on top of it. “I WANT A SNACK,” she announces. The space of a heartbeat passes, maybe two. “I WANT A SNACK,” she repeats, stretching the last word into something like a musical phrase, complete with a crescendo and a fermata.

“Could you ask me that more politely, please?” I say, standing up and putting my book down.

“Please can I have a snack?” she asks, her voice quieting and rising in pitch.

“Yes,” I say. “Thank you for asking nicely.” She rejects my first four offerings—applesauce, a graham cracker, a cup of yogurt, a tangerine—before finally settling on Goldfish crackers as acceptable. “Sank you,” she says as I place the bowl before her, then turns away. I have been dismissed.

“Little Bear, can I have a hug?” I ask.

She laughs. “No!” I am, of course, being ridiculous.

When my youngest was an infant, I called her a berry when she was sweet, and a bear when she was surly. Given her name, these endearments were low-hanging fruit, to be sure. But by the time one is up in the night with his third child, the impressiveness of wit or ingenuity has lost a bit of its urgency; one takes the fruit that is at hand. As tends to happen, one name stuck and the other didn’t, so now at the ripe old age of two years, she is our Little Bear.

Unlike her brother—currently experiencing a growth spurt that makes him devour his meals quickly and then go in search of more—Little Bear likes to linger over her food, picking at it as she plays or sings or watches a video on my tablet. She will nibble until it’s gone, or until something else catches her attention. With two older siblings and a dog, the latter is not an uncommon occurrence. I’ve only managed to get two or three pages further in my book before I hear the slap of her tiny feet as she races down the hallway. “EXCUSE ME!” she shouts. “EXCUSE ME!” She opens her brother’s bedroom door. “EXCUSE ME! DO YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH ME!”

“No,” he says.

She turns to her sister, who is lying on the floor beside their brother’s bed, apparently staging some sort of battle between some Lego Star Wars characters and some Pokémon figurines. “DO YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH ME?” Little Bear asks.

“No,” says her sister.

I hear the door close, and the quick pip-pip-pip-pip-pip of her feet as she runs back toward the living room, where I am setting my book down again. “THEY SAID NO!” she reports. I brace myself. She glares at me for a few seconds, then abruptly turns and goes back to her crackers and the video which has continued playing during her absence.

When you are the smallest person in a house full of opinionated people, you must find ways to assert yourself, and Little Bear does this with aplomb. From her very first day, two things have been clear: she is aware, and she has opinions. It is a cliché to say that a person is “a force to be reckoned with,” and yet this is what she does. In every interaction, she demands that you consider her. I tell myself—and everyone else, really—that I’m heartened by this, that I hope she never loses this insistence, that it will serve her well when she’s grown. I also often (usually) add a rueful grin and the caveat, “I wish she’d take it a little easier on me and her mom sometimes.” But when I’ve put her to bed at night (singing one song to her and one to the stuffed animal by her side, laying the blankets over her in exactly the order she requires) what I find myself turning over and over in my head are all the ways that the world tells little girls to make themselves small and soft and pliant. I can’t protect her from this fate; all I can do is try to prepare her for it, and a strong self-regard and confident assertiveness seem a good armor. Or so I hope.

Perhaps twenty minutes have passed—long enough for me to become engrossed again in the story I’m reading—when I feel a touch at my knee and then Little Bear is pushing the book out of her way and climbing over my lap and onto the chair beside me.

“Hello, Little Bear” I say.

“Oh!” she says, and giggles. “Hello!” She stretches her legs up, crossing one ankle over the other and setting them on my lap. “I’m not touching you!” she says.

“Oh really? Are those your feet?” I ask.

“Yeah!”

“And is that my leg?”

“No! That’s my leg!” She laughs uproariously; that the thigh serving as her footrest belongs to her should be obvious, but she has decided not to hold it against me. She throws her arms around me. “Snuggle time!” she declares. “Snuggles are good!”

Yes. They are.

Photographs, Memory, Moments

Photo of tree bark

It was too early when I went in to wake my five-year-old daughter for school this morning. It is always too early when I wake her, even more so for me than for her. There is, nevertheless, something comforting about the familiar mundanity of being tired on a weekday morning, as unpleasant as it usually feels.

When I stepped through her bedroom door she was sitting in the middle of her bed, blinking heavily against the light from the lamp I’d turned on a few minutes before as I stumbled down the hall. She was frowning, her brows bunched in consternation, perhaps even resentment for a moment before she brushed her hair from her eyes and looked up at me, and smiled. Something about this scene brought an image to my mind, a picture from her even-younger days, but it took me a second or two to realize that I was remembering a photograph.

Photographers are often drawn to obsessing about time and memory—though, in that I suppose we are not so terribly different from other artists. From other people in general, really. It makes sense, of course. Photography is something most of us understand as a form of documentation, a way of physicalizing memory, of stretching the infinitesimal into something like permanence. Does it actually do this? Well, no, but it feels like it does, and in some ways that feeling may be more important and true than the literal facts.

Still, seeing some hint of complexity in the interaction between memory and photos, we can’t help ourselves; we just have to wrestle with it. There’s a chapter in Sally Mann’s memoir, Hold Still, in which she laments that her clearest memory of how her father looks comes not from life, but rather from a photograph. She recalls every details of the image, from the gesture of his hands to the color of his belt, but finds herself unable to move beyond the stillness of the picture to the full sensory detail of life experience. There’s no real arguing with this—once you make a photograph, or even spend any appreciable amount of time looking at one, that is what your brain will latch onto.

Nevertheless, I find myself resistant to the now-commonplace cry, “Put down your camera and live!” Perhaps this is merely another expression of the contrarian streak that so aggravated my parents when I was a child. When I poke at the edges of my capacity to remember, though, I find myself dismayed by the brain’s fallibility.

When I was young—fourth grade, perhaps? third?—one of the people I loved most in life was a young man who worked at the day care center where I went after school. I remember that love, the admiration I felt for his creativity, the joy I felt when he would invent stories on the spot. I remember looking up to him, and looking forward to every afternoon I got to spend in his presence. And I remember the deep sadness I felt, the pain and confusion we all felt the day we found out he’d killed himself. His wasn’t the first funeral I’d attended, but it was the first I cried at.

I have no photographs of that boy, and I find that now, some thirty years later, when I search my memory for an image of him, I find only a few indistinct impressions. Dark, curly hair, long in the back in the way so many boys’ hair was in the late 80’s. A bulging Adam’s apple, a cracking voice, a wispy shadow of a moustache that he never got old enough to see become proper stubble. But the color of his eyes, the shape of his nose or chin, his posture or the way he held his hands—all of that is gone now, and it will never return. What would I give to be able to remember even a facsimile, a reflection, a ghost of his smile?

After my friend died, we planted a tree to remember him, beside the fence that separated the school playground from the day care’s yard. Many years later, when I came back to my home town to shoot a photographic series about nostalgia, I stopped to visit the tree, finding that I couldn’t remember exactly which tree it was anymore. I made my best guess, and stood there trying to fix the moment in my mind. I remember now the coolness of the air, the sound of some young mothers talking while their kids ran through the play structure, the roughness of the new bark that showed through where the outer layer peeled off. But mostly I remember the photograph I took.

This morning when I carried my daughter from her bed to the living room, she wrapped her arms around my neck, and I squeezed her gently back. I gave her a little kiss on the top of her head, and her hair tickled my lips, and I thought about the photograph I’d remembered a few moments before. As I so often find myself doing, I found myself paying close attention to the sensations of the moment, the feel of the grooves in the wood floor beneath my feet, the dimness of the house in that moment before the sun was fully up, the weight of my daughter’s small body in my arms. “Remember this,” I silently told myself. “Remember exactly this.” But even as the thought finished, I felt the moment starting to slip away. It’s seven hours later as I write this. I can’t even remember which picture I thought of when I woke her up.

Goals for 2017

A year ago, when I was setting my goals for 2016, I had no idea what the year was going to bring. Looking back over the year with all its losses and turmoil, it's easy to lose sight of the smaller things. But, as is my tradition, I want to check in with how I did with last year's goals, and then set some new ones for the coming year.

Goal: Read 24 books in any genre. Of those, at least 12 must be written by women, and at least 12 must be written by a person of color.
Result: I finished the year having read 30 books, of which 23 were written by women and 13 were written by people of color. This included 23 novels (15 SFF), 6 books of poetry, and 1 self-help book.

Goal: Submit at least 5 proposals for solo exhibitions.
Result: I did not submit any proposals for solo exhibitions in 2016. Nevertheless, I did have my second feature on Lenscratch, I had images included in an online group exhibition, and I participated in the portfolio reviews at the Medium Festival of Photography, where my work was well-received and garnered some interest from several museum and gallery curators.

Goal: Spend at least 1 day shooting for my “It Forgets You” project.
Result: I spent 2 days shooting for “It Forgets You,” completing the project and turning it into a handmade book.

Goal: Run 400 miles.
Result: I ran 137.5 miles.

Goal: Write at least 12 essays on any topic for this blog.
Result: I only wrote 6 real essays for the blog, but I also wrote 5 book reviews that I think qualify. Additionally, one of my essays was republished on PetaPixel.

Goal: Design and make a self-published version of my “Sheets” book.
Result: I did this, self-publishing an edition of 100 via Edition One Books. I also got them included in the Fraction Media Shop, and sold several.

Goal: Conduct 12 recorded interviews with other artists.
Result: I recorded 32 interviews with artists, writers, and curators last year, and so far 29 of them have been released on the podcast I started. This is probably the accomplishment of mine of which I'm most proud.

Goal: Design and make at least 1 new handmade artist’s book.
Result: I actually designed 2 new handmade books, making a final version of one and a prototype of the second. Both got excellent reviews at this year's Medium Festival of Photography.

So, in the end, I met six of my nine goals, and came close on a seventh. I'm satisfied with what I was able to achieve last year.

As for next year, here are my goals:

  • Read at least 26 books, of which at least 13 must be written by women and 13 must be written by people of color.
  • Run 400 miles and at least 1 race of 5K or longer.
  • Set a new personal record for a 1-mile run. (Current record: 7:53)
  • Lose at least 13 pounds and keep my weight at or below 190 pounds through December 31.
  • Start an email newsletter and use it to send out at least 12 essays.
  • Start a Patreon for my podcast.
  • Get at least 4 essays, poems, or stories published in paying markets.
  • Record at least 8 conversations for my podcast with people I don't know well.

This seems like a good start.

Five Years

Dear Eva,

At the beginning of the summer, when you graduated from pre-school, Mommy and I told you that you would be starting TK in the fall. But now it's fall, and even though you're just today turning five, you've already been in real kindergarten for three weeks, and you've been doing great with it. Every morning you have been getting up just like your brother, and you've had such a great attitude about going to school, even though it's early. And even though you are the youngest one in your class, you're still one of the smartest and hardest-working. You've gotten points from your teacher every day for things like staying on task, participating, and using whole body listening, and I'm so proud that you are being a good citizen in your class.

Right now as I'm writing this, you're in your bed all tired out from spending a whole weekend at Disneyland. I'm so glad to get to spend time with you, whether it's when we're away or at home, and I can't wait to see what the future brings us.

Happy birthday, Eva. I love you so much!


Soundtrack: "It'll Only Get Better (Instrumental)" by Tayler Buono. Used with permission.

Two Years

Dear Mary,

Three days ago we celebrated your brother’s birthday, and today it is your birthday. Birthdays being what they are, this is how it’s always going to be, and sometimes your mom and I worry about letting your day turn into an afterthought. I don’t think you’re going to let that happen, though.

Because you are a force.

You may be the youngest member of our family and—for now—the smallest in stature, but in will and determination and sheer size of personality you are a giant. You are mighty. You know what you want, and you go for it, every time. I think of all the times I’ve lifted you over my head and listened to you cackle, your gleeful shouts of “Again! One more time!” I think of the way you will just climb into my lap and push your smiling face right into my line of sight; you are playful, but you demand to be seen.

And even though sometimes that means your mom and I—and your sister and brother—have to reckon with your displeasure, I hope that you hold onto that spirit, that ability to stand up for yourself, never taking a drop of disrespect from anyone. Because if you can do that, nothing is going to stand in your way. You’re smart, you’re strong, you’re funny, and you’re fierce. You will go far.

Today is your day, my girl. I love you. Happy birthday!


Soundtrack: "Nightglow (Instrumental)" by Beachcomber. Used with permission.

Eight Years

Dear Jason,

For the past few nights you’ve been having trouble sleeping because you’re so excited about your birthday. This is really one of my favorite things about you, that you get excited about things. Just in the past few days you have been excited about your birthday, about Pokemon, about getting a new pair of flip-flops just like the ones I have, about eating hamburgers, and a bunch of other things that I can’t remember. I know that you’ve heard me say this before, but I hope that as you keep growing and getting older, you will hang on to that excitement.

What can I say to you that I haven’t said already so many times? I tell you all the time that I love you, because I do. I tell you that I am proud of you, because I am. I tell you that I am lucky to be your dad, because it’s true. I tell you these things almost every day, it seems like, and when I was your age I probably would have rolled my eyes and said “You already told me that.” But you take it a lot more gracefully than I would have.

You really are a great kid, my boy, and I hope that you have a great day today. Happy birthday, buddy. I love you.


Soundtrack: "The Atmosphere (Instrumental)" by Beachcomber. Used with permission.
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