(Originally posted August 8, 2014, since revised)
Back then, we didn’t refer to it as
Nobody had yet to recognize it as such.
The official term was “getting wasted”
or, more colloquially (if not quite eloquently) …
I had more than enough free time on my hands to donate a decent portion of my waking hours to it.
A simple enough process flowing freely through your day, one stumble-step leading to the next with the fluid precision of a three-dollar flea market Mickey Mouse alarm clock:
wake up… whenever; spend some extra time laying in bed adjusting to the lingering stupor; roll over on your side, swing your legs over the edge of your bed, place your feet on the floor; spend additional time sitting up in bed adjusting to the lingering stupor; stand up, gauge both strength and coordination; if / when sufficient level of efficiency is reached, proceed to bathroom at most easily manageable rate of speed (if risk of injury appears to be a major factor to be taken into consideration, this attempt may be more prudently accomplished on hands and knees); once in bathroom, assume position most suitable for inevitable projectile expectoration from appropriate orifice.
How easily the preceding steps go for you pretty much determines how you will handle the rest of the day, but one of the next stages will likely involve “the hair of the dog that bit you”, after which your life should predictably run on a badly programmed GPS until the next morning when you wake up… whenever, and repeat.
Of course, back then we didn’t have GPS. All we had, under the circumstances of which I metaphorically speak, were compasses on which the needle just kept spinning and topographic maps with contour lines that would shape-shift all over creation while you were trying to follow them.
I did it for years. Woke up not even having to thing about it. I just started up all over again, and one step just came immediately before the one that instinctively came after it.
There was so much I was trying my damnedest to forget: the death of my beloved uncle after three years of strokes, back when I was fourteen; the loss of my mother when I was sixteen to a year long battle with cancer, which was never fully explained to me until two weeks before she left us; the unexpected if not unforeseen sudden death of my father when I was nineteen, at college in Denver and first really starting to discover myself.
I was not ready for any of it.
When Ben passed, I lost it all. I couldn’t hold it in, couldn’t even weakly try to contain the pain and the fear and the overpowering loss.
Then my Mom was gone just as I was first coming close to moving forward without the most important, influential male role model in my life. I couldn’t let those feelings loose, couldn’t cry, couldn’t worry, couldn’t respond.
It was in ways an unfortunately initiated opportunity to start to get to really know my father, He had been a consistent presence in my life, a treasure trove of joyous memories, but just more difficult to read than Ben had been, not quite as accessible. My Dad was my father, my mother’s brother was my uncle, but Uncle Ben was The Man.
About a year after Mom died, Dad started dating casually and we actually went on double-dates every now and then. He felt like taking his lady to a fancy dinner, I felt like doing the same with my girlfriend, he offered to pay? Done deal. Nothing to read into it: he wasn’t bringing someone new into my life, nor I into his, but we just both felt like a monster steak at The Manor so the four of us would meet there.
And while we were waiting for my sister to actually, finally, somehow and somewhat unbelievably get married, we’d do dinner for two at least once a week at Rod’s or the Claremont Diner. We’d take in a show in The City, hit up The Pen & Pencil in the East 8os for steak and lobster and long heart-to-hearts. I was spending more than half my first year at college when I was first starting to really learn all he had to teach me.
When he died, midway through my second attempt at my first year of college, I couldn’t even acknowledge the feelings that were there. I wouldn’t dare. I was so damned punch-drunk from the previous losses I don’t even know if the capacity to be aware of those feelings was anywhere within me.
Except for the emptiness.
So then there was just me, and I made for marginally entertaining but hardly stabilizing company.
The people around me, all the ones who were supposed to care, the ones I knew all my life without them knowing me, saw me for what I could be rather than who I was, couldn’t understand who I was much less how or why I turned out to be that way. I was not nearly what they expected, not nearly fitting their standards or meeting their approval. And they never fully tried to understand why that was:
“Get over it.” “Get back to school.” “Get on with your life.” “Get a haircut.” “Get a job.”
The only solutions ever suggested to me. Sometimes phrased as a question, it always sounded like a sentence.
Almost every conversation I had with any of them started with “Well … have you been smoking that stuff again?” and went downhill from there.
I had never taken a moment’s respite to let all the disruptive emotions fly through me, to grab each one at a whatever time I could, confront them … and if I couldn’t beat them into submission, at the very least come to an understanding with them. Not since Ben. My mom. Dad.
Might have done me some good to just not give a shit.
It confounded me, frustrated me, hurt me that none of them ever seemed to enter that torturous factor into the equation. If they actually had, well that just made things worse because they obviously expected me just to ignore it.
Within a matter of months I had one foot stuck in a bong, the other sunk in a bottle, and all was superficially well. There was less hurt, less confusion, less pain.
Well now, of course there was!
There was less consciousness.
But there was still reality waking up inside of me each morning.
And I got into my routine so as not to let it out of bed. Nine years of hitting a twenty-four hour snooze button as soon as my first eye opened.
A brief yet bright romance fell apart, I had nothing left at “home” in Jersey, and with a barely-known friend but an immediate brother, I returned to the place I knew was going to be home. Return to some compassionate and non-judgmental people who had met me a year earlier without any pre-determined notions, accepting me as I was.
I finally went back to Colorado two years after I had initially left shortly after my father died, taking whatever I could fit in the car of any significance, me and my compadre sharing the driving and rolling, with our dogs in the back seat, with the monkeys on my back and the routine in my blood.
It went on for too long.
I was well on the way to becoming some town drunk everyone could point at. I knew it, didn’t care for it, but didn’t mind it ’cause it let me go on thinking, feeling, dreaming and believing anything and everything that served a pampering purpose.
Just needed to find the town.
I spent a wildly wasted but semi-productive few years sharing a place in Evergreen with the brother-from-another-mother, Kennedy Bryan “Grubsteak” Parker, Jr. (of the Llewelyn Park and Bermuda Parkers), who had left his girlfriend / “fiancée” back in Jersey to move to Colorado with me. Actually, I think it was more that he was her “fiancée”.
Bryan had gotten a job working as the head grill cook at a high-class yet not snooty restaurant, The Fort in Morrison, Colorado where the Great Midwestern Plain I had seen on the maps since grade school ran right up to the Rockies. It was a full adobe construction, heated only by fireplaces, an exact replica of the famous Bent’s Fort, a National Historic Site east of La Junta, CO.
I slowly started to divide my time between Evergreen and days at The Little Bear (the local freak hang-out) and meeting Bryan down in Morrison after his shift.
It was there I had found my town.
After the Jefferson County Sheriff in cooperation with the Denver Police and a wildly inept suspected informant I had set up orchestrated a pitifully choreographed, laughably staged and badly botched drug bust / raid at our Evergreen house (leaving us with no charges ever even filed – not even for the rifle and shotgun we had with the serial numbers filed off), I spent time shuffling around from one place to another, sometimes sleeping on whatever sprawled-out mattress someone had to offer: Indian Hills for a while, a few of the Morrison crash-pads, even sharing a pick-up camper at a trailer park with the sixteen-year-old son of a retired Marine Drill Sergeant.
The safety and sanctity of the home and sacredly introspective and revelatory times I shared with Bryan had been yanked out from under us based on a wild-eyed rumor involving a delivery of twenty pounds of weed that I had started myself to ferret out whatever snitch we had in town. The guy actually had the nerve to show his face in our newly discovered Den of Iniquity a few days later, and by the time I was halfway through asking him why he signed some bullshit affidavit that the Sheriff used for the bust, everybody sitting at the bar and the close-by tables had grabbed a pool stick.
We ran the cocksucker out of town , but the price was that whatever perceived sense of peace I was deluded into feeling slowly drifted away until the only place I felt at home was The Tabor Inn in Morrison.
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December 24, 1977
Another time, another place,
Sown seeds of strife.
With what I’d seen,
and all I’d felt,
still had my dreams.
A whole new life.
The complete and overpowering silence surrounding us, gently punctuated by the occasional gust through the Blue Spruce and conifers.
The gentle aural caress of Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt singing Christmas carols reaching through the house, echoing softly, smoothly and subtly off the knotty pine walls and the z-brick behind the stove. Absorbed by the soft upholstery of the sofa in front of the floor length curtains shielding us from the picture window running fifteen feet on the northern side of the room, looking out over Deer Creek Canyon. The sounds of a transcendent embrace.
The tamales in the oversize pot, the lone log in the Franklin stove, the Juniper incense wafting from atop the two Bose floor speakers in the corners of the living room.
The comfort and security of our home, of our small family, offering shelter from the unforgiving winter outside. The blessing of being the Three of Us.
Our daughter Emmie (three months old) is nestled all snug in her bassinet, sleeping soundly under the quilt her Grandma made, no vision of sugar plums pirouetting through her imagination. Our cat Charity is stretched out alongside her.
Liz is in the kitchen tending to the delicacies for our dinner guests the next day. Left to our own vices, we will likely gorge on at least half of the tamales ourselves that night, but there are yams and stuffing and Apache fry bread and pies that need to be made. We have, after all, but one oven and a twenty-six pound turkey.
I’ve collected enough firewood from the tack house outside to get us through the next incoming storm , have it piled up in a three-by-three foot stack in the living room alongside the stove and have finished clearing enough room on our property on the other side of the road for the four or five cars we’ll have coming up for Christmas dinner.
It is a time of year during which it is indeed more challenging to spend time out in the midst of God’s immaculate work. To play in the yard, to stroll up and over the hills. Even Charity has to retreat from the perch I’ve placed in a tree for her, a plateau from which she forages for the field mice that nest in our woodpile, the marmots that come down from the forest covering the hills behind us, or even the crows that raid our gardens.
The harsh, relentless, bone-chilling conditions outside – three days after the Winter Solstice – belie the warmth we feel both in and around us.
There’s the excitement the season brings to us, but we spend the evening wrapped in the peace that comes with the holiday, knowing that as the seasons change and treat us with kindness a new year will follow bringing us more blessings.
The sun is always there, rising over the flatlands to retreat further into the canyon, taking God’s time to nourish us, to bring new beginnings and new life.
The day had started at a leisurely pace that built into glorious exultation:
after most of the morning waiting for the snow to make an appearance, after a couple of hours wrapped up in sweats, the Franklin stoked up, we watched the Denver Broncos defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers and their feared Steel Curtain in the AFC Divisional Championships, their first post-season victory in their history. I had only waited through the last five of their eighteen seasons, but it was a moment spent with friends which could have wakened me from the dead. It was just Liz and me Em and our friend Ron Pittman. Actually, just me and Ron watching the game.
The steak and lobster I broiled for dinner was entirely out of character for us, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t keep on doing things like that. It was, after all, Christmas Eve, and in spite of the fact I didn’t fully appreciate the reason for that season, it just felt right to do it exactly the way we did.
It was our first Christmas Eve together, the three of us, being able to welcome in a friend who really had no place else he could go.
But it was our last Christmas Eve in the the hills.
The following year, it was our last in Colorado.
The following year, it was the last for only the three of us.
Justin came along in March, 1980.
Early into the next century a son-in-law came along, a daughter-in-law the following year
And at 1:13 on an early summer morning, we were blessed with a grandson
And somewhere in between it would be the first / last Christmas Eve in …
Stockton … Lodi … Lockeford …
Moke Hill … down here … and here ….
We lost some family, and there were always critters hanging around in their own inimitable, irreplaceable, and nobly humble ways.
Our last Christmas Eve with my father-in-law, the first with our grandson.
The last one with Sundance, the first with Gracie. We’ve had a lot of both of those.
Froze my ass off this year, can remember times all I needed for outside was a sweatshirt, but that’s not what I’m thinking about.
Each and every Christmas Eve is unique.
You lose out on things, you somehow make up for them.
Remember Joni Mitchell? Remember “Both Sides Now”?
“Well, something’s lost but something’s gained in living everyday.”
And when you are approaching the end / start of the year, you start taking stock of things since / before the end / start of the last / next year. It’s a grueling process of incorporating all of the knowledge, insight and maturity of the past year’s experiences into the collective of knowledge, insight and maturity having been incorporated into one’s psyche during the same period the previous year.
Not the type of introspective endeavor most people are quite ready for after putting their Christmas shopping off to the last minute and thereby brushing off a previous New Year’s Resolution all in one swipe.
This catharsis is theoretically targeted for completion by the second round on New Year’s Eve, be it margaritas, mimosas or Maalox.
Go to sleep. Wake up. Gargle, rinse, spit, get on with your life, repeat.
For an seemingly interminable period, and try to pay attention.
But it’s all such a magnificent effort, the payoff an epiphany. It doesn’t have to be cataclysmic or cosmic in scope, but it’s never going to be anything you can just write off. Sometimes even confusion can serve a purpose.
For me, that all seems to start on Christmas Eve.
Northern San Joaquin Valley, CA
December 31, 2014
My immediate knee-jerk reactions tell me this Christmas Eve went pretty well.
I am fully aware of the Reason for the Season – thank you very much – but I got, like, what might be two of the coolest, best presents ever:
Our grandson Josiah and son Justin and daughter(-in-law) Vanna got me the original, first editions of “Dangerous Visions” and “Again Dangerous Visions”, an earth-shaking, genre-changing collection of sci-fi (not that SyFy shit everybody’s used to) edited by Harlan Ellison, the Raoul Duke of speculative fiction.
I can probably find paperback reprints, but there’s no guarantee it will have all the stories that were in the collection before they were essentially banned. Don’t know if they will have the rumored-to-be-watered-down version of “Faith of Our Fathers”, the story by Philip K. Dick which he allegedly wrote while tanked to the tits on LSD.
As I recall, those allegations were actually his.
This is the version I was introduced to forty-three years ago, my first foray into genuine, hardcore, pure science fiction. The volumes I held in my hand during the fierce New Jersey blizzards outside, huddled under the covers with Nancy (long, long story… maybe some other time) taking turns reading to each other by candlelight, escaping the worlds we were in, envisioning new ones of our own delicately unbalanced, tragically troubled minds and wildly, pharmaceutically overstimulated imaginations.
And best of all – real fucking books. Don’t need batteries or WiFi or eight gigs of RAM. They have real pages waiting to be dog-eared, and texture, and a genuine, tangible interplay to be offered… and that heavenly smell.
Smells like Hemingway and Dickens and Wolfe and Thompson and Cummings and Bronte and both Testaments ….
Kindles? Only one I ever smelled brought to mind a fishing boat.
And Emmie made me a scarf.
I don’t know where she got the yarn, but if I were even an RPH more of a believer, I could swear that bundle had a spell on it of some sort.
Wrapped around my neck I can somehow feel it through my entire body.
Outside and in.
The memories the books brought to me? A few nights over a couple of months over a harsh winter back in 1971.
Over thirty-seven years of memories coursing through the veins of every single fiber of every single strand.
My baby girl made it for me. Just for me. By herself.
Got around to teaching herself how to knit and crochet and made me a scarf. Soft, comforting, soothing, warm and goes perfectly with my L.L. Bean goose down 3/4 length parka. The perfect length, just enough to cover up my vulnerabilities without hogging all the room inside my coat.
All of which is nice, but it’s the memories that make it so special.
My baby girl made it for me. Like the goofy finger-paintings you treasure from your toddler, the macaroni art from your kindergarten scholar, the handmade cards and crafts and balloon-and-paper-mache ornaments from way back when.
Em’s been dealing with some hard times and it seemed to help comfort her to spend some of the better times making me a scarf. Making Liz a comforter. Making the cards and the gift bags and even the ribbons.
Someone can spend a shitload of cash or Visa going all-out, all-in on the extravagances and they’ll make that money back before you forget what it was they surprised you with that year.
You don’t make back the time you put into making something.
And you create memories in the meantime.
Memories of bundling her up when she was tiny, of cuddling her at night when she was cold, Of holding her close when she needed it.
And that scarf, in turn, has her doing the same for me.
It’s softer than almost anything else that comes to mind.
But it’s the feel of having her arms wrapped around me, the same arms she would wrap around my neck when I would carry her to bed late Christmas eve. The arms of the little three-month-old child I carried up into the hills behind our home, hip-deep in snow, on our first Christmas as a family back in Deer Creek Canyon, and thirty-seven years later she has the same warmth, comfort and security to offer me that I had always tried to give her.
It’s just a scarf.
But Emmie made it. For me.
A scarf with over thirty-seven years of memories coursing through the veins of every single fiber of every single strand. It’s a magical spell that will protect me from here on in.
And I will never forget the first time I put it on.
I will never forget that feeling.
It will never lose its magic.
Emmie made it for me.
Once more, for old time’s sake:
Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt & Dolly Parton
from Ms. Harris’ album
Light of the Stable
New Year’s Day 2015, about 1:15AM.
Northern San Joaquin Valley, California.
Our Boxer pup Gracie was up partying till about 12:30AM.
Tossing her toys in the air, playing Solitaire Fetch.
Had to take her out about 12:45AM.
Thermal undershirt, North Face Polartec 300 jacket, LL Bean Goose Down 3/4 length parka and the scarf Emmie made me (and I love it more with every drop in the temperature and rise in the humidity) …
… and for THIS we actually left the Rockies?The pictures from South Fork Deer Creek Canyon were all taken with a Nikon F2, 50mm 1.4 Nikkor lens, incident reading with a Gossen Luna Pro meter. Shot on Kodak Vericolor Professional, ASA 100, processed and printed at The Darkroom in Denver, CO in January 1978. Original 4" X 6" prints were scanned into Corel PaintShop Pro 6 in mid-2014. Mild fade correction and scratch removal were the only processes used in editing. The streaks of light emanating from our neighbors cabin were created by holding a small piece of window screen material held in front of the lens. Necessity, back then, was the mother of creativity.Picture of our daughter, grandson and son was taken with a cheap-ass point-and-shoot 8mp pocket camera, but at least it was a Nikon... okay???