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This is a song of hope.

The last few months haven't been the rosiest around here for me and mine. Let's see -- we've had hurricanes, a layoff, a subsequent job search through a market with all the fertility of a sidewalk, a breast cancer scare, wifey's job cutback, wallet-draining car problems (which, believe it or not, can be traced back to the hurricanes), massive money problems and a marriage drifting in the shallows, heading for the rocks.

I kept thinking, "I've got to catch a break somewhere. Someone's got to give me a chance."

One morning while the house still slept, I made coffee and toasted some bread, exhausted by fear and tears feebly bracketing thin sleep, and the way out crashed in my mind like a box of glass: I'd give myself my own chance.

For the past five years I have tried to earn some sort of tech job above the status of call center flunky, a sad sack just backing up a glitchy automated phone system. Why not try something new? If I'm going to work hard, why not at something I would do for nothing? So I hatched plans for a bakery.

Nothing fancy at first. Ten items tops -- muffins, pastries, Vix's killer cheesecakes and, of course, breads like no one else makes. Breads that make one shout, "Take me now, Jesus, I can go no higher!!"

We scouted out some places, looked in to financing, looked again at our checking account. Hmmm. Either a second job or a new job was in store. A second job was out -- when would I see my family? (RunningHammer: "Who is that man who keeps taking a shower here?") So I started interviewing again, this time with restaurants. I do not at all want to go that route, but I thought of it as shopping for a refresher course before I started my own place.

My reasoning was this: If five years of recent programming, database and varied technical experience can't get me a job, what have I got to lose by brushing the dust off a 10-year old restaurant management resume? Nothing, as it turns out.

I have had nine interviews in the past six weeks, everything from fast food to delis to fine dining. Three of them want me back for second interviews, and I'm not really trying. Hell, I'm too old to care about impressing anyone but myself.

But wait, there's more.

The call center job that I took in October to keep pasta in the pantry and milk in the fridge, the one that promised I'd earn what I did in my last job but is in fact paying thousands less, the one that said I'd be in development or QA after the holidays, has become a place I can't wait to get to in the morning. Like the set of keys found once you've decided to stop searching, it started looking good once my mind was out the door.

Part of it, I'm sure, was the fact that the temp agency sold my contract to the company. No thrilling goose in pay, but the chance for advancement. Until three weeks ago, I started to have doubts about even that. It was bakery or bust as far as I was concerned. Then my boss called me in to her office.

She and some other managers wanted to start a technical services team within the call center, basically taking on all the troubles the reps were having and solving them in the most efficent and effective way possible. She wanted to know if I wanted to be the technical writer for the group. Before I could think about it, I said yes.

"And by the way, do you know anything about building a web site?" she said, adding that she wanted one about the team on the company's intranet.

Honestly, but proudly, I stated I knew just enough HTML to get in trouble.

"The job is yours," she said.

Now I spend my days writing case studies, training manuals, project overviews and summaries, policies and procedures, oddly enough loving every minute of it. My boss and her boss think everything I do is perfect. They accept my ideas as an equal. They have even presented me with another opportunity in a different department at the risk of losing me from theirs because they believe I'm right for the job.

This is the first time in five years I've enjoyed going to work.

Ripples from this reach far shores. Bright waves of my cheerier outlook and the promise of extra cash have pushed the sturdy but battered S.S. Lovejoy and Vixen away from the shoals and toward deeper steady channels. We lucked in to a new car, and I have approved overtime. I have the happy dilemna of deciding between writing and baking.

I've thought about how all this started with a decision to break the inertia, getting pissed off enough to try something that may not work but I don't really give a shit because anything's better than grinding my teeth to nervous stumps. There's a jewel-encrusted web of interdependence that's blinding to even glance at and of which I am probably the undeserving recipient. I am, however, going to keep dancing on the weave.

Today I turn five away from 50. Things are looking up, and there is so much to do, so much to learn. What a difference a year and a week make.

Sure don't know what I'm goin' for
But I'm gonna go for it for sure

Your silent eyes greet me as wolves of indignation.

"You've been drinking again, haven't you?"

Instantly, my mind divides into committees and subcommittees, an elaborate bureaucracy intent on deriving the best possible solution to the situation at hand. The morality of truth is not a consideration. If I tell her flat out, 'No, I haven't been drinking,' will that be proven unrealistic because of the slur in which I deliver the answer? Might I say yes? "And fuck you for asking! This is my life and I'll do what a I please." There is always the diplomatic approach. "Awww, honey, the boss took a few of us out for drinks and I only had a couple."

Fuck this bureaucracy. I have a hard enough time stomaching the tangible and political, let alone the fuckers that reside in my own goddamned head. She knows. She knows the sound of my gentle sober voice. She knows how I lash out from a weak and defensive position. She knows that I never have just a couple. She is in love with me, and she feeds upon my weakness.


12

Numerology has a reputation for being the recourse of the dull-witted or the obsession of the Nostradamus-dick-sucking self-described literati. I tend to dumb things down a bit. I won't even bore you with the pattern recognition evident in the number 12 within our culture. Yes, yes, OUR culture. It really doesn't matter which culture I am in, or subscribe to, because you will find the necessary relevance anyway. It is what you are built to do.

They say that they are baby steps. Just one little step at a time; one day at a time. "This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time." You think that you can do it, such manageable little chunks of information, until you reach another magic number: 4.

"4. Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself."

At first glance, there is no problem. It is only upon close examination of the porous, absorbent nature of the human soul that you begin to realize just how saturated with pain you have become. Your $.99 BIC pen is already shaking with the force of your chakra-tremors as you try to apply pain to paper. Blood would be an appropriate substitute. You read. You say that 'there is nothing here, nothing in this heart of mine, nothing in my relentless mind.' You write. You sweat blood like Christ. You gasp at the Marianas Trench of depth that your soul encompasses.

You come up for air only to realize that you have spent your worth on stained paper. Baby's got the bends. This alone is the greatest accomplishment of your life. So insignificant, and yet the anchor that holds your being to this reality. Your feet are dangling off the precipice of a cliff while your hands grasp this tuft of grass that is your being penned on paper. Material possessions hack soul-coughing spit upon your wasteland. God is your father sitting unshirted on his dated couch, a beer-can in hand, while he shakes his head in disconcertment. You are not special. You will die here too. This is now, and before you is the salvaged beauty of a wrecked home, repaired by the back-breaking labor of a thousand humanitarians bent on saving the whales for the next generation. You are god.

You are shit.

You are you and you are one, indivisible from that which rendered you, complete and desired by the whole of reality.

Somewhere between method and a paycheck I have lost my grasp of good writing. The world, thinks I, doesn't need one more tutor who presents a formulaic and uninspired way of cranking out an essay when one is needed. Yet here I sit, planning what I will wear as I perpetrate the aforesaid.

Good writing is a craft, and like all crafts requires a craftsman (craftsperson? craftswoman?) to sit with it, and patiently allow the time to take care of itself while she/he cares for the words on the page. Rules exist and must be followed: rules governing grammar, rules governing word usage, rules governing the appearance of the page -- and then unspoken rules governing the rhythm, sound, process... the crafter cares about such rules, uses them as tools. The crafter breaks those rules, too, on purpose and for effect.

What I do has nothing to do with that. I sit for an hour, and teach the process of putting pre-digested thoughts to two sides of paper within 25 minutes. This is not writing. This is orthography.

So I have lost sight of the earmarks of quality. All thought, all words seem "just fine" to me. If I can read the words on the page, then I find them perfectly adequate. "oh, fine, fine...let's move on..."

I move on because I am ashamed of my lack of discrimination with words. If I could bring out some spirit...

The rules of writing should be like reigns on a wild horse, like military discipline on a freedom fighter, like deportment on a wild girl. The spirit, the energy, the desire to reach out, lash out, cry out to the world... the rules are there to be the vehicle and the channel. The crafter with a message plays with the formals to create the work. The passion simply poured out on the page conveys only passion. The rules turn it into genius because the forms bridge the gap between the unexpressible figures of the mind and the receptivity of the audience.

The rules without the passion fall flat. The page remains two-dimensional. The reader checks off the little boxes on the rubric and is mechanically satisfied, yet must long for some little jab at his/her own complacency. A reader might want correct expression, but longs for some improper idea to disturb his/her ordered existence.

My mortgage, however, is not going to pay itself. The dog won't forage for his own prey and the phone company isn't patient forever. So I peddle the illusion that good writing is a trained reflex, like a jumpshot. I coach writing, teach the writer to endure the twenty-five minutes like a soccer player paces out the entire half. My soul rebels, my flesh commands.

But I wanted someone to know.

It has been one week now, since my father passed away, and everything feels different in the same way. Or the same in a different way. Words fail me. Am I supposed to be sadder than I am right now?

My mother says it is the little things that get her. Throughout everyday life, we can act as though everything is just fine. We have a safety net; we've braced ourselves. But if something unexpected happens, it hits like an icepick through the chest. And so I go, doing work as I always have, writing code and recompiling and debugging and listening to music on WinAMP when Surrender from Cheap Trick comes on and I am electrocuted, as I remember long trips in our Volkswagen Rabbit with that song on the cassette player. There's no way to describe the feelings other than actual, tangible waves of nostalgia and sadness washing over me. It's a cliche but it's damned accurate.

The day after he died my mom went to go get the messages off the voice mail system. She picked up the phone, absentmindedly, before I could stop her, and right there was his voice: "Good morning, you've reached the Lindsey residence. For John, press 1; Mary Jo, press 2..." That wasn't good. My wife went out and picked up a new answering machine that instant; he had taken the supervisor password for the voice mail system to his grave.

We're still sorting through the remains of my grandfather's estate, and now we have his to go through too, and it feels completely surreal. How can he just be gone? I understand the mechanics of it all in perfect clarity but the human brain just can't grasp the concept of ceasing to exist.

Enough people at the wake told me "he's in a better place" or "it was God's plan" for me to want to scream. I wish I had their faith. I did, once, but it crumbled away as I grew up and I saw all the injustice and pain in the world, and decided that if God does exist, he either doesn't care about us, is completely random in his actions, or is unable or unwilling to help anybody at all. That makes it all the more difficult.

He worked his whole life, and was just starting to get to the point at which he could enjoy the fruits of his labors. The unfairness of it all makes me want to climb a clock tower, and while he would no doubt be the first to remind me that life is not fair, as Calvin so eloquently put it, why can't it ever be unfair in our favor?

I suppose the most frightening part of all of it is this: I have come to the startling realization that, were I to suffer the same fate as he did, it would mean that my life is half over already.

I'm more scared of death than I have ever realized.

Because at night the only real sounds are the shifting of restless sleepers and perhaps tiny music from distant headphones, I've grown accustomed to and even fond of reading by flashlight. In a room or tent full of Marines, night is the only time without distraction, no stray conversations to catch my attention, no violence or boisterous shenanigans, no impending working parties to worry about. Just simple quiet and indefinite duration to absorb the text in front of me.

And the tiny diode makes my surroundings disappear, so that all that exist are the pages floating in darkness.

That feeling has lately been kind of following me into daylight, though: this sensation that everything around me is somehow unreal or insubstantial.

Being here in Kuwait is a weird state of limbo, it doesn't feel like deployment, and so close to home, but not. It's one of those weird in-between places like airports.

The people here, almost all Army and Navy and a few Marine POGs, are so different from the Marines I have lived and worked with for the past seven months, they strike me as almost civilians, with just a hint of military about them. I often forget that they are even there, until I have to interact with one directly.

Paying an Egyptian contract worker Kuwaiti dinar for Kentucky Fried Chicken is an intensely bizarre feeling.

Everyone but the few I came here with, and even some of them, have sort of faded into the background, into scenery. I mostly ignore them and they me. It's not exactly uncomfortable, and only really strange when I notice it, which isn't that often.

I felt it today in the smoke-pit when I realized everyone else there was engaged in conversation with each other except me, and I didn't even know what it (the conversation) was about. It was like they were ghosts, or I was.

Which was fine, really. I continued to ignore them, smoked my cigarette, and looked for stars. I guess we're too near civilization here to see the night sky I've grown used to, but a few hung high, peeking through modernity's electromagnetic haze.

If I stared North hard enough, I could just barely make out the two Dippers, and Draco between them, or at least conjure them in my imagination.

With the mighty dragon's constellation in this weakened state and surrounded only by ghost-people, I grew bold and decided to engage him in conversation.

"Good evening."

"INSIGNIFICANT SPECK. YOUR INSOLENCE IS AMUSING, YET YOUR TINY INSECT VOICE VEXES MY EARS. I SHALL ALLOW YOU THREE QUESTIONS BEFORE I DECIDE WHETHER OR NOT TO TO CRUSH YOU."

I didn't suppose I'd get this chance again any time soon, so I gave it some thought before asking:

"Does it hurt, the fire in your belly?"

"ONLY WHEN I BREATHE."

"If you could put it out, would you?"

I took three drags before he answered, slowly:

"I HAVE ACHED AND BURNED WITH THESE FLAMES SINCE BEFORE YOUR KIND STOOD UPRIGHT. IT BEGAN TO KILL ME BEFORE YOU GREW TONGUES AND KILLS ME A LITTLE MORE EACH TIME I REVOLVE YOUR PUNY WORLD. BUT A DRAGON'S SELF-DESTRUCTIVENESS IS PART OF WHAT HE IS, AND TO LOSE THAT WOULD MERELY BE TO DIE A SMALLER, UGLIER DEATH."

By then I was finished with my cigarette and the air was growing colder while the phantoms around me grew louder, and I didn't particularly feel like being crushed just then, so I slipped away, trudged back to our tent, thinking about dragons and fire and smoke and life and death.

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