All the flowers that you planted in the backyard
I got to work this morning and we were out of coffee. It's always raining in Juneau, so I went across the street to the nearby organic grocery store instead of walking into town to my favorite coffee shop.
The espresso machine station was unmanned, so I had to tap on the counter and say, "hello," loudly to get someone's attention. When she came over the organic coffee lady noticed my consternation.
"How can I help you?"
"I need a latte of any form," I said to her, not wanting to have a litany of organic coffee choices to come between me and the morning cup.
"You're in the right place," she said. She commenced creating a latte. While she was working she said, "Where do you usually get your coffee?"
"Usually I just go to Safeway and bring a pound to work. But I was away for a while and when I got back there was none..." Why was I talking so much? Why was I going through such detail?
"Do you buy organic coffee?"
Usually, I buy the coffee with the cool native Alaskan art on the package. I figure if the natives sell it, it must be appropriate. I'm helping the native tribes. This is what we're supposed to do up here, is it not?
Organic? It's not inorganic. It's a plant product. It comes from trees. It must be carbon-based and besides, it's great tasting. If they use pesticides to make it taste that way, then give me more. Double dose of anti-coffee weevil powder for me. I'm just not all that concerned. I have the mighty Manitou on my side with every cup.
"Yes, organic. I buy Heritage. The house blend."
She sucked in a breath as if she'd just stuck her feet into ice water.
"That's not organic."
Then what is it, an alien contrivance? A micromachined beverage consisting of tiny particles of self-organizing platinum, uranium, and thorium?
"Oh," I said, obviously caught in the commission of a mortal sin against baby seals. God hates me now. Nothing under the Christmas tree for me on December 25th.
"The nearest Starbucks is about 800 miles away," I said, trying to change the subject.
She didn't bite. "Our coffee is fair trade. It's shade grown. It's organically raised."
"In Alaska?" I said, thinking to ask what it got on the SATs. Had it been admitted to UC Berkeley? Did it know the important opening steps to the Argentinian tango?
"Colombia, I think," she said and I muttered that they probably use it to pack around the shipments of cocaine.
She put the top on the cup and pushed it my way. Raised an eyebrow. "$3.50."
Imagine my grandfather paying $3.50 for a cup of coffee. In his day, a cup of coffee cost a nickel, with refills.
I gave her a fiver. She made change saying, "No chemicals," and I wondered if I'd be able to taste the ground weevils. I pocketed the change.
"Be sure to come back," she said, and I sipped the coffee. "I do appreciate your business." The shade-grown caffeine hit my blood stream flooding me with shame and self-loathing.
Why was I disparaging this person's coffee? A latte cost $3.00 at Starbucks. Had I said the things I thought? Was I practicing my free-speech, say-what's-on-your-mind openness everyone said they appreciated in people they admired but everyone knows is self-centered insensitivity to the feelings of others?
She was a smiley thin lady with long gray hair tied in a pony tail down her back. Her eyes were deep blue and I imagined her as a little girl walking home from school through the woods, barefoot, her books tied together with a purple plastic belt, a stray beagle following her home. I took another sip and smiled at her, my first smile of the day.
It occurred to me I should apologize, but I couldn't.
"Thank you," I said. As I pushed the door open with my shoulder I held up the cup in a salute and said, "Therapy."
"It's here when you need it," she said, beaming in that organic tie-dye way that made all men love the girl next door more than they could love Sophia Loren in a blouse soaked with Mediterranean salt water.
Sophia was an idea, while you could marry the girl next door.
Some days, she'd make you coffee and tend to your wounds, the bruises and splinters and cuts you suffered making your way through the world.
I went to a therapist and she said, "You should write everything down."
I said, "Everything?"
"Just jot it down. When you think about something, write it."
"Like a list?"
"Any way you want. Write it down and then crumple it up and throw it away, and all your troubles will go away with the trash."
"Really? Just like that?"
"It's a technique."
"It can't be that easy. I'd have heard about it before."
"It's not magic. It's just a technique."
"Sounds kind of silly to me."
"But honestly, I don't see how it can work."
"And I'm supposed to wind up happy?"
"Give it a try."
Big Huge Mistakes
- Not trying harder at athletics as a child
- Not tossing a baseball around with my father
- Not trying harder to get into MIT
- Not trying harder to get into Princeton
- Not trying to get into Cal Tech
- Not staying in AP Calculus at U of M
- Believing my father when he said I shouldn't work on my own car
- Not believing which college I went to would be important for the rest of my life
- Dropping my scholarship at U of M and going back north in 1978
- Not joining SDA in 1983, staying New Jersey instead
- Selling Intel Short in 1987
- Missing my middle daughter's 2nd birthday for a business trip to Japan
- Leaving our neighborhood in North Carolina to move back to Cal
- Not playing football at Mater Dei HS
- Spending 10 years at Cadence, working 50-80 hours per week, missing my kids growing up
- Not buying the most expensive house I could afford, and buying one that would only require a conservative mortgage
- Not selling every share of stock I had in 1998 when my father had a dream I should
- Two failed startup companies, laying off all my friends, twice.
- Not fighting harder to get into AP Biology at Marian Catholic
- Not going for a PhD
- Not having the guts to ask Cathy Murphy to Homecoming, 1975
- Avoiding conflict when I could have helped
- Not using my skills to resolve the fraternal conflict
- Not believing in myself : hesitancy
- Believing too much in myself : ego
- Selling EMC too soon
- Not sticking with classical piano lessons
- Not being there when my father died
- Not buying Yahoo in 1999
- Holding on to Extreme Networks
- Letting my marriage decay to nothingness, and not believing it could be fixed
- Not insisting on more family vacations
- Not learning to dance as a kid
- Not accepting when Cathy Murphy asked me to the Homecoming dance
- Not realizing that the smallest atom of self-confidence is self-perpetuating and extraordinarily useful
- Only believing the bad news
- Not listening to enough jazz
When I got home from work there was a guy standing in my driveway. He was wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. His blonde-gray hair flayed out in all directions, as if some kind of human head fire had got frozen in place by the extinguishing foam and he'd never washed it out.
Serial killer material.
But it's Alaska, so I wasn't worried, and if it was my time to die, so be it.
Just to be sure, I grabbed the garden shovel with my free hand as I walked from the garage into the standard Juneau pouring rain.
Have you seen the water?
I put down my briefcase. Water. Gripped the shovel with both hands, which caught his attention. This man was not getting wet while my briefcase began to melt.
"Come 'ere," he said, turning away, heading toward the beach. And then over his shoulder. "I'm Cody. I live next door."
"I'm Joe," I said. "I'm new here."
"I know," he said, stopping at land's end. He pointed to an obvious oil slick that made the beach smell like the inside of a poorly kept garage.
"Wow," I said. "Boating accident?"
I pushed a couple rocks with the shovel blade, observing the tell-tale rainbow. Oil on water. Exxon Juneau.
"It's heating oil. Smell it?" I couldn't miss it but I can't distinguish the delicate aromatic differences between gasoline and refined home heating oil.
"Some house tank has sprung a leak," Cody said.
He pointed to some rocks further along the shore that were directly opposite from my house. "It's coming from there." We walked to a spot where a dribble of clear pungent liquid spurted into the ocean.
"Noticing any smells in your basement?" he asked, and I hadn't. "But it's still probably you."
"So what do I do? The owners live in Seattle and the woman I sublet from is in New York for the rest of the month."
"Call the oil company. Call the Coast Guard," he said. And he walked away.
When the Coast Guard showed I thought they'd pull up in a cutter. Instead, they came by pickup truck. Petty Officer Clark handed me a piece of paper that looked like a traffic ticket. He said, "Alaska Airlines pilots have been reporting this slick for weeks. We got calls from Ward Air and a couple ferry captains. We couldn't find the source, till now."
I figured he was happy with me. I'd helped them find the source, and now that it was located, we could fix it.
The paper said I would be charged $32,500 per day for every day an effort was not made to remediate the situation.
It was signed by Officer Clark on behalf of the Federal Government of the United States of America.
Some moments later, Scot from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation showed up and handed me a similar paper, saying I would be fined a minimum of $15,000 for not maintaining my home properly and thus polluting Alaska's pristine waterways.
"But it's not my house," I said. "I just rent."
"Nobody's here but you," Scot said. "Call this number. Environmental consultants. They're not cheap, but it's your only hope." And he gave me a phone number verbally.
I thought to myself: this screwed up state. This twisted, irrelevant place. Keep your goddamned eagles and bears and stupid melting glaciers. You don't deliver my mail and I have to go through three levels of telephone security to order a pizza.
But you bastards don't know where I live in California. You don't have my address, and I haven't even signed a rental agreement.
I went inside. I picked up the phone. Alaska Airlines' phone number was speed dial 7. I pulled out my Visa. I could probably get to Seattle on the redeye, and then anywhere else the next morning.
What I thought about today
- My life would be different if I could sing like Chris Cornell
- Anything labeled "Vince Guaraldi" is good
- When wives and husbands stop communicating, they may as well divorce
- A father never abandons his children
- If I tried harder, I would be a great piano player
- It is easier to make money at things you love than things you dislike doing. But you have to love some form of work, or you're stuck.
- If I tried harder, I would be a great writer
- Not sleeping with all the women who propositioned me over the years was always a really good decision
- It's nearly always a waste of time trying to correct someone who stereotypes you.
- Habitually doing something you love will almost always freak out your dependents if it detracts from generating an income.
- Everyone thinks he or she is a moderate, and the rest of the world is more extreme.
- It is almost always the case that nothing is being said about you behind your back.
- Never deny anyone the right to make his own mistakes
- Pain is a guaranteed fact of life. It's best to learn to deal with it than to spend too much energy avoiding it.
- It is not true that you eventually have to confront and fight the playground bully. But if you don't, thirty years later, you will find yourself in a coffee shop reading the newspaper, suddenly wishing you had.
- Bravery is a form of insanity. The only difference between the brave and the stupid is the context and the outcome of the action
- Nobody believes he is brave, but everyone believes he's been stupid
- While the results of some actions are obvious, it is impossible to say what you will regret having done ten years from now.
- When you tally the moments of your life you will find you have been happier for longer by living under the illusion everything is going to work out fine
- Goals are the means by which life's efforts can be directed. Directed lives are more interesting to lead than undirected lives. Otherwise, goals have no purpose.
- From birth, everyone yearns for attention, which is why most people would like to be heroes or movie stars or authors. The human race is not generally improved by the acquisition of attention.
- The amount of trouble in your life is not decreased by wealth. It simply changes form.
- Though everyone would argue this point, not one thinking person wants to live happily ever after.
- Irrespective of how little classical music (or jazz) resonates with you, if you learn to play it, you can play anything else you want. There is no way to learn to be a really good pianist studying only popular music.
- It is impossible to mitigate your risk to zero, nor would you want to.
- There have been negative repercussions every time I've lost control of my emotions
- I have wasted too much time worrying.
- More often than not, I have been lucky
- Getting married and having children was a very good thing
- I will always have less than my friends, and they will always feel I have more than they do.
- The music you like has a lot to do with what was happening in your life the first time you heard it.
- There is no way for an individual to internalize the consequences of an action which will persist for longer than he has been a rational adult. This is why sentencing children as adults is the work of selfish, frightened, uneducated minds.
- Everyone needs a brilliant, unattainable goal. Life without one is tedium.
- You can get anything you want in this life. It's a question of how far you're willing to go.
I think mistakes only exist in context -- that there is a bigger picture in which anything can be viewed as positive or non-important.
People who believe in heaven generally don't believe that.
Warren Zevon has been dead for three years. The last song on his last CD is called "Keep Me in Your Heart"
If I was dying of cancer, I'd probably ask the same thing.
I don't miss the south pole. Nor the cold. The ice. I don't miss the ice people who cast themselves adrift in that isolated bubble of heat. That lonely black dot on the sea of endless white, all that is living in a single pixel on the polar plateau, the image artifact, the stain on Gabriel's robe.
I am trying very hard to remember what it's like being there thinking: "What ever made me want to come here?"
I last saw Brien Barnett in the galley at the south pole station. He gave me a hug and promised to write.
I knew he wouldn't. It's not like a vacation, wintering at pole. It's a divorce from the reality of civilized men and entrance to tabula raza. At pole the mind wanders. It's hard to concentrate. You reach for your dinner and find yourself inside a dream. At pole you can't escape that your thoughts are all that separate you from never having been born.
When God said, "Let there be light," the south pole appeared. Behind it is the void. After it is everything we've become.
I was on the same flight to the ice with Brien. But I left after three weeks. He hasn't come up since. Planes can't land for another two months.
Brien has my picture on his website, taken in the Pole station galley right before I left for the north. The caption says I am a good writer.
I am very happy to be known that way at the edge of the earth. They can see the dragons from there. UFO pilots wave as they descend into the entrance to the earth's core. When the air is cold enough to freeze the breath to dry ice, they scamper to that geographic pinpoint stark naked in the loveless night.
If I was a good writer I could make you feel what it's like to stand there naked, dying, your near death experience spent planning how to get back from the light to the warmth in which lies the remainder of your years.
Everything is different.
Some Good Things About Me
I went to the doctor and guess what he told me?
He said, "Boy you better try to have fun no matter what you do."
But he's a fool
Why am I such an idiot
? Why am I such a soft touch? Why do I let myself be the brunt of jokes and pretend I like it - that I'm okay being made fun of as long as no one else is?
Why did I call the environmental consultants instead of booking my way out of this blithering Arctic insane asylum?
"Three hundred dollars an hour - and I don't know if I can get there for a couple days."
"Bruce, I got five Coast Guard guys and three guys from the DEC here right now. They're probably going to arrest me unless you show."
I thought he'd say he wanted a thousand bucks an hour, and I would have told him it was fine.
"You take Visa?"
"You gotta be kidding. Cash."
I'd just been to the cash machine. I had $120 in my pocket. Good for, I dunno, twenty-five minutes of his time or so.
"How you gonna pay?"
"They only let you take $200 at a time."
"Then what can I tell you? Don't come. Stay home. Sorry I called."
I was going to hang up, but he sighed. It was resignation. As if I had just won an argument I didn't know I was having. And then, I didn't want to be the one who hung up first after the guy from the state government had all but demanded I call this guy.
"How big is your tank?" he asked.
"How the hell do I know? I didn't even know there was one. I thought we were on natural gas."
"How many fifty-five gallon drums you have?"
"You gotta be kidding."
"And you probably don't have a fuel pump."
"Just sold the last one to the Russian mafia."
"Ok. Ok. Just hang on there, Joe. We'll be out."
"You'll be out?"
"Gimme an hour. First I gotta go to Delta, get the pump. Then I got to go over to Phil's and pick up the drums. John's probably the guy who delivers to you out there. He'll know the size of the tank. We'll pump it dry, and that should stop the flow to the beach. Are the coasties there? All they care about is the bay. We stop the flow to the bay, they're off your back."
"But I don't have a thousand bucks in cash on me."
"It's okay. I know where you live. Keith still own that house?"
"Yeah," I said, "But he's in Seattle."
"It's a good family," he said. "I went to school with Dave and Judy. Is Scot there? Lemme talk to him."
I went outside and handed Scot the phone. He said, "Bruce, yah. If you can get this thing pumped, we can start a remediation tomorrow..."
And they went on to talk for about half an hour.
When he was done with Bruce, Scot led me to the beach, to where the oil was coming out. We set up an oil boom. Deployed some hydrophilic pads that absorb hydrocarbons but repel water. Wiped down rocks. Pulled up grass. Made an oil sump of stones.
This is how a cleanup is done.
Bruce brought Phil over. They drained the tank into eight 55-gallon drums. Then they cut the underground tank into pieces.
While we worked, Scot told me about his work earlier this year on the tanker that almost went down in the Bering Sea. The spill in Barrow, and recently, on the Japanese car carrier that capsized. He was in his late 50's, and was enjoying his military retirement by keeping the Alaska coastline clean.
"At least you're outside," I said.
"You know it," he said, and I knew this was a guy who hadn't spent more than two days behind a desk his entire career. He didn't even like sitting inside to eat dinner.
By 11:30PM we finished. He seemed happy with his work.
"You work this late every night?" I asked him.
"When I have to."
We kept 400 additional gallons of heating oil out of Auke Bay. Irrespective of whether or not I stayed in Alaska, at least I knew I had done one good thing here.
"I'll be back tomorrow around 8," he said, and the fact I had to be at work by then was irrelevant. The coasties were going to be back then, too. I had to prove the cleanup was underway.
There was still time to make the redeye to Seattle.
"You know, I don't even have one day's fines for this mess," I said. "I used to have money, but things happened. Most of my money is gone. I don't even really have a house or a family anymore. I guess you can always attach my salary."
"Don't worry about it, Joe," he said, getting into his car. "This is a normal spill for Juneau. You did the right thing calling everyone right away."
"But the Coast Guard..."
"I'll talk to them in the morning. Just be here. I have a few more things we need to do. Then everyone will be happy."
For everyone to be happy. What more could I want?
This is the way it's going to be.
We're losing daylight. Four less daytime minutes every day. In two weeks the day and night will be the same length. And then darkness takes over.
While I was taking something out of my garage, something fast and gray moved through the forest near the house. Silently. As if it waited until I turned to see it before running.
The stalks of tall ferns moved as it pushed its way into the damp darkness.
Wolf? Fox? Bear? Porcupine?
Too big to be anything other than a bear, too gray to be a bear.
This is the way it's going to be. Someone else owns this forest, this bay. The Haida put totems in the forest. Carved faces on the trees. Spirals and hieroglyphs on the boulders.
Gray thing communicates, but I don't speak its language. You gotta know how to listen with something other than ears.
The dog barks all night long, peering into void between the long stalks of devil's club and skunk cabbage. There have been plenty of books, movies, traditions passed down, stories told over camp fires. The forest is bigger than we can ever be. Things live there that let us live here.
When my youngest daughter was here we walked down the road through the trees and the clouds hung in the high branches. She said it was like the clouds were attacking. Like a horror movie.
I had always thought it looked pretty. And then I saw the gray form in the woods. At least as tall as me. Didn't make enough noise for something that size. Moved too fast. Made a sound like distant voices.
I don't know the name of the one who owns this part of the earth. The Tlingit say you have to have lived here and met it, and lived under its protection and felt its wrath. No one speaks the name. You learn it when it tells you, and then you keep it to yourself. It is a right of passage. It is a way to earn eternal something from transient life.
Things I'm Afraid Of
- Being alone
- Being unloved
- Being forgotten
- Being unneeded
- Being misunderstood
- That none of this made any difference
My landlord came home. Together, we mopped up all the remaining oil from the ground water. This was not a joyful task, which consisted mainly of putting hydrophillic pads into the septic tank and yanking them out, filled with heating oil and dripping half-digested human waste, at least half of which came from my own body.
We wrung the pads out with a clothes wringer - one of those things with two cylinders that turn against each other with a crank. We got about 40 gallons of offal-infused heating oil. Put it in a 55 gallon drum and sent it for processing.
This is the good thing everyone wanted. Everyone seemed happy.
Scot came back several times. So did Bruce and Phil and the coasties. We served donuts and coffee. We cleaned up Alaska.
I didn't tell anyone about the big gray thing I saw in the woods, or the sound it made when it went by. Maybe it was prepping to write me a ticket of its own. Maybe it was happy with the remediation efforts so it went back to its home in the mildew dimension.
The salmon have stopped running. They're all dead. Only the eggs remain.
Bears are just about ready to begin hibernation.
This is the way it's going to be, for I don't know how long.