Oh, no. All the people working at this coffee shop are different than before my trip. How did they grow new a new batch of baristas in just two weeks? Is that the collective noun - a “batch”? Or is a “frap” or baristas?
One of my Joes get murried right before My Not-Very-Hurried Southern trip. One of my Joes lost his dad this weekend. I thought of him when my mom asked me to take a walk around the lake with her. I’d been planning to have a Loner Weekend, slowly acclimating to “real life” (spoiler alert: life is always real). But I took an hour to connect with a parent in honor of my pal Joe.
Joe is a journeyman. He started in the same working-class town/high school as me and eventually left to explore the outside world and his own inner world. He has certifications in things that I can’t pronounce. I am drawn to Joe because he knows things that I don’t know. I think of Joe when I buy too much candy or when I eat meat when other options were available. He’s not preachy; he just tells the truth. Joe is in my song “My Grass Is Greener.” At that time, he was flying to India “pretty soon.” These days, he can tell ya about it.
At home, I changed my default coffee to black, I switched from ice cream to no-sugar-added frozen coconut milk, stopped buying beer. I cut out most starchy foods when I was twenty-three. I’m on my way to health, but I’m not there yet. It’s partly America’s fault but it’s mostly mine.
When I was seventeen, I started limping. It was my new thing and I just went with it. Like I wanted to be able to say later on that “I was an old man before it was cool.” Then I had back pain and shoulder pain. I had this pain most days of twelfth grade and the duration of my disjointed college career. I remember working at Payless ShoeSource and laying flat on the bathroom floor in an attempt to get some relief from the back pain. I don’t think I was ever able to convince the manager I wasn’t in there taking drugs. Those of you who have diseases with invisible symptoms know what I’m talking about.
During periods of self-discipline, I would stretch every morning. This helped. An emergency-level case of iritis when I was 21, however, brought things fully into focus. One eye turned slowly red, a red fog slowly traveling left to right. Then it was in the other eye. In George W. Bush-era America, I didn’t have health care, so I just waited. Once it was at an emergency level, I drove myself to an eye specialist. Even the drive was a challenge since I could barely see. I tried to get state assistance since I couldn’t pay out-of-pocket for insurance. I’ll never forget how viciously the clerk mocked me for having my mom assist me. Remember that I couldn’t see well during this period. America is a cruel place for people who don’t have deep pockets.
However, the ophthalmologist, Dr. Keenan, jumped through hoops to help me. As if my red eyes were my body’s Check Engine light. Through bloodwork and x-rays, it was found that my iritis was being triggered by a disease called ankylosing spondylitis. My body was trying to destroy itself. The rheumatologist at Einstein Medical Center initially wasn’t taking me seriously and didn’t even order x-rays. Once she saw the x-rays (which I ordered myself), she went into Overcompensation Mode. They gave me a drug called Enbrel which I was supposed to inject into my body every few weeks. I don’t think they asked me; it was just at my door the next day.
I spent some time reading about the drug. I was supposed to take it along with a horse pill-sized version of ibuprofen. I read about the side effects and opted, instead, for a diet change that a European doctor stumbled upon in the ‘70s and about which many AS/Crohn’s sufferers were enthusiastic. Low-starch. Pfizer can’t patent an “eat healthier” pill, so the doctors don’t mention it. But it worked.
I feel considerably better at 31 than I did at 21. I’m not sure if I’ve ever emailed Dr. Kennan to say thanks, but I’ll do it now.
Writing with my morning coffee. This is great. I should do this every morning. Even the mornings when I don’t feel like it. Hell, that’s when I’ll REALLY tell the truth!
Now I’m thinking about another tall, charismatic friend of mine. Righteous. I don’t care if you think I’m gay for these people. I can’t control what you think. Actually, it pleases me to realize how much I admire my male friends. I recently gave my sister an old cell phone of mine and she noticed that the Address Book had a disproportionate amount of women’s names. It made me… wonder about myself. I felt better when I realized she was looking at my Address Book as it existed in 2011, the year when I was fresh off a massive heartbreak and perusing OkCupid when I should’ve been perusing forests, my notebook, and my guitars. These days, my Address Book is more balanced, my motivations being more, uh, fully-clothed.
Anyway, Righteous is a goddamn genius. I think of him and I picture a three-story office building full of companies and he’s the CEO of all of them. Do you know people like that? I call those people Onion Brains - people who continuously reveal new layers of their personalities and never seem to get to the last one. I feel a little bit like that sometimes, too. Thirty-one years is enough time to be a lot of people. I’m in the mood to be creative with Joe and/or Righteous. The three of us are an interesting forty-two guys.
I think I read that my name means “Observer.” I wonder if that part of my personality is part of why I can get disconnected from myself and my own journey so easily. ‘Cause I’m looking out more than in. Writing has always been my best gateway to my true self. I don’t have to worry about my vibe clashing with my conversation partner’s, since my partner is a piece of white paper. Somewhere online, I read a girl saying how attractive she finds guys who still write in a book with a pencil in 2014. I prefer black, leaky pens. Of course, if my laptop didn’t weigh so much, I might write with it.
This paper notebook DOES have a great feature that the laptop doesn’t: NOTHING! No icons, no Pokes, no crashes, no dying battery. If it gets rain on it, it just make the text look drippy and trippy.
Writing’s a challenge in that I have to connect to me. That can be harder than connecting to wi-fi. Freewriting is a gateway to a panoramic view of one’s mind. Maybe tripping does that, too. Haven’t tried. When I was writing during my Southern trip, I was interested in writing scenes from the movie of those two weeks. Now I’m home with all the beauty and baggage, dreams and nightmares that I associate all these towns with.
After only two weeks, I got to a point where I could barely remember what I did in my life back home. Now I remember. I leave! I say hello to the family cats, watch Craig Ferguson, bathe, fill up my water bottle, and leave.
I get a lot of joy from living out of a bag or two. Maybe it goes back to some of the more uncomfortable moments of childhood. The idea that I can just grab my backpack and leave. I loved coming home after two weeks and seeing my stuff, but I also loved seeing how much stuff I DON’T have. I have clothes, records, books, videos, knickknacks, a mannequin, stereo, bed, TV, guitar amp, my grandpa’s old Gibson, electric piano, creepy paintings, a safe with old photos/greeting cards/lyric manuscripts, minimal recording gear. That’s about it. I like to donate an old shirt every time I get a new one. I keep things moving. I gave away all my CDs last year. Everything I own has some reason for being there.
I have some kind of fixation with keeping a minimal amount of things. I felt this way before I had a house fire. Like I want to be able to uproot at a moment’s notice. I guess it might be a fear of getting stuck in a town that’s low on both culture and nature.
Where I live, people get mad if you sing your own song. Where I live, nature closes at 6.
So I leave. My favorite escape is Newtown. It’s right up the road. I sing along to some songs on the radio and then I’m there. It has my favorite park and it has a beautiful, walker-friendly downtown. My new friends The Crockers live there, as do my friends The Jollys. Sometimes I sit in front of the library (from 1760) and read. Sometimes I sit in front of America’s oldest movie theater (1831) and write. It has a used record/book shop that smells intoxicatingly old. It has a shop called Zebra Striped Whale that carries coffee, tea, and dessert and it’s impossible to be sad inside it. I think it’s purple but it might be yellow. When you’re inside, you feel like you’re in a children’s book with great illustrations. At home, I drink out of a mug that has a painting depicting their building and the purple building next to it. Colorful cartoon people are milling about, a dude is playing guitar for some girls, the sky is blue.
When I’m in Newtown, it’s just me and the old stone buildings and it doesn’t matter what era it is. I’m floating through like a ghost and I only have to be a person with an identity on the rare occasion I run into a friend. It’s nice to hang out downtown and be an observer. That’s not the town I wake up in, but that’s my downtown.
When I was dating Megan, my time spent in Newtown was a bit of a culture shock. It’s not just that the people and buildings were dressed better. I figured out the difference later on. Some of the people who grew up where I grew up questioned whether or not they would have a future. Most of the people who grew up in Newtown only questioned WHAT their future would be. That’s big.
I’ve known a lot of Meg[h]ans. I guess it’s an Irish thing. There have been a total of five Meg[h]ans in my Address Book. I kissed all the Meg[h]ans I met before Marcella and none of the Meg[h]ans I met after I met her. The Megan who lived here showed me around town. Mostly places open to the public. A few that weren’t. No matter which bar we’d walk into, everyone said hi to her. I only found that disturbing in retrospect. She was an introvert who was also the life of the party. A drunken romantic. She carried a blue notebook and used her left hand. Our hair, eyes, music, and humor also matched. She always spoke like she’d just smoked a bowl of exceptionally mellow weed. Which she might have.
Imagine if jazz was a person. I dated jazz.
I missed her desperately for a long time. I wrote an album about her. I kept one photo. She’s covering her mouth and looking at me with the intense eyes of a shell-shocked person who knew she was about to let her guard down and take a chance. I don’t miss her anymore. I remember her like a fascinatingly beautiful movie I watched a long time ago but never bought on Blu-ray.
I was once known around town as the guy who was dating Megan. Now I’m the guy dating Marcella. She’s even shorter. Marcella’s more of a brunch gal than a tavern gal. They know us well at Pat’s Colonial Kitchen. We should pop in soon so they know we’re OK. I’ve been lucky to be her guy for over two years. It’s been a chaotic time for both of us and we have been sources of strength for one another. A warm blanket. I supported her when she had brain surgery last year. I’ll never forget the look on her face when they were about to wheel her into the surgery room, but I’ll also never forget the way I whispered our secret nonsense song into her ear and I made her laugh through the tears. That moment is representative of our relationship.
We met exactly one week after my house burned down. And that fire was about two days after I returned home from my dad’s house, where I’d been staying to help him recover from a series of strokes. His long-term girlfriend left him shortly after this. I was optimistic that he would take this opportunity to have a fresh start and regain his health. It broke my heart to see that he didn’t. Marcella would tell me over and over again that other people’s health is ultimately not my responsibility. I have trouble with that. I want to inspire. I want to fix things. Nick Crocker says that, too. “I’m a fixer.”
It was a heavy time and I did lose myself to some extent. I wrote a bunch of songs in the days leading up to my dad’s strokes and the last one arrived the day it happened. That was it. I shut down. I squeezed out one song to play at JC Dobbs that summer, but it reminds me of how emotionally clouded I was at the time and it makes me uncomfortable. This was the same summer that I got the call about my Uncle Joe. Leukemia. Fifty days. I don’t know how I would’ve made it through that period without Marcella.
Or Lido The Pug. The moments of rolling around in bed with those two creatures are some of the happiest times of my life. In the first two years, we traveled to Centralia (home of the famous underground mine fire), Hershey, Annapolis, Topsail Island (twice), Chapel Hill (twice), Nashville, Louisville, Lancaster, and Nashua.
She’s from an Italian restaurant family and each meal they give me is better than the last. Coming from a household of three, it was overwhelming to meet her extensive extended family. So many syllables and so many nicknames. And physical displays of affection?? This was all new. My people are repressed and weird and proud of it. I think. These people are different and I grew to love them. It was hard not to.
Since Marcella’s been in my life, I’ve periodically ordered salad with legs in it. On purpose. Since Marcella’s been in my life, I’ve felt loved continuously. The last girlfriend rocked my world when the weather was perfect. Marcella has rocked my world during torrential downpours.
Strength is not a barbed wire tattoo and a car that makes the loudest farty sounds in town. You can’t buy strength at the mall. Marcella has strength. Four rounds of chemo and then SHINGLES shows up. Worst of all, she has to look at MY ugly mug a few times a week!
I liked how Neil Young’s book had a positive tone. He didn’t shy away from rough stories, but his focus was on people who helped him be great. I’d been spending a lot of time being angry at people who didn’t give me as much as I gave them. Being angry didn’t help me accomplish any goals. Without knowing a shred of info about me, the lady at Hunga Bunga Java told me to get rid of all the negativity in my life. “Only do things that make you happy.”
I like when people go through dark times and keep their joy. I think I am writing again partly because I’ve shed some of my anger and that’s allowed me to access some deeper levels of joy. I’m also writing because I finally realized I have to throw the cell phone in my backpack if I want to focus. I hope you do what you have to do to connect to your joy, too.
Well, it’s 8:54 PM, so I guess I’m finished with my morning coffee now. (Thanks, coffee.)