On Knowing Your Limits – Lessons from the 49th State

On my climb up Flat Top Mountain a few days ago, I paused to snap the below photo of the moon slung low in the Alaskan sky. Just after capturing the image I slipped, fell and slid into a craggy ravine. In the process I hurt my ankle quite severely and found myself unable to move. Colder and colder with every passing moment, I began to grow worried. Could I survive the night, or would I freeze to death?

Shivering in the moonlight, I had the good fortune of being attacked by a small brown bear. With a quick, deftly placed chop I sent fear straight into the heart of the beast. As he scampered away, I grabbed firmly at his hindquarters and pulled his furry coat from his body in one fell swoop. I used the pelt to cover up and must admit, I’ve never enjoyed a deeper, more sound night of slumber than I did that night on the frigid peak of Flat Top.

When I woke the next morning my ankle still throbbed. Fighting through stabbing pain, I hobbled over to a moose feeding nearby. Three seconds of intense, fearless eye contact won me the trust of the behemoth, after which I quickly mounted the moose and rode her down the mountainside, hands clutching at each of her respective ears throughout the descent. Despite my urging the moose north, toward downtown Anchorage, she took me instead straight west, to the ocean’s shore. I climbed down from her back and gave the willful creature a thankful rub about the neck, then stood on the snowy beach, bear pelt draped over my shoulders, and watched the setting sun.

In the distance, the spouting of a humpback whale caught my eye. Sensing opportunity, I dove without hesitation into the icy waters and swam as I’ve never swam before in the direction of the blast of breath. I paddled out a few hundred yards and finally, on the brink of exhaustion, caught my new mammalian friend by his enormous cleft tail and held on for dear life. He swam us swiftly north, in the direction of my hotel.

Nearing downtown but nearly one half mile from the coast, I gave one firm tug on the the humpback’s tail and managed to inspire just the reaction I desired. Like a horse swatting at a pesky fly, the giant baleen flicked his tail and catapulted me up out of the water and careening toward dry land. As I flew through the arctic air I was overcome with fear. Perhaps I’d acted imprudently – certainly this landing would cause more injury than my initial stumble down the mountainside. No sooner did I begin to fret than a screeching rang out on the cold, thin air, and a bald eagle swooped down from the heavens, grabbing me gently by my shoulders. The regal bird struggled admirably to support my weight, it’s long curved wings flapping thunderously in defiance of gravity. Slowly we descended, and from a dozen feet above dry land the bird released me. I fell into the soft embrace of a powdery snowbank where I was immediately overcome with dire hunger and thirst.

Ankle soothed by the extreme cold of the ocean waters, I made haste to the nearest watering hole. Sensing my need for nourishment and warmth, the barkeep offered me a steaming cup of hot black coffee and a meal of eggs, toast and sausage made from yak. How could I resist?

But alas, here’s where this otherwise happy tale takes a turn toward the unfortunate. Sadly, the yak sausage and I did not agree. Instead, the meat brought about an ache in my belly as fierce as the Alaskan wind. Yak is, well, not for everyone, I guess.

And so it is that I have the Last Frontier, the 49th State, to thank for yet another lesson learned in life. That lesson: if you come to Alaska, or set about on any adventure, whatsoever, I suppose, you must know your limits.

I’m grateful to have learned this on the front leg of my journey. In just a few days, I embark on my solo ascent of Mt. Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America, a summit that no man or woman has ever ascended on their own. Taking heed of my recent learnings, I will temper my ambitions to my own personal limits. Reindeer sausage I will carry in plenty, but I will pack nary a bite of yak meat. Fool me once, as the old saying goes…

I’ll see you from the top of the continent, friends.

A large moon in the Alaskan sky.

Before my fall, I captured this picture of the moon low slung in the Alaskan sky.

Mama’s Boy

When I was a kid my friends (and my not-friends) used to make fun of me by calling me Mama’s Boy. It was devastating. Cut me to the core. Absolutely leveled me.

But nowadays, there’s perhaps nothing that would make me prouder than if people – friends and not-friends alike – called me Mama’s Boy. Of course I’m a Mama’s Boy. How could I not be? My mom is a strong, smart woman. She’s been great at every job she’s ever had. She’s principled. She’s consistent. Measured. Loving. Patient. She’s been there for me every single time I needed her. She’s an awesome listener. She’s an All-Universe caliber conversationalist. She’s got a cool head and even temper, but she’s no pushover.

My mom, like so many of the women I’ve come to know in my 37 trips around the sun, is better and more capable than I am. Plain and simple.

After all this time maybe I’m not a Mama’s Boy… maybe I’m a Women’s Man? That’s fine with me. Act right, fellas. Join the club.



Are you filled with alarm
and even slight disgust
that my breath smells bad
from time to time – 
perhaps because I am dehydrated,
or have putrid food 
stuck in the crevices
between my rotting teeth – 
but probably both?

Have you grown tired
of encountering my socks 
strewn about the floor
with no regard for future company,
or past requests 
that I place them in the hamper
instead of kicking them off my feet
wherever I get comfortable?

Does it annoy you
more than anything I’ve ever done
that I floss
with a small white plastic pick
as we recline on our leather day bed
and watch a mini series
depicting the trials and tribulations of one 
Orenthal James Simpson, 
however insightful my point may be
about how they miscast Cuba Gooding Jr, 
a man too small in stature
to play the Juice?

My cousin has a theory
that every four years 
couples should call it quits
and start over again
with someone new.
By then all his best material 
is stale;
that which made him
charming at the start
make him predictable
and dull in the end.
The quirks and idiosyncrasies
that once brought delight,
now induce dread.
More of it, in fact,
with each passing minute, hour, 
day and month.
He is at his best,
he reasons,
pushed by the demands and insecurities
of a new lover;
not only more pleasing to his partner,
but also to himself. 

It’s funny because – 
when your breath stinks,
and your clothes are piled on the bed,
and you’re ignoring my thoughts
about the heavy handed editing technique 
used throughout the opening of that new show
with the all star cast
on HBO
because you’re more interested in eating raw cookie dough
than listening to anything I have to say,
I still can’t help but think 
how very much I love you,
and how lucky I am 
to have you in my life
despite all the mistakes 
made in a relationship
spanning decades – 
I’m pretty sure
that’s my best self,
my favorite me,
better than the man you met
and fell in love with
all those many mistakes ago. 

Cuba Gooding Jr is simply too small a man to play the physically imposing OJ Simpson

Cuba Gooding Jr is simply too small a man to play the physically imposing OJ Simpson

Our Friend Barry Who Loved Lacrosse

Our friend Barry from college – he went crazy once. He was more of a friend of a friend, I guess, but we all knew him pretty well. He came over often enough. Anyway, he went crazy as a shit house rat for about a week. Dragged every piece of furniture in his entire apartment into the living room and piled it up, barricading the front door. Then he climbed atop the pile and dipped his fingers in canned gravy leftover from Thanksgiving and wrote on the wall:  “THEY’RE WATCHING US AND THEY SEE ALL! SEEK REFUGE OR BE VANQUISHED!” The sentence wrapped around a corner very high up, just a few inches below the ceiling. He wrote just like I wrote it there, in crazed caps lock and with furious exclamation points. 

Then he locked all the doors and windows, wouldn’t let anyone in the house, not even his roommates. They said they could hear him inside talking to himself in more than one voice and got worried he was going to hurt himself or something. One of them broke a kitchen window and tried to climb into the house. Before he could get his feet on the ground Barry punched him right in the face, shattered his occipital bone. Poor guy had six or seven surgeries over the course of the next year and had to wear one of those creepy plastic masks anytime he left the house. He didn’t get laid for eighteen months.

Eventually Barry’s parents came down from Grosse Point and had him institutionalized. Doctors called it a mental break, which seems pretty vague if you ask me. Kind of like pointing out the obvious. But whatever. I’m no doctor. After he was released he was on some heavy duty drugs for a while – lithium or clozapine – I can’t remember which. He went to therapy for a while, too.

Then when we came back for spring semester he seemed like the same old Barry. No medicine, no therapy, no nothing and he seemed no different than before he’d gone nuts. We were all sort of waiting for him to snap, though. Seemed like if it happened once it was likely to happen again.

Right before we graduated a rumor started going around that he’d walked in on his girlfriend going down on this guy from the lacrosse team and that’s what triggered the break. Actually, she was Barry’s fiancé at the time all of this allegedly happened, but then they broke off the engagement. Anyway, it’s kind of funny or, not funny, but weird because Barry loved lacrosse. He used to go to all their games. He’d drag her along with him. He was their biggest fan.

Barricade the doors

Barricade the doors.

For Esme – With Love and Squalor

I hope you see
Long before I ever did
That no one knows shit
About who
Or what
Or why
You should be.
And so the world is yours,
To sculpt into relief
Across the boundless slab
Delivered at our feet
When we fall
Into this indifferent world.

I hope you fail
Going down in burning flames,
In a fire so intense
Your eyes and ears seal shut
And your hands melt into fists
And your toes no longer bend
So that you must find a way
To make them work again
And then you’ll understand
What it means to see
For the first time
Through your own eyes
And hear
Through your own ears
And feel
With your own hands
And walk
On your own feet.

I hope you have the strength
To be utterly weak,
In the face of everything
This world is not.

I hope that you are keen
To the selfish heart of man
So that you might fight,
At least once in your life,
For something greater than yourself.

I hope you forge
A list of regrets
To match in length,
And scale,
And scope,
The list of proud accomplishments
You’ll call your own.

I hope you find the courage
To deny yourself
Things you want
But should not have,
So that you might feel
The exquisite pain
That is life’s sweetest reward:
That of rising
Above your form.

I hope you fall in love
So hard
That when you land
It splits your skull
Shattering your brain and heart
Into thousands of pathetic pieces
With edges that melt and bend
Until their original form
Is lost forever
Like the breath you exhale
Into the ever expanding universe.

I hope that life
Tears you limb from limb,
So that you might mend,
Like a broken bone,
And emerge stronger
Than you were made
Or meant to be.

For Esme - With Love and Squalor

For Esme – With Love and Squalor

The Economic Collapse

Last night I dreamt
I was working with The Snake again
Selling mortgages
Or failing to
In my case
Because of my…
Scruples (?).

The office manager was there,
Whose name I don’t recall.
The nicest guy,
Quick to smile,
Pale as milk.
I think he snuck a nip or two
Behind his desk
From time to time.

Noticeably absent
Was our real boss,
The Big Man
In every sense,
With multi-syllabic names
Sizeable enough to match
His disproportionate mass
And personality:
Stell-i-an-os Pan-a-ga-kis.
Say that without smiling
And I’ll sell you a subprime loan.

Thank you boys
For the memories
But not for
The economic collapse.

Shortly after I retired from my brief career as a loan officer, our economy did this.

The Profound Silence of The Diamond

Been reading Kerouac, again.
About the Zen Lunatics,
How everything is nothing,
The void is infinite,
And the Profound Silence of the Diamond.

Been staying up too late,
Drinking beer and whiskey,
Reading in dark bars
Could I sleep on the side of a railroad yard?
Could I hitch my way from
Here out West,
Cooking steaks for truckers
On the side of the road,
Washing my frying pan in the dirt?

Been getting up too early,
Drinking too much coffee,
Reading on bright streets
Sun beating on my back,
Sweat pouring down
In fat disgusting globs
That stain my shirt
Beneath my arms and on my back
Embarrassing me,
And I wonder
As I read about their yabyum,
Would I be self conscious, too,
If invited to an orgy?
Would I lie alongside
All you naked, rapturous lovers
And kiss your arm tenderly,
Still wearing my long pants?

Where is my mountain?
My desolation peak?
Where is my tree to sit beneath and meditate?

The Bird Poet

In grade school, he was often last to be picked at recess, but won the county youth poetry contest three years running, claiming both first and second place in his age group the last year he was eligible. Both winning poems that final year (he submitted three) focused on a chance encounter, in the backyard of his home, with a beautiful and unidentifiable bird, the bird being a metaphor for a neighbor girl, nearly twice his age, who he would often watch sunbathe from a roost in his climbing tree. More than a few parents of other young poets in the community were vocal about their disapproval of the “consistently biased” decisions of the contest’s jury.

As a third team guard on the seventh grade basketball squad, he logged fewer than 12 minutes of game action before deciding to join the eighth grade team as a statistician, a role in which he blossomed, expanding the categories of statistics tracked, and providing the coach with in-depth analysis based on sabermetric theory of the time. Largely, the coach was unable to take advantage, and the team finished three games below five hundred.

As part of the number one doubles pair on the high school tennis team, he and his partner reached the state finals as sophomores and juniors, losing each time to different opponents. The community newspaper described his play as “heady” and praised his soft touch at the net, but more often, praise was heaped upon his playing partner, whose big serve and reliable forehand were the foundation upon which their success was built.

In college, a latent interest in aviation took full bloom and he became a licensed pilot by the summer after his junior year. Shortly after graduation, he marooned a Cessna in a public park in Iowa – flying and landing there, impromptu, after a fight with his long-distance girlfriend compelled him to cross the state line in a rented plane. The ensuing fight, make-up and make-out held him in Iowa overnight, during which time a torrential thunderstorm buried the plane’s landing gears in 6 inches of mud. In the end he convinced a groundskeeper from a small private university nearby to tow the plane from the field for $20 and a half pack of cigarettes.

He became a sailor, officially, by the time he was twenty-five. Selling all his worldly possessions and cashing in the savings bonds his grandfather had gifted to him upon his birth, he bought a 23 foot sailboat for just shy of $6000 and lived on it for nearly three years, eventually sailing all the way from the Lake Michigan to the southern tip of Florida by way of the St. Lawrence seaway, never stopping for more than two nights at any one port.

He was arrested twice in his thirtieth year, the first and second times in his life, and so he first began to box in jail, while serving a four month sentence for loitering with intent and public drunkenness in Arkansas (his first arrest) on the shores of the Mississippi River, despite the fact that he had not drunk a single drink. After winning the featherweight title in prison, followed by the local and regional bantamweight golden gloves championships, he was forced into retirement after his first professional fight – having broken his right hand, his dominant hand, in the first round of the fight, which he lost in a decision after fifteen rounds. Upset about the loss, he foolishly refused proper medical attention and his hand never healed properly, causing him pain throughout the rest of his life, and eventually forcing him to learn to write and eat and comb his hair all with his left hand. He also failed to pick up payment for the fight, fifty dollars, cash, and left two complimentary drink tickets unspent, choosing instead to punch the fight promoter in the face with his broken hand before exiting the locker room, knocking out two of the man’s teeth, and leading to his second arrest, for assault, and a six month sentence in the same jail in which he’d learned to box. When discussing the matter later, the man would readily admit to having been out-punched by his opponent, but insisted always that he had not been outboxed.

In his thirty-fifth year he taught himself about engines, and rebuilt a touring motorcycle in a friend’s garage over the course of two months. Finally getting the bike to run on a Thursday afternoon, he took it for a three day drive straight up the Mississippi – stopping along the way only for gas, food and sleep. He took no change of clothes. Arriving, finally, at his childhood home, he parked his bike in the street, walked around the house, and climbed to his roost in the climbing tree, and listened for the birdsong of his youth. Over the next seventeen months he put 22,936 miles on the bike, riding through 43 of the 48 contiguous states, before trading the motorcycle, straight up, for a tattoo outlining the swath he’d cut across the country inked on the upper right of his abdomen, just beneath his heart.

No stranger to the attention of women, he made love with 97 in his life. Twice he made love with two women at a time; once he made love with a pair of sisters, or so they said – he’d always had his doubts. He married once, an Indian woman from Bangladesh, who he met while backpacking from south to north throughout the country during his 40th year. They divorced six months later when she’d grown unhappy with his restlessness and wanderlust – she a woman who wanted very much to remain close to her very large, very unapproving family – and he a man who simply could not stay put. They divorced two days before he departed, once again, for the United States, unknowingly infected with Typhoid.

On the day he died, in his forty-fourth year, he was as a passenger in a cab, t-boned by an elderly driver who’d run a red light in an intersection in downtown St. Louis, on a Sunday, mid-morning. The elderly man was with his wife, on the way the way home from church service when he sent his oldsmobile careening mercilessly into the rear passenger side of the man’s cab. As glass exploded and metal bent and shrieked around him, and as the elderly driver screamed a shrill and terrifying last breath of his own, the last thought the man thunk was of the neighbor girl he used to spy on while she sunbathed. She’d been perfect, he thought.

And then he died.

Rebuilt. Reborn. Rewarded.

Rebuilt. Reborn. Rewarded.

Smoked Them All

You spent your hours compiling
while interest compounded elsewhere
for everyone else.
When all your friends
bought new blazers,
you rolled a pack of cigarettes
in the sleeve of your t-shirt
and then smoked them all.
There are only so many of these,
we get to spend.
And you spent yours
without regret.

Paris London Hong Kong

It is the eleventh hour when we we are brought in to write on the project. But the call goes well. Mutual praise is doled out. Everyone is excited – we to write on the job, the agency to see what we come up with. Oh yeah, that reminds them, they’re hoping to get our bid and treatment early in the day Thursday – less than forty-eight hours from now. That’s a very tight turnaround, but it would be a sweet reward. Glad to be in the mix, we agree to get right to work.

Treatment writing commences. Ideas are born. They go to battle, build on one another, cut one another into pieces and sprout growth in new directions. The bid is assembled and some questions bubble to the surface. How tight is this budget, we wonder? Back and forth with the producer reveals they’ve already showed three director’s reels to the clients, which surprises us. We understood we were late to the party, but we didn’t understand the existing guest list.

Lo and behold, a few of the directors are folks we are familiar with, one more than the others. He’s from a town 15 miles away from where we grew up, he’s our same age. Our high school football and baseball teams battled it out in the very same conference, while we roamed the halls at the very same time. It’s a small world, we remark. The producer agrees – in fact, he’s friendly with a few chaps we went to high school with who also happen to work in advertising and production. It’s a very small world, indeed.

By early Thursday our bid has been whittled down, line by line, until it is achingly close to the amount the client has to spend. Only our strongest ideas are left standing, and we spend our morning packaging them up neatly into an 18 page opus detailing, as specifically as possible, how we’ll tackle the job should we win it. Just past noon we pen a brief but persuasive email, we attach everything we’ve worked so hard on for the last forty-eight hours, we hit send, and then… we wait. Time slows to a crawl. As the old song goes, waiting is the hardest part.

An hour later, a reply from the producer. Succinct. Enthusiastic. “Awesome!” to be exact. Later that afternoon a more thorough response; they’ve had a chance to look through everything and are impressed with the quality of work we turned around on such a tight timeline. We’re thankful for the kind words. Still on track to award tomorrow, we wonder? They hope so. They’ll certainly know internally which way they want to go, the question is whether or not they’ll have buy in from the client – that might not come until Monday. Meh. Okay. We brace ourselves for a weekend of uncertainty.

We fill our time with the Vimeo Staff Picks Feed, with pages from books, with Dmitiri Basil music videos. We plan our evenings and weekend. And we continue to wait. We scroll through days worth of a neglected Facebook feed. We find a pleasant distraction – there is a photography show opening Friday evening featuring the work of Daniel Arnold, a young New Yorker being heralded as the Best Photographer on Instagram.

We’ve been reading about Daniel Arnold periodically for the last 18 months, since his instagram account was suspended for posting a wonderful, tasteful picture of two unidentifiable women sunbathing on a beach, topless. Arnold is forced to start a new account, and it is even more widely followed than his old one – the publicity surrounding his exodus from Instagram having garnered him no small amount of attention. To pass the time, we read all we can find about him online. We watch his awkward interview with a local news station hyping the photography exhibit. We learn that although he is now New York based, he originally hails from Milwaukee, just like us. It’s a small world, we think again.

According to many people on the internet, this man is the best photographer on instagram

This is a photograph of Daniel Arnold. According to many people on the internet, he is the best photographer on instagram.

Right around five PM on Friday, the phone rings. It’s the agency producer. He thoughtfully, sensitively, tenderly informs us that we did not win the job. It’s gone to the director who grew up fifteen miles away, from the production company we’re quite friendly with, that we respect and admire. The producer compliments our bid and treatment once more – he thinks there are plenty of other opportunities to work together. He encourages us to be in touch when we swing back through Milwaukee, and we promise him we will. We thank him for the opportunity to write and bid on the project, it was a pleasure. And then we hang up.

Shit. There are few things in life worse than not winning a job. Luckily, we have plans for that evening to meet friends for pizza. There are few things in life better than pizza.

With an hour to kill we swing by Daniel Arnold’s photography show at Paris London Hong Kong. Arriving minutes after the doors unlock, we climb the stairs, follow a few signs into a very small gallery where Daniel Arnold himself is standing, phone in hand, grabbing a quick charge before the event hits full swing. We shake his hand and introduce ourselves. He tells us we have familiar faces. We explain that we hail from Milwaukee as well, and he says, dryly “that must be it,” as if Milwaukee is such a small place that everyone who has lived there knows everyone else who has lived there at a glance. We like him immediately.

We take our time looking around the exhibit, and then we move into the hallway where we fish ice cold Busch Lites from a blue plastic tub nestled in a distant corner. A black binder sits on a table at the entrance to the gallery, opened to a print out of one of the articles we spent the afternoon reading. We flip through the pages (more articles we’ve already read) before flipping back to the start of the book where there is a one page write-up on the importance and meaning of Daniel Arnold’s work. It reads almost like an artist’s statement. It is thoughtful, well written, moving, even. Half way through the piece we think “This Daniel Arnold is not only a gifted photographer, he’s a gifted writer.” After finishing the final paragraph our eyes scan down the page to the signature line and we see that this one page was not written by Daniel Arnold – it was written by a friend of his, or an acquaintance, who admires his work. The author happens to be the director from the town fifteen minutes from where we grew up. The director who just won the job that we did not win.

We reread the page again. We were not mistaken – it’s quite good. Draining the last tepid finger of beer from our cans of Busch Lite, we move down the stairs of the building and out the door, onto the sidewalk and into the brisk evening air. Crossing the street, moving toward the pizza parlor where we’ll meet our friends, we can’t help but think, once more, and one time too many, it’s a small world. Oddly so, sometimes.