Monday, December 30, 2013

The Failcrum

If there isn't a word in our vocabulary for having been divorced exactly the length of time you were married, there ought to be. And if a word like that did exist, it occurred to me (at this particular time of year, the end of the year, with December dripping slowly away the way it does, complete with the existential stew of seasonal exultation and dissatisfaction and regret and nostalgia), then that word would adequately describe where I am at this point in my life. A point exactly in the middle. A point where I can look back equidistance either way I choose--to married life and to post-married life.

It's an interesting place to be. It's an odd place to be, in a way. It's a place that begs an awareness of how time both moves and yet, strangely enough, doesn't seem to move at all. It's a place that steers home the unavoidable conviction of not only how far one has come but also how far one has been and--perhaps most revealingly--how far off the mark one is from where one had hoped to be.

I have recently come to realize, with the year closing out in the waning days of December, that 2013 marked a watershed moment for me, a midway point-of-no-return, of sorts, marking ground covered in ways I had probably hoped to never acknowledge: My marriage lasted for nine years, and now--with the end of this year close at hand--I have been divorced, and single, and alone for nine years as well.

[Aside: Is that even possible? And when, exactly, did that happen? And how, exactly, did that happen? And just what in the hell kind of social pariah does that make me, anyway? Am I to be banished now, forthwith, to some uncharted island off a South American coast somewhere, like some emotional leper unfit for human habitation of any sort?]

How did I get here, this midway point of "relationship-stasis," this failed social experiment, this odd, uncomfortable anniversary for which no word in the English language has even yet been invented?

In fact, I don't know if that grim realization has fully sunk in: There is no word to describe me and the place I've found myself all of the sudden. There is no definition, no term, no fanciful turn-of-phrase--like a beloved "golden birthday"--to mark the place where I am now. I am a man without definition. A man without meaning, without a lexical heritage to add support and weight to my oddly-explained existence.

What can you say about someone, after all, who has found himself here? What can you say about someone who has found himself--either by stubborn "selective" choice or by what has to be one of the unluckiest losing streaks with the ladies ever recorded--single for as long as he was married?

Exactly what word or phrase best describes this maudlin anniversary? What wording would most accurately define the situation that I find myself in, this moment of being caught halfway, balancing both ends of a history in decline?

How about the word failcrum? If we need to invent a word to take the place where no word exists, I offer the invented word failcrum. (You know...something cute like that. A play-on-words sort of thing, combining the words "fail" and "fulcrum," to form its own creation: The pivot point which balances between failures.) As in: "Oh no, I suddenly find myself at the failcrum of my life. What am I going to do?" Or, "Hey, what time is it? Oh, that's right. It doesn't matter; it's time for my failcrum!." Or, "Look out! I think I just failcrummed myself!" (which obviously jumps ahead to the notion of the word morphing from being simply a noun to a verb, that venerable word of action, as in, also, "Why don't you just go failcrum yourself!"). Or better yet, one more: "Holy shit, buddy, Happy Failcrum!"

[Aside: Which begs the question--maybe--will there ever be a market for such a thing as a "Happy Failcrum" song, played at just such an anniversary? Will there ever be a world which would support such a thing as a line of greeting cards devoted specifically to the celebration of someone reaching his failcrum? Is finding oneself at the failcrum, in fact, a point to be celebrated? Does it deserve acclamation? Does it deserve our condolences? Does it deserve recognition at all? Or is it better observed, perhaps, by not observing it? Does the failcrum--like the poor son-of-a-bitch living it out in full display--even deserve any attention whatsoever?]

Like all watershed moments, finding one's self divorced for exactly the same amount of time as one was married is a weird moment that calls for inspection and introspection of matters both large and small. Life in the macrocosm and the microcosm. The things that have not gone as planned and the things that have not gone right. The things that have failed absolutely and the things that have not succeeded at all.

[Aside: This actually isn't as difficult as it may sound.]

And it could be, perhaps, that I've already--in a relatively short space--devoted way too much time to discussing or even acknowledging such an anniversary as the failcrum anyway. Perhaps it is above, or below, any mention at all. After all, it will be over very, very quickly. With the coming of the new year, and the subsequent passing of 2014, the balance will soon be shifted, and I'll be on the other side of the middle-point. Weight will have moved. Gravity will have intervened. Inarguable laws of nature will have kicked into play. And all will be as it is supposed to be. Perhaps as it always was. And life--failed or not--will go on. Maybe not as planned, goes on.

And the only memory of this unnamed moment in life will be discovered years from now in a box of memorabilia marking the unmentioned milestones of my life, buried beneath stacks of other flotsam and jetsam--a bent-eared, faded, and half-torn greeting card with a simple wish encoded in its single fold: "Holy shit, buddy, Happy Failcrum!" it will read. And I'll be the only one who knows what it means.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Ritual Bath


Behind the locked door and the muffled, distant spray
of the shower's stream hidden by the sheer clean curtain
of plastic lining and steam I hear you tentatively say
to me, "Dad, could you please hand a towel in?"

The door handle clicks, to release the lock--I know--
and is cracked just enough to allow my hand through
the fissure where the fresh towel meets your hand below,
a humid cloud of warm water in air, followed by, "Thank you."

And the door is shut once more just as quickly, its lock again
clicked in place. It is all right. I understand. I am your father.
The unbidden, cherished privacy of a teenager in
between--young girl, young woman. This is the way it is, and not a bother,

though I must confess to a certain sense of something lost.
Those days when these hands of mine gently held tight
to your writhing, slippery body floating beneath tossed
waves of cleansing water in the bathtub every night.

Your dark eyes blinking up at me, trusting the hold I had.
The end of day, each day, the time between us. A baptism and renewal.
The world outside would stop for us, little girl and her dad.
Kneeling by your tub, a man in the grip of a daughter's grace. A fool

forgiven foolish lives. A memory in the flow of our bath ritual.
A sacrament soaking both of us in your gentle, splashing play.
A consecrated time now past, enfolded in the warmth of an unfolded towel...
I simply stand outside the locked door, now, and walk away.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Apartment Life



I have always told my friends about days
growing up in western Kansas,
the landscape a flat tabletop
with only candlestick trees,
and barn and silo--
a loaf of bread,
a glass of fresh milk.
And how storms would approach on the far horizon
(not a land for surprises, after all),
tornadoes dangerously beautiful tentacles
a kind of blue so deep almost silver,
spiraling in a marriage of ground and earth
that I could watch, and did, from safe distances.
No need to flee. Or so I felt back then
young boy and young man
growing up in a place like the plains,
where one had time and space,
and so much of it,
in fields of wheat and stubble and freshly turned soil
and legs young enough and strong enough
to run if need be.


Yesterday was a day for raking leaves.
All bagged along street curbs or banked in
heaping piles of warm colors of autumn,
like a knitted scarf of dark red, and amber,
and some orange and golden yellow to keep off the cold.
But not today.
Today the weather changed its mind
with the memory of spring
and its forgetful fickleness of an old lover.
Warm air meeting cool. And storm clouds brewed above us.
A midday sky dark,
the wind with sideways rain
against windowscreens
that looked as if trying to breathe somehow
in an airless void of twisted, turning cloud
and dust in sky.

When the tornado sirens went off today
I crouched in the bathroom of my apartment,
old knees stiff with sitting too long
on a lazy Sunday afternoon
to read a book
or to watch a movie
or perhaps the football game.
I knelt there and listened to
the sound of nature
giving way to greater nature.
And I wondered if this was it.
And I thought, however briefly,
it was okay, though I would miss
more than be missed, I know.
That's just the way it is.
I have nowhere to run these days.
The old joke, "You're not in Kansas anymore"
too true this time.
Enclosed now in the close space of a life
limited by decisions and revisions,
walled in by necessities.
I could only imagine it now,
what was happening on the other side.
Dangerous beauty.
Not simply coming down from above, not entirely,
but rising from below, on the ground,
and meeting halfway,
both parts, ground and sky,
in a handshake of air,
agreeing to disagree
and show no mercy.

When the sirens stopped
we came out of hiding, all of us
in this apartment life.
We emerged and resumed.
I heard the man above yell out his open window
to a neighbor already about the business
of looking for storm signs
to tweet to friends.
Downed limbs from already leafless trees.
Everyone's homes powerless.
"Just in time for kickoff, too!" I heard. "Of course!"
I made a cup of tea then
by striking a match to my stove's gas burner,
and I watched the leaves raked yesterday
disappear in the steel-gray sky.
And I thought of how things go on.
And I marveled at how order
in the form of electricity
would be restored.
Not in time for football, no, but maybe for our evening shows,
comfortable lives on a Sunday night
before the work of the week
intrudes with its realities.
          A life enclosed.
Our facebook friends awaiting word
that says we are here and we're
all right.
That says the world is safe
and to be trusted again.
That says we might, for dinner
tonight, order a pizza and drink
some beer as if to celebrate
such a day as this.
And besides, The Walking Dead
is on. And then there's always work


Apartment life, with all its rent and its restricted views
and the memory of storm epiphany,
an emptiness revealed
within four walls
just hours ago,
now gone like leaves from the day before
when there was time and strength
to pull the world together
and all the innocence to believe
it would somehow
always stay that way.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Force of Proportion

"What is gravity?" my younger daughter,
only eleven, asks me while riding
in the backseat of the car home
from shopping for new shoes
with the gift card I had bought for her
as part of her birthday gift this year
and that had been weighing on her ever since.
As if that weren't enough, as well,
she follows that question
with yet another:
"What would happen if
there was
no gravity
at all?"

Only eleven.

(How do I tell her what I only barely understand
myself, so burdened and so weighted down
with cares I cannot let her see
--beyond the sleepless lines around my eyes--
or think to know in her eleven-year-old mind,
where Dad is the one who guides the car
and buys the shoes and knows the answers
to all questions,
even ones I do not know?

Especially those, maybe.)

It is not an easy thing to say to
a daughter, eleven, who thinks you are
the center of all things
still, the fount of all knowledge,
her resource,
her religion,
her ground that holds her and catches her
when she falls and that helps her
stand when she stands without seeing her
fly away and take off for
God knows where.

(It is a lot of responsibility, this weight of her.
She weighs nothing.
It is a lot.
She is light.)

And so I say to her all I know to say
and answer that if it weren't for such
a thing as gravity, there would be

All would be on its own, drifting and
Careening and crashing.
Disintegrating into
Gravity is what holds us
The universe. The stars.
The sun, and the planets, and the moon to the earth.
The water. The sky. And the air that we breathe.
This car to the road--rubber to pavement.
The shoes on her feet--new shoes--
to the ground.
Her hand in mine. Her heart
with mine, this old heart
(this old broken heart so patched and weak and worn)
held together with her own
and in her own,
keeping me grounded,
and alive
and from flying off to anywhere
but here with her right now.

Keeping me alive.

This is what I think but
do not say to her, my eleven-year-old daughter.
Instead I only think it and look
at the rearview mirror where I catch
her looking at me too and smiling
up at me, and I smile back
before she turns to look once more
at the new shoes dangling on her feet,
about to fall off,
and at the world of lights
and wind outside her car window,
flying away from her,

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Shades of Green


(for my students in English IV, valiantly encountering Sir Gawain and the Green Knight)

Sitting forward, facing me, their futures in front of them
like the whiteboard littered with notes of a long-dead legendary king
and his knights with names not easily remembered through mnemonic games,
committed to memory, then to the memory-hole, and cremation, forgotten, and called
"boring," and "bewildering," and "befuddling," and "bullshit,"
I nevertheless quiet my mind and set forth on a quest of my own to quench
their cynicism so soon saturating their seventeen- and eighteen-year-old minds,
draining them of dreams and of a childlike desire to see the world as a young knight might.
A classroom of today's teenagers, taut with tensions recalled through times gone by
yet with fears all their own, not yellowed by yesterdays replayed but green as their own youth.
How do I help them, handing them a tattered copy of a poem, so haunted with age
and grown old with moss, like the great Green Knight of its title, gaming with its hero, Gawain?
I can try to tell them that time plays tricks with perception, and that the poem's "green" is
boundless in meaning, at once implying beginnings, like delicate buds on branches bowed low
from spring rains, but soon rife with the "green" of rot and the restless advance of years,
and pain, and the persistence of perpetual motion, and games played and replayed
with no winner but with, instead, a withering away of "green" to gray, wasted days of youth.
The different shades of green in verse--a hue of young desire, and slow decay, and lonely death.
                              I choose
                    instead--the teacher in me--
                    to suppress the poem's role of hues
                    and to talk of codes of chivalry
                    and of games one cannot help but lose.