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HOW TO COOK A MOOSE_COV_hr copyA Tale of Two Kitchens

Right away, when we first moved to Portland, I noticed the large numbers of homeless and mentally ill and drug-addicted and hardscrabble people on the streets. Walking Dingo through our new neighborhood, I saw a lot of strung-out-looking people talking to themselves with unselfconscious intensity as they took refundable bottles from recycling bins, and couples screeching at each other, enraged and incoherent, often many feet apart on the sidewalk. Every time we drove to buy groceries, passing by a series of homeless shelters on and near Preble Street, I’d look out the window of our warm car at the faces of the people standing there, huddled groups of down-and-out men and women, a few black but mostly white, hunched in wool pea coats and hats with earflaps, or watch caps and down jackets, rubbing hands together, kibitzing and standing around waiting for the soup kitchen to open and exhaling cigarette smoke as if it had warming properties.


15-views-v2-cover“As literary writers…we’re not supposed to just get the job done, we’re supposed to advance the conversation, and part of our challenge is to dig deeper and create something new, or at least approach an existing thing (such as setting) from a unique angle. Yes, our writing relies on social norms and cultural touchstones, but where genre writers tend to follow the old wrinkled tourist map, literary writers explore new territory.”

— Ryan Rivas

 

I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and staff. We start with Atlas Shrugged.   —Paul Ryan

 

Barack has pushed Malia to read some classics, The Grapes of Wrath, Tender Is the Night—she’s reading those, so I’ve been doing a lot of re-reading.   —Michelle Obama

The year America turned two-hundred years old, my family quite suddenly slid about half a century backwards, to a time before indoor plumbing and universal electric service. Those things still existed for most other people–for everyone else I knew, in fact–but not for us. We lost the only home I’d ever known, half of a modest duplex on our little burgh’s Main Street, the rent for which, though only twelve dollars a week, had become somehow unmanageable. Grudgingly my grandfather (who hated my father for derailing the fortunes of his, my grandfather’s, oldest and most promising daughter) signed over, for the sum of one dollar, the deed to a sixteen-acre plot of land on a lonely dirt road, and a month after the great American Bicentennial celebration died down, my parents boxed up most of what we owned and stored it somewhere it would never be seen again, loaded the remaining absolute necessities into the back of my uncle’s truck, and veered off into the American Dark Ages.

The evening of January 8, Tucson marked the one-year anniversary of last year’s tragic shooting with a vigil on the mall at the University of Arizona. Funerals and memorial services for individuals had long passed, and the vigil was mostly a community celebration of healing, remembrance, and resilience in the face of violence and death. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords embodied this spirit, rising to the stage with her radiant, childlike smile and bright red scarf. Her energetic recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance drew chants, cheers, and even tears of goodwill from the crowd. Other shooting survivors and family members participated in a candle lighting ceremony. A local symphony and choir performed, and the Band Calexico, reportedly a longtime favorite of Giffords, sang “The Crystal Frontier.” At one point, on cue, the crowd transformed into a swaying ocean of blue glow sticks in the darkness.

I should say that I have never thought of myself as Christian. Even before my Catholic mother definitively settled the running custody battle by leaving the state without warning, I had spent enough time and high holy days with my father’s urbane, agnostic, Jewish clan on Long Island to establish firmly my identity as a New York Jew. Now, married to a Jew and raising my kids Jewish, I am the one who stands firm against assimilation, saying no to Christmas trees and telling my boys unequivocally that Santa does not come to our house. I don’t tell them, but Christmas exists for me, in a way.

There was a time when my mom wasn’t around, the stretch when cocaine addiction and other demons caused everything to fall apart, sending her back to the reluctant care of her mother in Iowa. When that happened, I was seven years old and New York City was my whole world. Iowa was a concept without substance, a sort of void you could call on the telephone and fill up with notions. Since it was Fall when my mom disappeared to there, and December when she started calling and telling me about the snow and the country quiet she could see through the window from her bed, Iowa turned into a sort of abstract Christmastime wonderland in my head.

After she left, my mom also told me why she had left. It was an absurd, horrible story, about how some enemies of hers from the Portland, Oregon, branch of the mafia (I know) had hired my father and grandfather to break into her apartment in Brooklyn and inject a huge amount of cocaine into her nose with one of those four-pointed needles they use to give tuberculosis vaccines, so that her inevitable death would look like an overdose (I know!). But of course, my mother’s flinty midwestern grit was too great for them, and though she collapsed and hit her head on a typewriter and didn’t wake up for days, she survived and fled to Sioux City. I didn’t know what to make of this narrative, which, among other things, apparently placed me in the care of a shlumpy, overweight computer programmer who moonlighted as a mob hitman. I loved my dad too much to believe that he really could have done this, but I loved my mom too much to think she was lying. (Also, I was seven.) So the story settled into a nebulous region of half-truth – true insofar as an injustice had been visited upon my mom, but inaccurate as to my dad’s involvement.

One way or another, I needed my missing mom desperately. She had turned rather suddenly from a six-foot-tall, combat-boot-wearing Brooklyn superhero to a frail voice from out of the snowy void, describing old-time country Christmas traditions and bizarre criminal conspiracies, alluding cryptically to her illness and her recovery. So I grabbed onto Christmas as a lifeline. I picked out a delicate glass ornament to send her as a gift, off into the snowy nothingness of Iowa, a life preserver tossed to a castaway unseen amid the waves. I imagined that ornament sitting on my mom’s bedside table, giving her strength to get better and come back to Brooklyn, to me. Since then, I have always associated Christmas with hopeful struggle, with a distinctly Iowan chin-up optimism in the face of cold weather and poverty and December’s crowding darkness.

The next year my mom came back and found an apartment on Ocean Avenue, and my dad grudgingly let me spend most of December with her. She was jobless and weird and government cheese-poor, and I spent most of my school vacation with the other kids in the building, tearing up and down the fire escapes and across the roof and through the basement, or in my mom’s little apartment doing arts and crafts, baking bread in old cofee tins, and stringing popcorn and cranberries on thread to decorate the Christmas tree my mom had gotten free from Our Lady of Refuge.

Our trips out of the house could generally be divided into three categories: going to church, going to local charities for food and other handouts, and walking Jackie, a runty terrier mix my mom had adopted and imbued with a dubious back story of neglect and survival. I didn’t really understand the import of the food pantries and the free gift grab bags at the church, but I could sense the desperation of my mom’s situation. At one point, a gap-toothed Jamaican in painter’s coveralls came to the apartment and gave my mom a bag of weed, then argued with her about money while I pretended to draw in the bedroom. Later, a jittery crackhead friend came over and my mom sent him away with a loaf of bread. My mom explained to me that the only “fancy” presents we would have would come from the church, but that we should spend our time in the week before Christmas making gifts. She would sit in the window with a cup of tea, holding a big magnifying glass to the winter sun to burn patterns into blocks of wood she’d found in the trash.

On December 23, it was cold with flurries, and we stayed in for most of the day baking bread and cookies and painting Christmas cards for each other with watercolors. We had corned beef hash on toast for dinner (“In the army,” my mom said cheerfully, “they call it ‘shit on a shingle’”), lime Jell-O for dessert, then a joint for my mom while I sipped sweet, milky tea. Before bed we took Jackie out for a walk, away from the bustle of Ocean Avenue and into the quiet blocks of the orthodox Jewish neighborhood that abutted the busy thoroughfare. As we headed out, my mom reminded me to keep my eyes open as we passed garbage cans, as people were likely to dispose of old but still useful items when new things came as Hannukah gifts.

My mom and I took turns surveying the trash by the kerb and holding Jackie, who strained energetically at the leash and barked at the distant rumble of trucks. I found a pair of running shoes, used but in decent condition. They were much too big for me, and too small for my mom, but she tucked them under her arm anyway. Later, she found a box full of decorative tin medallions, which would ultimately join the popcorn and cranberries on our old-time, unelectrified Christmas tree. Finally, as we were nearing Avenue K and the end of the block of single-family houses, my mom veered from the sidewalk onto a snow-dusted lawn, toward nothing in particular that I could see. Without breaking stride, she swept her hand low like an infielder charging a slow grounder and snatched something there, a leaf or a crumpled piece of paper, I couldn’t tell. While Jackie pulled obliviously against my grip on the leash, my mom turned to me with a triumphant grin, her left arm still clutching our bundles of found items. In her right hand she held a twenty-dollar bill.

The next day, with that twenty snuggled safely in the pocket of her old army jacket, my mom and I began our one lasting Christmas tradition. We took a long walk to the Salvation Army on Flatbush Avenue, a mighty, multi-story repository of the cast-off things of Brooklyn. My mom had the cashier give us two tens, and we split up, each of us with our found fortune and half an hour to buy the perfect gift for the other. We agreed that I would go to the upstairs checkout and she would go downstairs, and we would make sure to have our purchases well swaddled in shopping bags before we met at the front door.

I remember that I got her a set of lemonade glasses and a tray, etched with a 1950s space-age pattern that matched the linoleum top of her little kitchen table. We took turns wrapping the presents in the back room of her apartment, and because my present to her was five pieces (four glasses and a tray), the patch of white fabric that my mom had fringed around our little tree seemed bountifully laden with presents. We ate chicken soup and fresh bread in round, coffee-can sized slices, and my mom let me have a cup of coffee so I could stay up for midnight mass. The church was on Foster Avenue, over a mile away, and I ended up falling asleep slung over her big bony shoulder on the walk back, waking up in the lurching, foul-smelling elevator of our building, groggy and cold and eager to open presents. My mom had bought me a Swiss Army knife and an old army canteen, which seemed like the coolest presents in the world, and we fell asleep together on the couch in the living room with Christmas music playing on the radio.

As I got older, I gained some perspective on what had happened when my mom went away. In my teenage years when I saw people high on coke, I realized how strangely familiar their behavior seemed, how it reminded me of the time when my mom had grabbed me and run away from parked electric company vans, explaining that they were there to spy on us. By then my mom had moved to Philadelphia and I had moved with my dad to Oregon, and I was pretty content never to see her and barely to talk to her. When I went back to New York for college, I saw her once a year out of obligation, and she bailed on my graduation at the last minute, claiming a potential Philly mob hit had forced her once again to flee to Iowa.

By the time my wife and mother met, on our wedding day, I had pretty much edited my mom out of my identity. I had defined myself as a New York Jew, the sort to scoff at Christmas trees and go to the movies on Christmas day. It didn’t matter that my mom was Catholic, that I had probably been to as many Christian religious services as Jewish ones. As our sons got older, I didn’t hesitate to tell them that Christmas, while perfectly lovely, was not for us.

This year, December brings difficult times for our family. A hoped-for raise at my job has been held up by budget concerns, I forgot to submit and invoice for freelance work, and now we find ourselves shuffling money from savings to checking, transferring balances, thinking about moving to a smaller house. And suddenly, on Christmas morning, I realize the holiday is inspiring in me the slightly silly, middle-American optimism that it did when I was about the age that my older son is now. Somehow, I say to myself, this will work out. We will drink sweet tea and eat chicken soup and find twenty bucks on the street. We will do arts and crafts and listen to the radio. We will be OK.

Why Moneyless?

Money is a bit like love.We spend our entire lives chasing it, yet few of us understand what it actually is. It started out, in many respects, as a fantastic idea.

Once upon a time, people used barter, instead of money, to look after many of their transactions. On market day, people walked around with whatever they had produced; the bakers took their bread, the potters brought their pottery, the brewers dragged their barrels of beer and the carpenters carried wooden spoons and chairs. They negotiated with the people they hoped would have something of value to them. This was a really great way for people to get together,but it wasn’t as efficient as it could have been.

If Mr Baker wanted some beer,he went to see Mrs Brewer. After a chat about the kids, Mr Baker would offer some bread in return for some of Mrs Brewer’s delicious beer. A lot of the time, this would be perfectly acceptable and both parties would come to a happy agreement. But – and here is where the problem began – sometimes Mrs Brewer didn’t want bread or didn’t think her neighbor was offering enough in exchange for her beer. Yet Mr Baker had nothing else to offer her. This problem has become known as ‘the double coincidence of wants’: each person in a transaction has to have something the other person wants. Perhaps Mrs Brewer had discovered her husband was gluten-intolerant and so Mr Baker had been contributing to her lesser half’s irritable bowel syndrome. Or that rather than bread, she really wanted a new spoon from Mrs Carpenter and some fresh produce from Mrs Farmer. This was all very confusing for poor Mrs Brewer.

One day, a man in an exquisite top hat and tailor-made pin-striped suit entered the small town. The people had never seen him before. This new fellow – he introduced himself as Mr Banks – went to the market and laughed as he watched the hustle and bustle as everyone chaotically mingled and tried to get what they needed for the week. Seeing Mrs Farmer unsuccessfully trying to swap her vegetables for some apples, Mr Banks pulled her aside and told her to get all the townspeople together that evening in the Town Hall, as he knew a way in which he could make their lives so much easier.

That evening, the entire community came, jostling with excitement and intrigued to know what this charismatic stranger in the top hat and beautiful suit was going to say. Mr Banks showed them ten thousand cowry shells, each stamped with his own signature, and gave one hundred shells to each of the one hundred townspeople. He told them that, instead of carrying around awkward beer barrels, loaves, pots and stools, the people could use these shells to trade for their goods. All everyone would have to do was decide how many shells their wares and produce were worth and use the little tokens to do the exchanging.‘ This makes a lot of sense’, said the people, ‘our problems have been solved!’

Mr Banks said he would return in a year and that when he did, he wanted the people to bring him one hundred and ten shells each. The ten extra shells, he said, would be a token of their appreciation for how much time he had saved them and how much easier he had made their lives. ‘That sounds fair enough but where will the ten extra shells come from?’ said the very smart Mrs Cook, as he climbed off the stage. She knew that the villagers couldn’t possibly all give back ten extra shells. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out eventually’, said Mr Banks as he walked off to the next town.

And that, by way of simple allegory, was how money came into being. What it has evolved into is far removed from such humble beginnings. The financial system has become so complicated that it almost defies explanation. Money isn’t just the notes and coins we carry in our pockets; the numbers in our bank accounts are only the start. There are futures and derivatives, government, corporate and municipal bonds, central bank reserves and the mortgage-backed securities that so famously caused the world-wide collapse of financial institutions in the 2008 credit crunch. There are so many instruments, indices and markets that even the world’s experts can’t fully understand how they interact.

Money no longer works for us. We work for it. Money has taken over the world. As a society, we worship and venerate a commodity that has no intrinsic value, to the expense of all else. What’s more, our entire notion of money is built on a system that promotes inequality, environmental destruction and disrespect for humanity.

DEGREES OF SEPARATION

By 2007, I had been involved in business in some way for nearly ten years.I had studied business and economics in Ireland for four years, followed by six years managing organic food companies in the UK. I had got into organic food after reading a book about Mahatma Gandhi during the final semester of my degree. The way this man lived his life convinced me that I wanted to attempt to put whatever knowledge and skills I had to some positive social use, instead of going into the corporate world to make as much money as I could as quickly as possible, which was my original plan. One of Gandhi’s sayings, which struck a chord with me, was ‘be the change you want to see in the world’, whether you are a ‘minority of one or a majority of millions’. The trouble was, I had absolutely no idea what that change was. Organic food seemed (and in many respects still does) to be an ethical industry, so that looked a good place to start.

After six years deeply involved in the organic food industry, I began to see it as an excellent stepping-stone to more ecologically-sound living, rather than the Holy Grail of sustainability I had once believed it. It had many of the problems rife in the conventional food industry: food flown across the world, convenience goods packed in too many layers of plastic and large corporations buying up small independent businesses. I became disillusioned and began exploring other ways to join the growing movement of people worldwide who were concerned about issues such as climate change and resource depletion and wanted to do something about them.

One evening, chatting with my good friend Dawn, we discussed some of the major issues in the world: sweatshops, environmental destruction, factory farms, resource wars, and the like. We wondered which we should dedicate our lives to tackling. Not that either of us felt we could make much difference; we were just two small fish in a hugely polluted ocean. That evening, I realized that these symptoms of global malaise were not as unrelated as I had previously thought and that the common thread of a major cause ran through them: our disconnection from what we consume. If we all had to grow our own food,we wouldn’t waste 40% of it (as is done now in the US). If we had to make our own tables and chairs, we wouldn’t throw them out the moment we changed the interior décor. If we could see the look on the face of the child who, under the eyes of an armed soldier, cuts the cloth for the garment we contemplate buying at the mall, we’d probably give it a miss. If we could see the conditions in which a pig is slaughtered, it would put most of us off our BLT. If we had to clean our own drinking water, we sure as hell wouldn’t shit in it.

Humans are not fundamentally destructive; I know of very few people who want to cause suffering. But most of us don’t have the faintest idea that our daily shopping habits are so destructive. Trouble is, most of us will never see these horrific processes or know the people who produce our goods, let alone have to produce them ourselves. We see some evidence through news media or on the internet but these have little effect; their impact is seriously reduced by the emotional filters of a fiber optic cable.

Coming to this conclusion, I wanted to find out what enabled this extreme disconnection from what we consume. The answer was, in the end, quite simple. The moment the tool called ‘money’ came into existence, everything changed. It seemed like a great idea at its conception, and 99.9% of the world’s population still believe it is. The problem is what money has become and what it has enabled us to do. It enables us to be completely disconnected from what we consume and from the people who make the products we use. The degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed have increased massively since the rise of money and, through the complexity of today’s financial systems, are greater than ever. Marketing campaigns are specifically designed to hide this reality from us; and with billions of dollars behind them, they’re very successful at it.

In our modern financial system, most money is created as debt by private banks.Imagine there is only one bank. Mr Smith, who up to now has kept his money under the bed, decides to deposit his life savings, 100 shells, in this bank. Naturally, the bank wants to make a profit, so decides to lend out a proportion of Mr Smith’s shells, let’s say 90 of them, keeping ten in their coffers in case Mr Smith wants to make a small withdrawal. Another gentleman, Mr Jones, needs a loan. He goes to the bank and is delighted to be given Mr Smith’s 90 shells, which he’ll eventually have to pay back with interest. Mr Jones takes the shells and elects to spend them on bread, bought from Mrs Baker. At the close of the day, Mrs Baker takes her newly-acquired 90 shells to the bank. Do you see what’s happened? Originally, Mr Smith deposited 100 shells in the bank. Now, in addition to Mr Smith’s 100 shells, the bank has Mrs Baker’s 90 shells. One hundred shells has become 190. Money has been created. What’s more, the bank can now lend out a proportion of Mrs Baker’s deposit! The process can start again.

Of course, the physical number of shells hasn’t changed. If both Mr Smith and Mrs Brown wanted their shells back at the same time, the bank would have a problem. However, this rarely happens and if it did, the bank would have shells from other depositors to use. The problems start when the bank lends out 90% of all their depositors’ shells. The result is that of all the shells in all the bank accounts of this fictional world, only 10% exist! If all the depositors wanted more than 10% of the total amount of shells at the same time, the bank would collapse (a bank run) and people would realize that the bank was creating imaginary money.

This system may seem ridiculous but it is what happens today, every day, in every country of the world. Instead of one bank, there are thousands. Instead of shells, we have the world’s myriad currencies. But the principle is the same: most money is created by private banks’ lending.Our most precious commodity doesn’t represent anything of value and the figures in your bank account are mostly someone else’s debt, which itself is funded indirectly by another person’s debt, and so on. Neither are bank runs fictional. Recent bank crises, from Northern Rock in the UK to Fannie Mae in the US, show the inherent instability that comes from basing our financial system on an imaginary resource. The edifice is built on pretence and, as shown by 2009’s bank bail-outs across the world, tax payers inevitably have to subsidize with billions to keep the pretence alive when the system implodes.

DEBT FORCING COMPETITION, NOT
CO-OPERATION

In the current financial system, if deposits stay in banks,the banks make no interest and therefore no money. Therefore, banks have a huge incentive to find borrowers by whatever means possible. Whether by advertising, offering artificially low interest rates, or encouraging rampant consumerism, banks share an interest in lending out almost all of their deposits. The credit this creates is, in my opinion, responsible for much of the environmental destruction of the planet, as it allows us to live well beyond our means. Every time a bank issues a human with a credit note, the Earth and its future generations receive a corresponding debit note.

It seems we can’t get enough of it. According to the US Census Bureau, there are now almost 1.5 billion credit cards in the US; the US has more than four times as many ‘flexible friends’ as people. The average household debt (excluding mortgages) is $17,510 and to compound the situation, at the time of writing the US’s national debt is growing by an astonishing $4.5 billion every second. Payback time, in both economic and ecological terms, will inevitably come. While all this money creation is great for the economy, it is not so good for the people that the economy was originally intended to serve. An estimated 77 million Americans struggle to pay for their medical bills, with credit card debts averaging $5,000 per household. Every year, almost 1.5 million people are declared bankrupt or insolvent, and approximately one million houses are repossessed.

In the end, the process of money creation inevitably means the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Banks lend out money that, by any objective measure, they didn’t have in the first place and at every stage, accrue interest and keep the right to repossess real assets if loans are not repaid. Is there any wonder that huge inequality exists in the world?

Let’s return to our little town. In the past, at times such as harvest,it was common practice for the people to often help each other out on an informal, non-exchange basis and the people there co-operated a lot more than they do today. This co-operation provided them with their primary sense of security; indeed, a culture of collaboration still exists in parts of the world where money is deemed less important. However, the pursuit of money and humans’ insatiable desire for it has encouraged us to compete against each other in a bid to get ever more. In our little town, competition replaced the co-operation that once prevailed. Nobody helped their neighbors bring in the harvest for free any more.This new competitive spirit was partly responsible for many of the town’s problems, from feelings of isolation to a rise in suicide, mental illness, and anti-social behavior. It has also contributed to environmental problems, such as the depletion of resources and the climate chaos that currently go hand-in-hand with relentless economic growth.



If I gave you $1tn dollars right now would you accept it?

Not a chance. Except maybe to use it to light my rocket stove with, or to redesign our social and environmental infrastructure in a way in which money was no longer needed or relevant. Almost certainly the latter.


Why not just earn money and give it organizations to help those in poverty?

That would be almost as ridiculous as a major oil company polluting the oceans and then throwing some of the profits to an environmental agency to attempt to clean it up. My perspective is that it is best not to create problems in the first place.

We maintain class structure within national boundaries, and we maintain it between nations. Without a poor, there can be no rich. If the poor were also rich –- as many of the rich pay lip-service to achieving –- the inflationary effect would be such that the rich would no longer be rich. And if all were financially well-off and educated, who the hell would wake up on a Monday morning and spend forty hours in a tinned bean factory? Who’d supply our supermarkets with one dollar pineapples in winter? You? Me?


Do you see money as ‘the root of all evil’?

No. First of all, I don’t believe in good or evil. And even if I did, I wouldn’t see money as such. It’s just a tool that allows humanity to benefit from economies of scale. But it has some seriously destructive and inevitable consequences, outcomes that have been exacerbated by the advent of cheap energy. And we need to be aware of these: up to now we haven’t been, and that is what I aim to bring awareness to.

Until we address our almost complete disconnection from what we now consume – something only a global currency allows us to achieve – then symptoms such as environmental destruction, sweatshop labor, factory farming and resource wars will continue ad infinitum, or at least until we, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “die of civilization”.


What books have most influenced you?

I read a passage from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet every day, and every time I see an extra layer of depth to it. I think that it should be essential reading in schools, but I won’t hold my breath. Other than that, I read anything from Chomsky to Thoreau, Hesse to E.F. Schumacher. Anything that asks me to question everything I’ve been conditioned to believe from the moment I was born.


Got a loan of a couple of Benjamins?

Er, no, but I could tell you how not to even need them.



I admire Ron Currie Jr. for a bunch of reasons, but most of all for the risks he takes. It takes brass balls to write a book like God is Dead, or Everything Matters! And it takes commitment to work a bunch of shitty jobs and believe you can write books and not starve. But by god, Ron Currie Jr. is not starving, and we should all feel good about that. All RC Jr. is doing is winning awards and selling books, and pushing himself (and his narratives) into new places. It pays to get dangerous sometimes. Everything Matters! is about to drop in paperback, and those of you who were too cheap to buy it in hardcover oughta pry a few bucks out of your wallet and buy the PB release.

Here’s a transcript of a conversation we had recently involving a wide range of topics, including books, writing, idealism, cynicism, and the Fitzgerald blues….

kurt suicide scene

A despairing friend called late one night to say that he was looking at a photo of himself as a toddler holding his father’s rifle.

“I have an appointment with that rifle,” he told me. “I’ve always known I was going to end my life with it.”

He’s fine now, thank God, but his remark brought to mind a journal entry I made as a teenager, in which I said that I was sure I was going to kill myself one day; it was only a matter of how and when.

Janeane Garofalo is almost 45 years old and wants you to know, “I don’t give a shit. I’ve mellowed.” We’re seated in one of L.A.’s most popular vegetarian restaurants, but I can’t give its location lest it becomes less popular. Nevertheless, Garofalo seems at ease with the diners trying to figure out just who she is, but she has an answer for that. “The Truth About Cats and Dogs,” she says. Why? “Because I don’t believe in having pets, but beyond that, it was a slam at me, a typical role. I was the dog. And the only reason the guy fell in love with me was my personality. Yeah, right. That’s a bunch of fucking bullshit. Never happens. You see me with Brad Pitt? No, I’m eating with an unknown writer and watching people trying to remember having watched The Truth About Cats and Dogs. And to tell you the truth, I don’t give a shit.”

My old man in a nut shell: he’s too proud to wear a hearing-aid, yet he has no qualms whatsoever about donning a Donald Duck visor with two squares of cardboard fastened behind his ears, and strolling down Viking Way on his afternoon errands.

My_old_man

 

His errands consist of things like buying a piece of sheet-metal that he can bend into a box for the prototype of the sonic ant-deterrent he recently invented.

He calls the cardboard squares behind his ears his parabolic reflectors. They actually work. Try it sometime.

My old man’s a tucker. He tucks everything in– his fucking jacket. He’s also got what I consider to be an unhealthy relationship with Velcro. He wears it everywhere. He fastens his shoes with it, his jeans. He fastens the curtains in the old Nash station wagon he drives with it—and that’s so he can use the porto-potty he installed in the back, which he practically has to fold himself in half in order to utilize, because there’s only about three feet of vertical space back there.

And believe me, he utilizes it.

Sometimes while he’s driving, he has to pull over to the shoulder and fasten the curtains and drop a trout, even as traffic whizzes by. You see, he’s got a self-diagnosed diverticulum. It’s like his esophagus runs straight through to his rectum, I swear. He’s got his crap chute timed like a station master. He’s already eyeing the bathroom halfway through the salad course.

He refers to the whole process, invariably in a matter-of-fact tone, as passing his bowels. He refers to it often. After all, it’s just a metabolic function, right?

My old man pretty much ran out on me when I was eight or nine years old. I still don’t consider him a deadbeat, though. He always paid his child support and the rest of it. My sister’s death really took a toll on my parent’s marriage, so I’m willing to cut my old man some slack for flying the coupe.

Like most kids, I looked up to my dad. But I knew from square one he was certifiable. Other fathers didn’t teach their children Morse code, or get them squirrel monkeys for pets. Other fathers didn’t invent humane pest control devices, or make ice cream out of soy beans.

Over the years, my old man has worked as an aerospace engineer, a Methodist minister, a professional bodybuilder, a videographer, and finally, a naturopath. And like Frank Norris, he never “truckled.”

That’s enough for me.

And I’m not even certain what truckled means, but I’m pretty damn sure my old man never did it, or he probably wouldn’t be wearing parabolic reflectors right now.

I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with my father, in spite of the fact that we’ve spent so little time together. Until recently, he’d been living (quite happily) in the back of a cube truck in the high dessert of south-central Oregon, where he spent his days inventing shit in the sweltering heat– eating carrots, reading the scripture. Fastening shit with Velcro.

But two months ago—upon the behest of my older sister, who was beginning to worry about him alone out in that godforsaken desert in a Donald Duck visor— my father relocated to the island my sister and I live on.

He now lives 4.8 miles away.

So, for the first time since I was eight or nine years old, I’m seeing my father daily. We walk in the woods every afternoon with our dogs– me in my sweat pants, with my hangover, and he in his Velcro-fastened shoes and parabolic reflectors. I have to talk REALLY FUCKING LOUD, because I’m usually in front of him, and parabolic reflectors—in spite of their many attributes – are decidedly uni-directional in their function.

During our walks, my dad frequently says things like:

“Old Laddie is getting ready to pass his bowels.”

Or:

“Good Laddie. Good dog. Boy, you really had to pass your bowels, didn’t you, old boss? He hasn’t passed his bowels since yesterday morning. He really needed to pass them.”

But you know, the old dude is pretty interesting—my dad, I mean. He speaks a little Latin, a little Greek. He knows his theology and engineering and nutrition inside and out. And he knows volumes about the human excretory system. We have some good talks.

Last night, was my old man’s 75th birthday.

My sister and her family are up at Whistler for the week, and my brothers live out of state, and my wife was working– so it was just me and my old man for his birthday dinner.

He’s a pretty finicky eater– not because he’s got a sophisticated palette or anything, just because he’s a health nut.

So I made a salad with organic spring greens, goat cheese, walnuts, and blueberries, with a light drizzle of vinaigrette. I grilled some Japanese eggplant. I made some farfalle with wild mushrooms, kalamata olives, and sun dried tomatoes. I bought a carrot cake.

And I bought two bottles of the only alcoholic beverage I’ve ever known my father to imbibe– Manischewitz Blackberry Wine.

Manischewitzblackberry750

My old man is a cheap date, I guess. I generally can’t drink Manischewitz, or I start feeling like I’m slipping into a diabetic coma—and I’m not even diabetic (though I’ve been told my piss tastes sweet – ah, but that’s another post, perhaps).

Well, last night, in spite of my aversion, I drank Manischewitz Blackberry Wine, and it agreed with me for the
first time.

My old man loved the dinner.

He passed his bowels between the farfalle and the carrot cake.

Old Laddie passed his bowels, too– in case anyone’s wondering.

After his second glass of Manischewitz, my old man got a little woozy and sentimental, and began talking about his mother, whom the rest of us knew simply as Sweetie. She was a gem.

I lived with Sweetie in a senior citizen mobile home park in Sunnyvale, California the last two years of her life.

I was going to college.

She was agoraphobic—hadn’t left the house in over fifteen years. She smoked two packs of Pall Mall Golds and drank a half case of Hamm’s a day.

She liked Ironside better than Perry Mason. I’d say that’s a pretty rare quality.

She spent the better part of her days lounging in a bile-colored lazy boy, popping Tums antacids like tic-tacs. She ate nothing but Swanson’s frozen turkey dinners. Two per day– noon and six.

In fact, when I found her dead– with Tums antacids bubbling out of her mouth– there was a Swanson’s frozen dinner on her bedside table. And I swear to God, the thing was untouched except for the cherry cobbler.

She ate the fucking cherry cobbler and checked out! How cool is that?

We buried her with a Hamm’s and pack of Pall Mall Golds. You may think that’s disrespectful– but then, you don’t know shit.

My father started getting teary as he talked about Sweetie, last night.

Sweetie was the only parent he ever really had.

His father died when he was four.

He grew up in a one bedroom flat in Oakland during the depression, with Sweetie and Grandma Rae.

He said they had a single naked light bulb in the middle of the room, and Grandma Rae tied a button on the end of the chain. And my old man said that pulling that chain and watching that light bulb go on and off as a kid was the thing that made him become an engineer.

He said that things were so lean growing up in Oakland, there was only enough money to feed two people most of the time.

And so my father breast-fed until he was four-and-a-half years old.

He said he can remember stomping around the flat banging pots and pans and complaining he was hungry, until his mother took him in her lap.

He had a mouthful of teeth.

Last night, my father started weeping as he talked about his mother.

He just couldn’t seem to get past all the nutrition he’d deprived her of by all that nursing. She lost all her teeth by the age of forty, he explained, due to calcium deprivation.

His doing, of course. She finally weaned him by drawing spooky faces on her breasts.

Poor guy. Poor everybody. There was my father– on his 75th birthday– gooned on Manischewitz, weeping
like a baby about his mother’s milk.