Christmas Eve, 2015. This is the week when I wonder what the hell happened; the year flashes by, I’m older, the world is different and it’s easy to become discouraged. If I don’t take a clear-eyed look at the recent past it is too easy to descend into despair.
This is my version of an annoying Christmas Letter; those mass-mailed updates from friends that cleverly and passively make me feel stupid, poor and uninformed.
They’ve been to Peru again, they have lost weight, they’re into yoga and crossfit and they run half marathons, act in local theater productions, they’ve adopted Syrian refugees, they breed horses, dogs, have been growing their own food, skydiving and investing well, buying boats, summer homes, learning sign language, changing agents, bragging about their kids who help the homeless and are graduating with honors from ivy-league colleges, are happily pregnant, have super jobs and visit every weekend. A Xeroxed page of family photos accompanies those goddamn letters; everyone appears fit, happy, well dressed, tanned, younger. Everything but halos. That arrogant, self-satisfied, top 10 percent bullshit increases my incipient resentment. I’m older, more pessimistic and corrupted; they are not. How do they do that?
As each year terminates I notice the word “death” more often, in overheard conversations, in the news, in my inner monologue. I need to deliberately consider the preceding twelve months if I want to be realistic and move past doubt, dread and my default cynicism. It’s been a weird year and I have visions of perdition, expectations of increased suffering, imminent doom and worldwide collapse. I fear I may not complete another week, so I’m composing my year-end evaluation right now, while I still have time.
Also, I want to get it done before the pain meds take effect and I become too…creative.
This isn’t an uncommon, end of the world narrative, either. It’s not at all uncommon. I’ve felt this way most years, comparing myself to others, measuring, adding up, dissecting, calculating. Personal honesty has been mysterious and elusive and 20 years ago I was miserable without recourse. I became sober and learned that self evaluation and a sincere appraisal, writing down the days, the months, seeing what it looks like on paper, tangible and authentic as possible, is the best thing I can do to stay factual and grounded and prepare for the next episode.
It would be so easy to say, “This year sucks and there was nothing good about it.” Very easy. But absolutes (Nothing, Always, Never) are false. Experience is variable and events and occurrences are filtered through my own consciousness, which I control and can re-train.
The best way is to consider experiences chronologically.
I spent January and most of February living in Florence, Italy. Yeah. The start of the year was sweet. The land of my antecedents, my identity. I remembered a great deal of the Italian words and pronunciations I’d heard as a kid and reconnected with the beautiful language. I saw mind-blowing, life affirming art. I climbed to the top of the tower, the Torre di Arnolfo, of the Palazzo Vecchio, over 400 steep, narrow, uneven and irregular stairs.
I didn’t die.
I ate mussels and Tagliatelle and baked gnocchi, at Osteria Santo Spirito. Many memorable meals. I drank “miracle tea” with an Indian man and a depressed Italian.
Spring. There was rain and the drought we’ve experienced here in the Southwest was alleviated. I’ve learned to stand in the rain without cursing.
In May I was asked to participate in a public performance by a group of local writers. I stood on a stage in front of hundreds of people and read a short essay I’d written. I did well, and the reception was beyond my expectations. I received compliments on my work and, perhaps for the first time, I accepted graciously. I was confident, which is a rare and elusive feeling.
Summer. Hot dry days that are too long. Not my favorite time of year, but I wrote a book of poetry. I worry about poets; they may all be frauds. I can never tell if a poet is getting any better at the craft. So, to test myself, to put up or shut up, I wrote a book of 35 poems. Know what? It was a blast, some of the work is pretty good, and I decided that poetry is cool because it’s so much fun.
We went to Moab and saw Arches and Canyonlands and had a great short road trip. Later, in September, I flew to California, rented a Buick Lacrosse, a big assed comfortable gashog, and drove throughout the northern part of the state where I visited friends and family and well-known landscapes. There were bittersweet moments, some loneliness and sad memories, but I also spent time with Kate, Barbara, Armando, Terry, Roland, my brother Rich and his wife, my sister Chris and her family and my cool, beautiful grand-niece, Paige.
Ernie is my best friend from high school. He lives on the coast in Arcata, California, and we spent a day or two at the beach, bullshitting about our lives, aging, the old days. When we were fifteen we started a band, played gigs. Our history is insane, wild, and we remain brotherly. While I was there we played and sang songs that he and I wrote 30 years ago, and goddamn, they are really good songs.
The end of the year has been a mixed bag of health and horror. I’ve had neck and back pain all my life. Three surgeries, decades past. My spine lit up this year and discomfort has been moderate to severe, constant and restrictive. An unrelated annual doctor’s appointment turned into a blood sugar problem (that fucking pancreas), which led to a heart scan which indicated high (very high) levels of plaque and four compromised coronary arteries. A cardio stress test with radioactive dye followed. I burned through it and there is no blockage or narrowing. A good news clause attached to the death certificate. The doctor said, “We should repeat this test in 18 months.” Sure. Great. A chance to finish out the year. It's possible. Plan a trip to Paris.
An MRI of my spine shows the expected: crushed, degenerative, herniated, calcified disks, narrowed nerve passages, impingement, scoliosis, inflammation, bone spurs, deterioration. No wonder it hurts. Next? Another referral, cortisone shots, pain medications, perhaps surgery. During the MRI the doctor saw a “nodule” on my thyroid. A bump, a blip, a crappy little knob. Coming soon: more tests, scans, sonograms. Could be anything. Very common. Don’t worry.
Right. Fuck off, I’m worried.
Now, quick, I must balance health terror with good news.
I purchased a twenty-dollar fountain pen that is amazing.
My old traveling jacket is finished, but I saw one in a magazine that looked good, tracked it down, bought it online and it fit perfectly. Sleeves were too long and my lovely friend Ariel altered them in a couple of hours. Miraculous.
Some good haircuts.
Before my back tweaked I hiked and ran in the forests high above my house. Paradise.
I have a recipe for Brussels sprouts that is brilliant. Is it possible to eat too many Brussels sprouts? Fuck em, I don’t care. They’re that good.
I’ve been writing my blog, “The Vagrant Cantos”, for three and a half years and I have almost 100 posts, nearly 100,000 words. I am consistent. That has not always been the case.
Water. I cannot stress the importance and benefits of drinking lots of water. Yeah, I get it, everyone already knows that, forever, but actually doing it? Man that is crazy. Water, it’s the new black.
Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Lydia Davis, Georges Perec.
Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Maria Schneider.
I spent several months watching French New Wave films and am addicted and inspired.
Last week I hooked in with some outstanding musicians and we played the blues all afternoon. My drumming was good. I dig deep the blues and it was a delight to play with Conrad, Jackson and Tad.
My wife, Sally, is a great woman, smart, talented, and I’m always happy at home. This is a very big deal.
It’s truly, finally, full-on winter and I love winter.
I might get a cat. Someday.
This year, like the others, was both complicated and common with moments of horror and joy. I’ve survived and hope I can write something similar in 2016.
Once a week, or as needed, I must recall:
In January, I climbed 416 steps to the top of the Torre di Arnolfo at the Palazzo Vecchio on a beautiful day in Florence, Italy.
I didn’t die.