Chapter 1 Morning of the man-boy
What? Where? Who? Why? I wake up on the couch confused and wondering. Morning is usually a good time, carpe diem, I am alive, the world is my oyster, the first day of the rest of my life, all that shit that I have been projecting in my many years of Pollyanna existence. This morning is different, I am a father damnit, I have responsibilities, two kids, a loving wife, and I don’t sleep on the couch…
I am past the couch period of life. After 20 years of marriage there are very few surprises any more. We know how to get through problems, communicate, disagree, communicate more, acquiesce, assert, compromise, 20 years should mean we have learned enough to not sleep apart.
I take a quick inventory, clothes on, light outside, socks on, watch on. The fear comes as I inventory the watch meaning I had no interest last night in taking care of anything. Down, bed, trank dart, sleep, this is what must have been coursing through my cerebellum before I hit the couch. The biology is simple, my synapses work in a manner that keeps me upright and moving but the alcohol and other drugs affect the electrical firing to where memory does not register. I have been teaching a unit on neurobiology and brain chemistry with my students and learning about myself in the process.
Think. Think. Think. What happened? Dinner party, Thursday night, old friends, Rob and Sally’s house, drinking wine, eating great chopinno, talking with Rob about our boy’s weekends, laughing with Sally, strange memory of flirting with Karen, dancing, then nothing. No drive home, no putting kids to bed, no interactions with Kathy, nothing. Dancing, that’s the last memory, spilling wine on my shirt then Rob asking me if I was all right in his funny British accent, “You feelin all right then John?” I look down at the wine stain on my shirt. Negative validation, not good.
I manage to fill the coffee maker, turn it on then wander outside to get the morning papers. It’s Friday which means the SF Chronicle and the Sonoma Index Tribune are waiting for me in the driveway. This is good, newspapers stabilize me, dad was a newspaper writer and I’ve always grown up with at least two papers in the morning. Tradition keeps me sane, establishes a base to the pyramid, and gives me comfort that things are normal. I needed comfort this morning.
I return to the house and look at the clock for the first time, 7:20, students are in my classroom at 8, it takes 20 minutes to drive to the high school which leaves 20 minutes for me to handle my hangover, shower, dress, eat, make sure my daughter is ready and be out the door. No problem, I can handle this.
Unfortunately, Kathy walks into the kitchen as I’m holding on to the counter in front of the coffee maker. The dripping hasn’t created enough coffee to fill my very large coffee mug. I regret not pre-pouring, knowing my synapses would be firing just the slightest bit better with the caffeine. Kathy says nothing, which is always worse than when she is yelling at me.
“Nice party ay?” I offer in hopes that maybe she was in the same shape I was, that somehow I was cool enough in my state to pull this off and somehow I can bullshit my way through this. She is not on the same plane, pours her coffee, gives me a look of disgust, and heads for the living room.
I want to ask her what went on, why I ended up on the couch, how the end of the party was but I don’t want to give up my position until I can gauge how angry she is.
The silence is always worse than the yelling. I know I shouldn’t follow her but I do. I try to make things right, I’m an idiot that way. I like to fix things, solve the problem and move on, can’t change the past, be the shark, move forward.
“I figured since I drank too much, I’d be snoring so I slept on the couch.” I say.
Kathy rolls her eyes and continues her silence. I’m reaching at this point, trying to read her reaction so that I can trigger a memory that will make me seem more aware of the previous evening. The contents of the mug help remind me that time is short, move on, break through the foggy head. Kathy has been pissed at least 50% of the last month, I have students entering my classroom in 40 minutes. Get ready, triage motha fucka, stop the bleeding or the body will die. Move on, live your life, be mindful, go.
All of this would make sense if I could just remember how the evening ended and if I need to be worried about what Kathy is keeping quiet. I want to get on with the next problem but I’m thinking about what Kathy will do. I am not an ignore-your-wife kinda guy; I’m a codependence-may-kill-me kind of guy. But the day is important and I need to get started; teaching, art show, impressing the village, real things to worry about, things which I am responsible for beginning in 40 minutes. Kathy is important too but there is a bigger picture, she’ll understand, she always has, she’s not going to toss 20 years of marriage on one bad evening.
I shower quickly and cover the fear of my significant other with the fear of my day. I dress in my usual uniform, black V-neck t-shirt, jeans, dark blue sport coat, black loafers, watch, pair of bracelets given to me by the kids, the outfit is a direct rip-off of David Ducovney’s character in “Californication”. I relate to Hank Moody even though he’s a made up TV character.
Story of my life really, Hunter Thompson, John Belushi, Hemmingway, be the tortured genius, it will eventually pay off plus it’s a pretty fun way to live. Except, of course, mornings like this.
I don’t shave partly because of time but mostly because of my recent increasingly difficult symbolic problem of hating to look at myself in the mirror. I knock on my daughter’s door, “Five minutes Ella,” I yell as I do each morning. She is a sophomore at the high school that is next to the alternative school where I have taught for the last 15 years. I think for a moment about what to say in case she was up when I got home last night then I realize that she probably was not plus at 15 our conversations are often limited to one sentence interactions often including a request for money.
Hunter is just waking up and although most mornings I go without worrying about saying goodbye, this morning I need the connection to validate my existence as a father. I walk back to his room and see my magnificent boy who is about to experience a normal Friday full of promise and fun and all the joy of a middle class 12 year old growing up in a beautiful environment like Sonoma.
I’m on a mission as I unlock the door to the laundry room then look at my watch and realize that my cushion of time is gone, I now have 20 minutes to make it to the classroom. I b-line it to Hunter’s room just as Kathy is passing by with a basket of dirty clothes.
“Just saying goodbye to Hunt,” I stammer thinking she won’t answer.
“Nice.” She sneers, her first words to me of the morning.
I continue on my fatherly mission, kissing Hunter on the forehead as he breathes in and says, “Bye Dad.” I stop and look at him, realizing that no matter what kind of crap the day throws at me, nothing is more important than this and it will all work out. Practice mindfulness, prioritize little moments.
“Straight man, White Miata” This is the bumper sticker which adorns my car. I had an art project with my students where I asked them to come up with a phrase which could be put on a bumper sticker, something along the lines of “Shit Happens” or “One cannot simultaneously work toward war and peace” Big messages, important messages, change-the-world messages. My students came up with, “Straight man, White Miata” then put it on the back of my car. It was cute when they did it but this morning it seems condescending and not very funny.
The Miata is a great car. An impulse buy when Kathy and I were living in San Francisco. We went to a garage sale in the Castro, two years into our relationship and the sellers were liquidating all their possessions and moving to Australia. Armoires, cd’s, computers, sheets, artwork, and a white convertible sitting in the corner with a “Make an offer” sign on the windshield. We drove it, top down, through the Presidio, down to Fort Point then back to the Castro where we offered six thousand cash, which they met with ten minimum. I said I needed to take it to my mechanic to get it checked out, they countered with eight, I said, no, my max was six unless they could do payments. They said we were ripping them off but they had a good feeling about where their baby was going plus they were leaving in two days. Kathy and I drove to the bank for a cashiers check, sealed the deal and never regretted the decision. With two kids the car certainly held some logistical problems but it represented our carefree days and we were holding on to it as long as we could.
Ella is in the driver’s seat having passed her written driving test a month previous.
“Let’s go Dad!” she yells.
“Not a chance” I return, “big hurry this morning, scooch”. Usually I liked her driving in the morning but not this morning.
From our house to the high school it’s a minimum of 12 minutes. There’s no easy way, the choices are to go through town risking lights and backup or head up Arnold Drive, the country way, looping around the vineyards then risking a sketchy left on Broadway where the wait could be substantial.
This morning there was no choice; the quickest line between two points is a straight one. I was focused on getting to my classroom on time. The top was down, Ella’s ear buds were in and I know that at 7:45 I had little chance for interaction with Johnny law. Plus after 15 years of working with an alternative population, I know most of local law enforcement that means most legal interactions result in warnings not tickets.
Another great thing about the Miata is the low proximity to the ground. It makes me feel like I’m going about four gazillion miles per hour when I’m actually driving the speed limit. I fishtail it out of the driveway, down Cherry, left on Railroad, left on Verano, right on Riverside across the Ig Vella bridge, quick right through the car wash, speed through the far right stall, chickens flying, left past the library, right, left, left, right, and boom, we’re in the parking lot two minutes before the final bell rings. Nice.
My daughter is unphased, having spent the drive bopping to whatever is going in her ear buds while feverishly texting throughout the commute.
“See ya dad, love ya.” She says walking off into a group of girls who all look very similar in their hoodies, jeans and sneakers.
I’ve always made simple solutions of complex situations. Farmers and fly fishermen, that’s how I categorize people, Farmers foster growth, they create, nurture and develop: teaching, medicine, and arts. We plant seeds, monitor and assist growth then let go and do it all over again. Fly fishermen hook their targets, Sales, advertising, law, athletics. They provide a service that may or may not be desirable then they work to improve whatever they are selling so that other people want it.
Good farmers have a huge yield; good fly fishermen catch many fish. Bad farmers are not able to produce enough products and fail as farmers. Bad fly fishermen either don’t catch fish and find other intrinsic rewards from fishing or quit and try something else. Sometimes a farmer might become a fly fisherman but rarely does a fly fisherman become a farmer. Different interests, different personalities.
Growing up with farmers, I became a teacher. Nursing and writing were my parent’s vocations but I felt most at peace when I went visiting my two uncles who were actual farmers. One managed the vineyards for Robert Mondavi winery and the other maintained a farm in Canada. Morning chores, fresh air, watching things grow, a simple life. Going to my Napa uncle’s house high on “Bob’s nob” (the hill where the Mondavi family lived) on Silverado Trail was like being in a dream where everything was lush and green and beautiful. The wine country was always a place where we spent holidays running around the vineyards, catching bugs and snakes and risking death on old tire swings. As an adult, I wanted that for my kids so when Kathy and I had to flee San Francisco, we landed here.
I also knew I was a farmer early on.
This morning though, I’m cursing my vocational choice. I’ve played through many a wicked hangover in 15 years but this one is compounded by an art show that begins in 10 hours. For some reason, many of my recent excessive nights were before important events. Self-sabotage was the easy culprit, subconscious fear of success and all that. Feeling like I didn’t deserve something. What wouldn’t I allow myself to obtain? Was I simply an alcoholic and the monster was winning?
Last summer I was working at a day camp and the night before our final theatre and art production I drank myself stupid and wandered away from a dinner party only to show up at home three hours later having no recollection where I had been. I showed up the next day at camp an hour late and the result was not good.
These are things one cannot do in a small town like Sonoma or eventually the doors all close. I quit drinking for a while, made lots of promises then eventually returned because I deserved it and life is too short, and, and, and…
My classroom is a mess. The 10 copies of the Sonoma Index-Tribune (delivered each Tuesday and Friday) will provide content for the first period current events class. Kathy writes a column called; “Sonoma Stories” and I know she often uses it as therapy for venting at me. I gotta stop internalizing everything. She might write about an experience we had together which I then interpret as a slam on my poor decision making ability.
“As we walked across the steep ridge at Sugarloaf, I suddenly realized that if I fell, I would be leaving my beautiful kids without a mother.” I read this to mean that I put my wife in dangerous situations because I’m irresponsible, I don’t care about the kids and I’m trying to pull my wife down to my level. It is all about me after all.
My therapist has her work cut out for her.
Usually I choose three stories from the paper for current events. I write one or two questions on the board for each, we discuss, and the students do a quick write and turn in their answers. On Fridays the students choose one article and do the five W’s as a response. Who, what, where, when and why keeps them busy and gives me a free 30 minutes.
I plop down the papers on the desk and write, “Friday 5W’s” on the board. Usually I do a check-in with each student but today my mind is unable to accomplish such complex interactive activities so I leave the students on their own. Some are on their phones that normally I care about but this morning I don’t.
Compartmentalization is a big part of my life, the constant opening and closing little boxes. Teaching 5 subjects a day means that I go from Current Events to Civics to Math to Biology to Art. Each requires a different box and a different mindset. I even have five boxes in front of my desk one for each subject. Most days I’m phoning in at least two of the subjects (handouts and bookwork) but mostly I do a pretty good job. The 50-minute class period agrees with my Adult Attention Deficit Disorder and as long as I maintain a level of organization, I function pretty well. Coming to work late, hung over and with an impossible to-do list is not a great organizational plan but I survive, always do. I keep the kids engaged which is really what it’s all about.
I put the Kathy box on the shelf when I left the house and opened the teaching box upon arrival in my classroom, now it is time to open the art show box. Margie, curator of the Sonoma Valley Museum had scheduled my students for a one weekend art show stuck between, “The War of the Californias” by Sandow Birk and “Antique Kitchenware” by Kathleen Hill. Show goes up Friday, reception Friday evening, art stays up through the weekend, comes down Sunday. I have some amazing pieces and have been planning the show for months. My student Dan is the star of the show; he has a creative ability that comes naturally to very few people. Somehow, he is able to show an individual’s personality in his paintings. It’s not always positive but it’s always powerful.
We will also be unveiling two homemade books. One, “The Book of Jeff, a coloring book definitely not for kids” which is 20 unique drawings from the mind of one of my Goth rock and roll students. It includes Jeff’s self-portrait, which is Jeff as an embryo complete with umbilical cord and uterus.
The second is a children’s book called, “If I ran the School”, a direct rip-off of the Dr. Seuss book, “If I ran the Zoo”. The Seuss book is from 1950, a tale of young Gerald McGrew who explains the many changes he would make if he were in charge of the zoo. My students and I updated the text and the illustrations to create, “If I ran the School” a story of what they would want if they (and I) were in charge of the school. We spent three weeks on the book and are very proud of the result.
Dr. Seuss is a big part of the Carpe Diem (the name of our alternative school) curriculum. The Lorax is our school mascot and I use stories like “the Sneeches” to explain bigotry and gang life. Whenever a tree is cut down in a visible place in our community we affix plywood Lorax on top of the stump in protest. When we started the tradition, it created a huge controversy in the town.
“Students are vandalizing property which should lead to arrests” was a quote from a well-known curmudgeon in the community. Since we never denied responsibility, the local sheriff came to class and explained it was time to stop, “This Lorax nonsense”. Like I said, I have gotten to know the local police pretty well.
After the kids settle into current events (or texting on their phones), I make a list for the art show:
-Set up time with Margie to hang art.
-Mat remaining pictures.
-Pick up books at copy store.
-Pick up cheese tray at Vella Cheese.
-Pick up fruit and cider at Safeway.
Seems do-able, lists are good, plans are good, I look up to see the class is getting unsettled.
“All right, what’s in the news today? What cha got?” I inquire to no one in particular.
“Ryan’s in the police reports” Maria yells out. Our small town publishes a very entertaining Sonoma County Police Report each week complete with vivid editorializing and published names of the accused provided they are over 18. My students love to play, “guess which Carpe Diem student this is” whenever they recognize a familiar criminal situation. They often cut out and save the articles just as most students save clippings from the newspaper of their accomplishments.
“And ducks are getting crazy again in the plaza.” Jessica yells from the back, “They pecked a little boy and now the city has to vote on whether they should go away.” This leads to a discussion about how tourist interests rule our little town, a big issue as most students have at least one story about getting harassed by the police. The students talk, I listen, time goes on, boxes open and close, learning happens, By 11:30, I’ve somehow made it through to art class and I’m thinking things might actually work out.
“Mr. Moss, you smell like wine.” Alberto informs me sniffs taking a matted picture and setting it into a frame.
”Yeah, sorry, rough night.” I reply without thinking.
Jesus, now I’m telling my students that I’m an irresponsible drunk. Not good. I was getting derailed, becoming confused; I could feel my already red face getting redder. To the bathroom.
I walk in breathing hard.
I splash water on my burning red face and stare into the mirror so closely that I can see the bloodshot veins in my eyes. This doesn’t help much but it does center me. Almost done with the teaching box, ready for the art show box, gotta make up with Kathy; get ready for the reception, go. Nothing a few Red Bulls can’t fix I think to myself.
I make a plan. When students leave, eat something, head to the museum, put up show, pick up kids, back to museum, finish setting up show, pick up snacks, home, shower, change, 5:00 ready, over by 8, celebratory champagne with Kathy by 9. Simple plan, no way in hell it will work.
I do a quick armpit sniff after Alberto’s comment. Usually I’m self-conscious about the sweat stains but today I don’t care. Smelling like an old-vine zin for the rest of the afternoon could be a problem. I put a dab of industrial school soap under each arm then splash more water on my lava face, do a quick armpit dry under the hand blowers and I’m good to go.
Margie is furious when I arrive at the museum.
“John, it’s 1:30, are you still having an art show today? Cause I look around these walls and I don’t see an f-ing art show. I see a lot of white f-ing walls.” She says.
I’m unloading pile of work from the Miata. “Yes Margie, busy day, don’t worry, it’ll be ready by 5.”
I’m a firm believer of maintaining a positive mental attitude, say it aloud and it will happen. I dump the art in front of the walls where I think it should go, Margie walks behind me giving advice.
“You don’t want it to be the Dan Lewis art show.” She explains, “If you group all his work in the front, it will dominate the other pieces.”
She has done this before and she’s in much better shape than I am. I make a comment about what a great eye she has then suggest that she should place the art. She reluctantly bites and I head home, closing the art show box and opening the Kathy box.
Kathy is out but she left a note.
“John, can’t do this any more, I’m done. Don’t want to see you, find somewhere else to stay.”
I feel a rush of loss like when you hear someone has died. The end? Done? Find somewhere else to stay? Did I finally break us beyond repair? I look up at my reflection in the dining room mirror, at my splotchy red face and sweaty clothes.
I open the crying box.
“Morning of the man boy” is the first chapter in the soon to be, hopefully, maybe, kinda-dreaming-that-it-might-one-day-be published fiction novel, The Dance of the Party Gnomes. Most names have been changed (Margie- just email if you want me to use another name) and yes it is a work of fiction. You think my life is this much of a mess, sheesh, no way; it’s all rainbows and flowers baby.