The River

coburn (1)

Timing is everything.

Last weekend I made another trip back to my old stomping grounds, the college town where I went to graduate school. For a variety of reasons, I decided to stay over Monday night too. My friend & hostess suggested we could go tubing that evening when she was done with work, but we hemmed and hawed about it all day long. Then I decided: fuck it, we should go. Just go.

We went.

Forty-minute drive to the parking area. Wait a few minutes for some other friends. Short walk to the put-in. Compulsory discussion of how to get my fat ass in a tube. Unceremonious leaping. Some selfies in the lagoon. Drifting and spinning, drifting and spinning. The languorous pace of the current was initially frustrating to my city-girl need to go-go-go, but I eventually settled in. Slow but steady progress down the river.

Drifting, spinning. The river takes control. You don’t fight it, unless you get hung up on the rocks, which is usually your own damn fault for picking a bad line. Then your ass drags the bottom in a punishingly undignified metaphor that perfectly encapsulates the folly of your error. Go where the water runs deepest. That is the path. The river knows.

We saw a lot of wildlife. A doe and her shy fawn trotted parallel to the bank. A fisher or mink darted into the overgrowth. Kingfishers swooped back and forth across the water. A great blue heron stood still as a sentry in the shallows.

And then, in front of us, on a narrow stretch of river in which the hill on one side and the tall trees on the other created the feeling of a canyon, we saw it: a bald eagle.

The eagle swooped in from the left, turned towards us, and followed the river’s path right over our heads.  Its wingspan was huge, intimidating. The yellow beak and dark eye pressed against the white of that distinctive head–it was like something out of a painting. Sure, one of those terrible, bellicose, patriotic meme-paintings, but a painting nonetheless. We were so close, perhaps only 30 or 40 feet below, that we could make out individual feathers as it passed by.  It was stunning.

“Epic,” said my friend.

The encounter lasted eights seconds, ten tops. The eagle flew upstream and veered right, disappearing around the bend. We all agreed, it was an awesome sight. Rare. A true gift.

And, as I realized on the long drive home yesterday, a miracle of timing.

If the river were running a little faster. If the rocks had hung us up a little longer. If our friends arrived before us. If we had stopped off to buy beer. If I had gone home instead of staying over. If I hadn’t come to town at all. If my friend and I had never met.

The encounter with the eagle–brief, powerful, and random–made me think of everyone I have known and all the people I have loved. There is probably a sacred math to explain all the vectors and intersections that allow us to find and know and love one another.

If I had used a different exit. If I had sat in a different seat. If I had gone to a different school. If there hadn’t been a war that delayed my parents’ marriage. If I had swiped left instead of right. If he had swiped right instead of left. The smallest variable can make all the difference.

I am grateful for the love I have, but I wonder where other choices might have led me. We saw an eagle fly right over our heads. Who knows? Perhaps if we had been a minute earlier, we might have seen a bear. Or a minute later… and nothing at all.



The Bridge


Bridges have so much poetic potential, and yet they terrify me. I do not fear falling; I fear jumping. This impulse is common enough that it has a name, “The Call of the Void,” which sounds real and literary but also a bit like a high school metal band. My fear extends a little past the usual uneasiness, however, because the times in my life when I have been suicidal, it was the height and accessibility of bridges that romanced me. When I felt that pull, it was such a relief to realize that I could simply avoid them.

At present, though, I live in a city that requires me to cross a bridge frequently. It bothers me not a whit and, in fact, I am very good at navigating the complex merge that devastates the flow of traffic. For now, anyway, bridges have ceased being an imminent threat and are usually just a means of conveyance.

I am here, I want to be there. The bridge allows me to make the journey.

Bridges connect. Musically, the bridge allows us to return from the chorus for another verse. In paintings and photographs, bridges provide focal points and perspective. And they make great metaphors. Thornton Wilder won a Pulitzer for writing about a bridge, in the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I love that book, and that bridge, so much that I quoted its last lines, in a nod to my mother’s dementia, during my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary toast:

Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

Fundamentally, a bridge of any kind spans a divide. We build them, we connect. We burn them, we sever ties that cannot be resurrected.

All my life, I have tried to build bridges, to connect, to make friends and find love. And yet here I sit, on my little island, sullen and resentful as I toil in my lonely job and return home to an empty house each night. And, truth be told, I am pissed off that I didn’t stand up for myself when I should have, that I allowed other people to dictate my terms, that I appeased when I should have fought, that I lingered when I should have walked away. I was so conditioned in childhood to “choose my battles wisely,” so concerned about “dying on the wrong hill,” that I gave up the fight long ago or directed my enmity at the wrong people altogether.

Now, I have arrived at midlife, tired and foolish and well stocked with matches.

In the last ten days, and for what reason I’m not sure, bridges have been crossed, terms set, matches struck. I threatened to walk off a project–and away from a much needed paycheck–because the editor was pressuring me too hard about a deadline. I threatened to cut ties with my FWB for creating a dynamic that no longer works for me. I put my father and sister on notice that my participation at family gatherings is optional and dependent on respectful treatment. And just today, I told J* off for insulting me.

How did it all work out? Mixed results!

The editor caved and offered reassurances that I am indispensable to the project. My FWB called me for the first time ever (we only text or meet in person) to apologize for his behavior. Time will tell if anything is truly going to change with him. My sister wrote me to apologize for her mistake, but there’s been no word from my dad, who has always quoted John Wayne in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” on the subject of apologies: “Never apologize. It is a sign of weakness.” And my sister’s apology doesn’t change the fact that I feel the need to disentangle myself from my family as a whole in order to preserve a shred of self-esteem. I can already tell, the holidays are going to suck extra hard this year.

And what about J*? I did a fantastic job of calling him out, except that he didn’t actually insult me; I insulted him. I manufactured a conflict and lobbed some grenades because I was angry and hurt at something he told me about another woman, in a conversation the night before. They dated, and it didn’t work out, but they are still friends, and he is going to visit her later this summer. She’s 18 years younger than me, with doe eyes, creamy skin, and a tender heart that makes him want to protect her.

“I have to remember that I hurt her,” he said gallantly. “So I need to be sensitive about her feelings.”

He could fuck this girl into the next century, and all her hot young friends too, on a bedspread emblazoned with my ugly mug at its ugliest, and it wouldn’t bother me as much as that statement. Because he also hurt me, repeatedly, and yet he exercises no similar sensitivity about my feelings. In fact, he shamed me brutally for wanting to cut ties after he rejected me, talking me out of my own efforts to spare further injury to my broken heart. This girl is beautiful and desirable, vulnerable and valuable, and no one wants her feelings hurt–including me. And I guess I am some swamp rat garbage callus held together with barbed wire and toenail clippings, like the glob you leave at the bottom of the trashcan for the sun to burn off, or an object of strange familiarity you slow down to ogle and then blow past on the highway. Nothing that warrants special handling, that’s for sure.

I was not exactly thrilled with this realization, so I picked a fight about something else the next time we spoke on the phone. I was driving across a bridge at the time, doing my best to navigate the merge. I hit him where it hurt, touching off our usual cycle of vitriol, self-recrimination, ultimatum, and apology.

There was nothing but flames in the rearview mirror by the time I was finished. And I felt nothing but sadness as I approached the far side of the bridge, more alone than ever.

To Be Blunt…

I hate weed.

It’s April 20th–4/20–which I suppose is as good a time as any to explain why I hate weed.

I don’t know anything about the origins of 4/20 as a holiday celebrating marijuana, but I do know a fair amount about the drug itself. Well, enough to know I hate it!

I hate weed because it gets you in trouble. The first time I smoked pot was my junior year of high school, in the late 1980s. I was at a cast party for a high school theater production, and somehow I found myself in a parked car with two boys trying marijuana for the first time. Of the sensation of being high for the first time, I don’t remember much. But I distinctly recall that the smoke felt like a wolverine scraping the back of my throat, and the cotton mouth was terrible. I also got in Big Trouble, for not calling my parents when I got to my friend’s house, where I was spending the night. I suppose I forgot to call because I was hella high, but I don’t remember. I didn’t smoke weed for a long time after that, in part because I was terminally grounded.

The last time I smoked pot was the summer of 1993. On my way back to school from a summer job, I was pulled over in rural east Texas by the Tex-Ark-La Narcotics Police, on the pretext that I was not wearing my seatbelt. This was A) not true, and B) not a primary offense, but, as the trooper in mirrored shades screamed at me, “YOU. DON’T. ARGUE. BY THE SIDE. OF THE ROAD.” The police were looking for drug mules, I had out-of-state plates, and I guess it was my turn. The encounter was terrifying. They separated me and my passenger, the ne’er-do-well, one-legged biker I’ve promised to tell you about, and interrogated us. Thankfully, we did not say anything that gave the officers probable cause to search the car because, unbeknownst to me, the boyfriend did have weed in the car. After that close call, which could have cost me my entire future, I vowed never to put myself at risk again. If only I could have stuck to my guns!

I hate weed because it is so undignified. People debase themselves for drugs, and they look like morons while they do them. That thing where you inhale and then talk while holding your breath to give the smoke time to penetrate your lungs? It is an embarrassment to adulthood. And then there’s the spit-swapping. The one-legged biker would put his entire mouth around the bong when he inhaled, like some kind of toked-up, wide-mouth bass. And then pass it to the next loser, who would latch on without so much as a wipe. So gross.

I am guilty of undignified behavior too. I once smoked weed out of a Pepsi can at a desolate spot behind my high school called “the flats.” Somehow my friend had weed, but no pipe, so we improvised. We emptied a Pepsi can (god, I hope it was ours, and not one we found on the ground!) and folded it in half, then my friend used her earring to poke holes in the crease. I think we placed the weed on the holes, then we inhaled through the mouth of the can. To a third-party observer, I am certain we looked like complete trash.

I hate weed because it makes me sick. Yes, a substance known for alleviating nausea makes me puke. It wasn’t every time, but it was often enough. And there was one time when I became epically ill, vomiting again and again in the kitchen sink of a vacant apartment while my baked friends sprawled on the floor. That night I prayed for death.

I hate weed because it turns otherwise decent people into assholes. Marijuana causes people to dissociate, which is a fancy way of saying that they check out. They do not perceive social cues as unaltered people do. The experience of being high can be wondrous and absolutely hilarious to those who are having it, but to sober people, high people look like tools. And if there are people counting on them, the wonder and hilarity of being high is selfish and cruel.

I actually only smoked marijuana a handful of times–perhaps three times as many as I have recounted here–and I never bought it, never rolled a joint, never packed a bowl. Not once, ever. It was easy for me to leave it behind, because it so often made me sick. And even if it hadn’t, I didn’t especially like being high. It was fun for a hot minute, then I wanted it to stop. Weed also made me profoundly sleepy and hungry, which are my default states anyway. Why spend money or risk jail time for the privilege of being your worst self? Despite all my antipathy for weed, I ended up spending a lot of time around it in my late 20s, thanks to the most addictive drug of all: love.

The relationship did not end well, so let’s call him Cheesefart.

I met Cheesefart a year after my roadside encounter with the Narcotics Police, and one of our first big fights was over my refusal to allow him to transport marijuana in any quantity in my car. Even so, I fell in love with him, and we dated for several years. By the end, he was growing marijuana in our basement and selling it on the regular. That is when I went from merely disliking weed to outright hating it.

My relationship with Cheesefart was fraught, especially after I moved in with him. We fought over common issues like household chores and how to spend our meager, grad-student funds. The short version was, Cheesefart had no money if I wanted to take a trip with him or go out to dinner or buy groceries other than ramen. But he always had money for CDs, guitars, and weed.

I’m a practical gal, and I love to garden. I have no moral qualms about weed, and I oppose its criminalization on principle. Further, purchasing weed supports criminal enterprises that trade in murder and human suffering. So, it seemed to me that the most responsible way to free up funds for couple-time was to stop buying weed–and start growing it.

Oh, the things we do for love! Growing weed, in our house, was my suggestion. But boy did Cheesefart run with it.

He set up shop under our basement stairs in a secret little room tucked behind the washer & dryer. At first, I found the process fascinating and regarded it as an elaborate craft/garden project. You can’t just buy weed seeds–at least, not back then–and information about growing it was hard to come by. There was an elaborate process of sorting seeds, soaking them, and sorting again, to ensure the proper gender. After they germinated, they required artificial light. I was so proud of the solution he devised, which involved fluorescent lights hung in a panel under the stairs that you could lift and lower at will. To maximize growth, he hung washers on the branches so that they would leaf out more broadly. He experimented with fertilizers and found bat guano to be the most productive. He added fans to simulate wind, which strengthened the plants. This went on for over a year, maybe more than two, resulting in multiple yields and a shit-ton of pot.

When you have a lot of pot, you have a lot of “friends.” But they aren’t real friends; they are weedfriends. Weedfriends don’t want to get to know you, and they certainly don’t want to help you; they are just around. They come over to buy weed, and of course every time they buy some, they have to smoke it too. But weedfriends often have no money, so they just come over to hang out and “help” with the plants–another overture to smoking. As a result, my home had an endless parade of losers coming and going at all hours.

They were not discrete. Some concerned friends–real friends–told me that they could smell weed from the street when they drove past our house. Add the constant sound of live music or over-amplified acid rock coming from Cheesefart’s fantastically expensive stereo system–given to us in payment for, you guessed it, weed–and the situation was just begging for police involvement. I read with horror in the news about women just like me, who ended up serving multi-decade prison sentences for allowing pot to be grown in their homes. I researched mandatory minimums and learned that the presence of an elementary school around the corner from our house would tack years onto a sentence. I scrutinized our electric bills, because I knew that the police did so as well, in search of homes that used unusual amounts of electricity. I lived in fear of a break-in when Cheesefart was out of town, because I knew that calling 9-1-1 was not an option for me. I was risking my safety and my future for those plants–and I hadn’t smoked pot in years.

Cheesefart and I fought all the time. We fought about the time the plants were consuming–the watering, the weighting and grooming, and elaborate trimming rituals in which sticky weed leaves covered our dining room table. Sometimes he would disappear into the tiny grow room for hours. Cheesefart’s commitment to the plants bordered on obsessive, and it prevented us from ever going out of town together because someone had to look after the plants. We fought about weedfriends knocking on our door, peering in our windows, and skulking around the yard. We fought about the future, and whether he could continue his habits with children in the house. We fought about weed smell, which necessitated the purchase of equipment to mitigate it. Then we fought about the electric bill, which was as high as Cheesefart. And of course, we fought about how much pot he was smoking.

I suggested he grow pot to save money, not to fuel a burgeoning habit. But that is what happened. The more weed he had, the more weed he smoked. The following activities required getting high:

  • waking up
  • going to bed
  • having sex
  • studying
  • watching TV
  • all household chores
  • all yard work
  • cooking and doing dishes
  • driving anywhere
  • grocery shopping and other errands
  • biking
  • playing ultimate frisbee
  • playing or listening to music
  • petting cats
  • brushing cats
  • eating
  • drinking
  • social gatherings of any kind

By the end of the relationship, he was high pretty much all the time. He told me, when we broke up, that he smoked so much because I made him miserable. I believed that for a long time, until I saw him at a Sunday morning pickup game a couple of years later. It was 10 AM, and he was tapping the contents of a bowl out onto the tray of his infant daughter’s stroller.

I thought to myself, “Thank heaven that is not my life.” And also, “I fucking hate pot.”

I loved Cheesefart dearly and hoped to make a life with him. But over the years we were together, he disappeared into a private world that was insulated with weed. He imagined that marijuana made him funnier, more musically creative, and a better ultimate player. What it actually did was make him an insensitive jerk. We lived together, ostensibly because we loved each other and were going to make a family. In reality, though, he lived with a nice lady who was emotionally present, loving, and trying to be a good partner. And I lived with a man who was high literally all the time, because he loved weed more than he loved me.

I support legalization of marijuana, and I think the War on Drugs is a shameful waste of resources that criminalizes poverty and exacerbates longstanding social inequalities. I also think marijuana is addictive, I think it makes people who smoke it boring and cruelly insensitive, and I loathe the way it smells. I simply hate it.

Enjoy your 4/20, smokers and tokers! But please do it far away from me. Because I think you look dumb, and the smell of your blunt is dredging up bad memories.