In the company of men

The beer bottle was cold in my fist.
(I opted for the Moosehead, instead of the Corona Light.)
“I know you’ve probably got a cool opener,” my buddy said, “But listen to this.”
And he popped his Moosehead to the sounds of Homer Simpson drooling.
We settled into deck chairs near the pool, with a crackling fire in the fire pit.
And he let me talk.
For two hours.
About me.
It was the theme of the day.

An early coffee with a buddy; lunch (Thai) with my best friend.
Hanging with the homies.
And they all let me do all the talking. Without trying to solve one problem. No advice, either – unless I asked for it.

And what I found when I awoke was a clarity. A new purpose and focus. A smile on my face. A relaxed attitude and the feeling that things will be OK. Because of my homies.

Our beers finished and the fire reduced to a few coals, it was time for me to make my exit. Yes, I felt like I overstayed my welcome, and bored him with my tales of woe (or whatever it was).
But the funny thing was that these three guys all had my back. They listened without butting in. They let me figure things out myself, but in the company of men.
It felt good to let someone take the time to care for me.

“You’ll be OK,” my buddy said at the door. “You’re a land-on-your-feet guy. You look great. You’ll be just fine."

Poetry from the trail

I don't know about you, but when jammed into a tent during a rainstorm in Wyoming, I like to get out a pad and a pencil and jot down some poetry.
This storm moved in so fast and so furious, we were in awe. It kept us at bay until the next morning.

Light fades on distant skies,
chased by roiling clouds.
Last tendrils streak across slick rock,
a fingertip touch across a lover’s back.
Darkness fills the valley now,
storm clouds swirl angry.

How sweet the rain that falls,
delicate at first, patters that rhyme,
beats in time, heartbeats.

Unnatural dusk falls heavy,
a sackcloth cover that douses light.
A blaze of jagged light,
thunder echoes off rock walls.
The rhythm of the rain quickens,
as if by excited heart.

Mid-summer storm at daylight’s end,
Nature, she shows off a wild side,
another tempest before the coming dawn.

Emotional being (or being emotional)

No one starts out exactly where they finish in a life.
Blank slate. Clay for molding and all that.
We're hard-wired at the factory with the basics - then it is up to experience and upbringing to fill in the gaps.
I am an emotional being. Impassioned.
I wear my emotions out.
(Play poker with me; I have no “poker face.”)
And it is difficult to live in a society that says “Keep things in check, be politically correct” when you know damn well it is counter to how you were hard-wired.
“You like pissing people off,” first sister said recently.
But I don’t. I never intend to blaze roughshod over the landscape. It just happened that way.
From my earliest days. I was 4 when we had this babysitter from hell who decided that no child in her care would eat with his left (natural) hand. She tied my left arm to my body – and said I was to sit at the table and eat everything on my plate with my right hand.
“We’re going to be here awhile,” I said.
And I sat there until my mother called to check in, where I was untied – and the babysitter was sent packing.
Fight for what is right. Stand up. Speak up. Speak out.
It is how I have chosen to live my life.
It’ll get you into trouble. I know.

When I was 26 I was editor of a small newspaper. The economy was lousy and the publisher’s house was for sale. I went to the general manager and asked if everything was OK. I specifically asked – and felt I deserved a straight answer – to the question, “Was my job in jeopardy?”
“Naw,” he said. “Go ahead and get that sports car you were thinking about. Reward yourself.”
I managed to get most of my people out to other jobs, burning every marker I had with every friend in the business.
But there I was, two weeks later, back in the GM’s office, where I was being laid off. And with no job in sight.
“Is there anything you’d like to say?” he asked.
“I’m going to piss on your grave.”
“Excuse me?”
“For the rest of my life, I am going to scan the obituaries and when I see yours, I’m coming back here and I’m going to piss on your grave.”
OK, not the most smooth transitions I’ve ever made.
Of course, now I’m stuck doing it. A promise is a promise.

Wearing your emotions out gets tiring. It gets confusing.
I have an evaluation from work that basically asks that I come to work happy. Every fucking day.
“You are the moral compass of (company),” it states. “Others look to you to see how to proceed with the day. You wear your heart on your sleeve and when you are in a bad mood, everybody knows it. It is essential that you carry yourself in a manner where your emotions buoy this newsroom.”
Try living up to that. I tried to have it taken out, but it stayed. And so I keep it as a reminder.
Of a power force?
No. Just to be aware of what raw emotions can do.

As I have aged, I have mellowed. And sometimes, my brain actually stops my mouth from spouting what my brain actually dreamed up to say.
And I have learned a few valuable lessons along the way.
(Old dog, new tricks kinda thing.)
Sometimes, it is best not to say anything at all.
Add a sly little smile, too.
Makes people plenty nervous.

Happy Fun Day (mostly)

There it was, just to the right of center on the busiest walking/running/cycling trail in town: A Gigantor-sized pile of bear shit.
I nearly doubled back to snap a picture of its blackberry filled goodness; but then I thought, "Why would the world want to see a big pile of shit?"
Even if it just goes to prove that the natural world is a lot closer to the urban world; much more than most people think about.

I am beginning to be addicted. To exercise.
Strap a 40-plus-pound backpack to your back and hike at least 10 miles a day, every day, for six straight days, and the body begins to crave the pain, crave the endorphins that come.
"People with happy endorphins play nice with others," a hiking buddy said. "People with happy endorphins don't kill people."
True, true.
I was in the saddle by 9 a.m. Sunday. I rolled back into my driveway at about a quarter to 1 (and made myself a tasty chocolate/banana/peanut butter protein shake).
Time stopped (OK, it marched on, but I didn't notice).
I just kept rolling, further and further on roads and trails so familiar. Until I saw the knobby treadmarks in the dust that lead to a little slice of singletrack heaven. A path less traveled and all that.
Tunes in my ears and the satisfying crunch of rubber on rock. The path dusty and slick in spots - yeah, I walked this rock section - but didn't fall once. OK, I did nearly manage to rip my thumb off, but that was it. I came around a tight curve, the trail bent around a pine, and I reached out and jammed my thumb against the pine. Whoops.
And I know what you're saying now; "Say, ThomG, isn't that the $3,999 Trek Project One custom Liquid Fuel EX mountain bike you won in a raffle? The one that is just a wee bit too small for your fat ass? The one that you're selling for $2,500 out the door?"
Why, yes it is. Which goes to show you just how much of a lazy S.O.B. I really am. I got the flatted tube out of my Giant's tire, and found that I didn't have another tube. Not in my pack; not on a garage shelf. Buying new tubes meant a trip to the bike shop. Conversation (remember, I'm currently in selfish bastard mode). And then I realized, "Shit, I have a whole 'nuther bike right there."
Except, I have this break-it-and-buy-it ride mentality when I'm on the Trek. I baby the durn thing. Since, hey, it is for sale and all (ridden on dirt twice, that's it; I'm stopping by the shop today for tubes).

As for the rest of my Sunday, it was a blur of things that needed to be done, crisis' that cropped up and finally the disappointment of a friend who I had promised dinner, but rescinded (so I could finish a proposal I'd promised to someone else).
By the time I went to bed, tired quads and all, I kinda wished I was back on the saddle. Sucking up good endorphins.

Song writing

OK, I am a writer.
How hard could it be to write a song?
Plenty tough, let me tell you.

I'm trying to write a song. Because I want to. Because I want my buddy who is in a band to put it to music and sing it on stage (which would be way cool).

Because I've never written a song before.
Yeah, a song is basically a poem. I've written plenty of those, ever since I was 8. But this songwriting thing. Whoa. Much more of a challenge than I had thought.

That's when you really start to admire all the cool songs you listen to for the lyrics (sorry, Max Factor, it's all about the lyrics - still) and begin to appreciate what the thought process was to bring that song to fruition.

So I've been playing with lyrics for a few days. It probably doesn't help that I've been listening to a bunch of Social Distortion, either. Mike Ness is a poet of some note. He writes about angst better than anyone I can think of.
And angst is where I'm at.

So, here's what I'm up against, Mike Ness' "Reach for the Sky," from Sex, Love Rock 'N' Roll:

When I was young I was invincible
I found myself not thinking twice
I never thought about no future
It's just a roll of the dice

But the day may come when you got something to lose
And just when you think you're done paying dues
You say to yourself "Dear, God What have I Done?"
And hope its not to late cause tomorrow may never come

Reach for the sky cause tomorrow may never come
Reach for the sky cause tomorrow may never come

Yesterday is history
And tomorrow is a mystery
But baby right now,
It's just about you and me

You can run you can hide
Just like Bonnie and Clyde
Reach for the sky
ain't never gonna die
And I thank the Lord for the love that I have found
And hold you tight cause tomorrow may never come

Reach for the sky cause tomorrow may never come
Reach for the sky cause tomorrow may never come

So if you please take this moment
Try if you can to make it last
Don't think about no future
And just forget about the past
And make it last

Reach for the sky cause tomorrow may never come
(reach for the sky I ain't never going down)
Reach for the sky cause tomorrow may never come
(reach for the sky I ain't never coming down)
Reach for the sky cause tomorrow may never come
(reach for the sky I ain't never going down)
Reach for the sky cause tomorrow may never come

But I promise, good or bad, I'll post my song.
But only when it is finished.

Taking care of No. 1

So I went in for a bit of a mental tune-up with the good doctor a couple of weeks ago. Just, you know, to kick the tires, give the windows a good scrub, change the spinal fluid.
Funny thing is, he gave me another test.
“Want a soda? Here, while I get it, fill this out.”
Sneaky bastard.
(Of course there was a question about my mother.)
(I kid the good doctor.)
I just needed to talk a few things out with someone clinically responsible to listen.
And, of course, the topic came up (it always comes up) about why I’m so recluse to take care of myself. First and foremost.
Honestly, I don’t know when it started. I am not sure how to turn it off.
But I can tell you that I’ve tried to do it this week.
And managed to come off as a selfish prick.
“You’re not being a selfish prick,” a buddy said. “You’re doing things for yourself, when and where you want to do them.”
Which means I’m being a selfish prick bastard.
If I want to ride, I ride.
If I want to sit at the computer and write, I’ve done it.
If I want to sit in the front yard with the girls (my dogs, Trinity and Scully), I do it.
Mostly, what I have wanted is to be alone. And that has proven to be tough.
(Ladies, I know it’s hard to understand, but if your guy says he needs to be alone, he just wants to crawl into his cave and figure things out. It’s not like we’re avoiding you or anything. It just is…a male knee-jerk reaction to stress and strain. And no, we don’t necessarily want to talk about it. Hence, the alone part.)
So it could be said that I have been aloof and cold this week.
Just working things out.
Nothing to see here.
No hidden agendas.
And I feel like a ride now, which means I have to change out a flat, so I am out of here…

In the shit

Hip deep in shit.
You've heard the expression.
But have you ever been? Literally, hip deep in shit?
Try being buried up to your chest. In pig shit.
True story time. I was 8 and we were at my aunt and uncle's Midwestern farm. Just before we got in the car to go home, I was running around near the sow barns.
Where I charged up a dirt pile.
That wasn't dirt.
It was shit.
As I got to the top, the dried crust broke and I plunged up to my chest in shit, arms on top of the pile like a chicken.
The inner shit, where decomposition was creating methane gas and all the other fun stuff, was the consistency of canned pudding. Only warm. Very, very warm.
Yeah, once I figured out what I did - and listened to everyone laughing - I burst into tears. More of frustration than that current, shitty situation.
It was like being buried in epoxy. I tried to extricate myself, but the crust that did such a fine job of holding me up for the briefest of moments kept crumbling. My uncle had to bring the tractor over and lift me straight up and out.
I stunk. Stink, stank, stunk.
Into a garbage bag went my shoes, my shorts, my undies (yes, I wore them, a long time ago), and my shirt. A quick, nekked rinse with the hose. A long, bubble bath soak in the couple's ancient clawfoot bathtub. Lots of soap and shampoo (and they let me drink an RC cola there, to soothe the tears of frustration).

I had the essence of o'de hog crap on me for at least a week. Just a hint, the slightest of whiffs, of shit.

There is a moral to this story.
You can be in the shit, and it will be frustrating and it'll stink, but it doesn't last.
Just so long as you extricate yourself in a timely manner.
And treat yourself nice, like taking a cold RC cola into the bath.

A little poetry

It happens more than you'd ever know. You get off a trailhead, and there is a stick that someone has used as a staff. Propped on a fencepost. Waiting for someone else to pick it up.
In Wyoming, it was no different. After 60 miles on trail, the last trailhead out and there was this chunk of lodgepole pine. Just aching for a new person to pick it up and amble.

So I wrote a poem about it.

Just an old stick propped up on a fencepost,
stripped of its bark, naked.
Left there by a someone,
who dared to walk in woods,
cool, dark, mysterious.
A stick of lodgepole pine,
chosen carefully as a staff.
To aid the adventurer in a pursuit,
to amble in quiet woods.
Sweat and grime from the hiker’s hand
darkened the tawny wood,
like resin on baseball bats.
It’s pointed end mashed flat,
with each step
on a path
of dirt and gravel.
And when the grand adventure was over,
a walk in the woods complete.
The staff that had aided its finder,
to journey deep into canyons of granite,
its walls splashed with pine and alder,
became obsolete.
Placed on a wooden fence gone gray with age.
To wait for the next adventurer.
The next walk into woods.

Old friends

The email was the last of more than 250 in my inbox at work.
“Thomcat, are you doing any book signings in Texas? Scully wants to explore her roots.”
It was from an old friend, a former lover. Someone I haven’t seen in more than 10 years, let alone talked to in more than five.
I returned the email, said it was good to hear from her and asked for her number, so we could talk and catch up.
“It’s good to hear your voice,” she said Monday night.
“Yours too,” I said.
We told our stories. Our hardships and heartbreak. Our triumphs and our successes.
We’ve been through a lot she and I, over the course of the last two years.
We met as pool lane mates in a masters swim program. She was getting out of a bad marriage and mine was on the rocks. Swimming at 5 a.m. was a way to escape our houses, put some miles on in the pool, forget – for just an hour – the pressures and pain.
We became friends, along with another dear friend (who now I intend to reconnect with this week) and formed our own little clique.
We’ve been through a lot together, she and I. A trip to Mexico with two other girlfriends. Nights on the lawn of the Dallas Museum of Art to hear concerts and drink Chilean wine. Dinners at her Jewish family’s household, where ham was served (and I never let her forget the it).
While roller blading on the grounds of the State Fair of Texas, just a few weeks before I made the decision to come to California, we decided to take her daughter to the Dallas SPCA and look at the puppies.
And I ended up with Scully.
Her daughter, who was 6 at the time, told me Monday night that she remembered helping to name the dog. She insisted I call her Honey, because of the color of her fur. P being observant of my uncomfort, suggested Scully, as the hot show at the time was The X Files. And she deftly steered her daughter away from a fit when she suggested that the dog’s name be Scully Honey.
And so it is.
I asked her why now, why contact me after all this time?
“I’ve just been wanting to reconnect with old friends.”
I told her she was the one person I tried to reach out to when my second marriage blew up in December. I wrote her a long, rambling email and asked that she respond. That if she didn’t respond, I was OK with that too.
I had the email address wrong. She never got it.
“I would have responded, you know that.”
She asked why I had sought her out.
“Because you understand me – and you’ve never judged me.”
The hour got late in California – and really late in Texas – so we agreed that five years was too long of a time to go without speaking. Promises were made to keep in touch.
A promise I intend to keep.
Because throughout the conversation, I kept thinking of the richness of my life – and the challenges going forward that make life so damn interesting.
Because of old friends – and friends not yet met.
It took one phone call to close the gap of time and miles with P.
I am glad for that email, especially now.

Weighing the options

A burning bush would have been nice.
Maybe a break in the clouds, a burst of sunrays and a booming voice.
Giving me all the answers to life’s little questions.
Through nearly 60 miles of Wyoming’s backcountry, with more than 10,000 feet (3,048 meters for our metric friends) of vertical climbing with a 47-pound pack on my back.
Time. Lots and lots of time.
And not a single of life’s problems or challenges got solved.
By either burning bush or my own gray matter.
Only the realization that I’m going to have to make-or-break things all on my own. And there are options that I’m going to have to consider.

I love my job. I’m good at it. No, I’m great at it.
I could stay here, ride things out, and be OK. There is comfort here. Not much risk. But the rewards? I dunno. I really don’t know if there are enough to satisfy.

I could take another job in journalism or communications. It’s a small step. With risks. Starting over in a new town, a new state even. The rewards? Unknown. A fresh start, I guess. New challenges. A chance to grow as a writer.

Graduate school. A masters of fine arts degree in creative writing. Now there’s a leap of faith. Huge risks. Stop my life for three years, live in near poverty and work my ass off to create a novel. And then what? What happens after? Another transition. Another search for the next thing (what if I can’t cut it as a novelist?) The rewards? A graduate degree (which my mother always wished of me). A novel. The chance to prove myself. The real chance to grow as a writer. Under the tutelage of other writers.

I don’t feel paralyzed by my life right now. That’s the weird thing. I just feel tired.
I am curious to see what happens, see how things shake out and unfold.
Let the ripples reverberate on The Tension.

Just a note to say I'm alive

I've made it out of Wyoming's Wind River Range without a scratch.
And I'm chilling at Denver International Airport (just to prove to you that The Tension is global, I'm typing away near the mensroom in the United terminal).

Anyway, I've got email to tend to before that flight back to Cali.

So, amuse yourself with this, won't you?
Or check out the MFA program I'm considering at Iowa State.

Regularly scheduled posts to The Tension resume on Monday.

Happy trails

OK, kiddies, I'm back on-trail. In Wyoming this time. Surface Tension will be dark for a week.
However, since this is a Backpacker thing, you might be able to follow the adventure here.
There's always a lot more carnage on The Tension, so you come on back now, ya hear?

Oy, my aching back

My new chiropractor says my problems started at birth.
I have a ventricular problem. My balance is a bit off-kilter. It's a brain thing. Right brain stem, to be exact.
"With all the injuries you've suffered, those injuries are sending signals to your right brain stem, telling certain muscles to contract. It's not a tumor, don't think brain tumor. It's something correctable, I'll have you do some brain exercises."
(OK, my eyes are glazed over at this point; I just want her to crack my back.)
On my way out of the Marble Mountain Wilderness Area, I got a foot caught in the boulder field. My pack went one way, my back the other. Tweak.
Starting Saturday, I'm in Wyoming for a 66-mile trek through the Wind River Range. With a 40-pound pack on my back.
Brain exercises?
Just crack my vertebrae. Please.
No need to be gentle. Get in there and work it. Work them babies, let me hear the snack, crackle, pop.
She did.
After the brain exercises (which, I must say, kinda worked).
While it is not 100 percent, I feel better.
I feel like I can handle the Winds.
And that's the point.


You can't feel it.
You can't see it.
You just have to read about it.
Take my word for it.
There's a hum to my life, a vibration.
Like a loose lugnut on an old Buick.
Threatening to come off.

I try my best to ignore it.
(Work through it.)
Go about the day-to-day things everyone has to do.
But in the dark and the quiet of the night, these vibrations, these monumental tremors of life, threaten to shake me apart.

"How are you doing?"
I'm doing.
Ever so...

One more misstep, one more shit detail, one more dilemma - one more. Always one more.
I'd like to catch a break.
Stop the vibrations.
If just for a few days, a few weeks (a few months? Heaven).

Life doesn't work quite like that. It's a messy place where everyone vibrates and pulsates with a million different dilemmas to deal with.
My own don't confuse me. I think, I squint and let the problems resonate their frequency through me.
I'm holding on too tight.
Way too tight.

Journalists, in a tight space

"It's God's work; there's a nobility in what we do."
On that first part, I'm not so sure.
As for the second, that I am positive.
We're talking about journalism.
My buddy said that, during a quiet moment where we both openly questioned what we were doing, how we were doing it, where we were doing it - and both agreed that we were equally screwed because it was the only thing we ever wanted to do.
Get a bunch of journalists together and you're going to talk about the craft (and it is a craft; blogging is blogging, but journalism is real-world writing and editing).
There were six journalists on the backpacking trip.
Wordsmiths all; six people - out of maybe a dozen - I know I can trust with the craft. Because we all have written that perfect sentence; we've felt the surge of energy when a piece of copy that was drab was made vibrant by a few keystrokes.
We are not happy where the craft is.
Or where it is going.
Funny, but we are all 40somethings (for the most part) and came into the business squarely between the era of the post-1960s Muckrakers and the rise of corporate newspaper ownership. We're the Generation X of the Baby Boomers of the business; we're more likely to rebel than to give up and join the meat grinder journalism practiced today (where it all looks like sausage, more or less filler).
"I just feel like I'm banging my head against the wall."
"Decisions are being made by the bottom line, and not by good journalism."
"We can't be replaced by bloggers; they don't seem to get it, that the idea is to inform and not to distort or confuse people."
"I don't know you boys, where this is all going."
Between sips of whiskey and uncouth behavior born of the backcountry and friends who have been through quite a lot over the last few years, we didn't solve the woes of our craft. We just know that it's sick.
We know it can get better.
Because the simple truth is, if you just do your job - and you do it with creativity and gusto and you get out of the fucking newsroom every single fucking day and really talk to people - then you are doing the service that drove you to take up this journalism thing in the first place.
Because we have taken an oath to inform and entertain. To seek the truth and expose the corrupt.
It is a helluva beautiful thing when done right.
And you keep your fucking opinions to yourself, and out of print (because no one cares what you think, unless you're an opinion columnist).

"Never wear your best trousers when you go out to fight for freedom and truth."
Henrik Ibsen said that.
I say fuck it.
Wear whatever.
Just go out and fight for freedom and truth.
Get out of the newsroom, get off the fucking telephone.
Get to know the secretaries and the people who really know what's going on. Forge sources and friendships over coffee and conversation.
Entertain and inform.
Tell a good story.
Expose the truth.
Do your fucking job.
Practice your craft.
Polish it until it shines.


When I was hungry, I ate.
When I was tired, I slept.
When I was hot, I swam.

Nothing beats a walk into the woods.
Just for the chance to unplug from whatever ails you. Or to see sights like this, which was pretty much the view from my tent:

"The atmosphere up here," a buddy said while we fished from giant granite boulders for brook trout. "It gets rid of a whole host of evils."
Yes, it does.