A Song for the Live Wires & Burning Bushes

Somewhere deep where we have no program our next discovery lies.

                                                                                                  – William Stafford


I don’t remember what I expected or wanted that evening in 1992, the night I first bumbled into J.C. Dobbs. I imagine I was too embattled by nerves and anticipation as I entered the venue to hazard any expectations. Back then, I hadn’t ventured solo into Philadelphia, hadn’t pushed past the border of my neighborhood at the city’s edges with any frequency. The World was out there, and all the dreadful, dangerous, hot bloodlust associated with it, and we’d come to understand early on – falsely – that to keep close meant we could stay safe. And while I had seen the bar area at different restaurants before, until that night I had only ever been inside one actual, real bar. That first time, a couple years earlier, I was only let in to see the show if I wore a wrist band and my dad accompanied me. Somehow, I managed to convince him to serve as my chaperone.

img_2749_JCDobbsDobbs was smaller than that place. When you walked inside, it looked like you were staring down a dimly-lit, roofed alleyway. The stage rested at the center of the small room and while all the band’s gear appeared onstage, it was hard to imagine how more than one person could fit up there. From the entrance at the back of the bar, the stage resembled the narrow plank of a pirate ship. An absurdly thin hallway curled past the right of the stage, leading to the bathrooms and a stairwell reaching to the second floor.

My folks had caved that evening and allowed me to drive the Country Squire – that faux-wood-paneled beast – down to South Street, though not without reminding me that someone had recently been shot in that part of the city. My mom, discomfited that I intended to make the journey to South Street solo, asked more than one time if I really had to go down by myself. But who would I have asked? My hometown friends had all returned to their different colleges. I was still languishing at the community college, resigned to living at home and working – part-time at K-Mart, part-time as one of the church janitors – absolutely clueless about where to direct my energies, or how to put the next steps of my life in motion, much less know what to be when I grew up.

I can’t tell you today where I first heard of the Killing Floor album, or how I even came into possession of 81bfe86fd6d253b38f3b78ad17f8b944the record on a blank cassette. I only recall now that the magic words, “Athens, Georgia” and “…co-produced by Peter Buck” appeared in the press around the album – news that immediately yanked me into its orbit. At that time in my life, any and all association with R.E.M. compelled an urgent drive to seek out an artist’s material. Any artist that stood even a mild chance of doing to my heart and skin what R.E.M. albums did to me was worth a try. In fact, that’s what I must have sought out of this experience, from this evening’s nerve-addled journey: I wanted these ambassadors from R.E.M.-country to bring me to life in real time; I wanted in a live setting to feel the red clay of Georgia on my skin, to feel something similar to what Athens’s luminaries could do to my loneliness through my headphones.


(R.E.M. l to r: Buck, Stipe, Mills, & Berry)

Maybe you can remember a time when you were someone’s biggest fan, too. Maybe you can identify on some level with my admittedly-juvenile adoration, devotion, and logic here.


I don’t remember how long I stood in the back of the bar that evening before the band I had come to see took the stage. What would  they even look like? I had seen the album cover in a magazine, so I knew the lead-singer/songwriter wore glasses.


I can’t remember now how long I stood in the shadows in muted, wide-eyed anticipation.



Did I emerge hours later? Days? Moments?

Whatever the case, spilling out the door of JC Dobbs and back onto South Street, I may as well have stumbled out of the wardrobe from Narnia. For all I knew, years could have passed on the other side of the venue’s door.

What had I just witnessed? Lived through? No – not lived through. I had survived. And just barely.

The four members of Vigilantes of Love had not performed on the bar’s narrow stage that evening so much as “Gone Off.” Walked onstage, picked up their instruments, and then exploded like a malatov cocktail in a fireworks factory.

I’d never seen anything like it.

True, I had not seen much until that time in my life.

But how did they pack up and drive away after that anyway? How did they sleep?

And, dear Lord, who in the world let them get away with that?


(photo, Michael Wilson)

At the same time, Bill Mallonee and company were not even doing a job that night – or on many of the other nights I would watch them over the years that followed: It became apparent that whenever the Vigilantes of Love walked onstage and leaned into the evening and their songs, they set to the urgent task of saving their lives, and STAT. And in their excruciating, vulnerable, death-defying, Evil Knievel approach to rock and roll, they converted me to something. But to what exactly? It’s taken me at least this many years living with that question to arrive here: I still don’t have an answer for you.


I found my breath and rose above the evening’s surface. I knew only one thing as I fumbled around for my keys outside: Everything I’d heard until then – which was admittedly not much from within the bubble, the subculture of my origins – proved a gelatinous, soft-butter imitation of men daring to pretend they played rock and roll. Whatever other bands I had seen were doing, they’d left their turning signals on. They drove through songs too carefully, with a donut, hazard lights blinking. At best, other bands onstage resembled zombies craving their own souls; ghosts hungry for the warmth, the heat of their own flesh.


I have seen many concerts since that night. Some of which have perhaps rivaled or surpassed that lone 1990’s bar-burner. I couldn’t say.

But I was a walking matchbook right then. And lonely. Adrift at sea. No compass. If you’d held my hand under starlight, played me your favorite song, or asked me to tell you the deepest desires burdening my heart in those days, we likely would have exploded into a cosmic supernova together.

That night, four men came dangerously close to setting me ablaze. And I do know – I can tell you – there were sparks that evening.

And on some nights, I can still smell the smoke.


(xoxo Bill Mallonee, Newt Carter, David LaBruyere, & Travis McNabb…)

In memoriam, Robert Newton Carter, 1966-2015…RIP



Pic of a 1989 schedule of shows at J.C. Dobbs in 1989 found online…you’ll notice a couple acts here went on to become household names.


Apartment Story

apt story

At this writing, I’ve spent the past month moving the last four years of our trio’s belongings out of an unremarkable two bedroom apartment in midtown Anchorage. It’s possible I consumed my weight in ibuprofen during this undertaking. Throughout the endeavor, I also found enough Legos embedded in the carpet fibers to assemble a small, albeit misshapen army.

While I’ve known for some time that I wanted to move from this space, I never could have prepared for the emotional rollercoaster of actually doing so. Packing and cleaning our apartment made my July feel like an unending series of montage scenes. In many ways, my month resembled one of those corny “flashback” episodes of the sitcoms of my youth, like Family Ties or Growing Pains:


– photo, Brian Adams, 2013

This is the spot in the kitchen where we processed and cooked our first wild-caught salmon.

Here’s the place in the bedroom where our youngest, Matt, was born.

This is where I would put Sam down for a nap when I was in grad school.

And here’s the place – during the period that Sam wanted his mattress in the closet, the year his brother and mom lived in Pennsylvania – that we read The Hobbit together…

matt laff


Many writers – well, at least Burt Bacharach and Edie Brickell – have rightfully speculated that “a house is not a home.” We’ve all likely stepped into or dined at a location that at first glance seemed an enviable living space that instead revealed or possessed an unsettling feeling in the air: The spirit of “home” that we expect to inhabit a property can prove noticeably missing from a “house” structure. Still, I’ve visited many more impressive living spaces than ours in recent years, and frequently returned to our apartment – with its 1970’s, bright-orange countertops and carpet the color of a three day old March snow – lamenting that circumstances didn’t afford us a larger, more stylish space to dwell in together.


I once heard a bit of “literary lore” that’s over the years helped me work with, among other things, “writer’s block.” As best as I recall, the tale goes that Chekov – the Russian short story wizard and playwright – was seated at a table outside a cafe where a fellow writer lamented the difficulties of the writing task. In response to his friend’s grousing, Chekov lifted or pointed to a glass on the table and – I’m paraphrasing – remarked, “Look! This glass! Start with this glass. I could start writing about this glass and soon a story will emerge!”IMG_6609

If it’s true that each person invents, or at least significantly participates in shaping his or her reality, then Chekov makes a wonderful point. The materials for creating good writing and art, and, more importantly, a life are everywhere around us.

In other words, the tools for crafting the stories (and poems and songs) of our lives are always within view – in every direction we turn or look – provided we learn to cultivate an awareness of them, and then use them to pay tribute to the life we’re given.

“Every day is a god,” charges Annie Dillard, “Each day is a god. And holiness holds forth in time.” If this day is a god, too, then how have I recognized it for what it is, whether I live in a majestically-caffeinated, superbly-microbrewed, literary and artful progressive hub like Portlandia or Brooklyn; or in a gruff, misplaced neighborhood pitched between two thoroughfares amidst a gaudy cluster of stripmalls in Anchorage, Alaska? If Annie’s right, the divine runs amok in every place I find myself, and I’d be remiss to prove too stymied or checked out to engage with it somehow.

Or, as Mary Oliver intones:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you…


The daily task, it seems, for my small part in life’s continuing unfolding, is to ask if I am even listening in the first place? Am I curiously taking notes or am I continuing to uneasily recite the redundant, recurring melodrama of Me?

Rather, if the world is offering itself to my imagination, calling to me, perhaps it’s only common courtesy to pick up, to answer the call in the first place? No matter where I am?


By the end of July, in a space I had for months, even years, known it was time to leave, I was surprised and overwhelmed by the emotions accompanying the move, solely given the import of our collected memories and experiences under our little section of the building’s roof. Though our apartment was never the envy of others, our little brood managed to – with attention and care – create a place together. Not a perfect place – not by a longshot. In fact, at times, it was a deeply troubled and fraught place. (The middle of its story, after all, features a divorce.) But we abided there in the best ways we knew how, and in our abiding, this place became home.

apt br


…Here is the spot where I feverishly added to a list of “Reasons to Stay Alive” in 2013…

…This is the room where the songs “Olena,” “Book of Consolation” and “Hope, Alaska” came to life…


…Here’s where, in 2008, I watched an episode of Planet Earth on DVD, as I gently rocked back and forth in the living room with Matt, then only a few weeks old.

David Attenborough detailed the journey of newly-hatched sea turtles. The mother that the baby turtles never meet laid and buried her eggs in the sand, and then returned to the sea from where she came. In this scene, the newly-hatched babies clamored, scampered towards the roaring ocean, drawn there by some invisible, timeless knowing.

This is the spot where the film showed the baby turtles darting across the beach and flinging themselves at the surging depths.

This is where I was sitting alone with Matt in the dark when David Attenborough noted that only one in ten thousand of the baby turtles survives their journey,

where I was then unexpectedly overcome with tears.

This is where I looked down at Matt sleeping in my arms, and rocked a little harder and swallowed the sea…

One in 10,000.

One in

One in 10,000?


We can do this.


(Right? Maybe?

Do we have a choice?)


We’ll do

– we will –



apt turtle


What We Talk About When We Talk About Traveling


Sunrise through a tent door in Joshua Tree

“Pop,” Matt called out from the back seat, the wind from his open window whipping through his hair, “where’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?”

It was late. We were driving home from a house concert at a friend’s property in a secluded wooded area on the fringes of Anchorage. Between the trance of the evening’s music and the long sunlit Alaskan summer evening, I’d lost all track of time, and so I now raced along the highway, distracted by the hour and that tomorrow was Monday and that the kids were still awake.

“Well…” I said, jogging my memory, “I remember really loving Italy…”

“…and Spain…” I added, as an afterthought.

“Wait, Pop,” he gasped, “you went to Italy?​”

In 1999, in my late twenties, my then girlfriend and I left Montana and backpacked around Europe for a few months. While I know the trip made an impression, and that there’s a box of photos in a storage closet somewhere documenting the time, I now struggled to put into words any lasting effect or poignant tales from the journey.

As the boys and I hurtled towards home, my mind only proved a soupy stew of vague, passing images and snapshot scenes: vines wrapping around a trellis of on the back porch of an apartment we rented on the Amalfi coast; standing on the balcony of our room in Barcelona and looking down on the courtyard with its little round tables and wooden folding chairs in the square; our host in the Cinque Terre, Giacomo, lifting a bunch of fresh grapes from a barrel and smiling as he handed them to us; a thumping nightclub in Prague where we winced our way through glasses of Windex­-colored absinthe.

Yet I struggled to grasp these wispy images from a long ago former life, to contain them in the framework of story or to find threads that wove all these together into a single fabric.

Who in the world was that guy in Europe baring my name and face then? What were his dreams? What did he want out of life in those years?

And was this midlife? Do memories just erode like shore lines in a hurricane during your forties? I clamored back to the surface.

“Japan was beautiful, too, though, right Sammy?”

“Yeah…” my eleven year-old dreamily sighed from the passenger’s seat.

We emerged beyond the high trees running along the highway and were coasting past exits and turnoffs leading to Anchorage’s version of the gaudy, predictable chain stores and strip malls featured off of every exit in the United States.

On this night, however, well north of consumer culture’s eyesores in the foreground, the sun blazed and pulsed with a dazzling prism of colors and light. Rounding the curve that revealed as much, it’s a wonder we didn’t drive straight off the highway. Slack jawed, I directed Sam and Matt’s attention to the sun’s show on my left.

“Look at that!”

The kids looked and said nothing.

As a born and bred East coast kid from the working class suburbs of Philadelphia, Alaska’s skies always leave me feeling like I’m getting away with something. From the midnight sunsets of summer, to the aurora of winter, there’s something nearly scandalous about letting a random suburban Philly boy travel so far from home to witness so many jaw-dropping skylines.

I tried keeping my eyes on the road while still absorbing the sky’s show on my left. The last time a sky so brilliantly throttled me and consumed my attention was on my trip to Joshua Tree this past March, where I met up and traveled with one of my oldest and best friends, Mark. Every morning and evening in the park seemed, like and unlike in Alaska, an unpredictable but welcome pass for being daily sucker punched by a sky full of Amazing. The in between times, our days, were framed by stupefying encounters with dramatic stone structures, hikes on paths and ground that recalled Roadrunner cartoons, and wandering amidst ruins and desert flora that seemed props for a Cormac McCarthy novel.


Mark & boulders, Joshua Tree

I remember passing hazily through the airport, in slow motion on the morning we both flew out of LAX, heading our separate ways back to Alaska and Pennsylvania. I boarded my plane in a trance and sat in my window seat, gaping and eyes wide.

What had we just lived through?

While on one hand I felt like it’d take years to process the silent wonder of the desert and all we’d encountered there ­in its raw, unforgiving simplicity – in its stark landscapes, its sunsets and sunrises and stillness ­- my memories of Europe suggested I might not even remember or be able to note the trip’s impact on my life a decade from now.

As I sat staring out the window of the airplane, looking at nothing, my phone buzzed. Mark was texting from his gate, where he still waited to board his flight. He included a photograph featuring an underlined, marked up page of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire:​

Matt sunset

Matt watching Sunday evening’s sunset, 6/7/15

“If [the desert] has any significance it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful -­ that which is full of wonder…The shock of the real. For a little while, we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels.”

The desert, certainly. Alaska, too. Perhaps the passage even served as a way to more memorably travel and carry myself as I pass through the world in the coming years.

Because hadn’t I perhaps traveled blind and numb to wonder in my other, younger, previous lives? Didn’t I, like the strip malls we now passed and all they advertised, once treat Experience and the places I traveled like something to ravenously descend upon, consume, and devour? Could that be partially why the threads, the stories, and memories of other places prove so hard to come by?

I blew past our turn and steered the car north.

“Pop!” Matt shouted, “Where are you going?”

“There,” I said, pointing to the sunset in the distance, now straight ahead of us.

“We’re going there.”

To wonder.

Wherever it rests. Wherever we find it.

sunset anchorage

Sunset, Point Woronzof, Anchorage, AK 6/7/15

The Weight (A Balancing Act)

westchester lagoon

I wake up Monday morning, head in a fog and the sky a heavy gray. Maybe I need to pick up the pace on our Lord of the Rings bedtime reading, finish the series and find something lighter to read to the boys: This morning’s gray resembles a specter, a phantom seeping through the windows.

There is light, too. It’s April in Alaska. We wake to light now, but today it’s muted by the undeniable presence of sagging clouds gathered and draped across the Chugach mountains, shrouding them from view. But at 7a.m. in April, the dance between light and dark in Anchorage feels, for my East coast origins and conditioning, properly balanced, stable, “normal.”

“Be grateful,” I growl to no one but me.

Still, I hesitate to rise, to sit up. I rub my hand around my face, press my fingers into my eyes.

I was up till midnight grading papers, a task that segued into restlessly mulling over a number of personal matters while I thrashed around under the covers. At 3 a.m., my seven-year-old, Matt, leapt into bed with me on the heels of a bad dream. Once asleep, he proceeded to kick me through the night – an unintended reminder he was close.

I hear Matt sifting through his Lego drawers in his room across the hall.

Over a swift and admittedly pouty, self-pitying moment, I envy my sister in Virginia, who lives across the street from my parents and can frequently ask them to assist with carpooling or hosting her three daughters.

I also think of my married friends. Envy tag-team parenting for the “bazillionth” time since my boys’ mom and I split in 2011.

“Stop,” I growl. Remember: We’re here. Here and nowhere else. And we’re doing our best.

Aren’t we?

Some days, it’s hard to know.

I swing my legs over the bed.

I’m reminded of a montage scene set to feel-good music in Judd Apatow’s This is Forty, where Paul Rudd adoringly wakes his daughters for school – affectionately tousling one’s hair, canoodling the other, and playfully rubbing his hand around his teenage daughter’s face.

So, I “Power Up” – I motivate, inhale some of whatever so enviably possesses Paul Rudd characters. I breeze into the boys room and cheerily declare a robust, “Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!”

Matt, from his place on the floor, amidst the rubble of his Legos, looks up at me doe-eyed and crestfallen and meekly whimpers, “Pop? Do we have to go to school today?”

He’s still in his pajamas and between his strawberry-blonde bedhead and the spaceship designs stretching across his rail thin limbs, and his childhood-specific pot-belly rounding through his top, I am utterly smitten and vulnerably open to complying with anything he wants.IMG_5937

No! I want to tell him. No, we don’t! No school today! No work! Today we’re building forts in the living room and watching all the Star Wars movies! While eating Pirate’s Booty and ice cream and PB&J! I’ll tell work we took a, a, a Family Care Day, because our “us” is more important than desk work, than paper pushing and Microsoft Outlook; more important than racing you guys to school and then racing to grab you at after care, and then slogging through rush hour traffic and trying to make and eat dinner before 7pm and then bathe and read LOTR at a sane hour so that we can rise rested to start the whole rat race all over again tomorrow!

Instead, I sigh and tell him, “Oh, buddy, I know. I know. I used to want to skip school so many times when I was a boy.” He limply groans and sighs.

Sam’s body shifts under his blankets. Limbs akimbo, he slowly snakes them towards himself and then out again, stretching awake. He blinks a few times and sits up. He rubs his eyes and smiles.

Sam, for all eleven of his years, has possessed the magical ability to welcome each day the way you can imagine the Dalai Lama does. Or Mary Oliver. His waking hours are one long embrace of everything and anything around him, so much so that I’ve often wondered where he really came from, if the stork accidentally brought his mom and me a congenial ambassador or motivational speaker’s child. Never mind getting Sam into commercials or acting, as some have suggested: I often think he’s on the verge of presenting a viral TED talk, or might go solve the world’s problems with Bono.

Today, as with every day, Sam looks around, all smiles and sparkle.

“Good morning,” he sighs, standing.

“It’s dark out there,” he notes peering through his window, “do you think it’s going to rain today?”

“Might,” I reply. “Looks like it.”

Sam stretches once more and bounds to his dresser and pulls out some clothes.

“Wow,” he sighs, “I am so tired.”

Just say the word, I clamor inside. Say it. Say something like, “Can we not do this today, Pop? The weekday runaway train thing we do?”

I stand thoroughly poised to call a sick day, to announce “Fort Building Day.”

He turns and proceeds towards the bathroom.

“Take a load off, Fanny!” he sings.

Ok, wait. No fair. He’s boldly singing the chorus to my favorite pick-me-up song. The one I play on the stereo the way others take a daily vitamin.

“…Take a load off, Fanny!” he continues, running the bathroom faucet, “Annnnnnnnnnddd!…Put the load right on meeee!!!”

I look at Matt.

“Ok, buddy. Time to get dressed.”

mattMatt sighs and groans, pouts. I want to tell him, as Sam’s dutifully reminding me only by the way he embraces a day, something about how we’re in this together, that we can do this, and that every day is somehow always in some way infused with surprising moments of joy, of grace. I want to tell him all that, but he’s seven, and I can’t expect him to agree or understand now.

I pat the top of his head, and he leans his head on my knee. I tell him only, “I know. I know.” Because I do.

There’s a balance to strike somewhere in all of this, adrift as I often feel we are, alone together and striving to keep up with the pace of things in the terrifying, stark, and beautiful spaces we find ourselves. Rather, I imagine, or I hope there is.

I lean one way and then the other, stroking Matt’s hair, wobbly and wavering.



Alone Together (New Wilderness)

Baby…we’ve been alone too long.
Let’s be alone together –
let’s see if we’re that strong. 

Leonard Cohen, “Waiting for the Miracle”  


I forgot about Lent this year. I forgot about it even being a thing on the calendar that happens. And while I might be excused for my forgetfulness – I’m not Catholic and didn’t grow up Catholic or in a liturgical tradition – I have to admit that being oblivious to it caught me off guard.

I only remembered it when, one particular Wednesday in February, while at the supermarket – a bottle of wine in one hand and my iPhone in the other – a woman passed me with an ash cross smeared across her forehead. Hazily noting her gray smudge, I was seized by, well, not guilt (“Protestant Guilt” is a topic for another time), but a sudden burst of surprise.

I paused in the aisle, looked at the bottle of wine and a curious ambivalence surged through me. On one hand, given the pace of my life the past few months, I knew I could benefit from a contemplative period of intentional, spiritual reflection, if not also a detox and fast from you name it.

And then I decided to forego Lent. I decided not to indulge myself this year.

Right, indulge myself. I know. That seems implausible. It contradicts the spirit of the season, on one hand. But let me explain.

Ever since I first learned about Lent in my mid-to-late-twenties, I wanted on board the Lent train. Not even wanted on board. Knew I was already on board – one of its passengers.

After all, for as long as I can remember, I’ve adored all the wilderness imagery evocative of the season. Whether the spare, stark pictures of U2 on its Joshua Tree album, T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” or every Tatooine scene in the Star Wars films, desert wanderings and joshua treewilderness imagery and references have always spoken to something deep at the heart of me.

For as long as I’ve known about and observed Lent, I’ve delighted, too, in its meditations on death and mortality. My lonesome inner-adolescent – still carrying a torch for the bummed out musings of The Smiths, The Cure, and Tears for Fears – can’t resist feeling an albeit maudlin affection for the overtly melancholy tone of the season.

So, for many years, I’ve anticipated – with a kind-of adult version of the excitement kids possess for Christmas – that one Wednesday towards winter’s end, when the church lights go dim and the organ inclines towards slow songs in a minor key. More than that, however, I think I’ve reveled, too, in how Lent affords me – a shy, introverted individual by nature – righteous permission to avoid the hustle of the marketplace and everyone passionately competing for attention from one or another soapbox there. While it’s certainly not written into its script, or part of The Book of Common Prayer, Lent enables a guy like me to justify stealing away into literal or metaphorical prayer closets, solely in the interests of escaping any undesirable or annoying chaos or hullabaloo that rubs me the wrong way. And always under the guise of a spiritual endeavor.

I know it must sound strange, on one hand. Many good-hearted, pure-intentioned loved ones and mentors admirably and enviably enter into this contemplative season. It’s only recently that I began sheepishly second-guessing my impulses, my fine-tuned behavioral patterns and the creature comforts these serve.

I blame happiness. Joy. Will go out on a limb and accuse Love of revealing a shortsightedness on my part. I’ll also blame an altogether bewildering and, for me, mostly uncharted territory I only know to name as Relationship.

joshua tree yikesTaken together, these, for me, add up to prove an altogether different kind of wilderness. Actual wilderness, perhaps. The kind that Tolkien’s hobbits dread, that explorers for centuries have strived to tame, erase, or domesticate. Relationship, for me, has long remained a region too frightening to bravely explore – even, regrettably, while “in a relationship” with someone. Relationship too frequently proves thoroughly terrifying ground, a terrain more distressing than any postcard-esque desert landscape or overabundance of welcome monastery silence. More than any solo adventure I’ve undertaken, relationship leaves me thoroughly exposed, and so also at perpetual risk, often underdressed for its dangerous and unpredictable weather patterns, unprepared for its unexpected turns, its steep climbs, and deep, shadowy valleys.

That bottle of wine I was holding on Ash Wednesday? I was buying that for dinner later, to drink with a woman I’ve spent nearly every Wednesday with since mid-August of last year. In fact, somehow, sometime last autumn, my Wednesdays earned the status of Friday, solely given the degree of excitement with which I look forward to seeing this person.

So, you might pardon me if ashes and meditations on my mortality were the last thing on my mind this year.

When we first started talking late last summer, we certainly didn’t see landing here nearly eight months later, together, in a strange, wild place called Relationship. One evening, we simply and unsuspectingly engaged in a memorable conversation. We decided to pick up where we left off a couple weeks later. The conversation continues today.

Meanwhile, I can’t help trusting that my otherwise predictable flights into the desert – the oasis of those welcome, lush silences, and the “do-able,” time-limited fasts from whatever – can wait for now. These aren’t going anywhere. They’ll rest ready for me if I need to return to all things overly familiar down the line.

That night, as I walked towards the checkout counter, the mystifying opening lines of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” poem came to mind: 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves… 

I wondered then – bottle of red wine in my hand on Ash Wednesday, longing to lean into the good evening ahead – do I have what it takes? Can I find it in me to bravely, wildly, and only love what I love?

Something unfamiliar whispers that it’s worth the risk. That the journey could prove epic.


To Trying (& Waving Off the Brown Bear)

At 4:00 on a Thursday, I find myself a little ahead of schedule at work. I made it to the end of Day One in our two-day Mental Health First Aid training a few minutes early. By 4:30 I’ve packed my things, and am preparing to zoom across town to grab Matt at his school’s aftercare. At this point, I can maybe barely miss the burst of rush hour traffic. If I do, I’ll grab Matt by 5, zip across town to get Sam at Tae Kwon Do by 5:30, and then get home and maybe – maybe – have dinner on the table by 6:30. I want that single extra half hour, I’m pining for it the way my kids want their “video game time” or “play dates” on the weekends.

“You’re leaving?” one of my co-workers asks as I blow down the corridor.

“See you tomorrow,” I announce, bracing myself for what I know will follow.

“Must be nice,” comes the chime.

“I can’t do this now – ” I plead.

“Some of us have work to do here,” she jokes. I can only growl inside, then lean heavily into the door.

I make good time on the pick-ups, but on arriving home, my oldest, Sam, realizes he’s left something at Tae Kwon Do that he needs for school tomorrow. We drive back. He finds what he forgot. We return home. Oh, well. I tried.

We eat. They bathe. At 10pm, Sam’s still doing his homework. I work a few feet from him, prepping for the following day’s training. Soon, he can’t hold his eyes open anymore. He’s so tired tonight, we do the unheard of and skip reading to each other before bed.

I make it into bed just before midnight. Read from How to Worry Less About Money for maybe three minutes before I can’t hold my own eyes open a moment longer. I check to make sure the alarm is set: 6:45. I roll over, close my eyes. Breathe, I murmur.

All too soon, it seems, we begin again.


“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” I urge the next morning, as we blow across the snow-dusted parking lot. I hear myself, my tone, and deflate and sigh. I sound like a crazed third base coach waving the runner home as the ball is hurled towards the infield for the play. Worse, I’ve directed that order to my youngest, Matt, who’s pitifully trying to keep pace with us, his big brother and I, but scampering along the lot while jerking his arm upwards to keep his backpack from sliding off his shoulder.

His big brother has darted ahead of us, but then he pauses and waits a few feet away for us to catch up. In that instant, a spark of tenderness cuts through my exhaustion. One’s waiting for us, the other’s racing to keep up. We’re trying.

Everything in me is invested in that moment after we cross the school’s threshold – after greeting the crossing guard, shaking hands with the principal at the school entrance, smiling to the school receptionist, nodding and bidding “hey” to the random teachers and parents with whom I lock eyes for a fleeting moment, after which time the entire cyclone of our week’s routines comes to a rest with the boys hugging me goodbye at their classroom doors.

Only then, following that hug goodbye, can I rally. We made it, I proclaim to no one but me, We did it! On the last day of our weeks together, the morning where I drop them at school and they then go to their mom’s till I see them next, my heart surges with something more than relief. I don’t know what you call it, but I’m fairly certain those guys that successfully scale Denali or even Everest have nothing on this: We did it! Another successful ascent – er, no –  we survived the week!

In those moments, I get to let go of the splash of nausea that shoots through my insides those last mornings before the handoff to their mom. For a few days, I can release, too, the head-spinning and stone-heavy weariness that I confess at its absolute worst and most draining makes me contemplate the point of it all; occasionally causes me, albeit shamefully, to envy the male brown bear’s “deadbeat dad” status in the wild, who gives mama brown bear her babies and who then just gets to saunter off into the sunset, never to be seen again.  Yellowstone grizzlies

But not so fast today. No rallying yet, it turns out. Today, we step into school and are instantly adrift on a wave of plates, pans, and baskets boasting red and white towels and handkerchiefs. Heart-shaped cookies, cupcakes, and more are stacked on various decorative serving trays. Parents whisk them through the corridors like waiters at fine restaurants – that is, if waiters wore Patagonia and Marmot down coats. Their children carry small bags and baskets stuffed to overflowing with pink, white, and red envelopes.

Outside Matt’s first-grade classroom, I bite my bottom lip. As he removes his coat and boots and hangs them up, I jiggle the change around in my pocket. When he takes his spot in the line of his classmates waiting to shake Ms. J’s hand, Matt’s head turns towards the basket of handmade Valentine cards that the boy in front of him is holding.

I entirely spaced Valentine’s Day. Only in that instant do I vaguely recall an email or two addressing Valentine’s Day festivities at school. I stoop down to Matt, who is still looking at the basket. I place my arm around his shoulder. He seems startled when I do and his face is flushed when he looks at me. I want to say something. But I don’t know what to say, and so I just stroke and then nuzzle his strawberry-blonde hair.

I don’t remember what I finally whisper, and I’m sure he doesn’t either. My head down, avoiding eye contact on my breeze through the corridor, I feel a familiar burn in my core.

There are days, and this is another of them, when I wonder when, how, or if I’ll ever be able to keep apace with the stream. It’s hard not to imagine that if the “Single Dad Moments” I’ve been accumulating in the nearly two years since my divorce were granted the same cultural status or weight as “Senior Moments” among the elderly, my kids might be having The Talk with my extended family right about now – the discussion about how maybe Dad needs to consider an assisted living situation, or a hired aid. Something.

I stare into the steering wheel. I start the car. But we’re trying.

I slide into gear. I have to get to work. I’m due at my other job.

denali ascent

A little like this?

At Home in a House?

back yard

In a couple weeks I’ll turn 43, and I can honestly say that until four months ago, it never occurred to me to want a house. Scouts honor: Until the past autumn, I never remotely considered joining the American “Homeowner” mafia. It’s not that I’ve been stubbornly opposed to the idea, so much as that my lifestyle has never afforded me conditions for seriously considering the possibility.

I spent my young adulthood in a state of perpetual motion, travel, and transit – mostly between states, and occasionally between countries. These experiences were collected in the name of the book I wasn’t and am only sort-of-now writing. These adventures were regularly accompanied by short stints in contemplative communities, during which periods I’d pause, catch my breath, and ponder the possibility of an intentional spiritual or monastic path. While many of my friends and loved ones grew their 401K’s, smartly invested in future “equity,” and touted the good news of duplex-ownership, I fantasized about the conversation that may have occurred between Thomas Merton and the young Dalai Lama. When, at another in the long string of housewarming parties, you would drop “mortgage” and “new countertops” into the conversation, my thoughts drifted to the Alice Munro story I finished before heading to the potluck. Over drinks, you talk about the mold in your basement, dry rot or asbestos in the ceiling, and I’ll nod sympathetically while actually worrying over the lyrics for a song I was working on in my apartment before we met up. sam piano

Maybe it’s that recently the kids’ Legos have become to our two-bedroom apartment what bacteria is in preschool and daycare, accumulating at such an alarming rate that I’d swear these bricks should come packaged with the same rules that applied to Spielberg’s “Gremlins” – particularly that one about not adding water.

Then, too, I suddenly find myself in the company of an 11 year-old, Sam, who recently began requiring “Privacy” in our bathroom. (The humor is not lost on me, as I am afforded exactly 0% privacy in any room comprising our shrinking living space.) Perhaps you, too, would question anew these admittedly creature-comforted, still-privileged circumstances if you watched your six-year-old pound on the bathroom door, followed by his brother shouting he’s “busy,” after which you hear yourself offer the small boy a mason jar. Refusing that option, I recently told Matt, “Well, then you’ll need to wait. Or, there’s the woods? There! Those trees just past the parking lot?”

* * *


It would have been impossible not to see the house. Resting at the bottom of the hill on the curve that leads to our apartment building, it’s actually a wonder the “For Sale” sign is still standing, that no one making the turn this icy winter has clipped it or smashed into it.

And while I initially spotted the sign, I didn’t make anything of it until a week or two later when, while driving the kids home from school, Sam asked if we could look at it.

He just wanted to look at the house, I told myself. It was in walking distance of our apartment building, and looking at a house didn’t mean I had to suddenly unearth the money to buy it. Or did the kids imagine that acquiring a house was a lot like purchasing the newest Avengers Lego set?

The woman who met us that Saturday morning told us it needed work, and she was selling it for her parents and they wanted it off their hands sooner and so some things were negotiable. “Which is still really no matter,” I thought, running the numbers through my head, “because 0 divided or multiplied by 0 is still 0.”

However, I’m puzzling now about what happened the moments after she showed me the faded, dried up remains of the summer’s strawberry and raspberry patches. And then, too, when Sam reached for the sturdiest, lowest hanging branch on the crab apple tree out front. Soon, the kids were running through the large yard out back and I was suddenly watching a story play out in my mind that I’d never until then mildly entertained. Exactly where had this story been hiding, I wanted to know? The one where the kids run laughing through the wide open yard – not a stone’s throw from the garden – and I then drift from my spot by the woodstove, out to the back deck with a beer in hand and cheerily call, “Alright you knuckleheads! C’mon – it’s dinner time!”

At one point, as the kids rolled around the large, empty living room, wrestling and doing somersaults and cartwheels, I looked out the wide, surrounding picture windows – each of them desperately in need of a lot of work – and I saw the room filled for a house concert featuring a friend’s solo act or one of the many local bands regularly staging intimate, unplugged house concerts around Alaska. Around then, deep in the throes of their play, Sam stopped suddenly, shot a glance my direction, and asked, “Can we buy it, Pop?”

I stammered and sighed. The owner’s daughter laughed, told me she had a couple kids of her own and understood, while I grit my teeth and told Sam we’d think about it.

“But I like it! I want that bedroom!” he announced pointing down the hall.

bird houseWe didn’t buy that house. There are a few reasons why. Money is one, of course, but so was the basement, which yanked me out of my fantasizing and only called to mind The Silence of the Lambs.

And I have yet to buy a house, still, though I’m thinking about it with a bit more conscious intention and thought now. I guess, until that Saturday a few months ago, every other house I’ve stepped into seemed only a house shaped collection of rooms. For whatever reason – the berry patches, the woodstove, the three bathrooms, or maybe the kids running with abandon through a yard, I can’t say exactly – one autumn Saturday afternoon, I somehow found myself plumb in the middle of a possibility called home.

bedroom view

Searching for a Home, Via Alaska (part 2)

And I would do it again, but set down
This, set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
– T.S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi

Let your beauty manifest itself
Without talking and calculation
You are silent. It says for you: I am.
And comes in meaning thousandfold,
Comes at long last over everyone.
– Rilke, “Initial”
apt xmasAt the risk of proving too dim – more so than usual – how in the world do you even begin a tradition? And how do you decide which traditions to adopt or dismiss? What makes our family traditions lasting, what makes them stick?

These were and are my burning questions this holiday season, beginning – as I described in my last post – this recent Thanksgiving, accompanying me through Christmas yesterday, and traveling with me into the coming New Year. This year I admittedly found myself at a loss. Part of the reason for this conundrum was because, having just flown East for my brother’s wedding in Philadelphia this summer, there was no way to afford another trip from Alaska to the East coast this holiday season. However, I think, too, this mostly-financial matter only forced me to face a deeper, ultimately unavoidable fact of my situation as a single father up here in Alaska, far from Pennsylvania, my home place of origin:

What am I offering these boys, who, at ten and six, are rapidly passing through boyhood and coming of age in a landscape and time period so vividly and markedly different from my own? And how do I attempt or manage to shape anything resembling traditions, for now at least, mostly solo and on too-frequently-limited resources? And how can I deliver legitimate holidays to my boys that don’t blithely or solely coast along the thin surface of the media, Target, or Amazon.com versions of what the day supposedly means?

Over the nearly four years since my sons’ mother and I split up, I found familiar comfort and reliable ease in flying the three of us east to spend the holidays with my family. This effort required little to no thought in my mind, no question of the role I assume or play in the context of extended family, or what I’d be offering Sam and Matt once our plane touched down. Order the gifts early enough online that they’d be at my parent’s house before our arrival and then Sam, Matt, and I would just effortlessly slip into the stream, the flow of everything I’ve inherited throughout the all-American, uber-traditional holidays of my own childhood.

Admittedly, the traditional Bower family Christmas back east has for as long as I can remember also been defined by nothing less than a requisite degree of full blown, manic chaos. Albeit an adorable, welcome brand of chaos, largely because the holidays are perhaps the lone, annual opportunity to find every niece, nephew, sibling, cousin, aunt, uncle, and surviving grandparent reliably collected in one place, even if it is at the price of temporary insanity for all involved.

bower vile family

Jonathan’s Wannabe-Whitman/Thoreau/Teen Wolf phase circa the mid-1990’s

Though an entirely well intended, big-hearted affair replete with randomly occurring acts of familial affection – walloping to near-smothering hugs, earthquaking belly laughs, spontaneous guitar jams and more – the day is no less defined by a never long-sustainable level of noise and borderline confusion. These are riotous events that reliably tax every child’s emotions, ultimately requiring that some assortment of offspring collapse in tears before we can really determine whether the day proved successfully over-stimulating enough or not. Our gatherings have also been annually governed by the persistent din of new devices being fired up or tested, new instruments relentlessly strummed or pounded on, new stereos and/or albums blaring from multiple corners of the room. Of course, someone also always receives the one toy that will send the terrier into a yapping frenzy. It’s a brand of nuttiness that leaves the adults gleefully resigned to caffeinated autopilot from shortly after morning coffee until they can collapse for the rumored winter’s nap at night’s end. By evening, the day’s relentless barrage of good cheer and sugared, fatty foodstuffs and shiny new material possessions and the full brunt of unending social engagement finally reaches critical mass, driving a select batch of us – those too cowardly or soft to live the teetotaler lifestyle of our forebears – to covertly duck into a secret room or to launch out back to grab a nip of an adult beverage. That small band of us pauses and breathes outside, some anxiously grasping for their smokes as we attempt to sit still long enough to raise a glass in the nearest dark space we can find that will afford us a moment’s respite or silence…

Every year in Alaska’s deepest, darkest winter hours, I’ve longed for this single day of unsustainable chaos the way I imagine the polar explorers longed for the affections of their faraway wives and the comforts of home.

The question of traditions and rituals we instill among family – blood relations or adopted or “friend” families – seem to me actually part of the larger question of how you in fact make a home…which is precisely what I’ve circled the wagons trying to do since becoming a single parent a few years ago.

And so, with no ready-made or fixed traditions in place, this holiday season became a kind of riddle, a query lobbed to no one but myself, especially since both my sons, born and raised (so far, mostly) here in Alaska identify no other place they’ve visited or traveled to as home:

What if (huge gulp) we were already home for the holidays?

And, on that notion, what if we started making a day that grew (sanely, maybe even quietly) out of – in the words of Andy Williams, from a Christmas album that has since childhood marked the arrival of the holiday in my mind – “a few of [our] favorite things”? What if we dared test the waters of a new, different stream, perhaps even one that proved a little less chaotic? What then?

sam acolyte xmas eveWe attended the 11pm Christmas Eve service at the Episcopal church we frequent, because Sam was scheduled as an acolyte that evening. Afterwards, close to 12:30am, he raced up to me, bleary eyed and still in his robes, and threw his arms around me announcing, “Merry Christmas!”

I drove him to his mom’s and said I’d see him and his brother in the morning. When I woke the next morning, it was snowing. I took a short walk. As I walked through the neighborhood, muted as it was by the snowfall, I remembered out of the blue, for the first time in over twenty years, that one of my English professors once introduced our class to a recording of T.S. Eliot reading his poems. For the first time in as many years, I wanted only to hear Eliot read The Journey of the Magi.

I returned to my apartment, made tea, and found T.S. Eliot reading The Journey of the Magi at the Poetry Foundation’s website. I played it twice. A day was in motion.anchorage out back

The boys’ mother texted that the boys were awake. Good friends texted and invited me to dinner later, an offer that provided a flush of comfort I wasn’t fully aware I even needed then. I loaded the boys’ gifts into the car. It was still snowing and that hush was only periodically interrupted by the melodic trill of waxwings dashing back and forth between trees out front.

Like the snow’s steady drift and accompanying, welcome silence, and the waxwings passing to and fro briskly overhead, this day required nothing of us. That morning, the boys demanded only that I make it to their mom’s apartment with their gifts, pronto. But the day asked nothing, save perhaps only an invitation that we live into the day we were given. There was no script, no prescribed agenda, no long ago-ascribed roles, no demands to be anywhere specific. Not even any clues for how to proceed with the day. The day only unfolded. As perhaps a good and most memorable day may wont to do – “without calculation,” to borrow from Rilke.

In that way, this Christmas was a lot like writing, like starting a new story. As with composing any new story, the writer plays a critical part in its unfolding. But so much in the details and what happens is left to mystery, too. So much so that, as with any story’s beginning, you have no idea, no clear sense of how any of it will end either. Taking that plunge, then, can often prove frightening, or at least initially a little intimidating.

But in that flow, in the quiet stream of unfolding and unknowing yesterday, the whole birthing of the experience proved at moments quietly thrilling and then also terrifying. In that way, the day also resembled the landscape in which we daily find ourselves piecing together our lives, our family – a striking landscape, and a place that my sons know only as home.

ak wish you were here

Wish You Were Here xo, JJB


Searching for a Home, Via Alaska (Part 1)

I know I’ll make it back
One of these days…
Where the cups are cracked and hooked
Above the sink
And a cracked door moon
Says I haven’t gone too far
– “Via Chicago,” Wilco

What is it that proves so timelessly compelling about an unknown place – and especially the distant, the faraway – the Not Here Where I Am Right Now? Maybe there’s an anthropological study or psychological classification for this phenomenon. Perhaps Lonely Planet or Rick Steeves have a term that adequately summarizes our thirst for going someplace thoroughly unfamiliar, for getting a little lost, for stumbling through a foreign anywhere with only a select handful of phrases, and eating whatever seems most intriguing or unlike the foods found in the places we’re from. “Wanderlust, dummy,” you could say, but that’s not what I’m getting at – or, it’s not only that. Wanderlust, to me, feels too temporal, too casual to properly describe the specific longing I’m describing. What do I call that spirit that comes to life when I’m huffing away on the Stairmaster at Planet Fitness and Anthony Bourdain is on TV sipping a steaming liquid from a delicate ceramic cup, or eating meat or cheese from a place where everyone’s skin is darker than his? In those moments, I want to know those people and that place, but I also know the likelihood of deeply or intimately doing so is highly unlikely.

I’m curious on one hand because I’ve recently become worried, wondering if I, over the past twenty years, unwittingly traveled and “adventured” myself into a corner. Rather, in making a lot of my life one fascinating backdrop or living experience swiftly following another, I now find myself at a bewildering impasse: This year marks my tenth as an Alaskan resident, which means I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else save for my state of origin, Pennsylvania. And despite an active engagement in Alaska over the course of that decade, I still find myself feeling oddly far-flung,JJBoutofplace a bit adrift, “a stranger in a strange land,” and frequently out of place in a location that my two sons – both born and in love with their lives here – fully consider and embrace as home.

Under my love of the wildly unknown and the thrill instilled by journeying to new places, I’m now finding another form of longing, and in recent years it’s proven a deeper, heavier pull than the passions that lured me towards a tireless series of fascinating locations and situations in previous decades. In simplest terms, I think mine proves a longing that all of us to one degree or another carry for “home.” And yet, I worry that naming it as such reduces it to a pouty, Dorothy Gale-by-way-of-Judy Garland type of pining. Either way, however, it’s perplexing that I would experience these conflicted feelings while occupying the same location on Earth where my children feel so utterly present and at home.sam and matt

Meanwhile, “home” doesn’t often seem a very “sexy” or hot topic to bridge in conversation. It’s not a subject that gets many people excited, unless you’re discussing the purchase of an actual, physical “house,” or watching a cable reality show where a couple’s house is about to be remodeled or transformed from Ordinary into a palatial estate. Otherwise, it’s probably not a topic that will really charge a conversation the way “travel” or living abroad do when you’re trying to make friends or identify yourself among new acquaintances at a party. Where we’ve been and what we’ve done or seen tells others something significant about who we are (or, who we think we are) in a way that trying to discuss remaining still or feeling content rarely, if ever, will.

When I make a reference, for example, to “when we (my then-wife and my boys) lived in Japan,” something sparkles in the listener’s eyes, or a smile swiftly dances across his or her face. I imagine they, like I used to do, entertain a swift, thrilling montage of koi ponds, teahouses, manicured gardens, and exquisitely designed pottery and luxurious foods. At one time I strongly identified with and entertained that same montage.


And yet, I highly doubt anyone recognizes by referencing “when we lived in Japan,” a part of me bristles inside. In fact, I sometimes feel sheepish sharing that we did – it feels rather like a misstep in the pace of a conversation. Nowadays, it’s almost as if I admit I lived there to a listener. There’s no romantic indulgence in revealing it, no bragging rights. Rather, a part of me goes a little limp inside. And oftentimes, saying I live in Alaska has felt this way, too. And I never imagined going into either of these situations that I would one day feel this way.

With Japan, I imagine a big part of this is that it’s the place where, over the course of a few days my sons’ mother and I briefly feared that our one-year-old might die. It’s also where his mom and I one year later realized and faced the hard cold truth and acknowledged aloud that our marriage was, in fact, dead.

Matt Hospital Japan

Rather than an exotic, storybook fantasy, our experience more closely resembled that of the characters in the film Babel, many of whom acutely wrestle with a 21st-century specific form of displacement and confusion related to being out of place, far flung from any idea or notion of home.


I was reminded of all of this the Tuesday before Thanksgiving a couple weeks ago, when my youngest, now six, received a visit from the latest flu monster currently making the rounds up here.

A friend had a week or so earlier invited us to dinner with his extended family at their log home in a town three hours north of Anchorage. I looked forward to fleeing the city for the holiday, but a restless night with a boy battling a 103F temperature in the mornings leading up to Thursday found me a little beside myself, brainstorming a possible “alternative” Thanksgiving if we were possibly stuck at home.

I had done very little shopping, which is to say none at all, aside from purchasing some odds and ends for the table of the friends’ home where we were intending to spend the holiday. I was definitely turkey-less, and I didn’t even have a single can of the gelatinous, can-shaped substance we call cranberries. I couldn’t help imagining that if Matt’s health dictated that we stay in Anchorage, this year would go down in my ten-year-old, Sam’s journal as the year we ate turkey club sandwiches at Denny’s.

In hindsight, I see that my panic was fueled by a clueless, single father’s blend of confusion and distress around both properly caring for a sick boy with the flu and a 103F fever, as well as having no grounded family traditions in place up here for possibly observing the holiday. The latter realization was compounded by the knowledge that we also have no immediate or extended relations anywhere nearby – nowhere, in fact, within a twelve-hour flight across the country. Which meant, too, that I had no family to call on for assistance for the Tylenol I was out of at 1am, or family to crash with on the holiday or to send Sam to if I were stuck home with Matt, on a holiday during which time we customarily celebrate and gratefully reflect on family and our ties that bind.

I’ve sat in a remote Japanese village after the orange harvest eating horse meat and drinking a clear liquor made from sweet potatoes that I’m sure must have shared chemical properties with space shuttle fuel, all while knowing only a handful of stock phrases you could pick up from watching Lost in Translation. sam russian marketI’ve drifted through a Russian village meat market and stood slack-jawed watching a toothless man butchering a pig – cigarette dangling from his mouth, no shirt or gloves – in a way that would no doubt cause reps from both OSHA and the FDA to collapse from aneurysms. I’ve lived five miles deep in the woods of New Hampshire without running water all winter. Stood thigh-high in steaming piles of horse manure twenty-one miles up a mountain in Oregon, holding only a shovel and longing for nothing more than to finish the job and return to my wood-heated cabin and books a stone’s throw away.

But nothing – I swear to you, nothing – in my life has felt more truly foreign or alien to me, honestly, than the terrain of single parenthood these last three years, and nowhere more so than in the helplessness that springs to life when the children are sick, or during the holidays when – minus the grounding of roots or traditions – I’ve wondered where to orient the three of us.

And don’t get me wrong – I do treasure the sum of my adventures. They make for rich memories, and mine’s proven an undeniably privileged way to spend one’s young adulthood. However, as I sat at my son’s bedside, anxiously scrolling WebMD.com on my laptop for advice on how to care for a child’s flu and fever that Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving, as he writhed and his breath scraped along his throat and through his nostrils, I also wondered about what I may have neglected or failed to consider during my years exploring distant places, gathering mostly only experiences in everywhere and anywhere entirely unfamiliar…

sam koi

Wilderness and the Costcolypse

What do we talk about when we talk about food? It’s my feeling that discussions about food always reveal at some level the most intimate, spiritual, and dearly held values with which we compose a life. I think, for instance, of the struggle that some families I encounter go through to make ends meet, and how many times we frame this basic challenge in terms like “putting food on the table,” or “keeping the kids fed.”

It’s hard for me to contemplate my relationship to food in Alaska nowadays without my thoughts swiftly veering to Don Rearden’s wonderfully eerie, post-apocalyptic novel, The Raven’s Gift. The book, which came out in 2011, takes place in an Alaska that could easily and believably prove five minutes or five or fifty years into the future. Set around the far-flung region of Bethel – a city (population approx. 6000) accessible only by air or river in Western Alaska – we encounter John Morgan, a man who with a large heart and pure intentions moved to the remote location with his wife, Anna. Both aspired, in overly relatable, starry-eyed ways, to experience first hand one of the lone, final wilderness frontiers on Earth. John and Anna find their way North and court adventure not by aiding to plunder the state’s wealth of natural resources, but by following opportunities to live and teach in the schools of a community comprised primarily of Native Americans.

The Raven's Gift, Don Rearden

But then things go horribly awry, descend – as the book’s jacket reads – “into total chaos.”

Rearden never goes far out of his way to specifically detail what happens that sends John’s life careening into the most unintended, terrifying and primitive form of survival imaginable. It’s not the “how” we got here that matters. It’s purely, “You’re here. Now what?” We hear rumor of a deadly epidemic. Did it spread through all of Alaska? Did it reach beyond Alaska and infect America? Or was it restricted only to Bethel? Was it an intentional epidemic? But does it even matter? When an unexpected stranger offers Morgan a cup of broth – after wandering how long without food in his belly – you don’t care about the origins of this tragedy. You’re sipping broth with him. When he risks a daydream about a cup of coffee, you’re shivering in your bones, too, and you want to offer him a simple cup of joe. The novel puts a man with minimal skills in the absolute barest of imaginable circumstances, strips him of everything he possesses and loves, and tells him only, “Survive this.”

The story offers a unique perspective – with a touch of Stephen King, and periodic nods towards The Road – regarding the curious dilemma that comes with trying to live out one’s dreams up here. Intentionally or no, it indirectly asks readers how they would survive in one of the rumored remaining “wild places” in the 21st century as it strives to become as domesticated and predictable as every strip-malled and fast-fooded location that many of us came here to escape. On one hand, in Alaska, we can hunt wild game and catch and wrestle with so many salmon in the summer that they will swim through your dreams. We can pick our weight in wild blueberries for free, and not pay the exorbitant prices for farmed blues that our friends and family pay Outside. (“Outside” is ow we refer to everywhere in the Lower 48.) And yet, despite this, it often strikes me that a low-level anxiety persists.

It’s noticeable when you hit Costco or Sam’s Club on the weekends. It’s in the way the crowds, myself included, flock in droves to the warehouse stores to purchase mountains of foods and goods that come shipped to us from Anywhere out of state. You can ask me about terrifying bear encounters all you want, but in Anchorage I’m more often worried about escaping the Costco parking lot in one piece than I am concerned with encountering wild animals on a hike in the woods.


The idea that “Alaska” largely proves synonymous with “survival(ist)” probably isn’t news to anyone. And, to the credit of more than a handful of true-to-life rugged individualists past and present, the state definitely boasts a fascinating library of stories revealing that many Alaskans live life a little closer to the bone than the majority of their fellow Americans. And while there’s not time or space to explore the topic here, we’ve also seen a rapidly growing demand for locally grown produce and goods, and are watching farmers markets gain traction at the local level in ways they wouldn’t have a decade ago.

But Don Rearden’s novel turns a blind eye to our romance with “Alaska” and challenges every naïve notion we carry about “wilderness.” And he does it in such a way that I consider his post-Apocalyptic Alaska tundra every time I walk into Costco and see crowds manically surviving, depending on mountainous flats of pre-packaged foodstuff and goods that rely on barges, flights, and massive amounts of fuel in order for us to consume it. I see John Morgan staggering across the naked tundra when I hear my coworkers or students giddily rave about the new Olive Garden or Chile’s coming to town as if we were a remote African village miraculously acquiring a fresh water resource. What is this nimble, unsustainable set design we’re blissfully constructing in Anchorage, and what does it say that while we’re welcoming it here, many communities Outside are beginning to reconsider and address the glaring errors and dangers that exist in this format?

The winter I first read The Raven’s Gift happened to be the snowiest winter on record in southern Alaska in nearly 60 years. This, compounded with the fact that I had become a single father only a couple months prior to that cold, record-breaking season caused the book to leave an indelible mark on my trembling, unnerved heart.

Sprawled along my couch those dark, lonesome and silent evenings, I would set the novel down and look past the frosted windows of my apartment, stare out at the four-foot high mounds of snow in the front yard and find in John Morgan’s plight a frightening metaphor for the stark terrain of my new life in Alaska. It was impossible not to feel stranded and terrified in those months, living as far away as I do from my entire extended family and closest friends, all while striving to make ends meet each week, to survive on a very middling-, single-income from my work at a non-profit social service agency. Never mind wanting to be “a good father” (or husband). What did/do those terms even mean? All I knew to want then was whatever would keep the boys healthy and fed.


What do we talk about when we talk about food? I believe discussions about food are at heart holding and asking the most valuable questions about our collective survival, on one hand, and that discussions about survival explore and reveal our most deeply cherished values and intimate connections to the places we find ourselves and to all the people we encounter there.

John Morgan encounters these truths in the most primitive way imaginable. I’ve been fortunate enough not to learn these lessons as brutally as he does, although his journey strikes me as eerily familiar, and never very far away from my own.