My latest for elephantjournal.com, remembering my FiL one year later…
What’s that? Westbye’s back?!? Well, not really, except to promote! First published article at Elephant right here. C’mon over!
Image Source: Secret Boston
I have spent countless hours during lunch and after work in Copley Square, around the corner from the blast sight, malingering on the steps of the Boston Public Library with my journal and smoke perpetually in hand.
I have walked past – and across – the Finish Line of the Boston Marathon on Boylston St. more times than I remember, heart racing with excitement and pride.
I have whiled away many afternoons at the old Samuel Adams Brewpub (oh, don’t go looking for it: it’s not there anymore) in the lobby of the Lenox Hotel, at the finish line, being twenty four and wondering how I would ever earn a living or find a girl.
I have lingered at my bench in the Square, facing the new and old John Hancock towers and H.H. Richardson’s magnificent Trinity Church. This has always been my spot to find tranquility and center myself against the pain in my head.
I have sat at my desk on the 56th floor of the new Hancock Tower during the summer of 1999, when I was working a shitty go-nowhere data entry job, scanning the sweep of Beacon Hill, the dome of the State House – the gold of which was inlayed by Paul Revere himself – and the Harbor, soaking in the history and dreaming of making my own Boston history.
Several nights after the World changed forever for the first time, we walked seven miles from my apartment in Somerville to Copley Square, where we sat by the fountain in front of the church, lit candles and reflected on national tragedy. And we came together as Bostonians, as Americans, and grieved and healed.
Boston made me. Copley Square formed and informed me. My streets, Boylston and Dartmouth, were so tragically scarred forever today.
But there will be healing and rebirth. Boston is great at that.
Image Source: Bite
Carrying on a relationship with somebody you have no business being in a relationship with takes some doing, especially when your “better half” lives two states away. It’s an exercise in low self-esteem, lack of communication skills, apathy, frustration and stupidity. Masochism at its finest. Fortunately, I had practice.
Autumn 1997: I was twenty five and working the graveyard in Maine, having crawled back to my parents briefly, having run out of work and money in Boston. The first time I saw “Carla”, on my first night on the job, I immediately thought of Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) describing second baseman Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanaugh) in A League of Their Own: “You know General Omar Bradley? Well, there’s too strong a resemblance!” At the end of that first shift I discovered, much to my horror that I was making out with Carla/Marla in her car. Once committed, we were now stuck. For the next year and eight months.
Twenty months was also the amount of time I spent with The Psychotic Ex. As I said, I had practice. I didn’t have a girlfriend in high school until my senior year. “Anne” arrived fresh from the Midwest in September, and we got on at first. Then she dumped me for a classmate. Then we got back together. Then she dumped me for aNOTHer classmate. Then finally, over Christmas break, we got together for “real.” She was a total nutter, and I should have pressed charges many times over. Her greatest hits included: breaking into my house and stealing my guitar for ransom, stabbing me in the forearm with a steak knife and multiple instances of almost driving off the road in a “suicide” attempt with me in the car, to say nothing of the daily garden variety emotional blackmail, threats and invitations to join her and her other boyfriend(s) for bowling and pizza. BUT, I didn’t want to hurt her, so I took it. And took it. Until I couldn’t anymore.
At twenty five I found myself straddling an interesting line between extreme lack of self-esteem (hi, Anne!) and extreme self-importance: the kind of polar opposites that only serve to reinforce each other. I inhaled college radio during my high school days in the ‘80s. WRBC Bates and WBOR Bowdoin were lifelines, and I fell in love with indie bands such as The Ramones, Hüsker Dü, Agent Orange, The Smithereens, The Feelies and The Pixies. In college, my love of Beat poets Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsburg grew, and I discovered Robert Creeley and the brilliant authors Hubert Selby Jr. and Charles Bukowski. Selby’s short-stories resonated, and I could relate to Buke’s drunken madman bum protagonist Henry Chinaski. And nobody else knew of any of my bands and books. At twenty five I figured nobody would want to go out with me, but if anyone ever did, I’d take them to school.
I knew things were doomed with Carla when I saw the Spice Girls poster in her bedroom.
The Spice Girls, fachrissakes?!? I held my tongue at this mainstream outrage, but it was unsettling. Little did I know that this would be the first glimpse of the incompatibility iceberg right ahead. Speaking of which, the next summer we saw Titanic together. She LOVED it, and with that I knew definitively that we had no business being together and that eventually – a year later, as it turns out – I would have to move on.
It wasn’t all bad. I returned to Boston in February 1998, and with that Carla came down usually every other weekend. We took long walks all over town, ate and drank and hung out with my roommates. We both knew that we were completely incompatible, but neither of us knew how to pull the trigger and admit it. So we continued on as…friends with occasional benefits? A couple by default? Other? Something like that.
I never took any steps to find something else, despite the distance. But we both felt the distance. By the summer of 1999, Carla admitted she was feeling a bit restless, and that she sometimes felt bisexual urges.
My self-importance kicked into high gear, and I channeled George Costanza of Seinfeld fame. “Wow, babe,” I said over the phone in my most benevolent encouraging voice. “Maybe that’s something you should look into. I mean, I wouldn’t want to hold you back from being you.” Nope. No, I wouldn’t. We had a trip planned: I was FINALLY going to Cooperstown, NY, and the Baseball Hall of Fame. A trip I had been waiting for my entire life. We talked about the trip and her nascent curiosity and hung up, and for the first time in a loooong time I went to bed optimistic.
The morning of the trip finally arrived, and Carla took Trailways down to Boston. I could tell right away that something was off. She was even more distant than usual, and more emotional. We had a few stress factors that morning. Typical stuff for irresponsible mid 20-somethings: my paycheck was delayed, leaving us short of funds, and there was an issue picking up our rental car. Eventually it all became too much, and the truth came out: Carla started crying like mad and confessed that she couldn’t decide between me, her girlfriend or her other boyfriend.
WOW! What a trifecta! I was GIDDY inside!
We sat under a tree by, I think, the old Bread & Circus store on Westland Ave, and hugged and talked. And we agreed to give it a rest so she could figure things out. I assured Carla I wasn’t mad at her, and I understood and didn’t want to get in the way. (True enough) And she got back on Trailways to Portland.
I picked up a 12-Pack of Samuel Adams and headed back to my apartment to mourn the loss of a trip to Cooperstown and to celebrate the easiest, most gutless breakup of my life and the beginning of the next chapter.
Image Source: The Edmontonian
I love winter, and I embrace it. I can’t afford to go skiing anymore, but even so I love all the outdoor fun that comes from a good, deep blanket of New England snow and sharp cold: tobogganing, ice fishing, pond hockey, you name it. As a Maine man, I also love the romance of winter and the pride of merely surviving day-to-day in extreme conditions.
From November on, I love the absence of light. The sun leaves the sky by 4:00 PM and to me there is nothing cozier than returning home and settling into the night immediately. The back roads are covered in a fog of wood smoke, the most intoxicating smell in the world. These are the days of stews and pies and baked bean suppers, and finding comfort wherever we can. When the snow flies, we Mainers fly into action, and shoveling and plowing snow and sawing and stacking wood become activities ingrained into motor memory. It takes a special character to survive and thrive in a Maine winter, and we pride ourselves on having this fortitude of spirit and intestine.
One of the most critical aspects of surviving a Maine winter is dressing for the occasion, and that means layering. From November through April, my standard wardrobe is t-shirt and a sweater, or t-shirt and a flannel, and often I go t-shirt, long-sleeve Henley and flannel. And frequently I throw on a pair of Long Johns for extra warmth below the equator.
Layering is a time-honored Maine winter tradition. Ironically, I learned the lesson in Florida on a day of national tragedy.
January 28, 1986: I was in seventh grade at Hendricks Methodist in Jacksonville. I was not Methodist, nor anything else: my family went to church as often as we flew first class, which is to say never. I had run into some major bullying issues in public school during my first three years in Jax (as we saw in the five-part series that started here), so my parents thought private school might be a good fit. Good idea, not so great results. But I digress.
Eight days earlier, my science class, led by Ms. Harm, had taken a field trip to Kennedy Space Center in anticipation of the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the First Teacher in Space, New Hampshire’s own Christa McAuliffe. It was a brilliant, chilly day, and I had Led Zeppelin IV for my Walkman. We devoured all the exhibits and went crazy in the gift shop, and as we were herded back to the bus, there it was. The great ship was on the giant transport tractor, making the slow journey to the launch pad. Challenger and her booster rockets practically glowed against the brown/orange of the fuel tank. It was a magnificent site, and we all felt a sense of pride in the upcoming mission.
Eight days later, as the Challenger launched on her doomed flight, one of my “chums” spilled a full carton of chocolate milk all over my lap. The humiliation of my entire table laughing at me as my crotch and legs were doused was bad enough, but there was also a practical problem: my jeans were soaked and it was literally freezing out. What the hell was I going to do to stay warm?
I must have thought of my days tobogganing at the farm and my trusty Long Johns, because I went to my locker, grabbed my gym sweats and put them on, then pulled my jeans back on. I reeked like stale chocolate milk and humiliation. But I was warm.
The layout of Hendricks was definitely unconventional. There were rows of classroom buildings, almost like cabanas or military barracks, with outdoor paths in between wending through palm trees and evergreens with Spanish moss. I remember sitting in Ms. Harm’s science class, warm with my sweats on under my jeans, when she said, “The Challenger has exploded, and there were no survivors.” My class gasped and cried, and we all went outside. And 160 miles to the south, we saw the smoke in the sky: the Y-shaped cloud of death with the huge ball of fire in the middle where the shuttle blew up and the rockets separated. I stood there in the cold, stinking like sour chocolate milk, but layered in warmth, gazing at the smoke in the sky and realizing that the world had just changed inalterably forever.
Later at home I watched President Reagan’s “Touch the Face of God” speech in a fresh pair of pants. I remember the sky outside the Oval Office and how much it reminded me of winter sunsets in Maine (as we’ve seen here, this was a common occurrence for me back then). In spite of the horrors of the day, I remember dreaming of being back at the farm, back home in Maine. I dreamed of those 4:00 PM sunsets and cozy early evenings and wood smoke and sitting by the wood stove, safe and warm, and playing in the snow in the glorious winter cold.
And I remember thinking that when we moved back home, whenever that was, I would spend the rest of my winters layered and happy.
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Image Source: The Bad Chemicals
We moved to Florida a few months before I turned ten in 1982. Before that I was enrolled at Jordan Acres Elementary, Brunswick, ME, and inundated with tiny niggling fears.
Just across from the school playground was a street with a few low-slung brick buildings and an overpass. We walked under the overpass to get to the corner variety store for Slush Puppies, Reggie Bars and candy cigarettes. The buildings were nondescript, and could have been either residential or commercial at one point. Now they were abandoned, with the windows on the upper floors boarded up. I was convinced that this was a hideout for robbers, and I was sure that there was a hostage inside trussed up on a meat hook. And I was convinced that if the robbers ever walked out of one of the buildings while I was passing, I would be grabbed and trussed up, never to see my mom and dad again. It was certainly a frightening way to get a Slush Puppy.
On my road I had to watch out for the hippies. I have no idea who called them the hippies or why, nor how many there were. But I knew they had to be dangerous. I only ran afoul of them once, but it was terrifying. I remember there were two of them on one motorcycle, and they rode after me for a little bit. Probably just revved their engine, really, but that was enough. I remember hearing the engine gunning, seeing red and black plaid flannel and long hair and hearing a laugh which, over the years, has turned into a maniacal cackle. I remember screaming and running like hell for the house, and the sickening feeling that I might…not…make…it… My mom was probably home, and she probably hugged it all better. And I don’t remember ever seeing the hippies again. But they have remained in my brain ever since.
One time we returned from a vacation at Disney World to discover that our lock had been picked. Nothing was missing from the house, and no arrests were ever made. Who knows what that was about? But I remember the sense of violation from a robber (one from the building with the meat hooks?) being in the house, and the fear that they could come back. That they would come back, while we were home, and my dad would have to fight them all off…
On the bus to Jordan Acers we drove by the end of the runway of the Brunswick Naval Air Station. At the time BNAS was home to several squadrons of sub hunters, who flew P3 Orions over the North Atlantic searching for enemy submarines. We lived about two miles away from the base, and the sound of the propellers and the sight of the planes flying low and turning in graceful arcs toward or away from the runway was a perpetual background loop. On the bus, as we passed the runway, or parked at the Dairy Joy or Fat Boy Drive-in, I often had an image in my head of a P3 careening nose-first into the ground and exploding into a fireball. I could see the pilot frantically pulling the stick back through the cockpit window as the plane plummeted, to no avail. It never happened, but the image was frequent and extremely vivid.
Fire was a constant fear. I saw the episode of Little House on the Prairie where Albert accidentally burns down the church by leaving a lit pipe in the basement at too young an age, and the trauma settled in. Every clap of thunder, I was sure, brought with it the bolt of lightning that would hit the house and destroy my teddy bear and burn our cats alive. I remember my dad counting the seconds between thunderclaps to prove that a storm was moving away, and just reassuring me in general when a storm approached.
But the fear was real, and it came from experience.
I remember walking through the woods one winter afternoon and seeing The Thompsons house burn to the ground. I don’t remember The Thompsons, but I’ll never forget the sight and sounds, and especially the feel, of seeing their house burning down, and the charred smoldering wreckage after the fact. I remember this was the first time I ever heard of anyone having a “Saltbox House”: we had a Ranch, and most of my friends had Ranches or Split-Levels or Trailers. To this day, whenever I drive by or see or hear mentioned a Saltbox, I immediately see The Thompsons Saltbox house fully engulfed in the cold woods of my youth.
It happened to The Thompsons, I remember thinking. It’s going to happen to us too!
Retrospect, I can see that this is where the narrative thread of my life started to emerge. This was not just the slightly overactive imagination of a kid who may have watched a bit too much TV. This is where my OCD really started to present itself. The obsession, the rumination and the spirals…it all makes total sense to me now.
I don’t recall any rituals or number obsessions or any other coping mechanisims I may have used back then, but I find it very comforting somehow to see that my OCD clearly goes back this far. It explains a lot. And it makes me feel a lot (okay, a bit) more normal. One of the most dominant traits of my internal wiring was right there all along, screaming for attention and being unintentionally ignored.