I did not want to write about 9/11. I haven’t really talked about it, I never planned on talking or writing about it, and I don’t plan on touching on the subject again. I did not know anybody in the towers or the Pentagon or on any of the planes. I don’t have a personal connection to any part of the tragedy, no matter how peripheral.

That doesn’t mean I don’t understand the magnitude of what happened. It doesn’t mean I’m devoid of empathy or that I don’t weigh the tragedy heavily. Such an unwarranted, astonishing loss of life from pointless malice is enough to render anyone speechless. I felt that any commentary or observations I had, from the opposite end of the continent and with no personal ties, would ring lesser. Borderline narcissistic.

I remember where I was. Sleeping. I was in bed, in 8th grade at my middle school. My grandfather woke me an hour or two before I was scheduled to wake up and I recall being bitter at the loss of sleep.

“What?” I asked.
“Come downstairs.”
“What’s going on?”
“Come downstairs,” my grandfather said.

By then the first plane had hit the tower and we were watching the news as it unfolded. I only vaguely realised then that I was watching one of the most pivotal acts of the century and one of the greatest acts of terrorism ever successfully executed on a country. I think often about my grandparents and the milestones, the life-changing events they witnessed, lived through and took part in. Slowly, it sunk in that what I was witnessing was a horrendous act of cruelty and wanton destruction, one that would plunge my country and several others into over a decade of a loosely defined war.

My middle school, God bless it, tried to stay with the curriculum for a day but ultimately, the teachers succumbed to the overwhelming necessity for honesty. The lessons stopped. The TVs, typically reserved for the middle school news reports, was turned to the national news. 12-15 years of age, we were witness to both plane collisions and the collapse of both towers. We saw the loss of thousands of lives and we knew, in our youthful naivete, that things had changed forever.

I grew up in a world where you could walk your loved ones to the skybridge connecting the airport to the plane. Loved ones kissed each other at the gate. Airport people-watching was a prevalent, beautiful thing. Now there are extensive security scanners, x-rays, “random” frisks… you have to take your shoes off for God’s sakes. You say goodbye to your family members hours before they leave because they have to check in hours early to avoid the lines but they can’t kill the time with you because you cannot pass.

We live in a country where our police are abusing and murdering innocent people because of race and class and while we got the general people responsible for the terror attack, we don’t really know what we’re doing now in the Middle East.

We waged our war under the pretenses of…justice? But it was revenge. We got it. We got it against the mastermind of the terror plot against us and most of the generals in charge. We apprehended and subsequently (on a global scheme) had executed a psychotic and sadistic dictator that we sort of helped into rule.  But fixing a government? Telling a people how to function? Now there’s ISIS running around committing atrocities and we’re trying to figure that out…

It’s easy to lose track of where it started. The one clear-cut thing: the 9/11 attacks.

For all its faults, for its wide range of leadership strengths and cons, we (America) didn’t deserve an unprovoked attack that cost thousands of innocent lives. No country deserves that.

The thing that brought me to write this is because I wanted to remember, in this bleak moment of humanity, the one gem it did show us: countries the world over, even countries we weren’t friendly with, showed us love and support for the loss we suffered during the attacks by a specific group of zealots. Our own news is full of stories of rapes and murders and brutal assaults, but in the wake of 9/11, everyone banded together. We weren’t black or white, we weren’t men or women…shit, at that point, it didn’t even matter if we were Statesian  or international: everyone was digging through rubble, risking their own health, breathing in toxic dust and gases, just trying to save lives.

We banded together as a species. As humans. To try and help others, to heal others, to save others, to be there for others.

There was a group we banded against, a group of people dedicated to striking fear into the hearts of others. As time passed, the group became blurred, as did people’s opinions on their race and religion, and ignorance spread that blurriness into terrible generalizations. But at the beginning there was a group. And for a time, the world agreed as a whole, a collective of homosapiens that that group was the cancer to be excised.

…It has been a 13 year war with shifting directions and a new crop of enemies everywhere. Where did we go wrong? Terrorists became everyone with dark skin, everybody who worships a different God or the same God with a different name? Despite a century without slavery and decades with other races providing art, laws and speeches that have irrevocably changed our country for the better, racism is still experiencing an unprecedented resurgence. The United States of America has no official language and was constitutionally based on the idea of peoples from all countries, races and religions forming a melting pot of freedom and yet we force white-ism and English upon everyone.

Native Americans and Native American language and culture have a far stronger claim to indignation than some backwoods hick from Arkansas that manages to string six third-grade English words together into a sentence of displaced frustration.

This is a time where we need to remember that there are good people in this world and bad people. That good is not predicated on race or religion but on the idea that they will help their fellow person, at risk to themselves, because acting violently and hurtfully towards each other is a poison. Bigotry, fear and superstition are our enemies.

Love one another and accept them, despite their differences. Do not expect the worst of people, for those perpetrators are the few and by judging all, you hurt the many.

We came together as a people. As a country. Hell, for the most part we came together as a world. Such a monumental loss of human life is unacceptable. We are human. We want to live and love and be loved and be remembered. That is our global truth.

Tutu: A Grand Mother

Jean Marshall Burnside was born on March 4th, 1928 in Butte, MT. She was 60 years older than me (and two months and six days), something we woule occasionally joke about. She met Richard T. Mayer in her late teens/early twenties and despite his tendency to pronounce her home town as “Butt”, consented to marry him and bear their three children.

They moved to Alaska back when it was still a territory instead of a state and had their third child, Richard Scott who would go on to adopt and do a terrible job raising me. Richard Sr. would build and create his own architecture business while Jean worked as a switchboard operator and full-time mom.

Jean had aspirations of becoming a nurse but dropped out of college to take care of her ailing mother and abusive step-father. She made up for this by watching Trauma: Life in the ER every time I was trying to eat.

Her two sisters would move to and live in Alaska as well, much younger and not quite as sweet, though they were both great women. Wanda, the closest to Jean, passed away of cancer less than five years before Jean herself passed. It affected her deeply.

My aunt Debbie was the first of Jean and Dick’s kids to have children, and would go on to have three in total. All boys, all with hard C/K names (Kevin, Kyle and Cody. Coincidentally, my mother would have three children as well. I was named Kenneth by Rick [middle and preferred name Jered, by my mom], but she also named my brother and sister Kameron and Kharli respectively. So many kkkkks). Debbie was married to a pilot, the first of two, and was living in Hawaii and Guam around then.

The formal name for grandmother in Hawaiin is kuku wahine but, in the Hawaiin language the letters ‘k’ and ‘t’ are often interchangeable. A common term for grandmother is ‘tutu’. My aunt co-opted it for her children and the tradition spread to me once I was born.

Anyway, Jean was a devoutly religious woman with traditional values. Upon arriving in Alaska, she joined up with a local Seventh Day Adventist chapter. At the time, it was one small communal building on 3rd Avenue that tried to spread word of their services via flyers and newspaper ads. Jean quickly befriended two women there who ended up being as close as sisters. They would attend a miniature club (in later years, Jean would own a tall a grandfather clock-looking case with a glass door. It had six or seven shelves in it. Each was a different room with dozens of carefully painted miniatures set up to make it look like a real home), weekly lunches and weekend excursions to a condo one of the ladies owned.

At the time, though, they were simply impressed that this woman would go door to door and offer baked goods to the people inside. She didn’t pester them about religion but simply made them aware of where their service was located. And the SDA chapter grew. It grew until they finally got a church on the hillside.

My grandmother didn’t force her beliefs on anyone. She accepted other religions, races and sexualities. She never blamed a person, but the circumstances. She would allow for grief and substance addiction and troubles at home before she would ever disparage a person for the way they acted, even if it was directed at her. She would ask to pray with people and often prayed for people, even if she knew they didn’t respect her belief or even believe in God at all.

My Grandmother would mark down birthdays on her calendar every year and she never forgot to call them and wish them a happy birthday. She had a lot of food allergies, but despite seldom being able to eat strawberries as a child, she was the purest soul I have ever met.

I was brought up in the church and was even a deacon. I reached an age, however, where I had questions that weren’t being answered and decided to go my own way. She respected my decision and prayed for and with me. When I found out about being adopted by the son that couldn’t stay sober unless he was in jail, I took it hard. Despite having a loving pair of parents in Jean and Dick, I felt worthless because I’d been abandoned by my biological father and my adopted father and mother couldn’t keep it together for me. I felt like a bastard, so I acted like one. I said and did horrible things. I moved out at 16 and moved back in at 18 and repeated that for years. Every time, she took me back and forgave me and loved me.

I went to New York when I was 19 for a concert. She fell down the stairs and broke her back. She developed a hump and had chronic pain until she died, but she always kept her cheer. Even though I knew there was no way I could have known it would happen, I felt devastated. She assured me she was fine. She always worried more about others than herself.

I moved to Los Angeles for a year and Seattle/Redmond for eight months. Somewhere in there, she and Dick moved into a home down in Washington, not far from Walla Walla. She kept in touch with written letters and phone calls I didn’t answer nearly as often as I should have. When I asked how she was, she would always respond, “Oh, I’m just old and moldy” which is disgusting but she always got a kick out of it.

In 2014, about a month after my godfather’s funeral, my uncle Dave called to tell me that Tutu had suffered a heart attack and the diagnosis was terrible. The next day, I got to speak with her for two minutes. She asked me if I was okay and insisted that despite the lack of blood relation, she had always loved me as her own. I told her I had written and put two books on sale and lied that they were selling well, that she didn’t have to worry about me anymore.

She died the next day.

At her service, they played a slideshow of pictures I had never seen before. Her as a child in a wagon, being pulled by a baby goat. Her newly-wed photos with Bompa. Her holding her first-born child.

The pews were packed full of people I hadn’t seen in a decade but who my grandmother never forgot. She was still calling from Washington, wishing happy birthdays and asking about everyone’s families. A microphone was passed around to share experiences.

I never knew how many people considered her a surrogate sister/mother/grandmother. I never knew how many people she pulled back from suicide, how many marriages she saved, how many people she raised money and awareness for. I almost cried listening to it, so powerful was the love in that room. I admit that it’s difficult to keep the tears away as I write this now.

I spoke last and mentioned how she had fostered me and forgiven me every transgression. How she was the closest thing to a real mother I had ever known, truly. I said, “In a church full of the devout, she was the closest to living and sharing and believing the Christian ideal than anyone”.

The pastor said, “Well, except Jesus himself.” Of course except Jesus himself. It’s sort of implied that Christ would be the embodiment of the belief named after him. Whatever.

Jean Marshall Burnside-Mayer, my grandmother, my Tutu, my mom. The woman who raised me in an eye of calm amidst a family ridden with substance abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, lying, cheating and abandonment. The only person I’ve ever met who would sacrifice herself before intentionally harming even the worst person and who, on her literal death bed, was more concerned with letting others know they were loved. That woman is a far better woman than I have ever deserved.

I am far from a perfect man. I’m prone to anger and self-doubt and malice. I drink a little too much, I’m a little too libidinous. I have refrained from making a proper effort in some regards and crossed a line when I didn’t need to in others. I am flawed.

But everything good about me, I owe to her. And as imperfect as I may be, without her I would have been truly lost. I would have given up from the bullying and the insecurity and the hopelessness. I would have never embraced writing or loving or hope or seen myself as remotely talented. I owe her life itself, and I’ll be damned if I don’t do everything I can to make her proud. If there is a Heaven, Tutu’s in the VIP booth, popping bottles of apple juice. She really liked apple juice.

Bompa: A Grand Father

Bompa: A Grand Father

Richard Thomas Mayer was born December 12th, 1921 in Red Lodge, Montana. When he was 25 or 26 years old, he met Jean Marshall Burnside at a dance and told her she was going to be the woman he married. The next day, he took flowers to her home and asked her out. They did end up marrying and staying married for over sixty years.

They had three children: my uncle David, my aunt Debbie and Rick, who was born after they moved to Alaska.

Dick served in the Army during World War II. He got the call-sign Red Dog, a play on his home town, and moved around the world. He would have been the first to move into Japan had the United States decided to continue pursuing ground combat instead of dropping the atomic bombs. Instead, he spent a lot of time in Papua New Guinea doing, as he once described it, “a lot of beer drinking and poker winning.”

Once they moved to Alaska, Dick started an architecture business and did fairly well for himself, though between the Great Depression and the 1964 earthquake, he never rose above moderate middle-class status which was enough for him and Jean.

I heard talk that Dick had trouble with drinking and anger issues. This talk came primarily from Rick, my dad, who was an angry drunk himself. Small comments from Jean and Dick through the years made me believe there were kernals of truth to it. All I know is that he never drank as long as I knew him and the few times I ever saw him angry, it had taken a lot and was usually followed by a feeling of profound shame for letting it get the better of him.

Dick and Jean more or less adopted me when I was five years old. I lived with them, as did Rick, who slept on the couch and often smelled like sweat and cheap beer, constantly dirty from construction shifts that lasted 12-15 hours and exhausted from the few hours of drinking and late night television he could stay awake through afterwords. I tried living with my dad and his psychotic wife for a period when I was eight or so, and again when I was ten. After they went to jail again, got out and fled to Nevada, I pretty much stayed with my grandparents full-time.

I moved out when I was sixteen, eighteen and twenty-one. They always took me back, no matter how much of a bastard I had been, or the mistakes I had made, or the money I had cost them.

My grandfather always read books to me and inspired in me a love for it, for writing and for adventure. We would fill a duffel bag (purple, with the now defunct Charlotte Hornets logo on it, a team of which nobody in my family was a fan of) with toys meant to go on quests with. Plastic binoculars, a compass, wooden swords and platic baggies to collect precious gems (whatever rocks I thought looked neat).

He greeted everyone with a warm smile and a terrible joke. As I got older, he would occasionally confide in me that his new caretaker would “hopefully have big tits this time” or that it was “time to call in the strippers” when my grandmother would spend the weekend at her friend’s condo. He was joking and he knew I knew that; he was far too in love and would be until the day he died.

Every summer for several years, we would travel down to Red Lodge to spend a month in a house full of relics from a past generation. A cuckoo clock you had to manually reset. A blood-red bathtub with feet. Dusty tomes and faded yellow couches, literal dinosaur fossils wrapped up in newspaper comics long since out of print. Outside was a rickety shed with a door blocked by a massive tree that had taken root. I watched the Chicago Bulls take a championship title over the Utah Jazz on a brown, boxy television with crooked rabbit ears.

Down the street, my grandfather would take me to an old school candy shop with dozens of candies in banded wooden buckets to be paid for by the pound. Directly upstairs was a vintage ice cream salon filled to the brim with classic Coca-Cola merchandise. Black and white photos of celebrities and newspaper clippings were laminated to the tabletops. That salon was the first place I had ever seen a Coke in a glass bottle and after giving the cashier two quarters to slide into his lever-action cash register, the first place I ever drank one.

I read a lot of Hardy Boys mysteries from the library there, a two-story building filled with the delicious musk of old books, and after checking them out and paying a visit to the outdoor pool where I dived about as well as a two-legged dog, we would slip down to the diner and have pigs-in-a-blanket. Our secret, because Jean was a devout Christian and detested swine in any capacity.

He introduced me to the Three Stooges and Fred Astaire. Bing Crosby and Dick van Dyke. Lawrence Welk and Lucille Ball. Jimmy Stewart and Frank Sinatra. He introduced me to manners and courtesy, to respecting women and loving them. To cheesy jokes and what romance used to be.

As he aged, it became difficult to watch him struggle to open jars. It was hard to watch his Parkinson’s shake food from his forks and spoons on their way to his mouth. It was torturous knowing I couldn’t help him, not really, because he would get angry at the impotence age had left his body. It was intensely hard to watch and I spent as much time as I could away from home in those last years, running away from it, retreating into a secure bubble of selfishness instead of spending time listening to his stories, or just sitting and watching old Westerns.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, while my grandmother fussed and worried, my grandfather hugged me tight and told me he was proud of me for pursuing my dreams as a writer after his own children had squandered their talent. When I came back and expressed my desire to return some day, he told me with a twinkle in his eye that he would like to see Los Angeles again.

And I lied to him. I lied to him and told him Hollywood wasn’t filthy and full of asshole tourists. That the city itself wasn’t full of fake people, mean-hearted and outwardly beautiful people who would stab someone in the neck for a role as an extra and who would blow out of proportion every meaningless audition they had in an effort to sleep with the right person or, failing that, someone who would just drive the desperation away for a while.

I lied to him because I knew that even the Golden Age of the silver screen had its issues but that half a century of time had left a beautiful veneer on the city in his mind and I didn’t want to destroy that for him.

They moved to an old folks’ home in Washington in 2011 while I was living…somewhere. I think also in Washington, but I didn’t know they had gone down until I had already moved back to Alaska again. My grandmother passed the summer of next year. My grandfather was in and out of delirium and unable to talk on the phone. He fell in love with the nurses when he wasn’t all there and longed for his wife when he was.

He started taking care of me as his own child at the age of 71, even though I wasn’t even his flesh-and-blood grandson. He passed away two months before his 91st birthday. He was the closest thing to a real father I’ve ever had.

The only thing I really inherited from him was his wedding band, a 14 karat yellow gold ring that once had milgrain along the edges but has mostly faded away over the decades. I wear it every day.

If I could sum him up in ten words or less, the man he was to me and to his wife, I suppose I would do it by the phrase he said to me every time I got ready to walk out the door: “Try to be one of the good guys.”

I’m fucking trying, Bompa. Don’t tell Grandma I said the F word.

Tutu: A Grand Mother