Wednesday, January 30, 2013


The only thing I know for sure about my paternal grandfather is that he he died in his mid-60s after falling into a vodka-induced coma. By all speculative accounts (of which there are only a few) this was a deliberate act, a suicide by bottle. My father obtained leave from the Navy to visit him on his death bed. Dad was 26.


They came from Irish stock. I don't know the exact date that they came over, but an ancient newspaper acount my grandmother once showed me proved that there were Robinsons in the Oregon Territory as early as the 1830s. We also know that, in my father's words, "Colonel Robinson married a squaw." So there's the Irish/Native American bloodline, a volatile mix if the stereotypes of the alcoholic Irishman and the "drunken injun" are to be believed.

There's the landscape: rainy small-town Oregon. In this case, coastal Oregon, the setting for Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion. I guess, then, I come from hard-working Irish-American family. Loggers in the family, as in the novel. But I don't know for sure. My father had logging jobs as young man, making a little over two dollars an hour. I guess in there is drink, too. There is the semi-hidden Indian heritage. There are the pine trees and the sand dunes, the jetties, the rocky coastline, a landscape seemingly made for long melancholic days, made for poets, I guess, imbibers, regular blue-collar folk of the Raymond Carver mold.

I spent my entire childhood in towns like these. I learned everything I know about humans in these towns; everything since has been modification, tinkering, corollaries, minor discovery, affirmation.

I keep saying "I guess" not as a placeholder or a tic, but because so much of this work is speculation and rummaging. I don't know how much of this history is actually true, how much is pure guess, how much is well-intentioned reconstruction. But I do know that it's my story. And lest my first few paragraphs give an incomplete impression, I'll just say it: this is not a story about alcohol or alcoholism, drugs or mental illness. It's not a narrative of recovery. It's an account, decades removed, of family. Of a family and families, of trying to understand community and belonging. It's not even about survival or dying. It is, ultimately, about being alone.


There's nothing wrong with growing up in a small town; it has its advantages. It's relatively safe, they say. Everyone knows everyone else. A sense of community. When one is vitally aware of the boundaries of the small town, though--not just geographical but metaphysical, ideological--the "community" takes on a slightly menacing quality. A family, too, is a sort of community. At the age of 15 or so, when I had my first drink, I wanted desperately to escape both of these communities.


When I was a child nobody wore seatbelts. Nobody wore bicycle helmets. Did bicycle helmets even exist? The furniture was orange, the kitchens were formica, the carpet shag. All adults I knew drank heavily. And smoking? It wasn't weird to smoke--it was normal, accepted, and relatively free of health concerns. The other day I saw a young couple, early 20s maybe, pushing a toddler in a stroller. The woman was smoking a cigarette. My first reaction was disgust, derision. Then I thought, hell, I spent nearly every waking moment in my childhood house(s) inhaling my father's cigarette smoke. And I turned out ok, right?

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