June 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
My grandpa sat in his fancy velvet Santa suit, looking at himself in the mirror as he painted goo on his lip and took a big drag off his Salem cigarette.
“That word ‘Christmas’ always kinda sticks in my throat,” he said as the smoke leaked out of his mouth and nose. “Nobody knows when that damned baby Jesus was born anyway.”
He began to press the big, white handlebar moustache onto his lip. “Nobody really knows when them damn Macabees miscalculated how much oil they had left either. Calendars been all messed up a buncha times since then.”
He put the beard’s strap over his head, and pressed the sides into the goo on his cheeks, then pulled on that cool wig, and silly red hat. He was the best-looking Santa you ever saw. Didn’t wear no padding, and his suit and beard and stuff was rented from some big Hollywood costume place. He told all the kids he was the real Santa, that the others were all just stand-ins for him. He had this whole cockamamie back-story worked out: where he kept his reindeer downtown in this big meat locker, and how nervous it made them, how his sleigh was getting tuned up by Big Daddy Ed Roth, and all the labor troubles he was having with his elves.
The little kids bought it. They even brought their little friends to the little toy store to see him. He didn’t sit in any throne or anything though. He walked around bellowing that huge “ho ho” he had, and doing cartwheels on the sidewalk and almost causing car wrecks and stuff. Grandpa kinda bought it himself. He would watch the kids in the store, and pick a couple whose dads were like dead or something, so that they were all sad, and weren’t gonna get any Christmas presents; and then on Christmas eve, he’d take a bunch of the toys he got in trade for playing Santa, put em in this big old red sack he sewed, and just show up at those kid’s houses, then pull exactly what they wanted outta that bag. Man, you can bet those kids believed.
I guess my Granpa kinda hated his preacher-dad, and so he got to hate the baby Jesus too. But he loved Xmas, as he liked to call it. Plus a bunch of my dad’s friends were Jewish, and Afro American and atheist and Buddhist and stuff. It was always a mess at the school pageant over like what was too much baby Jesus stuff or too much Macabee stuff, or not enough Kwanza stuff. So Granpa put them all in that big red sack, shook it all up and poured out what he calls “Holly Days.”
It is cool cause when all the trees have lost their leaves and it is getting dark at dinner time, and so cold you’da died outside, Holly bushes make a bunch of red berries like they’re fighting back. Granpa says, all these holidays are right at this time to do just that, fight back the dying light. So, we light up a big Holly Days menorah with 12 candles instead of 8, and we have a Holly Day Tree, but we don’t put it up until Christmas Eve, when we hop a fence and steal it from a closed Christmas tree lot. Best of all, we get a present on every one of the 12 Holly Days.
12 like in that song. It starts on the Solstice day; the shortest day of the year, that’s day one. By then all the Muzak is playing Mannheim Steamroller and everybody already has their trees and lights and stuff, so we figure it’s time to get the party started. Usually the first couple’a gifts are not too hot, but we start right in lighting our candles and having special dinners, and talking about the principals and all that philosophical stuff my Dad and Granpa are so into. The first 3 are Unity, Kindness and Compassion. On Christmas Eve, it’s Hope, cause we hope we get some good stuff. Then on the day of, is Generosity, cause most everybody tries to be real generous with each other on that day. And after, it’s Gratitude, when we are grateful that we get to buy most of our presents when everything’s on sale.
Then, on those lost days between Christmas and New Years, Granpa put in his personal code: Truth Love and Courage. He says if we have the courage to always look for the truth and accept it with love, everything will always turn out for the best. I don’t know about that though, things can turn out pretty crummy sometimes, no matter what.
On the last three days, we kinda do the Jewish New Year where you’re ‘sposed to face your guilt and stuff and then Atone. That’s the 10th day, Atonement. We always have to discuss like whether or not it’s ok to throw apple cores but not orange peels in the bushes at the park and stuff. But on Forgiveness: New years Eve, we do have a party, and watch the ball drop and all kiss each other and stuff, cause it changes from Forgiveness to Redemption right then. And we still get presents, usually little ones, whatever’s left over, but sometimes it’s cool stuff people forget to get you and found at the sales.
Granpa’s too old to do Santa anymore; and Dad’s too skinny, and doesn’t really like people anyway. Some of my friends think it’s weird that we don’t celebrate Christmas, but we do. Holly Days is Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza Roshashannah and Ramadan all at once. My favorite part is The Stealing of the Tree, cause it feels like you’re doing something bad but you really aren’t cause they are just gonna have to pay for a dumpster to throw all those old trees in anyway.
June 24, 2013 § 1 Comment
An honor guard of girl scouts flank the casket next to a large horseshoe shaped flower wreath with a banner that reads “Good Bye Santa Claus”. My mom puts her arm around my shoulder as we walk glumly back toward the parking lot, avoiding eye contact with the surprising huge crowd, that makes me feel both proud and embarrassed.
The dead Santa is my father. I am 12 years old, and he is barely 45, when he suddenly drops dead of a massive heart attack. He is a character actor, a bohemian and an atheist, a hedonist and aesthete whose greatest joy in life has been pretending he is the real Santa Claus.
He got this gig from Ira Katz, a curmudgeonly old Jew who owns a little toy store in our neighborhood. I love Ira, when he finds out that me and my buddies love these little die-cast cars called Dinkytoys, he makes a point of stocking the largest selection in town. When we become swept up in the post-sputnik science boom, he puts in a special student science section. We all love Ira and my father-of-three-out-of-work-at-xmas begs Ira to let him play Santa in Ira’s store in exchange for gifts for my sisters and me.
They become good friends, the Jew and the atheist, writing credible backstory to convince the kids that this is the real, one and only Santa, and most of them buy it. This Santa doesn’t sit in some throne, this Santa walks the aisle and gets down on his knees at kid level and speaks softly, lovingly. This Santa goes out on the street and waves at passing cars, and fantastically, despite his girth, does cartwheels and hand springs, grand jete’s and pirouettes, as he bellows out his ho ho ho’s. Yup, this is the real Santa.
Santa and Ira get to know just what all the kids in the neighborhood want for Christmas or Chanukah and they relish sharing this secret knowledge with the kids’ parents. But there are always a few who have fallen on hard times, and to whom the knowledge of their kid’s desires is a just dagger in their hearts. Moved by this, Ira and Santa take the gifts they know these kids want, and after the little store closes, they stay up late discussing philosophy, art and science, as they wrap up these gifts and put them in a big red velvet sack.
Then on Christmas Eve, Santa glues on his beard and pulls on his boots one last time, loads that big red velvet sack in the back of his Buick, and shows up, unannounced, and unexpected at these families’ homes. My father is a big man who needs no padding to play Santa, and his laugh booms in a way that makes a particularly convincing ho ho ho. After he has handed out the gifts, the joy and wonder he sees in these kids’ eyes unleashes an especially authentic bout of ho ho’ing, and with that, he just turns and walks away, leaving the kids’ hearts full of delight, and their parents’ eyes full of tears of gratitude.
The tears today at the cemetery all from grief, and I wipe my eyes as my Mom leaves me at the edge of the parking lot to get our car. I cringe as I watch the scoutmaster approach and I lower my eyes. He puts his hand on my shoulder, and in a loud forceful voice, slapping me on the back in a failed effort at a good-natured gesture says, “Well, it looks like you’re the man of the family now.”
The tears well up in my eyes again, and I look into his grinning face with horror, then turn and run back down to the graveside. I know I am just a boy, and I know, without a doubt, that I am a long way from being able to walk in Santa’s boots.
June 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
The day I learned of the existence of the man I love more than any other in the world, I was on deadline, it was hectic and thrilling, with me, the formerly F minus English student volunteering as the technology editor on the Daily Planet Almanac being published as a school project at an alternative high school where I was “teaching”, high in the Santa Cruz mountains. On the other end of the phone, incomprehensibly choking out words between sobs was an old girlfriend of mine. When we had met, I was a 19 year old convalescing from a motorcycle accident, too broken to complete my junior year studying sculpture, lost and confused. More a groupie than a girlfriend really, who within a few minutes of meeting me was giving me head in the back of my car. A coke-fueled party girl was just about what doctor gonzo would have ordered at that point in my life, but having more sex than I imagined I was capable of, wore thin much faster than I expected, and her woefully unenlightened stance that began to glare as the testosterone wore off, had me spending the next couple of years trying to chase her away. She learned very well in that time that I was a soft-hearted pushover who would fold at the mere hint of her suffering, and here she was, a year or more since I had last seen her, suffering for all she was worth. She was obviously really in trouble, and despite my anger and disgust, I managed not to hang up on her.
Eventually I pieced together that she was in the hospital, bleeding and pregnant – 5 months, so it was long past having her nth abortion. She had told them her boyfriend was coming to pick her up, and how soon could I be there. I was furious with her but concerned for the baby she was carrying, and I reluctantly agreed that in a couple of days, once the galleys were proofed, I would come and get her.
I took a room next to hers in the Hard Times Hotel, an old Victorian converted to a rooming house in an area of San Francisco we called Pacific Depths, and agreed to be her birth coach. I would keep her hepatitis at bay, feed and care for her and the fetus, and try to make sure it got out of her unscathed. Despite her cavalier attitude about her surprising fertility, I assumed she would give this one up for adoption like the baby she had when she was 17, whom she called Phaedra after the Nancy Sinatra song, and of whom she kept a single crumbled snap shot.
Pregnancy, it turns out, is quite a powerful drug in itself, and she quickly cleaned up her act, busying her self nesting and preparing to actually become a mother. I was moved and impressed, and my anger turned toward respect and sympathy. I read Frederic Leboyer’s Birth Without Violence and bawled my eyes out at a lecture he gave. We studied Bradley and Lamaze, I watched her grow strong and confident, and began to like her more than I had since just before that first time I came in her mouth on the day I had met her. So much so that I painted a life sized mural of an Orca family, mom dad and baby, on the wall above her bed and started to wonder if I might actually stick around. But remembering all the insanity in her life, I steeled myself that my deal was just until I got him (we knew by then it was a boy) out of her.
San Francisco General had just opened an alternative birthing center, and as her contractions quickened we checked in with our midwife, who informed us that, already 10 cm dilated we would give birth right there in the cramped examination room, not in the cute little birthing room with its bean bag chairs, macramé plant hangers and brunt orange curtains, as we had planned. She screamed obscenities and begged for drugs for about half an hour as she clawed at my arms, which made me feel pretty relieved that my contract with her was just about to expire. But then, they handed me this tiny little person, and I looked into his gentle eyes, wide with wonder, fixed in an adoring stare at mine, and was hopelessly smitten. Shit, what was I thinking?
I can’t believe that I thought I would be able to walk away once he was out of her body. He was even more fragile and in need of me there in the air, wobbling head bobbing above the tile floor or slipping around in the sink. But looking at her nurse him, I could not help but try and make a family just like the one I had painted on her wall.
We got a bigger place, and for a couple of months it was all Norman Rockwell, her clean, sober and devoted with me working at a hip little garage in the City. But then, sadly and slowly, she started to come down off the mommy hormones, and began to get antsy. She was going stir crazy she said, she just needed a night out she said, and with a promise to be back in time for his early morning feeding, she got all dressed up and out she went. He was a great baby, always bright-eyed and happy, and my love for him grew every day. But that morning when he awoke hungry as he always did just before sunrise, and she wasn’t there, he was really pissed off. All my bouncing and dancing, my running the vacuum, my singing and begging were futile in the face of his hunger, and finally, in desperation, I put him to my breast. He latched on and sucked with all his might, calming himself, and for a few moments we were at peace.
The sensation was strange and painful, tickling, tingling, burning, itching and actually sort of embarrassing, but he was finally contented for a few minutes, and I let him have at it. As the sun rose and he realized that my teat was just some tiny arid and cruel joke, he started into another furious tear. Thankfully, just as I was cursing her with a fury uncommon to me, she arrived – boobs bursting, milk running down her thighs and I thrust him into her arms where he quickly settled into his usual milk stupor, and exhausted, fell contentedly asleep.
I yelled at her, I scolded her, I pleaded with her, I begged her, and she timidly promised it would never happen again, but of course it did. The pediatrician said I would probably produce milk, most men could, likely colostrum at least and that it would be good for him. I tried, but that let-down feeling was so intense and weird, my boobs felt like they were starting to grow, and I realized humbly that I just wasn’t that enlightened. So I got some formula and the next time she disappeared for a couple of days, I began to wean him.
I moved us back to LA where my family was and her junkie pals weren’t, but she found new ones. She would go off on benders, disappearing at times for weeks, coming home weak and yellow with a hepatitis flair up. I would then take care of both of them, he who so deserved and appreciated it, and she who I grew to resent more with each round. Finally, I told her if she left again, she should not return, and she didn’t. When he asked, weh-wiz mommy, I could finally answer, and say, she has an apartment in Hollywood, and that helped him.
I bawled my way though Kramer vs Kramer, and dove unabashedly into single fatherhood. But as far as the world was concerned, I was nothing to this little guy who was now the love of my life. He had made me a father, and somehow, the open sore left by the sudden death of my own father when I was 12 was mostly and miraculously healed. In many ways I selfishly cherished my difficult role as a single dad, and was petrified that I might somehow lose him. Lawyer after lawyer told me my choices were to marry her, (no way) or have her relinquish her parental authority, (no way) so that I could adopt him. He knew nothing of all this. I was his dad, that’s all he knew, and for then, I felt that was all he needed to know.
I was doing video editing for a lawyer working on Rowan and Martin’s lawsuit against their Laugh In producer, George Schlatter (which they won). Since I often had my son with me at these sessions, this lawyer sometimes brought his girlfriend, who was a family law attorney herself, along with her 9 year old son. She and I chatted like a couple of moms at the park, and I eventually shared my parenthood problem with her. One day, she excitedly announced that she had solved it: the Uniform Parentage Act. It was mostly used to enforce paternity in the days before DNA on dead beat dads who had held themselves out as fathers, but then, absent the romance, wanted rid of its product as well. There was no reason she explained that I could not use the statute to say, hey I’m holding myself out to the community as this child’s father and get a judge to declare as much, which he did. We agreed that in payment for her and her boyfriend’s work preparing the case, that she would baby sit for me while I did a valve job on her lovely old 1950 Alfa Romeo Giulietta spider. I cherish the worn and yellowing carbon copy of that court order to this day, and bet that evretyingme she drives that little red roadster, she thinks of Lan and me.
But my son was still in the dark. I had no idea how, when or if to explain this strange relationship to him. I was terrified that it might alienate him, or make him feel insecure, and so, when he was about 6, I found a family therapist, and he and I began to have sessions in the home of a wonderful woman in our neighborhood, a single parent herself, who agreed we needed to handle this revelation carefully. Shortly after we began, her 16 year old son was killed in a motorcycle accident. I was not really able to imagine troubling her with what now seemed like my petty dilemma, but she asked that we continue, that it would be a comfort to her to continue her work with us, because unlike too many of her patients, ours was a problem not full of pain or dysfunction but one borne only of deep, healthy and mutual love. My son and I came to feel a bit like parts of her family, and I suspect we continued seeing her long after our path had become clear to all of us. Her daughter delighting in playing with my cute little son, as she and I shared our love for our kids and the sorrow of our losses.
Finally she blessed my confession and he and I took a ride into Griffith Park, as I had so often done with my own father, and parked at Bee Rock to watch the sunset. As I began reciting my script about where babies come for, he became sullen and turned away from me, I was scared and confused, but prepared, and so continued, even as I became more frightened at his stiffening fear, which seemed so inharmonious with the deep love I intended to share with him. Suddenly, it occurred to me as I watched the terror rising in the reflection of his face turned so stalwartly away from, that he already knew what I was about to tell him. I could almost hear her spitting out in some paranoid crash: “You know, he’s not even your real dad”. I realized that what he thought was unfolding may have been his worst nightmare, that this man, the only solid reliable thing in his life, had discovered this dark secret, and that I too was about to reject him. That I too would too abandon him like his mom had. And so I shifted gears, and jumped straight to proclaiming my love. I abandoned my script and explained how I had not intended to be his dad, how if he had been some fussy baby, some angry little man, I may have left him to his mom. I was realizing for myself, in that moment, that it was he and his beautiful spirit, so apparent even on that first day in that stuffy little exam room, who had saved me, who had loved me and drawn me into his world of beauty and innocence, and I saw, in his reflection in the side window of my truck, the frightened scowl he had been wearing grow into a huge grin. He did not turn to face me right away, but I put his favorite tape, Laurie Anderson’s Oh Superman into my cassette deck, and stoked his head, until he climbed out of his car seat and into my lap as we cried and laughed together. Oh superman, oh judge, oh mom and dad, mom and dad… here come the planes.
June 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
The singing of the creek was all that was left inside the tiny crooked cabin that had once been our home. It was now surrounded with scraps from our feast of life. Picking through the rubble, putting the probably useless mementos: the grade eight washers, shelf clips and assorted doohickys into my already jammed pockets, I chanced to discover, laying face down in the dirt, the decapitated head of Peaches and Cream Barbie. Our sons had delighted in teaching our four year old daughter how one could rip Barbie’s head off, and then jam it back on, leaving the tiny beauty queen almost good as new. Perfume Pretty Barbie, Tropical Fun Barbie, Magic Prom Date Barbie, all had faced this pre-adolescent guillotine, but poor Peaches and Cream had not been lucky enough to be resurrected. She had been separated from her body, perhaps by some randy kitten.
Barbie seems like an icon of sinless lechery. I’m sure she’s what God’s girlfriend must look like. Her fifty-three-Olds-bumper-guard breasts, three-quarter inch waist, and melon-smooth crotch epitomize some form of asexual eroticism: a vamp Madonna, virgin whore. Man in god’s image against nature. Not wanting to condemn such high art to ignoble oblivion in the recycling center of my pockets, or to lose her in my garbage can of a car (had I not succumbed to paying eighteen dollars for this girl toy and her endless TV promotions?), I searched for a place where her chances of rebirth would not be jeopardized by my slovenliness. In a flash of brilliance I took the metallic band that held her long golden tresses into a stylish coif, and stretched it around the rear view mirror of my car. Somehow Barbie’s wayward body never materialized, and that Peaches and Cream head became like a pair of fuzzy dice, bobbing mindlessly above my dash.
We had a Chinese junk when I was young. It was an elegant and fragrant object that I loved more deeply than any inanimate thing really deserves. They say that junks are built without written plans. Instead, a master builder sings a song. The song lasts just as long as it takes to complete the junk. Ours appeared to have been whittled totally out of teakwood logs. Each hand-hewn piece was carefully though crudely carved, each stroke of the workman’s hand, each verse of the song, was perfectly recorded in the tiny cut marks. It had two wide, deep blue cartoon eyes painted on it’s bow. They say the builders believe that a craft must have eyes in order to find its way. I started to wonder if perhaps Barbie’s perky eyes watching the road ahead of me might keep me out of some ditch some day, and I gradually began to see her as a necessary component of my car. One day, gleaning through the junk that always seems to materialize in my pockets, I came upon a bright yellow plastic poodle barrette. I save such bits of flotsam with the hope that I might find some use for them before finally consigning them sadly to the landfill. A neatly trimmed poodle seems somehow spiritually akin to Barbie and so I felt it appropriate to make this barrette a gift to my Barbie head. Clipping it unceremoniously into her hair, I felt an inkling of some jumbo spiritual awakening.
I wonder if Barbie noticed the day my son said, “Look dad, a hawk!” as a huge black bird swooped majestically across the road. It was barely three feet above the pavement, and ten feet in front of the car. It banked and headed back, now five feet in altitude, and we stopped and got out to watch it. “That’s not a hawk,” I said in amazement, “It’s a vulture!” We watched that ugly, evil, black bird turn back and forth across the road attempting to gain enough altitude to cross the canyon. Like a hawk, its flight was soaring and efficient. But this vulture’s flight was the zenith of efficiency. To it, a wing beat seemed worth a zillion dollars. Even our presence could not dissuade it from utilizing this thermal, and it stalwartly continued, refusing to give up even a speck of the energy it was so jealously conserving. It would pass out of sight as it turned around a bend in the road, and then return to cross within ten feet of us, gaining a few feet. Then in an instant, as it passed in front of us, it carefully turned its wrinkled red head toward me and I made eye contact with its deep black eyes. Suddenly and miraculously, it was no longer the big ugly bird it had been a moment before, but a perfect and noble life. I now saw its flight as a Zen thing, no clutching, no waste, just clean function. Each time its huge, smooth, black form and long elegant wings passed us, it became more and more wonderful. Each turn was more thrilling than the last, and we came to love this magnificent creature. As we watched in awe, the beautiful figure finally turned and soared across the canyon to pick up another thermal on the far side, still with no more than the slightest twitch of its feathers. When it was gone, we missed it. I felt a funny kind of emptiness in the passing of this shining and transcendental experience. I was back in the world of Barbies and poodles. In that world I felt silly at falling in love with a vulture. As we drove away, still in awe of this incredible aeronautics display, we thought about our new friend’s life in its new light. I imagined it feeding on some squashed squirrel, and saw the same efficiency and easy passage in the world. It did not kill, only clean up. It was not the coward of its former life, but the master of a life not in challenge, finding sustenance in the leavings, and satisfaction with what is. I imagined a new nation devoted to efficiency and harmony with the symbol of the vulture on its seal.
We had “returned to nature”, establishing a little compound of tents and trailers on our eight oaken acres as we prepared to build a new home. Our vacant land, already densely populated by the likes of fox, rabbit, coyote, owls, ands hawks, now swelled by one goose, three cats, some odd number of kittens and six humans. Our kittens disappeared one at a time, until there was only one left. She was sad and lonely and missed her sibs. She was my least favorite of this litter, but when she finally failed to show up to eat for a couple of days, her passing was the saddest for me: no more frisky fur playing in our tipi. She epitomized the tragic side of life consuming life. Each night a large unseen owl would perch in a tall sycamore across our now silent creek and call a haunting who-song. Once it’s dark shadow swept across the road as I walked to the “porta-poop” (as the kids call our chemical toilet). I had them place the thing a couple hundred feet from our little compound, mostly to avoid the stink, but also to draw us out into the natural world. I have often been enraptured by stepping naked, still drunk with sleep, into the cold middle of the night to take a pee. My eyes, used to the darkness of their lids, always see more stars, more detail in the chaparral, more small nocturnal things, than in any other darkness. I then, subtly altered, gratefully take this magic world back to bed with me, and cook it in the oven of my dreams. Regretting my romanticism a little as I continued down the muddy trail, I passed a neighbor who had taken one of our kittens from the last litter. I asked of its fate. It too had returned to the earth. “Probably an owl,” she said, “maybe a coyote.” As I sat in that tiny smelly room, I imagined our terrified little kitten screeching in the bloody talons of that dark form, and with that image, the owl, once wise and good, became transformed into a cruel murderer. That vicious owl became the summation of the inescapable evil in all things. Why couldn’t it be more like my new friend the vulture? The vulture had no need to rip my pets to shreds. It had found a way to live lightly, without the screaming fear of the meek. But it was probably a coyote I thought.
Driving down the freeway the next morning, a large brown form on the shoulder caught my eye. “Hmm, that looked like an owl” I said to myself. Then, in the instants that followed I reflected, “No, these musings must have transmuted that shape into an owl in my minds eye.” But reviewing the image I wondered if, “Perhaps that really was an owl.” Compelled by my often dangerous curiosity, I pulled over. Backing perilously up the freeway’s shoulder, I thoroughly expected to discover some roughly owl-shaped lump of dead-dog, muddy-rag, or rusty-muffler. As I drew closer, I realized that it was indeed the body of a large horned owl. Amazed, I reverently picked up its perfectly intact corpse, studying it’s beautiful feathers, once-powerful great, hooked beak and surprisingly sharp talons, and placed it carefully in the back of my car. I continued on my way pondering the owl’s, and my own, fickle mortality. Was this the very individual who had so greedily executed our kittens, punished by the gods of overpasses and pets? How had it come to expire in such an owl-forsaken place, and what quirk of circumstance and coincidence had conspired to rob it of its once noble, now ephemeral, life. I could not help but to guess at the answers. Even if by some broad serendipity this was our kitty bandit, I was struck by a deep sympathy for the departure of this proud, if obscure and distant, cousin. When I got home I hooked its large, menacing claws over the extension cord that I’d strung out to the tipi. Hanging upside down, it spread its giant, beautiful wings for the last time, powered this time by gravity and not our once shared and wondrous spark of life.
I felt sorry and inexplicably responsible for its demise. A neighbor happened by and asked what I planned to do with this owl. He informed me that he had a barrel filled with the skulls of small animals, and that if I didn’t want it, he would like to have the skull of my owl. I certainly didn’t have the heart to dissect this sad and lifeless thing, so I replied that if he was willing to cut it up, he was welcome to the skull, if only he would leave the wings and talons for me. A friend of mine, when I was little, had the wing of some large bird on a shelf in his bedroom. I had always loved to study that wing. I would stroke the feathers and marvel at its phenomenally complex forms and engineering. I treasured the way the disheveled feathers would miraculously mend themselves with a gentle caress. Our neighbor left the wings and talons on top of our trailer for me. Someday I’ll have to go and see his skull collection.
Driving, again with my son, down into the valley, we were struck by the sight of twenty or thirty large birds in the huge old eucalyptus trees that line the road. Above, another thirty or so birds circled in a gigantic spiraling column. “Vultures!” he exclaimed. I quickly pulled over, and we stood beneath the gnarly old trees to count and watch. What were they doing here together? Had our new vision of them made their common presence only now visible to us? Perhaps they were here for road kills, or maybe it was a stopping place while they waited for the air to warm. Where had they come from, where were they going? We found we knew almost nothing about these outcasts. We knew at least they were not going to murder our kittens. I picked up some of the hundreds of black feathers that littered the ground underneath the big trees, put them on the dashboard, and drove on. Suddenly, one light downy feather leapt out of the window, and I grabbed the rest as they hovered, fluttering between the glass and the plastic of the dash. I was surprised to discover that I cherished those feathers, that they were some spiritual link with those great birds, and I was very sad to have lost one. Fearing to lose any more, I took the rest and tangled them into Barbie’s golden dynel hair, clipping them in with her poodle barrette. Looking at them there, she suddenly became more real, losing some of her sterile Barbiehood, and I saw her as an symbol of human life out of touch with, and trying to regain, the natural world. She was grateful to me, I’m sure, for bringing her closer to the earth.
Occasionally, the mother cat will bring a rodent into the trailer and tear it to bits. We wake to the gruesome sight of squirrel foot here, tail there, half-eaten skull sucked clean of little squirrel brains over there. My sweet purring friend is transformed into a fiend by the full moon, and engages in horrible bloody orgies of death and violence while we sleep. Cleaning up the gory mess, I took up the poor squirrel’s tail; admiring its beauty, and out of pity for it’s vanished life, I tucked it away with the unpaid bills.
Cleaning my car is a trivial task that I somehow often postpone until I am in mortal danger from the diet soda cans piling up under my brake pedal. In some ways I love a mess. It reminds me of the rubble on the forest floor, and carries the history of my living. A clean orderly environment is beautiful, efficient, and I do love it. A disorganized and messy space it embarrassing, unsightly and inefficient, yet I also love it. There is some perverse beauty in smashed fenders and piles of trash, scarred hands and bare muddy feet. Shiny shoes are nice but they, like Barbie, seem to live in some world that does not really exist, except in our imaginations. Bare muddy feet, on the other hand, are the essence of life on, and with, the earth. I always know where I am when wearing my home grown soles. I have found that when walking barefooted on a trail in pitch darkness, feeling the stones, ruts and scattered leaves with my toes, a clear image of the trail appears in my mind, and I can easily find my way. I know more clearly who and where I am, whether on grass, asphalt, rocks or broken glass; whether the ground is wet or dry. And my shoes never get wet. Anyway, when I have finally filled the two trash cans it usually takes to finish the archeological dig that is cleaning out my car, I often feel a twinge of loss. The popcorn bucket from that great movie, a single muddy little sock from an afternoon of blissful play in the creek, the wrapper from that especially delicious burrito, all those little mementos of the lost moments of my life, now just so much garbage. I sometimes try to soothe that loss by reintroducing a little history into the space. This one day, while reattaching my Barbie head to the now sparkling clean rear-view mirror, I was struck by her incompleteness. In some, no doubt, deep spiritual insight I remembered the dead animal parts I had stashed away. I climbed up on top of the trailer and got my owl talon, now bleached and aged by the sun and rain, and found that by some miracle of providence it fit perfectly into the hole that was meant to accept Barbie’s long slender neck. Then I rummaged through the bills, found the striped brown squirrel tail, discovering that by the same divine intervention, it too would fit perfectly. Taking the poodle barrette from Barbie’s hair, I clipped the tail around Barbie’s neck as a stylish fur collar. I was suddenly stunned by the beauty of this object that had evolved inside my car.
Pondering, with mixed embarrassment and delight, the awesome significance and beauty of my Barbie fetish, I shared with my wife the complex symbolism of my charm. I realized that it summed up a lot of how I felt about life. But it lacked a little something. A link to the earth perhaps, something inanimate perhaps. In a flash, I envisioned my talisman with a crystal clutched in its talon. As I described this vision, she extracted from her purse an almost perfect octahedral crystal that she pried into the claws of my fetish. Providence had again blessed this now holy object.
I brought the Barbie fetish into a friend’s home that we were gratefully house-sitting. I wanted to share it with some old friends who were visiting for the holidays. I had started kindergarten with these guys and remained best friends through high school. They are still my closest friends. The next day I left for work, forgetting my Barbie fetish. I was surprised to find that I was actually very disturbed at the thought of my long commute without Barbie’s sky blue plastic eyes watching the road for me. I even considered returning 5 miles to get her, making myself late for work. I felt off balance and disoriented, even lonely. But reason prevailed, I drove on, and naturally, no ill fate befell me. I was forced to stay away at my job for a few nights. By the time I got back, my family had returned to our compound which by now consisted of two trailers, five tents and our beloved, if often this winter quite literally, icy tipi. They had found Barbie and packed her, but somehow her squirrel-tail-with-poodle-barrette collar had become lost. I tried to hide the depth of my disappointment. A few days later I was back staying overnight on the job. I had been away through most of the holidays, and large rifts and tears had formed in our family under this stress. My wife felt abandoned and lonely. I worried that she no longer cared about me, and the kids struggled to remember what I looked like. One day she called to tell me that she had “performed a gruesome act on my behalf”. She had seen a dead squirrel in the road and had stopped, gotten out her eighteen year old Swiss army knife (I have probably donated twenty to the entropy well in the same amount of time) and cut off the still warm tail, aghast as she watched the dark purple drops of blood ooze from the stump. She told me that it was tucked away in the bill basket, and that it was waiting for Barbie and me. I knew at that moment, with absolute certainty, that she did really care about me. In fact, I was amazed to realize that I have never been more moved by any gift. Our daughter delighted in meeting me when I finally returned home with a replacement yellow plastic poodle barrette.
The Barbie fetish is whole again. Sometimes the rough dirt road leading out to our home jars the metallic band that holds this heavenly object to my rear view mirror, and I find that Barbie is staring at me, and not watching the road like she should be. I always turn her around. I have since discovered that the little plastic knob that switches the mirror into it’s night position (and that I have never seen anyone use for that function), fits perfectly between the two strands of the metallic hair-band, and keeps her facing diligently forward.
The angel that is not, between the good evilness, and the evil goodness, surrounded by life consuming life, clutching perilously to a stone. That is my Barbie fetish, and I guess, that is our existence, brought into being by the magically mundane.
June 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
It was low tide. Three boys in sagging baggy swim trunks stood at the edge of manhood and in the center of the bridge where Summer Street crosses the narrow mouth of the Mill River. Out on Cohasset Bay, old wooden sailboats sat lazily at anchor, and a family of ducks spread a widening “V” of ripples across the flat calm. But under the bridge the water was rough and swift: little lost raindrops, gathered over of the vast watershed of eastern Massachusetts, and tumbling now into the breast of the great Atlantic who sat waiting for them at the foot of the bridge. The boys leaned over the railing looking at the white-tossed crests of the standing waves below them.
“You go first.” The tallest said.
“No, you. I caught that cat.”
It looked so far down to the thrashing water, the Tall One was terrified. As the tallest son of a six-foot-five-inch ex-marine, this terror was as deep a secret as the fact that he’d rather take dance classes than join Pop Warner. But the water was really less than 20 feet below, which was, according to his dad, was about the length of their pickup truck. But who had ever stood on top of a pickup truck set on end? He was cursed with some ancient instinct that gave height, and its deadly potential, special consideration.
“I’m not scared. I’d go, but it’s not fair, it’s your turn,” The cat-catcher calculated honestly. He was swelling into manhood ahead of his buddies, and even before the cat, liked to show off his testosterone enhanced beef, but that was useless against the bridge.
“Oh come on, one of you go,” said the littlest one, always the odd man out, the omega to their alpha. He liked these guys, they had lived on the same block all their lives, but he was bookish and soft, knew he would never be a man’s man, and hated the way these little pissing contests had begun to wedge them apart. The other two were always jockeying for that alpha emblem that he was consciously avoiding. They each gave him a little punch in his upper arm, as had become customary. The omega clicked his tongue and massaged his deltoid with a sigh.
“Why don’t you go?” said the cat-catcher.
“Me?” the omega answered, “I never said I would go. I don’t even wanna go!”
But he did.
“Pussy!” they scowled in unison.
“You’re not going,” the omega replied, “and you been bragging about it all week. Who’s the pussy?”
The cat-catcher punched him in the arm again, hard. Violence becoming more and more his preferred way to cover his fear. His older brother, who had not only caught but murdered a few cats himself, preferred violence as a way of handling everything.
“Boys will be boys,” was all the comfort he had gotten the one time he had found to courage to tell what had happened behind the garage. He wished he could find that courage now, as a wave of nausea caused him to back away from the bridge railing.
A mini-van, crossing the bridge, slowed as a little girl, half their size, practically climbed out of the window and squealed,
“Mommy, look, it’s perfect!”
“Come on now, back in that seat,” a half-heartedly strict voice replied.
“No! Stop! Please!” the girl pleaded, disappearing back inside as the window purred up.
The three boys watched closely as the van pulled off the bridge into the turnout next to the abutment and the barefoot girl – she couldn’t have been more than five – came practically flying across the bridge to clamber up onto the railing.
“Oh man, Mommy. Check this out!” she squealed again, as her mom made her way out into center of the bridge.
“Climb down from there, kiddo,” she said as she put her arm around the little girl and led her feet back onto the pavement.
“Oh man, is that perfect or what?” she asked.
“She loves to jump.” the mom explained to the boys who stood back, watching them warily.
She quickly discarded the tiny blue jumper she was wearing, revealing her tiny pink polka-dot bathing suit with its silly little fuchsia peplum, and started to climb back up on the rail.
“Come on, Mommy, puleeze?”
The Mom led her back onto the pavement again, the sort of thing it seemed like this mom must have had to do a lot.
“You have no idea how deep it is, silly,” she said.
Immediately, the little girl grabbed her hand and tried to pull her toward the water,
“Let’s go see!”
“It’s really deep,” the omega offered, “we jump all the time.”
“We?” the tall one said, as the cat-catcher punched the omega in the arm again, harder.
Once his grimace faded, the omega shrugged to the mom and smiled.
“Yeah, we come here all the time. The guys from the college, they jump here all the time, and none of them has ever even been able to even touch the bottom, it must be like a hundred feet deep or something.”
“See!” as she started to climb back up.
“Hang on, let me go check.”
“Honest, lady, it’s really deep,” the tall one assured her, but the mom was already heading off the bridge, back to her van and the little girl was already down by the edge of the river.
“You wait for me, honey,” the mom called, and she did, jumping back and forth from boulder to bank as her mom pulled off her sundress, tossing through the window of the van and revealing her own pink bathing suit.
“Come on then!” she squealed.
The boys leaned out over railing to watch the pair dive into the river: the mom going deep, and the little girl bouncing giddily through the waves. With her squeals echoing off the bridge’s massive concrete abutments, the boys ran across the road and climbed up onto the opposite railing in time to see the rapids dump her into the flat, swirling bay, where her mom eventually would pop up.
“Deep enough?” she asked eagerly.
“One more time,” her mom answered, climbing onto the bank and chasing the tiny pink streak back upstream as the boys raced back across the road to their vantage point on the opposite railing.
After a few more passes the mom finally seemed satisfied that there were no hidden boulders waiting to crack her daughter’s skull. As she struggled up the embankment, the little girl shot past her to the center of the bridge, scrambled up onto the rail, and leapt off, this time, with a squeal so piercing the boys had to put their fingers in their ears.
All three leaned over to watch her splash, disappear under the waves, pop up in the bay, and rush back up the hill. Her mom had managed to finish her first return just as her daughter finished her second.
“Hang on, hon,” she said, “take turns,” then motioned to the boys that they could go.
“No, we was, we was… all finished.” The cat-catcher said, remembering his moment of vertigo.
“But…” was all the omega got out before the tall one gave him a scowl that cut him off.
“We gotta go,” the tall one said, bitterly retreating from his defeat, as he and the cat-catcher sulked off.
“Come on,” they commanded the omega, who paused.
He looked at them, then at the little girl, who shivered in her little puddle, waiting politely for him take his turn, then back at his ‘friends’ and said, “I guess I’ll see ya.” As they left him, the cat-catcher smirked and raised his fist, promising another big bruise on the omega’s arm, which he rubbed as the ghost of a grimace haunted his face.
“You can go,” he said to the little girl, who squealed and threw herself off the bridge again.
It was a little scary, but what really terrified him was all that macho dueling.
“I’ve never gone,” he said quietly, not looking at the mom, who replied,
“There’s a first time for everything.”
The little girl was back, and waited again for him to go.
“Ya know, I was really scared the first time on the high dive. It looked so high, but after, it was soooo fun!” she said. “Wanna go together? We can hold hands and count, that helps.”
“Well…” the omega said as he looked to see if his friends were out of sight.
“Come on, it’ll be fun.” She held out her hand to him with a bright smile.
He took it.
“One, two, three,” she looked to make sure he was ready, he nodded nervously,
“GO!” she squealed.
June 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
The sweet sound of falling water leaking through her window excited the little girl, who pulled her boots on over her pajamas, and tip-toed out the back door. The smell of the wet morning tickled her so hard she giggled madly, boulder-hopping down the crude stone steps in the gathering light, to her favorite place in the whole wide world.
Grinning so big her dimples hurt, tears welled up as she stopped at the edge of the wash, and whispered, “Hi, old pal,” to the clear water gurgling past like a happy baby. She waded in and felt a shiver of delight break loose another giggle, then standing in the middle of the fresh and beloved little stream, she pulled off her boots, and tossed them to the bank, slipping her bare feet into the swift water, and sighing gratefully as she felt the sting of the cold. Splashing upstream, soaking her PJs, as she hopped from pool to pond, from rock to stone, she finally stopped to sit on the big old oak that had fallen across the creek two winters back. She waited full of hope and anticipation, watching for the shiny nose of a little green tree frog, or the broad warty back of a big old bullfrog to emerge from the sandy bank just below her.
“Nini, Niiiiniii.” Her name echoed off the wet hillside, and she looked up to see the sky bright, dusted with cotton-candy clouds. Leaping off the log back into the dear water, she kicked up huge sprays as she skipped downstream toward her mother’s voice.
“Mommy! The creek, Mommy it’s running, it’s running!” She screamed, stopping for a moment to kiss the head of the old dog who waited for her, wagging eagerly at the bank. She bounded back up the steps as the old dog picked his way along behind her, carefully choosing his path among the boulders that made up the rough stairs. Her dad had let her pick most of these stones herself in that very arroyo, during the hot dusty days of summer, when her creek, running deep beneath the sand, laid as dormant as her frogs, both hiding their damp joy.
All day at school, she pined. “Nini,” her teacher scolded, “Oh Nini? Where for art thou oh teeny Nini?” Her friends laughed, as she blushed, her crab-apple cheeks glowing.
“Sorry.” she apologized, then excitedly, “My creek is running!” The kids all laughed again.
“Huh?” Scotty said, poking her in the back, a third grade flirt.
“It rained so hard, my creek is running.” She repeated quietly, sad that they didn’t get it.
“I’m very glad,” Ms. Taka said, “but, we’re not frogs.” The class roared again, and Nini sank into her seat.
She did her work quietly, biding her time. Finally, the big hand jumped to the twelve, then ring, ring, ring, and she darted out into the still-clear day, running all the way home.
Her mom met her on the road, and scooped her up, covering her face with the million baby kisses she squirmed to escape.
“Mommy, still running?” Was all Nini wanted to know.
Shaking her head and setting her little wiggle-worm down with a knowing click of her tongue, Nini’s mom smiled, “Change your clothes first!” She shouted, watching her sunshine streak down the muddy road.
Together, mother and daughter, both now in high rubber boots, walked in wonder up the center of the wide, rushing stream. The mother too loved this creek; loved the smell of wet leaves and the sound of the bubbles and stones tumbling along the rocky bottom.
“And aren’t we mostly water?” She thought wistfully, looking down at the small fingers, pulling her upstream and wrapped so eagerly around hers.
“Look, that big bush has washed completely away!” She said, reigning in the whirlwind for a moment to observe the new landscape the creek had built.
“And that big rock!” Nini squealed, “It’s all dug out.” Leaping on top, and spinning round to scan the wondrous scene. “And, mommy, look!” She said, flying away, splashing again upstream to her favorite spot. “The frog pond’s all dug out too!” She called back.
Seeing her wade into the deepest part, her mom called out, “Oh Honey…” But too late, the water filling Nini’s boots as she tested the little pool’s depth.
Sitting on the fallen tree with the tiny wet boots drying next to her in the sun, the mom watched gratefully as her sprout frolicked and splashed joyously; building then breaking dams, and setting leaf boats adrift, then chasing them downstream.
Springing onto the log, she gave her mom a hug. “Seen any frogs yet?” She asked eagerly, her teeth chattering. The mom took the shivering and compact little body up into her warm arms.
“Just one.” She answered as she wrapped her coat around the poor drenched girl. “And it needs some dry clothes and a nice cup of hot caterpillar cocoa.”
The half moon beamed through Nini’s bedroom window, as her mom gave her a million more baby kisses. Lifting open the window next to the bed, the sound of the falling water gushed through the open sash.
“Listen,” her mom whispered. “Ribbet, ribbet.”
“Welcome home.” The sleepy girl muttered, the sweet lullaby of her croaking companions carrying her off to dreams of palaces of sand, and banquets of bugs.