Thursday, April 30, 2009

The far side of midnight

After the coughing and hacking, after the dollop of honey that was supposed to alleviate the coughing and hacking, after the subsequent gagging and gasping for breath and other associated symptoms of a nasty cold grown nastier, there came a tightness in my chest settling down like dusk.  Everything prior to that moment suddenly seemed minor annoyances, mere grievances of the most inconsiderable ilk. The tightness quickened and deepened, consolidating into a throbbing mass centered beneath my left breastbone. Twinges of muscle spasms jittered down my left arm and orbited my collar bone. My cough stilled as if submissive to a dominant threat. 

“Is this it?” I wondered, and leaning on the kitchen counter watched the hands of the clock join in perfect unison to herald the witching hour. The question, unanswerable by anything other than what lurked on the far side of midnight, was shadowed by a sardonic reflection: Funny, I didn’t feel like I was ready to check out.


Memory plays fast and loose with facts. Things we remember, whether actual events or whispered fables filtered through the prism of former times and layers of maturity (and hence comprehension), are often proven to be pliable if not outright false. And yet they are our stories, our histories, the underpinnings of the lives we have constructed. Real or imagined, what we remember defines what we are.

I remember this: a small service station baking under a blazing Texas sun, worried faces, my grandfather sitting on a small chair or stool in an open bay, hunched over, ashen-faced, my grandmother at his side—both younger, much younger, and still alive, though for him the clock was running out—the wail of sirens singling us out, traffic parting, the screech of tires signaling an explosion of activity, followed by a long uncomfortable silence that fell like a shadow on our rapidly growing assemblage and the children most of all. Voices hushed and muted, an interminable, incomprehensible church service. My grandfather, Claude Volney Parker, a hardscrabble West Texas rancher, transformed from living flesh to fading memory in the space of a heartbeat. Or its absence.

It was June 19, 1959. I was almost six years old, too young for factual reportage but at an age where the brain absorbs impressions like a sponge. In the larger scheme of things, whether it happened at a service station or the post office is immaterial. What matters is that it illustrated with lethal clarity a weak link of ancestral lineage.

From an early age, we three brothers were told that behind our seemingly superb health lurked a genetic flaw, an assassin affixed to our DNA that when summoned stepped forth from the shadows to swing its metaphorical scythe into the aortas of Parker males. Though the timing of this event varied between individuals, it could be with some precision narrowed down to the latter part of our fifth decade or the opening strains of the sixth. Not every male fell victim, but enough did to warrant an undercurrent of uncertainty when approaching the age of fifty. Once that barrier was breached, one could breathe somewhat freer.

Or not. My father, the teller of this tale and a notorious “realist,” was fond of saying that only two things were guaranteed—death and taxes. The latter was a certainty timed to a monthly cycle, the former an unpredictable variable we hoped would be later rather than sooner. But, he warned, you never know.

I have carried this knowledge like excess baggage throughout my annual circumnavigations around the sun. Though I researched the basics of heart disease and learned by rote the signs of heart failure, prior to my latest episode it was a cautionary anecdote and no more. Until, that is, I went to a major medical clinic in Denver and made the mistake of relating it to a physician while simultaneously complaining of chest pains. With stunning rapidity I was hoisted onto a gurney, wheeled into an ambulance and whisked at high speed to a hospital halfway across town, where I remained a prisoner for the next 24 hours.

The word “prisoner” is not used indiscriminately. As member in good standing with a major international health insurer, I was expected to abide without question the rules imposed by the medical establishment. At one point, where my anger threatened to bring violence upon the staff, I demanded to know what would happen should I simply dress myself and stalk out the door. The doctor politely told me I was free to go, but that I should expect a fairly sizable bill with zero chance of recompense by the insurance company. I stayed.

Not having health insurance changes the equation. In fact, it changes it to a degree at once deadly serious and comically fatalistic. 

According to the Institute of Medicine, being uninsured beats diabetes and HIV/AIDS on the top ten list of causes of death in America. It can literally kill you, not directly but obliquely, by the uninsured failing to schedule regular checkups, screenings and tests, or to allow diseases to run rampant before seeking medical attention. Frequently in matters of health, too late is just that. 

Being without health insurance still surprises me. It wasn’t calculated or planned, or at any rate wasn’t supposed to last more than a few months, a year at most. That it has stretched out for almost a decade is disconcerting but truly bothersome only when needed. Which, fortunately, isn’t often. However, monthly charges offered by major insurers amount to that of a new car payment, though the car is tangible and insurance is not. Astronomical deductibles jack associated costs further into the stratosphere, leading one to eventually conclude that the medical establishment, in cahoots with insurance providers, are a modern Bonny and Clyde unleashed upon a defenseless society.

I’m not asking for sympathy. What is, is. But there comes a time when my chest tightens and lightning plays along the periphery of my limbs, and questions arise that have no ready answers: is this it, do I go or stay, which is worse, potential salvation or probable financial ruin. And all the while  my deceitful heart hammers away. I listen and wait. Mostly, I wait.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Evening light in the thicket

Eye of the beholder

The contractor said, “I could get a permit and burn your brush pile if you’d like.”

We were tearing sheets of rotten plywood from the shed in preparation for installing new siding. 

“Brush pile?” I said. “That’s more than a brush pile.”

He stared at the bristly hillock of branches and sticks, his expression suddenly blank. Covering several hundred square feet, it was an impressive assemblage, almost a decade’s worth of scavenging, a construct of weathered gray boughs now tightly interlocked and woven into a singular composition of haphazard randomness. 

There was no need to elaborate. He saw a mess. I saw a metaphor.


A life is disorderly but no more than anything else. What we think of as a linear progression, birth to death with all the convoluted layers in between, is more a series of starts and stops, circuitous meanderings, excursions, diversions, deviations and setbacks, with the only guarantees being progressive erosion and a terminal exit. God, as they say, is in the details.

Details are what I’ve been rummaging through the past several days. Time for a freelance writer can be a long slow drift, waiting for phone calls that either never arrive or arrive post-deadline, which amounts to the same thing. Being tethered to a telephone however silent imposes almost insurmountable limits. Nor did it help that the weather outside was sunny and warm, the sky washed of clouds and the season’s first dandelions sprinkling a lawn turned green overnight. I wanted to feel dirt in my fingers, to lay out the garden and contemplate a harvest yet to come. Barred from the natural world by a self-imposed exile, I turned to scanning more of my old spiral-bound diaries, a process I feared would be laborious but actually wasn’t once I developed a system. 

Thanks to a predisposition for making even the simplest task arduous and arcane, my system got off to a rocky start. The first order of business was to separate the spiral binder from the pages. There are probably a half-dozen ways to do so and I managed the absolute worst—a method which shall forever remain undisclosed. Suffice to say, the pages were removed, neatly stacked, and fed through the ScanSnap. Trial and error—mostly error—led me to a workflow of feeding one page at a time, readying another, and inserting it as the first slid onto the lower tray. Within that four-second process, bits and pieces of my life returned to me as if from a great distance over a road long forgotten.

The notebooks were in random order so that I skipped forward a few years only to loop around and find myself in a sort of prequel as if the calendar were no more than tides drawn by the pull of the moon.  Ebb and flow. The disjointed chronology was dizzying in itself, but no more so than the volume of particulars that emerged. So much was there that I had discarded. So much restored. 

Memory paints with a broad brush. The intricate details of our lives are layered indistinctible under an impressionistic rendering, an artist’s carefully manicured interpretation relieved of specifics. Such smoothing and blending is not erasure, for that implies willfulness; rather, our brain’s limited capacity to retain trivialities is an absolution. To forget is to forgive.

And yet as I scanned each page, snatching a paragraph here, a sentence there, my past flooded back with graphic thoroughness, or at least with an inclusivity tainted by my own biases. A large percentage of those biases appeared to be aggrieved, part of a greater war waged on the world at large and small, oftentimes within the minor realm of my family. “I never set out to write my life history,” I wrote, at once bitter at the amount of time spent chronicling a life, and perhaps in a halfhearted attempt to justify my observations when so many could be considered harmful. How many times I almost set fire to the notebooks cannot be numbered. I often imagined a bonfire burning bright, line by line of my life incinerated to ash, an immolation not of flesh but of word, thought and emotion. But not even in my most inebriated, wretched moments could I bring myself to do it.

The middle passage of the 1990s had not been kind to us, with a steady dissolution and ultimate sundering. Other notebooks would portray a different aspect of our story, and to be honest scattered throughout those thousand or so pages were moments of sheer bliss and discovery. I recognized myself but not as someone I would care to know, and yet an undercurrent of character developed that was both tormented and sardonic. After several sessions with state-mandated child psychologists I asked myself, and Lori, whose wisdom I cherished and even sometimes feared for its precision, “Who am I supposed to be?” Two pages later I announced, “Raising teenagers is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

“We all become trapped in our own mazes,” I wrote, and if we eventually escaped that maze the breadcrumbs we left behind as markers are there for the reading, and worthy of preserving. Perhaps even worthy of another look, as I did while sorting, feeding, scanning and stacking each numberless entry. 

By the time I finished my emotions were ragged. But I came away with the remembrance of how it felt to stand atop Wolf Mountain, how the haunting cry of a long-billed curlew grounded me to the wild places and gave me my freedom, how we as a family started and stopped and started again and came at last to this surprising juncture. 

One last sentence caught my eye as I rebound the last notebook. “I have a place in this world,” I wrote, and it reminded me somehow of the brush pile, unsightly to some, a home for others. All those sticks. All those sentences. All that messy, unkempt, tangled, thorny, disheveled, disorderly, cluttered, chaotic, wonderfully unmanageable brush pile of a life.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tell me if you can

Just once I’d like to go forwards when trapped in an out-of-control vehicle rather than helplessly watching my starting point recede at a pulse-pounding rate. Experiencing one’s last moments backwards might seem fitting, a lingering last look in remembrance of what will forever be lost, but in this instance it’s constantly supplanted by a white-knuckled scream. My latest nightmare was depressingly similar to others and yet possessive of a more dramatic, if not traumatic, finale replete with an out-of-body experience, and it all started with the dropping of a pen. 

In that odd way where dreams sometimes mimic reality, everything that followed hinged upon one seemingly inconsequential act. The driver of the vehicle in which I was a passenger parked on a steep hill so his wife could look at a family homestead far below. They got out while I remained in the back seat ruminating over whether the driver had set the brake and, if he had, how well it might be adjusted. Twilight was gathering shadows in the green forested valley like a rising tide, the sky shading to a rich purple hue. When the woman asked for a pen to jot down a note, I cracked the door and reached out but the severe incline snapped the door shut on my arm. The pen slipped from my grasp and fell.

And fell for what seemed an eternity, tumbling in slow motion as if the air had congealed into a viscous soup, the pen’s downward trajectory the harbinger of a doom that had befallen me. It struck the pavement with a faint click, bounced, somersaulted once, struck again, its imperceptible sound wave all that was needed to disengage the parking brake and set the vehicle in motion. A blur of sickening motion, screams and shouts, two horrified faces dwindling, the crunch of gravel, disengagement from the earth. My future, I thought, is behind me, and I was swallowed in darkness.

Later, or what passed for later in the dreamscape, I climbed from the valley and approached a small knot of people standing beside the road. Their utter disregard for my presence was clarified by emergency lights punching through my incorporeal being as if I had become smoke. I didn’t feel dead; indeed, I felt the same as ever, only a little dismayed that such a transformative process had gone unexperienced. 

Dismay was not what I expected. Complicating matters was a quotation I stumbled across the next day from the actor and playwright Noel Coward. “We have no reliable guarantee that the afterlife will be any less exasperating than this one, have we?” he asked, perhaps as a rejoinder for the pie-in-the-sky, blissful afterlife we’ve been led to believe was our just reward. Funny how there’s never a glimmer of doubt that things will be better. The thought that we might wake on the other side to find ourselves still setting the alarm clock, still going to work, still paying our bills and still needing cavities filled was shocking enough that I settled into a deep funk. It was just one more thing to worry about.

Friends e-mailed telling of their own struggles with faith. Many had opted out of organized religion for a more personal, if not bewildering, search for spirituality. One man turned atheist while others were somewhere between the two in a sort of theological limbo. But if being freed from the well-defined tenets and doctrines of Christianity secured a less restrictive sense of divinity, and perhaps even a broadening awareness of how other cultures perceived God, life and its aftermath, it came with the burden of uncertainty. Most admitted to having fewer answers and more questions. 

One friend, Mark, enrolled in a spirituality class that included past life analysis and channeling. At first skeptical and then grudgingly accepting, he had grown to trust his spirit guide to a degree I found inspiring and not a little scary. So many priests, pastors, imams, rabbis, lamas, gurus, swamis, shamans and charlatans profess to know the one true way that any reasonable adult is left wondering which among them is dead wrong. It’s not inconceivable that they’re all deceived. As I warned my friend, I trust nobody who claims to have all the answers. 

Nevertheless, he went to bat with the spirit world for me, asking his guide about Sheba. According to Bill (channeled through a female medium), she was still with us but disappointed that I couldn’t sense her presence. “He is not willing to sense it,” the guide said. 

He went on to say that she had not been reincarnated into the wild but remained acceptable to the notion of returning in a domesticated rabbit. “Give it a few months,” the guide said, “and then start looking—but not before June.”

“Sheba was a familiar?” Mark asked.

“Definitely,” the guide said.

Somehow it sounded too pat, too convenient. It’s what I would have said, given the chance.

The essence of spirituality, I felt, was little more than grasping at whatever life preserver happens to float past. Yet one evening I was climbing the stairs to the bedroom when I recalled as I often do the moment of Sheba’s passing, how her body slumped in my hands and grew still. The recollection usually blindsides me when I’m alone or late at night after the house has grown quiet enough to hear only the beating of my heart, and always exacts its toll. And even as I staggered under its weight I recalled Mark’s admonition of Sheba’s continued presence, and rousing myself imagined running my fingers through her luxurious fur, how she loved to be cuddled, and without effort fell headfirst into the moment and let it carry me forward. Her presence was as real as the books on the shelves or the stairs under my feet, though tangible only to senses other than sight. However, whyever, she was there, and in bidding her goodnight some hard thing inside broke free. 

In the morning I rose refreshed, and reaching for my pants froze in place. There on the pants leg was a tuft of silver rabbit fur, silky soft, redolent of Sheba’s scent. Another awaited on my office chair as if deliberately set in place.

You tell me what’s going on. Tell me, if you can.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Blowing in the wind

We cling like ticks to our neuroses. While outside the wind howled and raged, foaming through the trees like heavy surf and battering the windows and eaves, inside my nerves became evermore frayed and tattered, and no amount of tossing or turning or burying my head beneath the pillow could alleviate the tension. I tried imagining the gale as white noise, musical therapy to combat the ringing in my ears, but ultimately its tone was too erratic, too staccato with the slapping of loose shingles and the irregular clatter of sticks skittering over the roof to be anything more than an endless sonic nightmare. And anyway there was an underlying anxiety that a tree would fall on the house and crush us in our beds.

Laugh if you will, but it’s been known to happen. Depending on the size of the tree, the angle of trajectory, mitigating factors such as ice or heavy snow adding ancillary force to the impact zone, the strength of building construction, placement of the bed, karma, Murphy’s Law and a host of other intangibles, it’s entirely possible to be safely sleeping one moment and squished like a cockroach the next. 

This is something that crosses my mind with distressing frequency when we’re upstairs, but it’s certainly not restricted to the master bedroom. If we’re sleeping on the first floor, itself an irregular habit dependent on the severity of the weather, my latent phobia shifts from trees falling through the roof to trees falling through the window. This was never a consideration before the ice storm two winters ago, but that changed in the space of a few hours as a succession of trees crumpled with sounds like glass breaking, only strangely muffled, almost distant. If it seemed prudent at the time to shy away from the windows, it seems doubly prudent to follow suit when winds clock fifty per or better.  

Though not specifically addressed to my particular psychosis, a new experimental bed called the Quantum Sleeper could be all the therapy I need. According to the product brochure, it’s an all-inclusive safe room, replete with metal bed frame, bullet-proof polycarbonate barrier impervious to burglars, terrorists and biological and chemical agents, with amenities including air recycler, toilet, stereo, refrigerator, computer hookup and microwave. Because it’s geared toward a post-911 world, additional enhancements in the form of robotic arms capable of firing tear gas or bullets can be fitted to provide lethal comeuppance. And for an additional fee, structural improvements impart extensive protection against tornadoes, hurricanes and other acts of God, though how this is accomplished isn’t adequately explained. If not for the $100,000 price tag, it would be the answer to my fears. I might even get some sleep at night.

I wonder sometimes how trees do it, how they manage to stay upright day after day, year after year, with Kansas winds clawing at them, tearing at their hair and twisting their arms, with ice and snow bearing down on them, and hail shredding their leaves and stripping their bark. How they don’t succumb to the relentless struggle. Some do, I know; I’ve seen their remains splayed across duff-carpeted forests, mossy, encrusted with lichens and fungi, rotting into the soil.

I suppose my thinking is influenced by an unwitting transference. But I am mobile and trees are not, tethered as they to the earth, entwined with the stones and minerals, dirt, earthworms, nematodes and slugs, millipedes and meadow mice and moles, reaching forever downward in a mirror image of upward thrust. More of earth than air. 

Maybe the real question should be directed toward our house, or even ourselves, why the wind doesn’t bear us away, what roots us not just to this place but to any place.

The next evening a restlessness fell over me, and I told Lori I was stepping outside for a while. This was after a series of storms had passed through and my nerves were slowly uncoiling. There was no trace of a predicted storm in the western sky, only a thin cloudbank off to the northeast and a half-moon nearing zenith. The wind still tore at the house and buffeted me, but the temperature was warm even if a chill promised bitter changes. My eyes caught movement, a rabbit darting into the thicket and another stopping to watch me. A shape and no more, already disappearing and the moon though ascendant powerless. 

Our yard looked different somehow, more barren, the larger trees scarred and splintered from the ice storm, thick limbs still dangling by tendons, their upper branches snapped off or missing entirely. A sad and sorry spectacle. But they were still standing, as was I. As were the rabbits. And behind the rabbits a wild tangle of saplings and junipers blurring the horizon, a new generation of transformation and rebirth. 

The house was a little worse for wear. Missing shingles, cracked storm windows, peeling paint, it had reached its prime and then some. An extensive overhang fed my fear of high winds for I could vividly imagine a straight-line gust peeling back the roof like a can opener, and yet the roofer we’d hired said the overhang was sound. I recalled taking a Sawzall to the upstairs closet, how difficult it was cutting through the studs, real two-by-fours, solid oak, hard as iron. And the time the wind shear slammed the house, exploding against the windows and taking down the hackberry, how the roof held, how the house stood its ground.

Our fears are never so irrational as when based on speculation. The house, like the trees, is rooted to the earth. And though I alone am weightless, able to drift like windblown leaves, my roots to this place are as unseen as the wind, and far stronger. I shall not blow away.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Someone to watch over me

Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. – Joseph Campbell

Sleep is an elusive, slippery eel, and dangerous. I succumb to a troubling dream where I’m working on a burglar alarm at a lavish mansion, tracing down a problem I cannot resolve while around me a party flows as liberally as the wine. Bright lights bleed into sprays of color and explosions of voices, the clink of ice in a glass, loud music throbbing down a hall, the rustle of clothing. I’m forced to maneuver though people who study me with cold, calculating stares, this stranger in their midst and armed, too, the revolver on my hip an unrelenting catalyst for societal transformation. Beautiful women immediately dismiss me with a glance though their eyes invariably linger on the butt of the revolver. The larger men gravitate to block my way, scowling and hard eyes all around, alcohol and testosterone fueling an inflexible dominancy harking back to days of chivalry. But I am no knight-errant, no seeker of the Grail. All I want is out, far away from that place, those people, the uniform, the pistol, the job, the night. 

And yet wishes in dreams carry as much weight as wishes in reality. I remain fruitlessly searching from room to room under the spell of an antithetical quest, beset from without and within, opposed by all forces, my own hero’s journey (though I do not feel like a hero or anything other than broken), until at last I claw my way into a lethargic level of consciousness, or perhaps another dream state entirely.

Outside the north wind howls and rages through trees still barren. Rising from the pillow, I jab one finger through the blinds and pry them apart to gaze onto a world gone white. The street light, veiled by blowing snow, veins the pale drifts with capillaries of dark shadows so that everything is reduced to a monochromatic two-dimensional field, more silhouette and shape than tangible object. And beneath the single thorned shrub anchoring the front corner of the yard, the outline of a rabbit, ears erect, alert. 


Long ago, before learning first hand the draconian methodology some religious congregations bring to bear on sinners in their midst, as well as before Las Vegas and its haunted foothills, several careful readings of the Bible, an introduction into the world’s diverse and disparate faiths and a dawning sense of global spirituality both deeper and more expansive than anything I’d been force-fed, followed by a complete collapse of faith in organized religions, I believed in guardian angels.  

As a believer in the One True Way, I was under their protection. The very few biblical references to such creatures were never presented in such a way as to make them seem real, though as all young Baptists I went along with the program because I had neither reference nor exposure to anything else. The questions I dared ask later in life were met with obfuscation, merely the first cracks etching the shell of my belief. If I stepped in front of a speeding bus, would the angel pull me from harm’s way, or stop the bus like some comic book superhero? More pertinent to my own phobias, would it safeguard me from vicious dogs or school bullies? The answers, if any were offered, were directed toward my apparent lack of faith, and anyway there was the matter of predestination to account for. Which led to even more questions about the utility of a guardian angel if everything was already platted down to the nth degree.

My biggest problem with organized religion was that by purporting to have all the answers, it could not express doubt of any kind. In short, it couldn’t say, “I don’t know.” Or if it did, it was couched in such twaddle as “we’ll know in the sweet by and by,” which is the same thing as “shut up and behave.”

I was told to behave in no uncertain terms. And when I refused, when I could no longer adhere to their repressive rules, I was branded an outcast. So I moved on, trading my faith for something like agnosticism, which is another way of saying I went searching elsewhere, though it wasn't a search I recognized or was even aware of doing, not in the sense of a quest or pilgrimage. 

But in my dreams the search remains unending. And if their origins are grounded in actual experiences—or the tangential mutations our unconscious minds generate, as if reality were something to be manipulated, tugged at, twisted or stretched, like so much impalpable taffy—they have evolved into symbols of something greater, something more powerful, even external. It’s perhaps indicative that the spirit I glimpsed in a field in Colorado was a therianthropic being, half-man, half-rabbit. I am only now beginning to glimpse that far country, but what I’ve learned is this: We all want to believe we’re not alone.


My breath catches in a ragged intake even as the snowflakes cease their dancing. Time is suspended for the space of a heartbeat, a preternatural stillness before flooding back with a jolt, my heart hammering through my ribs, trees lashing, snow billowing from the road in great curtains before being snatched away on the screaming wind. The rabbit shape slowly turns away and disappears into the outer darkness. 

Faith is a funny thing. We either hew to the old tales or design our own, writing our own mythologies. A friend says animals cross so easily they don’t even know they’ve crossed. My father hints that Sheba was reincarnated. One morning as I’m backing out of the driveway a rabbit bounces into view and runs after me. I hit the brakes and it skids to a stop, lifting up on its hind legs to study me, and for a moment there’s a connection I can’t explain, a familiarity. It follows me to the street and watches as I drive off. I’m almost to the main road when the tears come.

I wish I knew the answers, but I don’t.