Thursday, February 24, 2011

The evidence of things unseen

For weeks I wondered about the rabbits, or the absence of rabbits. Our yard, once filled to overflowing, suddenly entered a dry spell with a dearth of bunnies, a lagomorphic erasure filling me with dread. I’d seen several feral cats about, including one nosing around the brush pile, but it fled before I could get a clear shot, and the live trap sat empty day after day and week after week until one dark night I heard the telltale snap of the gate.

Living on the edge of the country in that transition zone where houses thin and the wild intrudes—in our case a seasonal creek separating us from the town proper and only two isolated houses standing between ours and fields slanting toward the confluence of the Little and Big Blue rivers—we’re used to things that go bump in the night. And, occasionally, in full daylight. Not long ago I kept hearing a repetitious bonking coming from behind the house, almost a rooting sound but with metronomic regularity. Peering through the blinds, I saw a rabbit toying with a wide plastic hose connected to the downspout. The rabbit would bite the lip of the hose and toss it into the air, watch it fall, and repeat. It apparently derived a great deal of satisfaction from the exercise, and as I’m all about rabbits having fun I allowed it to continue its play undisturbed. 

The sound of a live trap closing is more seismic, however. Its crisp, resonant, commanding ka-chung! leaves no room for misinterpretation. It is what it is, like the distinctive slide of a shotgun racking a shell into a chamber. 

I sat there for a moment listening to the faint echo. There’s a certain grim satisfaction associated with the endeavor, though satisfaction might be the wrong term. Acceptance might be preferable, for ultimately what follows is something nobody relishes and most would not condone. Nor is it without hypocrisy. That I’ve drawn lines between wild and domestic animals is no more than an uncomfortable compromise to account for “acceptable” predation, hardly Solomonic in scope. We are at best flawed creatures ourselves. 

Slipping into a jacket, I fished out a flashlight from a drawer and went outside to see what I’d caught. Sure enough, when I swept the yard a pair of eyes lit up like headlights. On closer inspection I found not a cat but a small raccoon, looking very much embarrassed about being caught so red-pawed and, judging from its expression, perfectly willing to never repeat its mistake if only mercy were granted. It was, and the raccoon soundlessly disappeared into the darkness.

Another two weeks went by without cat or rabbit. My spirits, attuned to the propinquity of my totemic mammal, flagged with each passing day. Wild rabbits have the unenviable position of being low on nature’s brutal food chain, prey to people, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, cats, dogs and raptors. Everything, it seems, wants rabbit for dinner. Except me, of course. 

And then one afternoon it started snowing. Light flakes at first raking down on a cold north wind, skies congealed into a flat gray field smothering dusk and light, and then heavier snowfall drifting across the roads and piling up in long crested windrows. Lights came on early and burned late into the night.

The next morning I looked out on a winter wonderland. About four inches had fallen and more was expected, but what surprised me was the amount of tracks crisscrossing the yard. Several sets of rabbit tracks meandered up the driveway from the forsythia, passed beneath the truck and climbed the stairs to the porch, where it seemed a sort of party had been held. More tracks led into the backyard and the remnants of the garden before branching off toward either the thicket or the brush pile. More tracks, all of them made by rabbits on closer inspection, wandered in from the field, pelted toward Juganine Creek or, apparently, circled aimlessly for no good reason. Among the tracks were those of deer, raccoon and what I took to be a skunk. 

My first impression was one of stunned delight. For not only was there clear evidence of an unseen world of unimaginable fecundity, but the rabbit population was abundant. Their tracks were a roadmap of their journeys, and for a while I followed them in my own shuffling peregrination, triangulating the yard from house to brush pile to thicket and so on to the edge of the whitened field where I studied the rounded ridges to the south and imagined myself as no more than any other wild creature leaving behind a tangible, if not ephemeral, proof of its existence.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Becoming whole

Besides being a terrible time waster, the Internet occasionally shines as a tool for medical research. When I entered the doctor’s office I had a very good foundation of knowledge concerning knee injuries, treatments and procedural expenses. I understood terminology of both the knee and remedies for repairing various parts of the knee, which procedures have questionable outcomes and which are positive, the limitations of medical science and more than a few cautionary notes from respected organizations such as the Mayo Clinic and others. Had I known then what I know now, I would have cancelled the appointment and saved myself the time and expense of the visit.

It wasn’t much, and perhaps I’m being too harsh. Thirty-five dollars for a doctor’s advice is cheap, especially when the pessimistic side of my nature was ogling a minimum of ten thousand dollars or so plus the loss of my highest-paying job. And it might turn out that the pessimist was right. But the doctor’s tentative diagnosis fit my own fairly well, even if his recommendation for an MRI went unheeded.

Because there was no play in my kneecap nor had I experienced any popping or lock-ups which would indicate major torn ligaments, he felt I had either or all of the following: torn meniscus, torn ligament or degenerative cartilage. Rest, physical therapy and a week’s dosage of Alleve might put me on the road to recovery, he said.

He asked if I wanted a cortisone shot. 

“Nah,” I said. “I’m on the mend.”


Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. 

When I got tired of calling myself stupid I switched to brilliant. Brilliant as in stupid. 

My self-castigation followed a renewed sense of freedom and optimism. That evening I demanded that Lori stay home when I went to work rather than tag along to help. She did but under protest. It was a huge mistake on my part.

Besides the office being buried under several layers of fine sand and silt, meetings had been held in the basement. For weeks I’d put off mopping the basement but suddenly waiting was no longer an option. While lugging the mop bucket down the stairs my knee popped twice and almost gave out once. Nor was the return trip much better. After three hours of this I dragged myself home, more dead than alive. Whatever optimism I’d imagined turned to dust.


I’ve heard it said that healing is as much mental as it is physical. The power of positive thinking, all that. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a glass-three-quarters-empty kind of guy, only now the level of fluid had depleted even further. 

For several days Lori helped me at work, and I hobbled around the house when I could and rested when I couldn’t and applied ice packs and heat and started working the knee a little more. Mostly I imagined myself back in the doctor’s office groveling for the cortisone shot. My family, all firm cortisone believers, were a little put out by my refusal to get the shot. I promised them I’d get one if the pain worsened. 

It worsened, but the weekend approached and there was no time for an appointment. 

Life is not lived in an easy chair. Sometimes when I was feeling sorry for myself I’d think of pioneers  eking out their solitary lives on the western frontier, far from neighbors and farther still from medical practitioners, forced to get by no matter what. I also thought of my own life, how far I would be willing to go to get my knee repaired. The answer was variable, dependent upon the level of pain being experienced at the time. But even at its worst, money was an obstacle nearly impossible to circumvent. 

Unless you’re independently wealthy, it always comes down to money. For most Americans, want and need are the currencies we use to balance our lives. We balk at the latter and rationalize the former and somehow muddle our way through, though depending on the level of personal income it’s often an unwieldy juggling act with equal parts faith and fear. 

I had plans. Plans for the kitchen, plans to travel, and business ideas that might broaden my career in photography. Like all business plans, they required investment. Not nearly as much as arthroscopic surgery, true, but an investment nonetheless. To bring a fraction of them to fruition would require squeezing the worth of every penny. 

In other words, I had money for some, but not all.

One afternoon, my right leg propped in a chair, I made the first step in that investment. It wasn’t a large amount of money, and some of it would be recaptured through two pending jobs, but it was a start.  I would need more, and indeed I was already searching for the best equipment at the best price. When Lori saw the invoice she raised an eyebrow and gave me a look. 

Sometimes words fail us. She saw the price, which under the circumstances was warranted. I saw potential. I wanted to say, “I believe in myself,” but it sounded trite and anyway I’d said it before and failed and would do so again. But in the end, all we have is trust in ourselves, no matter our track records. I told her what I intended to do, how I would set up each shot and how each piece of equipment would work in conjunction to create a ballet of light. The incomprehension in her eyes was evident. 

“I’ll be your assistant,” she said. 

My heart skidded to a stop, and remained that way for some time.


Saturday night. I tackle work alone and limp away with just enough time for a beer and a cookie before attending a concert in Waterville. For two hours I stand on the back row with my big lens but I’m getting killer shots and know it and the knowledge works its way inside to that warm spot where Lori resides when she’s away, and afterward I’m almost to the truck when I realize I’m walking normally, more or less, but mostly more.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Winners and losers

On the day Republican senators unanimously voted to repeal the Obama-led health care overhaul, my right knee took a turn for the worse.

For weeks it had been hurting. As is common for those without health insurance, I put it off as a sprain, something that would heal given rest and time. The pain began as a pulling sensation in the tendon behind the knee before spreading to the muscles or tendons in the thigh immediately above the knee. Flexing my leg grew increasingly difficult. Ice packs, heat pads, elevation—nothing provided much relief. 

Finally, the epicenter of the pain centered inside the kneecap, slightly interior to the leg, wickedly sharp. A fancy brace provided a measure of stability, enabling me to walk short stretches. Kneeling, as when using a dust pan or wiping up coffee spills at work, was impossible. 

“It’ll get better,” I assured Lori. 

But I didn’t believe it. Nothing about it felt like a sprain. It felt as if something inside was slowly tearing itself apart, or tectonic plates grinding together.

And it didn’t get better. It got worse.

Members of Congress who opposed the health care bill can afford to be uncompromising. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the median personal wealth for members of Congress in 2009 was $911,510. In fact, nearly half of the members of Congress are millionaires. The conservative branch of those millionaires acted to repeal the health care bill without offering another proposal in its place. It was all or nothing, my-way-or-the-highway; they opted for the highway. 

Who benefits from a repeal? Not the millions of Americans without medical insurance. Not the millions of Americans who struggle to afford medical insurance while still paying bills and putting food on the table while their paychecks continue to shrink, if not evaporate. The price of gasoline, insurance, groceries and utilities is escalating, yet for many Americans their salaries are frozen. One commentator called earnings for the middle and lower classes “static.” But nothing is static in today’s economy. The cost of merely getting by skyrockets while paychecks wither due to inflation. People are falling behind while our millionaire leaders cozy up to big business, the pharmaceutical industry and insurance companies. Who benefits? Not me. Not you. 

Now, I’m not an expert on health care reform. I haven’t read all 10,000 pages of the legislation, or whatever the final tally was. From what I’ve heard, there are parts of it I dislike and parts I distrust. My gut feeling is that the Democrats caved to insurance companies and antagonistic Republicans in order to wrangle a compromise that will ultimately benefit only the insurance companies. On those grounds, the idea of being forced to purchase health insurance worries me. 

In a recent news report, several Republican senators confessed that they hadn’t read the health reform bill. Nobody had time to read it in its entirely, they said. While I can understand their point, I can’t understand their refusal to try to find a compromise. Apparently finding solutions or compromises isn’t part of their agenda. Their vote wasn’t a denouncement of the bill, its inclusions or exclusions, its language or scope—it was a vote for their political party. It was a vote for maintaining  the status quo.

For most Americans, the status quo is broken.

My knee, however, is staunchly apolitical. It doesn’t care about the riots in Egypt or the state of emergency in New Mexico. It’s served me well for 57 years without too many complaints. And now it’s telling me that hoping for a miraculous recovery is as unlikely as Republicans and Democrats working together for the betterment of the nation. Hope, in this instance, was just another word for denial. 

Denial, at best, is but a short-term postponement. My knee was willing to wait for a few more days but eventually its patience came to an end. At work one morning the pain became so fierce that I could barely stand. Walking was agony. There was nothing to do but finish my chores, which I did, before dragging sacks of trash to the change house. The walk across the parking lot to the car in the subzero darkness of pre-dawn was an exercise in mind control. 

You can do this, I’d say through gritted teeth. 

My knee wanted to argue the point. Whenever I provided an encouraging word it responded with daggers of white-hot jolts. If a knee could laugh, it would have.

Reaching the car was one thing; getting in was another. Folding my leg to cross the threshold left me panting. Once safely home, I had to repeat the procedure in addition to climbing two short flights of stairs. By the time I hobbled to my easy chair I was done. I all but collapsed, covered myself with a blanket and dropped into restless dreams in which debilitating pain and my knee played starring roles.

The chair became my domain. It was my office and my entertainment center. I pulled up a small folding table to hold things I might need, or things I’d feel more comfortable having nearby: the Kindle, the MacBook, a gaggle of remote controls, a stack of photography books two months thick. 

The chair became my prison. Now and then I’d struggle to my feet with the support of a wooden cane that once belonged to Lori’s great-grandmother, Sadie Vail, and shuffle painfully around the house. Lori hovered over me like a mother hen, scolding me when I tried being too active. She was a wonderful nurse; I was a terrible patient.

And I broke down and called a doctor, knowing full well the financial calamity that might ensue. But whatever happens, happens. I can’t live the rest of my life without the ability to walk. I’ve only two options here and neither are good but one is definitely better than the other: live mobile (if broke) or die rotting in a chair. When put so succinctly, the number of options decline by exactly one.

Republicans, defeated in their attempt to repeal the bill, vowed to continue the fight. New York Representative Nan Hayworth, a self-proclaimed free-market absolutist who voted for the repeal, said that if Americans “had a single issue that troubled them the most, it was that health care vote.” 

I couldn’t agree more.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The limits of memory

Even now, after only a few short months, I can’t remember the message in its entirety without digging through my files to locate it. I’ll re-read it, poring over each word for clues to my past. But mostly my brain gets stuck on one sentence, and try as I might to get past it, I can’t. 

“You and I were walking home for lunch in 5th grade from Governor Bent the afternoon President Kennedy was shot,” the message said. The writer’s name drew not a particle of remembrance. 

My suspicions aroused, I called my older brother. He was the social one of us three brothers, with an uncanny ability to remember people and places long gone. When he answered, I asked, “Who is this guy?” 


I’m almost finished with Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life, and I have to say I’ll be glad when I am. I’m also glad it’s a Kindle book, that it cost me only five dollars, and that it’s not going to take up valuable shelf space. But mostly I’m suspicious.

Years ago, after a particular gruesome memoir was published to high acclaim, several reviewers cast doubts on the author’s remarkable feat of recollection that included extended dialogue, minute trivia and detail approaching that of a novelist. To a man (and several women), reviewers could not in any way recall their own childhood lives with such precision. In fact, for many of them, great swathes of it were utterly blanked out, destitute of even a glimmer of a memory. How, then, were these authors so finely detailed in their stories? In particular, considering the unwavering fallacy of memory, how were readers, or they themselves, positive that what they wrote about actually transpired?

As I read these indictments my head nodded yes yes yes to each bruising jab. The obvious conclusion—the only conclusion, indeed—was that much of what passes for memoir is little more than a fictionalized account. Nobody said outright that the works were a lie—well, in James Frey’s case they did, and factually—but readers were advised to take them with a hefty dose of disbelief. My own advice would have been far harsher: with all the wonderful books out there, why waste your time?

Okay, I thoroughly enjoyed Alexandra Fuller’s autobiography, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. It was my introduction to autobiographical writing, chosen mostly for the content. In it, she describes the dismantling of white rural life during the Rhodesian civil war. As I grew up on Tarzan novels before gravitating to the works of Robert Ruark about the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, plus anything else I could find as long as it had plenty of sex and violence and took place in Africa, the place seemed an imposing medley of otherworldly beauty and terror. The Dark Continent never seemed so dark as during Ruark and Fuller’s times, though today’s headlines make them pale by comparison. 

But even as I reveled in Fuller’s tale of the nation’s bloody descent into anarchy, and notably her often humorous portrayals of family events such as the time her mother took apart the kitchen with an Uzi while trying to kill an invading python, I was struck by her narrative use of dialogue. Surely, I thought, she couldn’t remember the exact words spoken during these events, many which transpired during her formative years, and yet there they were, formally enclosed within quotation marks. Which, to a journalist, indicates incontrovertible, indisputable veracity.

Now that I’ve spent the past week living someone else’s childhood, my initial forebodings have only deepened. Wolff and other memoirists would have us believe in their capacity for total recall. And I don’t buy it for one second. 

I’ve always felt I was fairly average in every way, that my limitations in remembering details of my childhood were the same for everybody. The memoir-lambasting critics expressed my own disbelief and prejudices and in so doing absolved me of any lingering guilt. We were normal and unexceptional. If the memoir writers were telling the unvarnished truth, they were freaks of nature. If not, they were embellishers or liars; the final judgment was ours alone. Within a chapter of finishing Wolff’s book, mine was already made. If I wanted to read fiction, I would.

But memory, I was to learn, isn’t doled out in even measures. 


The message and its timely arrival sent me reeling. Who was this man who remembered walking home with me from grade school, and what else did he know? 

My brother said he lived at the end of the block with several brothers, that they were good people. When I contacted the man—Paul was his name—I admitted to having no recollection of him. His own memory was formidable, however. 

“I remember you had a Crossman BB gun, a pretty cool battery-operated M-14, a hand grenade, and a nice selection of the then-current Sgt. Rock comic books,” he wrote.  “I remember you and I spending a little time watching your dad install a Corvette engine in the green Suburban. In fact, it was helping my dad work on his cars that got me interested in engineering in the first place. I remember meeting your grandmother, who lived in a trailer or mobile home off of Washington, south of Menaul, near an arroyo. I remember a couple of times watching Combat, possibly also Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, on TV at your house.  I think your dad worked at Sandia or Kirtland.”

Kirtland Air Force Base, actually. I remembered the hand grenade but not the M-14. I lost my virginity in the Suburban.

His letter was like opening a door onto a forgotten past. Slowly, as if emerging from a dark pool, bits and pieces floated to the surface: the house on the corner with its dirt yard and dead trees, cinderblock walls separating the houses, the view north from the corner of Palomas and Comanche. Of him, nothing. Nor of our trip home. There was only a somber house, my mother weeping, the television droning about an event that would touch our lives in some dark unseen way, and a forgotten friend patiently waiting outside the door saying you can remember, you can.