Thursday, March 31, 2011

A wary and uncertain contentment

A black cat killed a rabbit last week, my neighbor said. Did it right over there—pointing to a shallow roadside ditch abutting his garden. The ditch was a wild tangle of elms, mulberries and Osage oranges, a place of concealment and cover for predator and prey alike. I hadn’t seen it around before.

I had. First across the street in our vacant lot, a mask of feral golden eyes staring from the deep grass, lethally alert, followed by several intrusions into our yard, shadowy and silent, more phantom than blood and bone. Quick to bare fangs, quicker to flee.

A silence fell between us as if together we contemplated the implications. His wife keeps a half-dozen bird feeders active, all of which are placed off their back porch a man’s length from dense woods. Our yard is a rabbit sanctuary. I wasn’t sure how he felt about it but I knew how I did: the cat had to go. And I knew that live-trapping hadn’t worked, nor had a long-range shot with a pellet rifle. A .22 would have been ideal but I couldn’t take a chance on ricochets or misses. It’s not as if I live in the country with unrestricted fields of fire. The neighbors would seriously object, and rightly so.

But a shotgun, well, that has potential. Short range, good spread, not that loud—I’m talking 20 gauge here, not the 12. The riot gun would most assuredly raise hue and cry. A backfire makes more bang than the Beretta; so do most tractors rumbling down the rutted road. 

I’d been meaning to broach this delicate subject to him but never knew how to bring it up. Here, then, was my opening.

I’ve been gunning for that thing for a while, I said. I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about me banging away with the shotgun.

Bang away, he said.


Lately life has settled into a new pattern where sleeplessness kicks me out of bed around two in the morning. I suppose it could be something as ordinary as insomnia but it feels different, more of an instant wakefulness that at first seems like reanimation before decaying into a weary concession of defeat. Sometimes I stay up the rest of the day—day, night, the delineation between the two blurred into a new, unnamable concept—and sometimes I’m up until exhaustion has settled deeply enough to ensure a second helping of sleep. Which, by necessity, the rising sun and the demands of the day cut mercilessly short.

Being the kind of man who believes firmly in the examined life, I tried ferreting out the reason or reasons behind this sudden nocturnal disruption. My first impression was that it was merely a rhythmic continuance of early morning risings. After all, for seven years I’d set the alarm for three a.m., a routine by now deeply entrenched and not at all contingent on a discontinued career. 

It sounded plausible. Perhaps too plausible. Our psyches are implausibly complex, arcane, labyrinthine and unknowable, dark wells best left undisturbed. Even when we are able to draw conclusions, the conclusions themselves are at best specious. We’re like weather forecasters in that regard, doing our best to find patterns and reason in what is at heart arbitrary and random.

Maybe it’s anxiety, I thought. But I didn’t feel particularly anxious, or not on most days. Some, yes, but not all. My moods have always been closely aligned with financial stability, or instability, as is often the case, though age and experience has whittled the edge off my responsiveness to money matters. Worrying about it is counterproductive and futile, serving only to heighten tension and muddy the waters, so to speak. Better to chart solutions however half-baked or preposterous. 

Whatever the source of disturbance, the anxious days and nights ebbed and flowed like tides imposed by the gravity of foreign objects, external to myself and mysteriously assertive. We are not islands so much as planets orbiting others exerting various measures of attraction and repulsion. 

When dawn lit the east I would find myself by the back window watching for rabbits, or the black cat. Sometimes I would unsheath the shotgun and admire its clean lines and heft, the lovely contrast of bright brass and black steel. I’d imagine taking a bead on the creature as it crept toward the brush pile, my finger light on the trigger, leading it by a nose and dropping it cleanly. And then, feeling almost foolish, I’d case the shotgun and make a pot of coffee.

There is no reason for this, I thought. I wondered if the source of my sleeplessness might be the sheer unimaginable uncertainty of life. My new business venture seemed impossible to grasp, nor was it alone in creating difficulties that felt impossible to surmount. Everything, from writing to putting together slideshows for an upcoming workshop to reading a book, remained hopelessly incapable of completion. “I can’t get anything done,” I told Lori one day. “With all this extra time, you’d think I’d get caught up.” Instead, I sensed I was falling behind. 

Those were the down days. On good days I felt a stirring of something like hope, though there was no real reason for it. Latent, or nascent, optimism, perhaps. Considering the rest of the world, I had nothing to complain about. I might wish for many things, and I did, but never with rancor or bitterness. Mostly I wished Lori was home more. 

One evening shortly before dusk I looked out the window to see a rabbit lying beside the entrance to the warren. On first glance it appeared relaxed, the model of contentment, eyes slitted and ears folded back, but then I noted its posture, hind legs squarely positioned to bolt if necessary. At that moment I felt much the same, content but wary, trying to restrict myself to the now and not having much success at it. The problem with the now is the next, and my next fluctuated between extremes of euphoria and despair. I no longer trusted anything, least of all myself.

For rabbits, positioned as they are on the lower rungs of the food chain, and for people as well, I thought, there are no certainties but the present. With each heartbeat we venture into new terrain. Beyond here there are no maps.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Monday, March 28, 2011

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Preparing for the worst

Rain turns to sleet turns to snow turns to bright sun turns to howling south winds bringing the smell of salty Gulf moisture. One afternoon I hobble through the yard plotting a garden and the next I shovel snow from the driveway. Scheduling an outdoor photo shoot is little more than a gamble because the weatherman is never right. On cloudy days when it looks cold and dreary it’s actually warm, and on bright sunny days when it looks warm it’s actually cold. I no longer believe what my eyes tell me.

During almost three decades of living along the Front Range of Colorado, I thought I’d witnessed some of the most unpredictable and erratic weather patterns Mother Nature had to offer. The poster child for goofy extremes was a March day that started with temperatures in the low seventies and ended with two feet of snow. Dressing for such variations was a challenge, usually requiring the addition of winter gear even when short sleeves were called for. 

After 11 years of life in northeastern Kansas, however, I realize that Colorado was merely a training ground. Spring, once so cordial, has become capricious, even mercurial. What should be a season of joy, with buds popping on trees, wildflowers pushing through damp soil, lengthening days and the steady demise of winter, is instead met with with trepidation and not a little suspicion. I don’t trust spring to be benevolent. I expect, in fact, the worst.

The hoopla surrounding National Severe Weather Awareness Week only deepened my presentiments. With much fanfare, tornado sirens were blown and residents advised to assemble “disaster kits” for their homes and vehicles. The kits, outlined in great detail in a thick sheaf of papers distributed by the Kansas Emergency Management Association, were as inclusive as possible to overcome any eventuality. People were cautioned to stock a three-day supply of water for each member of the household, first aid supplies, flashlights and extra batteries, extra medications, blankets, tools, cash, photocopies of important documents and nonperishable, ready-to-eat food items such as peanut butter, dried milk and high energy foods. Laughably absent from the list was chocolate and booze. What were they thinking?

With refreshing candor, our county emergency preparedness director admitted that very few people actually followed her advice. Still, that didn’t prevent her from passing out the information year after year, as if the very act of doggedness would hammer through their complacency.

To reinforce the message, the packet included a blow-by-blow recap of the previous year’s greatest hits. Tornadoes in our neck of the woods were scarce but other parts of the state had enough to keep residents in perpetual states of unease. Tornadoes, it turned out, were the least of our problems. Straight-line winds were the real bugaboo, and when it wasn’t 80-mile-an-hour howlers it was hail, torrential rain and/or flooding. 

I left the West for this? Sometimes I question my sanity, and then one of those rare bur perfect days comes along and I get an inkling of why pioneers settled here in the first place. They could have kept going to where mountains grace the horizons and tornadoes are unheard of, but something about the Great Plains resonated with their sense of place. Of course, some of their mottos were fatalistic—“to the stars through difficulties”—and the names of their towns grimly realistic—Cope, Last Chance, Severance, Scrabble, Fleatown, Grasshopper Junction and Half Hell, for starters—but at least they were honest about it.

I’ve never been known as an over-achiever or suffered from paranoid delusions, but the idea of preparing for the unthinkable makes sense to me. I’ve cleared a space in the basement and stocked a small shelf with necessary items, many similar to the list plus a few extras like ammunition and beer. Backups of my computer hard drive are kept in a safe deposit box off-site and another ready to snatch and grab on my way down the stairs. Weather radios have fresh batteries. Perhaps most important, my wife and I have a plan in place for when to go, where to go and what to grab on the way. When an F-4 is uprooting your prized apple tree is not the time to discuss your next act. 

If anything, the events in Japan have only reinforced the point. My sister-in-law, Connie, was on evacuation notice last week as a wildfire ravaged her small California town of Big Pine; 19 homes were destroyed and, for most of a day, every road out of town was closed. (Which begs the question: evacuate to where, exactly?) 

As our emergency preparedness director said, it’s up to each of us to be ready. We can’t rely on the TV, the Internet, the weatherman, tornado sirens, the government—think Katrina—or our neighbors. Taking personal responsibility might seem antiquated and old-fashioned, but in the end it could mean nothing less than survival. 

Meanwhile, climate specialists and meteorologists are predicting a milder storm season for northeastern Kansas. Do I trust them? Let me put it this way: I just added a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon to my disaster kit.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The nature of doors

I’d like to say it was a bittersweet moment when I slipped the key from my key ring and deposited it in my boss’s inbox, said goodbye to one of the office staff working late and exited out the back door without fanfare, pealing trumpets, drum rolls or stirring soundtrack to mark the occasion. Had I been able to create my own musical accompaniment to the closing of a seven-year career it would have been something along the lines of a slow adagio or mournful cello dirge with a few crystalline piano notes to balance out the subsonic strings. Or something gritty by Bruce Springsteen. But life, unlike movies, doesn’t come with a soundtrack. If I wanted one, I’d have to conjure it.

And I couldn’t. If anything there was a singular thought, crisp and repetitive like a woodpecker’s hammering, to go, to clear the property and not look back, to forget the place and my part in it. But of course it’s never that easy.

For me, the saying “when one door closes, another opens” has always sounded trite and condescending, more smugness and false piety than actual belief that the one naturally follows the other as if it were an immutable law of the universe. Nothing in the rule book of existence guarantees replacement for opportunities gained or lost. One cannot buy insurance policies to mitigate the inevitable broken hearts, shattered relationships or losses of which there are as many as the stars. The cosmos is unfeeling, unsympathetic and utterly unsparing. 

But there is a kernel of truth in the supposition. What’s missing is a disclaimer that the second half of the equation requires personal interaction. Doors do not open by themselves. Impetus—an outside force or energy—is necessary to at least begin the process, while the amount of impetus coupled with the efficiency of the door’s hinges does the rest. 

The same is true for closing doors, though in today’s economic climate the force behind the action is usually external to ourselves. Doors are closed for us, behind us, or, as it often feels like, on us, and it doesn’t take a leap of imagination to picture that same force throwing its weight upon the door to keep it closed. Goodbye and good riddance. Go away. 

I went. My feet felt light and airy, skipping across the surface of the concrete parking lot like windblown leaves, or inasmuch as my right knee could afford. I started the truck, backed up through a plume of burning oil, straightened the wheel and drove past the guard house and south onto Highway 77 unencumbered by guilt, remorse or, surprisingly, worry, and yet encumbered by questions that time alone would answer. I was thinking of that opposite door, or the potential of the door, at any rate, but it seemed far away, distant and small at the end of a long dark corridor, and I did not know if it needed a key to unlock or if the key were even in my possession. And if my internal pessimist mocked what might lay beyond, a small, quiet voice asserted that all would be okay. If nothing else, my experience in the transition has always turned out favorably, in the long run, at least. 

Suffice to say that by the time I made the curve where the road drops into the Blue River Valley and the northern Flint Hills stretches unbroken at my proverbial feet, I was staring hard at that door, willing it to open onto something more fulfilling, something fueled by creativity and artistry rather than base drudgery.

A friend said, I’d take a sledgehammer to it. I’d knock that sucker down, or make a new opening. Forget the door.

Personally, I was thinking dynamite.


Maybe Kansas has rubbed off on me, all that ad astra shrugging off per aspera as if it were of no consequence, merely a bump in the highway of life or a minor hurdle to be overcome. I used to think it was a spit-in-the-face-of-adversity kind of attitude but I’ve come to reconsider it more pragmatically. The phrase itself is a masterpiece of brevity without a shred of maudlin sentimentality, self-pity or irrational expectation. There will be difficulties, it stresses, but what matters are the stars. 

Stars, in this case, being another word for a door yet to be opened.

Lori, I think, was worried about my self-esteem and studied me for signs of depression. After all, most of the jobs I’ve departed from have been self-initiated and not coerced. Finding yourself no longer wanted or needed, regardless of extenuating circumstances, definitely strikes a blow against the image we hold of ourselves as vital and essential. The immediate question we ask of ourselves is chorused by friends and relatives, all of them well-meaning if not a little curious as if they, too, were looking for signs of foundering: What are you going to do now?

As if I knew. The real question, the one that gets to the nitty gritty, would be, “What are my options?”

Sink or swim comes to mind, but it sounds too fatalistic. I’m not ready to drown and I’m a lousy swimmer so I’ll carry the metaphor of the closed door at the end of that long hallway. It is, after all, the nature of doors to open. All that’s needed is impetus. Force.

What I will not do is stand still, poised between two portals, one forever barred and the other only a promise. In my mind are T.S. Eliot’s cautionary words of “the passage we did not make/towards the door we did not open.” Whatever it takes—a key, dynamite or a sledgehammer—that sucker’s going to open. Stars await. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Friday, March 11, 2011

Thursday, March 10, 2011

An act of violation

Before turning southward onto a road that seemed more liquid than gravel I saw a kid barreling toward me on a four-wheeler, chunks of mud shrapneling the air and the vehicle yawing back and forth as if skating on ice. I pulled over and waited for him to pass. The nearer he came the less human he appeared, a mud creature spawned from the earth itself, his face and clothing clotted and dark, goggles streaked, teeth stained. Studying the trajectory and elevation of the sludge generated by his passage gave me second thoughts about my destination, but I had no choice in the matter. After he blasted past I nosed into the center of the road and gunned the engine. The things we do for news, I thought.

It’s a funny business. For the most part reporters cover coma-inducing meetings, talk to people they’d rather not talk to, scramble for information that is never forthcoming, try to breathe life into stories so dead they’re decomposing, explain statistics that nobody can understand and, occasionally, touch on tragedies so nightmarish that they threaten to upend their sanity. Maintaining a safe distance between the exigencies of the job and one’s self requires a careful balancing act. It also helps to have a morbid sense of humor and a caustic view of the human race. 

Rural reporters rarely deal with high-profile cases. The closest I ever came was when researching the farflung activities of BTK, the Wichita-based serial killer. Court transcripts proved so horrific that I suffered debilitating nightmares for months. Gradually returning to stultifyingly boring meetings was almost refreshing.

This excursion was simple: document overturned headstones in the Hanover Cemetery. Reports said there were at least 20, some of sizable stature.

The cemetery was at the end of the mud road, shadowed by a fringe of trees and the sun a few degrees above the horizon. I drove slowly past orderly rows of headstones until coming to the southeast corner where most of the vandalism had occurred. Smaller headstones had been tossed aside while larger monuments had been toppled like dominoes. It was no small feat and would have required several people, I figured. Whoever had done it was thorough, had time to kill and cared not a lick about the emotional response that would be unleashed. 

With almost clinical precision I framed several photographs to show the worst of the damage. This was the professional part of me, disengaged from the scene and, for now, content to have the place alone. Grieving or angry relatives would have introduced a completely different atmosphere, and one I had no intention of experiencing. 

It might have ended at that, a photo grab and off to the next meeting, were it not for something that caught my attention.

I saw it from the corner of an eye, a bloody splash fiery in the lowering sun, highlighted against a glaze of ice. It was a plastic flower, broken off from a larger bunch and carelessly tossed aside. Looking back toward the shattered headstones, I saw several bunches of flowers ripped free of their vases, scattered about like so much flotsam. Something about it seemed almost ritualistic, as if the violation was meant to be a symbolic erasure of memory.

The broken flower tugged at me. Compared to the headstones it was trivial, easily replaceable, almost corny in its artificiality, but on a deeper level it seemed a violent response to  the honoring of the dead. Its very insignificance transformed it into a priceless representation of endearing, if not enduring, memory. Destroying it was meant to inflict wounds deeper than the soul. Such hatred seemed unimaginable in this quiet, restful place. The names on the broken headstones meant nothing to me, mere letters carved in stone, but the act held a universality that made it personal. 
I remembered decades before when vandals struck several Jewish cemeteries in Denver. It became something of a plague, with headstones smashed to rubble, smeared with fecal matter or spray-painted with swastikas. At the time much of my work involved dealing professionally with the Jewish population, not only the wealthy liberals but the Hasidic minority whose enclaves seemed throwbacks to the Middle Ages and a smattering of Messianic Jews. What most struck me was the sense of collective anguish, followed by simmering resentment and a sense of outrage. For a while, against all odds, secular and religious Jews were united in a common bond centered solidly on the memory of the Holocaust. 

Some in the community dismissed the acts as childish pranks. Maybe so. Maybe the perpetrators were fine, upstanding young men just out for a little nocturnal entertainment. Maybe they inadvertently chose Jewish cemeteries for their targets, and maybe they really didn’t understand the depth of misery associated with the reviled Nazi swastika. All in good fun, right?

No. There are lines that are not meant to be crossed. Desecrating burial places is not entertainment or sport. Tombstones are not mere markers like road signs or historic monuments but  are symbolic representations of memory itself. 

I wondered how I would feel if the headstone were familial, that of my grandmother, Lois Smith, say, whose smile never wavered or dimmed and whose poundcake brought boundless joy (until it was gone, that is), or my wife’s mother, Catherine Whiting, her headstone a simple granite block in a simple rural cemetery. Inviolate, one and all. And, here in this quiet place, violated. 

All that was asked of me was to take a photograph or two to grace the newspaper. And I’d done that. But I was surprised when I got back to the truck to find my hands shaking.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Matt Alber in concert at the Lee Dam Center for Fine Art

 Matt Alber

 Jacque Hasenkamp

 Jacque Hasenkamp

 Bryton Stoll

 Soundman David Glowacki

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Dorothy Mae Parker Gray

Last of the Parkers

She is forever there, imprinted in a thin layer of emulsion, a smile on her pretty face and the West Texas wind billowing her long flowing dress. Behind her a grainy, unformed mass of what appears to be creosote or catclaw grounds her to a desert landscape that could only be Chihuahuan, white hot from the sun, bleached out, baked to iron. Her white shoes, looking impossibly large for her frame, thrust from beneath her skirts like runners. She seems to totter on them, at once ungainly and gangly, as if a gust had overbalanced her. I imagine them layered with a fine patina of dust as everything in that forbidding landscape was layered. A small spray of flowers pinned to the front of her dress perpetually colors the monochromatic imagination. One hand carefully draped to her side, fingers splayed as if something light and insubstantial had been released, or freed.

As a portrait it lacks any sense of professionalism, the background blown out into an unrelieved white nothingness, her face shadowed, too much empty space, too little detail. A family snapshot and no more. And, for me, all that I have of Dorothy Mae.

It’s curious how she stands at the head of my family photo archive. Considering that I never met her, or if I did it was so long ago that memory wiped it clean. Why it’s there at all is something of a mystery. I’m sure it was part of a batch I’d scanned with the intent of compiling a database of old family photos, but the project itself had quickly fallen through leaving me only a handful of what I considered compelling images. 

And why compelling? Better to ask Freud. Most of the kept images revealed details of the homeland, paintless picket fences, dirt roads bearing toward ruler-flat horizons, women in shapeless flour-sack dresses and men with weathered Stetsons and worn shirts buttoned to the throat. Dorothy Mae stood out for her youth and beauty, and perhaps even of the manner of her dress. She was dolled up and had places to go, though where that might have been is also a mystery.

Last week she embarked on her final voyage. The message, as is often the case when laden with news of such terrible portent, was short and to the point, with no other detail than that of her passing. When I called my father he placed her for me in the pantheon of his people, five brothers and one sister (my great-aunt), now all departed from this mortal plane. “She was the last,” he said. “She was the last of the Parkers.”


In retrospect it seemed an odd phrasing. At the time I was nursing a bloody cavity where yet another tooth had been extracted, and nursing a medicinal glass of bourbon, too. Parts of my mouth were still numb and puffy, dragging my words into a slight slur. Echoing through my head was a conversation I’d had with Lori before she left for work in which she asked—even while knowing the answer—“Does that make three in the last year?” The idea made me cringe.

I thought of that for a long while as I fought boredom, depression and something I could not name. When I had the first two teeth pulled it was almost with joy, for both had caused me great trouble and expense and having them exorcised was like being freed from their tyranny. To have it happen yet again, and so soon, hammered home the frangible nature of my remaining ivories. All are either crowned, capped or filled, with more than a few held together with steel pins. As if that weren’t enough, my gums are receding. 

“It won’t be long until you have dentures,” Lori added. 

Her remark was like a slap. Dentures are for old people, I thought. I’m not old.

Not that old.

But, I had to admit, I’m old enough to begin to experience the subtracting influence that age imposes upon us. For my parents, and perhaps my father most of all (for it is he who speaks the most on the subject, and never with bitterness or melancholy but in a factual, dead-pan tone with only a trace of sorrow), the subtraction is even keener and usually in terms of friends or relatives. He used to attend the annual Pyote class reunion in Texas until most of his classmates either grew too frail to travel or passed on, and now he watches the steady diminishment of World War II veterans. It’s not a regular subject of discussion but crops up now and then. Mostly he likes to talk about places where they’ve recently eaten with a commentary on the quality and piquancy of the green chile. Plus he still has his original teeth.

Our dialog about Dorothy Mae followed the same pattern. First the food and then the main entree, by which time my empty stomach was howling for anything remotely related to food, and the hotter the better. 

When he said that Dorothy Mae was the “last of the Parkers,” I knew what he meant. Though outwardly it was a simple classification of the generation preceding his own, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was more to it. Lori tells me I tend to psychoanalyze others without the requisite training, so I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. But I sensed that he recognized the loss of that generation as a metaphoric step to the front of the line. The last of the Parkers hadn’t passed, obviously, they had merely stepped out of the way. As an only child, he himself had become the last.

I suppose there’s no other way. And yet it’s not that simple. We could just as easily say that those of us past our child-bearing days are the last in succession, and we would be correct. I see it differently: we the living are neither the last nor the first. Our traits, our behaviors, our beliefs, our physical characteristics (bad teeth and all), are influenced by the DNA passed down from those former generations. Until the stars burn out they live in us. So who, then, is the last? Dorothy Mae’s spark, her vitality, her smile, that hot West Texas wind, those hardscrabble ranchers, they are us and we are them. We are, simply, the living. We’re the Parkers.