Friday, May 27, 2011

Road trip to Clifton and back

 Greenleaf elevator

Clifton elevator

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Once upon an afternoon weary

I had just returned home from a trying day at the office—something of a laughable concept as I’m there only one day a week and I’d spent several hours wandering backroads on my return leg—and sitting down to supper barely able to keep my eyelids aloft heard a slight tapping, a gentle rapping at my side door.

“It’s back,” my wife said.

I turned and saw nothing out the window. Two more taps followed and then nothing more.

“What’s back?” 

“‘Tis some nameless visitor, gray of visage, entreating entrance,” she said.

I sniffed the coffee for telltale signs of additives. 

“How was your day?” I asked, uncertain in all respects how to proceed. Outwardly she looked fine if not a little weary.

“Oppressive was the heat, a fiery cinder stoked by a burning wind, ceaseless and undying,” she said. “And then fell the tapping at the window.” 

“Same as mine only without the tapping,” I said.

I glanced around, suddenly consumed with dread. The kitchen was spotless, the counter cleared of everything but the coffee pot. 

“Where are the knives?”

“I hid them.”

My stomach did a little flop. Behind me, unseen, came the gentle tapping.

To the hammering of my heart I whirled and strode to the stairs and looked out the entranceway windows. Beyond were trees pale and wan, their spring greenery leached by a merciless drought, elm seeds twirling down like embers, the sun molten on the dried and dying land. Long I stood there peering into the void before my wife spoke behind me: “It was a bird come to see you.”

“What kind of bird?” 

“Featureless and gray.”

Catbird, I thought. I told her that sometimes males see their reflections in windows and immediately launch offensives to destroy the interloper. Which, of course, is patently impossible. The offending bird stays at this thankless task until it grows bored, knocks some sense into its head or dies from the effort.

And so I returned to the table and my meal, and sat there engaged silently in guessing, and no syllable expressing my embarrassment over the pang of unease that came unbidden. No cloaked harbinger of evil lurked on our doorstep, no revenant bidding me follow across the sundering sea. A bird, I thought, and nothing more.

Alas for my willful ignorance, my impetuous dismissal of the gray visitor! For it returned and again with a gentle tapping, a melancholic rapping whose brittle sound though faint and feeble echoed throughout the house like an invocation or summons. At first almost a novelty, merely the mad antics of a heat-addled bird, the unseen and unsettling cadence insinuated itself into the haunted silences between its deranged knocking until it became impossible to ignore. That demented fowl, that disturbed oracle whose intonations delivered so penetrating against the windowpane, so piercingly, must be confronted, I deemed, and sent packing to its hellish lair.

And so I lay in wait at the top of the stairs. The sun wheeled through the heavens and shadows grew long and lank, and the towering monolith of the grain elevator glowed like a beacon from a forgotten civilization, and in the gathering dusk a small gray form appeared at the window. 

Startled at its sudden appearance, I gasped aloud before reason brought me to my senses. No raven, as I’d half-feared, but a female cowbird, its beak thick and sharp and tapping against the pane as it stared into my eyes. 

“Tell me, foul fowl, what reason for this tapping?” I cried. “By what dark angel are you sent?”

For a pregnant moment it paused in its ministrations, studying me as if taking my measure. Its eyes were shiny and depthless black and nothing could read therein for nothing therein resided. In that fathomless stare I was transfixed, my blood congealing in my veins as I desperately tried to break that contact and could not. I felt myself falling forward, sucked into that Stygian abyss, until with a flick of a smokey wing it vanished.

But our doom had fallen. I knew then with dire certainty that the bird would return to torment us evermore. And so it was. For unending days now comes the endless tapping, the gentle rapping, of an insane gray-cloaked bird. I might have to get a cat.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Lately I’ve been trying to find a way to inhabit this new body of mine, not so much in circumventing its foibles or overcoming whatever limitations treachery and old age have in store but simply in understanding where I fit in and how the two of us might function as a whole. Or parts of a whole. At times I’m led to believe that my right knee will never get better but always remain a ghost of itself, fragile and uncertain like life itself, stable one moment, tottering the next, each step a challenge and an indulgence in questionable expectations. Far worse is the attrition sustained on the other parts of this whole, those formerly hale and now less so, my spine and joints sympathetic to my knee’s debilitations. Their overcompensation has left me crooked and bent like a crone, so much so that Lori said it broke her heart to see me this way. I didn’t know how to respond so I hobbled off in silence.

In the absence of absolutes we can only guess at the one true path. This isn’t some children’s fantasy where instead of wandering lost through unfamiliar terrain the itinerant wayfarer is given the benefit of a yellow brick road, nor is there an emerald palace waiting at the end should we be obstinate enough to overcome the obstacles placed before us. The similarities between the myths of the hero’s quest and the religious tales I was taught as a child are too numerous to be dismissed, and anyway I’ve left the latter behind in favor of the former. Almost daily I’m reminded of my former Baptist pastor’s railings against the world, a vile and hated place to him though in most ways it was merely a biblical concept he could never fully escape from. Substitute body for world and we’re on the same page minus the evil he would unfailingly inject. 

If nothing else the mythos cycles dramatize my codgernautical journey into the nascent stages of geezerhood, embellishing them into something more than the sorry disintegration that comes with a life well lived. What strikes me is my reaction to this. Rather than weep in my beer or fall prey to depression I’ve launched an offensive against clutter within the boundaries of our property both interior and exterior. It’s almost as if I’m trying to start all over, to wipe the proverbial slate clean and return to that unimaginable beginning when the future held nothing but promise and youth assured us of eternal health and optimism. 

It was never like that of course, not even in our dreams. Nor could it be given my intrinsic negativity and moody introspective nature. I expected the worst, and when it didn’t fall suspected some minor delay instead of accepting the idea that life is more than the sum of its parts. It wasn’t until later in life after our children had grown and left the nest that it came to me how wrong I’d been. If anything I was luckier than I had any right to presume, whether through being washed in the blood of the Lamb or merely overlooked by forces beyond our reckoning. Maybe it was like being in school when the best one could hope for was anonymity, and invisibility from teachers and bullies better than a smile from the girl who always sat near the teacher’s desk and wore short skirts that left you dazed and breathless. Amy was her name and her hair was golden like the morning sun.

After a while the pain and the years of being lucky wear you down. So far we’ve gambled and won but winning lasts only so long before the dice turn against us. For no reason we sense the wall at our back and suspect without good reason that we’ve been exiled even if to this world that doesn’t seem so bad once we manage to get past our blindness. Regret’s a wasted emotion and self-pity a turning away from what matters, which more and more seems austerity and simplicity. 

Besides translating into a wholesale divestiture of junk, books I’ll never read or have read once and found wanting, tarnished trinkets and treasures and the sheer accumulation of nameless stuff, I’ve taken to poring over each room in the house like an interior designer let loose with a sledgehammer and dumpster rather than unlimited expense account. When did we decide that we needed four small end tables, two huge reclining chairs, a smaller Victorian chair and a long leatherette couch in our tiny living room? Where did all those mismatched tables, file cabinets and desks come from in my office? It was never about design but always about utility and the lowest cost, and it worked for a while but like my knee it works no longer.

I need freedom to move without tripping over something. Organizing the office has been safe in that I’m only dealing with my things, and if I’m beginning to feel a little freer with elbow room I’m also realizing the enormous task ahead. It’s not that I want to revert to our first apartment when our possessions amounted to a smattering of silverware and plates and pairs of sleeping bags and pillows and not even a chair to sit on, but rather a reclamation from excess. 

I was mowing the yard several days ago when the mood came upon me to export this concept into the broader spectrum of our patch of prairie. For years the farmer who maintained our field had incrementally encroached into our lawn until I could no longer squeeze the mower between the redbuds and the corn, milo or soybeans. Though I was weary beyond words and pain seared my shoulder and hip I stared at the narrow no-man’s strip and decided there was nothing else to do but take it back. The pre-plowing grass was deep and clogged the mower chute but I forced a path to the road and turned back and enlarged the opening a few feet and liked the appearance so much that I did it twice more. The sense of satisfaction far outweighed the meager expanse I’d cleared. 

Back inside the house I began measuring the various furnishings in my office with an eye toward consolidation and efficiency. It won’t bring my knee back but at this point I’ll settle for a substitute.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Discoveries and disgust during disciplined spring cleaning

Well, the first round of thunderstorms wasn’t nearly as impressive as they looked on Doppler radar, and the amount of rain they produced nothing like predicted. Weather forecasting has always been a crapshoot and I for one am glad it’s not my responsibility to divine the proverbial tea leaves. I’d hate to be the one to tell farmers day after day that their chances of making it through the Drought of 2011 are slim to none, that the prospects for unremitting sunshine and humidity in the single digits are assured. I jest not: two days ago on a sunbaked afternoon of wild extremes Manhattan’s humidity plunged to eight percent. Salina, not that far west, dropped to five percent, or the same as experienced that day in Albuquerque. The Great American Desert, indeed.

During the brief and inconsequential storm I unearthed boxes of unread books I’d all but forgotten about. They were stored behind a dresser in an upstairs storage space, a narrow chamber tucked away beneath the slant of the roof. I came across them several days earlier when rooting through piles of other books, some I wanted to keep and others I couldn’t wait to vacate, which meant that instead of orderliness and neatness, my stated goals, I simply created a bigger mess with bigger piles.

My ordeal was anything but unique. Most people I know engage in “spring cleaning,” a weasel term used to describe a cyclic phenomenon whereby people divest themselves of the previous year’s accumulation of clutter. Rather than divestiture, however, most content themselves with a haphazard attempt to organize the clutter, an act that will work only so many times before space becomes the limiting factor. 

Clutter, as we all know, takes many forms. Not only does it have a physical presence which must be managed but it also possesses an uncanny propensity to attain value far beyond its actual relevance. Unfortunately, this inflated worth manifests itself to half of a two-person relationship. The dividing line between treasure and trash is never so ill-defined, narrow or fraught with danger as during this seasonal ritual. 

Clutter also has a preternatural propensity to accumulate with unfettered aplomb. One can easily believe that it breeds with the fecundity of rabbits. Looking around the second floor (and the basement and my office and, well, everywhere) I was left dumbfounded, confronted at last with the inevitable truth that I am not only a pack rat but that my former spring cleanings had been useless and ineffectual, mere window dressings to assuage my guilt. 

The question I had to ask myself was whether I was up to the task of digging out, once and for all. If I had the gritty determination to see it through, to winnow with impunity and cold cunning, to adjudicate without favor or bias.

Yes, I whispered. Yessss. The sound was a predatory hiss.

And throwing myself into the fray, I left spring cleaning behind in favor of something more merciless, more brutal, more permanent.

“If it isn’t bolted down, out it goes,” I said.

Lori stared at me with a cautious expression as if she’d heard it all before. 

She had heard it, in fact, many times. It’s something of a vernal mantra, uttered with the authority of one setting out on a quest deluded with visions of glory. She only half believed it, but also knew that beneath the bluff was a sleeping tiger waiting to be roused.

This was different. In my eye she caught a glimmer of something she’d not seen before, and it gave her pause.

After a breathless moment she said, “Don’t touch my grandmother’s things.”

“I won’t. But anything we haven’t used in the past several years is toast. I want minimalism. I want austerity.”

Easier said than done, of course. I hadn’t taken into account the sheer enormity of the task I’d taken upon myself. 

I started with books. Over the decades I’d amassed a sizable library, most of which resided on our upper floor. Had they remained there in orderly rows they wouldn’t have posed a problem; however, I now had stacks upon stacks, some teetering and tottering, others collapsed in disorderly heaps. A four-foot table was blanketed three feet deep. Bookcases groaned under the weight. The dresser was buried and so was the end table and now they marched down the stairs as if intent on escape. The hallway bookcase contained volumes I’d brought from Colorado, never to be cracked. I couldn’t believe I’d bought so many books. Thumbing through them, I couldn’t believe I’d bought them in the first place. 

Those were the easiest to dispose of. I packed them into four big crates and set them by the door, ready for my next trip to Washington and a thrift store that wanted them. Others were more difficult to judge. A few went into a shorter pile that necessitated deeper reading, though within a few days they’d joined the stack of disposables. If the first page or two didn’t grab me by the throat they weren’t worth my time. And anyway, with some 400 or more books waiting to be read (and more on my Kindle, including a roughly 4,000 page fantasy series I’d just started), running out of reading material was hardly a concern. 

The deeper I dug, the more I found. I felt in many ways like an archeologist searching for clues of a former civilization. Who was this man, I kept asking myself, who had such eclectic tastes? Westerns, novels, short story collections, histories spanning the Westward expansion, the Civil War, ancient Greece and Rome, the Neolithic cultures of eastern Europe, mysteries and nonfiction anthologies denoted an interest in the world at large. And then there were the other things, the boxes of fly-tying materials—a small fortune of them, from hackles to entire capes and thousands of hooks and assorted tools and materials—a box of stuffed animals and old baseball caps, another box containing my first gun belt, a box of cheap frames that had been given to me, a long narrow tub stuffed with newspapers I’d written for: with every new discovery and lament, another followed hard on its heels.

It all went. Anything usable went into boxes for donations and the rest into heavy-duty contractor bags for the local landfill. Tossing the old feathered capes from my fly-tying days was the most wrenching experience of all, but feathers grow brittle over time and these, while retaining their lustrous colors, were past their prime. The hooks and tools I kept.

As I placed them back on the shelf my words to Lori echoed through my head like an accusation: “Anything we haven’t used in the past several years is toast.” I hadn’t tied a fly in over 13 years and probably never would. Ditto for the collection of fly-fishing reels, including a jewel-like Ross reel of legendary craftsmanship. I wondered if I was being hypocritical, if by keeping the reels and tools I was inadvertently lessening my vow of ruthlessness, an act surely to be exploited by my wife. The thought gave me pause coupled with a sense of dizziness over the implications and potential ramifications. For a long moment I stood there, hands on the box as if granting absolution. Spring cleaning shouldn’t be this hard, I thought; it should be a simple act of uncluttering rather than a philosophical and moral argument. But some things do have value even if unused. They’re a part of our history and our essence. They’re our storytellers. 

And anyway, there are exceptions to every rule.

I slid the box onto the shelf and walked away.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

All that matters I hold in my hand

“I don't believe in anything anymore:
god, country, money or love.” – Dorianne Laux
This is the life I always wanted but never knew how to dream: Rabbits in a two-acre yard with a view of the northern edge of the Flint Hills and a wide river a half mile away, a small rural town without a blinking light, a job that lets me be creative, a forgiving boss, a wife who makes everything worthwhile, the Milky Way arcing across the scintillating night skies, clean air and turkeys gobbling in the spring. Bluebirds in the nest boxes and a covey of bobwhite in the thicket. So why this creeping doubt, this uncertainty, this heaviness that is more than physical?

I trust nothing and believe no one. So I say in an occasional bout of bitterness, quickly amended to exclude a few significant friends, my wife of course and the natural world, or the great migrations, at least. Lately we’ve had white-crowned sparrows in the yard plus a smattering of other sparrow species, Lincoln’s and Harris’s, song and clay-colored, and the brown thrashers have returned to their incessant repertoires, and hawks hunt for thermals along the grassy ridges overlooking the valley before rising on heated globules of air to launch themselves northward on long slow glides. Our chimney swifts have returned to dimple the fluid air with their chittering; great plains skinks sun themselves on the patio. My belief in the circadian rhythms of mass movements timed to the angle of sun and our home planet’s ungainly wobble are merely a way to ground myself to this patch of prairie I call my own, however untruthful the statement. It is mine on a temporal basis only, not even a handful of seconds in geologic time, met with indifference by the other creatures whose claims are at least as legitimate as mine. By such measures we convince ourselves of our worth. 

I’m at the age where these things matter to me far more than their relative importance. It’s as if I’ve made them extensions of my self and, by virtue of that acceptance, my self extensions of their own actualities. This is utter nonsense but reality is too dismal to be a viable substitute. And maybe none of it matters anyway. Maybe deliverance comes not from truth but from how we perceive it. Isn’t that the heart of religion, faith versus what our senses tell us is the truth and nothing but, and nothing more, either? 

But then, I’ve given up on religion, too, and politics except when necessity demands action. We can’t let the goons win nor the corporations though we’re outmanned, outgunned and hopelessly outmaneuvered considering we give it so little effort while others live for nothing else. For that exact reason I no longer trust my government to do what’s right for the common American. Ours is the best government money can buy but it’s not my money and it’s not yours either.

If you calculate the things you believe with absolute certainty and the things you once believed and no longer do it’s a grim sort of mathematics not unlike the act of aging itself. We add experiences while simultaneously subtracting convictions until somewhere in the middle passage we all but flounder like rudderless ships tossed in tempests. Questioning becomes a rote that leads only to more questions, answers having fled the room. After a while it becomes second nature to realize there is no realization without a vague sense of unease that everything we know is a lie, that we’ve spent our lives going the exact wrong way. When I was in junior high I envisioned adulthood as being a sort of cross between Doc Savage and Sergeant Rock, clean cut, muscled, driving a WWII-era Willys jeep and helping little old ladies across the street. A modern if not emasculated Sir Galahad one short remove from Don Quixote. Whenever I passed the entryway mirror I’d flex my biceps to see how they were progressing which wasn’t much because I never worked out with weights or anything more strenuous than a push mower and then not for any great lengths of time. My father made fun of me once and forever after guilt robbed whatever incipient pleasure I might have derived from seeing what little muscle there was. As for Doc Savage and Sergeant Rock there was never a trace in my later life. Probably the nearest to it was that for a few years I carried a .45 auto, a Colt Mark IV that always shot a little high and to the right. The sad truth is that we grow up to become who we are.

Who I am is still a mystery. The person I imagined myself to be never materialized, and the man staring back at me in the mirror a graying, grizzled stranger. Somewhere beneath that aging veneer is the real me though inwardly I’m twenty years younger and full of a hope based on nothing more than wishful thinking and the American ideal of advancement through hard work and consistency. But hope must have a kernel of truth to become viable, and the American ideal for the commoner is rotting on the vine. 

Yesterday while mowing the yard I was reduced to a half-crippled automaton guiding the self-propelled mower in regulated, methodical rows meant to maximize the width of the blades and minimize the time spent in the hot sun. To take my mind off the pain I watched the swifts darting through the crystalline air and looked for toads, lizards and wildflowers, also obstructions in the deep grass such as the brick I clobbered last week. Mostly I asked myself what I really believed in, the things that mattered without questioning, and if the list I finally tallied was short it was nevertheless as true as anything I could name: friends who don’t betray you, my wife, love, art and inspiration, creativity as a means of immersing oneself in the world and learning to see and have a true voice, migrations, the warmth of the sun. I no longer trust the weather, my country, my body or any sort of future without unbearable loss and suffering. 

By the time I was through several hours later I was more dead than alive and yet encouraged somewhat by remaining upright, if nothing else. I never imagined a life so circumscribed but then I was always imagining something else, something better if not wildly unrealistic, as if I could create a life from a patchwork of dime-store novels, comic books and literary fiction when the real world was less forgiving, careless to the point of unfeeling and cruelly infinite to our finiteness. And heartrendingly beautiful. It would all be pointless if not for imagination and its catalyst for change. I’ve always believed the examined life to be our highest calling but I never did very well on examinations, hated school and found introspection to be little more than a justification for failure.  The man hobbling up the stairs was ready for something different, a reawakening to a world where the imagined life was the only form of innocence and the future an imaginary construct whose ending, for all its forbidding certainty, indeterminate, mutable and uncompromising.