Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanks be

When I left work Monday afternoon light was fading into a gray featureless murk that might indicate freezing drizzle, an early dusk or both. The thermometer on the bank read 28 degrees which didn’t take into account the breeze, but then I heard a few weeks ago that the whole concept of wind-chill factoring might be tossed as hopelessly outdated or nonessential. Another instance of criminal stupidity by desk-bound academics. I’ve stood in 20-degree-below-zero weather when the wind was blowing and when it wasn’t and I’m here to tell you that the two are different beasts altogether. I much preferred the current temperature cold though it was but at least it wasn’t snowing, for which I gave silent thanks.

Giving thanks on various and sundry items has been something Facebook friends have done for about the last two weeks. As I understand it, the exercise is something of a build-up to the big finale on T-Day when, if past deeds are any measure, thanksgiving relinquishes itself to Black Friday’s glutinous greed. My own inclinations run more toward the acquisition of goods at the lowest price which means late November is prime time for shopping, preferably online in the comfort of my own home. Lest anyone fault me for failing to honor the spirit of the season, let me simply state that for every item added to my cart I am supremely grateful.

The impending twilight caught me unawares as it always does this time of year. It would be completely dark by the time I arrived home unless I goosed it which I had no intention of doing. Instead I drove two miles east on the main highway before turning south on a narrow gravel road leading apparently to nowhere, a destination I was altogether willing to seek. Taking a backroads commute is as much a journey of exploration as a leap of faith in that one never fully knows where one is at. Intersections aren’t marked, roads vanish into fields or dead-end on equally suspect paths barely the width of a pickup truck. I had a rough idea of how many miles separated the two highways and absolutely no idea how to get from start to finish. Nor did I really care. 

If I had a goal other than the simple pleasure of seeing new lands it was to photograph decaying barns, abandoned houses and rusty vehicles. Several were found almost immediately including a rare specimen of windowless mobile home decked out in a gaudy shade of red. It looked like a long, narrow bloodstain against the tawny grasses of late autumn.

Thereafter the road meandered, zigging and zagging to the whims of engineers and the contours of the land, leaving me only the vaguest idea of the cardinal directions. After a while a complex of grain elevators rose above the horizon giving me at last a sense of direction and location both. Several miles of featureless closely-cropped agricultural fields gave way to the outskirts of Greenleaf where I found an ancient Studebaker flatbed moldering in a field. It was to be the best photograph of the afternoon and possibly the entire month.

Finding myself back on pavement was unsettling. The car might have been happier but I wasn’t ready to call it a day notwithstanding the deepening dusk. I opted for another side road that took me east and dropped down a series of zigzags toward distant Highway 9, prolonging the experience as long as feasibly possible. Unfortunately I’d arrived at a veritable desert of abandonment scraped clean of any signs of a former civilization and passed onward till once again reaching pavement.

For a long moment I made no move to progress but sat there at the stop sign contemplating past commutes in Denver where it wasn’t unusual to witness hundreds of thousands of other luckless commuters trapped like rats in a maze. In the past 25 miles I’d seen two vehicles, both in the distance. The two extremes were polar opposites for which I considered myself blessed at having made my escape in the nick of time.

Without further ado I gunned the car across the road with a promise of three more miles before calling it quits. I hadn’t driven a hundred yards when a small round-headed owl blew up from a field green with winter wheat, arced over the road and skylarked down like a butterfly until it disappeared behind a clump of wild plums. Short-eared owl, I thought, my pulse hammering. I’d never seen the species in Kansas but was positive of the identification but not so positive that I didn’t want to try for a photograph. I considered abandoning the vehicle in the road but old habits die hard if they die at all. Instead I continued to a narrow egress where I pulled in and cut the engine.

When I stepped out the cold hit me like a two-by-four. Instead of discomforting I found it surprisingly mood-setting, having been too long cooped up at my desk and reminded once again of the pleasures of the open road. Darkness was now falling in earnest having delayed seemingly for my own personal benefit, falling so fast in fact that I questioned looking down the road if it would wait for me to limp to the treeline where the owl vanished. It crossed my mind to drive back and save myself some time but then time seemed squandered indoors plus I suddenly realized how much I’d missed these wintry afternoon backroad jaunts.

I quickly switched lenses to a telephoto and started down the road. It was farther than I’d initially thought but I wasn’t about to change course, and anyway the walk was exhilarating. Sparrows fled before me through roadside thickets, mostly Harris’s with a few juncos and cardinals, their cries thin and brittle in the gathering gloom. On either side horizons dissolved as the gray sky blackened to a charcoal smudge held aloft by the bristling woods. My right knee felt tight and my gait anything but straight but the birds didn’t care and neither did I, the main thing being mobile and moving which a year ago I wasn’t positive would be the case. That I was still upright was something to be grateful for, a minor miracle of stubbornness prevailing over physical diminishments similar at times to an early autumnal eventide, unrealistically unexpected but startling nonetheless. Needless to say it felt good to be moving especially down a deserted road toward what might be a short-eared owl, darkness flooding the fields like an encroaching tide, the camera swinging at my side, hands shoved deep into  jacket pockets and collar turned up, each step a small victory and a joy. “Thanks be,” I said aloud, directing the unfinished thought to the sense of the divine, to my wife waiting at home, to the owl and the road and the fading woods and the cold, to so many things that words seemed superfluous, almost obtrusive, but necessary in the way that language triggers genuine emotional response. Which it did, savagely and without warning, bludgeoning me with a sense of indebtedness and gratitude so intense that I all but reeled, tear-eyed and hollowed-out, remade, reborn, thankful for all the things I in no way deserved, thanks be, thanks be, now and forever, thanks be.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occupy Blue Rapids conundrum

I can't decide whether I want to be reincarnated as a secretive bird, a bra or Godzilla. All have their relative merits.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bright future

It’s true: the inmates are running the asylum.

I’m almost at a loss for words over news of the upcoming Kansas sesquicentennial wrap-up scheduled to take place in Wichita in early December. According to a press release, the event is a two-day, statewide symposium “designed to foster engagement and energy, and to establish a direction for a bright future, through dialogue on the most critical issues and opportunities facing our state.”

Like a certain television program whose answers are put forth as questions—a pathetic attempt to be fresh and unique, I would guess, though in all honesty I’ve never watched it—those critical issues and opportunities are posed as questions. 

And what questions they are:
  • Has small-town Kansas outlived its usefulness?
  • Can we afford public education?
  • Should teachers do more than teach?
  • Should small towns be allowed to die?
  • Is it time to go back to the one-room schoolhouse?
  • Tornadoes, drought, floods and hail: is the land trying to tell us something?
In case attendees get stumped over some of the questions, “conversation catalysts” will energize responses and dialogue. The roster of speakers and facilitators is a who’s-who of dignitaries, professionals, politicians, professors and business leaders, none of whom apparently have the foggiest idea about rural life, rural problems, rural opportunities or rural advantages.

And it sounded like such a good idea. A forum of ideas and problem-solving that includes all Kansans from all walks of life, dedicated to chart our common way into the future through the troubled waters of a failed economy, megalomaniac politicians, religious persecution, environmental degradation, bankrupt cities and towns, crumbling infrastructure and rural depopulation. That it came down to questions about the affordability of education is almost criminal.

As someone who traded a metropolitan hell for a century-old farmhouse at the end of a gravel road (technically true if one takes into consideration the 90-degree bend in the road) in a town so small it doesn’t have nor need traffic signals, I have but one response: You people truly have your heads up your asses. 

As a relative newcomer to the rural experience—having spent most of my life in cities both large and small (two million population on the high end, 14,000 on the low)—I consider myself something of crossover, and a successful one at that. Before ditching life as I knew it, I was so unversed in rural living that I boned up with books purporting to enlighten urban escapees on the sea change that was about to engulf them. Looking back from the perspective of a decade, I can’t help but chuckle at the inanity and absurdity of much of the information, as if the authors had combined a reverse Beverly Hillbillies with Deliverance. Though rural life certainly has its share of comedy, rarely does it venture into menace of such horrific intent. 

As a crossover, I have an intuitive alert system that signals excessive levels of bullshit when people (rural or urban) pontificate on subjects clearly beyond their reach, kind of like the spidey-sense that sets Peter Parker tingling when danger is present. Coupled with an increasingly diminishing lack of empathy toward stupidity—notably when coming from those who should know better, those who do know better but are trying to be disingenuous or those who are genuinely stupid and proud of it—I’m something of a radar for moronic behavior. When I read the press release about Kansas in Question, my tingling was so pronounced it could only be described as orgasmic.

Without the fun, I might add.

From a rural perspective, I suggest that if the state’s future depends on leaders who express such blitheringly facile arguments, we’re all doomed. Fortunately, from that selfsame rural perspective, I know better. But creating a bright future goes beyond rural boosterism or urban planning; it will require hard work, dedication, passion, creative thinking and a quality rarely found in the halls of academia, the state legislature, or symposiums such as Kansas in Question—common sense.

Several people I know considered attending the symposium but balked at the subjects and the cost. As a public service, I’ve decided to save my friends their fifty bucks and convene my own dialogue, admittedly one-sided, which will answer those hard-hitting questions. I’m positive attendees will hear a different version but what the hell. You get what you pay for.

So, without further ado, here we go:
  • Has small-town Kansas outlived its usefulness? Absolutely. In the new urban environment characteristics of small-town residents such as work ethic, patriotism, dedication, the sense of community, sharing, empathy, honesty and giving are anachronisms. Their replacements—greed, selfishness, lust, sloth, apathy, dependence, conformity and addiction—are better suited to the rat-like, crowded conditions of population centers.
  • Can we afford public education? Can we afford ignorance? 
  • Should teachers do more than teach? If the question is whether they should also sweep, dust and mop their classrooms, wash windows, provide free psychological services to students in need and personally assist students with homework in evenings, the answer is no. We might well ask if politicians should do more than prevaricate, lie and pander to their richest constituents. (Or, as writer Sherman Alexie suggested, make annual lie detector tests mandatory for politicians.) I mean, why teachers? Why not garbage collectors, journalists, store clerks, astronauts? What a dumb-ass question.
  • Should small towns be allowed to die? As far as you’re concerned, they’re already dead and gone. We prefer you to believe that. The question rural residents ask is this: Should cities be allowed to muck up Kansas? We think not. Wichita, Topeka, Kansas City, maybe even Manhattan, should be forcibly relocated to New Jersey.
  • Is it time to go back to the one-room schoolhouse? Yes, but only if we include amenities such as wood stoves, kerosene lanterns and a complete renunciation of modern technology. Mud roads, while optional, would further a sense of endurance.
  • Is the land trying to teach us something? Let me put it bluntly: Darwin’s survival of the fittest isn’t working. Mankind continues to spread like a malevolent virus, leaving in its wake environmental degradation, wars, famines, pestilences, droughts, natural resource depletion and symposiums such as Kansas in Question. Democracy, the world’s best hope for political stability, has been bought by the rich for their own nefarious purposes. We sacrifice the minds of our children on the altar of television and digital content. The world’s population reached the seven billion mark with no end in sight. This isn’t rocket science, folks. Mother Nature is pissed.
I forgot to mention one of rural Kansas’s most enduring characteristics: optimism.

With depopulation gutting our communities, with the outmigration of our youngest and brightest, with jobs and services becoming evermore scarce, I sometimes wonder whether it’s a misplaced hopefulness, more wishful thinking than anything based on a realistic appraisal. At its core, though, is something based on experience. 

From its inception, Kansas was based on the premise of success while at the same time accepting the inevitable failures as obstacles to be overcome. And not just overcome, but learned from. These problems aren’t new. We’ve been here before and will be again, long after urbanites, professors and dignitaries have ignorantly relegated us to the dustbin of history. 

Oddly enough, we hold no grudges. We know we’re being talked down to, and we know it doesn’t matter. Our place is here, on the land, far from the incestuous cesspits cities inevitably evolve into. We have our place and they have theirs, and we hope and pray that they stay there, asking their silly questions and puffing themselves up with learned gravity while we carry on toward the stars of our making.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Thoughts on an October rain

For some reason the golden leaves pasted to the wet weathered boards of the patio brought back memories of the nymphal husks of stoneflies plastered to boulders pebbling the banks of trout streams in woods luminous with autumnal hues. Closing my eyes I entered that other world of blue-gold waters glittering in the sun but only for a second, brief and sharp as a gunshot, and reopening them felt a tug of loss for a place I might never see again.

The silence of the room was absolute other than a low moan of wind coursing through the barren boughs. With a little imagination it could have been taken for the rush of clear waters foaming over stones the size of small cars, its force shimmering the air, an ageless tune thrummed in ceaseless refrain. And muted now, softened by encroaching stands of wild raspberries and ferns, bobbing aspen leaves bright as newly-minted coins, and a volumetric reduction as cyclical as the burnished rusts of the high tundra and the first dusting of snow on the upper peaks. 

And here so far away the rain fell as it had fallen since dawn, a steady drizzle drumming on the downspout or occasionally lashing the north windows. In the shadowed corners a gathering darkness rose like a spectral tide. Twin worlds separated by twin panes of glass. 

Plus that other world, the lost world. What is it of autumn that makes us so melancholic, so full of longing? Yesterday when a flock of barn swallows flew across the road I wondered if they were the last I would see, and thought as I always do of skies bereft of birds and the long descent to the solstice and the icy wastes beyond. Watching the trees shed their foliage brought the same crushing sense of yearning. Autumn is how we learn to say goodbye.

I turned on the furnace and stood looking out on a world of subdued motion. Wet leaves tumbled on a north wind that sent rain cascading through the trees in sudden concentrated showers, each droplet radiant in the fading light. An early dusk and all the dusks to come earlier still. The sense of impermanence was staggering. 

But I would have it no other way, I knew. If not for the four disparate seasons I would be a different man entirely, some upbeat stranger scarcely tuned to an unremitting but strangely welcome sense of seasonal despondency. Imagine living in a temperate zone without spring or fall, as was the case in Costa Rica where the residents eagerly questioned us about snow. Theirs was a two-season climate, one wet, the other dry when trees relinquished their leaves not because of shortening days but because of drought. Days and nights were alike with depressing regularity. What the people we met really wanted to know about was winter, a foreign concept unthinkable except at the summits of the smoldering volcanoes running down the spine of their nation. They didn’t have a language for it.

My own language revolves around the radiant hues of a fading season and the promise of longer, and colder, nights. There’s some comfort in that—my bear nature and its latent desire for hibernation—and I think of hot chocolate mixed with butterscotch schnapps, of coffee and Irish cream, of fleece sweats and wool-lined slippers, electric blankets and the soft glow of lights warming the pages of a good book. The phrase “a cold October rain” conjures bittersweet imagery but also the promise of hearty soups and stews, and posole, the traditional New Mexican Christmas dish. Without the changing season none of those things would matter. 

And still the rain falls as it has since yesterday. I watch it for a while before closing the blinds and turning on a light. I’ll make a pot of coffee and simmer left-over green chile stew while darkness cocoons the house and the temperature noses downward. Autumn is also about turning inward. Let it rain.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The invisible cage

      Guy stops me on the street to say the meeting has been moved from morning to afternoon. “That a problem?” he asks.

Only that I have to be in three places at the same time. Other than that, no problemo.

Back at the office I pore over my daily planner. The month is bleeding away but apparently determined to squeeze the life out of every minute, and the following day’s penciled notations seemed to have mutated like some self-propagating bacteria so that they spread page by page to the cradle of a new year. One memo, written in red to highlight its importance, proved utterly indecipherable, and no amount of rotating, retracing or shaking would realign the letters into a semblance of legibility. I wondered if that meant I could skip whatever it was I was supposed to attend.

Somewhere in the back of my mind was a recollection of a favorite passage in a book by Jim Harrison where he arrives at a cabin in the wilds of northern Michigan, only to find a clock on the wall. The cabin is rustic, almost primitive, tenuously connected to the outside world by a slender thread of rutted road, an ideal place to shuck off the trappings of civilization and commune with the written word and a nearby trout stream, neither more nor less than the black bears and badgers in the yard or the wolves that howl at night. And here’s this clock, ticking and tocking to the beats of his heart, rhythmic and unwavering until he gingerly removes it from the wall, takes it outside and sets it on a stump. It’s still ticking when he returns with his shotgun. 

When I used to go backpacking it took me three days to become acclimated to life without the artificial contrivances of timekeeping. Though I had a rough idea of what day of the week it was—mostly through the amount of food in my pack—my days were broken down into morning, evening and the the sunlit gap separating the two. Time as defined as a moment measured in hours and minutes had been left behind at the trailhead. It wasn’t merely the city I was escaping from, but the invisible cage of the calendar.

I’m certainly no expert in the history of calendars but from what I’ve gleaned the earliest examples of timekeeping were based on harvests, important events, solstices and phases of the moon. In some parts of the world, Egypt, for instance, calendars were created to chart seasonal fluctuations timed to favorable planting periods, such as the flooding of the Nile. The Romans tried perfecting the regulated system of days and weeks into a cohesive whole matching the solar cycle but superstitions about even numbers foretold certain doom. Nor do solar and lunar cycles synchronize, leaving today’s Gregorian calendar an awkward haphazardness with shortcomings that require the occasional leap year as corrective.

How mankind went from timing seasonal, solar or lunar cycles to a slavish adherence to the calendar and the clock puzzles me. I suspect at heart we crave symmetry with the uneven and unequal gyrations of celestial objects, also that the Industrial Age ordained an almost religious onus on regularity and timeliness. We’ve debased this to the point where social status often hangs on promptness or habitual tardiness. The early bird gets the worm, we’re bribed, which as we all know is rarely the case.

I shouldn’t complain for my workweek doesn’t require time clocks or traditional hours of operation but instead consists of deadlines, some critical and others more lenient depending upon, of course, the day of the week. But like Harrison I prefer a life without constraint, however much it eludes me. As I write this I’m surrounded by reminders of the month, the day of the week, the hour, the minute and the second, which results not only in keeping me focused but sometimes induces guilt for dallying when I should be laboring. More problematic is the constant awareness of the shortening of my time on this earth. Too much knowledge is a two-edged sword, the yang to the yin. I long for the day when I can take my daily planner and toss it in the trash, when I at long last live for myself and for the things that sustain me, when I can say with all honesty that I’m busy that morning/afternoon/evening, sorry, that particular time just doesn’t work for me.

Isn't that the point?

It’s funny how I started my novel and suddenly feel too shy to share it with anyone other than Lori, and even then I feel stupid and amateurish. Even passages I think strong fall flat when read aloud. Our confidence is so often dependent upon familiarity, whether of people, places or pursuits. I’ve never considered myself a fiction writer but like most nonfiction authors sensed a novel hidden deep within hungering to get out into the light of day. Now that November is here (National Novel Writing Month, "Thirty days and nights of literary abandon!") I’ve surrendered to the inevitable and started seeing where my thoughts would take me. Yesterday I labored over the first 2,300 words to flesh out a passage that had haunted me for years. The feeling is indescribable. 

I might never finish the novel. It might turn out as bad as anything I’ve ever written, and I’ve written some execrable crap in my time. But that’s not the point. The point is that I’m letting my defenses down. I’m letting a voice come out that’s been too long quieted. I’m doing what I want to. Isn’t that the whole point of life?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Someday soon...

... I am going to follow the crows back to their roost.

Drama queen dreams

       In the dream I was in lower downtown Denver with the sluggish Platte River flowing past though everything was different from the way it had been when every street and every alley was as familiar as the back of my hand. Dusk was falling as I ran out of the courthouse—misplaced a mile or so to the northwest, near the 15th Street Viaduct, a ghost itself as it was torn down decades ago—to retrieve my camera and reporter’s notebook for a trial I was covering when I made a wrong turn and somehow ended up in a bar catering to the lower dregs of society. 

I remembered the place, not the interior of course because I’d never stepped foot within, but in the way that dreams make the unfamiliar familiar it was like a homecoming, the long dirty bar on the right and a smattering of tables on the left, a buzzing neon beer sign hanging crooked above the back door where I’d pistol-whipped the thief who had been stealing batteries from our vehicles. And everywhere in that smoky gloom hostile faces closing in. 

Uh-oh, I thought. 

We were never trained in how to deal with murderous crowds but left to our own devices as if by merit of our pistols and uniforms immunity would somehow be granted. Fat chance of that. Every technician had his own tale of close calls, his own internal scars and frights that would forever haunt his nocturnal wanderings. Mine had come at another bar about two miles to the south when a clever ruse stunned an agitated mob long enough to make an escape. A melted screwdriver was small price to pay for remaining in one piece, I felt, though for years I kept the screwdriver in my tool bag as a reminder of how close I had come to the unthinkable.

Here was a darker angle to the story, however. I was bereft of weaponry of any kind and outnumbered fifty to one, and if there was any saving grace in what would follow it was that the suddenness of the attack left no time for anticipation. Before I could bolt for the door they were upon me, their fists and boots pummeling me to the floor. A boot to the chest drove the wind from me and jolted me upright in bed, where I gasped aloud in agony. My ribs felt staved in.

The boundaries between real and unreal are never so indistinguishable as in nightmares. Muscle spasms brought about by post-hole digging the previous two days replaced the boots and fists, pain so intense and unwavering that it had fabricated an entire dreamscape to inhabit. Trying not to wake Lori, I slipped from bed and made my way downstairs where I paced the floor, trying to shake loose. A slug of bourbon helped settle my nerves, and the soft querying of a great horned owl outside seemed a balm altogether more merciful than I deserved. And if the owl’s query was answered by another, more distant, my own was not. Why, I wondered, do my dreams have to be so melodramatic?