298. From Vigils to Vigilantes

It’s a thin spiral line that threads across the evolving concepts from vigil to vigilance to vigilantes. Let’s begin at the center of the spiral. A vigil is a period of intentional wakefulness spent watching and usually praying when sleep would be expected, e.g, staying up all night watching the Holy Eucharist in a Catholic Church. Or the Victorian habit of a death vigil, where watchers would observe a dying person, waiting for the precise moment when the soul left the body. ..WATCHING THE DEAD:

Supporters of Chan and Sukumaran lit candles during the vigil in Sydney's Martin Place which reflected another vigil held at the port town of Cilacap opposite the island where Chan and Sukumaran were put to death at 12.25am Sydney time

“It is no longer the custom to watch the dead — an excellent omission, for many of those vigils were unseemly in their mirth. Some friend or relative sits up in order to give the dead any attention necessary. The preparation of the deceased is always attended to by some kindly friends who are not members of the family, and that agonizing duty is spared the afflicted ones. It is more thoughtful for someone to volunteer to remain with the family, through the long sad night hours. It makes the grief and loneliness of the house less oppressive.”

Since the vigil concept predates electric lights, candles are de rigueur for vigils… to light up the darkness in a dynamic dancing fashion. Klieg lights just won’t do. Too constant, artificial.

 At the center of this spiral is a single open-eyed sentry who wills himself not to close his eyes beyond an instant shutter blink.  A vigil in Roman times was a sentry, always on the look out.  I recall little vigil lights in the Catholic Church I grew up in, red glass glowed to show a prayer in actuality. I noticed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on a recent trip that they are still used to represent a deceased loved one or a prayer, as if to say, “I’m still thinking of you, watching, waiting, missing you. You are on my mind.” Each candle is a dutiful little soldier on watch against the creatures of darkness.

Now step out and over a few orbital rings to the planet Vigilance. It’s a state of constant scrutiny, awareness, attention or observation. Imagine a Secret Service agent scanning a crowd for bad guys rushing the White House.  Never mind; that’s a bad example. Note that vigilance is not a natural state of being; it is forced, learned, and acquired somehow through experience. Often times that experience includes fear and the activation of our reptile brain, the fight or flight part that exists to ensure our survival. We expect our TSA agents, police and soldiers, prison guards and doctors, airplane pilots and food inspectors to be vigilant. But we all know, expecting vigilance does not equal getting vigilance. Human beings fail. So we have vigilant security systems that are machines, and they fail also. Let’s face it: even determined hyper-vigilance fails sometimes, no matter how many layers of redundancy are wired in. Flight 370 is still missing without explanation. The Twin Towers are also missing with explanation. What we know and don’t know defeat our delusion of vigilance and invulnerability.

The B side of Vigilance is that it’s exhausting and tedious. How many tubes of toothpaste must one inspect before his mind becomes fried or twisted? Never forget, never … becomes remember sometimes. At least be symbolically mindful.

“No, I don’t think it’s cancer.”

“A pilot wouldn’t crash his own plane? That’s absurd!”

“Those guys? I know they’re convicted serial killers, but they’re always nice to me. More pie, Bubba?”

Remember the Alamo!  (to rent a car) Remember the Maine! (for vacations) Never forget Pearl Harbor, (their sushi is excellent).  We forget. Vigilance combusts and exhausts like the spent oil in a vigil lamp. No one likes to admit it, but the sooty proof is everywhere.

And finally we come to vigilantes, the self appointed marshals who bust loose when life seems unjust and out of control. There is no test or credentialing involved. No court or magistrate. Just bring your anger or fear or inflated ego to a neighborhood watch or police auxiliary. George Zimmerman comes to mind. He was just a guy with a gun who wanted to “help” society. Or maybe he was a loose wing nut who made himself judge, jury and executioner. In any event he killed a young black man on a rainy Florida night… because George inserted himself into the crosshairs of a community watch. He chose to use violence to protect the property of society. He ignored the police warning to back off. And finally he claimed he had to kill that young black man in order to protect himself and our way of life. It was an odd moment of juris prudence when he was found not guilty of Trevon Martin’s death, strangely inspiring another vigilante a few years later to try and make justice out of chaos.

The other day I saw a picture on FB that had a gun next to a Bible. The accompanying message was something like, “I have to be armed to protect my religious experience now in the post-Charleston shooting era.”  How on earth do you justify guns with the Bible or the Bible with a gun? I just cannot imagine Jesus carrying a firearm. It’s an absurd proposition. Even when Peter went all vigilante in the Garden of Gethsemene and cut off a soldier’s ear, Jesus healed it in peace. A bit ironic that all the disciples were supposed to hold a vigil that night, but each fell asleep, leaving Jesus alone and unguarded. Odd that the one who could not hold the vigil, who would deny his savior three times later that same night, was the very one who went all vigilante. When things appear to be out of order, it is tempting to exercise control, even violence, to reset equilibrium. But what you wind up with is some sort of Fascism that honors violence and celebrates the end justifying the means to it. No, stick to the single candle and fight the creatures of darkness that way.

 

297. Dx: Imperfect People Disorder

“The problem is this:  you live in a world of imperfect people. No one is smart enough or drives well enough or talks fast enough to suit you. And you are entitled to a reality that suits your needs. Heck, you’re what?  13 now. You are completely able to make adult decisions because of your superior IQ. Is that what you are telling me?”

“Yeah, my parents just don’t get it. They are slipping behind my abilities. I feel like they are skiing behind my speedboat and I have to pull them along, but really, they’re just slowing me down. My mom doesn’t understand, no, can’t understand quantum physics like I do. I’ve told her once what it’s about, broken symmetry and entropy and stuff. Her eyes glazed over and she kept having to say ‘What?’ It’s annoying!!”

“Mmmhmmm. It’s a form of rudeness and disrespect to your superior abilities, and yet you still need her to drop you off and pick you up from sports camps and school functions.”

“Yeah, and she’s always on her phone. I can’t stand that. Distracted drivers are now the number one cause of fatal car crashes.”

“Yeah, I saw that on Facebook. Now when you drive, how will you do it?”

“In-tell-I-gent-ly.  If you use your native intelligence to full potential, well, it’s not that hard. Driving requires less than one per cent of your available brain power.”

“But what about all the other drivers who are not as gifted as you?”

“That’s a problem. I think you ought to have a minimum IQ to get a driver’s license. Only smart people should be allowed to drive. It’s stupid to let stupid people drive on the same roads with lawyers, surgeons, judges, and CEO’s of cutting edge tech firms. If one of these leaders is killed by a moron, that’s a huge loss. If a moron head-ons another moron, no loss.”

“Because low IQ folks bring no value to society, right?”Image result for dumb people pictures

“Absolutely. They are here to be ruled. If you can’t compete, you sit the bench or sweep the floor. Not everyone can be a starter. Those are facts.”

“So, it’s hard for you to be surrounded by imperfect people, huh?”

“You have no idea. I’m in the 99th percentile in achievement tests I take. I’m smarter than a lot of my teachers. It pisses them off,  so like, they’ll try to catch me not paying attention and ask me a question.  Wrong!  I can multitask. So their little traps backfire on them and they get pissed that I beat them at their own game. So then they change the storyline to manners and arrogance and disrespect crap. It’s unscientific and subjective. But it doesn’t matter. Same as my parents: They make the rules for now, but don’t expect me to respect stupid people.”

“So what do you think the per cents are for smart people like you?”

“Well, my measured IQ is over 135, I’m sure. But I think it’s a lot higher… so let’s say I’m in the top one per cent, maybe even higher.”

“Must be lonely up there.”

“Sure is. You can find a dumb person in a second. Finding an exceptionally smart friend is next to impossible.”

“So your friends are not your intellectual equals?”

“No, I mean I like them and all, but they are pretty dumb. They do stupid things and we laugh, but they don’t get the deeper issues of life either.”

“How about finding a girlfriend? If you struggle with your mother’s level of intelligence, and she is an accomplished professional by the way, how do you think dating or marriage is going to be?”

“Uh, she needs to be smart and good looking and ambitious. I mean, I’ll be making six or seven figures and living the cool life, so she’ll have to be okay with my choices. I don’t want a dumb chick who will make me look bad, ya know?”

“You are pretty sure of yourself.”

“It’s easy to be confident if you have the smarts and talent to back it up. Okay, so like in baseball, I’m on base a lot and score most of our team’s runs. In basketball I’m usually the leading scorer. So if I plan on being a neurosurgeon, why would it be any different?”

“I don’t know. I’m wondering how you’ll interact with dumb patients and nurses and other professionals who don’t measure up, though.”

“I think that they will be so glad for my expertise that they will spare me their pettiness. At least I hope they will. In any event I will be at the top of the food chain, so I can call the shots for the most part.”

“Yeah, like a polar bear or an eagle or a lion. The king of the jungle. You’ll be the king pin.”

“Someone has to be at the top. Talent and IQ rule. Cream rises, right?”

“Oh yeah, and milk just sits there. Not to mention skim milk.”

“So, do you have a diagnosis for me? My parents said something about a narcissistic personality? Is that even a diagnosis? Plus, my friends are dying to know.”

“Yes, it is. It encompasses a sort of fixed personality, a set of beliefs about oneself, that you are special even if there is no evidence. Narcissists lack empathy. They believe they are entitled to preferential treatment and should be treated deferentially. But that’s not you. No sir.”

“So do I have a diagnosis? I mean I don’t want to waste my time in therapy if I don’t have some incredible set of issues, ya know?”

“Oh, yes. I get it. And I’ve thought about your condition long and hard. Aside from being here to guide your parents and peers, I think your issue is that you are surrounded by imperfect people.”

“Absolutely. It sucks. Forrest Gump was a good movie but not in real life. I want smart people who think and act like I do.”

“Exactly. That’s why I’m diagnosing you with imperfect people disorder.”

 

 

 

 

 

296. Eric’s Fountain

Image result for forrest gump picturesAs I was getting ready to take a late Saturday afternoon shower, I decided to jog. Actually I’d just stepped on the scale and saw I was still fat. Maybe a jog on a hot day would melt some of my doughboy belly. “Chasing the fat man” is my line when someone asks where I’m going with my running shoes on or why. Away I went, feeling too heavy for my feet, like I’d been in a holding cell for months.The rhythm came back, plodding on. The breathing came too fast and sweat began at my thin hairline.

Through the familiar neighborhood streets and down toward Norland Park. Not too many folks out today, which was fine with me. I could hear  the far off cheers of a girls softball game. Meanwhile I was listening to my body. Would my knee loosen up? Would my back seize up as it has from my unfortunate heel striker stride? Would my minor arthritis flare? Everything felt fine as I ran by the old train cars thinking about water at 1 mile. Image result for train caboose pictures

When I was younger I’d cruise through this circuit with no water and keep on going for several miles. Not today. I just wanted to do two miles without injury.

I started up the mild rise to the high point of the park. I’d heard that Eric’s family intended to erect a water fountain in his name. As I came around the turn I saw the blue and silver cylinder. Awesome! I had to stop and read the sign and just  pause to reflect on one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever known. There are three spigots– one for humans, one for dogs, and one for bottle refills. I bent down for a drink. There was a pause and then the cool water came out.

Nearby was a bench facing east. Altogether a nice spot to pause and drink in nature as well as water. I thought of Eric and his gappy smile, his bird swoop, his funny voice that always seemed to have a laugh coming up. His belt buckle and boots, his hat, cowboy shirts, and a big sigh when he’d sit down like he’d just  plowed the back 40. “Yeah, Buddy.” He loved dogs and they returned the favor. Dogs know who loves them and who just says they do.

I pictured the Sexy Cowboy sitting on his bench approving of the site. I thanked him for the drink and plodded on, downhill now. Off to the right was that girls softball game in progress. Neon yellow shirts in the field while redshirts batted. After a single to right there were runners on first and third. The next batter laid down a great bunt, scoring the run and moving the girl on first to second. Everyone was safe. It looked like the neon yellows were defeated and just hoping to get it over with. At least that is what I imagined. Winners and losers, that’s life.Image result for girls softball pictures

I jogged down and out of the park. It struck me that in Eric’s world there were no losers. He was just a happy and giving guy. Even in death he gives strangers drinks of water.  Winner, winner. I thought of Jesus’ words…

New International Version
And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

And Eric will do God’s will in perpetuity. Simple but profound. I jogged on through the old farm on the hill and around the sharp turn toward the small shaded woods. I inhaled the incomparable scent of honeysuckle blooms. Lovely. Still thinking about Eric and simple gifts of nature. Red raspberries are almost ready to eat, and mulberries are littering the edge of the road. Pure and simple and good. And Eric could easily fit right in among these gifts of God.Image result for honeysuckle pictures

Up, up over the big hill behind my house. I’ve found many odd things along the side of this road –deer carcasses, ATM machines, clothes, beer, porn magazines, a bowling ball– so nothing surprises me. Any litter bothers me, but some is so ridiculous. As I hit the final hill I noticed a hypodermic needle on the side of the road. Not the first I’ve seen, but I got the instant belief that this was a heroin needle. I’ve known a couple of IV users and thought this hypo could very well have been used by one of them. What a contrast to the good of Eric’s life. Here we have folks killing themselves a few milligrams at a time. Their lives are no fountains of goodness. Instead they impatiently jam a needle in their veins in the vain attempt to catch a dragon they once rode long ago and can never catch again. Loser, loser.Image result for hypodermic needle pictures

Further on I came across the splayed open carcass of an opossum, its guts spread out around it in a deathly halo. I couldn’t help associating this scar of death with the needle twenty yards away. Shooting up is like a possum running across the road at night. Most nights it makes it but when it doesn’t, well, it’s a spot on the road, a crow’s banquet or a happy meal for the coyotes. IV addicts live highly complicated and unhappy lives as they withdraw, crave, make the run to Baltimore, cut the deal with a some shady guy, tie off, shoot up, and wait for the high that does not come again. Such a waste. Heroin takes and takes until the user’s last breath fails. All meaning dissolves in the flame of false promises.

So far from the life of Eric. His life mattered and still does. He simply loved and gave from that place. His living water still flows on hot days. God bless you, Buddy.

 

 

 

295. Reality Testing

The doctor asked the 80 year old man with a split skull what day it was, what his name was, where he was. The patient managed a few words but fumbled the date and who was president on a follow up question. In the medical and behavioral health business this is called reality  testing. It seems pretty clear in a medical sense when a neurosurgeon is probing an old man with a head cracked open like a  pistachio. But there are many other types of reality testing.

At the coffee shop recently, okay, TODAY, I was enlisted for my off the wall opinion on the current status of the Awkward Aardvark Café  where I javanate daily.

“Burrito, what do you think of the homeless shelter atmosphere that has developed here over the past few years?”

“You mean the living DSM V museum of mental disorders and coffee? Nice hat and shades, by the way. Is that a fake beard?”

“Yeah, that. Focus!!”

“Well, if you added some washers and dryers in the back room, that would complete the design of a small town, dirty sock hors d’oeuvres ministry on a cracker budget. Then, if we installed pull down Murphy beds along the north wall, we could squeeze in about 20 folks per night.”

“But we are still a business not a charity.”

“What would Jesus do?”

“He didn’t run a coffee shop!”

“C’mon Andrea! I’m sure at the carpenter shop there were loungers on his chairs and benches. He probably had stragglers and loiterers, even litterbugs doing jitterbugs. 21st century America did not invent the slacker. I’m sure he had to whack someone or just give them a hard Galilean stare every now and then. I’ll bet he had a no smoking sign posted above his sawdust piles.”

“Tobacco hadn’t been discovered back then, Mr. Anachronism. And the jitterbug comes from the Roaring 20’s. But customers are complaining now, the paying customers who fund this shop’s business. And some other business owners are complaining that our slackers are creating an unsavory environment outside on the square. They want to speak to the manager, which is why I am wearing this disguise.”

“Yes, but why go all Nazi on these folks? They are still human beings, right? They are our slackers. I mean there is Brenda the bread lady, and Lola the sticker picker, and Shelly the director of the United Nation of human ruminations.”

“It’s not them. We all like them. They are sweet in their own odiferous ways.”

“So, it’s Dudley?”

“No. Everyone likes him. He’s harmless and follows all the rules. He smokes across the street not at the outdoor tables.  And then he sweeps up others’ debris.”

“So it’s me, isn’t it?  This whole  ‘let’s talk’ thing was just a ploy to get me to confess, wasn’t it? Then I’m supposed to have a glimmer of insight and change for the better on my own, but I’m…”

“Stop! No, it’s not you. I’m seeking ideas from you. I’m desperate.”

“Wow, you must be floundering like a… flounder on the desert floor, floundering in a red hot iron skillet, popping with olive oil and pumpkin seeds to consult me. Let’s see, I can propose a committee to study this and then issue a report for a subcommittee to study and then make a proposal at a later time to the full house. Then, there’s the funding question. How’s that?”

“Not helping.”

“Okay, if the actual measurable offenses come from only two slightly creepy old guys, why not tell them as soon as they say or do something inappropriate? Then you don’t have to ride herd over the whole of humanity, picking winners and losers, the haves and the have nots. This is starting to sound like Marxism.”

“Like how?”

“Well, when X says something… say, Mr. X! That is inappropriate. If it continues, you’ll have to leave.”

“That’s harsh. Could you say it for us?”

“Let me see if I’m hearing you right– you want me to come up with the solution and the enforcement of said solution?”

“Yep. We’re scared to push, you know, be too bold. We’re young girls. Defenseless. Weak. You are old and don’t have long anyway. Most days you fail your daily reality test. Can’t you be the coffee shop cop?”

“No, you just don’t know what you don’t know. Let me share a bit of self defense wisdom that I learned while getting my hair cut an hour ago. The best in-house defense you can use against an intruder is Bee and Wasp spray. If you keep  a couple of cans open and at the ready, you can hit a man in the eye at twenty nine feet, essentially covering the entire coffee shop. Brilliant, eh?”

“You’re serious, aren’t you? Wasp Away. Hornet Hit Man. Bumblebee Tumble.”

“Sober as a gun slinging hairdresser, Sweety. And I don’t mean a blow dryer.”

“What if we miss and hit the wrong person or poison a muffin? Hit a baby in a stroller?”

“Collateral damage, Ma’am. The cost of urban warfare.”

“You are no help, really. We’re trying to find a way off this spider web and you are smearing honey on it.”

“Andrea, your metaphor is a bit obtuse, but I think you have hit the bull’s eye.”

“What?  I don’t follow.”

“The coffee shop is the web. Some critters come for the honey, i.e., the coffee, which is good, right? Some come for inappropriate reasons, to meet deep psychopathic emotional needs. Those are the guys you spray. It’s aversion therapy for free. You’ll see. Folks will applaud after you have cleaned up the town. You’ll be the new marshal in town. Just trust me on this one.”

“Well, will you spray the first offender? I mean, there’s the liability, the police, the drama.”

“Andrea, that’s why we have Joel on retainer. He knows how to handle the legally insane. He is a member of the Coffee Summit, for goodness sakes.”

“Thanks, Burrito. When I doubt myself, I think of you and feel so much saner.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

294. Leah

My granddaughter is a two year old spitfire picklebutt named Leah. She has been at the center of yet another Tusconic experience here in Arizona this past week.  From the first moment after her nap last Friday, she asked her mom in a tiny, whispery voice, “Where’s Wonka?” and then scrambled to my bedroom to celebrate being in the same space. (“Wonka” was her near approximation for “grandpa”, but it seemed to capture something more than the generic label for her mother’s father… and stuck.) She smiled her precious smile between her silky pink cheeks and it was on! Dancing, and arm waving, and chase, and babies, and puzzles, and books, and  the I-pad (thank God for Netflix).

Everything was alive with her energy but only for a few minutes at a time– jumping on the bed while singing “No more monkeys jumpin’ on the bed”, “The wheels on the bus”, “Ring around the rosey”.  A whirling dervish if ever there was, whirling through emotions like a roulette wheel. I kept hoping for red 17, but randomosity ruled.

Her dad Stu is in “Cow if fornya” doing his work right now. He flies Apache helicopters with the National Guard. When a jet would fly over her house, Leah would run out and wave and say, “Hi Daddy” in the general direction of the noise. She likes aircraft too. It seems to be in Stu’s family’s blood. Not many two year olds have a poster of a helicopter on their bedroom wall. Leah does, and she knows Daddy flies “Ha-pache copters”.

At her school there are many kind rules. “This is my work” means “I’m not sharing right now; go beat feet somewhere else.” “Too many  people” means just that. Someone has to go, but it hurts a little when you are the only other person and she yells, “Too many people, Wonka!”

Two days ago we spent maybe an hour playing the money game. We both happened to have shirts with pockets. Leah grabbed a couple of fists of coins from her piggy bank and dropped them carefully into my pocket one coin at a time. Then she scooped them out and dropped them into her shirt pocket. And again…”Do it again”, she said. I have no idea what she gained from this pocket money changing, but I gained sweet breath and tenderness that was worth every penny. Love makes simple things delicious and unforgettable.

Being two and highly verbal and strong willed, she puts on her bossy pants at least once an hour and commands or demands… “No, no, no” as she shakes a little empress finger at something or someone. Some kids get sugar highs; I think Leah gets power highs that have to be moderated with surgical precision. Time outs are readily available on the carpeted stairs where she wails about the injustice of the incident she has likely forgotten. Oh the drama!! Scarlett O Leah, “I shall always have Tara” ( and a thousand stuffed animals, books, Kermit the dog, a trampoline and blow up  pool in the yard, a kitchen set, a rocking chair, etc. etc.). She’s a hoot even when she’s pouty and attempting to rule the world tyrannically. When the time out is over and she demonstrates remorse, “I sorry, Wonka”, it’s all good again. Time for a fiesta for the prodigal granddaughter’s return. Blackberries are a favorite.

Five minutes later she wants to share something, a book or a carrot. “Make space” means slide over for her wiggle butt to snuggle in beside you. Now yesterday we had to ride up to the Guard airbase to drop off Stu’s car he’ll need when he gets back from Cow if fornya. I drove behind my daughter in the Prius with Leah. Grace tossed me a double CD of Raffi’s greatest hits. “Just put in the new Raffi and sing along, Wonka.”  Well, I engaged the CD as we got on to the I-10… but it wasn’t Raffi. It was some bogus fake  Raffi and a disc of Tchaikovsky’s pop hits. I couldn’t believe it. I felt like the folks at Times Square who buy a Rolex for $10 from a street vendor only to find out at Battery Park that it’s a fake and doesn’t even keep time. Fortunately the Baroness of Bossiness was content to sing her own soft songs all the way out to the airfield.

Once Grace rejoined us I registered my complaint. “You told me weed but you sold me basil.”

“What?”

“The Raffi was all wrapper and no Raffi.”

“Oh, sorry. Was it a disaster?”

“No, it was Wonkastic actually.”

And away we went to a lovely “rench raunt” beneath the Catalina Foothills. It was lovely despite the part time efforts of the Diminutive Despot to work her Mommy into a braided rug. Leah makes crow noises that warn of the terrors to come.  In just a blink she turns from a fuzzy domesticated puppy into a wild “Cow yote”, who can turn herself into a cooked spaghetti noodle when you try to pick her up and place her in another time out. She is a gamer, let me tell you, and would be in the Baby Hall of Fame if not for a few moments here and there… like Pete Rose. She sort of gambles on getting her way until you go nose to nose with her for the integrity of the game of parenting.

And then after her latest walk she brings a rock, an acorn and purple flower to document her adventure. They are still warm from the Arizona sun’s radiant energy and her little marshmallow hand. She shows me her knee boo boo which I kiss twice, and I realize I’ll miss her soft voice, her funny expressions, and her hummingbird spirit.  It’s all good like pure oxygen in my blood.

So long my Cow yote puppy.

 

 

293. Sabino Canyon

North and east of Tucson is a beautiful park/wilderness area called Sabino Canyon. Hiking it was on my short weeklong bucket list. I set off yesterday at 6:20 a.m. to benefit from the cool of the morning.  No plan or agenda really, no real time frame except for the ominous blistering heat of the day, projected to top 102 degrees. I borrowed my daughter’s camelback water backpack, took a fig bar, an apple, and some trail mix. 64 ounces of water registered on the bladder of the camelback. Away I went without directions. Hey, Tucson roads are on a grid. How hard could it be to drive east and then north at the right spot? There would be signs, I was sure.

After a twenty minute detour into town and a reverse along a nice  golf course community, I finally got the right destination typed in to my phone map app… Sabino Canyon Road. I was about 100 yards from the parking lot when I clicked the route button only to see that I had already arrived. No perceivable loss. I’m on vacation and I have all day to explore… or so I thought. The sun was low but the temperature was already near 80 degrees at 7:15. I parked the Prius in the lot and wandered into the desert following rusted steel and aluminum signs.

Lizards of all types skittered by, some running up high on their toes like water bugs across the blazing sand. Doves cooed all around. The quiet grew palpably. As I was checking in via cell phone with my daughter before she drove to work, I noticed a large, slow lizard crawling across the road. I’d seen one of these before at the museum last year– a gila monster. I snapped some pictures of the 16 inch beaded beauty and left him alone in the shade of some desert shrub. I walked on toward the vortex, a term a fellow hiker gave me as I struggled not to call it the crotch of the canyon.

I thought about rattlesnakes and how I’d just die if one bit me. It’s too late once the venom hits the vein. ( Great line for a goth band, “when the venom hits the vein, my fatal love will crush you like a train”, not a great band. ) The instructor at the Sonoran Desert Museum told us of the terrible outcomes of rattlesnake bites last October, and the terrible price of anti-venom, which is not covered by terrible insurance, I’m sure. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something strike airward, it was not a rattlesnake but a road runner, hopping at bugs and then pecking them. What funny birds they are. He skadoodled off into the scrub to the right. I plodded on, cognizant of the heat and the sun, trying to find a pace that would be productive but not exhaustive. Sand and gravel crunched underfoot. No other sound appeared.

Soon I came to a small pool with fish in it. Odd in the middle of a bone dry place to have a tiny pond with fish. I could see that this pool was part of the larger wash which rushed down the mountain slopes during the monsoon season. I wondered what sort of wildlife visited this water hole at night– wildcats? javelinas? coyotes?

As I continued up the various slopes that confronted me, I came across a yellow sign with a mountain lion’s face on it, warning of recent sightings. I wondered what I’d do if one appeared. I thought of making myself bigger like a bear and charging the cougar, showing him who was the boss. I thought of smashing his snout with a rock. I thought of being slain from behind, my snacks uneaten, my photo album’s last picture of a road runner. Tragic. I determined  right then and there I was not going down without a mighty fight worthy of my Facebook newsfeed.

Forward into the wilderness area, the tough trail rose into the high holy ground. No more paved roads or flat paths eight feet wide. Now the trail was rocky, sandy and narrow. It paralleled the canyon riverbed, occasionally crossing over when a sheer cliff rose up on one side. I drank more from memory and out of caution now, knowing dehydration doesn’t let you know of its presence until it’s too late. The water was lukewarm. I wondered about inspiration, expiration, and perspiration… “breathe in, breathe out, breathe through”, the water was breathing through my skin and evaporating into the silence.

I felt the constant strain on my knees and hips, sure to pay the price later but this scenery was worth great sacrifice. The five dollar parking fee felt like chump change as I gloried in the saguaros, the mesquite,and the cliff faces on this path into heaven. I had no idea where I was going, but it felt like a spiritual magnet was pulling me toward that hidden vortex. Like a pilgrim I plodded on in seemingly holy air. God seemed close enough to just chat with like my invisible fellow hiker. “I really like what you’ve done with this place, God. Your endless creativity and sense of humor give me goose bumps on a hot day.” I sat under a mesquite tree to eat my apple. I felt like a rich man as two hummingbirds rested on a branch above me. I savored the texture and taste of that apple and realized that I’d been in savor mode ever since I got on the trail this morning. The fig bar was figulous. The trail mix a banquet of nuts and dried fruits. A king, I felt royally blessed in my spot of shade. I had to keep climbing into the vortex.

The trail, like life, turned and twisted and was never clear for long stretches. That’s a good thing, keeps you engaged. I thought that God had it right to begin with and men came up with level and square and plumb to control the world. But God had it right and this pristine cactus cathedral sings hymns of praise to the Creator in its pipe organ rocks and giant saguaros. My 60 year old frame kept plodding up and over, finally descending into a large pool at the base of Seven Falls.  Ahhh, the vortex, the water, life, God pulsed out of this place into ever widening space. My heart beat like a drum in a Navajo rain dance. Thump, thump, thump, as a sunrise smile broke across the vortex of my soul. Ahhh! Life is so good.

 

 

 

 

292. Give Me A Hand

Years ago, I think it was 2003, I worked all summer with a machete that I’d brought back from Honduras. I whacked brush and small trees with the machete. Even tried to kill a ground hog with it, but the critter was too fast for me. I swung it over and over with my right hand, so much so that I over extended the tendon on the outside of my right wrist. It still bulges a bit from the abuse to this day. Anyway I wrapped it in an Ace bandage and tried to draw it back in where God intended that tendon to be. Then I went back to my classroom for the twenty second year of teaching seventh grade English. With an average of 135 students each year that adds up to nearly three thousand 12 and 13 year olds. Let that stat sink in for a long moment before you judge me and my tenuous grip on sanity.

So the first day and week of school began much like every other year– homeroom, lockers, schedules, rules, etc. All the kids try to be good and engaging in the first week until they run out of steam. Then there is real homework to do and the old excuses bubble up… “The Police had to come arrest my dad for drinking and my mom for hitting him with a skillet.”

“Billy, I know that’s not true.”

“How?”

“Because your dad is the principal and your mom works with my wife. Didn’t they tell you?”

“Entrapment! I move to have the proceedings sealed and thrown out.”

It wasn’t long till one of the inquisitive kids asked about my wrist bandage. I gave the bait answer, “Oh, it’s a long story and unbelievable, so why bother telling you. No one would believe it.”  There was a nearly audible “THunk” as the asker and those in earshot heard my baited answer. “Oh, no, tell us. We’ll believe it.”

“It’s too fantastic. I can hardly believe it myself.”

“Come on! We promise.”

“Well, okay, but don’t tell the kids in third period. I can tell they are not believers. They aren’t as mature as you guys.”

“Okay, okay. What happened?”

“Well I was in England this summer, and you know how they drive on the wrong side of the road and all?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“So I rented this MiniCooper at the airport and I was driving around London just trying to get used to the gears and being on the right side while shifting with my left, and I came up to a turn. I needed to make a right hand turn but I couldn’t find the signal bar for the blinkers, you know?”

“Uh huh. Whatdyado?”

“I foolishly stuck my right arm out the window to signal, but since I was driving on the left side of the road and traffic was coming at me on the right my hand was  ripped off quite violently by a passing car’s rear view mirror. It literally cut my hand off, leaving me with a bleeding stump.”

“No way!!”

“Yes. I told you it was an incredible story. Do you want to hear the rest of it?”

“Yes, but no lying.”

“On my honor…. So I was in a pickle with only my left hand working and a fountain of blood gushing at oncoming traffic.”

“Whatdyado?”

“Well, did you see that movie Speed, where Sandra Bullock has to drive the bus over 6o miles an hour or the bomb will explode?”

“Yeah, that was a cool movie, but you didn’t have a bomb.”

“I know, but I thought that if I could drive at a fast enough speed, the air pressure would push back the blood gush from my stump.”

“No way. That’s impossible.”

“Well, luckily for me I was not a negative thinker, so I accelerated to 8o kilometers per hour. That’s metric.”

“How fast was it?”

“I think it equals 66 miles an hour in American speed, but anyway once I achieved this speed it was like I had a tourniquet on my forearm. The blood stopped spurting and I could drive around looking for my hand.”

“You mean it was still stuck on the other car’s mirror?”

“That was my only clue. I recalled it was a red late model Jaguar, so I drove about London at high speed looking for the car with the bloody hand on it.”

“Where did you find it?”

“Unfortunately, I did not.”

“But what about your hand?  It’s right there. How did you get your hand back on the bleeding stump?”

“Because I had driven an ambulance during the Spanish Civil War I knew that transplanted limbs have a brief window for attachment. So after 25 minutes of high speed hand chasing about London, I rushed in to The Royal Oaks Hospital in Chelsea by Earl’s Court. It’s an older hospital but well known for its transplant successes.”

“You mean that is not your hand? No way. It looks just like the left one.”

“I agree. The surgeons did a great job matching skin tones I thought. This hand actually came from an accountant who was killed in a tragic auto accident in Surrey. He was completely crushed by a cement lorry, all except his right hand. Fortunately for me had signed the British donor card just days before. How ironic is that?”

“I don’t know what ironic is, but I think you’re lying. How can we tell it’s the accountant’s hand?”

“I don’t question you. It’s pretty fantastic, I know. But here’s the test:  when the hand gets near a calculator, it’s like he can’t help himself. He starts trying to add figures. Watch. Bring that calculator near the hand slowly. I tell you it’s like phantom pain only it’s not.”

“I don’t believe you, but here’s the calculator.”

Suddenly the bandaged hand starts to twitch and type out wildly on the calculator. The kids jumped back.

“See, I told you. It’s like he’s still adding from the grave. They say he was very dedicated.”

“No, that’s you doing it. You’re lying. Take the bandage off.”

“The surgeons said I had to wait six weeks.”

“When is that up?”

“Next Monday, as a matter of fact.”

“Okay, we’ll see who’s lying then.”

The weekend came and went. As I was preparing to go to school that Monday, I remembered the deadline. Hmmm. I found a black Sharpie pen and made a dotted line around my wrist and then wrapped it with the bandage, knowing I’d be called out soon. As soon as I got to homeroom the kids swarmed my desk.

“You said it was today. Let’s see the scar.”

I slowly unwrapped the bandage until the bare wrist was visible with the stitched Sharpie line.

There was much howling and gnashing of teeth. “That’s fake. You drew that. Those aren’t real stitches.” But by then it didn’t matter. The legend of The Hand had been birthed.