Friday, December 2, 2011

Beautiful Red Ruin

We left the volcanic wasteland behind, following the road down through the foothills towards the wide open plain below. The sky was the kind of blue that artists go mad trying to capture on canvas. A few wisps of white cloud floated overhead, pushed by a cool and gentle breeze. The sun touched everything in sight, leaving the darkness nowhere to hide. All the landscape needed was a cowboy on horseback being chased by Navajo warriors on painted war ponies.
Michael wasn’t smoking but I opened the windows anyway, letting the morning air rush over my skin and into my lungs.
“What a perfect day for driving to the Grand Canyon!” I thought aloud over the happy noise of our latest play list.
I saw Michael’s head nod in agreement. His dark hair was wrestling with the wind, his eyes scanning the beautiful, desolate world surrounding our little black rental car.
The road wound down through miles of curves and long straights before flattening out onto the plain. Several motorcycles passed us along the way, with riders decked out in black leathers and denim jackets. We sped up and passed a few RVs and slow moving pickups, but the road was for the most part lonely and quiet.
After several miles I slowed the car and took a right turn onto the access road for the Wukoki Pueblo. Before long we could see it standing in the distance. It reached high into the backdrop of blue, a rusty red castle complete with lookout tower. We pulled up and parked a couple of spaces away from the only other car in the lot.
I led the way up the path. Michael followed with the camera. I ran the final few yards, up the steps, and into the structure.
“Turn around, I’ll take a photo.” Michael shouted from down below on the trail.
I turned and looked his way, resting my hands on my hips as he snapped a shot. As he made his way up the steps to join me, I spun in a slow, scrutinizing circle. Ruin was hardly the right word to use when talking about the pueblo; the original owners had built their home to last. A formidable structure with straight edges, thick walls, and sharp corners, it has been standing strong against the elements for nearly a thousand years. The tower stood three stories high from the base of the rock upon which it was built. It must have afforded the occupants plenty of warning when anyone, friend or foe, approached from any direction. I doubted that anyone had ever snuck up undetected, and was sure that any attackers had suffered a nasty assault from high above.
We ducked into the tower through a tiny opening that must have been the door. I stood in the center of the uneven dirt floor and cocked my head back to look straight up at the blue patch of sky directly overhead. The red walls provided a colorful contrast to complete the picture.
“Beautiful!” I marveled. My voice bounced around inside the tower.
“There must have been a loft up there, you can see where the beams must have been.” Michael pointed up to several open pockets in the walls.
“Bedroom loft in a lookout tower. How cool is that?” I stared out through a large hole in one wall.
I peered out through an opening that must have served as a window. The wall was almost as thick as my arm was long, but I could still see far and wide into the distance.
“I wonder if anyone ever shot an arrow at someone through this window.” My imagination was hard at work placing a band of attackers out on the plain. I rained arrows down on them from my high vantage point.
After repelling the attackers, I pulled my head back from the window and my mind back into reality. I turned to see Michael staring out through an even smaller square in the wall to my right. Both his hands were planted on the wall, his head still. The camera cord hung out of his back pocket. I reached out like a reverent thief, pulling the camera free without a sound.
Michael was lost in thought. His gaze was intent, as if he were searching for something or someone far away on the horizon. I snapped a photo of him from across the little room.
Leaving my brother to his thoughts, I crawled back through the little doorway and out into the sunlight. I looked out across the large open area that made up half of the pueblo. Encircled by a waist-high parapet wall, it must have served as a work area for the people that had lived here long ago. I could picture deerskins stretched and drying in the sun, baskets full of gathered foods, a fire pit ringed with stones, and children chasing a flea-ridden puppy in happy, loud circles.
“This would have been a great place to stage battles with our Star Wars and G.I. Joe figures.” Not for the first time on our trip, Michael’s voice interrupted my thoughts in a good way.
“Definitely. Look at all the rock formations and great places for waiting in ambush.” I agreed.
We stood together, looking out at the red rock and pointing out the best places to play. As kids we had spent more of our playtime choosing our figures and vehicles, staging them on the battlefield, building their bases, and mapping out scenarios than we had in acting them all out. In fact, we took so much time to work out the details that we rarely made it past the initial setup. When friends came over to play, they often grew frustrated with all the time we required in the imagination and planning phases of our play.
Standing with Michael in the ruins of an ancient Native American pueblo, I was reliving some of the best moments of my childhood. It was an unlikely moment in an unlikely setting, one that my own imagination could not have ever conjured.
My eyes filled with tears and I wished that it could have been my imagination that brought us to the pueblo, rather than everything that had.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Rollerblades of Fire

Cold rain, persistent wind, a beautiful woman, and an ugly running jacket. It was the morning of my first (and only) marathon. An uneasy night had left me without much sleep, and a summer of slacking left me without the training that I had promised myself to follow through with. Still, I wasn't as nervous as I should have been. Not since making known to friends that this race was to be run for Jared.

Elizabeth had been out shopping the day before, and had bought me a tiny little shoe pouch with a velcro strap. In it I placed the most powerful weapon in my energy arsenal. A teaspoon of Jared's ashes. My little brother would accompany on my run from hate.

After a sweet kiss from my sexy driver, I made my way into the crowd behind the starting line. I felt surrounded by expert runners. Skinny people looking confident and collected, as if they ran marathons for a living. Unhealthy BMI's, belts loaded with energy goo and water bottles, running shorts, tight leggings, and shoes that I've only seen while watching the Olympics abounded. I wore my old Asics, a pair of Hanes underwear coated with a handful of Anti-Monkey Butt Powder, workout shorts, and a white tee shirt. My daughter Hannah (12) had painted a message on the back of my shirt. It read (in an array of colors), "Pledge Love! Run Away From Hate!" On the front pocket I had drawn four slashes to match the little tattoo on my right shoulder. My brother, Elizabeth, and I went together to get them after Jared's death. He was the fourth child in a lineup of seven. Mom had always marked our clothes with Roman numerals according to the order of our births, in order to properly disperse the clean clothes on laundry day. Since Jared wore a lot of my hand-me-downs, he didn't get the traditional IV so that she could just add a fourth slash when they became his.

The race began with a starting gun shot by a soldier on leave from Iraq, which got the crowd pumped up with pride and appreciation. I stripped the jacket after the first mile. It was keeping me dry (sort of) but it was too hot to wear and way too ugly to keep. The rain did not let up, and the roads were riddled with puddles. It was impossible to keep my shoes dry, something that would plague me later on.

My Ipod was strapped to my arm, and without it the race would have been that much more difficult. I know that a true blooded macho runner scoffs at headphones, just as they do at treadmills, but I did mention that this was my only marathon, right? Anyway, I had chosen well my playlist, shuffling songs that were not too pumped up, yet not too mellow. I knew the words to them all and mouthed them as I ran, my hands occasionally waving to the beat just to keep it real.

The spectators were incredible. Supportive, encouraging, and entertaining, they held signs, rattled bells, and offered water to the runners. There were entire families, the children holding up cups and high fives. The best sign of the run was one that said "Chuck Norris Never Ran A Marathon!"

Mile 12 was tough. I had been running along, wrapped in a cocoon of runners at a 9:35 per mile pace. A sense of camaraderie had developed. I could do this! Then came the turn. Marathon runners to the right, half-marathon runners to the left (and the finish line just a couple of miles ahead). I followed the yellow cones alone, and found myself staring up an empty street. My heart broke. I felt abandoned. In an instant doubt crept into my mind, and I felt the raw grating of a blister forming on my left foot. My pace slowed. I wondered if I had over-reached, and for a moment considered turning around and running to the finish line as a halfer. 

Then I looked down at my right shoe. I began to cry. I thought about Jared's final message to us. "I am so lonely. I have to go." I repented. I was not alone. Jared was with me, and I had to go. I had to go 26.2 miles. In a half shout I asked my little brother to help me. I told him that I missed him. And I ran.

A few miles later I saw a beautiful sight. Elizabeth and a dear friend were sitting out in the rain waiting for me. I paused for a kiss (from Elizabeth) and a water bottle (from my friend). When I started running again, my right knee burned with pain. I hobbled along for several hundred yards before my muscles heated up again and I resumed my pace, although not without some pain.

I cold sum up the next ten miles in two words; "Pain Conquered" but I won't. Blisters forming inside of wet shoes. Knees that refused to loosen up. Hallucinations. Every time I ran a hand through my wet hair, I grew light headed and felt as if I were sitting in a dentist's chair, my lungs filled with laughing gas. My pace slowed and I began to bargain with myself on walking versus running (if you could have called it running). Each time this happened, I looked down at my little brother and kept going. Elizabeth appeared at one point for a photo and a kiss. I love her.

Mile 23. Elizabeth and a final burst of love and energy before the finish. She snapped a photo, gave me some water, took my Ipod, and kissed me again. Her kisses at each stop were long and soft, and restored my strength. 

For the next two miles I spent more time looking at my right shoe than I did at the road. Skeptics be damned, but at one point I swear Jared was there in corporeal form. Handsome as ever, but bare-chested, wearing shorts, and burning down the wet road beside me on his roller blades. His smile kicked my butt and pumped adrenaline into my legs. It doesn't matter if he wasn't truly there, because even as an emotion and fatigue induced hallucination, my little brother was motivation. I was going to finish.

And I did.

Pledge Love!

Run Away From Hate!

I love you Jared. See you on the flipside.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Run Away From The Hate

I am running a marathon this weekend in memory of my little brother Jared. It has been twenty eight months since he walked out into the sunny woods behind his house and laid down to die. I have made no secret about the impact his suicide has had on my own life. Every day since has been for me a lesson in grief, guilt, fear, and despair. Through all of this darkness, however, each day has also been a blessing. My senses have been heightened to the point of total awareness, and I more fully enjoy the happiness of marriage, fatherhood, and life in general. Laughter is sweeter, my children more precious, my wife more beautiful, and life more passionate and livable. For that I thank Jared, although I would have rather learned the lesson through some other means.

Just this past month a young boy in New York killed himself. Biting comments, hateful verbal attacks, and criminal suggestions that he kill himself were hurled at him by his classmates, just because he was different from them. Just because he was gay. My little brother Jared was gay. We talked many times as adults about how he felt growing up knowing he was different. I cringe even now, as I think about how he must have felt to hear the way I spoke about faggots, homos, and queers. Jared must have felt afraid to tell me the truth. He must have felt alone. He must have felt like killing himself. I was just following the crowd, mimicking my peers at school, listening to my teachers at church, and believing the words of adults that I respected, but that is no excuse. I have my own heart, my own mind. I could have defied the tide of hatred, ignorance, and intolerance.

But I didn't. Not for many years, until tensions over Jared (and another brother of mine as well) being gay brought me to a pivot point. I had a decision to make. I could change from within, or continue to tow the line and punish my little brother for something none of us can ever understand in this life yet condemn just the same, because a poorly translated black book supposedly tells us to. Odd thing is, that same black book speaks more about love than anything else, and yet so many who profess to live by it choose to hate. In the end, I decided that the decision had been made for me; I had been told to love over anything else. And so I changed. I loved my little brother.

Not well enough, of course, and far too late. He still took his life a few years later, and while I know it wasn't my "fault," it still seems to me that I could have, should have, and had I known what I know now, would have done more to help him.

But Jared is dead. I can't help him. So I am going to run, because I can't run away. And I am asking all of you for a pledge, but not a monetary pledge. Money cannot stop hate. It can't put an end to intolerance. It won't slow the bullet train of ignorance.

I am asking you all to make a pledge. 

To love. 

It sounds corny, I know. 

It even sounds kinda, well, gay.

But it isn't.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ample Wingspan

It came out of the bushes, a brown blur in the lower right-hand corner of my vision. As it crossed in front of my car I stomped on the brake pedal, sending my precious Nook, my glasses, and my sweatshirt off the passenger seat and into the air. I heard them slam into the glove box and drop to the floor as I watched the giant bird strike my front end dead center. The resulting thump passed through the frame of the car and into my seat. A bursting pillow's worth of feathers rolled up onto the hood and towards my windshield. Panic wrapped her cold fingers around my spine. I imagined the wounded bird falling through my open moon roof and into my lap. My face would be scratched and bleeding, torn by the frantic beating of terrified wings and vengeful cutting of the hawk's beak.

My foot remained jammed on the brake pedal. At last the car came to a halt, causing the bird to flop across the windshield and into the road on the left side of the car. I saw the hawk beating its wings in desperation. It could only manage to hop in little steps across the road and into the woods. The thunder of drums from the stereo speakers matched the meter of my heart. I sat in my car, stopped in the middle of the road, thinking of the lousy start to a first date twenty-five years ago.

Her name was Tamara. I had not known her long, but for some reason I wanted to know her more. It may have had something to do with the fact that she had developed far faster (and far more, in certain areas) than any other girl that I had ever known. After dancing with her for a single slow song at a church dance, I was sure that the devil had a special torture room under construction just for me. Oh, the thoughts and sensations that traveled my circulatory system for the next several days!

I had finally had the courage to ask her out and she had said yes. Since I was only fifteen, my sister drove us to the movies. Tamara's older sister Sherry came along too, riding shotgun up front. At least they had let us sit together in the back seat.

We turned left out of Tamara's driveway, then right around the curve that would take us out to the main road. As we approached the corner, the windshield turned red with the sudden burst of brake lights as the car in front of us swerved and braked. Our own car stopped with a jerk. The four of us squealed in helpless surprise as a raccoon ran beneath the rear tires of the swerving car. The scene played out in the dual spotlights of our low beams, like a center-stage murder in a Shakespeare tragedy.

"Is it dead?" Tamara asked, her face now protected from the horror by her hands.

"No, it's limping off into the woods." I answered, a fresh piece of Big Red gum burning my tongue.

"The poor thing, he's suffering." This from one of the girls as the car in front of us fled the scene.

"Jerk." I said to the driver who couldn't hear me. I opened my door and stepped out into the road.

A light rain had started to fall. I stood on the side of the road and listened through the sound of water dripping on leaves.

"I can hear him, he's crawling through the ferns. His back must be broken if he can't walk on all fours." I stood at the edge of the road, wondering what I could possibly do to remedy the situation.

"We can't just leave him out there like that, he's suffering." Tamara said, applying a pleading tone to her voice.

"Ok, I'll take care of it; you stay here." I said with an authority born of female distress mated with several thousand years of male ego-lution.

I spent a minute or so fumbling around in the dark for something I could use to "take care of it." I settled on a fallen branch that nearly sent me sprawling when my foot tripped over it. It was about five feet long, and just a bit thicker than a baseball bat on one end. As I hefted it in one hand, I thought that it would have made an excellent magic walking staff for an aging wizard.

The rustling had continued up to this point, making it easy to follow the broken creature into the wet underbrush. As I approached, however, the rustling stopped. This gave me pause, and I too halted my forward progress, even to the point of retreat. I had no desire to corner a wounded animal in the dark, wet, forest, no matter how ample the bosom of the girl waiting for me back in the car.

After a moment of silence, the raccoon continued on his dreadful way. I gave cautious chase, still not certain what  I was about to do. I assumed that I was about to swing down on the creature's head with one, solid, crushing blow, ending his life and misery in an instant. I had never killed anything up close other than bugs and slugs, and while the thought of killing the raccoon bothered me, it would be an act of mercy.

Or so I thought. At last I found the crippled critter, in a little clearing with enough light to see that he was done for. His rear legs were dragging behind him like wet strips of paper mache clinging to a pull toy. I watched him crawling, an overwhelming sadness overtaking me so that I could not move. He had sensed my approach, and tried to look over his shoulder at me as he crawled. He began to hiss and wail, his angry warning passing through teeth that I could not see clearly through the dark, but could imagine as being sharp enough to draw my blood.

I was scared, sad, and sorry as I raised the makeshift club over my head. The first strike glanced off his back, and he made a crying sound that I knew in an instant was one I never wanted to hear again. The hollow thunk of the club's impact against his little body horrified me as it passed through my arms and into my chest. Adrenaline widened my eyes, blood swelled the veins in my head, and tears coated my cheeks as I swung at the poor animal a second time, once again missing his head. Soon all I could hear over the white noise of blood rushing through the veins in my head and past my eardrums were his screams. They mixed with mine as I brought the branch down several more times onto his back and eventually, his head.

At last his wailing ceased. I slammed the branch down onto his head a few more times, telling myself that the extra blows were to make sure he was actually dead and his suffering at an end. I stood over his little broken body, the instrument of death hanging from my right hand. My chest heaved with the deep breath of exertion and anguish. The rain was falling harder, but it felt like a cool relief dripping onto my shoulders from the dark leaves. Once I had regained my composure, I dropped the club and walked back to the car, wondering what the girls had heard. It must have sounded terrible and frightening, the sounds of the dying creature, the thud of the branch against his body, and me, his killer, weeping throughout the whole dreadful, merciful delivery of death.

I said nothing much, just climbed into the car and shut the door. The ride was a quiet one for several minutes, each of us lost in our own analysis of the experience. Tamara and I sat still and silent in the back seat, more than a center seat dividing us. I felt unloveable, and considered asking to be taken home, but was too much of a coward to Soon our two sisters began to chat quietly in the front seat, and before long the four of us were laughing as we made our way into the theater. The movie was some silly and forgettable farce. Afterwords, Tamara and I climbed into the very back of the station wagon, as far away from our sisters as we could. The evening took a better turn from that point on.

Sitting in my car, parked in the middle of a New Hampshire back road twenty-five years later, I watched the hawk as it hopped into the woods, wings flapping in a futile attempt to leave the ground. I got out of my car, wishing that Elizabeth and I had already bought the pistol she had been wishing for all summer. I followed the great big bird into the woods. It was a huge and beautiful bird, but looked rather pitiful hopping along on the ground, wings smacking into the dead leaves and twigs on the ground. It stopped at a fallen tree that lay across its path. Wings flapped and talons ripped at the side of the fallen tree, but the poor beast could not even hop high enough to get on top of it, let alone over it. As I watched, the hawk turned its head and looked at me. His eyes were skittish and desperate, the black and gold of them both wide with warning. The hooked beak below them looked too sharp to even think about, let alone get close to.

What was I going to do? I muttered a dammit, then walked back out onto the road for a moment's thought. No cars passed by, so there was no one to consult with. A house sat quiet across the road. I wondered what the occupants would think of a stranger knocking to ask them if they had a gun he could borrow for just a moment in order to kill a hawk? I walked back into the woods, once again cornering a wounded wild animal with the thought of beating it to death with a stick.

At my approach, the hawk the hawk warned me away with a weird sort of sound. I thought of my daughter's husky, scratchy, Kathleen Turner voice when she is truly sick.

"Well, whatinthehelldoyouwantmetodo?" I yelled at the bird.

As the sound of my voice died away, the hawk stretched its wings, and with a sudden bursting whoosh, took flight. My heart leapt inside my chest at the sight of his full wingspan. I laughed away the tension, watching the bird disappear into the woods.

I walked back to the road and checked the back seat of my car.

It was empty. My ample bosomed date had abandoned me.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Eating Painted Crow On Mars

I turned the car off the interstate to enter the Petrified Forest National Park from the North end. We parked and headed over to the visitor’s center, paying a nominal fee to drive the twenty-eight miles through the park. Walking back to the car we passed through a tiny courtyard. Without a word of warning, Michael took off running like a bloodhound back on the scent. I followed close behind, pulling the camera from my pocket. I had no idea what my brother was about to do, but I knew that it was sure to be worthy of a photograph.
And it was. Michael dropped down to the ground in front of a simple sculpture of what appeared to be a cougar. The big cat had been cut from a flat piece of iron measuring one inch thick. The rusted animal was at least seven feet long, with a long metal tail curving up over its body. Michael rolled onto his back beneath the animal and made like he was fending off the cat’s attack. I snapped several shots while laughing at yet another silly moment on the side of the road.
Michael picked himself up, and we started across the courtyard once again. We stopped at the edge of an empty fountain. Recessed into the ground, the cement square was only a foot deep. It was bordered by three feet of round river stones on all sides, and the inside bottom and walls were painted a light blue. A metal sprinkler pipe stood silent and dry in the center.
“I’m going in.” I handed Michael the camera before pretending to wade into deep water. I lay down on my stomach and began to swim over the blue, pushing my hands and kicking my feet through imaginary water. I stretched my arms out long and straight, turning my head to take a breath after each stroke.
I heard the camera clicking away in Michael’s hand. I swam out to nowhere and back before relaxing my body and letting my head drop. The yellow sun was comfortable and warm on my back, the hard sea of blue beneath me calming and cool against my cheek. I could have fallen headlong into a nap, but the temptation disappeared with the sound of Michael’s laughter.
“Matthew, look over there, at those windows, is that a restaurant?”
I twisted around to take a look at a long string of windows in the visitor’s center building no more than forty feet away from my swimming hole. I squinted through the sunlight and focused my eyes on one window after another.
“Yep, it is. There are people in there, and they are probably watching us!” I laughed, then rolled onto my back and swam a few more imaginary yards before leaping to my feet. I took a bow for anyone that might have been watching.
“Dinner and a show, folks! Try the veal, we’re here all week!” I said it with a smile before walking back to the car, not really knowing or caring if anyone could hear me.
As we began our drive through what is known as the Painted Desert, it was made clear to me that Jared had at least one thing in common with God. They shared the ability to take hold of a drab, empty canvas and work a beautiful blend of colors and imagination into something capable of making me cry. I couldn’t help but think that we were weaving our way through God’s personal studio.
I pulled into a parking space at a well-marked overlook. Michael was out of the car and running into the red yonder before I could even release my seatbelt. I opened my car door and stepped out. I watched as Michael ran through a gap in the rock wall marking the edge of the parking lot.
A crow was perched on the corner of the wall. The big black bird didn’t so much as flinch when Michael sped past, despite the fact that he could have reached out and swiped the bird across the beak as he did. I stared in wonder at the confident creature.
He seemed to be looking right at me, his head cocked to one side as if he were scrutinizing me.
 “What do you want?” I asked the bird. At the sound of my voice he jumped down from his rock wall perch and waddled a couple of steps in front of the car.
“This is incredible!” I heard Michael shout. The happiness in his voiced pulled my attention away from the fearless black bird. I had not expected to hear such joy in my brother’s voice for a long time, if ever again. I skirted around the crow and followed the path that Michael had taken.
I held my breath at the sight of a red landscape that could not have been anything other than a rough draft of the otherworldly landscape of the red planet nearest our own.
“Matthew, it’s like running around on Mars!” Michael’s unwitting agreement with my own thoughts made me feel good inside. I smiled as I watched him run down into a little valley below me. His shoepers left odd-looking tracks in the red dust.
I snapped a few pictures as Michael bent down, grabbed handfuls of red earth, and flung them into the air above him. Even from my position far above him, I could see the smile on my brother’s face. I laughed, his absolute joy opening a pressure relief valve somewhere within me.
Like a puppy off his leash in a park full of fir hydrants and buried bones, Michael ran around inspecting the terrain for several minutes. I watched from my vantage point and marveled at the beauty all around me. Tears wandered their way down my cheeks.
Michael ran up a trail on the other side of the little valley, stopping at the top of a hill matching mine in height. He turned to face me, both arms hanging at his sides. Warm winds tousled his hair and lifted the bottom corner of his pearl-buttoned western style shirt. His dark blue jeans and black bracelet-wristwatch stood out against the indigo sky behind him. In my mind’s eye we were acting out a living metaphor of our own past, standing atop two distinct hills, a deep chasm separating us.
I took a few pictures of my little brother and wondered if I looked half as cool, dressed as I was in brown shorts and a light blue tee shirt with a red dinosaur printed on the front.
“He’s right; I feel like I’m on Mars.” I whispered to myself, feeling self-conscious as the words left my lips and blew away into the Painted Desert.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Loosened Up

There were over forty of them. We had nowhere to run, the terrain afforded us no hiding place. As we approached the cabin they came at us, their arms outstretched, eyes wide with anticipation. I watched as the horde surrounded us, swallowing us up to satisfy their appetite. There would be no escaping these love zombies. They came at me, smiling, laughing, hugging, and kissing me as I passed through their gauntlet of joy.

I was at my wife's family reunion.

I could hardly think of a thing to say to them that in my opinion didn't sound inadequate or stupid, but still they each had something nice to say to me. I hadn't seen some of them in well over ten years, and most of them for at least three, and yet it felt as though I had just returned from a short trip to the grocery store. When we pulled up to the cabin in the mountains they were all just right there, a giant cluster of people in a flurry of happy activity. They were making reunion shirts using fresh white cotton tees, cardboard stencils, and cans of spray paint. Within two minutes, after hugging the crowd in record time, my kids were part of the fray, blank tees and cans of paint in hand, their creativity flowing as freely as their happy chatter with cousins.

I stood on the porch and marveled at it all. Nervous, unquiet thoughts and emotions that had often plagued me upon arrival to their reunion scene in previous years were absent. I felt comfortable as I caught up with brothers-in-law, fist bumped nieces and nephews much taller and more grown up than I had imagined, and hugged women who offered up not only love and welcomes but food and beverage as well. It was like coming home, and not for the first time.

Come the morning of the next day, my heart and mind were on overload. Such happiness and outward expressions were not the family interaction to which I am accustomed. To witness, receive, and offer up such healthy proportions of love was suddenly too much for my system. I had thirsted so long that when the water was offered I more than accepted a glass or even a pitcher full, but rather dove into it, saturating every pore to the point of bursting. I was drowning from the inside out, and panic was taking control.

I thought it best to sneak away for a spell in order to regain perspective and settle my emotions. My goal was to settle in comfortably and become a part of this joyful troop by the end of the week. To lose sight of that goal, or to surrender to the discomfort and distance myself from them, was not an option I wanted to allow myself this time around. I had to collect my thoughts to the contrary and dispose of them before it was too late.

We had been extended the use of my mother-in-law's vehicle, and I jumped into it and drove out the front gate and towards the reservoir deeper up the canyon. A little machine known as a "Santa Fe," the car looked like the tiny niece to a more powerful and menacing four wheel drive uncle. It was the same car we had used the last time I had joined everyone up at the cabin several years back, and it had served us well then. The favor of its use and the freedom it afforded us was not lost on me. I was very grateful not to be looking forward to an expensive rental charge at the end of our trip.

I turned onto the dirt road and headed up towards the massive body of water. It took several minutes to get there, but I took it nice and slow, rolling the windows down and enjoying the dry heat of the sun on my arm hanging out the window. I played John Denver on my Ipod, filling the woods with the sweet sounds of comforting music. I began to feel a calm descend, and the positive outlook for my week returned.

I reached the reservoir and pulled to a stop at the bottom edge of it. I shut off the engine but left the music playing softly. The water level was higher than normal due to the rain and snow that had fallen in record amounts over the past several months. A few fisherman stood at the very edge of the water, waiting patiently for a nibble, and a few canoes lazed their way across the glassy surface before me. I gazed up at the mountains. They were blanketed in green, a nice contrast to the indigo that filled the sky above. My spirits soared with the sight of it all.

I sat and listened to John sing about rhymes, reasons, prayers and promises. My thoughts were happy ones and peace was mine to hold. I let the music play, and watched the water lay still for a time before deciding I was ready to return to the joyful mayhem at the cabin. I started the engine, turned the wheel, and touched the gas. As I turned the car around, I heard a popping sound and watched a puff of dust fly up above the right front wheel. My carefree bubble burst as I realized at once what had happened. I had popped a tire.

The windows were open, and Utah learned a few new words that morning. I sat in the little car and leaned forward, resting my head on the steering wheel. This was not the zen moment ending that I had been expecting as I drove away from my newfound serenity spot. After a minute or two of wallowing in self pity, I jumped out of the car and was suddenly very conscious of the vehicles in the immediate vicinity. No fewer than eight large 4x4 trucks, a host of four-wheelers, and five horses with riders were within a stone's throw of the tiny little Santa Fe and its punctured tire. The sweat that began to seep from my pores had nothing to do with the heat of the sun. It was due to the fact that I was surrounded by cowboy hats, Wrangler jeans, and sunburned necks.

I have always been self conscious. While I don't really care what people think of me, I really do care what people think of me. It is a strange way to live, thriving as I do on my individuality until it causes me to be noticed. Would that I could capture the elusive ability to pick and choose the times and locations for standing out, but that kind of control remains at large.

I did my best to act nonchalant as I walked around to inspect the flat tire. Dressed as I was in my black Converse sneakers, dark plaid Vans skater shorts, and blue tee shirt with the logo of a Boston based roller derby team known as "The Cosmonaughties," the chance of blending in with a bunch of cowboys was at best a pipe dream. If my attire was an arrow shaped sign indicating my out-of-place presence, the itty-bitty Santa Fe was a billboard lit by bright-red blinking neon lights, topped off with a pair of giant speakers through which played the "Which of these kids is doing his own thing?" song from Sesame Street.

I opened the tailgate of the car and pulled back the carpet. There didn't appear to be a secret panel underneath the which I would find a spare and all the tools needed to swap a flat tire. My core temperature began to rise in order to keep up with the panic building within me. I pictured a long walk back to the cabin, followed by a condescending ride back to the reservoir with my father-in-law. To top it all off, it was the fourth of July. Finding a garage willing to fix the flat (if it was repairable) seemed unlikely. Added to all of these thoughts was the fear that all the time spent in getting the car back on the road would mess up the family plans for the fourth of July. We had tickets to the Oakley rodeo and fireworks that night. I had heard more about this rodeo from Elizabeth and the kids than any other event planned for the week. They had been in previous years, and Elizabeth had been many times during her childhood. I was looking forward to it, and to think that I might be otherwise occupied with a flat tire made me angry.

Not one to ask for assistance until having exhausted all possibilities, I dismissed thoughts of asking one of the truck driving cowboys for help. I knew how to change a flat, but I needed s spare tire in order to do it. I was sure they didn't have a spare small enough to match the little Santa Fe, so what good would it do to inquire? My mind raced through my options, lighting upon the most unlikely of sources for assistance. I would read the manual.

I climbed back into the front seat and dug the manual out of the glovebox. In cases such as the one in which I found myself my mind tends to believe that if I follow common sense protocols to the letter, all will be well. In accordance with this belief, I flipped to the index and searched it for the page numbers related to the spare tire rather than thumbing my way through the book in hopes of finding it by luck. Sure enough, things began to go my way. The pages dealing with the spare tire indicated that it was hidden underneath the cargo hold, hanging from a metal strapping system on the outside of the car. I jumped out of the Santa Fe and knelt down to peer up at the undercarriage. The spare was not only there, but it was pumped full of precious air, and appeared to be a full size tire as well. Hope lit a match and held it out for me to witness.

The only thing missing was the set of tools needed to release the spare, jack up the car, and remove the lug nuts from the flat. I had already searched the cargo hold, and so I spent a few frantic moments searching the rest of the car. I stuck my hands between and under seats, searched the glovebox, and laid down in the dirt to inspect the harness holding the spare in place. No luck. Not wanting to add to my bad fortune, and believing that Utah had learned enough new words that morning, I refrained from cursing. I sat down inside the cargo hold to think, and spotted the manual next to me. I had dropped it there when verifying the existence of the spare tire. I thumbed through the pages detailing the spare tire and read more thoroughly. To my joy I discovered that a secret panel lay underneath a hard plastic layer in the cargo hold where I was sitting.

"Eureka!" I exclaimed at the discovery of the jack and lug wrench. In a flash I was underneath the car, loosening the nut that held the spare in place.

"Looks like you could use some help." A slightly drawling voice startled me.

I turned my head to see two pairs of cowboy boots not a few feet away from my face. I slid out from under the car to see that a rather large cowboy and his even larger but younger companion had moseyed on over from their vantage point to get a better look at the silly city boy and his teeny weeny flat tire. Their faces were tanned almost earth-brown from time in the sun and their jeans were American blue. I looked up at the giant cowboys and began to speak.

"Yeah, silly flat tire. This is my mother-in-laws car. I haven't even been in Utah for twenty-four hours and this trip is already looking to be more work than fun. I am out here from New Hampshire for the first time in about seven years, came for my wife's family reunion. I needed a few moments away from the loving mob. I am just not used to forty some-odd people being so nice to each other, especially when they are family. Then this happens. What a way to spend celebrate independence." I paused long enough to tell myself to shut up, and slid back under the car to hide my face and to finish pulling the tire down.

I watched from underneath the car as the cowboy boots walked over towards the flat tire, then turned around in a slow circle, as if searching for something. The tire harness let go and the tire dropped to the ground. I pulled myself to my feet and dragged the tire out, turned it upright and rolled it around to the front right side of the Santa Fe.

"Why don't you hand me that jack and I'll get 'er started." The older cowboy held out his hand as he said this, and I felt like grabbing hold of it in appreciation. My faith in mankind as a whole has long been on the ropes and his simple words, delivered like the easy going dialogue found in the countless Louis L'amour I had read growing up held restorative powers.

I laid the tire down and pulled the jack from the cargo hold, handing it and the tools to him. He laid down in the dirt to get a good look at the best spot to place the jack. His light-blue, pearl-buttoned western-style shirt was at once filthy from the dust. I choked on the realization that these men were heaven sent, and walked around to the other side of the car, using the pretense of chocking the wheels with rocks to hide as I wiped a few tears from my cheeks.

The jack wouldn't lift the car enough, so the man sent his hulking companion over to their truck to retrieve a large block of wood. I watched him go, and saw him talking to a couple of women and some children seated in lawn chairs next to a portable grill set up near their truck. A large trailer was hitched to the truck, and a few four wheelers were parked on it. A little white lapdog sat on the ground underneath one of the empty chairs. I smiled at the polaroid moment.

The younger man returned with a massive block of wood, dropping it next to the jack. The older man situated the block under the jack while the other used the lug wrench to attack the nuts that held the tire in place. The wrench handle was short, and so was the leverage. He had no luck in turning the nuts. I watched as he strained, his dark face turning a deep red with the effort.

"No luck, this wrench has no leverage. We need a pipe or something we can extend the handle with." The young man stood up tall, the tiny wrench a toy in his massive hand.

"Not sure we have anything like that in the truck, let me think." The older cowboy said, kneeling in the shade of the little car.

I considered my options. I knew there was nothing in the Santa Fe that could be used to gain additional leverage. I badly wanted to have a go at the nuts myself, but looking at the size of the young buck that had just about lifted the car off the ground in his attempt to loosen them held me fast. To try and fail, cementing my city boy image was not an attractive outcome, nor was besting the young man at a feat of strength. I felt trapped by circumstance.

"Let me have a go, for what it's worth." I said, desperate to extricate myself from this dilemma and willing to risk almost anything to do so. I took the offered lug wrench, and Goliath moved back to let little David have his go.

Every lesson I had ever learned about exertion, every word of instruction from coaches and trainers came into play. The phrases "lift with your legs, not with your back," "focus on the flexing muscles and channel your efforts into the ones that need it most," and "do your best, and forget the rest" rose from the depths of my memory, empowering my frame. I settled down onto bent legs, straightened my back, kept my head upright, and pulled on the wrench with every bit of strength and positive energy that I could muster.

The first nut twisted loose, and without hesitation or fanfare I moved on to the next, with the same result. Within moments all of the nuts were off and the tire ready for removal.

"I must've loosened them up for ya." Goliath laughed, my stunning display of strength having no ill effects on his ego. I heard the older cowboy chuckle as he began to crank the jack handle, raising the car enough for me to pull the tire loose.

I hefted the tire into the back of the little car while the two strangers put the spare on and began to tighten the nuts.

"You guys going to the rodeo tonight?" I asked, desperate to find some common ground with such manly men.

"No, we're just up here four wheeling for the day, grilling some dogs and enjoying the fun. We've been to the rodeo many times before." The young man offered in reply.

"My son here lives not far from Oakley, with my grandkids and my daughter-in-law." The old cowboy gestured at his son as he said this. I sensed more than just a hint of fatherly pride in both his tone, and in the way he looked at his boy-become-man when he said it.

Soon the car was lowered back onto all four tires, the tools and jack stowed, and the full size spare tire in place. The little Santa Fe was at last road ready once again. I approached the cowboys to offer up a handshake and my thanks. My hand was black, my arm covered in dirt. My clothes had hardly faired any better.

"Looks like you've been through it." Smiled the grandfather cowpoke.

"Yeah, but that's okay. Thanks for your help, sorry you got a bit dirty yourself there." I indicated to his shirt, now brown in more places than it was blue. The sight of it sparked another round of emotion for me, and I forced myself to hold it together until I had said my goodbye.

"No bother, we expect to get a little dirty up here in the mountains. It comes with the territory." He took my hand in his, and his grip was as firm as I had expected it to be. I fought the urge to hug him.

"Take care, glad we could help." He let go of my hand, and I moved over to his son.

The younger man's hand swallowed mine whole. "I looked around, and the only thing that could have popped that tire was a tiny little rock sticking up through the dirt. Funny how a little thing like that can cause such a big problem." He pointed at a little nub of a rock, protruding from the ground. I kicked at it and nodded in wondrous agreement.

"Thanks so much, I really am grateful, and wish I could return the favor." I said, knowing there was nothing I could possibly do to repay these men that I would never see again. I climbed into the little car and started her up, gave a wave, and pulled away.

I glanced back and saw the two men walking towards their truck and family. The father placed a hand on his son's shoulder, an affectionate gesture that broke open the damn holding back my waterworks. I started to cry, overcome by the swarm of emotions that had enveloped me since arriving in Utah the night before. I reached over and hit the play button on my Ipod as I drove my way back to the cabin full of forty-some-odd love crazed family members.

John Denver sang out loud, "Hey, it's good to be back home again. Sometimes, this old farm feels like a long lost friend..."

Post Script:

The rodeo that night was more fun than a naked pony ride through a field of goose down on a windy moonlit night.

And in case anyone was wondering, there was no condescension in my father-in-laws tone as he expressed his concern upon hearing about the flat tire. In fact, he spent the next afternoon in Salt Lake City, putting four new tires on the little car in order to ensure our safety while visiting. Thanks Bubba.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

So Many Doggone Reasons!

I am not fond of dogs. The reasons are many, and I often number them for my children. At last count we are well into the four digit numbers, and the list continues to grow. A basic few of the many grounds for my argument against dogs living with humans would be that they bark, they puke, they drool, they shed, they crap, they piss, they fart, and they sniff at human crotches. Now, I will agree that we humans are messy enough. Indeed, we do many of the same disgusting things that dogs do. I myself am guilty of all of the above. The difference is that we are capable of cleaning up after ourselves. If I take a dump on the side of the road, I can pick it up and dispose of it. Oh blessed opposable thumbs! Of course, if I take a dump on the side of the road, the police will most likely pick me up and dispose of me, but that is a matter for another essay,  hopefully one that will never be written from an experienced point of view.

Another reason for hating canines would be that I have carried around since childhood a great fear of dogs. I am not sure if there is a single incident that sparked this terror, but I do recall a neighbor's dog being rather large and threatening. The animal seemed vicious to me, so much so that he thwarted my first attempt at running away merely by standing behind his fence and growling. In my experience, you can never tell what a dog will do. Even the most friendly and welcoming dogs have become dangerous in a flash-pan instant. I recall our cousin's dog Bingo. Bingo lived on their dairy farm in Idaho, and he was the nice dog. They had other dogs, but we only saw them from the windows of the van as we pulled up for our not-so-frequent visits. The moment we arrived, our cousins had to drag the angry dogs into a shed and lock them up for the duration of our visit, presumably so that they would not eat us. Over the course of one summer, something mysterious was killing the chickens in great numbers. We spent a few days on the farm that year, and I remember filling a wheelbarrow with dead chickens, then throwing them into the canal. We had been instructed to bury them, but the ground was too hard and the fun we wanted to have too tempting. On the last day of our visit, just moments before we were to leave, Bingo was found in the hen house, killing chickens. I have a very vivid memory-image of a farmhand heaving a very large rock at Bingo, just as our van turned the corner of the house and out of view. I never learned of Bingo's fate, but have often wondered if that rock had something to do with it.

Whatever the reasons, dogs still cause a twinge of fear to course through my body. Even snotty little lapdogs, with their nasty little teeth, yippy barking, and ass-breath trigger something within me. I try to be kind to dog owners. I tell them it is no bother, letting their foul animals lick my hand and sniff my crotch, even as the cold sweat squeezes up from within me, my heart thuds against my chest, and I begin to wish I were anywhere else. As a parent of human children, I try to keep my kids from annoying, threatening, or sexually molesting any visitor to our home. Why is this not the case with all dog owners? Some are gracious and kind, hiding their beasts away in some dark corner of their house, but just as many if not more seem to enjoy my discomfort. They employ that ridiculous baby talk and laugh sweetly as their four-footed child sniffs my butt, slaps my shins with their anxious tail, and plants their paws roughly against my groin, as if digging for-yes, I am going to say it, a bone!

I am running a lot these days. The reasons? Fighting off old age, losing weight, training for a race, or eluding depression, I don't know on any given day why I run. The fact is that I run many miles throughout the week, and I see a lot of angry, drooling beasts. They all want a piece of me. I pump loud music through headphones crammed deep into my ears so that I will not hear their menacing barks trailing after me as I try to keep both my pace and my calm. On bad days, typically the days when I am running from my own thoughts, I will laugh at them, mocking them as they run to the very edge of their invisible fences. Sometimes I even bark back. Elizabeth hates that I do this, and is sure that one day I will be dragged into a police cruiser wearing a straightjacket.

Returning to the mess that dogs make. I am father to three children that I love beyond measure. I changed my share of their smelly diapers, and wiped their bums through the terrible training years. I did this out of love, and not because I hoped that they would someday do the same for me should I need it. With all of that done and behind me, I don't want to do it again. No more babies except for the occasional loaner, and even then they have to be truly cute, and no matter how cute, I will not wipe their ass. I like to be clean. I love a good shower or four throughout the day. If a pair of my shoes gets dog mess on them, I throw them away. No need to worry myself over the poop germs spreading like an oil spill over the entire shoe and up my legs. No shoes are worth what the worry will do to me.

Today, I broke all my rules. My fifteen year old son had committed to walking his friends two dogs while he is away for vacation. My wife and kids headed into Boston for the day, prompting me to volunteer to drop by and care for the dogs. All the way up the street, I felt the dread growing within me. I got to the house, unlocked the door, and waited for the barking to start. Nothing. I entered the house, and saw the green crap bags and leashes hanging by the door. I grabbed them, and a gagging sound entered my throat as I thought of what I was about to endure. The dogs were in the family room, one on the couch and one in her kennel. They gave me no trouble, allowing me to fasten the leashes without a fuss, a bark, or so much as a moan. One did lick me, and my skin seemed to tighten as her spit dried into an invisible icing of germs coating my forearm.

We made our way outside, and I found myself speaking to them with a high-pitched British accent.

"Walkies? Are you ready for walkies, guys?" I felt ridiculous, but knew the worst was yet to come.

I have always laughed at dog owners as I drive past them. No matter the weather, they walk their damn dogs. They stand in gale force winds, under the hot summer sun, or in the pounding rain at a discreet distance while their beloved pets squat and pinch off loaves of stinky waste onto the ground. Some will try to act the essence of nonchalance, but we who pass by know that they are waiting for their pet to poop. The indignity of it all is then amplified as they casually stroll over and bend to pinch the nasty surprise into a little blue or green plastic bag. A quick tie-off, and they hang it from a single finger, as far away from their whole hand as it can be without dropping it. The bag of crap swings in time to their gait as they finish their walk, their furry companion sniffing spots on the ground that I picture to be yesterday's drop off spot, or perhaps the drop off spot of another dog.

And so I walked up the road a piece, waiting for these two to perform their magic trick. The bigger one decided on a spot, and that must have been a sign for the other to proceed, because she quickly followed suit. Their poop was green, and there was so much of it I almost felt for their bowels and all the work they must have had to perform that morning. I had trouble opening the silly green bag, and in a moment of absent-minded panic almost licked my finger to get the sides to part. I had not even come close to the mess, but to stand in the general area of it gives me a feeling of germy dread. To lick my fingers in the presence of it would have put me in the hospital. At last the bag was open, and my moment to shine arrived. I had my headphones in, my music pounding loud so I could not hear the words of disgust leaving my mouth as I reached out and grabbed each pile, the bag acting as both glove and receptacle. No cars passed that I noticed, but then again a parade could have been in procession nearby and I would have missed it, my mind taking me to a happier place and time rather than focus on my living nightmare.

The deed done, we took a brief walk before I returned the dogs to their home. They were very appreciative, and gave me no trouble at all, but for the fact that I had to clean up their waste. I washed my hands until they were red before jumping into my car and heading home for a shower and a change of clothes.

And that is reason 6, 312 that we will never own a dog.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Blues and Greys

And on the eighth day, God created the Dallas Cowboys. Years later in a stony communique with a man named Moses, he stopped short of adding an eleventh commandment to love the Cowboys above all other teams. With that being said, I've read the text between the lines in Exodus, and so I do as God says.

Much like the Jews living under the copper fist of slavery in Egypt, I spent four long years of my childhood in Steeler country, just outside of Pittsburgh. I took my share of beatings for the love of God's team. During the 1970s the Cowboys went to the Superbowl five times, losing to the Steelers twice. New England fans could learn a thing or two from my eight year old self. It takes little heart to cheer when those you love are winning, but it takes everything you have to keep cheering when they lose.

I was in the third grade when the Cowboys lost the Superbowl to the Steelers in 1979. I was puny, weighing about as much as the pads that Roger Staubauch donned each week before heading out onto the gridiron. Still, I loved my Cowboys, and so I wore my number 12 jersey to school the next day with courage and pride. I got my ass kicked, and the teachers watched. No bloody nose, no abrasions, but some bruises that my favorite shirt covered up well. Worse than the physical thumping was the verbal abuse. I was threatened, called filthy names, and teased without mercy.

The following year the Steelers once again made it to the Superbowl. This time they were to face the Los Angeles Rams. I had a choice to make. My Cowboys were out of it, and while I didn't love them any less, you can't pull for a team that isn't playing. I agonized over what to do. Steelers fans were the sworn enemy of Cowboys fans, and to become one, no matter the reasoning, seemed a betrayal of the highest degree. On the other hand, the Rams had taken Dallas out of contention, and I loved them not a whit. To pull for the Rams was a fresher betrayal of my 'boys.

Putting all of the above aside, I felt that for once I might belong if I could find it within myself to cheer for the "Black and Gold." I had never fit in at school; it seemed that everything I did served to push me further away from popularity. I longed for complete social invisibility and the comfort I imagined it would bring. To be ignored entirely had to be better than living every day as a walking target.

After a few days of painful deliberation, I decided that the better benefit would be to embrace the enemy of my enemy for a short while. I thought I might find temporary refuge from the storm of social persecution that had rained upon me for years.

It amazed me, how quickly the mindless mouth-breathers accepted me into their black and gold flock. All I had to do was declare my (momentary) loyalty to the Steeler cause. The mad mob rushed to embrace me as if I had arrived at an ill-planned lynching with a rope in one hand and a stack of pizzas in the other. I was soon enjoying the thrill of walking through the lunchroom rather than being chased, and the odd joy of sitting with fellow students as I ate. I felt no shame in opening my lunch box to reveal a homemade lunch, as my peers inhaled hot brown food substitutes from the green plastic trays that were in my mind the lunchtime standard of popularity.

I was soon reminded, however, that my childhood was not destined to be one of fearless security, endless acceptance, and joyful ease. The recollection itself was not so difficult to take as the fact that it came from such an unexpected direction.

I was at home one afternoon, singing the Steeler fight song that my new friends had taught me. I don't remember the words now, I never intended to. I knew that ours was a winter romance, centered around one Sunday night in Pasadena. After the game (win or lose Pittsburgh) I would let the fervor die down for a week before putting on my Cowboys gear again, and wait for another year of ass-kicking and solitary confinement to commence. Nevertheless, I knew the words on that afternoon and my heart was happy, so I gave them voice as I sat on the floor and played with my Star Wars toys.

"Matthew, stop singing that song! It hurts my feelings!" The sudden boom of my mother's voice bouncing off the paneled walls of the family room startled me into silence.

"I grew up in the Los Angeles area, you know that. Didn't you stop and think that I might want the Rams to win? " I stared at the floor rather than face her. An action figure quivered in my hand.

She went on to explain how insensitive and thoughtless I had been in my decision to cheer on a team that stood between her hometown and a championship title. I knew then that I had hurt my mother with my reckless betrayal of the Cowboys. And for what? A short break from the persecution of my classmates, who were sure to go back to hating me the moment I showed up for school dressed in blue and silver. I felt the warm welling of tears, but held them back as best I could. I sat on the floor, quiet, embarrassed, and ashamed. Within a few moments she was gone, and I was left to digest what had occurred. I spent the rest of the afternoon in muted play, unable to fully enjoy myself.

Later that night, as I lay in my bed wondering what I was to do about school the next day, I began to think about mom's blitzkrieg-like descent upon my new found social standing. I searched my memory banks for a single instance of my mother having claimed the Rams as her favorite football team. I could not recall one such moment; in fact everything I had ever heard her say about California led me to believe that she had fled the state like a refugee. I could not understand her intentions, and it angered me that she would accuse me of being insensitive, when she herself had been so thoughtless.

Still, she was my mother, and I feared her. I decided to root for the Steelers in secret at home, and with great vigor at school. All that week, there were pep rallies and posters making parties, and I participated in all of them. I made new friends, stopped fearing the bullies, and even garnered the respect of the teachers that had given me such grief over my love for the Cowboys.

The day came and the Steelers beat the Rams without much trouble. I was happy inside, and ignored my mother as best I could. The following day I shared in the joy at school, squeezing the last bit of happiness out of a strange situation.

Life soon returned to normal. I didn't last the wee, and the blue and silver colors of my apparel betrayed my true loyalties, and I was cast out, forced to live once again on the fringes of schoolyard society. The Cowboys have since had their ups and downs, and but for a few moments of disgust with some of their off the field antics, I have remained loyal. So much so that I was once caught half-naked in a hospital waiting room, watching the Cowboys play the Bills. It was Superbowl XXVII, and I should have been in surgery prep, having my privates shaved for an emergency appendectomy.

All of this loyalty has paid off, for I now have an heir in Solomon, my eight year old son. He loves his Cowboys, and is so fond of the sweatshirt that we bought him for Christmas that we have to sneak it into the wash.

My oldest, Caleb, was born in Seattle. Though he doesn't watch much football, he has expressed a love for the Seattle Seahawks. This year, they surprised everyone by beating the Superbowl champion Saints up and down the field, expelling them from the playoffs.

Gee, isn't he lucky I never lived in New Orleans?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Will The Gay Giraffes Go To Hell?

Giraffes have always fascinated me. Their long necks and dark tongues, along with the fact that they remain for the most part mute would qualify them as excellent candidates for family members. Their heads up in the clouds, they munch on leaves that few other animals can reach while little birds perch on their backs and search their skin for ticks to eat.

I have recently given giraffes some thought while driving from one appointment to another, and these are some of the things that occurred to me regarding the tallest animal on earth.

I am confident that given the chance, giraffes could really get into yoga. Their long necks and legs would flex and bend with such grace into all of the poses that yoga offers. Happy Baby and Frog would be the ones I'd most like to see a giraffe attempt, as well as the entire Warrior series. My only concern would be the uncontrollable farting. It always seems to befall me whenever I practice yoga, so it stands to reason that it would befall giraffes as well.

I also think that giraffes would make great therapists. As I mentioned earlier, they are for the most part mute, which could make them good listeners. Being so very tall, they are very aware of everything going on around them. Their early warning system might easily be converted to watch for the onset of all sorts of mental and emotional afflictions. They also look down on the rest of the animal kingdom, and I am sure that more than one human therapist does the same with their patients. My last therapist kept calling me by my brother's name. What would Freud say about that?

Regardless of their height advantage, I don't think that giraffes would be very good at basketball. I doubt they could dribble without losing control of the ball due to the cloven shape of their feet. They can also kick the head off a lion, so their passes would be far to dangerous to catch. On a side note, last week I had the great pleasure of going to a Celtic's game. Even from the nosebleed seats, Shaq looked like a giraffe that swallowed a family of hippos. The man is very large.

I do think that giraffes would make great friends. They seem calm and patient, and not all that demanding. Since they can kick the head off a lion and run thirty miles per hour, they would be good to have on your side in a fight. If something was out of reach, they could grasp it for you and bring it down to your level. I once saw a video of tick birds eating the flesh right out of huge open sores on the skin of a living giraffe. It reminded me that relationships can be draining at times, and it is easy to be taken advantage of. I would never eat the flesh of a living giraffe friend. That would be too rude, as well as disgusting.

In documented studies, it has been shown that male giraffes tend to "neck" with each other, and this behavior often leads to them mounting each other to completion. Indeed, 50% of all male giraffes are bisexual in their behavior. Only about 1% of female giraffes participate in similar behavior with those of their same sex, leading me to believe that very few lady giraffes ever lived in a sorority, and that most male giraffes will probably go to hell, if so very many of the world's religions have their say.

What a shame.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Reaction Time

I might have been twelve, I don’t remember. The warm surge of blood, the beating of my heart, and the adrenalin coursing through my system as I felt the release; it all felt so satisfying. I didn’t understand why, but I certainly wasn’t going to ask anyone for answers. It just happened one day. It felt good, so I kept doing it.

My hands have always been fast. I remember the day we measured reaction times in science class. Each lab partnership was given a specially marked ruler. The test was simple; your lab partner held the ruler in the air, while you waited for them to drop it without warning. The line pinched by your thumb and forefinger denoted your reaction time. I had the shortest. My lab partner was a mammoth-sized football player. He was impressed with my speed and spent the bulk of the lab time talking about how fast I was. He shook his head in disbelief as he made me catch the ruler over and over again. I felt special, but in a good way. I had never been the best at anything other than acting like a punching bag. Still, I didn’t share my newfound habit with him. That would have been weird.

That habit has since divided into three separate manifestations. I have never demonstrated any of them in full for anyone. Elizabeth has heard the sounds, caught hints at times, but I am not sure that she has ever witnessed the complete process. It’s not that I am embarrassed to show her, she knows everything about me. I just don’t show anyone. My habits are like cats humping; we all know it happens, but has anyone ever seen it?

Of the three, my bathroom habit is the most vulnerable to detection. Keeping secrets in public bathrooms is tough. I used to wait until I was alone, or go into a stall for privacy. Over time I have devised a subtle way of making it happen without detection. I can stand at a urinal and do it with confidence, even if there is no divider, like in the bathrooms at Fenway Park.

But I did get caught recently. I was alone in the restroom at a client’s office. Those are dangerous moments. When alone I tend to take it up a notch, making the most of the solitude. It’s quite a display. On this particular morning the owner of the company walked in and I couldn’t stop fast enough. He paused, his mouth hanging open. My hands and eyes didn’t have anywhere to hide. An awkward moment passed between us before he farted and walked into the stall to crap. I zipped up and flushed, my face warm with embarrassment. I felt better when he started to laugh. I guess everyone has his or her strange and unexplained habits of comfort. At least mine don’t release clouds of noxious gas.

They release clouds of tension.

Behold! My ticks...

1. When taking a piss, I hold out my hand (or hands, it depends) and twitch my wrists. My fore, third, and pinky fingers are extended. My second finger is curled into my palm. The rapid twitching makes my ring finger slap against my thumb at a high rate of speed. It sounds like a plush machine gun. If I am alone, my arm makes wide circles over my head. The veins in my temples expand and my eyes open wide. A second or two more and it ends. The rush recedes. Flush, wash, and exit, a paper towel in hand for opening the door.

2. In the shower, my hands slide-clap against each other. It starts with my arms straight and low, my wrist pressed together. They slide back and forth against each other, gaining speed.  My fingers slap against my palms until everything is numb. The sensation flows up to my shoulders and into my back, and then recedes back down my arms and out the tips of my fingers. The tension slips down the drain with the soapy water.

3. While pulling on my pants, I shake them. It starts as I slide the first leg in and continues until it is over, typically when my pants are up to my knees. Sometimes I am still shaking them as I button up the fly. It depends. Muscles in my neck flex, and from them bursts a sudden rapture. It flows down my back and into my legs.

I have noticed an increase in the intensity of these moments since Elizabeth and I found my little brother Jared dead from suicide in the woods. I still don’t think that it’s OCD. No one will suffer if I skip it. Harm will not seek me out should I stop mid-cycle.

I don’t have to do it, I just do.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Surfing For Dollars (and pride).

Neil is a friend.
Captain Rob is a friend.
Captain Rob bet Neil that he could get me to go surfing.
Neil tried to pay me double not to go.
Neil owes Rob some money, and I'm going surfing again.