Sunday, December 23, 2012

Clear Thinking

A salt water cleanse sounded like a good idea at the time, after a weekend of gluttony and the subsequent stomach ache of shame and regret. My dear, sweet, well-intentioned sister-in-law gave us a bag of "Real Salt" and a testimonial regarding her own salt water cleanse experience after a delicious yet heavy Thanksgiving. She had been pleased with the results, and her telling of the three hours it took to achieve them made it seem worth a try, if only for the story-telling material it would provide.

Here's the story...

Elizabeth gave it a shot, but never made it past the first sip of warm brine. She gagged even as it touched her lips, and she was smart enough to heed her body's natural warning. She poured the nasty elixir down the sink and swore off the salt water cleanse forever.

I am stubborn, dumb, and inclined to push forward in spite of all warnings. My younger brothers and I have always lived (and sometimes nearly died) by an unwritten code that has a lot to do with the potential for a story outweighing the risks. Without the code, I would not have such great memories of time shared with Jared before he died.

So I added more salt than is reasonable to a quart of warm water, mixed it well, and drank it. I say drank it, but it was more of a gagging, wincing, and forcing action. I felt my skin shrinking and my heart panicking at the rush of sodium. My cells cried out in protest as I sucked in enough salt to kill a bison, and then kill anything that ate the bison's carcass.

After drinking it I remembered back to the night before Hannah, our second child, came into the world. We were going to induce labor the following morning, making it a sure thing that Elizabeth would soon be giving birth. As we lay in bed, she began to panic at the realization that she was going to be screaming, crying, pushing, and hurting in fewer than twelve hours. There was no way out of the pregnancy without pain. Her fears were not unfounded; Caleb, our first child, had been stuck for hours on his way out, and the pain Elizabeth had experienced was unreal. I had never seen any measure of physical pain that even came close, and she was about to do it again, by choice.

A similar panic set in after I drank that quart of brine. I had willfully ingested something that was only coming out of me with a great sound and fury, and quite possibly some pain. The thought of the inevitable began to frighten me. Why had I done this? The reward (Hannah) far outweighed the sacrifice that Elizabeth made, but the same could not be said about my cleanse. I didn't really need to purge my system; my body is so regular it could be used to synchronize the Atomic Clock should it ever need winding. There was little to be gained, if anything at all. But I suffer from a worry about things I cannot see, and since my internal organs are permanently hidden from my view, I worry about them a lot. I imagine heart disease, cancers, blood disorders, kidney stones, and a clogged digestive system to be festering inside of me. One day I will drop dead of something I could have prevented had I been able to peer inside my body and been warned. This propelled me forward into salty madness.

It wasn't until the salt was inside me that I realized just how ironic it was to swallow something that could potentially kill me in order to prevent me from dying. Ironic and stupid.

In the midst of this panic the cleanse began to take effect. Now as much as I would love to put into words and specifics the initial reactions that my body had to drinking a quart of the Great Salt Lake, I will keep the details light. It is enough to say that I spent the better part of the next ninety minutes sat upon the throne that has been mankind's perch throughout the ages. My bowels were in spastic rebellion, angry with me for not respecting their near perfect record. I was angry right back; this was not part of the deal. I accepted that there would be a period of discharge and discomfort, but that would soon be followed by a peaceful, empty calm. I would feel lighter, cleaner, healthier. Why then, did I feel as though a steel cable studded with diamond barbs has been pulled through my digestive tract? Raw, tender, exhausted are not feelings of peace.

I felt like Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon 2, sat upon the toilet with my legs asleep and and a bomb beneath me, and I was also one more sit-down dance away from blood clots (something else that I tend to worry about at a constant clip). And the thirst, oh my the thirst! My lips were puckered and burning, my tongue shriveled, and my throat rasping for moisture.

After a long while at this, I felt a calming within my bowels. Daring to leave the bathroom, I made my way to the kitchen. I was thirsty, hungry, and exhausted. I filled a tall glass with ice water and sucked it down in a few large swallows, then filled it again, draining it one more time. A cold, restoring sensation filled my belly. I was going to be okay, but I needed to eat. Thinking that dry toast wouldn't do me any harm, I popped two pieces of bread into the toaster.

"Uh-oh..." I said aloud in response to an audible and forceful rumbling in my stomach. I ran across the living room and into the bathroom, not sure yet whether I should kneel or sit.

I didn't have to debate the issue for long. A powerful torrent of cold salt water rushed from my throat and into the toilet. My eyes widened in amazement as over and over again, staggering amounts of clear, cold, salty water gushed up from within my stomach and out my mouth. My first conscious thought was the realization that projectile vomiting was real, and not just something invented for late night comedy sketch shows and terrible movies. My second thought was more of a wonder really, at how clear the cold and salty water surging from within me actually was. I could have poured it into a glass and served it to a friend (or perhaps an enemy). They would not have known until tasting the salt that it was not fit for consumption. This was followed by a regret that I hadn't set up a video camera to catch the sensational display. This would never happen again, and I had no physical evidence that it actually had.

My final thought, which accompanied the final barrage of stomach water, was this; this is loud, this is violent, this is painful; this is going to make a great story.

I hope it has.

Footnote: Elizabeth later told me (laughing) that not a split second after my loud and terrible retching had ended, the toaster popped up with a happy click, as if to signal an end to my suffering.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Dimension Jumping

Caleb and I have watched "Red Dwarf," a British sci-fi comedy, since he was a baby. It is safe to say that together we have watched each episode at least thirty times, and that the show is more quoted than any other in our home (even Elizabeth is a fan). In one particular episode, the inter-stellar travelers happen upon a dimension jumper from an alternative version of Earth. "Ace" is an inter-dimensional (and better) version of "Rimmer," a somewhat miserable member of the crew. Handsome, daring, intelligent, lovable, and well-dressed in a gold jumpsuit, the blonde-haired Ace is loathed by the lesser, more cowardly version of himself. Confronted by everything he wishes he were but knows he isn't, Rimmer becomes even more pitiful, intent on making Ace the butt of comments and practical jokes. All of this backfires, leaving Rimmer even less likable than he was to begin with.

I am Rimmer, and my son Caleb is my Ace.

But I don't loathe him. I admire him.

In a later episode Ace returns to visit the crew. He is wounded, having been shot while saving a beautiful Princess named Bonjela from the Nazis in yet another dimension. As he is dying, he confesses to Rimmer that he is merely the latest in a long line of "Ace" heros; countless Rimmers from countless dimensions have gone before him, traversing countless dimensions as a brave and beautiful hero. Ace wants Rimmer to take up the mantle and keep the "Ace Rimmer, Space Adventurer" legend alive. He says that "the universe needs a chap to look up to, someone to right wrongs, and just generally be brave, handsome, and all around magnificent." Rimmer laughs at the suggestion that he can become a hero, then scoffs and mocks Ace even further.

"You're just afraid old son, afraid that you're not good enough. You've always wanted to play the hero," replies Ace.

And he is right.

In the end, Rimmer relents, donning the signature gold jumpsuit and a ridiculous blonde wig. He is far from a perfect Ace; his voice isn't deep enough, he doesn't walk with enough swagger, and his personality jumps between the man he wants to be and the man he is trying to leave behind. But he is trying, and he is determined.

Many times I have marveled at the dimensional mix-up that brought Caleb into my life. Seventeen years ago today there was a warping of the veil that divides two dimensional plains. Caleb's spirit, certainly destined for a different sphere (or at least a better father), instead fell to Earth, just north of Seattle. He is a better version of me, more handsome, intelligent, capable, loving, and charming than I ever was or will be. His birth and subsequent example have brought confidence, determination, and adventure to my life. I almost feel like an Ace, rather than an Acehole because of him. No, I don't wear a gold jumpsuit or a blonde wig, my voice is not as deep as I sometimes wish it were, and I sometimes jump between the man I wish to be and the man I am trying to leave behind. (Can we just forget about the swagger altogether?)

But more often than not, I feel like a Space Adventurer.

Thanks, Ace.

Smoke me a clipper, I'll be back for breakfast!

Friday, December 7, 2012


Today is grey, but beautiful. The sky is second-coming cloudy; grey billows with cracks of light
glowing through, as if Christ is about to drop through on his chariot of fire. But it's too cold for a heavenly visit, so I don't spend too much time looking up. I drive north along the state road with my camera, taking my time. There is no rush to get where I am going

The dead are everywhere. I pull over to inspect a Magpie that must have lost a game of chicken. On its back with one wing outstretched, the bird reminds me of a flying toy my older brother and I used to play with years ago. A plastic crank on the tail wound an elastic that would flap the wings when the toy bird was thrown gently into the air. It never flew very well, but we tried. I can't see any blood on the Magpie; it must have been clipped by a fender in mid-flight-hop. I snap a few photos of the poor dead creature, wondering what the broken body would feel like in my hands.

Back on the road, I drive past a white cross painted on red rock. There is an indecipherable date scrawled below it. Someone must have died here. I slow the car, wondering as I do if my attempt at reverence will make a difference. It won't, so I snap a photo to remember the spot and the moment. 

A mile or so of road, and I turn off into the state park without thinking why. The gate is open but the ranger station empty. As I drive past it I look through the glass sliding door and notice a comfortable office chair inside. I wonder what my life would be like had I followed through on one of my many plans and gone to Colorado to become a park ranger. My teenage boycott of Exxon had been as close as I ever came to making an environmental difference. The memory of jumping from the moving van driven by my girlfriend's father into an Exxon station is a funny one now. I stood defiant at the edge of the gas station parking lot, gathering strength from my "Save the Wolf" tee shirt as her dad pumped his tank full of shoreline-killing fuel.

The state park winds alongside what should be a lake. No lake today, and not for some time by the looks of it. Grass grows tall where water should ripple. I park the car near a cluster of lonely picnic tables. Grabbing the camera and winding my scarf around my neck, I step out onto what serves as beachfront after a good season of snowfall. A few steps forward and I am standing at the edge of an old Western. Any moment now, a pair of men on horseback will ride into view. They will cross the southern end of the empty lake at a full gallop, slowing only when they come to the mud bordering the shallow river that splits the landscape. Allowing their horses a quick drink, the cowboys will take advantage of the moment to turn and look behind them. There will be no cloud of dust, no thundering of hooves. They have outrun their past.

I stumble down the rocky slope to the tiles of earth below. Stepping out onto the bed, the smell of low tides in New Hampshire rush up my nose. I breathe the triggered memories away and walk closer to the river. My shoes grow heavier with each step as the tiles of earth near the river give way to tiles of mud. I stop rather than lose a shoe, or slip and slide into the icy mountain water. Twenty years ago I would have rushed to the river's edge, the invincibility of youth blinding me to the dangers of running alone across cold winter mud towards a cold winter river.

A few photos and many thoughts before I stumble back up the rocky slope towards the car. A scattering of bones, a single shotgun shell, and the mouthpiece from a snorkel catch my attention and give rise to a number of possibilities. I choose treasure divers overcome by greed and let my imagination run.

Northbound again. Rounding a bend I notice a trail of wet ending in a tiny pool of red. A deer has just been struck, I can see it lying dead in the mud at the side of the road. I pull over on a straightaway and walk back to the scene. There is a deep tire track in the mud beneath the deer. At first look it appears that the driver swerved off the road to avoid hitting the animal, while the deer leapt off the road to avoid being struck by the driver. Destined to collide, the deer lies where it was struck, and the driver kept going. But the wet read trail in the road tells a different story; the deer was struck in the road and landed in the mud. Other than a bit of blood, the deer looks much like the Magpie. I don't wonder how the deer's lifeless body would feel in my hands.

Back onto the state road heading north. I park at the northern end of the lake and walk out onto the man-made slope of earth and rocks that drowned a town and created the reservoir. There are a few determined fishermen sitting in camp chairs at the base of the dam. Their rods rest still in their mittened hands, bait and lures unnoticed by their prey.

It is cold, and but for the occasional passing car, quiet on top of the dam. I make a note to return on a sunny day, then head back to the car. I head out onto 80 heading east. Coalville is just a few minutes away. I exit the highway and drive onto Main Street, USA, 1965. It seems that downtown Coalville hasn't changed much over the years. The street is wide enough to turn a horse and buggy in a complete circle. I like it. I park in front of an old storefront and step inside, hoping to buy something worthy of a toast. The doorframe acts like a time machine, and I am surrounded by Spanish language adverts and labels. I walk through the market, marveling that everything is as it should be; the placement of the wooden shelves, the soda coolers, the rows of bottles and boxes, even the Latino shopkeeper and his son. Am I back in Paraguay?

I make for the soda coolers. Scanning the rows of soda, my eyes fill with tears at the sight of Fanta Orange. The bottle looks just like it did in 1990. I reach out and take one in my hand; it feels just like it did in 1990. Shifting the bottle between my hands, I smile at the familiar feeling and sound of the cold glass slapping against my palms. I close the cooler, look up at the ceiling as if it were heaven, and laugh.

"Can you tell me how to get to the town cemetery?" I ask the shopkeeper's son as he rings up my total.

"Sure, just keep going up Main until you see the sign for the library. You know, a person reading a book," He mimes an open book in his hands, lowers his head and reads an invisible page.

"Okay," I smile.

"Take a right at the library sign and follow that road to the cemetery."

"Thanks," I reply, for some reason wishing that I were buying more than just a soda.

I step out onto the sidewalk and wonder about the bottle-cap. Will I need a bottle opener, or is it a twist-off? A quick grab at the cap hurts my hand. I walk back inside the shop.

"You need a bottle opener?" The shopkeeper is waiting for me, an opener in his hand.

"Thanks," I say again a moment later, leaving with my open bottle of Fanta Orange. Back in the car, I set the soda into the cup holder without taking a sip.

I chuckle as I pass the library sign, the shopkeeper's son and his miming fresh in my mind. A short drive and I see the cemetery up ahead, set on a slight hill at a curve in the road. I pull in and stop at the directory. The plastic pages are cold and wet from last night's rain. I flip to the back half of the book, and after a few turned pages find what I am looking for. A quick look at the map and I know where to go.

I park beside section C, pull out my headphones and stick them into my ears. After dialing up "The Man From Snowy River" soundtrack on my Ipod, I grab the Fanta Orange, take a deep breath, and step out among the dead. A few strides north and the grave I am looking for comes into view. The familiar music swells in my ears, and tears well up in my eyes. The bottle is now cold in my hand, the pain of it climbing up into my wrist and forearm. I think back to how good a cold bottle of soda felt on hot humid days in Paraguay.

Much like the man buried beneath it, the rock that marks Kent Saxtons' grave is rough-edged, unpolished, solid, and beautiful.

"Well, this is nice," I offer, taking in the view of mountains as I kneel in the grass beside my friend.

"I brought a bottle of Fanta Orange. The bottle looks just like the ones we used to drink in Hernandarias." I hold the liquid memory up in toast before taking a long pull. The cold orange fizz scratches at the back of my throat as it goes down.

"Just wanted to tell you that I have never met anyone quite like you, and I don't believe that I ever will." I smile, thinking back to the first time I met Saxton.

I was a brand new Mormon missionary. It was my first day in Paraguay. Saxton had been assigned to give my trainer and I an instructive tour of our service area, the Asuncion suburb known as Fernando de la Mora. Saxton's behavior during that tour was at best unbecoming a Mormon missionary. The short sleeves of his white shirt were folded like the sleeves of a biker's tee shirt, he swore like a sailor's whore, and spent most of the tour pointing out (and flirting with) every good-looking chica that passed on the street. Wet behind the ears as I was, his comportment shocked me to the point of tears. An hour into my two years as a missionary, and I was doubting the decision to serve. That night I promised myself that I would never accept an assignment to work as Saxton's companion, no matter how insistent the Mission President might be.

Four months of my mission passed in Fernando de la Mora. Saxton became a bad memory, and someone to avoid at mission conferences. My next assignment was to serve in a remote village known as Hernandarias. Known for the dark red color of the earth (and the subsequent reddening of a missionary's white shirts), the town sat near the border of Brazil. After a week in Hernandarias, an unforeseen emergency brought about the transfer of my new missionary companion to another area. President Russell, a reluctance in his voice and tears in his eyes, told me that I would remain in Hernandarias, and that my new companion would be Saxton.

Betrayed, dejected, and abandoned, I returned to the tiny apartment in Hernandarias and awaited my fate. It was the end of my mission as I had known it.

Saxton arrived by bus late that night. He carried a skateboard along with his luggage. I cried myself to sleep while he unpacked his Benneton cardigans and khaki pants to the thrashing sounds of Def Leopard's "Hysteria" album. I had never felt so alone, so demoralized. I was a teenager, trying to speak a foreign language to foreign people in a third world country. The food was strange, the people dirty and ignorant, and the living conditions well below my standards. The work was difficult, the responsibility great, and the fear of failure constant. Serving an honorable mission was hard enough without the distraction and moral vacuum that Saxton was sure to present.

That first week was for me emotional, mental, and spiritual torture. Jealousy and confusion wracked my mission-rules-abiding soul as I watched Saxton befriend an entire community with ease. Women swooned in his presence, men embraced him like they would an old school chum, and children trailed behind him as if candy rained from his pockets. He was easy going, a master conversationalist, and forever smiling. I hated him, but not because he was everything that I wasn't. No, I hated him because without wanting to, without meaning to, and without difficulty, I adored him.

His love for the people was unmistakeable, his sympathy for their trials sincere, his desire to help and uplift them manifest in his actions. Rough around the edges and non-conforming as he was, there was no doubting Saxton's motives; he served the people of Paraguay out of love.

"You need to stop swearing," I said one morning as we fastened cardboard mud flaps to the rear tires of our bikes. Mine read "Ride To Live, Live To Ride."

"I know," Saxton replied, regret and embarrassment in his tone.

"How about we make a deal; I'll help you to stop swearing if you teach me to love these people the way you do." I jumped on my bike and rode off down the street, worried that he would laugh at my suggestion.

"Hey," Saxton pedaled hard to catch up. "I want you to punch me in the arm every time I swear."

"What? Really?" My bike coasted to a wobbly crawl.

"Shit yeah, it's the only way I'll stop swearing," Saxton replied.

I reached out and punched him as hard as I could. The effort nearly tipped me off my bike and into the red dirt road. Saxton laughed, rubbed his arm, and kept pedaling.

"Hysteria" was soon replaced by "The Man From Snowy River" soundtrack, and after a week of sore arms, swears were replaced with Spanish/English hybrid substitutes. In time I gave away all of my silk ties and even my suits, replacing them with two simple ties, a pair of cardigan sweaters, and khaki pants. I found that I no longer avoided snot-nosed babies, playing street games with muddy kids, or carrying wood for a family's fire pit. I could dig a well, mend a fence, or wash an old woman's dishes without fear of damaging my expensive clothes.

Saxton taught me to listen, to be patient, and to love. I no longer looked upon the people of Paraguay as filthy heathens in need of what I had to offer them, but as beautiful people that had much to offer me. I began to enjoy my time in Paraguay, rather than counting down the days I had left there.

Two decades later, far from the red mud of Hernandarias, the wind is chilly, and I am full of cold Fanta Orange. I kneel beside his grave and wonder at the impact Saxton made on my life. Why do I miss so terribly a man that I only knew for a short while, so long ago?

A thought springs to mind, pushing a smile through my tears.

Suits come and go, but cardigans never die!