Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Joy of Being Hobbled, Stuck, Stranded, and Between Things

The smell of coolant came as no surprise. I had just climbed out of the Salt River Canyon and my little pick-up truck was straining to ascend the steep inclines of Arizona’s Central Highlands. The fan had been groaning and shaking whenever the motor wailed in high RPMs. Likely the water pump was going out, but I did not want to think about it. In fact I refused to think about it. Never, as they say, underestimate the power of self-distracting denial.  

I had been singing to myself – my usual sad and soulful travel fare: "Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford, "Ring of Fire" as sung by Johnnie Cash, some Doc Watson standards, and, just to mess with the old boys, Melissa Etheridge –  when on about the third refrain of "Come to my Window" when the smell hit me. 

Now, the mountains between Globe and Show Low are not tall by mountain standards, but are steep, each ending only to begin climbing the next. They have a way of killing cars. Not once, but twice, cars have died at the crest of a pass, south of Globe. I know the risks of driving old cars in the summer in these parts.  

This time, I was on my way home from New Mexico, north of Globe when the steam began rising from the hood. I was hoping to make it home to Tucson before the water pump gave up the ghost, but no such luck.

I had to cut Melissa, check the mirror, and pull over on the shoulder. I didn’t know if the singing had caused the failure or the mountains. I guessed it didn’t matter. What did matter was that I was hobbled in the middle of Arizona on some crest of the rolling mountains on the San Carlos Apache Indian reservation. 

It was windy and hot as I peered under the grill and saw my coolant generously dripping on the gravel. When I lifted the hood I got a dose of toxic fumes. Yup, coolant. Not good.

Being at a high point of one the many mountains, I hoped for cell phone service. No luck there either. I have broken down on this trip between low and high desert before, so I knew it was going to be a long day. 

These trips have been a "between time," time when I fall out of my routine and consider my life's trajectory. I suspend habits and head out somewhere -- a canyon like Cibique, where waterfalls carve deep pools in the dark between canyon walls, or the open meadows of the White Mountains. On the way, I reflect on questions like Where am I going? What am I doing with my life? How far is it to the espresso bar?  

This time was no different and just because I had stopped did not end the questions. But reality is more immediate when the show-as-planned comes to a halt. A strange and terrifying thing happens as I slip back to the here and now that has become the betwixt and between, as in the middle of nowhere, between edges of somewhere.

My stomach was raw with the coffee I had been drinking. I did not have any food, but did find a nice juniper to hide myself when I followed the radiator's example. 

I also took stock: water? check (one liter); food? negatory; air? great; sky? superb; brain? re-engaging.

There was a cement mixer parked down a ways across the highway at one of the big pullouts. The motor was running, though I could see no one in the cab. I waited for a break in the nonexistent the traffic (why hurry things?) and made my way to the truck, monitoring my phone to see if I could pick up a signal. It's hard to give up cell phone hope, after all.  I noticed a mile marker tried to figure out exactly where I was. My phone was useless; as help it offered up only “emergency calls only” again and again. Yes, just the way I like it, but I can't give up that easily. Habits die hard.

It looked like the driver of the cement mixer was taking a nap, so I did not knock or try to get his attention. 

I kept trying to pick up a signal, but the bars went away as soon as I tried to call. Just as I headed back to the truck the driver opened the door and climbed down from the cab. He looked worried, sympathetic, like something dangerous was stalking us. Being outside on a remote stretch of Arizona highway is fraught with equal parts peril and potential. Most of us want to keep the time as short as possible. He wanted to get me out of there quick.

He did have a phone and a couple of bars of service. He dialed the number of a Globe tow truck and then passed the phone over to me. I gave the dispatcher the particulars, mile marker 282, south of the Salt River Canyon, north of Globe about twenty miles. 

She said she would send a driver soon. 

The driver of the cement mixer took back his phone, climbed in the truck and said he was headed up toward Kayenta, a long drive in a big truck, a rolling capsule of protection, safety. Or a cage, depending on how you look at it.

I offered him ten dollars, but he declined and put the big truck into gear. "Like money is going to do any of us any good out here," he said.

I went back to the juniper to recycle some more minerals, to liberate the Show Low coffee, to do my part to keep the high pigmy desert scrub happy and healthy all while enjoying my role in the big scheme, one of the great benefits of being far from somewhere. Then back to the truck to think and wait.

When all else fails, I say write. I pulled out my journal and began scratching some philosophical attempts at making sense of the situation. "Here I am, free to make something of this open, surprising, and unscheduled moment. What a thing. I don't quite know what to do with it and notice that I am anxious to get out of it. Why is that?"

A pick-up traveling the other direction noticed me scrunching up my face at these conundrums, and took pity on me, slowed, did a U-turn and pulled up beside me, in four wheel drive, jauntily tipped by the slope of the ditch between us. 

"You alright?" asked a man with a cowboy hat, an intent to do good, and some kind of badge. His look said I needed company, to be brought back into the fold of humanity, that I should not be out here alone between all the safe and busy zones of productivity and directed behavior. But he knew something too. He was between places too, had some secret taste of the between places way of being.

"I’m good. Got some water. Waiting for a tow truck."

I saw his face relax a bit. Good, I could hear him saying to himself, this guy is not yet gone too far into the between. He is still social, is shaved, has not gone too far into the wild world of nothing and nowhere. He had been there too I could see, but did not stay long. 

"Well, you know, my dad used to drive all us kids up this road, and one time we broke down at night – six of us in one of those old Pintos. I can't quite explain it, but I remember that time. We all felt, so.... close, I guess." At this point he looks at me like he has gone too far, into a topic best left private. He quickly jumps to the happy ending.  "A couple of drunk guys in a panel van gave us all a ride to Show Low. Since then I always stop if I see a car in trouble. Wouldn't want anybody stranded out here too long, in the middle of nowhere. Who knows what might happen?"

Yeah, I think to myself. Who knows what might happen? Exactly. Obviously. Too-close-for-comfortly.

We talked some more about being between places and how that can color one's view of the world. For him, the road and the moments of possibility created by being stuck and stranded had been generous. I can't say it's that way for everyone, and that may be why it is so frightening to be cast out of routine and into a moment that must be made up, on the spot, no script. Scary.  

As he pulled off, made his turn and continued on his way, I sat with this mildly terrifying gift of time I had been given, and kept writing.

"My life seems to slipping from my control,” I wrote, "but that is not necessarily a bad thing. I don't know what is going to happen next. I feel curious, a bit excited and alert. I am off my course wondering how this detour will affect my memory of this day, this place, this gap filled to the brim with potential."

"Who knows what will happen in these next moments waiting by the road for a tow truck that may have gone the wrong direction for all I know? Strange, to feel so free, here not quite at home, but a welcome guest, between places. 

Hallelujah! I am in the gap, the interstice, the living, fully-charged nowhere between things. What potential!"


Friday, June 22, 2012

A Nail in the Tire

A concrete forming nail had found its way into the sidewall of one of my truck tires. New Mexico law prohibits repair of such a puncture, so I either had to replace the tire or risk a blowout carrying heavy loads of drywall and lumber. I opted for the fix.

The only place close by was Ramah, a small Mormon town in the middle of the Ramah Navajo Reservation. So I took the truck and sat down in the waiting room to contemplate my fate while surfing the only wifi within twenty five miles.

As is the case in many more urban waiting rooms, the ubiquitous big screen TV was playing a loud, action-packed Hollywood blockbuster. This one was set in the land of mesas and cacti and big skies, not unlike the view out the window.  This particular film was Cowboys and Aliens, a Harrison Ford/Daniel Craig/beautiful- mysterious-woman-taking-on-the-evil-aliens flick. Think Sigourney Weaver.  Using aliens as villains is pretty standard fare in these politically correct times. And, by my standards,  C and A was an entertaining romp with all the nutrition or significance of cotton candy.

But the film’s main characters at this point had just been captured by a band of "wild Indians." The Indians were hooting and dancing in full war paint around the fire as they dragged the heroes – trussed up like turkeys – through the dust toward the fire. The whooping melee played loudly to the waiting room audience,  tugging all eyes to the screen.

Action-packed stories are a kind of heroin for attention in boring moments. All of us were glued. Not in a good way.

I looked around the room. I was the only white person in a room full of Navajo and Zuni customers. The men wore jeans, cowboy hats, and entered the room politely, with a gentle deference to the place and other waiting patrons. Some of the women wore traditional long, cloth skirts, scarves tied over their long hair; they wore silver and turquoise rings, bracelets, and belts.  Some of them recognized each other and passed knowing looks or quiet remarks.

Another white guy, a plump, clean-shaven, spectacled, freshly- pressed as an accountant, sat behind the sliding billing window, and worked on his computer. He only responded when taking our money. He could have been in Kansas for his bland middle American comfort and neutrality.

Then awareness of what was playing out on the screen spread through the waiting room like a noxious smell. I saw a veil of anger, sullen hardness come over the patrons' faces. These were friendly men and women being mocked, subtly.

The scene became suddenly uncomfortable, for me at least, as the others in the room spoke in languages I did not understand about the film. I was embarrassed at how the images portrayed these people’s tribes and historical roles. I was ashamed, embarrassed, self-conscious. I also felt the way I did driving seventy miles an hour on that nail punctured tire: borrowed time, I gotta fix this.

We viewers understood more than enough of the plight of the whites as they struggled to find the alien-kidnapped loved-ones, but nothing of the majority of people in the film – the Native Americans. The white characters had been doted upon, fleshed out, made real. We viewers liked them. The captors were carboard cutouts, stock pieces of movie furniture set up as just another obstacle to the heroes.
I wondered what it was like to bring your car to a shop where your people are being reduced, flattened, and stereotyped in the name of fun and entertainment.  Ugh!

I cringed and wanted to disappear into displays of shock absorbers and tool calendars.

Soon enough, the man behind the window called me to the front of the line to pay my bill. It was steep for a tire, but was way out here 150 miles from the nearest tire store. The reach of The Man is long and I stretch to touch his extended finger.

Glad to again be mobile and less in danger of catastrophic tire failure, I left the waiting room, the saturation of images, the ongoing re-make of old and tired type-casting, the furnace of mind-warping, and climbed into my quiet, simple  truck. This is beautiful land with beautiful, diverse, complicated people. Many of them I don't understand, but find them polite and generous and funny.

Three of my tires are still long in the tooth and short on tread, but one is new, tall in the tread, full of travel possibility. The representations we buy and and buy into, subtle though they might be in this age of “awareness,” were part of a prejudice grown way too long in the tooth and due for replacing.

I wondered how many nails I carried in the other tires, how long I was going to ride along on tired, out-dated, dry-rotted circles of unconscious chatter. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Former and the Ladder

There it was – the dank, deep, and dark portal to the underworld:  my basement in the half- built house my wife and I had just acquired. The  pressure tank for the well was down there along with electrical circuits, yellow glowing eyes, hissing sounds in the night, and soon-to-be-added water heater. The problem was that the only way to descend into the pit was via   an ancient beam with a few badly placed and weakly nailed two by fours.

This primitive, pre-historic relic would not support the weight of a female gymnast, much less a 200 lb. plumber carrying a water heater.  It had twisted and almost thrown me to the floor last time I had used it.

A ladder. I needed a ladder. I decided to make my own. Nothing to it. Just screw some boards together, right? Don’t answer that.

The thing was, I wasn’t much of a carpenter. In fact I had a fear of things loud and sharp that required measuring, squaring, leveling, and attention to detail. The prospect of  building  a ladder was a pit more terrifying than the radon-filled blackness beneath my feet.

 No matter, part of me told my trembling inner catatonic. We will act. First grab this 2x6 board and slide it down into the dark. Yes, it is ten feet long and barely makes it to the floor, but do it anyway.  There. It is on the floor. Find a good angle for the ladder to rest and mark it. Yes, mark it. Now. OK.

Once the mark was on the board, I pulled it back up and took it out into the light for purification and deep breaths.  Now measure and divide by ten or so. Those will be the steps, and you will have to notch the board where the steps attach so that they will be able to carry the weight of big people carrying heavy things.
Yes, I know you want to run away but there is nowhere to go, no escape. This has to be done.  I extract my 30 year old, groaning circular saw from a white bucket and find an extension cord that will run from the electrical stub to the house.

I surprise myself by seeing how the whole thing can work. I find a bevel square for a table saw and set it at the angle the steps will have to be in order to be level with the inclined vertical. If I move slowly enough, I start to “get it.”  When I lose it, I just stop and think about it until I get the picture again.  I hate to admit it, but doing so is exciting and I imagine myself master of the world of wood, armed with cordless saws, drills, and tape measure. But I may be getting too far ahead.

The notching goes slowly. I want to quit, but continue one after the other until a whole board is done. Ten notches, ten inches apart, cut for 2x6 s to fit into them.  OK, I think, cleats under notches for the steps would be good, and look more “professional.”  I locate some scrap wood and cut cleats in a kind of parallelogram shape that will fit under the steps and look good too. Now I drill pilot holes for the screws (3) and screw the cleats in place. Man this looks good. Soon I have all of them cut.

I set the board up to admire my work. All of the cleats are ABOVE the steps. Hmmm. That does not seem right and likely will neither impress nor support anyone.  Back the drawing board and stay at it I say, but more because I am stubborn than because I want to. 

Yes, the voices are there. I hear my wife, my carpenter friends, my family, all the people I have disappointed in life watching me, shaking their heads, tsk tsking, not approving of my oversight. Ravens croaked their disapproval. A bluebird (my favorite bird) rolled its eyes; I felt scorn like that from a beautiful young woman disgusted by an old man who lived his life poorly. 

No matter, I lie.

I removed the cleats, re-drilled, fastened them in the right place, and then set the board up.

By now everyone in the gallery has lost interest and moved on, so I am doing this for me. 

On to the next board and this one goes better, more smoothly. I am tired, but enjoying the work, even the precarious cutting of short scraps for the cleats. With all the parts prepped and in place, I set up the verticals and fit the steps into place. 

It works! And it only took most of the day. Sunset again.

Down it goes into the dark, where only I will know where it is.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Gnats, Demons, and Steel

The bit was new and it readily tore at the steel pipe, shearing neat swirls of shavings. Bright silver, they fell to the dust or hung like ornaments on the tumbleweeds at the base of the post. Years of windblown tumbleweeds and neglect had piled high around the post and I was there to repair the gate, make it work, and to take ownership of this new-to-me place. I was the greenhorn, the newbie, the city dude come to work on his country studio for the summer.  I was far from supplies (fifty miles) in northern New Mexico, and staring at the prospect of tasks that were way over my head.  Fixing the gate at the mouth of the driveway was my first task and things did not go well.

After the initial success of drilling into the post, the bit came loose and fell into the mess at the base. I lost it. I could not believe it. A new half inch drill bit, gleaming just a second before had disappeared into the dust and tangle at the base of the steel post. This was going to be a challenge. The status quo was not going to give up easily, was not going to go quietly, was not about to surrender without a struggle, a fight. 

I went right at it and swept the pile of brittle tumbleweeds aside. Then I began combing through the dust, saying to myself that this was a sign, that I should give up, that I did not belong here, that this was too much for a guy long removed from construction work. But I swept those thoughts aside and just kept moving. The bit had somehow landed a few feet away from where I thought it fell, but I finally got it. 

Back into the drill and we were off again. Soon enough I hit the concrete in the core of the post. Yup, dulled the bit, but I had to get through the steel order to use the masonry bit to go through the concrete. Once I was completely through the steel I switched bits and continued through the concrete to the other side of the post. Dust fell from the hole as I threw my weight behind the drilling. The drill was barely up to the pressure and the scale of fighting through the concrete with such a large diameter bit. I made slow progress, and again, switched batteries. I made through to the steel on the other side of the post.  Here I would have to switch back to the steel bit. 

When I did, I realized that the steel bit was not long enough to reach through the post to the other side. I would have to come in from the outside – blind – to try to connect with the hole I had begun. I eyed the angles and did my best to pick a spot and started the process again. The drill started with some speed, but slowed to the point of uselessness. The battery was dead. 

I walked back to the house and switched out batteries.  The tool, the bit, my level of skill were barely enough to even consider this job, but I went at it, kept at it, paid the price of time and effort, getting bitten by cedar gnats, under the hot sun, to keep at it. Cedar gnats bite, and the bite grows into an oozing welt that itches for days. The gnats were as annoying as the thoughts, but not as dangerous to the job.

With a recharged battery I went at it again. The now dull bit, sent only flecks of steel, like glitter, to the ground, but it still made progress. I was through. When I looked into the hole, I was delighted to see that I had won the lottery, that the holes matched up, that I could see light coming through the post. 

After several more battery switches, another smaller new bit, a lot of reaming to accommodate the larger diameter of the hinge bolt, some persuading with a hammer, I was able to mount the broken gate to the new hinges. Success. Small to be sure, but the first of many challenges in front of me was met and done.  The demons whispering “Quit,” “You can’t do it,” were not gone, far from it, but they stepped back to wait for the next job.