Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Toothpick

            It was a small thing, tiny really, but big enough. It occupied the corner of a chile relleno burrito, a lone sentinel, standing tall, half-buried in salsa.
            I was in a hurry, and hastily cut the corner of the burrito and took a large first bite.  I don’t know if it was just bad luck, being too hungry to chew, or twist of fate, but I felt only the last, hard point of a toothpick before it slid down into my esophagus.
At first, the fact of it did not register. I had been anticipating this moment of peace and lunch so that I might brood a bit, pore over the bony meal of my life and sort it out.
Why, I wondered, was I still here at this university teaching the same things I have taught for thirteen years? And now, why had I suddenly ingested a hard, sharp, little javelin, and what was I to do about the way it lingered there past the edge of my throat?
            What a simple and idiotic thing to do, and, now done, it was apparently irreversible. I felt the toothpick in my throat, too far down to reach. I could not rely on my usual ways of locating it. Sight, sound, manipulation -- all useless. I could feel it instead only through fleshy layers of sensation, like trying to identify a face on the other side of a series of curtains, a Braille set of sensory codes.  I hoped that I was wrong about it being there and methodically but frantically searched my plate.
            What were the odds, I wondered, against a toothpick lining up perfectly with the throat and of passing undetected through the mouth? Minimal.  I had to be imagining.
I had to assess this situation.  I know I had seen the toothpick in the burrito, so I could assume that I had brought it to the table.  I searched the lettuce, the rest of the plate, picked up and turned over the napkin, looked under the tray, and looked over the faux marble table top for the missing toothpick, but found nothing.
            I began to shake, to sweat, and, for the first time in a long time, to listen to the pounding of my pulse through my ears. It seemed startling that I actually inhabited a body, a movable machine made of fleshy gristle, blood, and gut. In that moment, a world opened up.
            I took stock: I could breathe.  I could swallow. And I wondered what to do next.  Should I stand up, scream, or call 911?  Should I sit and just hope my problem would go away. OK, a plan. I would take my tray to the rack, walk quietly across campus to my office, and call my doctor. As I stood, I felt the sensations again deep in my throat. I pictured the sharp little toothpick with the green plastic ruffles resting askew in the fleshy hose that led to my digestive tract. It was my secret, my burden. I felt utterly alone and vulnerable.
            Every breath came slowly, gratefully past my gullet. Beneath the panic I searched for calm. The fork on the plate jumped into giant relief along with hilarity of my predicament. On the one hand, I was no different from the rest. On the other, I could see things they could not, would not unless they too knew they might be breathing some of their last breaths.
I swung one leg out from my booth, then the other, stood up, grabbed my tray to carry to the rack. No one noticed that I hadn’t taken a second bite, that my plate was complete, soda still full. No one knew that I felt each step strike the floor, that I had to move toward someplace other than here because my dike had burst and the floodwaters of panic were threatening the nation of my body.
In fifteen minutes I was due to present on the merits of exit assessment at the steering committee meeting. I half wondered what they would think if I showed up, gagged in front of them and then collapsed forward onto the table.
I walked holding my neck straight, gait smooth. Thoughts of the meeting receded into a hazy background before disappearing completely. Light and depth to me seemed oddly intensified, visible for the first time. The mundane act of walking felt magical, sacred.  Am I the only one who sees the transience, the vulnerability of living, the gift of walking absentmindedly beneath the sun across a grassy mall on the way to nowhere in particular? I offer up a deal to circumstance.  If I live through this and get more time I will live better, not forget.  I swear.
          Here I am on the sidewalk. Walking is easier than I expected it to be. My throat doesn’t hurt much, but the shock of a sharp point on soft tissue has me shaking with adrenalin. I fairly vibrate along the sidewalk. And the sweat: my armpits are soaked and I can feel rivers converging along my spine; they run down the middle of my back. My heart sends surges of blood that wash through the veins in my ears like incoming surf. With every contraction another wave crashes. I wander quietly through the crowd on high alert swallowing involuntarily.
          I fumble with my keys at the office and enter. I sit for a minute before deciding to call my doctor. I dial the number and get his answering service. I leave a message, hang up, and sit back in my chair, propping my feet up on the desk.
          If I die soon, here at my desk, I think, no one would find me until Monday. I’d miss a meeting, fail to pick up the kids, and would not be there to improve the house. The phone rings.
          “A toothpick?” my doctor says to me after I tell him, “Let me look this up and get back to you.”
I sit again and feel my mouth getting dry as I dab at the sweat on my forehead with a paper towel. The meeting should be starting about now, I say to myself as I look at my watch.
          The phone rings again. “A perforated esophagus can be pretty dangerous. Let’s not take any chances. I want you to get to urgent care as soon as you can,” he says not sounding very convinced. “I’d hate to recommend you stay at work and have something happen,” he continues absent mindedly, justifying playing it safe.
           I hang up and wonder if I will be able to drive. My legs are shaky and my hands tremble as I lock up the office and walk to the car.
           Depressing the clutch, I feel tentative, like I am using too much or too little force and can’t decide which is right. I can barely pilot the vehicle that is my body, I wonder how I will handle a car.
           I ease into traffic and let habit take over. Don’t think, just drive I tell myself as I make my way across town. The only place that takes my insurance is a half-hour drive away. No one seems to notice as I join the others going wherever it is they are going.
           The pain in my throat is stronger now. My body seems to be reacting to it, pushing it out. I wonder if I should call a lawyer, go home and clean out my files, call my dad and make amends. Big questions slide in and out of the freeze frame of my awareness. Have I lived well? Initiate left turn. Left anything undone?           
         Cancel blinker. Is my house in order? Turn down A/C and crack window before getting out of the car. I see that I have wasted a lot time and have not been happy or very awake. I have been sleeping, selfish, and have made many mistakes. I’ve got to remember to wipe that bird shit off the hood next time I have a sponge. I’ve been mad most of my life at things I couldn’t control. I have been more of a pinball than a master of my destiny. Things haven’t gone the ways I wanted. Where is a cheap gas station on the way home?
         My hands are shaking on the steering wheel as I cruise the parking lot of the hospital looking for an empty spot. I find one and pop open the sunshade, slide it into place above the dash, rotate the visors to hold it fast as I realize I have not used my gifts very well or kept many promises.
         It’s now afternoon and the sun is hot. My face must be a little flushed I think as the doors to the waiting room swoosh open, releasing the cool breeze of a large teaching hospital. The triage desk has a clipboard on it where all patients are supposed to sign in. Under the category “Nature of Complaint” I write “toothpick” and then sit down.
        A mother and her two children play with giant plastic blocks in one corner while an old man sleeps, his head back and mouth open. A soap plays mute on the TV to the waiting room audience. I sit along the wall and watch vacantly while I study the foreign sensations in my throat. They seem to have shifted slightly and are further down my gullet.
         The nurse puzzles over my nature of complaint as she inserts a disposable thermometer under my tongue. “So you swallowed a toothpick?” she asks. “Uh Huh,” I say around the thermometer.
         “You have a slight fever,” she said. “That could be a sign of shock,” she says again with a little more concern. “We better get you over to Emergency. Can you wait outside until we call?”
         I return to my seat and monitor my throat. The sensations continue to shift.
         An orderly pushes through a set of swinging doors with a wheel chair, gets directions from the nurse -- who points at me --  and then wheels toward me. He motions me to get in with a little amusement and then takes me over to emergency, where I get stand up to take another seat.
         I can see a nurse behind a desk shuffling papers and looking at me. No one else in the Emergency waiting room, I notice, as I think of P. and wonder how she will handle all this if I am to die here from my small lapse of attention. The sensations continue to shift and I feel them pass close to my heart. I listen closely, aware of the tightness in my chest. I keep breathing until they ask me to come back to an examining room. I walk past a child wrapped in bandages and splints, asleep or drugged. Another orderly directs me to the eye examining room. Charts showing the anatomical structures of the eye stare at me.
        “Why are you here?” a harried looking young doctor asks as he breezes in carrying a clipboard.
        “I swallowed a toothpick.” He doesn’t believe me.
        “Are you sure?”
       “Would I be here if I weren’t sure?” I ask, more than a little irritated. He is unmoved and asks to look down my throat.
        He sees nothing.
        “I could feel it,” I said, “and the triage nurse said I had a fever because of the shock.” I felt this last bit would give me some credibility.
        “You don’t get a fever from swallowing a toothpick,” he said derisively. “And if you swallowed anything that made it to the gut, the gut will take care of it. Why, I’ve seen pins pass through, though it can be tricky at the other end.”
          “I felt something here,” I said pointing to my throat, hoping they might at least look or take an X-ray.
          “I think we’ll just let you sit here for a bit to see if anything happens,” he said before turning quickly away, whispering something to the nurse, and leaving as quickly as he had entered.
           “The doctor wants you to try swallowing some crackers, to see if anything is blocked.”      
            As I listen, the sensation descends from behind my heart to someplace lower. I can’t feel it anymore and feel normal again. I look around the room and hear a baby crying in the distance. An orderly passes the door pushing a cart piled high with freshly washed, stainless steel bedpans.
            It is the end of things where writers are most tempted to lie, and it is here that this account should twist in a way that will both surprise and satisfy and audience. In one scenario, I change my life based on a profound realization that I don’t have much time and begin to do only those things that hold great meaning. Perhaps I quit my job to paint the truth of the great gift that life is or I humbly teach to those who will listen.
            Another, more cynical ending has me forgetting the whole thing and carrying on as before, picking up where I left off, living habitually. I apologize for missing the meeting and double my efforts to define assessment.
            More than any of these, I thank the moment for the brief taste of a focused beam of attention, that fleeting, often scattered light that bounces randomly of the noise and distraction of circumstance. The consequences are often benign but are sometimes as traumatic as a chain-saw that slips and slices flesh to the bone or allows a toothpick to lodge against the soft tissue of the esophagus. I hang onto the laser of attention as long as I can hoping it will linger, illuminating the most mundane details of this crazy blessed gift called life.
            But epiphany is often short lived, and conditioning, thick conditioning, breaks the beam into fragments that ricochet and reflect again off the random tumble of a cascading mind. So the ending lands in a present both rich with possibility and laden with peril.
I decide not to wait for the doctor, and, sliding off the examination table, calmly walk out of the room, into the hall and retrace my steps back to the waiting room.
I will remember, I tell myself. I’ve been to the edge of something and been given a second chance. But even as I say this, the urgency of it begins to fade as the illusory distance between me and brink of mortality lengthens.
            I walk through the waiting room, past the place where a child lies sleeping, through the swinging doors leading to the hot asphalt west of the hospital, the light of a fading afternoon blinding me until I hold a hand, a thick visor, up to shade my gaze.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Snoring Cellies on the Road to Parnassus*

It was a good workshop today. One of the yards was still locked down after a two hundred man race riot the week before, so the workshop was smaller than usual and more solemn.

We read the poem "What the Doctor Said" by Raymond Carver. Carver depicts in the poem his being told he has advanced lung and brain cancer. He writes:

    He said it doesn’t look good
    He said it looks bad in fact real bad
    He said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before I quit counting them
    I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
    About any more being there than that.

His unsentimental conversation portrays the ways we deny and avoid our mortality, until it knocks on the door of here and now. Many of the men in the workshop have medical conditions, some of them serious. The poem struck a chord of empathy and the no-nonsense, understated gravity of the subject fit with the rules of the conversational road that govern prison discourse.

Later in the poem, the doctor asks

    Are you a religious man
    Do you kneel down
    In forest groves and let yourself ask for help
    When you come to a waterfall
    Mist blowing against your face and arms
    Do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments?

While I can't imagine these actual words passing between doctor and patient, they pushed the poem from medical bad news into spiritual questions, the kinds of questions literature and the arts, if they are good, deal with. I told them about William Carlos Williams writing “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” The gist of the discussion became one about ways that the arts are a way to cope with the big questions, the hard issues -- tragedy, trauma, loss, and love.

The men in the workshop are not what I would call sensitive types. The tattoos and tough poses make it hard to raise such topics, but once raised, the inmates are not afraid to talk or to listen.

One of the men said that the thing he dislikes most about being in prison is that he is never alone, that he has no inner life. He has to work from 5:30 AM until 6:30 PM, stay out of trouble, and keep up his guard. "The place is noisy," he says. "My cellie** talks and snores. When we were locked down, I actually had some time to think, to think about my family outside, and read. I read the whole copy of the Missouri Review. It was good; all those guys know how to write, technique-wise anyway, but I have to say I'm not smart enough to get half of what they are talking about."

Join the club, I thought to myself. That is much of the fashion of academic literature these days. It strives at times to be as opaque as possible, with labyrinthine structures that make finding meaning difficult at best. But that's another essay.

His other point about an interior life is one well-taken. Whether in prison or out in the "free world," quiet and focus are in short supply. Writing is one of the better ways I gain access to those inner spaces. But writing does not always serve to connect the inner with the outer. 

"Well write clearly and well about what you want to write about." I said. "Having a message is not a bad thing, but don't let a simple message get in the way of the art. And don't let high flying art get in the way of a message if you have one."

We talked about what makes writing art, as opposed to, say, journalism or porn, and about publishing and what kinds of writing will likely make it into our literary Magazine, Rain Shadow. One of the men asked if he could tell it like it was on the streets, "having to break doors down and stuff. Don't people need to know that? Would they read about it?"

I asked "Are you kidding? Look at half the stuff on television and film. People love that stuff. But I won't publish cheap shots or sensationalism that has no literary merit. No glorifying violence or drugs. No bragging about crime. There's plenty of that, but not much quality writing about the hard truths."

"Here's some bad news," I continued. "There is not much of a market for quality writing. Happy endings, the good guys winning, the world going to hell in a hand-basket -- yes. But not complex human stories." Sometimes, I think, I write for the sake of what needs to be said, no matter whether or not anyone will read the words, art (if I can call it that) for the sake of itself, or for the artist, or for the desire to connect.

Then one of the inmates read a poem "If Yes Were All That Was" about what his world would be like with opportunity. It was a good poem and I will type it up this week. Other men were writing ideas on their writing pads, the illegal materials of marking a life. We had broken through to something, something bodering on magic, on timelessness, on touching something as subtle as it is elusive.

The workshop ended as a guard rattled his keys, a sign to shut it down.

We returned desks and chairs to their original places, and packed up the magazines, books, and folders. I carried the tub out of the room as the guard closed and locked the door.

I followed the inmates down the hall to the door that leads to the gate before opening onto the yard. From the back they walked like any group of students I have seen after a good class. They were the ones that made it that way. Muses have a way of finding these moments no matter where they take place.

* Mount Parnassus is the mythical home of the Muses -- inspiration of art and discovery.
** Cell mate

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lost Opportunities (A Meditation)

There are the obvious ones -- buying stock in Apple in the 70s, saying yes to the beautiful girl at a college party who confided that tequila made her clothes come off, telling your mother you loved her before she slipped deep into Alzheimer's.

But then there are the not so obvious lost opportunities. I wished I had kissed more "owies" when the boys showed me their wounds, or listened better to a student who was obsessed with writing about violence and who later shot another boy to death in an altercation.

The thing is, opportunities are not just locked in the past, they are a constant every moment of my waking life. What I am saying is that there are choices being made right now, as we engage in this e-interaction. We choose how we respond to constantly changing situations.

On one hand, where I mostly reside, there is the default set of reactions that I have learned over years of conditioning. This is not always the "best" way to respond; it is the knee-jerk reflex of the un-reflecting, un-selective psyche: pushing the "send" button after composing a clever but divisive, injurious email, flipping the bird at an unattentive driver, writing blog entries when papers need to be graded.

There are other ways. Seizing that split second between stimulus and response and considering what is the more effective path to "right action" can radically transform any situation from separation to connection.

Terry Dobbs, an aikido martial arts master, was fond of telling a story of a time when he was on a bus in Japan. A drunken giant of a man was on a violent tear. He was beating men and had kicked a pregnant woman in the belly. Terry was at the point of tearing into him to save the day, when an old man, sitting on the bus with his wife, split the air with "YI!"

He told the giant that he and his wife liked drinking cherry wine. He then asked the stunned drunkard if he liked cherry wine.

The drunk collapsed in grief and said he loved cherry wine and that he and his wife, who just died, shared many intimate moments over glasses of cherry wine.

Terry, of course, realized that he witnessed a real master respond to the scene.

While dramatic, this circumstance is just a passing moment, like all moments. With a moment of pause, reflection, and consideration, the moment can be turned from suffering to joy.

Opportunity runs in front of me, like a river. All I have to do is open to it.

Now what was that about tequila?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Requiem for Las Pollitas*

About midnight I heard the sharp, tell-tale squawk of panic from the back yard. I threw on some undies, sandals, my brightest head lamp, and went out to investigate the darkness.

What I found was a scene out of a nightmare. The beam from the light shone carnage from one end of the yard to the other. The heavy mesh and wood framed door to the coop was blocked wide open, and only one -- the black Australorp -- of our six chickens was still inside.

I gulped back my horror and stepped into Dragnet mode -- "Just the facts ma'am." Bundles of feathers, still held together by the flesh torn from the birds indicated moments of truth and struggle, three distinct piles of them. Down blew calmly across the yard, now free from the birds it had once kept warm or cool. Puddles of chicken shit betrayed the last panicked thought to cross a crushed chicken's mind and digestive tract. Not the prettiest of inventories. These are the consequences of not paying attention.

Ugh. But soldier on I said to myself. Emotions are for later. A flutter from the tree drew my light. Another had escaped the bobcat assault. This was one of the Rhode Island Reds. Another, the Plymouth Rock, lay injured near the wall the big cat had jumped over. Normally the noisiest of the brood, she was quiet, passive, drugged by some internal pain killers. I took her back to the coop and placed her on a bed of straw. Likely she would die by morning.

It looked like both Easter-eggers were gone. Likely one of the reds too.

As much as I love bobcats, I was angry at the bedlam left behind in the middle of the night. I knew I would not sleep and was indignant at myself and the other keepers of the flock for not protecting our brood. They were, pardon the species switch, sitting ducks. Helpless. Sleeping soundly. Dreaming chicken dreams in the safety of the heavily fortified coop.

Definitely operator error here.

Impotent rage rushed through my veins. I had failed to keep my little flock safe from predators doing what they do.

So, farewell little Easter-egger, Plymouth Rocker, Raging Red. You were fine companions and good layers. I bless you on your journey and hope that your chicken memories of us caretakers are fond. Forgive us for spacing out our chores, our responsibilities to you, our charges. Help us to remember and to double check your protection in the future.

Help us to grieve and not blame and to learn again that life is delicate, that there are no guarantees, that the best we can do is bless and be kind to those who share these sacred moments.

* Spanish for "little chickens"

Monday, September 17, 2012

Orion Rising

Out there, on the other side of the big, storm-twisted mesquite, some mangy critters are stirring. Dry desert till is shaking loose from its summer angle of repose; it tumbles down into the wash. Ironwood, so hard and dense it will sink, is curling back into its desiccated orneriness. 

If you listen closely enough, you can hear a shared "AAAHHH," as the nights drop back into the 60s and 50s and the distant mountains rise into fresh blue clarity. Gravel, dried wood, sky.

The desert rats are waking up. 

Fall is the beginning of their time. Time to get back out into the Big Silent, the Yawning Nothing,  the Elegant Empty. They are packing up, drying out food, cleaning mold and summer fungus out of old boots. God, it's been a muggy summer. But no time to waste on the past. It's now. It's here. Finally.

In spite of myself I can't help but feel good. People tend to disappoint me, but October in the desert never fails to exceed expectations.

October is the month of spider-webs, giant horse-lubber grasshoppers (complete with Halloween colors), migrating tarantulas, and busy skunks. The party that is August winds down; September is closing time for the summer orgies of feeding and mating. Male tarantulas go on a walk about in search of females. October, though, moves some of us bipeds into the rarified air of reflection. November brings clouds and the first taste of winter rain.

It is a lovely time of year, and as I open to it, I hear a voice on the wind. It is one that requires a lifetime of preparation to hear. One has to prepare by feeling the loss of things, really feeling the loss. One has to be humbled and a bit broken to understand.

"Your appetite for more has served you.... now you can let it go for a while," it says.

Of course, by appetite, the wind means hunger and grasping, all that drama that the gurus -- both false and true -- present to us from their soapboxes.

This hungry fiction called "me" does not want to hear this, especially if it comes on the form of cleaning out clutter, both physical and mental.

"What?" I say. "You want me to let go of everything I have been cultivating for 50 years!?"

Desert rats know that this time is golden. The airy walks in solitude have little room for noisy, shallow, vindictive pettiness. The world is big, exquisitely beautiful, and it doesn't enter or reveal itself if there is junk blocking the doors. I will never get what I thought I wanted, all that was withheld from me. Richard Shelton writes "I have learned to accept whatever men choose to give to me, and what they choose to withhold." I like that.

I have begun to accept that, to clean things out. I tossed (recycled) 30 years of accumulated teaching materials and research on Friday. They are gone. I am left with less encumberance.

As I toss more I will travel lighter. I still have a long way to go, but it has begun.

The reward is a clear sky, open ground, light load. But there is more. After the grief, there is tingling joy that comes from that which endures. The joy burns at the last remaining threads of attachment to the transient, to being right, to waiting for redemption.

This fall I feel old in many ways, but I feel free trying not to stay young. Rejoice, rejoice, fellow lunatics, malcontents who find the reward of the rockier path.


The fall moon had something to say
Last night.
Its light tapped me on the shoulder.
And I turned to see its
Beaming and benevolent
Full and a bit proud
For having grown so bright
I listened and heard
A  low light

Stay awake with me
And shed the
Unnecessary weight
Of your life.
Pile it high by the road
For those who have too little
Or who need gilded
To be happy.

Then wander the arroyos
Until your leanness
Sings to me
I who take your heart
Without mercy.

That is the way of beauty
She says
For those who turn to listen to
The moon. 


Friday, September 7, 2012

The Last Bike Ride

It was a girl's bike, and my dad swung his leg through the gap in front of the seat rather than over the seat like he used to. He had not been on a bike for a while, but I was visiting, so we pulled the old bike out of the spider webs and pumped up the tires.

I was worried about this ride. We had to cross several busy intersections in downtown Janesville, Wisconsin to get to the Rock River Bike Trail.  I did not know how "The Bear," my dad's nickname, would negotiate these hazards on the way to the trail.

Turns out he didn't stop. When we got to a busy street, he just turned to go with traffic until he got the chance to do a U- turn, then he would do so, return to the intersection, turn right again and keep heading in our intended direction.

"Dad, you can't do that. It's dangerous."

"Oh yeah? Watch me."

As the younger rider, and chaperone of this excursion, I did not approve of this tactic. My protests, of course, were useless.

The Bear is 83 years old. He has an irregular heart beat, early signs of dementia, and perhaps a dose of Parkinson's. I am worried about him.

Thirty years ago, when we were still estranged after my tumultuous adolescence, we found we both liked bikes. We stuck a truce while riding together in Arizona, Colorado, and Wisconsin. The Bear came with me one year to a police auction and bought an old, signed, hand built (Otis Guy) mountain bike frame that we built up together. Later I and my sibs went together to buy him a full suspension Specialized Enduro FSR.  He loved it.

For a decade or so, we explored the trails around Tucson, one of them called "The Chutes." Descending the banked roller-coaster curves, woop-de-doos, and dips, he let loose a hoot before shouting "This is better than skiiing. Hell, this is better than sex."

I did not say TMI, but thought it, enjoying his glee and new-found bliss.

The years were not kind after that. He was hit head-on by a drunk driver intent on killing herself. He recovered slowly after being med-evaced  to the UW trauma unit. Then his wife, my mother, suffered and died from Alzheimer's. All of this along with losing close friends to sickness and old age.

Military service in Korea and Viet Nam had been hard, but the losses of strength and loved-ones were almost unbearable.

So we rode. In the breeze of coasting down to the bike trail, I let go of worrying enough to get a taste of us in younger, easier times. I could even go way back to being a kid and watching my athlete of a father grinning on an old Schwinn.

When we got down to the park, The Bear pulled up to a curb so he could reach the ground with his good foot without getting off the seat. I asked if he was having fun. He said "Does a wild bear shit in the woods?" and grinned, a big grin.

Then he was off and I tried to keep up, to head off cars as we flew through stop signs and tried to negotiate the flows of traffic without interrupting the joy of rolling, just rolling.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Dog, the Toad, and the Blue Moon

Wild thing .... you make my heart sing.

He has stripes, like a tiger, and a pit bull’s head. He is top heavy with dainty hips that do not quite square with his formidable chest. He lives in the culvert between our yard and the wash. He comes to the fountain in front of our porch and stands in it while he gulps snootfulls of water. When he is done he scans the yard, dripping overflow from his loose boxer lips. He has “posted up near water” as my son says. 

The culvert serves a gateway between our yard and the wild wash. Javelina, bobcats, and coyotes prowl out there. The dog seems conversant with all of the traffic and divides his time between here and there, the other side, the wild, hungry, prickly desert side. He is smart and has chosen a place cool enough during the hot afternoons this time of year. I am not sure what he does when it rains, which it has, often this year. How he copes is a mystery.

It is August in Tucson, so the dog has a cohort of flies that follow him. Tears leave a wet mucous trail down his muzzle. He looks sad. Some of my neighbors call him dangerous and say that something should be done. Call Animal Control they say. We can’t have a beast living so close they say. Don’t feed him. Make him go away.

He comes from mystery and darkness and he makes us uncomfortable, on edge, a little too alert. 

I take him food. The dog keeps his distance. He trots away, looking over his powerful shoulder, fixes his gaze, issues a baritone growl, and flaps his lips with a half bark if I get too close.       

At first, he lurked in the shadow of the culvert until I left. Then he came out and inhaled the kibble. After a week or so, he waited for me in front of the culvert, but would lower his big head and strike his low tone when I got too close. After another week or so I would coax him out and he would let me stand next to the food. Then he took it from my hand. His lips are sloppy with drool but soft. He can find the tiniest crumb of food and lift it off my hand without the slightest suggestion of a tooth. 


The toad meets me at night in August, at the height of the monsoon season. We usually meet when it rains the warm rain of summer, when palo verde beetles, gila monsters, and exquisitely beautiful, medicinal, and poisonous flowers like datura or Angel's Trumpets thrive. 

He is huge by toad standards, as big as both of my hands cupped together. Sonoran toads secrete a toxin that can be hallucinogenic or deadly. I don't imbibe or aspire to a taste of the chemical coating.

Sometimes he appears outside my kitchen window. Other times he is on the deck next the hot tub. This year he is in the front yard. 

The toad digs his way out of the earth, from a year in shadows underground to eat, bleat, and mate. He and I regard each other on sultry nights with my thoughts on the coincidence of our meeting, every year, like this. 

This year, he took up temporary residence in the fountain. He bleated like a baby, like a lost sheep, all night, calling for the mate that never came. I listened to him and drank a cold beer.  

I had to wonder what it is like to be underground for most of a life, to rise to the drum beat of thunder and raindrops, to migrate to water with hope – if a toad can feel hope – that a mate will follow suit and join in the gluttonous orgy. 

I had to wonder too what it must be like to stay underground and never climb up into the risk of terrible solitude overlain with a cellular craving for sex. 


The blue moon of August rises red over the rocks. I am camping at City of Rocks State Park near Mimbres, New Mexico. I have all night and a flask of tequila. The moon could have its way with me after the third shot or so. It calls to something long hidden, something hard to coax out of hiding, some wild part of myself long since exiled. Only the moon and wild things speak the language of this shadow dweller. This missing part is not one to follow rules, not one to be at home in polite society, nor is it beholden to the easy way. It takes a rockier path. It has been hiding in a culvert, been waiting deep under ground, and it lives for the rare intersection of time, place, and lesson. 

The moon splits my heart, and the river of pain that is living flows into me. It is time, again, this time at age 56, to be born into the rest of my life, to listen to something long ago forgotten. 


There are times, like this August, when I just want to bag it, cash in my chips, check out. It is the time of year when life is most active in the desert, but also the time when it is least bearable. It smells like life and like death. 

I give up summer freedom to return to teaching. I feel that I will never achieve what I want to achieve, that I did not use my time well and that now it is time again to work for my keep, to do the bidding of others. 

Nights can be so hot and humid that the swamp cooler does nothing more than moisten the already dense air. I get older in August. 

I am grateful for the dog, the toad, and the moon. They pull me back down to this earth, this lovely, painful planet where I still have things to do, demons to meet, wild delights of which to partake.