Thursday, February 27, 2014


They call him Curly. He has no hair. Most of his front teeth are gone too.

But he has dentures that he puts in for the workshop. He smiles often. Talks a lot.

He has a mind of his own, and holds up a hand-written sign that says "I refuse" when I ask him to do an assignment. He wants to write about his religion, about perseverance, overcoming odds, acceptance, taking the hard path rather than the garden variety of drugs, hookers, and violence.

Most often, the writing comes across as religious jargon, but lately he has been infusing his spiritual message with image. "Your life is not a problem/ hiding behind limousine/ tinted windows," one poem begins. "Wow!" I say. "If life is not a problem hiding behind tinted limousine windows, what is it?"

He is working at answering that one.

The change has been a long slog. We wrangle about his poems almost every Saturday. He is confident in what he has to say, but not so confident in how he says it. He doesn't want to listen to some university-trained white guy critique his street poetry, especially if that white guy's first name is Norman. That just doesn't fly.

We have known each other for about five years now, and I have spent more time with him than with many of my closest friends or even family. He has become a friend of sorts. I find myself thinking about him during my work week, and he has written letters about writing to the students in my classes, especially the ones who are struggling, who are first generation college students, students who come from some of the same parts of town as he did, who face the same challenges, the same temptations.

When I taught high school, a very bright student once asked me, in all sincerity "Why should I listen to what you have to say about writing and stuff, when I can make twice what you make dealing with my homies?"

I answered that money was not the only part of success and that prison was likely part of the gang and drug equation. I suspect that I did not have much cred, cred that Sultan likely would have had.

He shrugged, crossed his arms, and dropped out a few days later.

So, here is Sultan, the man on the other end on that road, learning to write poetry. He has time, lots of time. And he reads. I brought him in an anthology of Rumi's poetry, along with some Hafiz and some critical essays. He reads these books and applies their messages.

He sits at my side in the workshop. He laughs hard and often, sometimes with teeth, sometimes without. He listens to the other men in the workshop read. He listens more closely than I do, and he is learning how to respond in ways that they might hear. He tries not to offend or to alienate, but to reach and connect.

He applies his spiritual beliefs.

Sometimes he takes what he calls "a hiatus." These breaks can last a month or a year. I can't expect that he will ever come back, and I don't know know what function these breaks from the workshop fulfill.

I suspect that he assimilates, broods, ruminates. He sits with his demons for all I know. I feel the same way sometimes, but do not have the will to break away and take the time let the swirling debris of my mind and my life settle.

When Sultan returns, he brings his usual fire, but now writes with more depth and clarity. He has taken the insights into how to live a step further. I can see it in the ideas. He is becoming a teacher, a minister, and in a less flattering sense, a preacher.

It's too bad that preaching and poetry do not mix well, so we butt heads, again. 

He does not want to be told what to do and still holds up his hand-written sign, usually with a toothy smile: "I refuse."

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mr. Many Goats

Well, it happened again.

I heard a good story, saw the possibilities, and reached into my pocket.

It has to be said, that these characters come in all races, ages, genders, and body types. I hope I am not picking on anyone in particular. 

This time it was a Navajo guy, M. Many Goats, a great name. He was weathered in a way that only the open skies of northern New Mexico can weather a man. He was toasted a dark brown, cracked and wrinkled. His lips had a black layer of toughness over them, leathery. He had good eyes. 

And he had a good story. His parents had perished from alcoholism, as had several of his siblings, and he was going to turn that tide. His was the role of witness, voice, story-teller, and he was going to talk to the young people, to testify.

Now, this is good. I liked this guy, and wanted to help with this cause. So I gave him the twenty bucks he needed to get a bus ticket to Flagstaff.

He was even going to email me when he got there, to let me know he had made it safely.

Two days later, I saw him again, hanging around the same spot, looking as lost as he was before.

"Yeah, the buses only run every three days or so," he told me. "I will catch it tonight. But in the meantime, I have this wound from a spider bite and I need some sterile bandages."

He showed me the cardboard patch over the pink flesh, the swollen leg.

"I know a little about that kind of thing," I said, before giving him another five dollars for some gauze.

When I told my friend Randi about the guy, she said, "Oh, him... He's been panhandling around here for quite a while. He's usually down on Fourth Avenue hitting up the tourists with his story."

Oh well, taken again.

One could get bitter with this kind of knowledge, but I am not going to do that.

I'm going to trust M. until he is trust-worthy.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it. 

Monday, February 24, 2014


I don't know why or how it was that he came to knock on my door, but he did. When I looked through the screen at a younger me, he turned around and ran.

He was faster, lighter, and younger, so I had to go extra hard to keep him in sight. I yelled at him to slow down because I had things I needed to tell him about women, work, and money. He slowed just enough to be able to hear me, but not enough to let me get close, to reason with him.

I was out of breath.

"Don't give up your soul for comfort," I shouted.

He cocked his head and thought about that. I noticed his jeans were worn at the seat and that he was skinnier than I remember being. There was something very sad in his eyes.

I wanted to tell him things about being a man. That he should get better organized, not be in such a hurry, so desperate, so needy. I wanted to tell him about pain, about being with pain, learning to study it, to breathe in it, even though part of you is panicking to end it, get it over, take painkillers. There was also the stuff about our father, how he would forgive.

But he picked up his pace until he saw a young woman running toward us. An older one was chasing her, as desperately as I was, more winded even, but tougher too.

The young ones met and ducked into an alley before speeding off in  a car I sold thirty years ago. I didn't get a chance to tell him that I wrecked that car.

A familiar face looked into mine from the face of an old woman, more or less my age. She shook her head and looped her arms around my neck.

She cried softly as my old car sped past in the other direction, into an unknown future.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Common Property

           Jana and Ray fumbled with the hand-drawn map looking for the turnoff to The Ranch. “I think we passed it. It says 'if you make it to River Road, you’ve gone too far.' Was that last road River Road?”
            “It’s still coming up,” said Ray, a little exasperated by Jana’s tendency to charge ahead only to worry herself sick at the first hint of danger. Just as Jana was about to demand that they turn around, they saw a hand-painted sign with the address of The Ranch neatly lettered across it.  “That’s it?” Ray asked.
            “They have agreed not to publicize The Ranch in any way,” answered Jana using her teacher’s instructional tone. “It preserves the integrity of the place, helps people act more authentically.” Ray rolled his eyes back before returning to the task of navigating the ancient little Honda off the highway and down a narrow winding gravel road that led into a mesquite bosque at the base of wash.
            “It’s beautiful,” breathed Jana.
            Another hand lettered sign said Guest Parkng – without the “i” – with an arrow pointing left toward a rustic parking lot and Resident Parking with an arrow pointing down a one lane road that further into the trees. They parked and put up the sun shade to keep the steering wheel from heating so much it would burn a hand. “Man, it’s hot,” said Ray to himself, stating the obvious condition of southern Arizona in June.
            “Yes, but Rigida said that The Ranch is usually five degrees cooler than Tucson because it is in this wash and the wash brings cooler air down from the mountain. And they try not to pave anything here to live more in harmony with nature,” said Jana, a little less than convincingly. “Plus, some famous artists live there, you know that one guy that does all the blue pyramids floating over native pueblos? And Aurora wrote that book on coping with your fear as a way of giving up control. I think she’s still doing workshops. It’s a place for art and poetry and … people seem interested and alive.”
            Ray sat silently. He had not felt very alive lately.  His body was leaden in the afternoons and he had taken to drinking bitter shots of espresso to get through the day. His moods had darkened in spite of his efforts to think positive thoughts. Where Jana saw beauty, nature, and wholeness, he saw development, introduced species, and disruption. He half believed her when she accused him of being a “black hole.” Ray had to agree.  Too much graduate school and a social work job had put him face to face with hard lives, broken families, and daily tragedies that jaded him to the high flying enthusiasm for life that Jana so needed. He had stopped writing vignettes of life with Jana and had run out of any desire to do much other than brood on the heaviness that came with working with the underside of Tucson.
            He lingered n the car, letting the heat spill over him, immerse him.
            “You aren’t feeling threatened by this are you?” asked Jana, half concerned, half irritated.
            Ray had to admit that Jana’s attraction to the edge of anything new that might heighten her experience did scare him a little.  Once before she had left him briefly to try on a different life with a man who offered her a place in the inner circle of New Age leadership. The sex bothered Ray the most.  If only she hadn’t given that, he thought to himself. It had cut him, but Jana had returned.  The wound did not easily heal. He became suspicious of men claiming to be shamans, gurus, spiritual teachers or wise. He saw them as professors of deception who wanted a quick access into women’s pants.
            He looked a round at the run-down, funky look of the place and saw that it appealed to him.  And the idea of owning something in common, too, helped him politically justify considering moving here. Marx was basically right he often said to himself as he saw the corporate state getting bigger and bigger, controlling more and more of our lives, while the open wild desert disappeared.
            “No, I wouldn’t say threatened, but skeptical.”
            Jana looked at him deciding whether or not to go on the attack.  She admitted that she could not tolerate tendency to criticize everything, especially when that criticism pointed at her predilection for the soulful, magical and romantic. She eased up and extended her hand, which Ray could not help but take, as he always had, often against his better judgment. 
            Once out of the car, they found another sign leading down a trail running beneath a canopy of palo verde and mesquite trees. An old ladder propped up against one of the trees had River Girl’s School painted on the side.  Next to the ladder was an old wheel barrow with a metal cast wheel tilting sharply off to one side.  Giant agave plants, with massive, elegant, spear-shaped leaf blades, punctuated the walk and a lizard larger as fat as a mouse did pushups on a rock as if challenging them to cross its territory.
            “It is beautiful,” admitted Ray, who had cultivated an eye for desert subtlety during his thirty some years living in Tucson.
            “Let’s get moving,” insisted Jana.  “The tea started five minutes ago in Comm-Unity Room.”
            The room was at the center of a random scatter of low adobe and brick structures. A long, deep, and heavily roofed porch ran the length of the building, providing both shade and a sense of protection from about anything. The posts for the porch must have come from a forest with very large trees and they were carved to look like colossal strands of rope. The shade was almost cavernous as the two of them made their way to the tea.
            A computer-generated flyer stated “Tea” with an arrow pointing toward a screen door that opened into a large concrete block room.  Jana and Ray entered and saw that a circle of folding chairs were surrounded by people holding hands while listening to someone read from a large book titled “A Course in Miracles.” Ray later found out that they doing an “attunement” to focus the tea. A swamp cooler hummed on the background and Ray noticed pillows piled high in corner. Bizarre collages hung around the room that reeked of the worst of the 70s, with bean bag chairs, tired abstract sculpture, and purple paint.
            People seemed flow into groups and so be very comfortable with one another after the attunement broke up and they began to chat. An efficient woman approached them and introduced herself. “Hello Jana.  It’s so nice to see you somewhere other than those refugee aid meetings at church. And you must be Ray,” she said, extending her hand officiously. “Welcome to The Ranch. I’m Rigida, one of the 'original' owners. Help yourselves to a drink or some food and we’ll start the meeting soon.”
            Jana mingled easily with the owners and Ray soon heard her high laugh coming from one of the larger groups that had formed. He tended to move to the periphery of things, preferring to watch from a distance, and stood, awkwardly, with his sun tea, napkin, and oatmeal cookie off to one side of the group. Just as he was beginning to feel uncomfortable, a plump, vivacious woman stepped to the center of the room and clapped her hands.  When people looked at her, she laughed a nervous laugh before saying “OK, everybody, we need to get started.  I’m Aurora and I’d like to welcome everybody to the tea.  As you know, we have an opening for someone to buy shares and become a resident of The Ranch.  You have been invited because one of the owners sponsored you.  This tea is just a chance to get to know one another and to explore the possibility of one of you moving in.” Those invited looked around sizing up the groups, wondering whether or not winning a place here was worth competing for.
            Ray felt Jana move to his side and take his hand. “Isn’t this exciting?” Ray nodded half-heartedly. He had heard about these woo-woo communities and didn’t know what to make of this one. People seemed sane enough. Rigida, Jana had told him, was a retired teacher, and she and husband had traveled around the world doing “citizen diplomacy.” She said they were much more socially conscious "New Age" than goofy cultists.
            The women clinked as they moved because of heavy earrings and Navajo belts. They wore long printed skirts and boots. The men wore khaki shorts and golf shirts.  Every head had some gray on it, though it was clear that some decided to hide beneath younger colors.
            Ray moved to the window to turn his attention outward and look less conspicuous. The desert came right up the window, and the light was almost blinding. “I just love the peaceful energy of saguaros, don’t you?” Ray turned to see a woman in her late 40s with hair piled high on her head but held in place with tortoise shell combs looking straight at him, disconcertingly, gazing, overdoing eye contact. He answered her reluctantly. “They are beautiful, especially in bloom like this.” It was hard to believe that something as delicate as a saguaro bloom could thrive in the harsh heat that was June in the desert.
            “How many people live here?” asked Ray, changing the subject.
            “About fifteen owners and twelve renters,” the woman answered. “I’m Starfire, by the way. And you are …”
            “Ray. Is this meeting only for owners?”
            “Oh, yes.   Though I’ve always said we should include everybody.   I think it’s so unfair the way we treat renters here. We have to watch out for the Dominator Principle, you know, because people who keep acting out family dysfunction will poison community.”
            Ray swallowed and took a sip of his tea, noticing that Rigida was glaring at Starfire and that the rest of the group was gathering around the circle of chairs. Aurora was holding court and it was plain that she enjoyed the attention. “OK everybody, it’s time to get better acquainted. I’ve put some nature objects on the table here and I want everybody to pick up one that speaks to you somehow.” Ray looked at the table and saw some rocks, twigs, bones, a small bird’s nest, a cicada exoskeleton and a few flowers.  “Then we’ll all take a few moments to listen to the object to hear what it has to teach us.  Finally we’ll all come back and introduce ourselves to the group and share something about the object and ourselves. OK?”
            Aurora picked first, but Jana was not far behind.  Ray saw her pick up the nest. “Oh, you don’t need to get anything.  This is good enough for both of us,” she said moving in next to him, blocking him from going to pick up his own object.
            Within a minute everyone in the room had an object and was silently sitting or standing with it trying to decipher its meaning. A few of the newcomers looked puzzled or jaded by the strangeness of the request.
            “OK everyone,” intoned Aurora, “I’ll go first. I picked this branch because it says ‘joy’ to me.  It is the joy of being connected to the tree that is community and friendship here at The Ranch.  We live together and work together.  We try to find what is good and gentle in sharing, to be decent to each other. Let’s hear from one of the visitors.”
            Starfire raised her hand and volunteered. Rigida and Aurora both subtly shuddered. “I picked this stone because it is so solid and reminds me of my connection to the earth and natural harmony that we all need to return to.” She was about to go on, but Rigida interrupted, with an appeal for a new person to share.
            Jana jumped in with her nest, holding it out to the group almost as an offering, her head low with reverence and modesty. “I picked this nest because Ray and I are going to have a baby and I hoped that we might raise him or her in a place like this . . . where it feels like a spiritual community close to the desert.”
            The women in the room practically cooed with approval and some of the men smiled broadly. Ray caught one of the new people rolling his eyes.
            “It would be so wonderful to have some children around here,” Aurora mused out loud.  “We are beginning to look like a retirement home.” Some of the older heads nodded. As the sharing of objects continued, Jana looked up at Ray, confident now that they had a spot, if they could afford it, at The Ranch. Ray wondered what they were in for.

            “Will these carriage bolts help?” Richard, another of the original owners asked. Ray was modifying the house that he and Jana had moved into and Richard had come over to check out the work.
            “No, they’re too small,” answered Ray. “But thanks anyway.”
            “You know, Ray, there are some things you’ll need to know about before you start coming to our owner’s meetings,” said Richard,
            “What kinds of things?” asked Ray as he aligned the holes of a cross piece to its vertical support.
            “Well, let’s just say that we have some decisions we’ll probably need your help making. People are pretty sure that Starfire disrupts meetings too much for us to allow her to attend. She’s like a broken record about some things. Many people here are convinced that she is a borderline if not fully psychotic.”
            Ray cinched down the nut on the bolt, but listened. He felt like one of the elders of his newly adopted tribe was confiding information necessary for his success with the group.


             They had been at The Ranch for three months out of a six month probationary period now and things were going well. Meetings were agreeable, flexible affairs with little of the vitriol implied by Richard earlier. Jana dutifully and enthusiastically took minutes that reflected the easy mood. Consensus was easily reached on when to have parties, whose artwork should appear in the community room, and purchasing new pool furniture.
            Other ranch duties had begun to bother Ray though. Residents agreed to a policy of doing basic ranch maintenance using ranch labor.  Once a month each resident was supposed to work on basic chores.  Ray had agreed to facilitate the workdays and with paintbrushes, chainsaws, shovels, and power tools he had jumped in.  He was aware that he liked to work, that it reminded him of the Midwest and working on dairy farms.
            Occasionally, other owners joined in, but for the most part, renters made up the work force. Owners had excuses like doing an art show or being out of town or not feeling good, but renters paid if they didn’t work.
            Richard took him aside one morning and explained that owners weren’t really required to work. They could if they wanted to, but would never be charged for missing a workday.
            Ray brought this up at a meeting when all of the other business had been discussed. “I’m curious why more owners don’t show up for workdays,” he said after raising his hand and getting the invitation to speak from the facilitator.
            Richard looked at the others as if to say “I’ll handle this.” And began explaining, like one would to a child. “We have been at the business of running this place for almost twenty years and have learned to interpret some of our policies liberally.  Owners don’t have to work because they already do so much work and have paid to be here.  Renters just live here and are required to help maintain the place to keep rents low.  If they don’t like that, they can move out.”
            Other owners nodded.  “That’s right,” he heard a few say.
            Dando came in and explained that his work was his art.  That he contributed what he felt like contributing, and that when he got tired, he went home.  Simple as that.
            Ron, explained that, as bookkeeper, he “did not do shovel,” and left it at that.
            “But what if we have a task that requires we all work, such as fixing a roof, and that ‘doing what you want’ doesn’t help get that done?” asked Ray.
            Jana glared at him at first and then looked at the other owners who had the look of surprise that a newlywed has when she realizes that the honeymoon is over.
            “We’ll get it done,” soothed Richard as Dando, Ron, and Rigida all nodded in assent.
            “We’ve been getting it done for twenty years, and we haven’t died yet, right Dando?” asked Jude. “And we’ve always gotten along once we realized how things are done around here.”
            “This has been a problem for a long time now,” said Starfire, breaking the momentum to just drop the whole thing. “We’ve had a two tier system that shows we just haven’t worked through all of our issues around domination. People still act like they are the parents of The Ranch and attack any opposing points of view.”
            “There you go again,” said Aurora and Rigida almost simultaneously. “You’re impossible to work with and disrupt any attempts we make to manage this place harmoniously.”
            “Rigida, you are so oppressed.  Don’t you see how Richard has you talking his line rather than recognizing the truth?”
            “Oh don’t go and psychologize me. I can’t stand it when you do that,” cried Rigida, tears welling.  She stood quickly, turned and strode to the door before opening it and leaving.
            The air was charged. “Well, I think we should table this discussion,” offered the facilitator.
            “Second,” boomed Richard.
            All but  Starfire agreed. Ray and Jana were not yet eligible to vote.
             As the meeting broke up, Richard again pulled Ray aside.  “See what I mean? She’s the fly in the ointment around here and we will have to do something about her.”  He waited for Ray to nod or to assent somehow.  The moment passed. “Well, it’s a problem,” said Richard, collecting himself.  “How is Jana doing with her preganancy?”
            “ She’s handling it.  Morning sickness has been pretty bad, but is getting better,” answered Ray.
            “Good.  We all look forward to having you become owners. Remember that it only takes one owner to prevent that from happening,” he said.  He winked and left Ray standing alone in the Comm-Unity Room.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Gone Soft

I used to think that writers were an outdoorsy, fearless, and radical lot. They faced into cold wind, got tanned by too much sun, and were lanky, if not underfed students of hard work. I thought they did go to school at some point, but got thrown out for questioning the merit of sacred cows.

Lately though, it seems to me that writers have backed away from the edges of controversy and independent thinking and have sold out to the dark side of fluff, Hollywood hype, or academic support. Teaching, reading pieces on NPR, writing about pets, and performing for college MFA programs seems to be the favored path, one I have taken.

The result is that the fringes of society, those of us who work, or have worked, for a living doing manual labor and other menial tasks get left out of loop. We tend not to be represented fairly or sympathetically.

How many working class intellectuals can you think of from film or literature? Of course, there are exceptions, like Winter's Bone or T.C. Boyles' Tortilla Curtain, but they are rare.

I think this is because that kind of writing and that kind of writer are dangerous. They point out the growing disparities in wealth and opportunity in actual, day-to-day America.

Readers want to read writers who will entertain them, distract them from an increasingly dismal social and economic reality.

Even if a writer produces a piece, it is likely that it will die an unceremonial death before reaching an audience. If he or she draws blood from real life, someone is going to be offended. And, in this publication climate, it's not so good to offend anyone, even if those people are robbing you blind.

So, what to do? What to do?

I guess, be brave and honest and support beautiful writing that shines a light and takes a stand.

Then, open the door and feel the wind. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

What Hallmark Cards Will Never Tell You About Love

They will never tell you that love is a hot copper pipe on which you bet your day off, a parking lot into which you wander with a torn bag of groceries looking for a car you can't find. A Hallmark wish will never tell you that love is seeing your face in the morning mirror, haggard and worn, because you have been awake since two parsing the voices left unanswered at your desk; they won't tell you that love is forgetting to buy shoelaces because a sick child was crying in the aisle of the hardware store. No, they surely will never tell you that love is the dashed hope that tonight might be the one you dreamed when the day was young, that it is the surprise of a frost moon sitting on the hip of a mountain while you worry about the cost of a fan belt, radiator hose, and valve cover gasket. Hell will freeze over before a Hallmark card, crafted to wring tears of romance from your wallet, will ever say that love is hearing your defeat repeated in the words of children in the back seat and then feeling shame because you know you have passed on your poison. They might mention that love is the horizon over which a mystery travels, sure of itself as a heart that finds the will to beat one more time. And they might point to flesh thrilling to tender touch. But they will never tell you about the annihilation, the tumbling, polishing, final surrender that is the price you pay for love.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Will Anyone Speak My Name? (Meditation)

I am not yet ready to give it up. Inside, some embers still glow in spite of the years with little fuel to feed them. They wait there, under the ash of time spent making a living, raising sons, serving a family.

I don't know if there is enough heat to light a flame that will answer the questions that still linger in the heart of an old man. I know that I have not done it yet, have not fulfilled the destiny of my soul. I came into this life to write a truth that would linger after I am gone, would speak to someone enough that he or she would speak my name.

I write this to testify that I know, and that I will hold the vision as opportunity to fulfill this vision presents itself. I sign a blood pact to listen, to record, to make it my reason for drawing breath.

Today I have work to do, classes to teach, meetings to attend. I have commitments I have made, and I will fulfill them. But when they are done, I will sit and wait, and listen.

Like fish in a sea of mind, the images will come, if they are moved by the call.

The spirit world waits, I believe, for someone to listen, to open, to receive.

It will not be the name that is important, but the surrender to the truth and the work to give it form, to share it, whether that be words on a page, image on canvas, of sound made music. The name is an invocation to the conduit, the medium, the instrument of expression. The name honors the ones who did the work, who stepped beyond themselves and into something bigger, something enduring, something ineffable.

If I can hone my senses and bring the words to page, I will have done my work.

Then someone might hear, as I have heard others: Robert, Richard, Terry, Rumi, Walt, Denise, and many more. I speak their names to remember. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Slow and Easy

My life is chaos. We are putting in a new bathroom (new as in from-the-ground-up -- slab, new walls, plumbing, electrical, roof).

The chaos is compounded by the state of an old (1930s) adobe house, full-time teaching, cars breaking down, kids graduating from college, aging parents, mid-life desires to escape into a fantasy of bike racing, declining mental and physical faculties. I can't see, hear, or maintain my balance.

There is more. Much more.

The temptation, and the default response, is to tighten up, panic, stress out and book a flight to Hawaii.

The harder path is to slow down, take the tasks as they come, do what needs to be done.

Easier said than done, for me anyway.

Some people handle pressure well. They thrive on it. The louder and crazier things get, the more they go to a quiet place inside, focus, and then act with explosive efficiency. I see the skiers and snowboarders doing that at the Olympics. I admire them, find inspiration in them.

So, when the chaos gets unbearable, I am going see myself in the start-house on the downhill run. I am going to find that quiet place, rehearse the turns, find my line, and then shove off into the inevitable tug of gravity.

Life is a wild ride.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Boot in the Hand

Cowboy boots. Suede, pointy-toed, plastic gold-inlaid cowboy boots. That's what I wanted. But the parents were having none of it.

"What's wrong with the shoes you've got?" Mom asked. "And you have those nice mittens and hat that your grandma knitted you. You have warm things to wear to school."

Aye. That hat with the colored tassles and loose weave that let the winter winter wind blow through it straight to my cold ears. And those mittens. Nobody on the playground at Sierra Vista Elementary School wore any kind of mittens, much less orange-blue-red-green hand-knitted mittens, with idiot strings no less.

No, they wore jeans and denim jackets and cowboy boots. This was southern Arizona and the children of ranchers, braceros, soldiers, and miners went to the school. They dressed like their parents, like people were supposed to dress in the Southwest.

I looked like a Lutheran kid from Minnesota. A total nerd.

I had to have cowboy boots.

Luckily for me, my neighbor, Hank, had a beat-up pair that no longer fit. Yes, they had some scuffs, a few holes, and the heels were worn on the inside, so he walked knock-kneed.

He was willing to trade. We negotiated.

"So whatcha got?" he asked.

"Marbles," I said.


"BB gun?"

Head shake.

"Silver dollar?"

"Let's see it."

I took him into my room where I had an 1893 silver dollar in mint condition in a plastic case. It had been a gift and I did not use it much.

"My mom collects coins," he said.

"Go ahead and show it to her," I offered.

In two minutes he was back. Done deal.

Two days later I was walking away from the back door to catch the bus for school looking down at my new, too big, cowboy boots when my mom asked "Where did you get those boots?"

"I traded for them. Hank."

Pause. Long pause.

"What did you trade?"

"My silver dollar."

The door slammed and Mom was on the phone before I got to the gate. There was some yelling.

When I got home after school, Mom was there. She was mad. She told me to return the boots. I knew better than to argue.

Hank's mom gave us a silver dollar, but it was not the one I had traded. It was a beat-up, 1922 different version. His mom swore up and down that it was the coin that Hank brought home and had closed the subject. "Put her foot down," as Mom said.

Mom was furious, frustrated. She didn't want to talk about those "damned cowboy boots."

That was all good, because about two weeks later, my dad was transferred to Alaska. People didn't wear cowboy boots in Alaska. Up there, where people had sled dogs and fur parkas, they wore something called "Tuffy Boots." Man, did I want a pair of Tuffies.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Stage of Life Issue

The oxygen is sucked out of the air by all the computer fans running at the 24 Hour Help Desk, the place people like me go to have Millennials fix their e-issues.

Before I can enter the rarefied air behind the desk, I need to sign in. The sign-in screen is bigger than my TV and imposing in all its complexity. First I have to enter my user name. Then click next. Then read and sign a waiver that is two pages of single-spaced legalese that baffles my professorial brain. After another click, I get to a password, then an empty box asking the nature of my complaint.

On the other side of the counter, I see seven young people wearing the vest of the 24 Hour UA Help Desk sitting and gazing at their I-Phones.

When I finish my sign-in, a loud ring tone sets them into motion.

They look up at me, as one organism, as if I apparated out of a scene in Harry Potter. Then they look at each other, negotiating. Their looks telegraph the question of the moment: Who will take the old guy?

Finally a young woman from somewhere near the Indian Ocean, the low ranking newbie on the staff comes forward.

"What is the nature of your problem?"

I want to tell her that I am living with the wrong tribe, that somehow I was left here when my people retired and went to live near the sea or the mountains or wherever it is that Boomers have escaped to. But I tell her my email doesn't work.

"Yes," she says suddenly interested. "There was a switch-over in the security system. It's a kind of test to see who can stay caught up with the changes. You, I see, are behind."

"Is there any way I can stay caught up?"

"Your attitude is the correct one."

She signals me to come sit at at a counter full of cables, mouses (mice?), keyboards, tablets of all sizes, phones, a few dismembered circuit boards. The air is hot and electrical. It smells like ozone. I wonder how people can stand it.

"Can you boot up your machine?" Others look on disinterestedly.

One other person, the only other "customer," hears the news that her hard drive is dead, that there is no hope, and she will have withdraw from school. She takes it with a straight face.

"That sucks." And then she is gone, laptop in the crook of her arm.

My machine brings up the problem program on the screen for all to see and snicker at.

"I see you have not gone with the supported mail client. This is not good."

She is kind, gentle, professional. She speaks slowly, like she is talking to a child.

"You are faculty?"


"You should use the supported applications. You need to accept and learn the new ways that we want you to speak."

"But my addresses are in this one. All my correspondence, my bookmarks, my whole life. I know how to navigate using this tool."

"I am sorry. But you will no longer be able to talk to anyone using the language that you are familiar with. It is time to move on or to get out. It's up to you."

Now it was my turn to pick up my laptop, put it in the crook of my arm, a take it without complaint back out into the oxygen rich air, the dead-end solitude of my own thoughts.