Monday, April 27, 2015

Too Damned Dumb to Quit

I was in pretty good shape, ready for the hot pace of a canoe race. The Bear and I were a father-son team in our old Grumman 17 foot aluminum sweetie. The canoe had been our common ground during my somewhat turbulent and arrogant adolescence, but we didn't paddle much together. Rather, we found overlap in our agreement that the canoe, the Yahara River, ducks, the colors of maple trees in autumn, and Wisconsin marshes were good things. The canoe was the best way to get out there and see it all.

When the canoe race was added to Stoughton's Sytennde Mai celebration one year, The Bear asked me if I wanted to sign up. What the hey? It would be fun. What could go wrong?

So I came home from college for the weekend to join the flotilla of locals, mostly Norwegian farmers and small town business owners. Of course there were a few ringers out to win the thing. They had brightly colored fiberglass racing canoes and came from the big cities. They wanted to show us country rubes how it was played in the real fast lane.

Not surprisingly, I took some umbrage at that and decided to train. The Bear was always a strong, beefy, sometimes imposing presence. He could handle steering duties. I'd be the motor in front.

I had my technique dialed -- a long, forward lean followed by a deep dig of the paddle and a swift, powerful stroke as I both pulled and sat back. It was a double whammy of core and arm effort that would pull us as fast as possible down the river to town.

The start of the race was a Le Mans style run-up to the boats, before pushing off and then jumping in wet to take seats and begin the real race.

The Bear was quick on his feet that day, and I was a good sprinter, so we hit the canoe earlier than most and launched into the river well in the lead. Even the city boats were a few feet back. When the Bear and I both had our seats, I grabbed my paddle and took a deep first pull to accelerate. It was a monster effort, and, apparently too much for the old Feather Brand paddle. It snapped neatly and cleanly between the shaft and the blade. We did not have a spare. I sat there with the two useless pieces of the paddle.

The Bear kept paddling, but we were dead in the water compared to the other boats. Already a few hundred feet from shore, we had our good start, but I wondered if it was best just to turn back.

The Bear and I looked at the hopelessly irreparable paddle and drifted for a moment.

"We can't do it," I said. "We should just go back."

A moment of silence punctuated by J-strokes asked a question as we kept moving forward. What next?

"Never say die," said The Bear. "There's an island right there." He pointed to a floating mass of cattails and moss held together by woven roots. It was more of a big raft than an island.

"Drop me off and you keep going," he said.

I looked at the grassy mat and thought of him out there in the middle of the river drifting on the current, feet breaking through as the mass fell apart. He would spend the day as a kind of Tom Hanks castaway.

There was no way that plan was going to work, but he steered to the floating swamp debris and beached the canoe on it and got out, immediately breaking through the fragile web.

"This is not a great idea," I said, defeated.

Canoes were passing us on all sides. Even mother-daughter, daughter-daughter, mother-toddler teams out for a recreational float down-river slid by. They waved, smiling, as if it were common to hang out on a floating mat of cat tails and swamp rot and have a family meeting.

Then the Bear dug around into the muddy mass of roots and wrestled free a thick, twisted, water-logged, misbegotten, crooked, slime-covered mess of some kind of tree root. It as about as long as a paddle.

"You take my paddle, and I'll steer with this. We should be able to make it to town."

I looked down-river and saw the armada of canoes receding into the distance. We would never catch any of them.

"OK," I said, after a brief consideration. This was another in the ongoing confrontations over how to live: The Bear blindly hacking away through the jungle of life while I studied the options. The Bear's blunt and unrelenting tenacity had bothered me as kid. It was one of our father-son sticking points. He had always been the military man of action while I was more of a deliberator, a Hamlet, never able to make up my mind, much less act with authority. We played out all kind of small and large dramas because of this dichotomy of outlooks.War or diplomacy? Nukes now or solar for later? Cars or bikes? Money or meaning?

That moment, however, was an small epiphany, a dawning awareness that just because he was "The Bear," the father, didn't make him always wrong. I had to admit, the stick was our best option, a good idea.I am not too proud to admit it, and I took that moment to heart, maybe too much so. I used it to get through a grueling PhD program, to stay in a sometimes tough marriage, to keep working at a job that has not been the most lucrative. I also became an endurance freak. In the middle of a bike race, especially time trials, when my heart and head both scream back off, I hear The Bear.

I also saw it in him when he cared for my mother in her Alzheimer's decline, the rupture of family marriages, the scorn of a son who cut off all contact. Now, in a Parkinson's and dementia decline, he gets up every day to watch the day progress, the seasons change. For good or ill, he modeled and stuck it to me that day when he extracted a root, the rabbit out of the hat, the sword out of the stone.

The Bear  re-embarked with his prize in the stern of the canoe, passed me his paddle, and took over steering duties at the helm. He had a big and toothy grin as I turned around to do my part.

I paddled like a lunatic, a man possessed, the paddle kicking up foam like a side-wheeled river boat. We began to move, to make progress. I found my rhythm and settled in to a long, hard, endurance effort. This I could handle and knew well.

We passed under the County B highway bridge where onlookers cheered us on, partly out of respect, partly out of pity, mostly out the slap-stick ridiculousness of the root.

Then the river opened up into the wide, slow moving waters of the marsh. We passed beneath the power lines. A few of the stragglers were taking it easy as we overtook them. More cheers went up.

Slowly, the railroad bridge that marked entry into the town came into view and grew larger as we closed the gap. I could see other canoes rocking with the efforts of final sprints to the line.

The river narrowed in town as we made our way under the railroad bridge. The finish was a few hundred yards ahead. We could hear the loudspeaker announcing the names of racers as they crossed the line. The shore was a bouquet of boats, bright yellows, reds, and greens of the fancy racing canoes. People were relaxing and watching as the last finishers made their way through town.

As we passed beneath the final bridge and closed in on the finish line, I heard laughter from both the crowd and the loudspeaker.

"Here come the Tosos. And looks like they've taken up paddling with a Norwegian paddle. Pretty high tech." Ha-ha.

The bow of the canoe nosed onto the beach and I put down the paddle to catch my breath. My heart was still racing even though the race was over. I got out and pulled the boat up out of the water so The Bear could get out near dry land. I noticed his hands were bloody and blistered from having worked that unholy twisted mess of a root the entire race. But he was smiling, a big smile, one of the biggest I ever saw.

Before we could fully remove the canoe from the water, the announcer approached us with microphone in one hand, twelve pack of Old Style Beer in the other, and said, "And now, I have the pleasure of giving out the award for most creative canoe.... and... or... paddle."

Those around us applauded. The Bear smiled even bigger. I was sheepish, but accepted the beer.

We split it with anyone who wanted to share.Creativity and damn stupid hard work: I could and would drink to that.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Outside Looking In

They were the happy ones, the lucky ones, the smart ones, and they saw only each other. He, dressed in his best, might as well have been invisible, standing there with his paper plate of chips, salsa, and spinach dip.

What separated them from him were degrees from elite Ivy League schools, the right kinds of publications, political appointments, national conference presentations and allies. He had none of those -- especially the allies. But he did have ambition and anger.

Though he was the outsider, he felt a contempt for them. They patted each other on the back with their genial academic mediocrity in their closed circle and stroked each others' egos.

He tasted the chips -- dry and stale -- and salsa -- too spicy, if not rancid, and looked around for a seat at one of the tables. He made his way across the room to sit with some of the graduate students.

He was still a lecturer, long in the tooth, having worked teaching survey courses for almost two decades. It no longer mattered how and why he had arrived there, but he mulled it over anyway, trying to discover some solace or lesson from the path he had traveled.

There was the beginning: a love for language, that and the encouragement of guidance counselors who looked at his scores on IQ and Iowa Basics tests. A cocky disregard for practicality and career choices split the waters that kept more sober peers from suffering for art. There were some cautionary influences. A family who disapproved of a son studying "soft" subjects like literature and writing didn't much help.

From the start he was on his own, going on some kind of "hunch" or inner voice. He trusted that to lead him. Now he felt the fool.

It hadn't been a bad job, but so much time at the bottom of the academic ladder had taken its toll. He was bored, unmotivated, lethargic and envious. The road to promotion had been blocked by his department head and the dean and his own lack of initiative.

Now it was too late to do anything about it. His brain was failing him. The cognitive tests and the blood draws all pointed to a decline in function. His only asset was now a junk bond and he didn't know what to do next.

He certainly couldn't tell his supervisor that he didn't know where he was sometimes or that he was dropping the ball of reports, deadlines, student appointments.

So far, he had been able to cover it up. His annual review numbers were good and the secret had been kept for another year.

He didn't know how long he could keep this up.

He took his seat next to some friendly grad students who didn't mind sharing their table. As fellow worker bees aspiring to higher places, they didn't mind the scarlet mark of failure he wore on his back.

Doors open for some, don't for others. That's just the way it is he told himself. You get a tenure track line and that leads to directing a program and that leads to becoming an dean and that leads to provost or president and so on. You don't get the right job and nothing happens, especially when people sit on you, keep you in the trenches of low wage drudgery.

It all came down to choices, and he knew it. He didn't suck up to the wonks when he was in grad school. He taught high school to make ends meet rather than submit papers to academic journals. He wrote for himself in the ways he felt strong about. None of that mattered to the hiring committees. His books never made the bulletin boards of the department, his essays the lists of achievements in the departmental newsletters.

So there he was at the end-of-year awards celebration. He didn't belong, had no group with which he might sit.

He was a leper, the dark elf, the thirteenth floor. He radiated the toxins of frustration and defeat. 

The stars walked across the stage to receive their awards; the audience applauded; the money flowed; careers were made or sidetracked or neglected.

The person who had blocked him from rising rose to take the podium as a grandiloquent punctuation to the ceremony. She was resplendent, full, and hungry for audience attention. Her teeth shone in her smile, a primate in power. Her words spread like sugar spooned out for the pleasure of those who would bow.

She had won. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


A friend recently asked me what my favorite word was. I had to confess that I didn't know. This was distressing because I so live in words that you would think I would know which was my favorite. But, like children or bicycles, how can anyone pick a "favorite?" I love them all.

That said, I decided to lie in wait, like a hunter on a game trail, for the right word to come along. Thousands of them passed by and each had its attributes, its personality, its charms. I could live with many of them. "Unctuous," for example, would have made for a fine choice. But I think after a few years, we would grow tired of each other. She would find me brutish; I would find her stuffy and pedantic. "Foreskin" has its merits, but reminds me of wounds too distant to heal. "Mississippi" and "Cincinnati" have obvious appeal, as does "Cucamonga," but they eventually irritate, like children with too much sugar jumping up on the couch while you try to nap.

Yes, there were many possibilities, but none of them had much staying power.

Then she walked by, and I was thunderstruck, or arrow struck, or bewitched, or had my heart taken prisoner. "Lazuli." It's the word I would write a hundred times if I had a math notebook in eighth grade and was smitten by adolescent crush. It held the secret and unrequitable rush of adoration that only a life's love could elicit.

Of course, she shone the rare, royal blue of her definition. I knew I could never know her or "have" her, whatever that means. I could only stand in her light and warm my hands by her heat and dream of forbidden and occasional liaisons. Of that, we could never speak, much less forget.

The grip on my heart was a vise, as permanent as a scar.

I doubt I have ever used the word "lazuli" in a sentence, yet I see it in the robes of royalty and the cloak of the Virgin Mary. It is the color of the Aegean Sea, the sky at dusk. It shows up as a rare bird, the lazuli bunting, here in spring. I have seen only one, and it looked at me from the fountain in my front yard that I fill daily as a practice of prayer.

Not surprisingly, "lazuli" is the root of "azul" in Spanish, and blue is my favorite color bar none.

How can I be taken prisoner by a word that I seldom speak?

I might chalk this up to a defect of character, my penchant for the "serious" and sacred. I, whatever that "I" is, tends to brood on solemn subjects. I guess there's a reason why sad music is called "blue." But that's not quite satisfying as the whole answer. 

The answer lies in shadow. It comes at night, as I slip off to slumber, when I whisper her name-- Lazuli -- and I fall into the streams of the unconscious, where the running waters of poetry and the soul dwell.

The river runs deep and blue. Lazuli.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Guerilla Art

They met early, before the sun was up, to load up the tools. Text messages had been sent the night before identifying the site. Agents converged at the agreed upon time and went to work.

Nobody knew nothin and wouldn't recognize nobody if asked.

Hammer drills whined as masonry dust spilled from the holes. Concrete screws held the panels in place after the glue had been slathered on the back.

Intricate tiles, each hand-made, custom, hundreds of them, spelled out the words of a poem. Wavy crescents of sky mingled with desert life in a dance of color, shape, and undulating form. Gila monsters, Mexican bats, barrel cacti, prickly pears, and words all flowed together, the tiles an ode to this place, this desert, the shared moment of harmony.

A small and unassuming, smiling god found his spot in the center of things.

Panel by panel the mosaic found its way to the wall. The crew looked official behind a tape strung along barricades. Nothing more than a crew sent out by the authorities to beautify the bike path said the tape, the official looking vests, the men and women bent to their labors.

Months, maybe years, in the making, the tiles spelled out a message of hope in dark, impossible times. The mosaic honors bats, Mexican bats that live by the thousands under the bridge nearby.

The bats are something of a marvel, a colony of wild things in the middle of a city. They consume mosquitoes and other insects. I love to see them hunting in the evening as we eat outside. They are welcome helpers.

As the work wound down on the mosaic the sun began to set. Just as the last bit of grout closed the border, forty thousand bats began their fly-out, on cue, a small wonder, a miracle. A flying river of tiny creatures wound its way up and out toward the setting sun. We people watched, spellbound.

People of patience, skill, vision and love gave birth to a spectacular expression of creativity, generosity, anonymity.

The art could be in a museum, but it is there on a humble wall, along a bike trail, for all to see if they look.

No one will direct you the the site because no one will claim to know it is there or who might have installed such a thing.

It is like a flower that blooms out of a crack in a sidewalk, there for those with eyes to see.

The artists moved on, anonymous, while a story trailed behind them, ready to grow from a secret sprout to a mighty tree.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Bottom Lines

What I can claim to own out of the ocean of my life experience would fit into a thimble. And what I would call wise in that thimble is less than a few drops.

I am not complaining, more like realistically assessing what I have gleaned so far from this life.

And what little wisdom I have harvested does not seem to help much in the problems confronting me: an aging father with dementia, sons looking for a place to stand, meaningful work, a house that needs work, lots of work, a cat that needs to lose weight.

I want to become more detached, more selfless, kinder, more present. I want a world that is not on the brink of environmental collapse, an atmosphere free from greenhouse gasses. I want habitat for wildlife, opportunity for young people, healthcare when anyone needs it. Pretty simple stuff.

All of these things seem to be out of sync with what makes money. Corporate economy wants workers good at numbers who can channel money to the bottom lines. More money. Always more money, the primary motivator, it seems, the reality of these times.

I want to let go of the money chase, to live within my means. 

I do have some words and some skills with language. I doubt that I can live off that though. I don't see a best-seller coming out of my brooding ruminations. I can think, more or less, though it is harder and harder to learn.

I have health and a body that is still strong enough for physical work.

I have a heart.

I have a little time.

I have desires to align all of these into a life on fire, well-lived, without regret when the time comes to let it go. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Pan y Agua (For Germanwings)

Something goes awry in his brain when all the chemicals are doled out. It shows up when things need to get done. Motivation flags when he is asked to do any task that pulls him away from his brooding. He can't engage. The muscles don't listen to commands. Flight schedules stare him down from his desk. Emails grumble in their queue, shifting from side to side, impatient. The light in his office is off and the door is closed because his brain has jammed and he can't get it started.

He runs. With the extra dopamine produced by hard effort he feels better, for a while. He pushes himself, tries harder. He doesn't want to look bad. People expect things from him. People don't like weakness or losers or broken pilots. 

When the black dog comes around, even the easy stuff gets hard. The small stuff sweats bullets and you can forget about the big stuff. His feet feel like they have been set in concrete; synapses don't want to fire. He doesn't want to fly, but fly he must. It's what he does.

He pulls himself out of bed anyway and carries the burden into the day, black dog in tow.  He puts on his uniform. Once in the car, he drives slowly at first, but then some jerk cuts him off or pulls ahead or tailgates and his eyes go red with rage. He curses under his breath, tightens up around his neck and shoulders, and presses the accelerator a little harder.

He hears the news of successful colleagues and mulls over his own failures. He sees that their egos are far beyond their abilities. They are fakes, shams, dilettantes. Their pontifications make him cringe. He doesn't understand how other people can seem so happy.

And the world news... Forget about that too. Rich get richer, and if they so much as break a fingernail it's all over the airwaves and the web while poor people are slaughtered by the thousands without so much as a footnote.

Somehow, he completes the routine flight inspections and finds a way to cover the bases he has agreed to cover. A few radio messages come in and he replies to the tower. He assumes his place at the controls and runs down the checklist. It is long and tedious and irritating. He does his job, but he must hide, always hide. It gets unbearable sometimes.

When a living person needs him to do something, he finds a way to act, but he is always dragging a weight, moving underwater, in the gravity of Jupiter.

He tries to go it alone. He will prove himself, even though he is out of compliance with orders. Giving in, admitting that he needs help or meds, after all, would be cheating, like the dopers he reads about in the sports section. He failed to see there was a difference between taking meds to be healthy and doping for a competitive advantage. To him it was all the same.

Pan y agua. Bread and water. That's how he does it.  He hopes to get stronger on the brooding, the bread, and the water. Otherwise, he might lose his job, be found out, lose his license. He can dream of sparkling stars, lightness, and passion some other day, but not today.