Monthly Archives: March 2010

Freesia

I would cover us in freesia, let their
refulgent scent enclose us, their perfume
as though from the skins of cloves, of ripe grapes
a bowl full of them sunlit,
atop a heavy wood table
moving westward in short increments
sharp joyous scuffs on the tile.

Scope yourself out please

I wasn’t actually going to say anything about this here, because — believe it or not — I do have a “Too Much Information” threshold. I went through the procedure and got a clean bill of health and I was going to leave it at that for the next ten years.

I have recently been reminded rather forcefully, however, that not everyone gets a clean bill of health, that this procedure done routinely might actually save your life, and that reticence over discussion of the procedure means that people who ought to have it done might be fearful of what the procedure entails, thus putting it off, thus delaying what could have been minor intervention to forestall life-threatening illness.

So in the spirit of this blog’s relentless shared exploration of my internal landscape, let me just say that I went into the hospital a couple weeks ago for a colonoscopy, that the procedure was not at all uncomfortable aside from some moderate annoyance inherent in the previous day’s preparation, as well as a prick from the usual insertion of the IV needle.

The preparation involves cleaning out your gastrointestinal tract, which involves a laxative and avoiding long spells without plumbing at hand. Depending on your doctor and condition, you’ll be asked to refrain from solid food for 1 to 3 days beforehand, which sounded worse to me than it was. Turns out it’s not hard to eat enough Jello to make yourself completely uninterested in food of any kind for several hours. That, as I said, was the worst part of the procedure for me. I recommend against using sugar-free Jello: I had a little hypoglycemia-related syncope incident as The Raven was accompanying me toward the elevator on the way out. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d eaten some sugar the day before, which is allowed.

The colonoscopy itself involved no physical discomfort whatsoever. They dosed me up with Versed — a trank similar to Valium — and a moderate painkiller. I was semiconscious throughout the half-hour procedure. I felt almost nothing: a vague “gut rumble” feeling was all, which may have been psychosomatic. Every once in a while I roused myself deliberately to watch the monitor, because despite what many critics have said over the years about the location of my head, what the doctor was seeing was all new to me. It was hard to stay alert and I kept dozing. I woke as they were finishing up, heard the doctor say “normal,” dozed again, woke in recovery, had a rather astonishingly cute nurse explain the results a bit more, dozed again, then got dressed and was walked unsteadily out to the waiting room and The Raven, who hailed us a cab. We got home and then I took several more naps until the drugs wore off.

That was it, aside from my having some photos I won’t be sharing here.

I might have had a bit more discomfort afterward had the doctor found and biopsied a polyp. Or maybe not. Either way, it would still have been less uncomfortable than colon cancer.

Non-hereditary colon cancer tends to develop after age 50, which is why that’s the threshold age for routine colonoscopies. Having gotten the “all clear” from my doc at age 50, I’m now supposed to schedule another in ten years. If you have a family history of colorectal cancer, your doctor may recommend screening at a younger age. Likewise if you have irritable bowel syndrome or a suspect case of Crohn’s or something similar.

There’s a huge amount of information online for you to look at. My point here is just to say:

Been there, done that, and it’s not a thing. If you’ve been putting it off because of timidity about the procedure, please please please don’t worry and just get it done. It’s easy. And I need all the readers I can get, and don’t want to lose a single one of you. Thanks.

Only the hills will know.

“Men still live who, in their youth, remember Passenger Pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”

— Aldo Leopold, 1949.

Walking With Zeke excerpt

Apropos of not much other than that the trickle of sales of my book Walking With Zeke has slowed a bit, here’s a piece of said book. Like what you see? You can buy it here.  Have a copy already? Tell a friend, write a review on Walking With Zeke‘s Amazon page, and/or become a fan of Walking With Zeke on Facebook (and invite likely friends to do so as well). Thank you.

Pinole’s fireworks display went on as scheduled last night, with amateur help from a few local teenagers. We watched a few minutes from our front yard, the large bursts clear and brilliant not a mile away over the bay. And Zeke slept through it. He did wake for one large blast, an M-80 or something of similar kilotonnage set off a block away. And so we went through a few minutes of our usual 7/4 evening routine -the trembling, the pawing at our legs when our reassuring affection slackened, the nose stuck into various conjunctions of ramified body parts. Then he relaxed, breathing heavily for a few more minutes, and then fell back asleep while Beirut Lite still raged outside. I have been taking his loss of hearing rather harder than he has, what with its Deeper Meaning of Things Impending and all. There are certain things that are inevitable with a 12-year-old dog. But that’s some silver lining: being able to trade ten hours of terror for half an hour of moderate fear and 9.5 of boredom in front of the television. We still have mornings. Zeke is still his old puppy self for about an hour each day, clear and brilliant bursts of doggy energy expending themselves in our backyard, chasing imaginary rabbits and bristling back hair against marauding squirrels. We still have our walks each day, and he still strains against the leash when a cat hoves into view. Here and now, boy; here and now.

Liars

Is there another group of animals that lies as persistently, as deliberately, as primates? Other animals and plants certainly use deception: the non-toxic Viceroy butterfly mimics the toxic monarch, anglerfish use bait and leopards’ coats fool the observer into thinking the cat is just another patch of dappled sunlight in the rainforest. But I’m not talking about involuntary trickery, or taking advantage of camouflage. I’m talking about deception as a deliberate tactical ploy to make your way in the world.

Canids sometimes use deceptive tactics. Coyotes hunt in groups: sometimes one will make a lot of racket in, say, a prairie dog town, causing the intended prey animals to all look in that direction while a stealthy compatriot coyote quietly pads up behind them. Killdeer will fake an injury to distract predators from their nests. Is that conscious deception? Mere instinctive reaction? Something in between? We don’t know.  There are other examples of non-primate dissembling. But we primates take the prize for just flat-out bald-faced lying. In their book Lucy’s Child; The Discovery of a Human Ancestor, Donald Johanson and James Shreeve spend a few paragraphs listing random examples of primate disingenuousness observed by primatologists. They include:

  • A young chacma baboon watches a mature female as she finds a tasty grass root. Though the female has done nothing to him, he howls as if attacked. His mother runs onto the scene and chases the other female, who drops the root as she runs away. The young baboon walks casually over to the root and eats it.
  • A chimpanzee with a low rank in his troop, aroused by a female in estrus, sports an erection. A high-ranking male wanders past and the subordinate, ostensibly to avoid a beatdown by the Big Man, hides his penis with his hand.
  • Another chimp facing down a rival pulls the corners of his lips down with his hands. A broad chimpanzee smile can connote fear, and this chimp literally tries to put on his game face.
  • A female Hamadryas baboon wanders past the “harem male” in her troop nonchalantly foraging, all the while desultorily heading for a large rock. The harem male cannot see the baboon hiding behind the rock — a subordinate male, a favorite of the female. She grooms him, all the while appearing to the harem male to be foraging.

A story found elsewhere that I can’t resist leaving out: Koko the gorilla, confronted by her handlers after she’d ripped a steel sink from the wall in her enclosure, blamed the vandalism on her kitten.

All these strategies have something in common: they are based on a theory of mind: a recognition that the liar has awareness, that the target of the lie likewise has awareness, and that that target’s awareness can be manipulated if you just put yourself in the target’s head for a bit and anticipate likely responses to a range of actions on your part.

It just makes sense, given game theory and natural selection and all: if you have a smart enough species with a social structure complex enough that gaming that system might pose some advantage, that species will evolve a capacity for lying. The more complex the society, the more opportunities for gaming. Keeping track of that social structure offers some selective pressure for more powerful brains all by itself, of course, but that old saw about lies being a lot harder to remember than the truth IS the truth. Once our forebears started practicing to deceive, those that had a bit more smarts were better able to keep track of the resulting tangled webs. They were thus more likely to game the rules of society, and thus more likely to succeed, reproduce, and protect their own offspring until those offspring were old enough to reproduce themselves: the textbook definition of evolutionary fitness.

A species evolves in response to the conditions in its environment. The course of that evolution changes when those conditions change. As society gets more complex and the lies necessary to maintain one’s standing get harder to keep track of, primates evolve upgraded brains. More smarts mean craftier lies, more complex societies, subtler social signals and fractally complicated ties of obligation and alliance. And having the smarts to suss out the subtlest of lies, to detect those “tells,”  to raise an eyebrow at the female whistling non-chalantly as she forages past you heading for that rock or to ask yourself why that one chimp always has his hand over his crotch, that kind of intelligence makes gaming society even easier and more profitable. Whole taxonomies of lies evolve: slander, excuse, tact, politeness, prudence, politic, pleasantries, folklore, myth, the Noble Lie, theater, fiction, propaganda, euphemism, the poker face. Certainly not every one of them is malign. Some are compassionate, some wise, some blatant but for entertainment purposes only. As is said of manners, such lies are often the lubricant that allows social machinery to operate smoothly and effectively.

Eventually, that complex web of lies and politics becomes the environment in which your kind evolves. The predators are still there, of course, and they are an annoyance, sometimes a fatal one. But they’re less of a threat with each few millennia. Brains big enough to keep track of all those lies are big enough to notice that the worst predators still take easy prey. A leopard comes around and everyone gets up and screeches, throws rocks at it, and discouraged, it slinks off to find a kudu or something. Even if it nabs one of your troop once in a while, your big brain is increasingly capable of making sure someone else pays the Cat Tax. And then there’s a grieving widow to be comforted. Leopard shmeopard: the real threat is that big stupid troop leader’s big stupid youngest son who thinks he’s all that. He’ll cave your head in with a rock when your back is turned. The pressing threat, the omnipresent menace, now comes mainly from within your own kind. The environment becomes more and more just a prosecenium arch within which the real important stuff plays out.

And so it is completely and utterly natural, this predicament in which we find ourselves in the first millennium of the worst mass extinction in the earth’s history, that the vast majority of us pay only the minimum attention possible to the non-human environment. The ORV user crushing down desert plants he cannot name, preoccupied by a perceived threat to his dominance display by some weaselly environmentalists somewhere? Completely consistent with more than twenty million years of evolution in our line. The person who can identify a thousand different corporate logos but only three plant species? A rightful heir to our primate legacy. The urbanist who thinks of the city as the “real world”? The political activist who concentrates on the doings of a few hundred powerful human beings and considers the biosphere a mildly important and usually annoying “side issue”? The type specimen primate, every one of them.

The non-human world — to be precise I should say “the non-primate world,” but the terms are rapidly becoming synonymous — the non-human world is largely trustworthy, as far as that goes. A rattlesnake will tell you honestly that it will bite you. There is no subterfuge there. Poison oak advertises its threat. Even the example of coyote deception provided above does not involve the coyotes lying to each other. (Dogs may possess the capacity to lie to each other, but they’re far too smart to fall for the kind of lies they’d be able to tell. They game social systems, but they do so directly. If dogs could talk, they’d tell you that yes, you do indeed look fat in those pants and that’s great, and right now you should go out for hamburgers anyway, because OMG hamburgers! And you should totally get them one. Even Coyote the Trickster doesn’t really have the savoir faire to refrain from laughing at his own jokes.) There are mysteries in nature, and they appeal to our primate brains the same way an impassively sneaky gesture from a subordinate troop member appeals to our primate brains. Suddenly, we wonder desperately what’s going on there. Perhaps Science is a spandrel, an ironic exaptation resulting from the astonishing capacity for deception, and the detection thereof, bred into our species.The natural world doesn’t deceive us deliberately but our senses do by design. There’s plenty of truth to uncover beneath the inadvertent lies of our senses.

I wonder sometimes whether those of us who have been made especially sensitive to lies, or who have the most trouble negotiating them — the hypervigilant among us, the borderlines and post-traumatized, the embittered and the disillusioned, the autistic-spectrum residents — I wonder whether one of the attractions we find in the non-human world isn’t precisely that the lies end where the rest of the world begins. It may manifest in collecting and hoarding cats, or in obsessive cultivation of African violets; in scaling giant rock walls or in sitting with a cup of coffee ten miles off the pavement as the desert wakes up. It may be framed as a misanthropic retreat from fancy society and lace doilies, or in terms more suited to a group therapy session, a hermit or a dervish or a walking wounded, but I wonder if at its root it doesn’t all boil down to simply this: this rock, this dog, this Phalaenopsis orchid, this waterfall will not lie to me. It may be complex, it may reveal surprises the more I study it, it may have secrets I will never fathom. But it will not lie to me. It will not lie to me to spare my feelings. It will not lie to me to take advantage of me. It will not even lie to me out of fear, even now, in this age when we turn our shoulders to the world, and each day come closer to crowding it out of existence.

Things of which I have never really seen the appeal

Arena rock. Sliders. The NFL. Cola. Leonard Cohen. Dr Who. The Nashville Sound. BBQ ribs. Grunge. The Sopranos. Gold jewelry. Financial gain for its own sake. Off-roading. Going to Las Vegas and staying indoors. Phish. Cadillacs.  Downhill skiing. Bungee jumping. Hotdish. Sailing. Numismatics. Lambics. Acrostics. The New Republic. U2. Abstract Expressionism. White zinfandel. Parenthood. Two And A Half Men. Flavored coffee other than hazelnut. Earth Hour. World of Warcraft. Pork rinds. The Silmarillion. Celebrity worship. Xenophobia.  Circus peanuts. Trophy hunting. Fantasy baseball. Actual baseball. Journey. Kombucha. Capitalism. Robert Ludlum. The Goth aesthetic. Reggaeton. That whole Furry thing. Misogyny. Science fiction with no science in it. Pocky. Gummi. Patriotism. The Boston-Richmond Megalopolitan Area. Situationism. Ice fishing. Cannabis use. Cutting. 1970s-era Womens’ Music. Militias. Blackface. Red velvet cake. Shaving. Arguing for arguing’s sake. Flagellation. Martinis without gin. Gangsta rap. Thomas Kinkade. Reiki. Clamato. Ron Paul. Decaf. Sestinas. Inter-office politics. Rice cakes. Sanctimony. Lawns. Molly Hatchet. Muscle cars. Quorn. Chandeliers. Neckties. Fundamentalist religion. Meditation. Reciting Monty Python routines verbatim. Huey Lewis. The Renaissance Faire. Gambling. Carrot Top. Transhumanism. Home Owners’ Associations. White carpeting. French Provincial. Bodice-rippers. The NBA. Defensiveness.

I’m really sorry

I really wanted to write something for the blog tonight. I’m drawing a blank.

Well, not exactly a blank. I’ve had two or three good ideas that needed more development than I had energy for tonight. I wrote the first stanza of a sonnet that I then discarded altogether when I realized that I’d had a thought go through my head that was more or less “I need to make this sound less like it’s from Twilight.” Clearly, the only sensible thing to do when you find yourself having that thought is to Select All and Delete. 

I spent a little time thinking “Hey, I could write something like that post from a couple years ago, because that was pretty good. I liked that one.” For about six or seven minutes I sat facing the open document where my horribly ill-considered first stanza of a sonnet had once stood. I tried to have an idea that was like that post but not the same as that post, and in fact not even particularly reminiscent of it but as good. I tried for about fifteen minutes to make an idea show up. Then I did some dishes.

Ah! An idea. I could write about fear. So much has to do with fear. The atrocious behavior of reactionary racist teabag type people? Fear. SUVs? Fear. Sarcasm? Fear. My delaying chasing after the life I wanted until I literally had no choice? Fear. There’s a lot there to write about. But I didn’t write about fear tonight, because the topic made me nervous.

Then the rabbit urgently needed combing. After that, the floor where I had combed the rabbit urgently needed cleaning. The rabbit only has a very limited number of ways in which he can express displeasure, and one of them involves me cleaning the floor afterward.

Some fiction, maybe. I could write psychodrama loosely based on some experience I’ve had, like The TIme Becky Walked Away In The Sonoran Desert or That Night I Got Accused Of Passive-Aggressively Wanting A Sandwich or The Argument With Dad About The Concrete Pouring Project.

No go, after an indecent amount of time spent having parts of ideas.

Here’s the thing: I’m tired. I hit a wall today at about three in the afternoon. Laid down for a bit when The Raven got home, watching a video and almost-snoozing together, and have I mentioned that the more I watch the Peter Jackson Lord Of The Rings trilogy, the more I realize just how much crap he got away with? It’s basically ten hours of exposition exposition exposition scenery exposition running exposition fight exposition scenery running running exposition scenery exposition BIG FIGHT exposition exposition running exposition racism exposition exposition exposition REALLY BIG FIGHT exposition running fight cliffhanger, lather rinse repeat.

Lots of exposition but no sleep, and it’s late and all I have in me to do, as I do actually need to be functional come morning, is apologize for not coming up with a blog post.

The Coyote Clan

“The canyons of southern Utah are giving birth to a Coyote Clan — hundreds, maybe even thousands of individuals who are quietly subversive on behalf of the land. And they are infiltrating our neighborhoods in the most respectable ways, with their long, bushy tails tucked discreetly inside their pants or beneath their skirts… They understand that beauty is not found in the excessive but in what is lean and spare and subtle.”

Terry Tempest Williams

Walker Pass

I may be heading up to Walker Pass this coming weekend to sleep out, watch the stars, perhaps treat myself to a campfire. It’s been a while since I’ve had a campfire. I don’t have them in the desert much anymore since the fires of 2005, and Zeke hated them when I was camping with him: he kind of turned camping with a fire from a relaxing, aromatic and romantic way of passing time to an ordeal of constantly reassuring the dog after every single little pop or crackle. I’ve missed the ritual, the setting up of kindling and logs, the balance of ventilation and heat and fuel, the scent and the whine of volatilizing treeblood.

The last time I camped at Walker Pass Becky and Zeke were with me, and I roused a fire from the last night’s coals each morning to cook breakfast. I think we used two matches in the four days we were there. Sharon had brought me green chile from New Mexico the week before, and they’d turned red in the cooler. We roasted them with flank steak, toasted sourdough rolls on the fire after they were done. I can still taste those sandwiches, and that was 13 years ago.

Walker Pass is atop the Sierra Nevada, one of two passes at the low south end of the range. The pass itself is just above 5,200 feet. Head east from the pass, and you reach the environs of Ridgecrest. Head west, and you slide down the torturous Kern River Canyon into Bakersfield. 5,200 feet isn’t all that high for a pass over the Sierra Nevada, it’s true. Tioga Pass in Yosemite is not all that far from twice as high. But between Tioga Pass and Walker Pass is about 170 miles of unbroken wilderness, unroaded except for a cherry-stem or two, with some of the most dramatic scenery in the world. You can see some of it from Walker Pass itself: the Dome Wilderness just north and west has the Sierra’s trademark shiny white granite in it.

The really cool thing about Walker Pass is that it sits at the intersection of about five different California landscapes. The Mojave and Great Basin deserts meet just downhill and to the east. The aridity means you get a little bit of the alpine High Sierra influence at lower elevations than you would at 5,200 feet in Yosemite, but there’s still a whole lot of foothill plantlife as well: currants and fremontia and the like. What’s more, you can pretty much walk from there to the Transverse Ranges and the Coast Ranges without seeing much in the way of human development, and so it’s at the crossroads of a few fragmented but still important wildlife corridors.

What this all means is that Walker Pass is a place where you can look westward and downhill at Joshua trees with Coast Ranges plants behind you. There is Great Basin sagebrush and juniper and piñon — in 1997 when I camped there last, people were coming up from the lowlands to harvest gallons of pine nuts — and lodgepole pine and the gigantic yellow daisies called mule ears and blue sky and clouds and water and desert and storms and stars.

There’s also a little BLM campground there, about a quarter mile from the Pacific Crest Trail.

The Raven will likely not be joining me. She’s seen the place — we were there for a bit on New Year’s Day — and the facilities left her underwhelmed.

By way of explanation I should mention that The Raven and I have formulated a very useful metric which we call the Outhouse Terror Alert Advisory. In our travels we have found ourselves in varied situations in which we’ve needed to avail ourselves of public, non-plumbed facilities, and it turns out that one can assign the acceptability of these facilities to five distinct categories, here listed in order of increasing unpleasantness.

Outhouse Terror Alert Advisory
Status Description

ACCEPTABLE

The Raven will use the facility without subsequent complaint. (Note: this never happens.)

NOMINAL

The Raven will use the facility if there is no other option.

CAUTION

Chris will use the facility, but he will put his shoes on first.

WARNING

Chris will use the facility only if bystanders would see him using the area immediately outside the facility.

EXTREME

Take off and nuke the entire site from orbit—it’s the only way to be sure.

In January, the facility at the Walker Pass campground pegged the Advisory’s metaphorical needle, and we both heard metaphorical klaxons in our heads. The Raven is thus making other plans for the weekend. And I’ll be camping far away and upwind.

Emerging

Emerging

Yesterday, in Hagen Canyon Wash.

I feel these last weeks as though a few layers of gauze have lifted from my face. There is less weight on me. I doubt myself less. I look back less to the life I once had, and spend more of myself anticipating the one I’m building. I have met new people who have become important to me. I am starting piece by piece to tackle old demons.

It’s an odd feeling. I think I may be becoming happy.

A few nights ago I stood outside in the driveway looking south and upward. Orion and Canis were out for their nightly walk. I remembered all the times I’d run at night up north and hate the half-mile back along the levee, because Orion and Canis would be there brilliant and I’d have to see them as I ran, and it was no fair that Orion had had his dog with him for tens of millennia and I couldn’t have mine anymore. The other night I probed vaguely at that old pain, like a tongue poking around where a toothache once had been: I remembered the pain but didn’t quite feel it anymore. I wondered for a moment if I had actually lost my mind for much of 2007. And then I dropped my gaze back to earth to go inside, and saw three people across the street staring at me rather frankly, clearly confused at what I was seeing up there in the sky.

So was I, for that matter.

The Raven and I walked in the desert yesterday for a time. Goldfields bloomed bright yellow in small and isolated patches, like pools of sun on the desert soil. A handful of Joshua trees bore thick panicles of flowers still shut tight against the air. We walked up a dry wash that was not really all that dry, rushes still green in drifts among the sand, here and there sand so wet that it gave an inch or two beneath our feet. The whine of mosquitoes a drone beneath the gargling calls of ravens, we looked up at an almost-dry fall perhaps eighty feet high. Six years ago Matthew and I sat up there at the brink, watching one slow teardrop after another spill over the edge,  and I wondered what it would be like to lose my grip on the world, find myself suddenly heading downward.

Yesterday I finally reached the bottom. It was lovely aside from the mosquitoes.

Kathy McCarty Has A BLOG

Yes, that Kathy McCarty. The Coyote Crossing regular, raconteuse and Austin foodie, rock-diva-without-the-attitude, front man for Glass Eye, and occasional popularizer of the works of Daniel Johnston Kathy McCarty. How did I not know she had a blog? What’s WRONG with ME?

Go read it. It’s full of capital letters, and it has a completely safe-for-work photo of a somewhat younger Kathy McCarty changing her clothes by the side of the road while on tour with Glass Eye.