Tag Archives: Friends

Paleontology

[Time to haul this one out of the archives, what with all the targazing I’ve done the last couple days.]

Paleontology

“What is it that sets us apart,” she asked,
“from sunset or sierra?
What is the line between ourselves
and the terrain from which we come?”

He thought he knew, but something in her eyes
transfixed him in a way he knew too well.
Deep and dark and wet they stuck him fast.

In parts of California, long ago,
impressive monsters ambled in the hills:
placid armored sloths two people tall,
cats with teeth as long as boning knives,
dogs the size of bears. Now and again,
a glint of water tempted them, or else
a furry piece of meat held strangely still,
and only after the imprudent pounce
would the tar entomb them.
Now, the graduate students pick their bones.

When the land thus asserts your membership
in the vast assemblage of dust and bark,
of feather, fur and rock in which we live,
it’s best not to struggle overmuch.
The land is patient, yet insistent.
Fighting off the tar will muss your hair.
Paleontologists an era hence
will find your clothes awry. Embarrassing!
Far better just to let oneself be swallowed
in all-consuming pitch, placidly slurped
into the balm of Quaternary ages.

That’s what her eyes felt like, he thought;
a sudden lack of individual
identity: nothing sets us apart
one from the other, nor from the land around.

Nosy Parker

I have an anniversary coming up next week, as many of you know, and it’s been on my mind as one might expect. Still tough, you know?

This year, though, I have a little bit of emotional support, and so the prospect of remembrance doesn’t seem quite as bleak. De tail’s below the fold.

Continue reading

Cleft

I walked the other day in Runyon Canyon, a cleft in the Hollywood Hills with a steep short climb. It was good to get my blood flowing again. It was good to breathe hard, to feel the growing wet in the small of my back, and though people half my age ran up the slope I labored to walk, I felt fit.

And halved.

Two years ago today I walked with him, guided his aching, wobbly bones down a frost-slicked slope to his little park, and the killdeer complained in flight. I was certain of looming desolation, terrified of it, and yet I was whole, somehow, in a way I have not felt since.

Runyon Canyon is full of dogs. They walk there off-leash, running far ahead of their owners, trailing far behind their owners. A rottweiler stod at the base of one steep slope, reluctant to climb, and she leaned against me to procrastinate as her man waited patiently. The hill above her rises a few hundred feet in a quarter mile, and I’d just watched a three-month-old puppy struggling to hoist itself up one railroad-tie step after another, mighty shoulders straining against the pull of an entire world. His woman laughed at him sweetly.

A part of me has been amputated these years.

We looked at puppies a few days ago, having found an adoption center along our route from one errand to the next. There was a little one there, a two-month-old rottweiler-shepherd mix boy, and I had to look away. He has followed me since. I am lucky to have a few sensible reasons not to adopt a dog, unemployment chief among them, because if I didn’t I’d have to face the real reason I walked away: it would still feel like betrayal.

Last night I dreamed of my other half, his legs grown strong again and his eyes new sharp, and he ran ahead of me frustratingly as I followed in the truck. No sideward glances toward me, nor hesitation in his step, his business was his own and I merely sought to intrude, to take him back to a home neither of us has anymore.

I carried him up that long hill two years ago, and it was an easier climb than the one I will make again today without him.

2008

It all fell apart this year, the affected exoskeleton I’d thought of as my life: the garden and the art, the home, the writing. There was a moment this summer it all sank in. I had been Becky’s husband, the one who walked with Zeke out of the house painted orange with the agaves out front, the one who hiked in the East Bay hills and wrote facile snark and tossed-off poetry on his blog, and all of it gone.

All of it, and I spent the summer taking that in, cowering beneath the creosote, wincing at each incoming phone call.

Nabokov said that “transformation from larva to pupa or from pupa to butterfly is not a particularly pleasant process for the subject involved.” The caterpillar at least has the consolation of eventual flight.

It is not all bleakness, by any means. I am loved and I love. I have redressed past wrongs, made amends long overdue. And even in bleakness there is solace, the honesty of stony ground and cholla.

The problem is distinguishing between the honest bleak and the bleakness driven by inward illness, in me and in others. I have sought out those who would undermine my heart, found the ring of truth in their declarations of my worthlessness. It is a subtle distinction this year. This year I have improved the lives of some I love by leaving them.

This year I most desired solitude when others’ absence left me battered by ghosts. This year I felt desolate in close company, walked away from friends to seek the companionship of moss-covered stones.

I am getting too old for this.

A month before Zeke died, or two, I helped him up onto our bed and lay there with him drowsing for an afternoon. I dreamed that again the other day and woke disconcerted, two years downstream and his absence not at all assuaged by time’s flowing. I can layer it over with the new, but it has healed as much as it will, his grave still glaring in me though I have not laid eyes on it for months.

Bob

Bob in Buffalo

Bob Kelley, spouse of my sister Carrie and father of my nieces Grace, Meghan, Emily and Carolyn, died last night of cancer.

The last couple years were excruciating for him and his family, and in that sense his passing is a mercy. Which doesn’t make it any easier for those close to him, just more complicated.

He was a complex, good, annoying, intelligent, self-involved, generous and loving man. He’ll be missed.

If you smoke, please stop.

The Zeke Book

Those of you buying gifts this month may, he reminded everyone sidelong, want to consider the Zeke Book for dog-loving recipients. Or for animal-loving recipients in general. Especially for those with older pets. I’ve heard from a lot of people that the writing there helped them cope with the stresses involved in loving aging pets, and with the grief of pet loss. But it’s not all down, by any means: Zeke was an engaging and silly and loving guy, and I think that comes across in the book.

If you’ve read and enjoyed the book, or any of my writing about Zeke over the years, please feel free to mention the book on your websites, blogs, livejournals or twitter feeds, or even (gasp!) offline, to friends and family.

And with that said, back to the job search. Thanks!

Jerky Treats

Readers who have been around here for a while will recall that I used to have a dog, a fine and patient and only a little bit neurotic dog, whose name was Zeke. I loved Zeke. Zeke loved me in return, and others who have loved me will attest to the fact that this required some work on his part.

Zeke died in February of 2007 after a long and occasionally agonizing decline.

I took increasingly attentive care of him for several months before he died. His daily walks a half-mile down to the local park and back began to require my carrying him back up the hill toward our house. Zeke was of a stature somewhere between Siberian husky and German shepherd. Though he was thinner than dogs of either of those breeds, it still took some doing to carry him a half mile.

His chronic problem, aside from age — he was 16 when he died —  was arthritis in his hips. Walking became painful for him, and we tried a full array of pain control techniques, some of which worked for a while. Five months before he died he began to lose weight and his blood sugar crashed, and it became imperative that we keep him abundantly fed. The vets eyed his kidney function with concern. It was abnormal, but the vets couldn’t come up with any explanation other than the possibility of cancer, which they then ruled out with further tests.

Zeke’s appetite was fantastic even as he dwindled. My ex-and I pulled out all the stops feeding him. The end was looming and spoiling him was no longer an issue, and so he ate chicken. And turkey. And ground bison from Trader Joes. He ate dried chicken strips, meatloaf from the supermarket deli, hamburgers (no onions) and barbecue from the joint down the road, as much dry dog food as he wanted.

He’d always been thin, and he’d always been a bit of a picky eater, and yet when he turned down a bite of food I would fret. But no matter how disinclined he was to eat, he’d always accept a dog snack from the cupboard. The Jerky Treats brand was his favorite, to the point where the trade name “Jerky Treats” became, in our household, one of those diluted trademarks, like Kleenex: both generic term and favorite piece of canine vocabulary. Even when Zeke would turn down a de-boned, freshly roasted chicken leg, he’d eat three or four Jerky Treats.

He had to take a lot of pills, too: pain pills, pills to keep the pain pills from hurting his stomach, glucosamine, occasional antibiotics, and worst of all was the amantadine, a drug that was available only in sicky-sweet red syrup form, a flu medicine for children that was also a synergist pain control drug. He hated that last especially, and enjoyed being pilled only a little more, and so we developed a routine. Twice a day I’d corner him, and each pill swallowed got him a kiss on his widow’s peak, and holding still for the syringe of syrup got him another kiss, and then we’d head for the cupboard and get a Jerky Treat and he’d take it outside and eat it.

I felt guilty enough about the amantadine that I usually gave him two or three Jerky Treats at a time.

In December 2006 it was clear that he was done for, but — good dog — he kept hanging on. The vets began to make insinuations about decisions. His back legs were weaker and weaker. His blood work still showed abnormal liver and kidney function, and those scared me, but failure of either of those organs is usually preceded by nausea, or at least loss of appetite. Zeke was still eating well. I’d lost a cat to kidney failure and vowed that I wouldn’t let Zeke go that way, but as long as he enjoyed eating I relaxed about that, a little.

He needed 24/7 care by mid-December. I did some creative scheduling with my enviro magazine editing job, worked at home as much as I could, took advantage of the holidays, and then quit in early January. I slept in two-or three-hour stretches for several weeks, on the couch in the living room where I could help him in and out the door when he needed it, several times a night. He found it increasingly difficult to stand. His right rear leg weak with arthritis pain, his left stiff from compensatory overuse, he was an unstable tripod throughout January. Staying in one place, facing one direction meant turning in wobbly circles every so often. His right leg would collapse and he’d pivot, turn 360 and come to face his elevated food bowl again. He would drop his Jerky Treat on the ground and be unable to reach it. I’d pick it up, hand it to him.

Despite eating more than I did, his weight continued to drop throughout January. He dropped below forty pounds by mid-month: two thirds of his baseline healthy weight. He continued to eat right up until February 2. The vet came to our house the next day. We buried Zeke in the backyard. My friend Matthew came over and did most of the digging.

We put two Jerky Treats next to his face before we covered him up.

The next weeks were a blur, as we adjusted to life without Zeke. The degree to which he had soldered our failing marriage together became apparent. The garden that had been my refuge was now a cemetery. I threw myself into topical writing, venting my loss in political venom. When the news broke a couple weeks after Zeke died that thousands of pets across the US were dying of melamine poisoning, I flinched, then consoled myself that as horrible as the news was, I no longer had a personal stake in it. I had neither anyone for whose protection from such a thing I was responsible, nor a job that would have included reporting on the topic. I was a bystander: horrified at the idea, but not personally affected. I made certain Zeke’s 20 pounds of leftover dry food wasn’t on the recall lists before we donated it to the shelter down the road, and I chatted with pet-owning friends about the issue, and that was it.

And so I didn’t find out until yesterday that it was more than just canned dog food and kibble that were recalled in March 2007 after thousands of dogs died of melamine poisoning.

I didn’t find out until yesterday that Jerky Treats, a product of the Del Monte Corporation, had been included in the recall.

Melamine killed pets by inducing kidney failure due to toxic crystals forming in the kidneys. Most of the deaths were sudden and dramatic, including for instance several animals who died after taking part in an industry “taste test.” Most of the animals who died likely got the melamine as part of their staple food rather than, as Zeke did, in smaller doses as a snack. Zeke didn’t die of kidney failure: the proximate cause of his death was euthanasia. He’d lost his appetite the day before. That may have been due to his ailing kidneys, or it may have been pain from his arthritis, or his injured pancreas acting up. I don’t know, and never will.

But I do know that in the months after he died, as my marriage failed and I lost my home, as I moved away from the only garden I had ever actually owned in my life, as I began to question every aspect of what I wanted to do with my life and who I wanted to do it with, I knew that I had gotten that one thing right. As late as last week, in a dark moment, I told myself that I may have failed as a husband, as a lover, as a journalist and a blogger and an editor/publisher, I may have failed as a gardener and a homeowner and a son and brother, I may have failed as an activist and a friend, but I did that one thing right: for five or six months in 2006 and 2007, I cared for Zeke as deeply, as lovingly and carefully and effectively as anyone I knew — or had heard of — had ever cared for a dog.

Yesterday I found that I had probably been poisoning him the whole time.

I don’t feel guilty, or at least I stopped feeling guilty after an hour or two. I knew Jerky Treats probably weren’t the absolute healthiest food in the world for Zeke to eat, but that’s a different issue. I acted in good faith toward him. I gave him what I thought — and was told by the experts — was the best care possible. I organized my entire life around ensuring his comfort and safety, and maximizing his joy even in his last days. He ate better than probably half the people in the country did that January. Had I known even of rumors about toxic contents in anything I was feeding him, I’d have drained my bank account to find alternatives. Zeke had the death I hoped he’d have, mainly comfortable and surrounded by love and calm. I hope I go that well when it’s my time.

No, this isn’t about guilt, or at least not about my guilt.

This is about anger, an anger too slow to erupt, an anger that should have been aroused almost two years ago when thousands of people grieved losses far more unexpected and tragic than the one that staggered me.

They polluted my dog’s food. They polluted Zeke himself. They polluted the last weeks he and I spent together. They polluted the moments of joy each snack had brought. They polluted the last gift I gave him, melamine moldering there in the soil next to his remains where we laid those Jerky Treats as tribute.

They made me poison the one I loved most of anyone in this world. They stole my last bit of solace, the notion that I did right by him up to his end. They stole that from me and I will never get it back, and if I can find a receipt for a package of their poisoned food they will refund to me the six bucks it cost me out of pocket, because the Del Monte Corporation truly wants my continued business.

Taos 3

Coyotes sing just outside my window. I awake. It isn’t a dream. The dogs take off after them, singing joyous outrage. The sheep must be protected. Hazel the little goat has broken her leg somehow, and my host will cart her down to the vet in an hour or so. Last night we fretted whether she would die of shock, but she was alert and hungry at two-thirty in the morning.

They aren’t made of money, but what can you do? You take care of your animals. Better one doesn’t do the math, amortize the vet bill with each hoped-for pint of milk. Farmers know the value of a life better than most anyone, or at least to the greatest degree of accuracy.

The sun is not yet up. At this time of day, at this altitude, the air is pink; pink as the belly of a salmon waiting at the threshhold of its home stream. It takes a pulse of storm, a quickening of fresh water, before that mystery unravels in their guts, propels the swift journey up the mountain.

It took a long time for me to fall asleep.

What was the last eight years but a surrender to myth? What was the last eight years but an attempt to deceive the people I loved most, myself first among them? I planted trees and watched them unfurl leaf after thirsty leaf, watched them overtop my house, only to be uprooted by a mere pulse of storm.

“Love is not enough,” I’d said at times over the last eight years, and when my friends asked me what I meant I had to confess I didn’t know. The sentence felt like a still, dark pool, a letter from the self I had paved over. I tried to send roots down into the rock, into the bedrock beneath the house my wife and I moved into after I said goodbye to Sharon, and as long as the dog both worshipped me and needed me I could persuade myself that it was right.

And then we draped our marriage over him in that rude hole, covered both of them over with broken bits of rock and sterile soil, tamped down a mantle of garden over both of them. The garden didn’t take. When I moved out the weeds had grown head-high, and I had to clear a path when my friend Matthew helped me carry the couch out to the U-Haul truck.

Love we had in abundance. Love is not enough.

Every dog within a mile is barking, a self-sustaining chain reaction propagating outward from the coyotes. I pry my eyes open again, pull the blanket down to my shoulders. A cloud off toward the Rio Chama in the west reflects the sun’s first yellow. She’ll show up in half an hour, haul me down to Santa Fe for a day of doctor’s appointments, a day of fretting over the Jeep’s transmission though I do not know that yet. I swing my legs over the side of the bed.

Who had I fooled? No one save myself. We watched the salmon ten years ago, or eleven; we walked sodden streamside fire-roads under redwoods and looked for spawning coho; we argued over the meanings of words; we walked together silent and content; and then the end. A marriage must be preserved! No matter that the married grow despondent and alone in the midst of love. Who had I fooled? No one save myself, no one save the one who spun the myth himself, caught on the unseen cleft between the right and proper things to do.

All of it hindsight and we spoke frankly of it yesterday, spoke of my missing her and denying it to myself, covering it in drink and cynicism and flirtation, her settling for a life without me as though she had learned a lesson about wanting too much kindness. Her friends joked kindly about her life and what it would be had we stayed together. A tentative diagnosis of a terminal disease is a prospect, a place of sudden perspective: you see your life arrayed in front of you as though you stand on a mountain above it, forked paths and roadblocks limned there plain before your eyes.

All of it past tense save the deep friendship, the thirsty friendship; me happy with my lover in Los Angeles, her roiled in family and heartache a generation old. I am the friend who wants nothing from her save a friend who wants nothing from me. I am the beat of crows’ wings that echo off the stucco and straw bale of her home here.

That is, at last, sufficient.

We are, at last, at the headwaters, each of us still tasting our storms’ pulses.

Last night the day wound and rewound through my head, a decade’s worth of conversation distilled, images and regrets, and as I heard the back door open and Erin went out to check on little Hazel at two-thirty the image came that eased me finally into sleep. My head laid innocent in Sharon’s lap, the breeze played over us. The scent of water was in the air. A chorus of sheep-thieves sang out on the mesa toward the Rio Chama. Their song was tenuous and distant. It faded into silence just as it reached us.

Taos 2

The rough wood deck feels good against my thighs, sun-warmed in afternoon. A yellow leaf from a cottonwood lands on my knee. I let it stay. My old workboots look good against the duff. There’s motion across the toe of the left one: an elongated dark beetle with two diagonal orange stripes. A box elder bug, fitting as there are three tall box elders just down the hill.

Sweet piñon smoke has followed me all day. Two days ago in a parking lot in Española a muscle car pulled up, stopped in front of me, and a dark-tinted passenger window rolled down. A sullen-looking teenaged girl sized me up. “You wanna buy some piñones?”

The owners of the house are cordial. I’d walked across their front yard and startled them. “Can we help you?” I explained that I was there with my friend, on whom their tenant – a practitioner of Chinese medicine – was working in the small studio around the back. They invited me in for soup, all smiles. But the scent of piñon smoke and the 7,000-foot altitude blue sky and the happy dog in the yard had conspired to get me out of the studio in the first place, and I demurred gratefully.

The happy dog is boisterous, a mix of golden lab and something else short-haired. He has a dead starling, still fluffy and clean-spotted, which he tosses gleefully into the air again and again. He looks happiest, eyes sparkling and jaw slack in a wide grin, when the bird is at the apex of each arc, before it succumbs to dead weight and falls undignified to the ground.  I imagine him hoping the bird will fly away.

I try to pick up the bird and he runs away with it, teasing.

Is it the sidelong canine regard, welcome after two years of drought? Spending time with my friend for the first time in a decade? Some unknown geographic chord with my heart’s harmonic? Whatever the reason, I feel here—sitting in cool sun waiting for Sharon to get her chi combed and repacked—more at peace, content, more like myself than I have in years.

The owners come outside, set to work getting their garden ready for winter. There are tomato vines to be uprooted and piled on the compost, leaves to be raked, cool-season crops to sow. The man sees I’ve been adopted by the dog and approaches us smiling. He’s older, perhaps 70, of East Indian descent and formidably distinguished even in overalls.

“Did you see the dog has a staple in his leg?”

I don’t understand the question for a moment. “Oh. I saw the cut. Is he supposed to have a staple there? Did the vet put it in?”

“Yes, and it was supposed to fall out some time ago, but it hasn’t. Every time I try to take it out he bites me. If you can try to get it…”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Be careful!”

“I will. He’s a good boy.”

The man smiles. “He’s completely useless.”

A Steller’s jay lands on the roof of the casita behind me. It scolds me. The dog runs across the yard toward me, starling in his soft mouth. He drops the bird at my feet. I put my left arm over his spine, hug his chest to mine. We spend a moment together admiring the afternoon light beneath the box elders.

As I start to think about casually examining the dog’s leg, the man shows up with a pair of channel-lock pliers. The dog sees them. He tries to squirm out from under my arm, but I pull him closer to me and murmur into his ear, my face buried in his ruff. The old man moves quickly; the dog flinches just a little. “Got it!” says the man, holding the pliers up, a thin wire clamped in their jaws. I let go of the dog. He examines his leg, then covers my face in kisses.

Buddy

Taos 1

There were two trees here, once; twin and slender boles straining together toward the light, leaves feeding on sun and their branches broadening. Each bole bore a canopy of heart-shaped leaves brilliant yellow in October. Each canopy turned a hollow face toward the other, knitted and entwined twig fingers with the other at the margins, the seam imperceptible, two trees striving to become one.

The trees aged. They grew. Their trunks gained girth, began to press themselves each against the other, a mutual grafting. Each trunk flattened where the other touched it. Rough bark melted between them, turned to soil. Each season brought a new enfolding, trunk growing curved and folding inward against trunk until a common skin of rough gray bark enclosed them both to head height, then twice as high.

One day just one of the trunks still stood, the wrack of a blinding storm all around it. A broad scar ran half its height, smooth and vulnerable cambium exposed above a desolation of splintered heartwood. Where once a full canopy of golden leaves caught breezes there was a shell, branches once sheltered exposed to the elements.

In time the asymmetry the loss had wrenched from the surviving tree conferred on it a rough beauty, an austere beauty, a feeling of resolution and survival. Bark once sundered grew back, curled over the edges of the still-splintered wound, furrowed itself out of the smooth flat face where the tree’s mate had once held it close.

Winds rolling down off the mountain raked the old cottonwood, ruffled bright blue feathers on the backs of jays. A decade’s pulses of leaves growing green, then yellow, then a yellow carpet on the soil; a decade of the sun sinking lower each autumn day toward the river gorge off to the south then rising toward the mountain in spring of deepening red sunsets and the slow upward trickle of aquifer into its roots; the tree lived. Once the worst of the damage healed, the tree could even be described as thriving. And yet its twin still shaped it after a decade’s absence, still defined the survivor’s form in ways both subtle and profound.

Cargo Cult logic

“You know,” I said to my old friend, “I’ve been thinking.” She was in a better mood than the last time we’d talked. The news had sunk in, I guess, for bad and good, and she was chuckling again, and we were chatting more or less happily. Eight years of our not talking, until I wrote her in February, and after a brief flurry of catching up it was as if nothing had changed. Except for our old ardor having died out. And her being married with a kid and goats and horses in New Mexico. And me getting the divorce she’d quietly hoped for for years despite her best self squelching the feeling. And her beloved friend Zeke having died. Aside from that. The same.

“I could write an article about you. And we’ve already done the not-talking.”

“That could work, huh?” She chuckled again. “Make it really self-serving, too.”

“It worked before, right?”

“Couldn’t hurt.”

It’s one of those typical conundra writers face, dissected endlessly in workshops and late-night discussions and online fora. The duty to preserve the privacy of the people in the writer’s life conflicts with the need to write about life as the writer lives it. Most of us find a balance that works. Most of us have old stories that fell off the balance beam. Twelve years ago when Sharon was first writing for the magazine I edited she submitted a story on the surprising prevalence of breast cancer in two disparate neighborhoods in the Bay Area, one quite affluent, the other poor. A friend of hers had been diagnosed with breast cancer that year. Sharon mentioned the friend’s story, providing no identifying details but relating her friend’s soul-searching about how she might have brought the cancer on herself. Excess negativity? Living an impure life?

The next paragraph gently debunked the ineffable causes and talked about pollutants, diet, genetics; the state of the science as she was known in 1996.

Sharon’s friend was outraged and hasn’t spoken to her since. She and I spent a lot of time going over the details, that next month, talking about privacy and propriety and boundaries and ethics. Each friendship has a mythology and that loss of her friendship became a central metaphor in ours, a partnership between writers that was at once crucial-feeling and inappropriately personal.

When she called me in tears two weeks ago from the clinic, the results of her biopsy in hand, each of us thought of her friend and the odd not-exactly-irony of the turn of events. Neither of us said anything. The possibility of metastasis was all the meta we needed for the moment.

But a few days later she was more upbeat, having come partway to terms with the prospect of surgery and chemo, and was resolved, among other things, to see her son reach adulthood, and she was chuckling and wry, in between yelling to her son to stay where she could see him in the park. She mentioned that old article.

“I know she made a full recovery,” she said. “She’s working and really doing well. Still hasn’t talked to me, but she got well.”

“You know,” I said to my old friend, “I’ve been thinking. I could write an article about you. And we’ve already done the not-talking.”

“That could work, huh?” She chuckled again. “Make it really self-serving, too.”